Mid 1600s, Prax.

Eril is still bleeding as he walks down the steps into the smoky darkness. A long score up his forearm does not vex him, although the near miss that whispered past his ear will be hard to forget. Behind him the courtyard bakes in the Praxian sun. Below, he finds it difficult to see anything.

For once, the wide-ranging planner has to take exactly one step at a time, and he does so unhurriedly, for he respects the room he is entering. The irony of the darkness is not lost to him, but it does not amuse.

Two dozen steps, and he stands on an uneven flagstone floor in front of a curtain made of a single hide so large he cannot name the species. He catches himself trying, claps to announce himself, and does not wince as the jarred muscle reminds him he has duelled.

There is no answer, but he expected none. He pushes past the hide and thanks Humakt for the gift of easy night vision, for inside is darkness, heat, and a single banked fire. The thick atmosphere punishes him for his exertion. He did not break a sweat above, but here the heat is oppressive. It does not alter what he does in the slightest. He kneels inside, and bows to the room, holding his breath for long enough to hear breathing, before he straightens his back and waits.

Sweat drips down his back, forms a rivulet that runs stinging down his arm, washes blood onto his simple linen skirt. His eyes adjust to the darkness and he sees the blacksmith, a gaunt figure who hardly emerges from the darkness, even as other things become clear. He is past maturity already, but his spirit will hold for years yet.

“Eril Sambar Humakti,” the man says, without opening his eyes. Eril bows again. “Blacksmith,” he says. “My greetings. I bring news.”

“I know what you must bring, Sambar. Come.” The voice is dry and deep, as dry as the desert outside, now bereft of rain for over a season. Eril rises to obey, and brings out the gods. Two little figures, wrapped in black, have weighed on him for too long.

To his surprise the Ironlord pours him water, bowing over it and pushing it towards him in a gesture that ghosts under his offered hands. Unsure how to accept at the same time as offering, caught off balance for the first time, Eril murmurs thanks and seats himself on the floor by the cheap clay bowl. Up close the Humakti blacksmith is scarred and marked, each scar worked with carbon and tallow and rust until he is a historical record of his own power. With eyes still closed, he picks up the two statues and looks at them like the outer wrapping means nothing to him. Eril is surprised to notice his own hand trembles, and he steeples both for a moment until he no longer appears outwardly nervous.

As he drinks, the Iron Lord puts the statues, still wrapped, onto a brazier, and Eril watches them burn away the wrappings, the spirits within woken once more. A lazy watcher could think the fire did it.

“They are all dead,” he says quietly. “Everyone who was at Boldhome. As a visitor, I was asked to take these secrets away, that the accursed Empire would not have them.”

“Mm.” The answer is not all he had hoped for, but it is an answer. Eril hesitates, and the Iron Lord asks, “So, you have come for a sword?”

“No,” he replies quietly, and the water tastes like victory, and the cup hides any hint of a smile. “I have come for a blacksmith.”