In Thunder Forged Online - Ari Marmell

The casual observer might never even have known the nation was at war.

The sun had fallen off the world’s edge more than an hour ago, and still the streets were, if not bustling, certainly a far cry from abandoned. Men and women scurried about their business, wrapped in gaudy coats and vibrant gowns against winter’s insidious caress. Most were human, but the occasional fabric-swaddled figure, too short for the Ryn ethnic majority but too broad of shoulder for errant children, suggested a late-night dwarf. They tromped across a carpet of fresh snow, their finery gleaming in the radiance of wrought iron streetlamps. Some of those flickered with gas-fed flame, others with an alchemical luminescence far steadier yet somehow less comforting.

Each citizen nodded, curtsied, waved, or exchanged brief witticisms with the next, all dependent on the passerby’s social status—or at least, the social status implied by the quality and cleanliness of his attire. Voices swirled overhead, blown by the winds, kicked into flurries almost choral in their harmonies. One might have overheard discussion of the Lord Regent Glabryn’s latest scandals, the squabbling amongst the Council of Nobles, the winner of last week’s derby, or the recent performance of Oswinne Muir’s newest opus, An Orgoth Goes a’Courting.

One would not have heard mention of the expanding western front, of the shadow of Khador slowly darkening the face of Llael. One would have seen nobody acknowledge the brittle edge to jests, the tremor in the laughter, or the occasional reverberating clang from beyond the outer walls, the ponderous step of a patrolling warjack.

No one spoke of the war. No one acknowledged their fears.

It would have been gauche.

One particular couple, elbows intertwined, shuffled quickly, seemingly eager to catch the misty plumes they exhaled with every breath. He was regal, buttoned up tight in high-collared greatcoat atop an emerald vest, his iron-gray hair swept back in a style that not only acknowledged the receding hairline, but haughtily dared anyone to comment on it.

She was wrapped in brilliant scarlet and gleaming gold, a beacon as radiant as any of the streetlamps. A fox-fur stole was her only concession to the nighttime chill. Hair the hue of a lion’s pelt fell in perfectly curled ringlets around a face that was just too round to be called classically “patrician.”

She was also, at best, half the gentleman’s age. That, along with the fact that she gazed at him adoringly with eyes like dark-brewed ale when she wasn’t busy laughing at his witticisms, might have gone a long way toward explaining his obvious fervor to reach their destination.

They drifted past several structures, each boasting a magnificent façade of stately columns and arched windows—all deliberate modern echoes of the architecture of centuries past. And then they arrived, ducking through one deep doorway to stand in a hall of lush carpeting and glowing chandeliers. Some herbal treatment of the fixtures—or, perhaps, of the pipes, or the gas itself?—imbued the burning fumes with a vaguely floral aroma.

The gentleman beamed, even puffing his chest out, at the dazzled coo wafting from his companion’s lips. “This is just a taste,” he offered. “The actual amenities are even more impressive. My suite occupies a full half of the fifth floor.”

“I can hardly wait to see it,” she said in a breathy tone. His own breath caught in his throat, as he wondered if her offhand comment might suggest what he hoped it did. Placing his free hand on the slender arm resting in the crook of his elbow, he led her toward, and then up, the sweeping stairs.

“Goodman Tolamos,” she began right around the third floor.

“Please, please. ‘Lyrran,’ dear Garland, by all means.”

“Lyrran,” she corrected, paying for his given name with another heart-stopping smile. “I don’t think I quite understand . . . This place is marvelous, but why keep an apartment? Surely a man of your success and your means could afford a home—an estate!—of your own?”

“I could,” Lyrran admitted. They’d reached the fourth floor, now, and he struggled to hold up his end of the conversation and continue walking without sucking in ragged gasps between. Not as young as you used to be, old fool.

Then, with another glance at Garland’s upturned face, And you’re going to need your strength . . .

“I could,” he repeated after what he hoped was a discreet wheeze. “But I often spend late nights in my workshop, and I’m no great admirer of the dormitories the Crucible makes available. I decided that living within a few minutes’ walk of Thunderhead was