Author's Note: This is the first chapter of a story I'm currently working on. What I would like is that for anyone who reads this to give me feedback: that is, writing style, pace, character design/implementation etc. Generally how you "feel" about this piece - what you thinkg could be improved or changed. *** Autumn hung over the city of Venkrïze, the season’s rain making it glisten like polished iron. The caked dirt was slowly being washed away, to reveal charcoal coloured cobbles and flat bricks, long since hidden by the sweltering summer. Now the residents were receiving a much needed gift from the skies - the damp acting to muffle the otherwise overpowering stench of offal and sewers. All about was dismally beautiful; a fairytale ennui where the black kingdom shone its finest under a grey sun. The morning’s busy crowds passed through all this, heedless of its wonder. Criers stood at ever store, news of the war upon their lips. Their shouts were met in kind, venom for venom. The din of the field found itself upon the street. Dismayed by such portents as the crowd could bear to utter, many more were avoiding the news. Among this mass of shoppers, errand boys and workers, Nikolay Lynovh was fighting to quicken his pace. Having forgotten his watch, there was nothing but a creeping sensation telling him he was to be late. Many alleyways cut through the city, all of them crafted by accident as the city grew; dark hovels standing askance of the greater poem. It was into one such alley Nikolay turned. Here the buildings leant together, decades of weathering having transformed them into hulking gargoyles. Few others dared to brave these treacherous streets, through in truth Nikolay’s method was far removed from bravery. He felt, or rather knew, that there greater things in the world to fear than wandering pick-pockets. Haste and distraction, two things common to any man, are the beacons for troublesome sprites. Though not particularly malicious, there is nothing one would call benign about sprites, and their invisible, chaotic mischief ripples into the lives of many. One of these creatures had taken already to Nikolay; his laces worked loose from his fast walk served to trip him. He did not fall, much to the spite’s chagrin but with the dexterity of the foolish maintain his balance. The giggles of children echoed though the alley. Impotent in its last attempt, though aroused still, the spite turned its attention. That his satchel might be lacking in nobility was not a question often on Nikolay’s mind, but the spite found it so. Thus was the outermost pocket molested and shrugged off. Luck is a strange thing, often abandoning its charges at the more inopportune moments, only to then turn and provide small blessings. In this Nikolay experienced luck’s fickle nature and, as his fey abuser left with glee, the contents now departed from his satchel were needless lint and bric-a-brac. Of course, fickle is as fickle does. An embossed coin of copper and brass jumped and skidded across the muck. Nikolay cursed. All about him the laughter of street children grew louder. All but one the urchins remained hidden; they had the sense that being seen was comparable to being caught. The copper medallion rested now a foot or so from one of the many darkened side-stores, a young boy crouched in its door. Ghostly pale, the boy was such a marked difference to his surroundings that Nikolay wondered why he had not seen him before. With latent ease he corrected the shoe upon his foot, cautiously he moved toward the medallion and child. “Hoi,” A singular annoyance in his voice, joined by the slightest hint of anxiety, irreparably shattered the small corner of the fairytale. The glossy, unreality of their surroundings was suddenly gone, leaving behind only the harsh every day. The boy turned to Nikolay, a gormless look upon his face. He seemed ignored the medallion, little more a fallacy of his mind. Unnerved now by this strange child, Nikolay found he could think of nothing to say. “Ah, well, good morning to you.” He was relieved to find that the coin was otherwise unmarred, the only dirt being from that on the ground. At this the boy found it opportune to leave. He did so with such grace of silence he vanished as if a ghost. Trying to dismiss a growing sense of unease, Nikolay too left the scene. Not for the worry of being late, his pace now fell short of being a run. In the void of his shadow, it seemed as if there was a... something following him. The laughter of the children was gone and the ever-present roar of the city was dimmed. Irrational terror clawed at his back. A tunnel of night ran off from the alley. Places like these thin snakes of cobbles were scorned even by the inhabitants of the alleys, but it was so much the more inviting than the thing behind him. A comforting embrace of nigh-fear carried him to the end of the tunnel. In spite of his haste it felt an eternity before he reached the bustling crowds. Returning to the fold of Venkrïze’s citizens, a feeling of elation and embarrassment welled up from within. Almost sadly he shook his head, ridding himself of the happenings alleyway. The street gradually began to widen, permitting for more carriage traffic. The weather became noticeable to all on foot. It was not so much rain, but rather a phenomenon known as ‘spitting’. A few, fat drops fell onto the city and crowds. Above their heads the smoke grey sky became visible; the buildings retreating further from each other, to reveal Crynth Square. Here the cobble stones stretched and flattened into flags; rings of glossed black holding in their centre the statue of a great sailed ship. Flocks of pigeons covered the square, scattered every so often by hurried walkers, only to return just as quickly. The crowd dispersed here, and some, including Nikolay, walked in the shadow of the Financial. Though Crynth Square had been built in commemoration of the first of Monra’s naval ports, it was the Financial that dominated the view. The clock tower attached was the third tallest structure in Venkrïze, and easily the most loathed. The ninth hour struck, the bell calling out its heavy toll nine times, sounding like the crash of a mountain. The Financial itself held an oppressive stillness. A glass and lead worked dome allowed in less light than could be found outside. With each side wreathed in deep shadow, the lobby felt truly cavernous. Opposite of the carved oaken doors, and lighted only by pale silver dappling, was a twisted flight of stairs. A sudden rush clutched at Nikolay’s heart, instinct telling him that terror waited in the square. Fighting a shudder, he pulled further into the building, away from the doors. There were few other people in the lobby, but the gentle murmur of conversation could be heard all around. One point occurred in almost all voices, the single threat to all the workers in the Financial: the rumour of a mechanical counting machine. Walking across the wooden floor his footsteps did not echo, even with his wanting them to. Any sound to ward off the talk of the counting machine. “Ah, Lynovh!” Trying to echo the authority of his old command, ex-Sword Marshal Preatt’s voice hung in the air. Years of forced retirement had taken a toll on the man; he was now portly, his skin red and soft from too much comfortable living. Inwardly Nikolay could not help but groan. Confrontation was not such a desirable thing to him, and certainly not with the man who presided over his career. Turning, he smiled meekly, and forced is gaze away from Preatt’s pronounced limp. “Good morning, Lynovh. Not late today are we? No, no. Here, this is Magister Zahnflich. Magister, this is Nikolay Lynovh,” There was barely space in Preatt’s speech for Nikolay to find breath, let alone his voice. All questions and introductions had to be satisfied with a nod, that in itself brief. “Now, as I was telling you before this-” Preatt rather violently waved his hand at Nikolay, almost smacking the man in the chest. “- is my best. Truly, Magister Zahnflich, I would trust only him to perform the specialist calculations.” The Magister appeared to consider this, his face stoic but with a hint of mischief in his eyes. At length he finished with this scrutiny and returned to Marshal Preatt. “Though it pains me to admit that my knowledge is comparatively shallow in some minute areas, I must assume then that these ‘specialist calculations’ of which you speak are the results of Queen Esmeralda’s – Monra rest her – beneficiary payment system for those in the charge of the Kingdom?” Whatever hint at modesty the Magister had been attempting with this admission was wholly eclipsed by his natural arrogance. Marshal Preatt did, of course, respond overwhelmingly to the feigned humility. “But of course! My sincerest apologies, Magister,” Whilst the wizened wizard was able to easily mask any irritation to Preatt’s sopping tone, Nikolay was not so well trained. Sneering at one’s superiors was certainly no way to earn a promotion, but what Preatt did not see could not hurt him. “No one could ever postulate, Magister, at your being any less than a true genius! Yes, yes, Nikolay Lynovh deals with all those fiddly equations for broken legs and children. That lot of computers only use long words like ‘specialist’ to make themselves feel smart! Bah!” Continuing to scoff at those he instructed, the Marshal started about on a tangent that included his peers. Magister Zahnflich quite pleasantly ignored this, but Nikolay offered an apologetic look all the same. After a time, but not before having bemoaned his oh-so wounded leg, Marshal Preatt returned to their present matter. “Yes! Ah, Lynovh here; will be the most and best suited for working with and for you, though it be a break from his norm! Ha!” This time Nikolay received a hearty and powerful slap across the back, causing him to stumble forward more than any would have liked. The calmness with which Magister Zahnflich met this was almost as irritating to his pride as Preatt’s amusement. Swallowing hard, he managed to find a shred of courage to confront the situation. “Mister Preatt, if you please,” The Marshal’s expression visibly darkened. He felt it a great dishonour when anyone – in particular those that were his ‘lessers’ – did not use his old title. Taking a deep breath, Nikolay straightened his back. He was usually cowed by that stare but after earlier events he believed there was little he could fear again. “Should I delay here any longer the work that I have for today might not get done at all. Magister Zahnflich, sir, I am sure you understand.” Before Preatt could begin to bluster and scoff once more, the Magister nodded sagely; ever the gentleman. “That you do hold your work in such high regard is something that I can respect. Your working for me is sure to be a pleasure.” The Magister Zahnflich presented such a courteous manner that Nikolay found he was so distracted by the compliments he almost missed the rather important revelation. “Ah? I’m sorry, sir?” Nikolay paused mid handshake; looking confusedly between the wizard and ex-Marshal. “I had though, ah, um... yes of course. I am to work for you on your accounts, then?” Though nearly all hidden by an unkempt and bushy moustache, Preatt’s smile of assent was visible enough to unnerve anyone. “Very good then! Magister Zahnflich, please, let us discuss the finer points of this. Nikolay-” The portly man waved dismissively, expecting, it seemed, immediate compliance. “-best you go back to your workings,” Preatt turned and, along with the Magister, walked a ways before calling again over his shoulder. “Oh! And have one of those nice girls bring over some tea!” Ruefully, Nikolay shook his head. He was starting to hear other’s conversations again. The whirr and click of clockwork haunted him. “Good Morning, Mr. Lynovh. Did Mr. Preatt find you? He was hollering ever so.” “Good Morning, Katrinne – he did find me,” Nikolay smiled at the young woman, admiring the slight curls of her hair. “I feel, though, I shall not be here for long,” She nodded sharply, turning back to the tea she was preparing. Katrinne’s hands shook slightly, causing her to spill the hot water. “Oh Katrinne, you should be more careful, you could burn yourself.” Nikolay picked up a small cloth and, fussing the woman away, began to mop up the puddle. “Mr. Lynovh I’m sorry; I promise you I am. It is just that with the draft come I have been worrying so and if you should be called then I fear none shall be spared. Oh! My dear brother! Petr is too kind to be a soldier!” Katrinne let out a sharp wail, beginning to sob fitfully into her hands. What damage clumsy words can do! Forgetting for the moment the spill and cloth, Nikolay attempted to console the woman. “Katrinne, please, calm yourself. I have not been called and nor will you brother. The war is still far off from us and the draft will begin at the borders, not here in the capital,” The woman’s cries quietened, and so did Nikolay’s heart. “I shall be working with the Magister Zahnflich, on his accounts: his personal accountant.” Katrinne lightened at this and dried her eyes. “A Magister, Mr. Lynovh? You really are very lucky.” “Speaking of, Mr. Preatt asked for some tea, for himself and the Magister Zahnflich.” “Yes, of course, Mr. Lynovh.” As Nikolay left, he let out a sigh. He had always liked Katrinne; there was a beauty in her plainness that he had thought only he could see. The wooden band upon her thumb had told him this was no longer true – Katrinne was betrothed, and once again his hopes were dashed.