The pin, the ring, and the box
Ruvin was sitting in his study, puffing on his pipe, mulling over the events of the day. He thought today was already eventful, but that was only because he didn't know what was coming.
"Baron Ruvin, welcome!"
"Thank you, lord mayor. My pleasure, as always."
The mayor sat down behind his opulent desk. It was made out of wood so exotic no one knew where it came from. It was in line with the mayor's characteristic way of letting people know he was better than them, despite being a man who only recently rose to prominence. A minor noble who aspired to be major. A dangerous man. Just like Ruvin. He gestured for Ruvin to sit down.
"I trust you've taken a look at my proposal to supply all the beautiful jewels His Majesty's crown can hold."
The Lord mayor steepled his fingers and let a silence descend.
"And, lord mayor?"
"I've taken it into consideration. The terms are reasonable."
Reasonable? Ruvin was already in danger of going into debt.
"Forgive my directness, my lord, but who can offer gems of similar quality? For years, I have saved stones for something truly magnificent, and the crown would be that something."
"It appears you're not the only one who has done so, baron Ruvin. Lord Rothar has also most generously offered a set of jewels for the King's new crown."
Damn... Damn. Damn. Damn. This was a major blow to Ruvin's plans. Yet, he controlled his reaction. He knew he was being watched intently.
"I see, my lord."
He took a moment to compose his next words.
"If I may have a suggestion, my lord..." The mayor nodded. "I would venture that our King may prefer to wear a crown from the heart of our lands, not some distant province by the border. I would be deeply grateful if you chose the gems from my family's lands." Another favor given.
"Hmm, that may be so." The mayor's face betrayed little reaction. He was calculating how much he could possibly benefit from this situation. How silly it now seemed that Ruvin thought he'd make money when he heard the mayor promise to have new crown jewels made in his inaugural speech. All his work, all this time, waiting for an opportunity of this magnitude and now Rothar magically shows up with a proposal to match his own? This was not good. But right now was not the time to show his reaction.
"Well, Lord Mayor, I trust your judgment in this regard. I will think about how to make my proposal more favorable. How was the wine I sent you last month?"
"Excellent, Ruvin, excellent. I look forward to your new proposal."
Ruvin watched the waves gently crash against the hull of the Jewel of Alniras.
A moment later, a grizzled sailor descended down the plank and approached him. Ruvin shook the captain's burly arm.
"Tharan, good to finally see you. How was the sea?"
"Moody, master Ruvin." The man's already stern features became even more stern. "We've lost Newfound Treasure."
"What?" That was all he could manage. One of his three ships, gone so soon after purchase? He thought of the men he knew on that ship, some of which he served with on the Jewel before he settled in the capital.
"How did it happen?"
"Pirates, most likely. The burned wreckage was found near an island not too far from Hallan, where we were supposed to meet. The news got to us because one man managed to survive for long enough to find me. Unfortunately, he was feverish, burnt, and in shock, babbling about fire and being chased. He died shortly after."
The captain paused.
"Reud was a good man. May his soul rest beneath the sea."
"May his soul rest beneath the sea." Ruvin mumbled, still in shock.
This was the second significant blow to his plans. In hindsight, sending the ship to the Meridian isles to trade diamonds for unusual goods was not as good an investment as he'd imagined. He supposed now this venture classified as what the merchants called a sunk cost.
He was interrupted mid-midlife-crisis by the captain.
"Here," he held out a leather pouch.
"What's this? I hope this isn't all you've got for me." Ruvin asked and took it.
"Before Reud left this world, he told us this was the most valuable thing he could take before he abandoned ship. Some diamonds and trinkets. We'll have our cargo delivered to the usual spot."
In the darkness of Ruvin's mood, a tiny flame burst into existence. Not a total loss, just a major one. A couple shiny stones for a ship.
"Thank you, Captain. Please take care of Reud's family if he had one."
The sailor nodded.
Ruvin's reflection was interrupted by his servant.
"Master Ruvin, my son is ill. Might I be able to take the night off?"
He looked up at Ekka, his only servant. He had been looking forward to finally resting today and having a good dinner.
"I have prepared a selection of the finest hams and cheeses, with freshly baked bread." He swore the woman could read his mind sometimes. Ruvin nodded.
"Go. Take care of your family."
"Thank you, master."
He could take care of himself. Besides, the day being what it was, he might be unpleasant to be around in any case.
Shortly after she left, a knock came on the door. He didn't pay attention to it, and then realized that Ekka was gone. He made his way to the door, curious. Visits this late were rare these days. Was it Dereh to see him about the crown?
He opened the door and saw four men standing there, before he had a chance to say anything, the bald man who knocked punched Ruvin in the face. Ruvin collapsed promptly, dazed and confused.
"I believe you're the man we're looking for so I'll go straight to business." The bald man knelt above Ruvin for dramatic emphasis and lowered his already low voice.
"The new king's crown is not a job for you. You don't want to take it."
To add weight to his argument, he punctuated his next words with kicks.
"You. Want. To. Back. Out. Of. This. Job."
The man stepped back to admire his work.
"Was that clear?"
Ruvin wanted to yell "Fuck you!" at him, but that's hard to do when your torso and nose are alight will pain.
The bald man must have understood the sentiment because his boot hit Ruvin several more times.
"Back out of the crown contract, boy."
Then the man looked around, turned, and walked off with his three companions.
Ruvin stayed on the ground for a good while, looking at the rising moon and thinking about how no matter how he underestimated how unpleasant today had been before.
After an early morning visit to a healer, Ruvin limped to the workshop of the best master jeweler in the whole capital, who also happened to be his friend.
"So you want the best diamonds we have to be on that crown, Ruvin? Isn't that too much? We still have other things in the works..."
"Yes, Dereh. In fact, add these three as well." He picked out the three biggest stones from the dead sailor's pouch and gave them to the young jeweler. They were gorgeous. Yellow, red, blue. Unusual tinges for this land. Under any other circumstances, he'd keep them for himself. But not today. Today, he was determined. Determined and in pain. Maybe those two went together.
"As you wish." The young man gave Ruvin a quizzical look. A nose twice its usual size will attract those. He was about to say something, but Ruvin cut him off.
"Send a new proposal to the lord mayor today. Make one of your great sketches with the new gems. Make it look good. As you know, this contract is vitally important."
Held Dereh's gaze to let him know that he understood the consequences and still wished to proceed. He knew this would delay other contracts, mostly for nobles, and Dereh would have to deal with their ire. However, in the long term, the crown contract would make him the most famous jeweler in the land, and that reputation would pay off. He was a craftsman of great skill that Ruvin brought into the capital to rise up through society, despite his humble roots. He deserved it.
Dereh finally nodded.
"Okay, I'll do it for you."
"Do you want to take a look at some of my new sketches?"
"No, thank you Dereh, next time. I'm almost late to an important meeting."
Ruvin could hear the disappointment in the young man's voice as he hurriedly shuffled away to his next meeting, one that he was not looking forward to on most days, but particularly not today.
He slowly ascended the winding staircase to the richer quarters of the city. Usually, he did not need to pause on the way to the guildhall, but today, he was forced to take his time and stopped at the midpoint under a handful of oak trees. He sat on a bench and to take his mind off of the guild meeting, he emptied the rest of the dead sailor's pouch into his hand. Besides the smaller diamonds, there were three curious artifacts.
The first was a pin made of dark metal, some sort of iron-rich steel. What looked like a strange coat of arms was etched into it: two hands holding a bird, whose eye was a ruby. Ruvin did not deal in rubies frequently, so he took time inspecting this stone with his loupe. He felt drawn to it. It had a dark depth to it that clear sparkling diamonds lacked.
The second object was a curious metal container, covered in fine filigree of similar design. It fit nicely into his hand. Ruvin discovered that the top part can be opened with a flick of his thumb from one angle. As he did so, he found a tiny nozzle and a lever that seemed to control it. Ruvin pressed it and nothing happened. Nevertheless, the object fascinated Ruvin.
The third object was a plain ring. It lacked adornments, but it had a nice weight to it. Had Ruvin been an ordinary man, and not a man who makes his living selling precious stones and jewels, he would not have noticed the thin vein of ruby running around the inside of the ring. That was curious. Ruvin liked it. Jewels were typically worn ostentatiously to garner status. This ring was more subtle. Ruvin put it on.
With the examination concluded for now, he got up and limped on.
"I propose to double the limit on diamonds imported into the city. While it might decrease the price in the short term, I believe that to be the better move in the long term. It will make more people want our precious stones which will make all our business grow."
Damn. That statement reminded Ruvin why he didn't like these meetings. Week after week "let's sell more diamonds." Of course, the man arguing for that was Lord Nashem, the owner of the largest diamond mine in the land.
Ruvin wanted to oppose him, but three other lords were holding similarly vast quantities of diamonds in reserve and wanted to fatten their purses with gold for a change and strike deals with lesser producers to consolidate their influence. One of these men was lord Rothar who had almost certainly sent the bald man and his compatriots. Rothar held Ruvin's gaze when their eyes met before he got up to call for a vote. His influence was growing day by day.
"All in favor?"
Ruvin glanced around. Too many hands flew up, prices would go down, his income would go down. Damn. Damn. Damn.
He felt like sinking into his soft armchair at home and lying there for a couple weeks. That armchair was unfortunately excruciatingly far away. Instead, he was sitting on a hardwood bench, with his swollen nose, aching body, and annoyed mind. Today was not his day. Or week. Or a month. And to think that just two days ago, he had been looking forward to the return of his ships, plural, and finally getting the crown contract without having to go into red. Ah, those sweet days of fancy.
"Master Ruvin, not happy with the vote?" One of the lords approached him, Ruvin's peer who wanted to establish himself in the capital.
"Lerian, no. Not happy with anything right now."
"Hah, seems like it. I heard one of your ships didn't make it to port."
Ruvin gave him a look. His face bore the usual smirk reserved for the failures of one's rival, but Ruvin saw no extracurricular malice.
"Yes, it's unfortunate. Pirates."
"Well, sending ships into the Meridian islands is always a risk. You should know that. In any case, I hope you recover from your ailments, physical and financial. It would be boring here without you."
He sauntered off, leaving Ruvin to mull over the words. Could it have been him who sent the men yesterday? Was he perhaps trying to curry favor with Rothar? Possible, though that would be obvious. Lerian was always straightforward, going for your throat in front of others. Still, this puzzle needed to be solved fast. He needed more information and knew the man to visit to get it.
The Squid Sack was about as welcoming as one might imagine. Every time Ruvin came there, he felt like every person within its dark confines was a tentacle trying to steal everything from him. He always changed into his worst clothes before coming here and he still managed to look lordly compared to other patrons. Ruvin clutched the pommel of his dagger. Another dagger in his boot reminded him of days past. Darker days that he intended to leave in his past. He sat down opposite a man that could be mistaken for the beggar he pretended to be on various important corners of the city.
Dag was an older, grizzled man who cultivated an air of mystique around him. It was particularly strong today, almost making Ruvin sneeze when he sat down next to him.
"Young baron. To what do I owe the pleasure? Been some time. I thought you'd forgotten about poor old me."
Ruvin was not in a mood for pleasantries.
"I lost a ship recently, Rothar put a bid on the crown, the guild will allow more stones to be sold."
As he put forth those facts, Ruvin watched the older man for his reaction.
"Hm," was the only thing he got.
"I also got visited by some men last night, as you might have noticed. They were not friendly."
At this rate, this conversation would take hours.
"I need information and despite my current troubles, I'm happy to pay for your time."
He put a purse on the table. Not ostentatiously of course, he didn't want the personified tentacles to strangle him quite that fast. Dag's eyes flashed to the purse and a grin of yellow teeth greeted Ruvin like an old unwelcome acquaintance.
"Let's see," he said, scratching his beard.
"I hear things are getting dangerous in the Meridian isles. Some kind of upset with the local priests. I wouldn't be sending more ships that way."
Ruvin gritted his teeth and nodded.
"Lord Rothar's been seen going in and out of the lord mayor's mansion quite often lately. There has been talk of marriage between one of his daughter's and the mayor."
Damn it. How did Ruvin miss that? That was an edge he didn't have, the crown contract seemed less likely to pan out by the minute.
"I see that's something new," Dag said.
Ruvin took a deep breath.
"I heard a freakish accident happened at the workshops today."
His heart sank.
"Yes, some kind of mishap with liquid gold. Some poor fellow lost his hands in the process."
"What was that fellow's name?"
"Hm, Daryn? No, Dereh. A promising young craftsman by all accounts."
Ruvin blanched. He almost threw the purse across the table, already on his way.
At this late hour, there was only the youngest apprentice at the workshop, sweeping. Ruvin didn't remember his name.
"Boy! What happened here?!" Ruvin shouted as he turned a corner, scaring the youth.
The apprentice looked rattled so Ruvin composed himself a bit more and repeated the question.
"What happened here today?"
"I don't know, Master Ruvin. Master Dereh was testing his new mold for the crown and then we heard him scream."
He paused for a moment.
"It was terrible. He must have lost his footing or something. His hands... they went straight into the molten gold. Then he must have fallen and hit his head... I got to him as soon as I could-"
"Where is he now?"
"They carried him to the healers."
"Aira, I think."
Ruvin turned on his heel and began hobbling away. In the midst of this terrible situation, this was at least good news. Aira was the healer he saw just this morning. Could she have saved Dereh's hands? This happened hours ago. But how could it have happened? Dereh was always careful.
Then Ruvin stopped dead in his tracks.
This was no accident. The motive was as crystal clear as the diamonds Ruvin sold. Or the diamonds he gave Dereh just this morning. The diamonds! Damn it.
He turned and rushed back into the workshop, ignoring the surprised apprentice. He routinely spent time there, studying Dereh's sketches in his workroom, so he knew where to go. As soon as he stepped in, he saw that the rug had been moved. Moments later, his suspicions were confirmed.
The stones were gone. At least the portion left here to test the fitting for the crown.
Ruvin slammed the ground with his fist out of frustration. This was a disaster. An absolute disaster. In two days, he lost a ship, got his nose broken, body battered, and now his friend was maimed and many of his most precious stones were gone. He felt like he was teetering on the brink of insanity. His plans were falling apart like a sandcastle hit by a tidal wave.
He forced himself to breathe deeply. Time passed and some thoughts crystallized in Ruvin's mind.
They were going after him, and fast. Rothar or Lerian. They beat him up, maimed his friend, and stole his diamonds. But not all of them. He had a couple small stones on him in the dead sailor's pouch together with the mysterious objects, he had several larger stones in his house, and the rest was in the Bank of Ardicius. He breathed in, got up, and made for his house as fast as he could manage.
He knew he was in trouble as soon as he approached his house. There was too much smoke coming out of the chimney for this season. The house was surrounded by a small garden on all sides, which Ruvin now supposedly made whoever was going after him feel like it could just be burnt down without setting the whole section of the city on fire. He thought this part of the city would be safe when he moved here. Clearly not, it took just one high profile contract bid to get his house burnt down. It seemed he left some of the habits from his past behind too eagerly.
He briefly considered going to get the guards, but they would get here too late. The house would burn down with all the documents, diamonds, and perhaps also his servant inside. He forced himself to take a couple deep breaths, took out his daggers and limped crouched towards his own house.
He peeked through the iron fence and the hedges. There was a man casually standing next to the front door. If you didn't know better, you'd think it was one of the guards Ruvin paid this morning to stand watch. It wasn't.
He weighed his options. He'd probably get caught trying to sneak in. And with every passing second, the fire would spread.
No, he just had to hope his old skills were still there and that luck was on his side, for a change.
He opened the front gate and walked toward the house as if he were deep in thought. He wasn't. He was counting every step. His heart was pounding.
"Hey, stop right there!"
Damn, he thought he'd get closer. Time to act.
The dagger flew through the air... and missed, clinking against the brick wall. The man rushed forward. The second dagger hit the man, but not enough to stop the tackle that flattened Ruvin to the ground a heartbeat later. Before he had time to mount any sort of resistance, a punch in the jaw made him see stars. So much for good luck.
The next few moments were a blur, and before he knew it, Ruvin was in his study, watching flames consume not just the hardwood in the fireplace, but also a large part of the wall and his bookcase. It was uncomfortably hot here. Someone was pounding on the door that led to his bathroom.
"Larret, look who I brought." Shouted the man dragging Ruvin behind. He kneed him in the ribs and let him drop to the floor.
The bald man, presumably Larret, came out of Ruvin's library, clutching a chest where Ruvin's valuables were.
"Look at that, that'll save us some time."
Larret stepped closer to Ruvin and knelt beside him. Then Ruvin felt the cold kiss of steel against his throat and froze.
A set of hands quickly retrieved his two remaining purses and the dagger from his boot.
"Well, baron Ruvin, this is what happens when you double down instead of backing out. Your house burns down, with you in it."
Now that the thug pointed that out, Ruvin supposed he did make a mistake and severely underestimated how fast events would develop. It wasn't a mistake he would make again because it was a fatal one. He was lying on the ground, robbed, throbbing with pain, and soon to be consumed by flames.
"What about the rings?" The other man suggested.
"Potentially identifiable. Leave them. Besides, I'm no master jeweler to melt them down nice." He gave Ruvin a sly look. "Busy day today, too much hassle, I want to get this over with."
Larret pocketed the coin purse. Then he took out the contents of the other purse: several smaller gems, the pin and the small metal box. Diamonds were pocketed immediately.
"Hmm. What's this for?" He asked, looking at the pin and the metal box.
Ruvin tried to answer, but found he couldn't speak.
"Doesn't matter. Potentially identifiable. We have the gold and the stones. Let's get out."
With that, he threw the box and the pin straight into the fire.
In that moment, despite all the pain and brain fog, Ruvin was able to pick out the sound of the gem cracking. He knew that sound from his years of working with precious stones, but somehow it sounded clearer than it should have.
There was a sound like air being sucked in fast, then an explosion rocked everyone.
An eyeblink later, Ruvin saw that his new ring had burst into flame. Even in his dazed state, he understood that was not normal. He stared at it, expecting more pain to manifest promptly.
Nothing, the fire didn't burn him despite the tiny flames enveloping his finger. In fact, the room was not uncomfortably hot anymore. Ruvin looked around, confused.
Larret met his eyes and noticed the ring.
"What the hell?"
With that, he took his dagger and lunged towards Ruvin.
Three events then took place in quick succession just then. First, the flames froze in place, creating strangely shaped curtains around the room.
Second, Ruvin became aware of the fire. He sensed every little spark, ember, and blaze in the room. What was even more amazing was that he understood the fire. And not just that, he realized he could control it as simply as he moved his fingers. The fire felt both alive and ready to do his bidding. It felt like a being, one that was expectantly looking at Ruvin.
Third, in an attempt to get away from the dagger descending towards him, he jolted to the side and screamed: "No!"
Only then the flames did move. A concentrated column of fire engulfed the bald man. He didn't even have time to scream. A charred vaguely human shaped figure hit the carpet moments later.
His companions did, however, have time to scream and as they did, they got Ruvin's attention. The flames followed. Three beams of fire enveloped the burglars in a heartbeat. The screams stopped.
Ruvin watched, shocked. As the smell of burned flesh got to him, he thought about extinguishing the men. A second later, those flames vanished and Ruvin felt an alien sense of disappointment in his mind.
He looked around the room. It was still on fire, but Ruvin did not feel the heat anymore. He spotted a strange circle absent of flames. The metal box was lying in the middle of it. As soon as he directed his attention to it, he felt an angry pulse go through him and the flames expanded.
When the initial wave of rage passed, Ruvin got an idea of what this small box was for. The alien fire's anger stemming from fear, he felt that. The strange fire feared the artifact. Ruvin had a hunch.
He crawled towards the metal box and flicked it open.
He pressed the lever.
The flames rushed into the box at once, creating a siphon of fire.
Then the lid clapped shut, the ring stopped burning, and darkness descended upon the atrium. Then Ruvin passed out.
Some time later, Ruvin sat down in the Squid Sack. The inn looked as it usually did: dim, foggy, and reeking of cheap alcohol and cheap labor.
"Master Ruvin, it's good to see you again. You're looking better than last time."
Ruvin did feel better. His house was being repaired, Dereh was recovering and while he would never draw again, his mind was as sharp as ever. Ruvin's mining crews have under his guidance made a series of breakthroughs in tunnels once thought too risky to work in for fear of explosion. Things were falling into place. And with the crown contract lost to Rothar, Ruvin also found he was feeling a little lighter these days.
He took out his pipe, packed in tobacco, and fished out his small metal box. He flicked it open, pressed the lever and a perfectly even flame appeared. The ring on his finger grew warm, but not enough to attract attention.
Ruvin sensed the tension of the flame. The fiery tornado inside that little box wanted to escape, but he would not let it. Instead, he lit his pipe, closed the box, and took a puff.
"Nice little contraption you have there. Seems handy," Dag said.
"It is, though it's more finicky to use than you'd believe. Anyway, tell me what you know about lord Rothar."