Hilda Strauss looked across the Braun Sea’s jagged waves as her workshop windows rattled against the autumn winds. She adjusted her optic lenses with sluggish fingers, sighing as the sun’s silvery edge crept below the horizon. She traced the line of the stone jetty as it snaked out into the sea, her eyes skipping to the north-east as the alchemical glow of the Nebel Hafen lighthouse cast rippling shadows across the water.
Hilda turned to her workbench piled high with brass cogs, rubber hoses, and copper wires, grunting as she shook an alchemical orb. Her arms ached with the motion, and stopped only when the orb glowed brilliant white. Steam hissed from around her elbow joints as she hung the orb from a hook behind her left shoulder.
Brushing aside her abandoned drawings for an underwater boat, Hilda heard the sound of approaching footsteps. She stepped over to the black-painted wheel to the door’s right. The wheel made a sharp metallic sound as she gripped it and turned it anti-clockwise. The door’s interior rattled with gears and moving parts as it swung outward, the air changing as the stony dampness of the corridor swept into her workshop.
A man strode towards her, his face obscured by a trio of candles, their light casting flickering shadows along the arched stone walls.
“Viktor.” She gestured him into her workshop. “What brings you down here so late?”
Viktor stepped into the light, placing the candlestick on a shelf next to jars of chemicals and oils. He stood tall with a thin face and sharp eyes, wearing high boots and a blue tunic. “Lord Hueber is anxious to know how you progress with the latest invention.”
“Please extinguish your candles in my workshop, Viktor. There are a lot of volatile liquids on those shelves.”
“Of course.” He gave a quick nod and blew out the candles with a single breath.
“If Dietricht wants to know how my work is progressing, he should come himself rather than sending his serving boy.”
“I am the Sworn Advisor to Lord Dietricht Hueber the Third of Hafendorf.” He puffed out his chest. “And this is his workshop.”
Hilda’s hand swung up with a sudden jerk to signal silence, mere inches from Viktor’s face. Though he did not flinch, Hilda smirked at the slight hint of a gulp in his throat. She dropped her arm with a hiss. “Dietricht’s specifications have been difficult to implement. I may have to start again.” She stepped over to her workbench as Viktor followed behind. Her hands gripped on the half-built jumble of wires and gears. “Why are you frowning? These things take time.”
“Can you not reproduce the structure you use?”
Hilda shook her head. “If only it was that simple. Dietricht has said he wants them worn with plate. This puts extra strain on the mechanism and makes it difficult to access for maintenance. I’m concerned that within a coat of armour it could simply overheat, melting its parts and searing Dietricht’s flesh.”
Viktor seemed to consider this for a moment. “Is there nothing you can do?”
“Yes.” She nodded. “But, as I have already said, these things take time.”
Viktor picked up the mechanical arms and manipulated the joints. “I’m sure this is in the same state as when I last examined it.”
Hilda sighed, snatching the arms back with a swift mechanical jerk and placed them back on the workbench. “The reason you have seen no change in the construction is because I have been trying to develop an alchemical coolant.”
Viktor scratched at the back of his neck and sighed. He turned to the sound of footsteps behind him. “Lord Hueber.”
Dietricht strode into the workshop and scanned his gaze along the cluttered shelves and dust-coated scraps of junk. “Madam Strauss.”
“I sent Viktor down here to see how things are progressing with my armour, then thought I might see for myself.”
Hilda noted Viktor’s change in posture, the air of confidence, the raising of his chin, and resisted the urge to smirk.
“Madam Strauss was just telling me about the alchemical coolant she is currently working on to ensure the mechanism doesn’t overheat.”
Dietricht lifted the mechanical arms from the workbench, turning them in his hand as he looked along each of the limbs as he gripped the shoulder harness between his fingers. “May I?”
Viktor waved his hands. “Madam Strauss has assured me they are not ready yet.”
“I must insist,” said Dietricht. “The mechanism looks complete, am I not correct?”
“You are correct, my Lord, but we are not ready for it to be encased in armour as yet.”
“But I can at least test its motion?”
“We can do that.” Gears crunched along her shoulders as she shrugged. “Place your hands up and keep your arms straight.”
She slipped the arms over Dietrict’s head.
He winced as the device tugged past his elbow, finally resting on his shoulders.
She stepped behind him and turned the key in the backplate to ignite the alchemical orb inside.
She frowned. “That is not advisable. The coolant is not quite there.”
Viktor placed a hand on Dietrich’s elbow. “My Lord, please.”
“Nonsense. Step aside.” Dietricht’s right hand shot forward with incredible force as steam hissed and gears ticked. “Impressive. Such speed. Such power.”
Hilda sniffed at the stench of singed hair. “Oh dear.”
Dietrich’s eyes grew wide. “Get it off me. Get it off me!” He screamed and writhed and thrashed.
Hilda turned to Viktor and sniffed. “Perhaps, next time, he will listen to his advisor.”
“We both know he won’t.” He shook his head. “We should probably help him.”
She licked her lips as Dietrich continued his panicked dance. “Probably.”
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