Tamara forces herself to rise early - an easy habit to get into when the earth is your bed and fallen leaves the only blanket. Less so when the mattress is stuffed with goose down and the sheets woven from soft cotton. The curtains are pulled back, and warm light pools on the floor of her third floor boarding room. She’d closed the curtains on her first night in Piltover and had slept two hours past dawn, which worried her so much, she has never closed them since.
Swinging herself out of bed, she strides naked to the window and taps the colored glass with a callused fingertip, black with sooty residue from the workshop. The light shimmers on her skin, her frame wolf-lean and wiry-muscled. Despite that, she rubs a hand across her belly as if fearing it has grown soft. Below her, the cobbled street is already busy with stall-holders setting up to catch Progress Day’s early trade. Colorful bunting to celebrate this auspicious day is strung between every building, giving the narrow street a festive atmosphere so unlike the city Tamara calls home. Cog and key banners of gold and crimson silk hang from the distant towers glittering on the upper slopes of the clan districts. It is there the rivers of gold said to flow through Piltover’s streets have their source.
Tamara grins at the thought and turns from the window. Her room is meticulously tidy, a place for everything and everything in its place. Notebooks are stacked at one corner of her workbench, alongside carefully arranged tools, hex-calipers and folded schemata. Yesterday’s lunch of black bread, cheese and dried fruit sits unopened in muslin wrapping next to her tools. A small metalworking forge is ingeniously built into the brick wall, the fumes carried to the roof via a twisting series of iron pipes. At the center of the desk is a wooden box in which sits the device that has taken her many months of effort to construct, working from the plans etched into rolls of wax-paper she keeps hidden beneath her mattress.
She reaches under her bed for the chamber pot and relieves herself before quickly freshening up with the powders and tinctures provided by her host. She dresses in the rugged clothes of an apprenta; simple leggings, an undershirt equipped with numerous pockets and a wrap-around doublet with an ingenious system of hooks and eye fasteners that can be ripped off with one quick pull. She’d been puzzled at the need for this until Gysbert had blushingly told her it was to make it easier to get off in the event of it catching fire in a workshop.
She checks her reflection in a polished glass mirror hanging on a brass hook on the back of her door, brushing her long dark hair back over her ears and securing it with a leather thong and copper hair-clips. Tamara runs her fingers over her high cheekbones then along the line of her chin, and is satisfied by what she sees. Colette keeps telling her she could do more with her looks, but her friend is young and hasn’t yet learned the danger of being memorable. Tamara places the wooden box in her shoulder bag, together with the muslin wrapped food and a selection of notebooks and pencils. She’s nervous, but that’s understandable. This is a big day for her, and she doesn’t want to fail. She removes the chair wedging her door shut and turns the locking wheel to release the bars securing it in place. Compared to where she comes from, Piltover is a safe place, its violent crime rate absurdly low. Its inhabitants are untroubled by the everyday violence of most other cities, but they are not so foolish as to believe they can do without locks on their doors.
Especially in the weeks leading up to Progress Day.
Tamara locks her door and pauses on her way down the stairs to empty her chamber pot in the boarding house’s central chute for the disposal of night-soil. She used to wonder where it ended up, before realizing that shit only ever flows downward. Somewhere below in Zaun, there’s a garden that likely blooms like no other. She places the pot in its assigned cubbyhole for cleaning, and makes her way down the winding screw-stair to the communal dining room. A few of her fellow apprenta are either breaking their fast or frantically tinkering with the devices they hope will finally get them noticed by one of the clans. Tamara places a hand over her shoulder bag, feeling a sense of pride at what she has made. She’d followed the plans exactly, even though the finishing touches went against the grain of her stoic professionalism.
She waves in response to a few weary hellos, but doesn’t stop to talk. Few of them will have slept more than an hour or two a night for the last fortnight, and she will be surprised if some of them don’t fall asleep during their auditions today. She’s out the door to the street before anyone can delay her, and the brightness of the sun pulls her up short.
The high buildings of her street are constructed of square-cut limestone and chamfered timber. Embellished with bronze facings, leaded glass and copper eaves, dazzling sunlight glitters from every surface. The streets are busy and loud, filled with moderately well-dressed men and women moving back and forth. Couriers push between apparitors, victuallers and tallymen, who shout after them and wave their fists. A few vagabond tinkers ply their suspect wares on canvas cloths atop barrelheads, ready to run at the first sight of a warden. Sumpsnipes who’ve hitched a lift on the Rising Howl from Zaun lurk at the edges of the street, scanning the passing trade for someone to cutpurse. These are the younger, inexperienced ones, forced away from the easy pickings of the cross-chasm bridges by the older, stronger kids.
Tamara keeps a wary eye on them as she moves down the street, her steps precise and measured. She has little enough worth stealing, but the last thing she needs today is a sumpsnipe picking something he shouldn’t from her. The smell of roasting fish and fresh-baked Shuriman sunbread from an open dining hall makes her mouth water.
Instead, she stops a woman pushing a wheeled barrel encircled by hissing pipes and purchases a hot tisane, together with one of the sugared pastries she has come to love a little too much.
“Happy Progress Day, dearheart!” says the woman as Tamara places a silver gear in her hand and tells her to keep the change. “May the cogs turn clockwise for you today, my lovely.”
The woman’s accent sounds oddly lean and leisurely to Tamara, as if she has all the time in the world to voice what she wants to say, yet it is not uncommon this close to the Boundary Markets: a blend of Piltovan affectation and the looser familiarity of Zaun.
“Thank you,” replies Tamara. “May the Gray never rise to your door.”
The woman taps her head and her heart, a sure sign that she is born of parents from above and below. As much as the citizens of Piltover and Zaun like to pretend they are separate entities, both are far more intertwined than they might openly admit. Tamara wolfs down her pastry and follows the road to its end, exactly twenty steps distant, where it meets the larger thoroughfare of Horologica Avenue. She turns right, finishing her tisane and counting her steps as she crosses each intersecting street. The buildings here are grander than the apprenta quarter where she’s billeted, fashioned from polished granite and ironwork columns.
Many boast flickering chemtech lamps that give the morning air a crisp, actinic flavor. It seems pointless to burn them given the early hour, but Tamara has learned a great deal of Piltover society is dominated by perceived wealth and power - one being a factor of the other. It’s everywhere she looks: in the cut of the clothes people wear, the vividness of the colors and the extent of their publicized philanthropy. Tamara sees numerous couples taking their morning constitutional; well-appointed men and women adorned with subtle augments. One woman wears an implanted cheek-plate with a gem-like hextech loupe over one eye. Her arm is linked with a man bearing a metallic gauntlet that flickers with traceries of light. Across the street, another hunched man in overalls wears what appears to be some form of breathing apparatus on his back - tanks filled with bubbling greenish liquid that vent puffs of atomized vapor.
She sees people look on in admiration and wonderment, but her gaze has been trained to notice what others do not. The two hextech augments are fake.
Tamara has studied Piltover’s emergent technology closely enough to know what is real and what is not. The cheek-plate is molded silver glued to the woman’s face, and her loupe is nothing more than a lapidary’s lens engraved with a maker’s mark she assumes is fictional. Her beau’s hand is an ordinary bronze gauntlet with glass channels filled with bioluminescent algae scraped from one of Zaun’s cultivairs. Only the breathing apparatus is genuine, and the bloodshot redness of the hunched man’s eyes, combined with the tougher, hard-wearing nature of his overalls, tells Tamara he is from a deep level of Zaun.
She travels from Horologica Avenue to Glasswell Street, along the winding Boulevard of a Hundred Taverns and thence into Sidereal Avenue to Incognia Plaza, where Zindelo’s great sphere sits inactive as it has done since the inventor’s mysterious disappearance last year. Crowds gather around the latticework artifact; gaggles of would-be inventors, artists and pallid, hack-coughed Zaunites who have traveled up-city for the day.
Deep in his cups, Gysbert has told her Progress Day is viewed very differently down in his hometown of Zaun, which he insists was the original City of Progress before Piltover came along. Above, Progress Day marks the moment the Sun Gates opened for the first time, allowing trade to pass easily between the east and west of Valoran. It also marks the moment when taxation on that trade turned the trickle of gold entering the city’s coffers into a fast flowing river. Below in Zaun, it is a day to remember those lost in the geological upheaval that created the east-west passage and submerged entire districts underwater.
One day, two very different perceptions.
Tamara passes through the square, avoiding sprinting pneuma-tube runners as they race to bear messages to their destinations. A promenade courtier, Noami Kimba, waves to her and blows her a kiss. They have met three times in the sultry air of evening, and each time Kimba has offered her a chance to spend the night in her arms. Tamara has refused each time, too busy for any diversions, but if she is able to stay longer than today, she may take her up on the next offer. She makes her way to the plaza’s northern archway as a massively bearded man with metaled shoulder guards and an iron skullcap enters. His arms are pneumatic, piston-driven monstrosities, and Tamara recognizes one of the nameless hierophant cultists of the Glorious Evolved. He grunts at her, before entering the square to harangue passers-by with his zealous blend of theology and techno-sorcery. She leaves him to it and turns onto Oblique Lane, heading toward Techmaturgy Bridge, counting her steps as she goes.
The city opens up before her, revealing the great split that divides northern and southern Piltover. The yawning chasm looks as though it ought to be ancient, the result of natural geological forces, but it came into existence within living memory and nothing natural created it. Man’s hubris and desire to master the elements wrought it. Tamara admires the strength of will it must have taken to enact a plan of such audacity that the splitting of the earth and the destruction of half of Zaun was seen as an acceptable price to pay for future prosperity.
The great tower of the College of Techmaturgy rises arrogantly from the wide canyon, anchored to the upper cliffs by swaying suspension bridges and thick iron cables that thrum like musical strings when the winds blow in hard from the ocean. The main bridge is an arched wonder of steel and stone, thronged with people moving between Piltover’s two halves and cursing the vintners and purveyors of sweetmeats whose rival stalls have created a bottleneck at its center. Revelers still drunk from the night before are shepherded onward by wardens in blue jackets, gleaming boots and checkered trousers.
In any other city, they would look ridiculous, but here their gaudy appearance actually seems normal. Sumpsnipes with razor-rings dart through the crowds and more than one reveler will be returning home with what remains of their purse slit and emptied.
The north of the city is where the bulk of the clans have their mansions and heavily guarded workshop compounds. Most of the traffic today is heading in that direction. She sees a good many apprenta making their way across the bridge, each bearing their invention with the care of a mother bearing a newborn babe. She seeks out the familiar faces of Gysbert and Colette, but there are simply too many people to pick out her fellow apprenta. Tamara reaches the end of the bridge, and takes a breath. Normally, she is not scared of high places, but the dizzying scale of the height difference between Piltover and Zaun is breathtaking.
Two statues of robed officials flank the road onto the bridge, one representing the spirit of wealth, the other the essence of honesty. Tamara digs out a bronze washer and places the coin in the outstretched palm of the first statue. The weight of it triggers an internal mechanism and the fingers close over the coin. When they open a moment later, it has gone.
“I always go with the other one,” says a man appearing beside her. He is handsome, dark-haired, and smooth-skinned, which means he is rich. His breath reeks of last night’s shimmerwine. “I find it helps to pay for the things I don’t have.”
Tamara ignores him and carries on her way.
He moves after her, made persistent by the dulled senses of a hangover and too much money in his purse.
“Here, now wait a minute, there’s no need to be rude, young lady.”
“I’m not being rude, I have somewhere to be and I don’t want to talk to you,” she says.
He follows her onto the bridge with a laugh that tells her he sees her as a challenge, someone he thinks he can buy with a few gold hex.
“Aha, you’re an apprenta, aren’t you?” he says, finally recognizing her clothes and seeing the bag on her shoulder.
“On your way to the auditions, eh? Hoping to catch the eye of an artificer and be snatched up by one of the great houses, are we?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes,” she answers, hoping against hope that he will hear the brusqueness of her tone and leave her alone. Instead, he increases his pace and stands in front of her, blocking her passage across the bridge. He looks her up and down, as though examining a piece of livestock he’s thinking of buying. “You’re a fine looking specimen, my girl. A bit bony, but nothing a few meals at Lacabro’s wouldn’t sort, eh? What do you say? It’s Progress Day, everyone should have a bit of fun, eh?”
“I’m not interested,” says Tamara, moving to push past him. “Get out of my way and leave me alone.”
“Now listen here, lass, my name is Cella Allabroxus, and I know a few of the bigwigs on the north side,” he says, continuing to block her way. “Spend the morning with me and I’ll put in a good word for you, make sure your audition gets a bit of a boost, if you know what I mean?”
“No, thanks,” says Tamara, and she can see what’s coming next. He reaches for her arm, but she catches his hand before it makes contact, twisting it around and drawing a surprised gasp of pain from him. If she applies even a fraction more pressure, his wrist will snap like kindling. She uses his pain to maneuver him toward the bridge’s parapet. Her fear of heights quite forgotten, she presses Cella Allabroxus back against the waist-high stonework. “I asked you nicely to leave me alone,” she says, pressing hard on Allabroxus’s wrist and drawing a whimper of pain from him. “Now I’m asking again, albeit not so nicely. Leave me alone or I will push you off this bridge and when they find what’s left of you spread out over the rooftops of Zaun, they’ll think you were just another drunk who couldn’t walk a straight line over the bridge. Are we clear?” He nods, in too much pain to speak.
“I don’t need your ‘good word’ or any kind of ‘boost’. I’m pretty damn good at what I do, and I’ll stand or fall on my own, thank you very much. Now smile at me, walk away and go home. Sleep off the wine and remember this moment any time you feel like being discourteous to a lady.”
Cella Allabroxus gasps as Tamara releases his wrist. For a moment she sees he is tempted to retort with something offensive, but she cocks an eyebrow and he thinks better of it. Cradling his wrist, he scurries back the way he came and Tamara lets out a weary sigh. She catches the eye of a sumpsnipe gang loitering on the other side of the roadway and nods in the direction of the fleeing Allabroxus. The footpads take her meaning and race after the man.
“What was that all about?” says a young voice behind her.
The tautness drains from Tamara’s body and she lets a looseness return to her limbs. The cold determination Allabroxus saw falls from her face, replaced with an open smile.
“Nothing,” she says, turning to see Gysbert and Colette. “Just a drunk who thought he’d try his luck.”
“You’re late,” says Gysbert, pointing over the parapet at the dulled metal sides of a mechanized clocktower a hundred feet or so below the level of the bridge. “Look.”
“What are you talking about?” answers Tamara. “I don’t think Old Hungry’s told the right time in years.”
“True,” he says, and though he’s trying to look angry, his eyes speak only of infatuation.
“But we agreed to meet before Old Hungry’s shadow was past the Techmaturgy tower.”
He points to where the dark outline of the mysterious clocktower has fallen across the lower laboratory levels of the tower, where greenish-gray fumes leak from hornpipe vents. “See?”
Tamara smiles and puts her hand on his shoulder. He glances down at the point of contact and any anger he might actually be feeling vanishes.
Colette rolls her eyes and says, “Come on, let’s get going. Gysbert might be foolish enough to forgive your lateness, but Clan Medarda won’t. They shut the gates at third bell and they rang the second before we reached the bridge.” The manor house of Clan Medarda is not far from the northern end of the bridge, but the streets are busy and there will be many others seeking entry to display their creations at the auditions.
“You’re right,” says Tamara, hefting her shoulder bag and patting the device within. “Let’s go and show those rich sons of bitches what we can make.”
The gates of Clan Medarda’s mansion house are imposing creations of tempered steel set in a high wall of alabaster white stone. Bronze busts of its illustrious family members sit in numerous alcoves along the length of the wall, including the clan’s current head, Jago Medarda. Scores of eager apprenta are gathered by the opened gates, each bearing a prized invention they hope will see them secure a contract of servitude with this illustrious house. The politeness on display is endearing to Tamara, with each apprenta being careful not to jostle their neighbor’s creation.
Men in the clan’s colors, armed with swords and pikes, guard the entrance, checking the authenticity of each supplicant’s paperwork before allowing them entry. Tamara watches them as they work, admiring their professionalism and thoroughness. A few apprenta are turned away, their papers incorrectly stamped or fraudulent. They don’t protest, but simply walk away with a resigned shrug.
When it’s their turn, Tamara, Colette, and Gysbert are allowed in without a hitch. Colette had taken it upon herself to ensure their papers were in order, and the youngster is a stickler for details. It’s a trait Tamara believes will stand the girl in good stead in the years to come.
Just as they pass through the gates and third bell rings from the Piltover Treasury building, Tamara feels the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She has learned to trust this instinct over the years and pauses, as if to adjust the straps of her shoulder bag, looking back to the street. Sitting on the rim of a marble fountain is a woman wearing the loosely tied jacket of a Piltover sheriff, a customized cap pulled low over her shadowed features. One leg is cocked at an angle, her elbow resting atop it as her gaze sweeps the throng of apprenta. There’s a long-barreled rifle over her shoulder, one with what looks like a gleaming gemstone enclosed in a lattice of silver wire. Her gaze pauses on Tamara, who turns away before it can linger too long. Tamara knows that look: it is the look of a hunter.
The gates shut and she catches up to Colette and Gysbert, who stand in a twenty-strong crowd staring in open-mouthed wonder at what seems at first glance to be a simple carriage. But then Tamara notices the underslung hextech pod and the knot of gold and silver cabling linking it to the front and rear axles. A soft light glows within the pod and Tamara tastes copper on her tongue.
“It’s a self-locomotor,” says Gysbert. “One of Uberti’s designs, if I’m not mistaken.”
“It can’t be,” says Tamara. “She works exclusively for Clan Cadwalder.”
“Not for long, I hear,” says Colette.
“What do you mean?” asks Gysbert.
“Scuttlebut around the workbench says one of Medarda’s agents stole a copy of the schematics,” says Colette, her voice dropping to a whisper. “Rumor has it things got pretty bloody. Bodies all cut up, that sort of thing. Folks are saying Clan Torek are looking to lure her away, but Clan Cadwalder won’t admit anything, of course.”
“Well, they wouldn’t, would they?” says Tamara, as the lacquered black doorway to the manor house opens. “A public admission that their head artisan’s designs were stolen would make them look weak.”
A steward bearing a long black staff and liveried in the crimson and gold of Clan Medarda ushers the hopeful apprenta into the manor house. Tamara hears sighs of wonderment as he leads them through its vaulted antechambers, luxurious reception rooms and grand galleries. The clan’s conspicuous wealth is displayed for all to see in gold-framed portraits that fill entire walls, giant sandstone statues of beast-headed warriors conveyed at enormous expense from Shuriman tombs, and crossed weapons that bear the hallmarks of Ionian design. The floors are gleaming marble flagstones, the grand staircase wide and crafted from the whorled boles of Freljordian Ironwood trees.
Tamara sees that everything in this house is artfully crafted to intimidate and remind the visitor just how little their achievements matter in the face of what Clan Medarda has acquired. She looks up in time to see a woman in a floor-length gray dress and crimson-tasseled pelisse glide being escorted across a mezzanine level by another steward. The heels of her boots click with a strange metallic cadence, and she looks down upon the herd of apprenta with the ghost of a smile creasing her lips as she passes from sight.
Eventually the steward halts their march in a moderately sized waiting room with a herringbone-patterned floor and a Revek clock fashioned from ivory and mother-of-pearl that keeps time with metronomic precision. An imposing set of black-lacquered doors with a hatch at eye level leads onward, but the steward raps his staff on the wooden floor and indicates that they should sit on benches set against each wall.
“When your name is called, enter the proving chamber,” he says. “Move to the lectern and state your name. Give a short explanation of what you will be demonstrating, followed by a brief - and I cannot stress that word enough, brief - explanation of its workings. You will be judged by the learned artificers of Clan Medarda, so assume they know more than you. My advice is to keep your answers short, as they bore easily. If you are successful, take the left door onward. If you are unsuccessful, take the right door onward. That is all. And good luck.”
The steward has given this speech many times before, but Tamara hears sincerity in his last words to them. She places a hand on her shoulder bag, knowing that on any other day, the device within would be enough to secure her a place at any one of Piltover’s clan houses. She shares a look with Gysbert and Colette. Both are nervous, and she is surprised to find her own heart racing. She has spent so long preparing for the Progress Day audition that the thought of stumbling at this last hurdle makes her sick to her stomach. It has been a long time since she felt this way, and she smiles, welcoming the sensation. It will keep her sharp and focused. She reaches over to take Gysbert’s hand and gives it a squeeze. Sweat dapples his brow and he smiles weakly in thanks. Colette is staring straight ahead, scanning the faces on the other side of the room, no doubt wondering who might make the cut and who will fall by the wayside.
The hatch in the black door slides back and everyone tenses. A name is called, and a young girl across from them stands. The door opens from the other side and she shuffles nervously through it. A musty smell of aged wood and charged atmosphere gusts from the proving chamber, and Tamara tries to imagine what it will be like. Another six apprenta pass through the door before one of their names is called. Colette is first, and she stands with determination, lets out a breath, and walks through the door without a backward glance. “She’ll be great,” says Gysbert under his breath. “I know it.”
“So will you, Gys,” says Tamara, though she suspects his nerves will likely get the better of him. The kid from Zaun is skilled, but more than just his nerves will count against him in the grand halls of a Piltovan clan. Two more apprenta are called. Looking at the clock, Tamara sees each audition is getting shorter. Are the learned artisans of Clan Medarda already getting bored? Will that count for or against those yet to demonstrate their devices?
Gysbert all but jumps off the bench when his name is called. He almost drops his bag, but catches it at the last minute, his face red with worry and dripping in sweat.
“Take a deep breath,” Tamara advises him. “You know this stuff. Your work is good.” “But is it good enough?” he asks.
Tamara thinks she knows the answer, but nods and says, “It is.”
He passes through the door and more apprenta are called until only Tamara remains. The room is empty, but she can’t shake the feeling that she is being watched. When her name is finally called, it is a relief, and she takes a moment to compose herself before turning and stepping through the door into the proving room.
The chamber beyond is circular and illuminated by glowing spheres of glass that float above sconces carved in the shape of outstretched hands, as though giving light to the world. It’s all Tamara can do to suppress a sneer at the rampant self-aggrandizement. It is a lecture theater, with tiered benches rising in concentric rings to the back wall. A plain wooden lectern and workbench sit in the center of the room, and two doors lead onward. Left for success, right for failure.
The tiered benches are capable of holding at least a hundred people, but only five sit before her. Two men and three women, all wearing the crimson robes of masters. They are scratching on great ledgers with gold-plated quills that echo noisily in the chamber’s excellent acoustics. Every one of them bears a genuine hextech augment, and she senses their eagerness to be done.
“Name?” says one of the women without looking up.
“What will you be demonstrating?” asks one of the men. His lips do not move, and his voice grates artificially from a mesh-fronted neck brace.
Tamara sets her bag down on the workbench and removes her creation, an arrangement of wirework struts arranged in a cube with an acid-engraved sphere at its center.
“I call it the Hex-Armillary Amplifier.”
“How do you hope it will function?” he asks again, and Tamara tries not to show how much his mechanically-rendered voice disturbs her.
“By harnessing the properties of a crystal and exponentially increasing its output beyond anything that’s been achieved so far.”
She says the words neutrally, but the arrogance of what she says does not go unnoticed.
Every one of the masters now fixes their gaze upon her. They are likely used to hearing grand claims from apprenta, but the confidence in her tone clearly piques their interest.
“And how will you do that?” asks a white-haired man with a gem-faceted eye set in a porcelain plate upon his burn-scarred face.
“The geometries of a crystal are vital, as is the axis upon which it spins,” says Tamara, opening a delicate hatch in the sphere to reveal a precisely engineered cradle. Thin chains, like those of an expensive necklace, hang down, ready to secure a power crystal.
“My device reads the speed and angle of spin, adjusting it to achieve optimum power delivery.”
“Absurd,” says a woman with an artificial arm and the penetrating gaze of an academic who has heard every wild idea from her students and dismissed them all. “There is no time in the discharge of a crystal’s power to adjust it with any degree of control. Praveen tried the same thing two years ago and almost brought down half the goldsmithing district.”
“Respectfully, ma’am, I disagree.”
“Your disagreement is irrelevant, apprenta. Can you prove it? Can you demonstrate what you claim?”
“I believe so,” replies Tamara.
“Belief is not the basis of science,” says the woman, as if speaking to a confident but ill-informed child.
“Empirical evidence is what is demanded.”
“I can do it,” promises Tamara.
The woman looks unconvinced, but nods and says, “Very well, you may begin.”
A hatch slides open in the workbench beside Tamara. A fretwork stand rises from below, holding a small, faceted crystal of sapphire blue that shimmers with its own internal light. A hextech crystal.
The crystal is no bigger than her thumbnail, but it is the future.
This is what could make the clans of Piltover rulers of the world if they so desired. Or, if not them, whoever can craft it more efficiently and without the years of work to produce a single item. This crystal has only a low level of power left in it, but it is still immeasurably powerful and outrageously valuable.
She hadn’t anticipated it would also be so beautiful.
“Well, go on then,” says the burn-scarred man. “Dazzle us.”
She lifts the crystal from its holder. It’s warm to the touch, vibrating at a level almost too subtle to detect. It is far heavier than she expects. With exquisite care, Tamara places the crystal within her sphere and fastens it with delicate chains. She checks it is secure and seals her device. The mechanism atop the cube is movable and she twists its interlocking parts to arrange the cardinal points of contact into their engaged positions. Her device starts to hum as the conduits find a source of power in the crystal, and a soft blue glow emanates from within. Tamara grins as her device spools up. The hum builds and the taste of metal in her mouth grows stronger. It is getting louder now, unpleasantly so, pulsing in waves.
The light spheres around the hall pulse in concert with the rise and fall of the bass thrum coming from her device. It is moving across the workbench, the vibrations jittering it left and right, up and down. Crackles of energy flicker around the sphere, flaring from its upper surfaces like lightning running in reverse. “Turn it off, Mistress Lautari!”
Tamara reaches for her device, but a whip of blue light lashes out, carving an angry red weal over the back of her hand. She flinches and backs away from her rapidly overloading device. “I can’t,” says Tamara in dismay. “It’s optimizing too fast!”
She always knew this was going to happen, but she’d hoped the changes she made to the design wouldn’t fail quite as catastrophically as this. A bolt of blue fire arcs out of her machine toward one of the light spheres. It explodes in a shower of magnesium-bright sparks.
Another follows, then three more. Soon the only light is the violent blue glow of Tamara’s crackling device. The woman with the hextech arm stands and makes a fist.
With a rush of sliding metal, the entire workbench falls into the floor, which promptly seals up after it. The outline of the trapdoor is briefly limned in light and a hard bang of detonation echoes from far below. “A safety chamber,” says Tamara, relieved her device didn’t explode a few seconds earlier.
“Yes, Mistress Lautari,” says the woman, sitting back down and picking up her golden quill. “Do you think you are the first apprenta to come before us with a potentially lethal invention?”
“I suppose not,” answers Tamara. She is disappointed, but not surprised. This was always the intended outcome, despite the best efforts of professional pride to sabotage her purpose.
The man with the hextech eye writes in his ledger and speaks without looking at her.
“I think you know which door to take.”
Tamara’s exit from Clan Medarda’s mansion is far less grand than her entrance. The rightmost door opens into a bare stone corridor that winds downward through the rock of the cliffs until it reaches a steel door with enough reinforcement to withstand a siege ram.
A heavily muscled enforcer type with hexdraulic arms and a helmet she’s not sure is actually a helmet opens the door. She’s barely through it before it’s slammed shut behind her.
It opens onto a side street lower down the city, one that leads back to the cliffs. Not quite Zaun, but not entirely Piltover. The street is paved with mismatched cobbles and foggy with low lying scraps of the Zaun Gray. Gysbert sits opposite on a crumbling brick wall, the smashed remains of his device lying strewn at his feet.
He smiles as he sees her and says, “It didn’t go well?”
His eyes widen in surprise. He laughs, then claps a hand over his mouth. “Sorry, shouldn’t laugh. Exploded?” She nods and grins. He laughs again.
“At least all mine did was fall apart,” he says. “Not that it matters. As if Medarda would let a Zaunite into their hallowed ranks!”
She ignores his bitterness and asks, “Have you seen Colette?”
Gysbert’s eyes light up at the prospect of delivering good news. “I haven’t. I think she made it.”
Tamara lets out a sigh of relief.
“Well, at least one of us got in,” she says. “So… shall we drown our sorrows? It’s Progress Day, after all. I think we’ve earned a few after nearly blowing up the learned masters.”
A figure moves into view, lithe and silhouetted against the light at the end of the street. Others are with her, but they’re clearly deferring to her since she’s the one with the long-barreled rifle pulled tight to her shoulder. The weapon’s muzzle is unwavering, its sights firmly aimed at Tamara’s head. “Sorry, Mistress Lautari,” says the sheriff she’d seen earlier today, “but I don’t think you’ll be getting that drink.”
Gysbert’s protests are brushed aside as the sheriff and her men lead Tamara away. He hasn’t the courage to follow her, and she’s glad of that. She doesn’t want him dragged into this. She’s frogmarched toward the edge of the cliff, and for a wild moment she thinks they’re going to throw her over the edge. But this is Piltover. They do things by the book here. Back home, she’d already have a knife in her guts or be sailing through the air on a long drop to the spires of the city below. Instead, they turn into a narrow overhanging street that winds along the line of the cliffs toward the great funicular that leads down to the busy wharves on the ocean passage through the city.
“Are you arresting me?” asks Tamara. “What did I do?”
“Really? You’re going to play dumb?” asks the sheriff. “We searched your room and found everything. The hextech journals, the schematics.”
“I’m an apprenta,” says Tamara. “I’m supposed to have schematics.” They reach an iron-mesh platform attached to a collimated series of rails angled down toward the ocean and docks below. Hundreds of ships throng the wide channel, moored in the shadow of the titanic form of the Sun Gates that allow sea transit from east to west. Some are just passing through, while others berthed offload goods before filling their holds with the bounty Piltover and Zaun have to offer. Tamara sees Freljordian ice-runners, Noxian troop barques, Shuriman grain-galleys and even a few vessels that look suspiciously like they’ve recently sailed from the thieves’ haven of Bilgewater.
Watching over them all are Piltover’s warship squadrons: sleek, ebon-hulled vessels with twin banks of oars and iron-sheathed rams. Rumor has it they’re powered by more than just the strength of their oarsmen and that each is equipped with a battery of powerful hextech weaponry. Tamara doesn’t know if that’s true, but that people believe it is true is all that matters.
She’s jolted from thoughts of warships as three of the sheriff’s men bundle her onto the elevator, holding her tighter and more painfully than they need to.
“Maybe so, but I don’t think many apprenta have such detailed maps of Piltover hidden within their work. I’m Caitlyn, and I’ve walked a beat for more years than I care to count, so I know this city’s streets better than most. And I have to say, you did a damned accurate job. Even Vi could walk blindfold around Piltover with those plans and not get lost.”
“I don’t follow,” says Tamara, as Caitlyn pulls a lever and the angled elevator begins its juddering descent to the city’s lowest levels.
“Yeah, you’re more a trailblazer than a follower, aren’t you?”
“What does that mean?”
The sheriff doesn’t answer, and Tamara shakes her head, her eyes filling with tears.
“Look, I swear I don’t know what this is all about,” she says, her voice cracking and her chest heaving with sobs.
“Please, I’m just an apprenta trying to catch a break. Signing a contract with Clan Medarda was my last chance to make something of myself before my father’s money runs out and I have to indenture myself to one of the Zaun Chem-forges. Please, you have to believe me!”
Her pleas fall on deaf ears, and neither the sheriff or her men bother to answer her increasingly histrionic pleas for compassion and understanding as their descent continues. When the elevator lurches to a halt on the dockside, it’s in the shadow of a Shuriman galleon riding high in the water, its holds freshly unloaded. Tamara sees all her worldly possessions stuffed into a metal cart used to haul grain from the holds of such vessels. Her journals and rolled up plans are inside, pages ripped and torn, months of painstaking work discarded like junk. She smells oil and knows what’s coming next. She throws off the grip of the men holding her and falls to her knees before Caitlyn. “No! Please, don’t,” she weeps. “Please. I’m begging you!”
Caitlyn ignores her and walks over to the cart. She lifts a smoking pipe from a passing stevedore and tips its burning contents into the cart. The oil-soaked paper of Tamara’s books and plans bursts into flames with a whoosh of ignition. The fire consumes them swiftly, burning everything to ash in a matter of minutes. Smoke curls from the remains of Tamara’s work, and she spits at Caitlyn’s feet.
“Damn you,” she snaps. “May the Gray forever be at your door!”
“Nice try,” says Caitlyn, dragging her to her feet. “You’re pretty tricksy with that accent. It’s good, I’ll give you that. Just enough slang, just enough roughness, but I’ve heard every voice in this city, from top to bottom, and yours just doesn’t fit, you know? A little too much of the soot and spite from your homeland to really pull it off.”
“What are you talking about?” protests Tamara. “I was raised in upper Piltover. I’m a Goldview Lass! Born in sight of the Ecliptic Vaults! I swear I’m not lying!”
Caitlyn shakes her head. She’s tired of this game.
“No, your accent’s good, but it can’t quite cover that guttural Noxian superiority,” she says, punctuating her words with a finger jabbing into Tamara’s chest. “And I know what you are. Yeah, I’ve heard the fireside tales of the warmasons, the warriors who sneak into enemy territory and scout it out. You map out the terrain, find the best ways for an army to advance, laying the groundwork for invasion.”
Tamara doesn’t get the chance to deny the accusation as Caitlyn’s men march her up the gangway and onto the galleon. They hand her to two swarthy Shuriman bladesmen, hard-eyed killers who’d sell their own grandmother for half a silver gear.
“You don’t come back to Piltover,” says Caitlyn, resting her rifle in her arms. “If I see you again, I’ll put a bullet in your head. Understand?”
Tamara doesn’t answer. She sees Caitlyn means every word she says.
“Keep her below, then dump her somewhere unpleasant in Bel’zhun,” says Caitlyn to the shipmaster. “Or throw her overboard once you get far enough out, I don’t care.”
The ship is far out to sea by the time they let her up on deck. Too far from land to swim, but Tamara has no plans to get wet. She watches the glittering jewel of Piltover slide away over the horizon, sad to be leaving, but pleased her mission is finally over.
A shame her artfully prepared plans and schematics went up in smoke, but that was always a risk, and she can recreate them from memory. She closes her eyes and runs through the mental exercises that allow her to conjure walking Piltover’s streets at night, counting steps and mentally mapping every junction, street and winding alley. She ponders which of the breadcrumbs she left in her wake allowed Caitlyn to draw the net around her, but supposes it doesn’t matter now. The sheriff of Piltover is clever, but Tamara has a nagging sensation it wasn’t actually Caitlyn who discovered her. That worries Tamara, as it means there is someone in Piltover she doesn’t know about who has cunning enough to unmask a warmason.
Whoever it was, and no matter how much they might think they know about the secretive Order of Warmasons, there’s one thing they haven’t yet realized.
That warmasons work in pairs and sometimes it pays to burn one to embed another more deeply in foreign lands. Tamara smiles to herself, already imagining the valuable intelligence Colette will be gathering for Noxus in the heart of Clan Medarda.
She lies back on a bed of empty grain sacks and settles down to sleep."
In order of appearance:
- For a detailed look, see Progress Day.
- Progress Day serves as the main event to re-introduce Piltover into the new canon.
- Noxus has numerous shadow agents placed within the populace for gathering inteligence in case of a possible future invasion of Piltover.