November 28th, 1654 • Kotelgrym
“Chevo’sssss messsssenger isssss here, ssssenierro,” hissed the guard.
Giemm waited outside the door, carrying a large wooden crate. He had run from Chevo’s stronghold with it strapped to the back of his Runner shape, but his bird form was easier to maneuver indoors. He had lugged the crate into Kotelgrym and all the way up to the upper floor. The Serpent guard who escorted him had laughed at him getting winded. Even now, Giemm could feel his arms burning from the weight, but tried to keep a stoic face. He heard Malstefin answer, and the Serpent guard showed him into the room. Giemm bowed as he entered, his shoulders seeming to creak audibly as he bent with the weight of the crate.
Malstefin was sprawled in a chair, with his two huge feet up on the table. A hooked black pipe hung from the Demon’s mouth, and he took another languid puff on it as the Runner entered. There was a thin fog of tobacco smoke in the air, and his latest exhalation sent a new swirl up in front of the swollen hole in his head where an eye used to be.
“Chevo’s tribute, senierro,” Giemm said, pecking the top of the crate.
“Looks heavy,” Malstefin remarked. There was no ridicule in the Demon’s voice as there had been in the Serpent’s. “Put it on the table.”
Giemm tried to be gentle about setting the crate down, but it still landed with a table-shaking thump. Malstefin’s remaining eye moved to the lingering Serpent guard.
“Next time you don’t assist with carrying tribute,” he told the guard, “I will turn you into a belt.” He hooked his thumb claw in the thick black belt around his waist, and the Serpent’s throat bobbed as it swallowed. “Get out.” Malstefin waved him away.
The Serpent slithered out, pulling the door closed behind him with his tail.
“Open it.” Malstefin motioned at the box, and took another draw on the pipe.
Giemm glanced at him, and started undoing the leather straps of the crate.
“It is not full of vipers, senierro,” the Runner remarked. “Or explosives, for that matter.”
“But you thought to mention them nonetheless.” Malstefin’s thin mustache curved as he smiled, revealing pointed teeth.
Giemm opened the crate and set about unpacking the contents for Malstefin’s inspection. The first item was a iron helmet that had been split in half.
“Chevo has conquered Moncarok, as you asked,” Giemm explained.
Malstefin gave a pleased nod, and Giemm continued unpacking. There were several bundles of tobacco, a finely embroidered silk scarf, a carved rosewood box with wrought iron details. Giemm opened the box and displayed the pair of solid golden chalices resting on the green velvet inside, then reached back into the crate. He hefted out a thick black iron mace, which Malstefin recognized as Moncarok’s prized weapon.
“Ah, si! Damevlo,” crowed Malstefin, dropping his feet to the floor with a thump and holding out a beckoning hand.
It took both of Giemm’s hands and a quiet grunt to heft the grip of the weapon into Malstefin’s waiting palm. The Demon took it, moving it around to inspect it as if it were no more than a drumstick. He moved it in a measured swing alongside the chair and gave an approving growl. With an appreciative nod he leaned it against the table.
“Very good,” he said to Giemm. “Chevo has done well. The rest is on the way?”
“Most of the weapons and supplies from Moncarok’s lands will be delivered to Kotelgrym within a week, senierro,” Giemm replied with a nod. “Chevo has kept only three cannons to replace the ones that were lost during the last battle, and only two of Moncarok’s storehouses. The contents of the other six are being prepared for transport as we speak.”
“Very good,” Malstefin said again. “I may send some of the supplies back to him after I have looked through them. He has done good work, and I reward well those who please me.”
“There is one more thing, senierro,” Giemm said, motioning at the crate.
Malstefin’s horns scraped the back of the chair with the curious tilt of his head.
Giemm reached in again and produced another smaller crate. He opened it, and removed the tattered cloth that served as padding. He reached in, then tossed a plump orange fruit to the Demon. Malstefin caught it, the clementine looking tiny in his enormous hand. The Demon gave a pleased grin and immediately peeled it with a skillful claw.
“Where did you get these?” he inquired, eyeing the rest of the crateful.
“Chevo conquered a Luminara last week. These were among her stores. They are the only ones we were able to get out before that section of the stores burned. I told Chevo he should send them to you.”
“Did you?” Malstefin replied, savoring the first half of the clementine.
“The last time I was here, you were finishing a box Omoriol had sent you.”
“You are very observant, aren’t you?” Malstefin eyed the charcoal-colored bird. “How many cannons are on the front face of my castle?”
“Thirty-two, senierro,” Giemm replied.
“And how many left turns did you make to get to this room?”
“Four.” The Runner did not hesitate.
“You please me,” Malstefin said. “You have pleased me each time you have come here. How long have you been running?”
“I formed on August 30th, 1521.”
“Orihuela,” Malstefin acknowledged with a nod. “Si, I pegged you for Spanish-born.”
He grinned his pointed-tooth smile again, and popped the other half of the clementine into his mouth. He chewed it slowly, regarding the Runner as he did so. Giemm clasped his taloned hands in front of him, bowed his head, and allowed the Demon to conduct his study of him.
“You are too smart to be working for Chevo,” Malstefin announced after a moment. “You should work for me instead. I will send someone back to Arega to tell Chevo I have kept you as part of the tribute– if you wish to stay. Winter is already biting our heels. I will keep you better fed than Chevo will, and probably warmer. What say you?”
“It is a fair offer, senierro. You honor me.”
“I am sure you will serve me well,” Malstefin replied with a nod. “You can start by finding places for those chalices in the cabinet over there.”