April 8th, 1702 • Kotelgrym
Malstefin had taken up wearing an eye patch again, something he had not done in decades. Before, the swelling had gotten too large and painful to bear the pressure of a patch and strap. In the weeks since Giemm had removed the splinter, the swelling had gone down enough he could cover the worst of the scar with a leather patch, though it was still not very comfortable. The right side of his face was still dominated by a large, grotesque mass of black flesh, and the Demon would snarl at anyone who seemed to look at it even a second too long.
He was working in his planning room, drawing maneuvers onto a map of one of his enemy’s strongholds. The door was open, and he realized Giemm had come to stand on the threshold. The bird clutched a small clay jar in his hand. Malstefin eyed him.
“What?” he asked.
“May I come in, senierro?”
Malstefin waved him inside. Giemm stepped in and shut the door, then approached the table, saying, “I have done some research these past few weeks and I have procured something for you, senierro.”
Malstefin looked skeptical. Giemm must have interpreted his skepticism as disapproval, for he said, “I set aside some things from my own rations and spoils. I didn’t trade anything from the stores for it.”
“What is it?” asked Malstefin, letting it go.
Giemm pulled the stopper out of the jar. A crisp, herbal smell wafted out.
“For the scar,” explained Giemm, glancing just briefly to the Demon’s face. “This will help with the soreness, and will get rid of the black discoloration. With any luck, it will shrink the scarring.”
Malstefin watched him with a careful eye, then took the jar into his hand and sniffed it.
“What is this?” he asked.
“A blend of several medicines,” the bird replied. “I commissioned the Demon Leska to make it. She is young, but has developed quite a reputation for her healing inventions in the past few years. She assures me it will work. I have applied just a dab to myself each day for a week to make sure she did not cheat me and poison it. I believe it to be safe.”
“Why did you do this?” asked Malstefin. “I did not ask you to look for something like this.”
“My master is still in pain,” Giemm replied, “And you will run your empire with greater efficiency if you are not distracted by painful scars.”
Malstefin studied him for a moment, considering whether or not to be indignant that Giemm had been so presumptuous, then put the stopper back in the jar and nodded.
“I will use it,” the Demon said.
Giemm bowed his head with the hint of what might have been a smile. Malstefin considered the jar in his hand, then glanced back up to the bird.
“Come with me,” he said, and motioned for Giemm to follow him.
He led the Runner out of the planning room, and up the stairs to the uppermost level of Kotelgrym. He went into his room, and beckoned Giemm inside. The Runner followed into the Demon’s chamber. It was a large room, with three sets of doors leading out onto the balcony where Malstefin liked to sit and watch his underlings. There was an enormous canopy bed in the room, with tattered linens, and scratched woodwork. A sooty fireplace was set into one wall, under a stone mantel. Malstefin had knocked the decorative Light carvings off long ago, so it was only a rough-hewn slab of stone over the charred remains of recent firewood.
Malstefin crossed the room to a hulking wardrobe and pulled open one of the doors, ignoring the moth eaten clothes hanging there. He opened a drawer below them, and something jingled. He turned around and went to where Giemm stood. He held out one hand, revealing a leather cord, with gold-tipped ends, held together by a sliding gold medallion. It was engraved with the scorpion of Malstefin himself, and five keys.
“For all my advances, I have never named a Key Keeper,” he replied. “Up until now, I had not found anyone worthy of the responsibility who would not betray me. I had this made last week. The post is yours if you want it.” He offered the medallion to the bird.
“It would be an honor, senierro,” Giemm replied with a bow of his head. He accepted the medallion, and slid the loop of the cord up the length of his beak, then over his head. He tightened the slide so it sat neatly on his feathered breast.
“Suits you,” said Malstefin with an approving nod. He offered the bird a large metal ring full of keys. “These will open every lock found in my empire. This is the only full set of copies ever made. I have the originals. If you lose these keys or let them be taken from you, I will kill you.”
“They will not leave my side, senierro,” Giemm promised, taking them.
“If you share anything you see or hear while you serve me in this way, I will kill you.” Malstefin’s eye glowered at him, and the Demon hated that the bird had already seen him in a more damning state than any of the intelligence Giemm might handle about the state of the empire.
“Understood, senierro,” Giemm replied without hesitation.
“You will bring my waking meal to this room every evening,” Malstefin instructed, “And any notable reports that have come in during the day. I like to know the state of my empire when I wake up. You will attend me when I wake, and at sunrise before I sleep. When I am out, you will oversee Kotelgrym in my stead. Understand?”
Giemm nodded, holding the Demon’s gaze as he did so. They both knew it was unheard of for a Demon to appoint a Runner to such a task.
“I will send you better things to wear,” Malstefin continued. “You will embarrass me like this.” He motioned at the tattered scarf around the bird’s waist. “You will eat better than any other denizen of this castillo but me. It will be a poor reflection of my might and resources if my Key Keeper is this bony. We will move your quarters up to this hallway so you will be able to respond to my summons faster.”
Giemm glanced up at him again. Only Demons lived on the upper floor.
“And if anyone bothers you or challenges your authority, you come straight to me. From now on, you are bound to me, a living banner of my empire. An insult against you is an insult against me, and there is but one price for insulting me.”
Giemm nodded, bringing a fist up over his heart in salute, and replied,
“Kotora eler grymor.”