The Golem-Maker of the City
By Aaron Canton
Laika stumbled back to the Adventurers Guild, head drooping and feet dragging, and went right to the stairs to go up to her room. Normally she would have stopped in the bar and dining area first so she could listen to the adventurers talking about the awesome quests they had completed and the great battles they had triumphed in, or—if the bar had been quiet—would have curled up in a corner with one of the diaries or journals retired adventurers had donated to Renzeya’s library. But this time, her only goal was collapsing into bed and hoping the stupid day would just end already.
“Laika?” She turned to see Renzeya passing through the lobby with a great jeweled sword in his hands. “Are you all right?”
She was silent for a moment before shaking her head. “Some mage kids broke my golems,” she said quietly. “And they threw me an’ my friends out of the square so we can’t play there anymore.”
“What?” Renzeya looked baffled for a moment before frowning. “That doesn’t sound right. Why don’t you come in here and tell me all about it?”
For a moment, Laika wanted to keep going. That was what she’d done back in her hometown, after all. When she’d been sad or upset, it had been her duty to hide that from all the villagers, get back to work making golems, and let whatever was bothering her fade on its own. But she wasn’t in her hometown anymore, she thought; Grannick had brought her here. She could be sad in public now. “Okay,” she managed, turning to the bar. “That sounds good.”
The dining area was nearly full, a sign there was a big quest or job somewhere that adventurers were getting ready for, but Renzeya got her a seat in a big chair with a comfortable cushion. A few moments later a rich bowl of stew, a thick piece of cinnamon-spiced nut bread, and a big glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice were set in front of her. “So,” said Renzeya, sitting across from her as if she was his only concern. “What exactly happened?”
Laika quickly recounted the story as she dug into the food, and between the rich, savory taste of the chicken in the stew and the sweet spiciness of the bread, she began to feel a little better. But when she got to the part where Brandon had broken her golems, she felt her spirits drooping over again. “He said his magic was important and mine was stupid,” she murmured. “And then he broke them, and I couldn’t pick up the pieces because he made me leave the square.”
Renzeya nodded. “And so you’re upset because they broke your golems?”
The girl began to nod before stopping herself. “That’s part of it, but…” She thought for a moment as she carefully split off part of the crust of the nut bread so she could savor it by itself. “My friends still couldn’t use the square, and I felt really bad about it. Like I should have been able to help them.”
“Hmm.” Renzeya leaned back. “Well. That’s a very mature response, Laika. It sounds like you’re already thinking like a leader.”
Laika smiled a little, but it quickly fell when she looked back into her rapidly cooling stew. “What should I do, Mr. Renzeya?” she asked. “Back home the mayor wanted me to be happy making golems for him, so he stopped anyone who was being mean to me—I never had to do it myself. And they said adults can’t help now because the mages are super important.”
“Well, the Vestigo Guild is vital to the city,” mused Renzeya. “So they do have influence. And they may well be willing to hush up misconduct from their apprentices rather than let them draw the guild’s name into disrepute.” The guild leader grimaced, fierce anger visible on his face, and for a moment Laika could see why nobody even thought about starting trouble in Renzeya’s guildhall. “You may have to deal with this yourself—assuming you don’t simply rebuild your golems and find another square.”
“I don’t wanna find another square!” Laika insisted. “It’s not fair. We were there first, and we weren’t even stopping them from playing. We just wanted to play too!” She crossed her arms. “I wanna make them let us back into the square and to promise never to break my golems—or anyone’s toys—ever again. But I don’t know what to do.”
“Why not just punch him in the nose?”
Laika brightened a little and turned as Renzeya looked up at Lily Naphkator, who had moved next to their table with a tankard of beer and a plate piled high with chicken drumsticks and roasted potatoes. Lily was a tall, wiry woman with brown skin, a jagged scar across her right cheek, and a rapier at her side with a big diamond set in the hilt. As far as Laika was concerned, Lily was one of the coolest adults ever. “Punch him?” Laika repeated. “Would that be okay?”
“Why not? Sounds like that mage twerp hit you first by breaking your golems. ‘Scuze me, kid.” Lily dropped into the seat next to Laika and bit a large chunk off a drumstick. “Just give him one right in the face. He’s a mage, right? Most of them are pretty bad in a brawl—and unlike you, he hasn’t been trained by one of the best duelists in the land.” She smirked. “He’ll go down like a sack of potatoes, and he won’t bother you anymore.”
“But…” Laika glanced at Renzeya, who was frowning, before turning back to Lily. “What if he tells someone and gets me in trouble? Or Mr. Renzeya?”
“Just tell him that if he does that, you’ll come back and beat him up again.” Lily took a long draught from her tankard. “Did that myself once. A minor noble wanted my family’s ancestral lands, so he bribed a barrister—that’s someone who says what’s legal and what isn’t—to fake up a title deed saying he was the real owner of my manor. Then he had his goons try to evict me for trespassing.” Her eyes gleamed, and Laika—as she always did during Lily’s stories—leaned forwards so she could hear better. “I thrashed his goons, of course, but when I went to thrash him, he got all smug and said he’d have me thrown in jail. So—did I leave?”
“Uh-uh!” said Laika, who knew Lily never backed down from any confrontation when she was convinced she was in the right.
“’Course not!” Lily continued. “He had this big marble statue in his yard, so I grabbed my enchanted mace from my pack, went up to it, and bam!” She mimed swinging a mace. “Knocked it down in one strike, made him go all white and gape like a fish.” She bulged her cheeks in a fish-like way, drawing laughter from Laika. “Before I left, I told him that if he tried to have me arrested, I’d bring his mansion down on top of his head. Next day, I heard he’d taken an early visit to his summer home in Cranebridge. That was three years ago; I’m pretty sure he’s still there.”
Laika clapped at the end of the story, but as Lily took another swig from her tankard, the girl’s brow knitted. It was one thing for Lily to threaten someone, she thought, but Lily was really strong. Even if Laika could hit Brandon hard enough to make him not want to tangle with her again, she didn’t think she could make him so scared that he wouldn’t even tell his teachers what she’d done. He’d go to them and cause a lot of trouble for her and her friends.
“Aw, come on, Lily. You’re always about the smashing.” Laika turned again to see the wizard Averic Cenard approaching. He was a short, red-faced man who had a big black mustache and walked with a cane that doubled as his wizard’s staff. He was wearing his formal robes, which Laika knew meant he was meeting with other wizards that day. “Ever hear of the subtle arts?”
“Sure.” Lily grinned. “Those’re the arts where you chant for half a day to cast a spell on the bad guys, except by then all the real warriors already showed up, beat up the bad guys, and made off with all the loot.”
Cenard chuckled and sat next to Renzeya. “Ah, but when one spell can best an army of villains, perhaps spending the day casting it is preferable to spending a fortune hiring ‘real warriors’ by the dozen to fight them.” He steepled his fingers as Lily laughed and Laika smiled, familiar with their longstanding argument. “In any event, Laika, you have a prodigious talent for one so young. Why not beat this Brandon fellow at his own game? Show your magic is superior to his. Embarrass him off the field.”
Laika tilted her head. Cenard had taught her a few techniques, mostly for gathering up her magic to build stronger golems, but when she thought back to them, she couldn’t recall any that would guarantee her a victory. “But he’s got more training than me, and he’s older. What if he’s better?”
“You have a rare talent for one so young—I think it highly unlikely he can beat you, particularly as he’s quite likely to underestimate you.” Cenard’s eyes twinkled. “He won’t know what hit him, and he’ll be forced to back down… without any claim against you he can bring to the adults in his guild.”
Laika nodded, but her smile had faded. If Laika beat him in a magic show instead of a fistfight, then he might not be able to go to the adults like he would if she hurt him—he’d just look whiny—but he also wouldn’t be scared of her coming back. He’d just be embarrassed, and he might even seek revenge on her or her friends. Laika couldn’t have that.
Meanwhile, a third figure had stepped over from a nearby table. Renzeya nodded at the figure of Reynoll, an official whom Laika knew often served as the point of contact between the government and the mercenaries it occasionally hired. Reynoll had no weapons training or magic to teach Laika, but he knew more about the history of the city than anyone else Laika had met, and he was often willing to fill in the gaps—or correct the lies—in the adventurer journals Laika read for fun. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” said Reynoll, his northern accent perfectly crisp as usual. “And might I suggest a third option? That of diplomacy?”
“Diplomacy?” repeated Laika.
“Yes. He holds the square. You want the square. Surely there is a trade you could work out.” Reynoll munched on a piece of oat bread covered in melted goat cheese. “Perhaps if you gave him a golem, he would leave you alone. And then you would need not fear retaliation from him or his superiors.”
But that also felt wrong to Laika. Brandon was in the wrong, and he’d broken her favorite golems, so why should she give him anything? And besides, she didn’t want to be forced to make golems for people that would mistreat her anymore. She hadn’t done that since leaving her hometown, and she wouldn’t start again!
Renzeya glanced at her and seemed to notice her frowning. “I think we’ve all given her enough advice, lads,” he said. “Maybe we could let her be.” He then looked back down at Laika. “But if you do want to talk things over, I’ll be up later, okay?”
Laika nodded, and as the others got up to go, she returned to her food. Although she tucked in with gusto and was as nice as she could be to Renzeya and everyone else who greeted her, Laika’s mind was still uneasy. She had to deal with Brandon, she knew, but despite all the advice she’d been given…
She had absolutely no idea how.