CONSTRUCT, Chapter Six

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Taeman gathered up his gear and tossed it into his wagon, muttered something about speaking with a colleague about Samuel’s shoulder, and waddle-trotted off into the encampment. The artificer’s other constructs were still attending to their tasks, oblivious to their surroundings or to Samuel. He stood and walked over to the one brushing the mule.
        “Hello!” he said, trying to sound cheery. The construct tilted its head upward toward Samuel, its face a blank shape of copper so unlike his own, with only indentations where eyes would normally be, a feature that felt oddly disconcerting. The construct’s other features were simpler in design than Samuel’s; large sections of metal with little segmentation and simple, exposed joints.
        Without a word, the worker construct turned back to its task. Samuel regarded the others, disappointed at the lack of interaction. He ran a hand over his head, noting the exposed rivets and features that these simpler constructs lacked. All of them seemed to have the same featureless faces and simplistic body designs save one, which had just finished packing a pair of saddlebags. Its face bore more details, including eyes and a mouth-slit similar to Samuel’s. It also seemed more weathered, showing signs of wear and the discoloration of age on its metal frame. Perhaps he’d have better luck with that one.
        Samuel greeted the saddlebag-packer in similar fashion, and received the same blank look and dismissal. He tapped its shoulder, to which it turned and offered a longer look. “Hello!” Samuel repeated, but to no avail. It was clear this being’s edict was simplistic, and Samuel had neither been identified as a threat nor an objective.
        “You won’t get any delightful conversation out of this lot, friend.” Samuel turned toward the new voice. A man in a long cloak revealed himself, stepping out from between two carts. He moved forward and sat on a large trunk, close enough to speak low and be heard but still a respectable distance away.
        Samuel backed up and took his original seat, regarding the newcomer. “How do I know you’re my friend?” he asked.
        The man pulled back his hood to reveal a slender, handsome face, framed by dark, shoulder-length hair that flowed down into his open hood. His eyes were deep walnut, his skin dark, unblemished olive.
        “You don’t,” he replied. “But I am no friend of the waddling peddler over there…” he gestured toward where Taeman had wandered behind another merchant’s wagon, “and I have no interest in seeing him grow richer through theft of independence.”
        Theft of independence. “I’m not sure what you mean,” Samuel said. He did, in fact, know what the man meant.
        “Oh, come on,” The man said, producing both an apple and a small knife from beneath his cloak. “It is clear enough you’re more clever than your contemporaries here,” he gestured with his apple to the drones around him, “and it is curious to me you don’t know your own master.” He sliced off a small piece of apple and took a bite, watching for Samuel’s response.
        “It seems to me,” Samuel said, watching the man, “I am not the only clever one. What information do you seek from me?”
        “I seek no information.” His response came between chews. “But only to provide some. That man over there”—a nod of the head and more chewing—“does not have your best interests in mind. Taeman has never thought of anyone’s best interests but his own.” He finished his first bite of apple and took the rest of the segment, freeing his blade to begin another slice.
        “You see these lumbering heaps?” He gestured with his apple slice to the other constructs. “Not all constructs live this way. Not all must live this way. And not all of them were obtained through honorable means.”
        “And how do you know the truth of these statements?” Samuel asked.
        With a smirk, the man shook his head. “By your own admission, you could be the living embodiment of the idiom born yesterday. I know the truth because I’ve been around this caravan more often than I, or they, would probably like. Taeman’s a hustler, through to the bone. The man’s a talented artificer, but if there’s an honest bone anywhere in his body, he’s likely removed it and replaced it with bronze.”
        A bite of apple. “I’ve been to cities teeming with constructs, and in those cities, there are some as intelligent and communicative as you are. Not like these…”—a dismissive wave—“beasts of burden.” Samuel felt his excitement rise at the prospect, but didn’t speak his mind. “These things are masterless hulks, bound to Taeman by a tether—just something to keep them around until he can sell them for more than it took for him to steal them.”
        “Stolen?” Samuel asked, genuinely surprised. “These constructs are stolen?”
        “Fortunately found, Taeman would say.” He sliced off another apple piece and ate it, looking almost as though he was using the flavor to overpower the disdain that escaped his lips. “Constructs needn’t be dumbed down, and in fact they can be much more helpful if they’re not. Constructs generally aren’t harmful, and the more intelligent they are, the more useful.” He took a few small bites out of the remaining apple core, then tossed the remains under the nearest wagon.
        “But if these boys were to remember how they were acquired, they might be more trouble for Taeman than they’re worth. So he flushes them. Rids them of knowledge and intelligence, even of learned traits or common sense. Then he re-acquaints them to the world by filling their cores with menial skills until he can foist them off onto someone who wants to put the energy into making them whole again.”
        Samuel lowered his head and mulled the idea over. “How do you know I’m not harmful? I was just told the story of the Queen Consort’s murder by a masterless construct.”
        The man smirked. “I can guarantee you the construct was not masterless, and was not acting of its own accord. But it’s a good story, I guess. A good way to wrap up the crime in a neat little bow. Plus, breeding the sort of attitudes you saw in Hartings and his thugs today makes Taeman’s behavior look all the more altruistic.”
        Samuel had only just awoke and, although his memories were lost, he had no desire to lose the remainder of his thoughts. Could he trust this cloaked informant, though? How was he to know that this one was any better than Taeman himself?
        “I can tell you’re thinking about it, wondering if I speak true,” he said, as though reading Samuel’s thoughts. “I don’t have any way to make you trust me, not really. This is a judgment call for you. I’ll tell you now, though, you’d be better off leaving before he’s able to do any real work on you. Get out of here and head north to Morrelton. Plenty of artificers there can help you out, and are honest, longstanding businessmen rather than caravanning con artists. I’ll leave you with this, though: have you heard him stutter?”
        That got Samuel’s attention, and he raised his gaze to the man in the cloak.
        “Ah, you have, then,” he said, leaning forward before standing up. He stepped back beside the cart from behind which he had emerged, but paused before leaving. “He stutters when he gets excited. He’s learned to disguise it for smaller scores, but when he’s faced with something big, he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of hiding it yet. There must be something about you…something he thinks can make him a lot of money.” He looked over toward where Taeman had gone.
        “What do you have to gain from all this?” Samuel asked, still scanning the other end of the encampment for the artificer. The cloaked man chuckled. Samuel turned his head to follow up, but he was gone.
        His decision was made: any chance of retaining his independence outweighed even the slight possibility of losing it. He scooped up his makeshift sling, throwing it over his neck and arranging his crippled arm into it the best he could, then grabbed his cloak, feeling for the serpent ring. With a glance around the camp, he took note of the guard posts and their direction. Most of the guards faced outward and toward the road, with only one man atop his cart taking watch to the rear.
        Taeman was still nowhere in sight, and the rest of the camp’s inhabitants were asleep or otherwise engaged. He moved to the rear of the circle and slipped between Taeman’s wagon and a large blue and yellow cart that read Eagle Talon Armory, crouching in the shadow with the wagons between himself and the low firelight. Atop the armory wagon was a high platform upon which sat this evening’s guard who, although still sitting upright, snored into his own chest.
        Samuel discovered he was not one to waste an opportunity, and he slipped out into the plain. He was capable of more stealth than even he imagined, and was well away from the caravan in less time than he expected. Not too far from the encampment, the land dipped into a shallow gully, just deep enough for Samuel to stay hidden from view as he moved northward.
        The land rose away to the north, and every so often Samuel glanced back at the camp to ensure his exit had not yet been noticed. He moved around back of a small rise, then ascended and lay down facing the camp to watch for trouble. He thought, perhaps, he could outrun any of their guards if they tried to pursue, but he’d hoped his departure would not raise that degree of alarm.
        At the eastern edge of the camp Taeman emerged from one of the larger covered wagons, followed by Hartings and another older man, a slender gentleman in a simple, distinguished robe. The artificer, still talking to the older man, turned to walk toward where Samuel had been seated.         Recognition of the situation dawned, and Taeman broke into an exasperated waddle, searching. His wagon rocked back and forth with his emphatic movements as he entered, and after a moment he stomped back down his stairs to his camp, cursing. He flung something he was holding into the dirt, and kicked the barrel upon which Samuel had sat, with obvious regret.
        “That’s an awful lot of vitriol from a man who was just trying to help someone out, wouldn’t you say?” The cloaked man’s voice startled Samuel. “Those are the actions of a man who just lost a prize, not a patient.”
        “I’ll have to admit I agree with you,” Samuel replied, betraying none of the surprise he felt. “And he’s not raising the guards or making a fuss with the others about my absence.” He turned to the man in the cloak. “You’ve done right by me once tonight, but I don’t yet know why. The least you can give me now is your name?”
        The man smiled, but kept his eyes on the camp. “Kaleb. My name’s Kaleb. Very nice to make your acquaintance…?”
        Kaleb tilted his head, an amused look on his face. “How…mundane.” He turned his gaze back toward the camp, where Taeman now sat on his barrel, massaging his sore foot. Kaleb backed up and rose. “We should probably get going.”
        Samuel nodded, his attention still on Taeman. The artificer turned, shouting off into the caravan, and was soon joined by a boy who came at his beckon. Samuel reached back and tapped the ground where Kaleb had been laying. “Hold on for a moment,” he said.
        The boy who stood before Taeman looked to be in his mid-teens, with the solid build of a farmhand. He swiped a mop of shaggy blond hair out of his face as Taeman gestured emphatically and limped up into his wagon. Kaleb returned to his perch and the two of them watched.
        After a few moments, Taeman returned and began jabbering at the boy, but neither Samuel nor Kaleb could hear what was being said. Taeman waved a letter of some sort in the boy’s face and handed it to him, wagging a finger as though imparting some stern instruction. The boy spoke and Taeman snatched the letter from his hand, stuffing it into an inner pocket of the boy’s vest. He shook a coin purse in the boy’s face and shoved that into his opposite pocket.
        After a pause, Taeman threw up his hands in a shooing motion, and the boy scurried off into the camp. A few moments later he emerged on the road side of the caravan, galloping away on horseback, toward Winston.
        “That can’t be good,” Kaleb said.
        “I think you’re right,” Samuel replied. “It’s time for us to go.”

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