James followed Gorgox out of the restaurant with a worried Kira hanging on his arm. The strange meal had spooked her sensibilities, and the looks the two were receiving from the relatively insular Kabali were not all that pleasant. After moving from the residential area to a more construction-oriented sector, James could see weapons of war being built or packaged for delivery. Some looked appropriate for tunnel warfare while others seemed more purposed for open areas and still others he couldn’t even fathom how they worked. Then again, the surrounding weapons and various lethal paraphernalia left him with little doubt that these too were more than capable of ending many lives. One example of the weapons on display was a catapult that stood three times taller than a man and had strange runes engraved along its frame. Before James could take a closer look though, Gorgox led the two to an elderly but still capable Kabali who had to have seen his fair share of mishaps. His arms were covered in minor burn scars, and his hands had the hardened look of a real [Mechanic]. James guessed this Kabali probably specialized in flaming objects based on the various extinguishers and fuel sources littering the area. Bowing toward the other Kabali, Gorgox waited expectantly as if he were waiting to be acknowledged.
The elderly Kabali took a moment to glance up from the projects he was tinkering with to take notice of Gorgox and sighed, slightly annoyed. “What are you doing here, Nephew? I told you that you should never enter again unless something I made blew up or we’re all about to die. Actually scratch that for future reference, only the former would count; I don’t want to have to take care of you in my last moments. Last time, you tried to steal one of the trebuchet blueprints…”
Shuffling his tail sheepishly, Gorgox shook his head and gestured toward James. James mused that Gorgox must have a very practiced |Poker Face| Skill. “Uncle Kornar, I brought you the one I told you of last time. He has some Skills you might find of interest.” Kornar sighed in annoyance again before taking a look at James. One look told him that he was entirely not interested in anything that James would be able to produce for the contest.
“No!” Gorgox moved forward and held his hand out pleadingly, flashing his best |Sleezy Smile|. “Uncle, give him a chance. What will it take?”
Kornar growled, “Don’t use your little tricks on me.” He glared at James who was examining one of the projects being built by a couple of [Apprentice]s. “What do you see, Runt? That thing is the culmination of years of perfection.”
Blinking, James took a look at Kornar, realizing he was being spoken to. “Junk?”
Kornar stopped working on his project. Struggling to control his surprise, he hesitated before opening his mouth, but Gorgox beat him to it.“Master James, please do not insult my uncle like that! I’m still your main supplier you know!” James shrugged.
Kornar gave Gorgox a look that told him in no uncertain terms to shut up. Seeing that Gorgox was unwilling to maintain his silence, Kornar growled, “You want him to build in your place. If he’s actually half as good as you claim he is, give him the respect he deserves. I know what you [Merchants] can do, thinking lies and gold can twist the world in your favor. You will not be putting any words in his mouth or thoughts in his head. I will hear what he has to say.” Gorgox backed away and bowed before giving James a pointed look.
James explained, “Fighting is stupid in my opinion. The strong beams used in this weapon of war, I would have used to build homes for your people or building reinforced pillars for your tunnels to keep them from collapsing. This would gain your people much more resources than any silly weapon ever could. The iron bands could be melted and forged into good cookware. The rope’s material to make clothing, so all I see here is waste and junk. It’s all so… frivolous.”
Kornar was mildly surprised and shocked but not enough to let James’s words sway him. So are you saying we should not have the means to protect ourselves?”
James rubbed the back of his head in thought. “A man has the right to protect his home and family. I will not argue about this but killing a man for what is theirs… I see no right in that. I would rather starve than steal what belongs to another.”
Kornar saw the feline girl to his side look away in shame upon hearing that. He guessed that something in their past rang true with that statement but didn’t put much thought into it. “So, by your own words, these things that will help protect my people from harm… are they still waste or junk then?”
James pointed to a catapult. “Tell me how that protects your home in these caves then? That is a tool of war for attacking those outside your mountain. A catapult is a weapon of offense.”
Kornar, surprisingly even to himself, became amused. “We do not commonly settle differences in the caves. There is too much risk, so we often settle differences in the plains to the west and south of the mountain.”
James raised his shoulders. “I will not argue with you on your culture or how you wage war. You asked what I saw, and I told you.”
Kornar sobered himself and gave James’s words a moment of thought. “Gorgox, I do not know your angle yet, but you know I do not like games. If this is some joke at my expense, I will ruin you even if doing so will cause the same to myself, and no fancy [Merchant] Skill will save you. Since you are not the first to sponsor an outsider, I will allow him—if he can pass the preliminary tests. I do hope he shall be as interesting as his words today were.”
The preliminary tests were not difficult, or at least nothing different from what he had done while helping out some of the other castes or guild members when he had been asked for his aid back in Natusha. Most of the tests involved doing simple repairs on everyday items: making and replacing a wagon axle for example. To be truthful, most of those taking these tests could probably have just passed them automatically with a [Repair] skill. The only strange one had been magic-related and had required a drop of his blood at the beginning. Since he had proceeded safely and successfully past that strange artifact, he figured that there had been no issues. It had been two weeks, and there were seven others who had made it as far as he had. Five of them were Kabali, two were Human, and the last was a lion-looking Hersha. At least he thought the last was the same species as Kira, but he was not actually sure since he hadn’t been aware that lions were included under the umbrella of the Hershan bloodline. After a week of tests, they were all taken to a warehouse district by Kornar. There were twenty-four other Kabali waiting there. All looked like they were experienced [Carpenters] or [Craftsman]. “I have arranged for these [Senior Apprentices] to be your assistants in the final test. They will not be privileged to participate in your planning or the overall designs but will help you build parts of whatever you decide to build.”
Pointing toward two rows of buildings behind him, Kornar continued, “Each of these eight warehouses holds the same tools, supplies, and space. Other than the necessities for life, nothing is to come or go from these warehouses in the next month. You can build anything you want. Use your resources and time wisely. I am looking for creativity, originality, and complexity.” Kornar turned to the apprentices. “Each [Apprentice] has been pre-allocated to a warehouse. They will meet you there.”
Kornar took a bucket held by one of the [Apprentice]s. Then, the [Apprentice]s divided up, moving to their new homes for the next month. Kornar moved to the closest of the eight remaining test takers and stirred the bucket before raising it over the lion-man’s head so he could make a selection. Pulling out a slip of paper, Kornar glanced at it before shouting, “Four!”
The man started heading to the appropriate warehouse while Kornar went to James. “Eight!” James followed the assumed Hershan to the end of the arranged buildings but turned left instead of right to find a workshop brimming with tools and materials. At the back were a few living bunks and toward the front, there was even a full-fledged forge. The [Senior Apprentice]s, however, did not look enthusiastic about who they were stuck with. Sighing gently, James entered as the gate behind him closed. He was going to be here for a long time.