It was early the next morning when Rupert knocked on Liza’s door. She’d fallen asleep in her chair a few hours earlier, still in her clothes from they day before. I’m making a habit out of sleeping sitting up, she thought, leaping from her chair to open the door. She found Rupert looking oddly well-rested.
“Do you know what time it is?”
“A quarter of two, actually. I worked a bit later than I’d hoped, is it a bad time?”
“No, now that I’m awake. And you don’t even look tired.”
Rupert held a large clay mug to Liza’s face. She could smell the last drops of strong coffee. “This stuff does the trick, though it’ll be hell getting out of bed tomorrow morning. Care to move to the kitchen? I shouldn’t drink this stuff on an empty stomach.”
Liza pulled on a shawl, and they made their way to the kitchen. Rupert’s boots hit the floor with steady thumps. Liza found herself trying to keep his pace, so that her own footsteps were drowned out in his. She’d learned this trick when she was young, and loved to play it whenever she had a chance; it made her feel more graceful, as if she could hide part of herself away.
She eased the kitchen door open and began lighting candles. Rupert headed to the pantry. He returned as Liza was preparing tea, his arms wrapped around a loaf of bread and a ham. He prepared a few sandwiches for himself, and asked Liza if she wanted any. She’d declined, and he laughed to himself, taking the bread and ham back to the pantry. Liza didn’t let him sit down before she started asking questions.
“Why didn’t you want to talk about security in front of Dan and Angie?
Rupert waited a while, chewing on the end of a sandwich. “They may not like the people I have in mind for the job.” He washed down the sandwich with a few gulps of tea. “You may not, either, but you’re the boss.”
“Why wouldn’t I like them? You wouldn’t suggest anybody who’s not trustworthy.”
“Aye. But the specific man I have in mind for the job doesn’t exactly appear trustworthy.”
“Appear…do you actually think I’d care what a person looks like? He’d be guarding the estate, not acting in a play!”
“That’s the thing.” Rupert set his sandwich down, folded his hands and gritted his teeth. “This person isn’t a person, as such.”
“What kind of person isn’t a person… you can’t be serious.”
“Who better for security, than someone good at combat?”
“Yes, but there are humans who are good at fighting. We don’t bloody need to hire a Clouder!”
“Liza, all the human men who are able warriors got that way through military training. You don’t want someone hired by the government to stand watch over the airship.”
“Well, no, but…well, how did you get to know a Clouder?”
“I was a miner before your father gave me a chance at blacksmithing.” And that explained it. The steamsteel mines ran deeper than any other mines of any type in all the islands. All the way down, the saying went. As humans were mining down, Clouders were mining steamsteel up. It was inevitable that the two would meet somewhere in the middle. It was also bloody. The first human mining outfit had outnumbered the Clouder group four-to-one, and still only had three survivors. A group of soldiers escorted another mining outfit to the vein the next day to close the gap, only to find another group of Clouder miners attempting the same. This time, the numbers were almost even, and no humans returned.
There were more human-Clouder skirmishes in the following months, as the miners continued to dig toward each other. Miners took to arming themselves against the attacks. In almost every case, however, only a handful of humans were spared as a warning to the rest. As quickly as it had begun, it had stopped. The Clouders mysteriously stopped massacring the humans, and had asked for a truce instead. The Minister of Mining accepted the truce easily, along with its condition that all human miners would immediately stop if they hit a Clouder tunnel. The miners began digging toward the center of the island, and found far fewer Clouders as a result. The truce held.
Human-Clouder relations had improved since then. Clouders had helped human miners escape from cave-ins, and humans had reciprocated. A limited economy arose between the two races. Clouders bought wooden furniture and bread in large quantities, and humans bought weapons from the Clouders. A steamsteel dagger was a painful, effective weapon, though the human miners used them for show. A few real friendships had even formed in the process, as had apparently been Rupert’s case.
“So, you met a Clouder in the mines, and he didn’t kill you. That makes him trustworthy?”
“He saved my mining outfit when we’d been caved in. He could have killed us then, but he didn’t. We’ve had a good business relationship since then. I bought a steamsteel short sword from him, and he’s been showing me how to use it. I can tell you, he has no human par when it comes to fighting.”
Liza struggled with the thought. She’d never personally seen a Clouder, only illustrations in the newspaper. They were short, pale and overall rat-like. She’d had nightmares for a week after she’d seen that picture: she was surrounded by beady eyes and blood-stained teeth coming from the shadows. That was years ago, she reasoned, and the newspaper liked to distort reality to make sales. Rupert also seemed to have a decent-enough sense of self-preservation not to make a stupid decision. “Okay, he can protect us, and he’s loyal. What about Angie and Dan? And Gus! Gus doesn’t do well with humans, and you’re suggesting we get a Clouder to help around the house!”
“I know it’s an intimidating proposition, Liza. But he’d intimidate any unwelcome visitors more.”