Shep walked into the bar with his customary swagger, making sure to keep his left hand near the hilt of his dagger. It wasn’t like he expected trouble walking into a dive like this; it was more than he always expected trouble. The shirei’s man was by the bar, of course, dressed in commoner’s clothes but conspicuously not drinking anything. They made such an effort to blend in, Shep thought as he walked to an empty table, but there was always an air of officialdom about them.
He checked the corners quickly; one exit back out on to the street, one either side of the bar itself. The barkeep was keeping to one end of the bar; no doubt his weapon of choice was there. Some of these places could get pretty rowdy at the end of a workday as the farmers and swamp-clearers returned. It wasn’t unheard of for the shirei’s soldiers to mix things up a bit, ensure drinks were purchased and then return later to mop up the overspill.
He reached his left hand up to undo the catch on his cloak and let it spill down onto the seat, then moved it to one side and sat down. A quick, nonchalant check around the room to see that no-one was looking, then a second. No-one got anywhere by rushing. Then, slowly, feeling the weight of it bearing down, he brought his right arm out and lay his hand on the table.
Outwardly his gaze didn’t stop roving around the room, but inwardly he saw again the initiation into the Silver Hand, the painful procedure that severed his hand from his body and the long period of matching a suitable mechanical replacement to him. And now look at it. No more was it the sleek and deadly weapon of the country’s foremost chapter of assassins. Now it was a hunk of metal, its tiny gears and clever joints frozen into a grasping claw.
It was heavier, too, he was sure. It must be something in his head that made it seem that way but the simple fact of not being able to move a part of himself under his own power made it seem inert, useless. Like pins and needles but worse; complete lack of sensation.
Shep looked around. The contact wasn’t here yet; he’d insisted on being second to the meeting, told Shep to put his hand on the table as the signal.
It was amazing; despite his hand not even being in working order, peoples’ attention just seemed to slide off of him. Unless he actively revealed his weakness, people were only too happy to assume that he wasn’t there for them, and that was enough to know.
A dwarf entered. Short, like all his kind, and stocky; their home was cold and barbarous, mountain-covered and snowy, and it showed in the people who favoured it. The dwarf looked around, caught Shep’s eye and came straight over to him.
“You S?” he said, turning the chair opposite Shep around and straddling it.
“That the problem?” the dwarf said, cocking his head down towards the hand.
“Keep it down,” hissed Shep. “You’re paid to be discrete.”
“Oh aye,” the dwarf said and stuck his right hand out to shake. “Name’s Mardz.”
Shep looked down slowly at the hand and then back up into Mardz’s eyes. The dwarf grinned and pulled his hand back. “Guess we won’t shake on it, eh.”
Shep got up, grabbing his cloak clumsily from behind him. “I think that I am wasting my time,” he said, and moved out from around the table.
“Sit down, ye great ass,” the dwarf responded. He sat back and Shep, stood by his chair, sneered at him. Mardz’s hair was ginger and cropped short, but his beard was prodigious. It did nothing to his his slight potbelly, barely covered by the brown leather jacket that he wore. Around his neck, the sign of engineers all over Ehrian, a pair of smoked-glass goggles hung. He wore dirty grey cotton gloves on both hands, stained and spattered with some sort of chemical.
“I am willing to pay a lot of gold to the person who can help me with my… problem,” Shep said. “Currently it is not you. I suggest, if you don’t want me to follow through on any of the nine ways I could kill you one-handed right now that you become that person as fast as you can.” He turned and sat back down, but any hope he had the his words had instilled anything but amusement into Mardz was quickly squashed.
“Well now, this ain’t really the place for threats, is it?” the dwarf said, sitting back and putting one foot up on the chair. “I’ve got a mighty fine workshop near here that’s completely secluded. Ye could just bump me off there and there’d never be any the more to tell. There’s even a garden out the back; I’m sure my roses could do with the fertiliser.”
He leaned forward and pulled something out from his shirt. “Or, I could help you and me both. With this.” He opened his hand just enough for Shep to see what was inside.
A carefully-carved finger lay inside the dwarf engineer’s hand, made out of the purest amber. Shep’s eyes widened, but he sat back to give himself a moment to think.
“Amber. So? Every Silver Hand knows that it’s the amber providing the feedback response, the amber powering the joints and turning my hand from a lifeless gauntlet into a weapon. What of it?”
“Ahh, but have you ever seen aught like this before?” Mardz said, putting the amber back into his shirt. The chain it was hung on jingled merrily. “It’s more than twice what would normally go into one of yorn gloves and it has some… secondary benefits.”
“Twice the amount means twice the power?” Shep snorted. “I’m betting you mean twice the price as well. This is ridiculous.”
“Same price. All I ask in return is a little feedback from you. Test out my theory and I’ll make us both rich and famous.”
Shep studied the little man for a moment. The last thing he wanted was to be famous, but rich? Wasn’t that what everyone wanted in the end? They said money couldn’t buy happiness but it sure as hell bought a lot of drugs and whores.
“I’m listening,” he said.
Mardz leaned forward conspiratorially. “I found the details in a very old book someone unearthed at the SIC,” he said. “It talked about a past civilisation living right here, on Ehrian, that had the secret to repairing any injury.” He signalled to a passing barmaid and Shep waited while he ordered a pint of the local brew.
“I’m assuming they used amber in some way,” he said as soon as Mardz’s attention was back on him.
“Ye’d be right. They had a way of making it much quicker than the natural method. They could have a replacement hand or foot or whatever in place before the wound had even scabbed over, so the text says. Quite amazon’.” His beer arrived and he took a long sip. “Ahh, that’s the stuff. Wonder if they could make replacement livers too, eh?”
“And you’ve managed to, what, find someone’s finger?”
“Made it myself, following’ their instructions,” Mardz said. He smiled proudly. “Took a while to get it just right, but the results will be pretty good, I think. When was the last time you felt like you actually had a finger, not just a killin’ device?”
Shep watched while Mardz finished his drink. Then he leaned forward. “I take the price I was quoted still stands?”
“Well it was exorbitant. Do you think that I am able to carry around that kind of money? And besides, what guarantee do I have that your work is really all that you say it is?”
Mardz leaned forward, a killing grin on his face. “Evidence, eh? Y’wants something to back my word up.” He began to loosen the fingers of his left glove, all the while grinning that same damned demonic grin. “Perhaps ol’ Mardz is takin’ ye for a ride, takin’ yer gold and not deliverin’ even a whit of what he says. Or maybe…” he trailed off, then in one smooth movement whipped the glove off of his hand.
Pure amber, clear as a spring morning, was fastened on to the dwarf’s wrist. He waggled the fingers and Mardz was amazed to see each finger, each joint, perfectly moving. It was as if the very flesh of his hand had been turned to amber where it lay. The engineer’s grin widened in time with Shep’s eyes.
“No fingerprints, o’course; I could have modelled the veins on had I thought to take a sketch of the original. Aye, I had good reason to pursue the research. Lost this,” he waved his hand, “to one of the fearsome creatures that stalk in the swamps. Infected, it was, nearly took the whole arm. But this little beauty saved me. Cost me everything I had but, oh, it’s worth it.”
Mardz took out a tiny pin from his jacket pocket. “Can you say the same about your mitt?” he said, dropping it with his right hand and picking it up with his left. Shep watched carefully as the amber hand rolled the pin back and forth, then delicately plucked it off the tabletop.
“…Fine,” he said. “I’m convinced that your services are perhaps worth my money.”
“Aye, and all of the fee I mentioned,” the engineer replied, putting his glove back on. “Now then, to business; meet me tomorrow, at this time, at my workshop. I’ll do the business for you and get you back on the road in no time.” His eyes narrowed, though his grin remained. “Gold up front or no service. And no tricks, lest you want your hand crippled forever and a day.”
Shep nodded once and rose, leaving as the dwarf grabbed the barmaid for a second time.