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Enlightened Empire 254 Infiltration

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From the time the sky over Saniya had still been dark, a row of young apprentices had stood at the ready in front of the city's newest manufactory. Now that dawn broke, some were tired and some were antsy, but none of them dared to move. After all, the chance they had been given was special, more for some than for others. For among them were a few special guests who didn't belong, yet were just as well behaved as everyone else.

"Are we sure this will work?" through gritted teeth, Kizco whispered to his co-conspirator next to him. "Because if we get found out-"

"Shhh!" Zirao's shush interrupted his fellow spy before he could fully voice his complaint.

In response, Kizco looked up and realized that the long wait had made him careless. After they had been forced to stand around in the dark streets and collect the morning dew for hours, all of their nerves were pulled tight. Even so, the spy couldn't have picked a much poorer moment to speak up.

After all, now that dawn had finally broken, a middle-aged Yaku had appeared with the morning sun. Clearly coming for them, he walked up and down the line and stared every single apprentice in the face. As the man stopped on him for a moment, Kizco's chest tightened. He rued his own stupidity. Why couldn't he stay calm a few seconds longer? However, the new arrival marched on without a word and soon came to a stop in front of the row of youngsters.

"So you are the new hires, are you?" the older man said after another bout of silence. "Well, if nothing else, you got stamina and discipline. That's a start, but it won't be enough. My name is Cado, and I will be your foreman in this manufactory. That doesn't make me your master, but it may as well do. Don't think you can argue with me just because your master likes you. Don't think you know better than me and ignore orders. Do either, and you'll lose your position at best, and your life at worst. Don't tempt fate, and do as you're told, and we'll get along just fine."

Maybe the guy was fascinated by the rare taste of power or maybe he had seen Saniya's new soldiers train in the market squares, but he acted like a military instructor. With a slow pan of his head, the foreman looked at all the apprentices again, one by one. Not one of them would dare meet his eyes. Even the cultivators in the crowd had to pretend submission.

"From now on, you should listen up and listen well, because I don't like to repeat myself. All throughout this morning, you will follow me through the different work stations of this manufactory, and I will explain to you in detail how to work every one of them. After, I will a.s.sign stations to everyone. I won't tell you in advance where you'll go, so you best listen all the way. Your masters should have already taught you the basics anyways, so I expect you to get on by yourselves from then on. In there, you best stay sharp and not do anything stupid. Make a mistake, lose a finger. Sometimes from the machines and sometimes from wasting the crown's money. That's how it goes in my workshop. Does anyone have any questions?"


When Kizco glanced to the side, he could see the dozen or so fellow apprentices stand at attention, unmoving. One of the green youngsters was about to raise his hand, but an older apprentice slapped it down and gave his fellow a stern look before he could do anything stupid.

Although he wasn't a real apprentice, Kizco had still gone through some proper training in his past, much harsher than this pretend military drill here. All throughout his life, not one teacher he had met had reacted well to questions. They would either consider you dim for a lack of understanding, or a troublemaker for questioning their authority. To his luck, the youngster just about avoided both labels in the end. Now that the vain craftsman had rea.s.serted his vain dominance over a bunch of children, the entire crew could follow their foreman single-file into the brand-new facility.

Just as the line reached Kizco and he was about to follow them inside, his eyes grazed past the opposite street, and the river behind it. There he saw two n.o.ble ladies walk past the manufactory. Somehow, he felt one of them stare back at him, though he knew that it must have been his imagination. What n.o.ble lady would be interested in a lowly craftsman's apprentice? To avoid detection, he lowered his head and hid his face behind his long, loose hair, as he always did. If they didn't see his face, they couldn't identify him later, when they met again in a different role. Secure in his anonymity, the fake followed the true apprentices inside.

__________________________

With the soft sound of file on metal in his ears, Kizco was lulled into a trance. As the small mound of copper shavings on the table before him grew, he observed the situation all around him.

This was the work the foreman had a.s.signed him, to file down the jagged edges of the newly made copper cogs that would go into the final product. Though the work looked quite advanced, they weren't making anything of value as far as he could tell. The final product was a mess of cogs and metal pieces, which would be transported to Chukru Island to be installed in who-knew-what. Since there was no advanced technology to steal here, Kizco really didn't care about the details of his work. After all, if everything went well, he would already be on Chukru Island by the end of the day. Not to mention, the work's monotony almost made him go crazy.

All morning, the various apprentices had followed the old foreman around the giant hall and watched him work the different stations within the manufactory. On the rows of tables, all kinds of instruments Kizco had never seen were installed. Maybe some of them were new inventions, but he really couldn't tell. After all, he was no real clock maker. And in the end, it mattered precious little. Whatever new technology was hidden in here wouldn't be a big deal anyways, or it wouldn't have been so easy to get a spot among all the true apprentices. No, the real treasure wasn't here, it was hidden on Chukru Island. So for now, he would remain patient and do his boring job just well enough to not call any attention to himself. Soon, his chance would come.

*It's high time our plan got underway anyways. Wasn't this supposed to happen today? Any longer and I'll die of boredom...*

Just like the constant filing had lulled him into it, the sharp ting of metal on the stone floor ripped Kizco out of his trance. When he looked down to his handiwork, he realized that he had screwed up. The cog he had been working on had been filed down so much, and with so much power, that an entire tooth had broken off. For a second, he observed the new, jagged edge with an impa.s.sive look. Without a care in the world, Kizco shrugged and threw the destroyed cog into a bucket to the side, where it joined all of its destroyed brethren.

He was just about to grab the next one and return to his work, when a loud shout made him flinch once again.

"Heavens and underworld, what in d.a.m.nation are you doing, boy!?"

Again, he looked up, only to find the angry face of the foreman only a few fingers away from his own. Although the angry man's reddish face soon retreated, the foreman replaced it with Kizco's bucket of sc.r.a.ps. With no regard for the fake apprentice's personal s.p.a.ce, he held it right up to his face and jangled the contents around.

"Can you tell me what this is!?" the angry man shouted.

Although the metallic smell made his nose twitch, the fake apprentice still replied in a calm manner.

"They are sc.r.a.ps. I'm still getting the hang of my work, foreman Cado."

"How can you produce this many sc.r.a.ps in a single afternoon? In such a short time, a master craftsmen wouldn't be able to produce this many if he tried. Is this a special talent of yours, huh? Tell me, boy: are you a lunatic, or are you just slow in the head?"

Such baseless insults made Kizco's eyes twitch in anger. Although he really wanted to kill this bold commoner for his shameless accusations, he still had to hold back. For now, there was still a mission to fulfill.

"Master," he said instead in a submissive tone, "I'm sorry, it was an accident. But I'm still getting used to the dimensions on the cogs. I've never done this type of work, but I'm learning fast. You'll see, I'll get better soon, and then I'll work as well as anyone."

In his head, he only hoped that their plan would soon unfold and he would be released from this humiliation, but the heavens had just been cursed and thus weren't so kind to him.

"You've never done this?" the foreman fumed with a wide-eyed stare. "This is basic work! Sanding and filing the cogs is just about the first work you would do under any craftsman who works with metal! Why would you attest earlier that you're a clock maker's apprentice?"

"Because I am one, master," Kizco replied in a dry tone.

Although he wanted to sound submissive, the constant nag had made his answer sound flippant instead. At first, the foreman's stare intensified and his red head looked like it was about to burst. However, before long, the middle-aged man sighed like a disappointed father and all the anger left him.

"Who is your master, boy?" he asked.

Confused by the angry man's strangely calm question, Kizco looked around for an answer, and saw the various apprentices on the nearby tables who had interrupted their own work to stare at him.

"It's Master Xander, master." Though he was annoyed by all the attention, he still answered as he should. There was nothing to hide. After all, they were really working with Xander, though not like these commoners would expect.

"No wonder," the foreman said, after he had looked into the bucket of failures with another sigh. At the same time, chuckles and laughter arose all around them. Some apprentices tried to hide their joy behind their hands out of politeness, but others looked at him with undisguised scorn. Confronted with such rudeness, Kizco lowered his head to hide the dangerous glint in his eyes. Maybe, he thought, after his mission was over, he would visit a few of these good disciples in their homes. That way, he would be able to take a few trophies with him before he left Saniya for the north.

"Is there anything wrong with my master, foreman Cado?" Kizco asked, now in a firmer tone. Even with a fake ident.i.ty, he didn't enjoy being made fun of. Not one bit.

"Not just anything's wrong with Xander, everything's wrong. I guess you haven't been with him for long, right?" Confronted with the foreman's earnest att.i.tude, Kizco could only nod.

Their secret ident.i.ty hinged on his being a new recruit of Master Xander's. While this made him less qualified to enter the higher-security areas of Saniya, it was a necessary measure of security. After all, a new, fully trained apprentice couldn't just appear out of nowhere when no-one had ever seen him in the city before. His lack of experience would also explain his relative lack of ability compared to other apprentices.

"Well, no one's gonna envy you for your master," the foreman continued. "Xander's got a reputation. Sloppy, lazy, short fuse... can't even speak the language right even though he has been here for years. He works his apprentices to the bone and teaches them next to nothing. I heard his last batch just up and quit on him a while back. Just ran away in the middle of the night. I know it's not good to hear that about your master, but... he really isn't the greatest. Honestly, you might be better off without him."

Since he didn't know how to react to such a frank admission, Kizco kept his head lowered. Although the moment was humiliating, at least the foreman wasn't trying to embarra.s.s him. His tone was dry and without exaggeration. With the workshop's head in such a mood, there was little chance that he would be thrown out today. In the end, he wouldn't need to stay much longer anyways. Their plan was already long overdue.

"Okay, looks like you know you made a mistake," the foreman sighed again. "But I still can't keep letting you ruin the work for everyone else. We've got to get at least something done on our first day, or everyone here will get a scolding, including me. For now, you can follow me."

"Thank you, foreman Cado," Kizco stood up and followed the foreman across the room.

"What are you looking at!? Back to work!" Another shout made the spy flinch, but this time it wasn't aimed at him. Rather, the foreman had seen the ridicule in the faces around them. Like startled deer, the eyes of the apprentices scattered and they returned back to their respective work places.

*Maybe I won't make a trophy out of the foreman,* Kizco thought. *He's alright.*

"I'll move your station over to inspection. You're a clock maker's apprentice, so at least you got good eyes, right?" the foreman asked.

"Yes, foreman Cado," Kizco said, and thought in his head, *much better than you realize.*

"In that case, you'll control the final products for any faults and blemishes. Anything that looks different from the sample-piece here, you can sort out and put in this bucket. At least that part you're good at, that much we know already. In the evening, I'll give you all the failures and you can practice on-"

With a piece of half-finished clockwork in his hand, the foreman continued to explain, until a loud bang interrupted him. The sample-piece dropped to the ground and broke apart, but no one took notice. Although weapons tests were normal in Saniya, none here had ever heard such infernal noise. Soon, the first bang was followed by a second, smaller one.

In a panic, the apprentices rushed out of the building, while the foreman tried to retain some semblance of order. A small smile on his face, Kizco searched through the crowd and found his fellow spy partner, before both of them followed the ma.s.ses out of the building. Finally, their plan had taken off.


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