I didn’t realize what the building meant when I watched it go up. I didn’t know what a blast furnace was, or a converter. I didn’t care when the first plumes of smoke rose from its chimney. It wasn’t until the orders stopped that I realized my life had changed forever.
It started with the glow stones. People wanted oil lamps these days, and so I stopped enchanting glow stones. It was a small part of my business, not worth fretting over. Then it was the poultices, then the artificing. Then, finally, Alex came into my shop and opened my eyes.
I put down the scale I was cleaning as the door swung open.
“Alex, to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Just thought I’d handle pickup this week, give the apprentice a break. You’re well, Alemnus?”
“As well as ever. I had a few steel orders dropped this week, but nothing too extraordinary.”
Alex pursed his lips, and I got the sense he was holding something back from me.
“Everything’s in order, I assume?” Alex said.
“See for yourself.” I pointed to the steel ingots stacked by the door. “Perfectly uniform, every one.” I might have been bragging, but I wasn’t exaggerating. A village wizard needed to know all branches of magic, but alchemy was my passion.
“Aye, looks good,” Alex said, though he’d barely glanced at them.
That was when I knew something was wrong. “Usual order for next month?”
“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. There won’t be an order next month.”
I must have heard wrong. “Excuse me?”
“I won’t need another shipment.”
A month of frustration poured from between my lips. First Ulrich, then Stefan, now this? Alex was my biggest customer.
“Who are you getting it from? Mendelus over in Greyspring? Because his work isn’t half what mine is, I assure you. If it’s cost–“
“It’s not Mendelus. It’s him.” Alex glanced out the window to the new building. “That Fletcher fellow.”
“The one with that glass contraption strapped to his face?”
“Aye, that’s the one.”
“You’ve been my customer for twelve years.”
“I know, Alemnus, that’s why I came myself. All the other smiths are buying from him, dropping their prices. I had to, to compete.”
“How much is he charging? I’ll match it.”
Alex leaned in, as if he were whispering some dirty secret. “Three marks a pound.”
I nearly gagged. That was impossible. I’d studied with the best alchemists at the academy, and my costs were twice that. There was no way, unless they had some new technique.
“Can you match that?” Alex asked. “Because if you can, frankly I have a mind to think you’ve been robbing me blind the last twelve years.”
“No, I can’t match it.” What else could I say?
“I’m sorry, Alemnus, take care of yourself.”
I nodded mutely, helping him load the steel into his wagon. The moment he was out of sight I locked up shop and went to see Fletcher.