“Well, well.” The bass rumble, rough and gravelly as always, cut through the hiss of bellows and the crackle of flames, clear even under the ring of iron and steel. “I hear someone’s moving up in the Citadel.”

“Please. You don’t need to remind me.” The leonine figure remained hunched over the workbench a few moments more, making one last, careful twist, before he laid down his wrench and stood a bit taller. Tugging off one thick leather glove, he reached up to the monocle over his left eye and gave it two twists – once swiftly, to bring his vision back to normal size, and once more carefully, to restore proper focus. “You got business to talk about, Varuk, or did you come all the way to the Canton Factorium just to talk my left ears off?”

“What, work?” Varuk snorted. “A lame, soft diplomat like me? What kind of work would I be bringing you, Graaf?”

“Good.” The dark, white-striped Charr made his way around the work bench. “Come on. I could use an excuse to sit down in the Serrated Blade for a bit, and a cub like me shouldn’t be forcing an honoured hero to aggravate old war wounds, right?”

“Don’t get all soft and sentimental on me, cub.” Varuk’s grin showed a wealth of still-sharp teeth. “I’m not that lame yet.” His stride was a bit stiffer than the younger male’s, but still steady, still even; in spite of his mangled leg, he didn’t allow himself a visible limp.

“You’re still doing me a favour,” was Graaf Sparksteel’s answering growl. “For the last three days it feels like I’ve only left the bench to eat and sleep, and sometimes I’m scarfing down a bite as I work.”

“Thus the reward for a job well done, Legionnaire.” The elder Charr lowered himself onto a seat rather more stiffly than he’d walked up to it, but still with careful dignity.

“Hmnf.” Graaf turned his attention to the bar. “Hey, Gallowknot, get a few rounds of the good stuff over here, huh?”

“Sparing me the common swill? You must actually like me.” Varuk Thunderfist grinned again, but he sobered as his companion sat down opposite him. “I heard you lost most of your warband, Graaf. I’m sorry. They were good soldiers.”

“I’m honoured to hear you say that, Varuk,” said Graaf with a slight dip of his head, “and I’m sure they would be too. Thank you.”

“Nothing but the truth,” the veteran assured him. “What happened? They’ve had me playing ambassador to the Dominion of Winds, trying to soothe the Tengu’s ruffled feathers – I’ve heard a dozen different accounts in the day I’ve been back.”

“I don’t really have much to tell,” Graaf sighed. “All I really know is that Ashford’s ghosts hit Smokestead. Hard. We were stood down when it happened – cut off from each other, forced to work with whoever we were next to instead of out familiar teams – it was nasty. Never seen the ghosts come at us in such numbers. They were reforming almost as fast as we could disperse them.”

“I don’t envy you that fight.” Varuk grimaced. “Strangest thing, fighting something that doesn’t have flesh to cut. And they don’t even give decent trophies.”

“It’s like they knew what we were working on.” Graaf shook his head, accepting a heavy tankard from the barkeep. “Another week and we’d have been able to push them back easy.” He took a swig.

“A special project?” All four of Varuk’s ears focused on the younger male; he held his own tankard, but didn’t drink from it yet. “Is that what got you made Legionnaire?”

“Yeah, the Ghostbore musket. Works like a charm – if only we’d had it when Smokestead got hit, we’d have had no problem.” Graaf set his mug down with a sigh. “It should have been Blaze. Sure, the mechanism was my work – but that Silentclaw girl, you remember her, she did just as much, working out what components to use. It was Blaze that figured out how to pull everything into a workable whole that wouldn’t blow up in the gunner’s face. All I did was carry on her work.”

“And did it well, as always, I’m sure,” replied Varuk, shaking his head. “Tribune Goreblade doesn’t reward incompetence. If he made you Legionnaire, he’s sure you can do the Iron Legion proud.” There was a pause, as he considered the younger male. “You and Blaze… you were… close, weren’t you? I’m sorry.”

“…Thanks.” Graaf took another swig. “Faugh. She’d use my head for an anvil if she ever caught me being this moody over her.”

“Nobody sensible ever said you weren’t allowed to grieve, cub,” said Varuk with a shake of his head, “not when you’ve lost your warband and someone you might have sired your own cubs on, and from the sounds of it you haven’t had time to do that. I’d suggest you use your new status to make time. Get someone else to work from your designs for a bit, get your head straightened out, and go on doing her and the Legion proud.”

For a few moments, Graaf just stared into his whiskey. Then he laughed, tossing the rest of it back and gulping it down. “You always did know what to say to people, Varuk. Maybe they should have given you this job.”

“I did my time as Legionnaire,” Varuk reminded him. “Besides, you’re not too bad with words yourself. Easier to listen to than that Silentclaw girl you mentioned, so if they’re going to split the credit between you, it’s not strange that you get the promotion. You still working with her?”

“Yeah. Her warband got hit hard, too, so we’ve teamed up since then. Now, on top of everything else we were doing just as soldiers, I’ve got to keep Blood and Ash Legion troops away from each other’s throats long enough to figure out how to put these things to good use and get Ashford back under our control.” He leaned back a bit. “If I’d known I’d need to shout at this many people… well, I wouldn’t have turned it down.” He shook his head sharply. “I wouldn’t spit on Blaze’s memory like that. But it would have been tempting.”

“And you’re allowed temptation, too,” Varuk assured him. “So long as you do what’s right in the end.”

“Heh. Glad someone doesn’t think I’m crazy for it.” With a sharp-fanged smile, Graaf leaned over to clap a hand on the older Charr’s shoulder. “Thanks, greyfur. Age hasn’t dulled your good sense, and I’m glad to benefit from it.”

“Just put those ghosts back in the ground for me, huh? They’ve been a pain in the tail for longer than I’ve been here.”

Another, fiercer grin. “You – and the Legion – can count on me.”