Handling a starshooter, Wes thought, was much like handling a high society tea party.
There were a lot of complicated parts to remember, patience was key, and with a single wrong move, everything could explode in one’s face. Still, nine times out of ten, Wes would take a starshooter over a tea party. There was something comforting about knowing he would die from a sensible cause, like mana sickness or spontaneous combustion, and not utter nonsense like picking the wrong shade of periwinkle for his shirt.
Unfortunately, this just might be that one time out of ten where he’d prefer the tea party.
Wes huffed out a short, heated breath, glaring keenly at the little metal cylinder sitting on his tabletop stand. It was a pretty thing: a smooth golden shell embedded with a vibrant blood-orange quartz. Inside that shell lay a labyrinth of channels with intricate, tiny little pieces of mirror-glass and metal valves.
This was a firing cylinder, the tiny heart of a starshooter that housed all its core components, like the mana quartz, regulator, and safety.
It was also currently the bane of his existence.
“Behave,” Wes said sternly at the firing cylinder. Not that it would listen. Inanimate objects rarely did, and this particular one had put him through months of performance testing and design iterations. Messing with a starshooter’s mana quartz was one of the most dangerous projects that an ingeniator could endeavor.
But finally, this was the end. Probably. Wes had tested the conversion rate, the flow potential, the chaos saturation capacity. He’d tested it with simulated impulses, and he’d tested it inside an actual starshooter. He’d tested it in optimal circumstances and in terrible ones. He’d tested until he thought his eyes would fall out of his skull and his brain would ooze from his ears.
All that remained was the final check.
Wes closed his eyes, pressed his thumb over the mana quartz, and Threaded.
Threading was, more or less, like seeing into another world. Wes’s physical senses grew dim and distant, as if he’d been submerged underwater. But internally, his sight bloomed. He could feel every thread of manaflow running through the quartz, an intricate web of countless rivulets thrumming with life.
What you are sensing, Wesley, his childhood tutor had once explained, is the very core of an object, also known as a plait. It is beyond the tangible. Beyond the understandable, even. You are seeing this quartz at its most core spellbound form.
That sounds confusing, Wes had said at the time, rather sullen.
Well, of course, his tutor had replied. That’s what makes it so beautiful. A plait wouldn’t be very interesting if you understood it straightaway.
And Wes hadn’t understood back then. He thought of the plait as confounding, complicated. But now, he loved it dearly. To him, it was a puzzle. It was potential.
Now, Wes navigated through the mana quartz with ease. In a more sophisticated plait, like a human body, there would be all sorts of complications—meridians, biokeys, manaimmune responses. Thankfully, the plait of a mana quartz was simple and highly malleable. Wes had little to worry about other than the structure and flow.
He double-checked the plait for blockages, misguided flows, anything out of the ordinary. He fired impulses into certain sections and waited.
No explosions. The plait was stable.
Wes pulled out of the quartz.
Like breaking up to the surface for air, he was hit with a flood of sensations all at once. The workshop’s cozy warmth pressing on his skin. The fluttering glow of the hearth. The earthy smell of wooden chips, the fresh floral breeze from the far window. For a moment, he was keenly aware of the cotton shirt hanging on his shoulders and the kerchief pressing around his neck.
Returning to reality was always a little jarring. Wes breathed deeply, letting his body acclimate, curling his fingers in and out.
“Did it go well?” came a soft voice from the corner, and he turned.
Azalea was curled up in her plushy chair, nose stuck in a book, sunlight falling over her golden hair from the window. She certainly hadn’t been there this morning. How had she snuck by without making a sound?
Wes stood and tidied his bangs with a few quick swipes of his fingers. “When did you come in?” he asked, clearing his throat.
Azalea looked up from her book—The Airlean History of Ordinances As Pertains to Criminal Discipline and Correction. Huh. Criminal law. That was a new one.
“Not long ago,” she said. “I just thought I’d read a little before we went to the Guild.”
Ah, right. They were supposed to get the Support Contract notarized by the guildmaster today. It’d be the official start of Wes’s journey as a Hunter’s partner. Not that a legal contract could ever dictate whether he’d help Azalea or not.
“Should I be worried?” Wes said, gesturing to the thick book in her hands.
Azalea blinked. “Of what?”
“You’re reading up on criminal law.” He grinned sheepishly. “Something I should, er, know about the Guild?”
“Oh.” A rare scowl crept on Azalea’s face. “No, I’m just dealing with a…troublesome felon.”
Wes straightened, alarmed. “Felon? Are you okay?”
“Oh, I’m fine. He’s just a scavenger.” She pressed her nose back into the book, sounding sullen. “But he has windsoles. And knives. And he picked my handcuffs. Picked my handcuffs, Wes. That’s illegal.”
“He what?” Wes said, horrified.
“Picked my handcuffs,” Azalea complained. “Then he tried to distract me with fake information. What an awful—”
“Wait, no, wait, he—I mean, he had windsoles? Are you sure that the quartzes weren’t fake?”
Azalea nodded. “I’m sure. He used them to attack me.”
“He attacked you?!”
“Well…yes. He wasn’t very smart about it, though. He fought me right next to the leyline when he’s not a strong Stabilizer.” She shrugged. “It wasn’t difficult to subdue him.”
Myths alive. Azalea sounded so nonchalant about the whole matter, like fighting a deadly criminal right next to a chaotic leyline was akin to frolicking through the rain. From the sounds of it, this criminal was an influential one, too—a top bounty hunter or an elite mercenary, not just any old scavenger. Petty criminals would never pick a fight with a Royal Hunter, nor would they ever have access to windsoles.
Wes had always cerebrally known how dangerous the life of a Hunter could be. He just hadn’t faced the stark reality of it until now. Azalea’s life would legitimately be in peril every day.
His features hardened as he turned to his worktable. “Can I see your starshooter?”
Azalea blinked curiously, but slung the weapon over and passed it to him. Wes disengaged a latch and pulled, popping open the bridge. He reached in carefully with a hooked tool and extracted the firing cylinder, resting it safely on a small stand. Then he grabbed the brand new firing cylinder he’d just finished, clicked it in place, and shut the bridge.
“You’re replacing the firing cylinder?” Azalea asked. “Is something wrong?”
Wes took a moment to test all the latches. The gun held fast.
“Nothing’s wrong,” he said. “Just wanted to try a slight adjustment to your weapon. I think it could prove useful.”
Her eyes widened. “Really?”
Wes carefully deposited the starshooter in her waiting arms. Then he cleared his throat.
“Alright, ’Zalie,” he said. “There’s something very important about this particular firing cylinder.”
Wes pointed at the bridge. “I’ve added a toggle on the regulator. That means you can completely switch off the trigger lock.”
“Which means…the gun can explode in your face, because nothing is stopping you from rapidly pulling the trigger. If there’s too much instability, it won’t lock the gun anymore. It’ll let you fire until it blows up.”
Azalea nodded, completely unfazed. “Then I just have to keep Stabilizing it, right? As usual.”
Mythics, she was fearless. “That’s right,” Wes said with a little laugh. “You don’t have to wait for the gun to register the environmental stability anymore. We’re looking at—in optimal conditions—about a one second time save between shots when you’re burst firing.”
Azalea’s eyes widened. “That’s amazing,” she said in a hushed voice.
Wes colored slightly. “Well, I mean. Not—it’s just a toggle. Um, the real thing is—I mean, when you activate the toggle, it also starts to—basically, the energy you’re saving from the regulator gets funneled into the mana quartz. Uh, basically basically, firebolts will Form twice as fast.”
Azalea was starting to stare at the firing cylinder like it was a sacred relic.
“It should massively help your ammunition problem,” Wes continued, easing into his explanation. “Getting the mana quartz there was a challenge like you wouldn’t believe, but I think it paid off! Wouldn’t you know, highly explosive components can be kind of…finicky to work with. Had to dig into the gating, backthread the funnels from the regulator branches—and none of that matters.”
Still, Azalea was faithfully jotting down his ingeniator jargon on a scrap of paper. She would probably look it up later at the library, even though he’d just been running off his mouth for no reason. She always put so much enthusiasm into everything he made.
Wes flushed a little. “The point being, when you switch the regulator off, you no longer have to Form and Stabilize at the same time when you’re burst firing. You can focus just on Stabilizing, which should save you a lot of time—and mana. Oh, but…well, this next part is kind of hard to explain. Try it now.”
“Firing indoors?” Azalea said, eyes wide.
“No, Mythics no! I meant, switch off the regulator.”
Azalea looked at him curiously, but reached to the starshooter’s bridge and pushed a small pin with her thumb. Immediately, Wes felt a shift in the mana current around them: there was a thread of tension, building slowly, bubbling like the first sparks of a fire.
“Unfortunately,” Wes explained, “the mana quartz isn’t made to sustain the additional energy input. So when you switch off the regulator, the mana flow will overload the quartz. You’ll have to Stabilize it while you’re Stabilizing the rest of the gun, or it might, well…explode.”
Azalea blinked, and Wes felt her gentle and familiar presence weaving through the tension, picking out snarls of instability—Stabilizing so expert and subtle that he wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been looking for it. She really took her gift for granted.
“So never, ever let anyone else use this starshooter until I have the firing cylinder refined,” Wes said emphatically. “It’s not safe. I do have an emergency protocol to trigger the toggle automatically, in case you get hit or separated—but that’s after ten seconds without manacraft influence. An amateur can definitely override it if they’re not paying attention.”
Azalea was still silent, turning the starshooter over in her hands, examining it carefully. Wes shuffled.
“I was hoping that it’d still be a performance improvement,” he admitted. “Since you’re ninety-five percent efficient at Stabilizing, most of the burden of your burst fire has been on Forming the firebolts. So hopefully, this might be…helpful? At least a little bit.”
“Thank you,” Azalea suddenly blurted, gripping his free hand and beaming like the sun. Her fingers were warm as they laced around his. “You’re brilliant. This is just incredible. The mana quartz’s instability is barely anything at all. It’s as quiet as a windsole.”
Wes was quite certain that his ears were burning through his skull. He never quite knew what to say when she looked at him like that—like he’d given her a piece of the sky.
“I, I’m glad, and, uh, I hope she serves you well,” he managed. He straightened. “Have you picked a name yet?”
“A name?” Azalea echoed. “For the gun?”
“Treat your tools right, and they’ll surpass your might,” Wes said with a nod. “That’s what my tutor used to say. Of course, he’s dead. I mean, he lived a good life and all, so—you know what, never mind. Names are pretty great, that’s my point.”
Her brows pinched tight and she scrunched her nose in the most adorable thinking face known to mankind.
“I don’t know,” she finally said, and looked at him helplessly. “What should I call her?”
He smothered the urge to chuckle. “It means nothing if I give the name. It should come from you.”
Azalea fell silent, back in that thoughtful look. Knowing her, she was pulling up a mental list of every weapon name published on paper. Would she name it after an instrument, like Celeste, the beautiful rapier of Karis Caelute? Or perhaps something thematically significant, like Swansong, Halcyon Yuden’s faithful glaive?
Determination came over Azalea’s features, and she turned to Wes resolutely.
“Milk Bun?” she tried.
Wes choked. Or a common pastry, snagged from the cart of a half-blind roguish granny. “Milk Bun?”
“I like milk buns.” She tapped her chin. “Or maybe Pasta.”
Wes stifled a laugh. She must be hungry.
“Is something wrong?” Azalea asked curiously.
“Oh, no, well—usually, people name their weapons something that will strike fear in the hearts of their enemies, you know? Not hunger.” Wes shrugged. “But she is your starshooter. You can call her whatever you want.”
Azalea’s eyes widened. “Strike fear…like the Aphotic Rifle of Calamitous Void?”
“What? Well, sure, but where did that one come from?”
“Azure. When he made mana swords, he would give them those kinds of names.”
Wes flinched a little. “Oh. I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Azalea said, puzzled. “The names weren’t so bad.” She paused. “Oh, wait, because Azure is dead?”
Wes’s gaze lowered. “Yeah.”
“It’s fine. He’s been dead for forever.” She squinted at the starshooter, thinking. “The Aphotic Rifle of Calamitous Milk Buns?”
Wes’s face twisted in a funny way, like he desperately wanted to laugh, but didn’t think it would be an appropriate time to do so. Which was, in fact, the exact truth of the matter.
“Your face is telling me that it’s a very funny name,” Azalea said.
“It’s a little funny.”
“Oh,” said Azalea, shrugging. “It can’t be all that bad, then, if it makes you smile.”
Wes’s heart almost stopped in his chest.
This happened every so often—Azalea would give a reply smooth as butter, dripping with flycatcher honey, completely without noticing. Wes would fall under her spell so sudden and so hard that he nearly cracked his head on the floor. And then he reminded himself who Azalea was and how her straight-laced, very literal mind worked, he shook himself to his senses, and he went on his merry way, just a little more infatuated than before.
Azalea didn’t need an admirer or a suitor. She needed a friend. She needed a Support.
She needed a name for her firearm that was less than twelve syllables.
Wes covered his blush with a quick rub at his nose. “You don’t have to rush,” he managed. “The right name will come to you when it’s ready.”
She stared at him thoughtfully for a long moment. The silence stretched on until it became uncomfortable, and Wes fidgeted beneath her piercing green gaze.
“What is it?” he prompted.
Azalea blinked. “I would like to name it in honor of my brother,” she said, “to remember him by.”
Wes looked away. He understood that her brother’s death would still sting, even ten years later. But a part of him wished that Azalea could look forward. Surely if Azure had loved her as much as she loved him, he would want her to be happy—not for her to throw herself into combat to avenge his early passing, as she did every day.
Will she call it Azurefire? he wondered distantly. Maybe Wyrmslayer?
Then Azalea’s eyes brightened. “Bluebell,” she said firmly. “I think I’ll name it Bluebell.”
Wes smiled as he removed his goggles and workman’s belt, then shrugged on a knit vest. “Bluebell. It’s very fitting.”
Starshooters weren’t blue at all, but the name was very ’Zalie, and Wes found great comfort in how she’d made the name undeniably hers. Perhaps there was no need for him to worry. Whatever came her way, she would always be able to face it in her own time.
“Yes,” he said warmly. “It’s a good name. And flowers are a symbol of hope, you know? Signs of new life after the harsh famine of winter.”
“Hope,” Azalea said brightly. “You’re right. I’m glad I chose it.”
There was a spring in her step as she pushed out the door, setting her path to the Hunter’s Guild. Wes followed just behind, his smile turning a tinge rueful. He hadn’t just been talking about the name Bluebell, but perhaps it was better for her to stay blissfully ignorant.