‘I heard hyu got offered de Jägerbrau,’ Ognian said, throwing an arm over Maxim’s shoulder. The bar they were in was mostly a human one, which meant Ognian was getting looks, but not hostile ones. Slightly worried ones from the barman, Jägers had a reputation for collateral damage, but they were well enough liked around Mechanicsburg as a rule.
‘Yah. Lady Euphrosynia vants to make her own guard,’ Maxim answered.
Ognian grinned and slid into place next to him. ‘So hyu gets to serve de pretty girl. Hyu has all de luck.’
‘Let’s hope so.’ Being offered Jägerdraught was an honour. It was just usually a fatal one. Maxim wasn’t about to turn it down, but he had no illusions about his chances.
Ognian grinned impressively and punched his shoulder with what would have seemed a disregard for human frailty if Maxim hadn’t been aware real carelessness would snap bones. It still nearly knocked him off his stool. ‘Hyu vill be fine,’ Ognian said. ‘It vill be goot not to have to be careful vit hyu.’
Maxim shoved him, and he didn’t hold back. There was no point when you were a human around Jägers. ‘Hyu’ve never been careful in your life.’
‘Hyu vill find out soon,’ said Ognian.
Maxim snorted and looked at his empty glass. ‘You vant a drink?’ he asked.
Maxim walked over to the bar to get the round. After the barman slid the two mugs of beer across the counter he asked, ‘He’s not gonna break anything?’
‘They don’t just start breaking tings,’ Maxim answered, rolling his eyes. ‘He’s de only Jäger here, he’s not gonna fight himself.’
He’d be on the other side of questions like that soon, he supposed. Even in Mechanicsburg people could be stupid about constructs. The Jägers were respected as one of the things that made the town safe and prosperous for the people inside it, but having one as a best friend was still a bit unusual. About to get a whole lot less unusual, in his case.
He handed Ognian a beer and sat down again, looking at his own without drinking for a few moments. ‘Zo, what iz it like?’
‘Idiot. De Jägerdraught.’
‘Oh.’ Ognian looked up at the sky thoughtfully, as if it might help. ‘Scary und it hurts a lot. Then hyu is better than effer.’
‘Oh, you is a lot of help.’
Oggie looked at him thoughtfully. ‘Vould it change hyu mind, whatever I say?’
That was a good question. Maxim knew the odds of death, or worse, already. He knew that the Heterodynes were serious about only taking people who volunteered — sensible when you were making indestructible soldiers, to not make ones that would resent you — and that he wouldn’t be in trouble if he did refuse. But refusing was still…almost unthinkable. It was too big a thing to back down from, to nearly have. Besides, a Heterodyne had chosen him, wanted him to do this, and to any native of Mechanicsburg that had a force of its own. ‘No.’
‘Den it doesn’t matter.’
‘I guess not.’ It was reassuring, in a way, to think of it like that, as a choice already made. It made it more like going into battle; it wasn’t that it wouldn’t be that bad, it was that however bad it was there was no point in thinking about it beforehand, and afterwards — one way or another — it would be over.
There was no real need for the ceremony to take place in the Great Movement Chamber, except perhaps to give Maxim a very good idea of what exactly he was agreeing to swallow. The whole place glowed blue and electric with the power of the Dyne, wheels creaking as the Castle greedily drank the energy away. It was enough to make him hesitate in the doorway, not so much because of second thoughts as out of sheer awe.
‘Scared?’ asked someone, sounding both close by and very far away, and far too amused.
Maxim jumped, looking around for the source of it. ‘Where are hyu?’
‘Allow me to introduce myself. I am Castle Heterodyne. I look forward to seeing if you die interestingly.’
Maxim shivered. ‘I vasn’t planning on it.’
‘Castle, don’t tease the candidates.’ Euphrosynia walked over. She was wearing a white dress, which looked blue in the light here, and for once not wearing a canvas apron bulging with tools. She smiled at him, surprisingly welcoming, as if he was a guest here. ‘This way.’
There was a table, covered with a white cloth, and on it a glass of something the colour of swamp water and shining like sunlight. Maxim stared at it, wondering what it tasted like, what it did. Something seemed to be moving inside it, the dingy colours shifting to some rhythm of their own. Euphrosynia stood beside it. ‘Recite the Jägertroth,’ she said, the note of command in her voice snapping Maxim back to reality. He knelt smoothly, and began the oath which bound the most feared army of constructs in Europe. In reality, it was incredibly simple.
‘I svear to protect all members of de house of Heterodyne, to keep its secrets, and to serve it loyally. Alvays, so long as I haff life.’
Euphrosynia stepped forwards, holding out the glass of Jägerdraught. Maxim took it carefully and found himself staring again, not so much at the draught as at his own hand holding the glass as if he needed to memorise it. He took a deep breath, told himself he’d been in battles with worse odds than this, and tossed the Jägerdraught back like a shot of vodka just to get it over with.
The pain was unimaginable, and for an endless moment was all he could think about, then it subsided just enough for him to feel all the smaller pains that made it up. Every muscle cramping and stretching at once. His fingernails being ripped off by the claws growing underneath. The feeling that someone had hit both ears with a large hammer. Violent nausea that was, nonetheless, not bringing anything up.
When it faded he found himself still kneeling and was vaguely surprised that he hadn’t fallen over. He ached all over, and the world appeared grey and wavery. Euphrosynia, who was for some reason the only clear thing in his vision, was looking down at him with a mixture of sympathy and naked curiosity that was frankly terrifying. When he managed to lift his head to look back at her she broke into a delighted smile.
She smelled good. Like water in a desert, maybe. Good. Necessary. He was glad to have pleased her, even if it was only by not dying. Thoughts were sparking like flashes of lightning lighting up a room but leaving long moments of darkness in between. He tried to talk and had to spit blood first. ‘…Mistress?’ It was pleading, a request for…something.
She surprised him by bending down and stroking a lock of hair back behind his ear. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s over. Rest.’
He closed his eyes and finally let himself fall.
Maxim woke up, in a bed somewhere. The place smelled of herbs, linen, wool blankets, Jäger, something acrid.
‘So, hyu is awake,’ said someone, and he opened his eyes to find another Jäger leaning over him.
‘Mamma Gkika? I thot you run a bar.’
‘Dot’s de bit humans are allowed in, sveethot. You effer bring humans into dis bit you better haff a dem good reason.’
Humans. Of course. He wasn’t one any more. ‘Iz dis a hospital?’
‘Sometimes it iz a hospital. Right now iz more of a nursery.’ She shook her head. ‘Hyu is staying here until de change is finished vit hyu.’
Maxim looked down at his hands, there were definitely claws there. He tried running a hand over his face experimentally, nothing felt different. His ears were pointed though, and twitched when he touched them. ‘Vot else vill happen?’
‘Hyu teeth vill come through in de next few days. Don’t chew de bedposts.’ He gave her an incredulous look and she rolled her eyes. ‘Seriously. Dey is goot bedposts. No chewing. Hyu is allowed to bite visitors, but dey is allowed to bite beck.’ She grinned at him, displaying her own teeth. ‘And hyu body vill recover from changing zo fast. Drink dis.’
Maxim took the cup obediently. It tasted awful, felt like having a stomach full of boiling wax, and a moment later everything ached a whole lot less. ‘Und dot vas?’
‘Battledraught. Iz goot for Jägers.’
Over the next few days Maxim’s teeth did come in — and the experience of having a mouth full of shark teeth come through at once convinced him Mamma Gkika had been serious about people teething on the bedposts. Ognian came to visit several times and frequently got snapped at — once literally — although he seemed to take it in stride and didn’t take advantage of the policy on allowing guests to bite back.
Some things about being a Jäger weren’t surprising. Maxim had served alongside them long enough not to be surprised that bugs were now delicious; he was a bit more surprised that everything vaguely digestible was now delicious, but considering what soldiers sometimes had to eat on campaign had to admit it was at least as practical a change as the claws. Especially since he seemed to be hungry all the time.
At the point where he went from ready to chew on the bedposts to make his gums stop hurting to ready to chew on them out of sheer boredom he was given his uniform — which now colour co-ordinated with him nicely — and allowed through into the familiar bar. Where he discovered a facet of being a Jäger that really shouldn’t have surprised him.
The Jägers he knew had always had a sort of family air to them — albeit a large, noisy and frequently violent family — and as Ognian’s friend and a comrade in arms he’d been on the edge of that. Now he was suddenly everyone’s newest little brother. Which meant greetings, advice and endless teasing from every Jäger in the bar.
At some point a barfight started, and as a human he would have stayed a long way away from a bunch of Jägers in a violent mood. Today —today the violent mood seemed to be catching, the air smelling of it, and why not? He was a Jäger. It wasn’t long before he found out that a new Jäger still getting used to his body was no match for old ones, but it was still fun, in a slightly manic way that left him feeling all his senses had been turned up. He stopped at one point to lick blood from already healing scratches and only realised afterwards that shouldn’t have felt natural. Except, of course, it should.
At the end of the evening he returned to the part of Mamma Gkika’s behind the bar and got a long look from her before she grinned. ‘Hyu iz only a leedle scratched. Vell done. Zo, how iz hyu finding being a Jäger?’
‘…It is a leedle like being drunk,’ he said carefully. ‘Everyting seems like such a goot idea.’
‘Ho! Goot answer. Try to remember dot it sometimes izn’t and hyu may not vind up beck here all de time.’
‘Hy am leaving?’ Maxim asked hopefully.
‘Tomorrow. For now hyu is getting some sleep,’ said Mamma Gkika, pointing to the bed before sweeping out.