The Deal That Started It All
Schooling started at five years old, no matter when you were born in your fifth year. There we learned the basics of our history as Reverians and as Castellians. There were the myths of the Goddess of Lives; I liked those stories. We also learned reading, writing, math, geography; all the basics needed for our world. Then, for another six years, for six months at a time, the best students from local Masters would take over our teaching and we were exposed to the twelve Lives, to help encourage us to choose. The Masters came in once as a guest, once at the beginning or the end of a Life's session. It was only theories; histories of notable members, what the Life would entail, what our people would expect of us, the quality of goods, and the functions of trade. Of course, there were many stories of daring-do and successes, but we were also shown the dangers. No Life was without risk.
Finally, in our sixteenth year, we received the aptitude test, which everyone was excited about. It was to help us decide on our first Life as new graduates. Funny how a bit of simple letter paper full of choice questions would aide in our decision. There were certainly other options beyond the twelve Lives, like pilots or merchants or farmers. Many of us worked in the local restaurants or taverns or shops for the extra Dosh in our pockets after school. Yet the Lives were considered so special, the great rite of passage in Reveria, and the goods and services they provided were so valued that it was expected we would choose one.
I remember the result of my test, not for its helpfulness, but for its change in my life. My father was a cook; my mother, a tailor. They never made it far beyond an apprentice status and we did not live as well as others.
"You should choose something useful," she said, not looking up from restitching a seam for a customer. Her repairs were what drew her few customers.
"Why would you be a Paladin? They are nothing but the King's lapdogs; a pack of yapping cowards," he said, limping over to the cauldron hanging over the fire and stiring its soupy contents. I remember a lot of soup and stew. I also remember how much they blamed the Paladins for their failures, laying their fate at the feet of these soldiers who had failed to protect them from the world's dangers.
Attacked when they had sought to gather their materials to satisfy their apprenticeship challenges, they failed to defend themselves downwind from a camp of Paladins. As a child, I was troublesome for these peacekeepers, running up and kicking their knees then disappearing into the crowded markets. As a youth, I learned that the Paladins were involved in a skirmish against some rebellious pirates from Port Puerto at that same time.
Thus disillusioned, why am I not a Paladin? It is because I am a coward at heart too and I chose to hide. When I received my permission letter from the King at seventeen, I chose to be a Hunter.
Despite the cream-coloured curtains over the glass panes, sunlight flooded the tiny attic room. A black cat with a white belly and muzzle mewed beside the bed, pawing impatiently at the green bedcover. The bed's occupant rolled over and shoved their head beneath the pillow in hopes of blocking out all light and sound.
"Go away, Margot," said a muffled, female voice, a hand vaguely waving across the room. The cat leapt up on top of the mound, padded softly towards the covered head, and began to lick their mistress's exposed neck.
"Ugh, Margot! Get off!" Margot was shoved roughly to the end of the bed in a sudden movement as the young woman sat up, her honey brown hair fluttering about her face in static-charged wisps. She glared at her pet turning in circles at the end of the bed until it settled in a smooth, black ball, purring contentedly. She threw the coverlet aside roughly, the cat squawking in annoyance at being thus buried, standing and stretching with a tired groan. Looking to her left, she noted she had knocked over the candle in the night again. She never had been a gentle sleeper.
One day I am going to accidently set my room aflame, she thought as she picked up the fallen candle, placed it in the holder, and set it up next to the bed once more. She padded across the green Castele carpet to where she had thrown her Mermaid armour, a light blue armour of fish scales mounted on a white fabric made in the sea town of Port Puerto, and began gathering it together on her table from where she had dropped it about the room the night before. She had tossed her chain mail into a chair and toppled it, thus is needed to be righted. Her mail bottoms and navy tights were bunched together in a ball next to her bed and she extricated them from each other before she began to tug them on over her cotton shorts. Margot had removed herself from the messy bed and curled up in the rolled up, long sleeve navy shirt between the bed and a stand holding a quiver and bow.
The woman sighed and jerked it out from under the cat, who hissed and swiped a paw at her. She stuck her tongue out at the creature and went about shaking out the shirt to try and remove some of the irate feline's hair. She tugged it on, her hair puffing out due to even more static, then jolted herself touching the scale-covered mail as she pulled it over her head and strapped on her belt about her waist. Her helm, white gloves, and shoes were hither and thither about the room, so tired had she been from returning from her hunting expeditions that she had hardly cared where they had landed. At least she had managed to keep on her amulet instead of throwing it too into an obscure corner of the attic room.
Finally dressed, she swung her pack over her shoulder, her quiver and bow across her back, and tucked her silver dagger into its sheathe on her belt. As she shuffled her clothes slightly for comfort, the tiny bell that hung near the door tinkled merrily.
"Mail delivery!" called a voice beyond the room. She turned to Margot.
"Are you coming, my princess?" she asked, opening the door. The cat, with tail arched, strode from the room as haughtily as any feline could. Her mistress only rolled her eyes and followed her out and down the narrow stairs to her mailbox at the bottom. Margot sat, licking her paw and wiping it over her ears as the woman peered at the letter she'd extracted from the box, scanning it carefully.
I need you to take the enclosed list to Master Flamel. I prefer to have superior quality items rather than what is sold to the populace by the General Goods store. Supplies are low and I do not have time to deal with it myself as I am speaking to students today.
Irene smirked slightly, imagining Fern, the serious Master Hunter and chief guard of the royal gardens, before a group of eager faces and none of which she had the desire to teach. Fern had said to her once that she had no interest in training either herself or Pete, the cocky layabout apprentice besides herself, but had done so anyway. One did not disobey King Erik's rule after all, and it was the only way Fern would give new apprentices a chance to prove themselves worthy of her time.
Folding the letter back up, she returned it to the envelope and removed the list. Skimming it quickly, she found it was as Master Fern had said: a shopping list of potions the General Goods could not provide. With a sigh, Irene tucked the letter and the list into her pack, waving for Margot to follow her.
"Come along, my pet. It seems some shopping is our order for the day." Castele Square was already bustling as children played, disturbing Gramps trying to snooze on his bench in the morning sun or the librarian Page sitting amongst his books on the other. The water in the fountain with the statue of the Goddess splashed merrily, and couples or pairs of women chatted together, seated on its edge. Margot hopped after a rogue butterfly and slipped, dunking a hind paw into the cold liquid. She yowled and kept close to Irene's heels afterwards, almost tripping her at the top of the second set of stairs that brought them on the same level as the Paladin headquarters to their left and the Royal Library to their right, which was their destination.
Entering the library, Irene was very much aware of the mixture of scents that permeated the building. She had no need to ask the reception where she could find the Master Alchemist; she only needed to follow the lingering scent of acrid smoke and cooking materials. She walked into the lab, Margot padding softly behind her. Vials and beakers littered tables, and there was a constant sound of bubbling liquid. Two men were present: the younger very active at a work station, darting back and forth in controlled movements and seemingly very focused; the older was in the back behind a larger workstation covered in many alchemy tools she knew not the names of, occupied with his phial. He poured liquids together and gave them a good shake to mix them as she approached, and as she went to speak, there was a loud pop as the mixture produced black clouds between them.
"By Lunares, that stench!" cried Irene, proceding to cough and choke, waving her hand through the clouds. Margot hacked and sputtered. The man simply burst out a great, pleased laugh.
"Finally an explosion worth waiting for! Now, to make it even bigger!" He turned to the shelf behind filled with various labelled pots, grabbing several and tucking them into his arm.
"Master Flamel?" Irene asked, wiping at her tearing eyes. The man ignored her, muttering to himself frantically as he ground plant material into fine fragments and measured powders. She reached out to tap his shoulder and was slapped away.
"Not now, can't you see I'm busy?" he snapped without turning to face her.
"Master Flamel, I come with a request from Master Fern," Irene blurted out quickly, trying to take advantage of his brief moment of noticing her presence.
"Take whatever it is to Beaker. I don't have time for Fern's boring requests." Irene stepped back with a doubtful look as an almost manic look crossed the man's face, taking Margot by the scruff to drag her away from trying to pounce on some string dangling from Flamel's lab coat. Unsure of who Beaker could possibly be, she approached to the younger man, who seemed just as focused as Flamel, but nowhere near as manic.
"Pardon me," she began, "but are you-"
"One moment, please," he said, cutting her off and shaking his phial almost frantically for a few moments then setting it down to stare at it. Its contents glowed then changed colour from red to a sparkling green.
"Another Superior Hi-Health potion! This is becoming far too easy," he declared proudly, making a mark in an open book on the table before him. He poured the potion in a long-necked flask, stuffed a cork in the top, and then placed it in an empty space of a compartmentalised crate amongst many other potions. He turned to face her at last, peering at her through protective goggles.
"How can I help you?" He was a little shorter than her, dressed all in purple from head to booted feet save for the long, black cape. His chocolate brown hair was pulled back in a low tail on his neck and she hazarded a guess that his eyes were hazel, from what she could see through the goggle glass.
"Are you Beaker?" she asked. He blinked at her bemusedly and she had the brief wonderance about his sanity when he began to laugh.
"No, I am afraid not. He is," said the young man finally, pointing towards a slightly elevated area with a wall mounted chalkboard separated by a banister railing from the rest of the room. An orange, tropical bird was seated on the railing, watching them with curious tips and turns of his pointed head.
"He won't be any use to me for what I want," said Irene, shaking her head.
"Perhaps I can help. My name is Athos." He offered her his hand and she shook it firmly and quickly.
"And I am Irene. I have a list here from my Master, and since yours refuses to look at it, maybe you would be more inclined to assist." Athos took the offered paper, lifting off his goggles and setting them on his head.
"From the look of this and you, it must be for Master Fern, right?" he posed, gesturing to her weapon. She nodded, folding her arms and tossing back her head.
"Indeed. How long will this take?"
"All right, straight down to business, then," he grinned, shaking his head slightly before perusing the list again. "I would say… perhaps an hour?"
"Very well," she replied, crossing her arms. "I suppose I can look in the library for a bestiary while I wait-" She was interrupted by Beaker giving a loud, indignant squawk as Margot leapt at his perch, claws unsheathed and paws batting. Irene ran over and grabbed her by the scruff mid-flight as she attempted another leap at the poor bird, pulling the wiggling body close.
"Margot, that is not something for you to chase!" she exclaimed. Beaker landed nervously on the round knob of the railing's newel post, extending a wing and beginning to preen the ruffled feathers back into place.
"Sorry about that," she puffed, Margot finally settling huffily in her arms. "This blasted cat will chase anything that moves if able."
"That's quite alright," said Athos, chuckling. He came over and reached to scratch the black feline's ear. She began to purr, pressing her head into his hand. "Margot, I believe you called her?"
"Yes. So, you will be done in a hour, right?" Athos sighed and slid his goggles back down onto his nose.
"Yes, yes, I said I would, and I shall."
"Good. Thanks." She turned and left, eager to escape the potent scents that felt like they were burning her nostrils. You owe me for this, Fern. Carrying her beast, she left the Alchemy lab and turned right to follow the carpet runner that led into the library proper, a two level room with shelves lined with innumerable volumes, red, cloth-covered stools seated around a circular table, and two large lecterns as tall as her that comprised of the library's catalogue. There was also another table tucked in the corner laden with fossils and a telescope in another corner gathering cobwebs. Irene climbed the stairs to the empty second level and browsed the shelves, deciding on a book about the Elderwood forest creatures she located on the far end of the second level. Margot mewed, leaping up on to the railing, and a scholar below shushed her violently. Margot washed a paw, swiped it over her ear then trotted back along the railing until she was just above the scholar who was now absorbed in his study. Irene looked up from her reading just in time to see Margot's haunches wiggling, her legs bent and reday to spring, and had no chance to stop her. She threw the book down and ran to grab the cat, only to flail and miss, almost throwing herself over the railing.
"Argh! Get this beast off of me!" screamed the scholar as Margot landed on his head, digging her claws in as he stood and flailed, toppling his mountain of books. These spilled off the table and he tripped over his stool, falling back as Margot finally left from his head and sprinted out of the room. Irene gave chase, offering a hasty apology to the man who sat up dizzily, his glasses askew.
"Hold it now, hunter, is this your foul beast?" demanded the receptionnist, holding Margot tightly by her scruff.
"Yes, she is, and you have no right to treat her so violently," declared Irene. "Give her to me at once."
"As soon as the both of you are outside!" said the man, taking her arm and dragging her to the door.
"What are you doing? Get off!"
"Paladin! Open this door!" called the receptionnist. The soldier outside did as bid and Irene found herself shoved to the ground beyond the portal, Margot tossed onto her back shortly afterwards.
"If you wish to frequent the library, return without your wretched animal. We do not tolerate such disturbances here in a place of study!" He slammed the door as Irene rolled over to face him, Margot hopping off her to sit in the grass.
"You're nothing more than a pathetic Woolie!" she yelled, tossing a rock at the door irritably. How she wished she was out in the East Grassy Plains, chasing down some of the white wool-covered, bleeting creatures with their long, curved, upright horns like a unattached circle.
"Miss, if you continue this, I will have to ask you to move along," said the soldier by the door. She glared at him and stood, biting her tongue and brushing herself off. Margot stretched in the sunlight, her tail flicking up into the air. She moved to the nearby set of wide stone steps and sat. Drawing her silver dagger, she used it to reflect a spot of sunlight on the ground for Margot to chase and pounce upon, a better distraction than causing such trouble. She became so involved in amusing the feline, she started when someone touched her shoulder.
"Are you too busy to receive your order?" asked Athos with a smile. He smelled faintly of smoke and herbs. She could detail him better in the sunlight. His face was faintly smudged, likely from his master's constant explosions, and she thought she could see faint purple circles beneath his eyes. The gold buttons on his cap appeared a bit dull, likely in need of a polish, and his collar was faintly spotted with stains from his mixtures.
"Hardly. Did you remember everything?" she asked, standing. Margot blinked up at her two steps down, confused as to why Irene was no longer playing with her. Athos offered the woman a basket full of corked, long-necked, round-bottomed phials, all of their contents gleaming with their purity. Two sacks, small enough to carry together in one hand, sat next to him on the grass. She took one phial and held it up to the sunlight, examining the contents with narrow eyes.
"You doubt my work?" he asked her, making the faintest of pouts. She offered him a half-smirk, glancing at him from the corner of her eye.
"No, I only wished to examine its quality. You do good work." He took the phial back from her, smiling.
"Thank you. Now, about payment-" he paused as she began to frown. "Would I be wrong in guessing Master Fern did not give you the funds with which to pay for her supplies?"
"Guessing would be too much," said Irene. She bit her lip. "How much are we discussing here?"
"Well, each of the Superior Hi-Health potions is 370 Dosh. The antidotes for poison, stunning, and sleep are 120 Dosh, 160 Dosh, and 200 Dosh each respectively." She counted the bottles, twenty-four in total, six of each type.
"Then we have the stock of mini bombs, each one coming in at 300 Dosh." He gestured to the larger of the two sacks and her heart sank into her stomach, imagining at least thirty in the bag.
"Finally, there is the small set of Sleep bombs, a new purchase for her from the records, and they are 800 Dosh each." This bag was the smallest, but Irene could still see it held a fair amount. She swallowed in a effort to clear the lump from her throat.
"What is the total?" she asked, hoping to keep the quaver from her voice. Athos held out her list with a look of apology.
"What I charge is consistent with the prices in the stores," he mentioned. Irene looked down at the bottom of the paper where he had totaled the calculations and forced her jaw not to drop. 26,100 Dosh? For potions? She drew her coin purse from her belt wordlessly, untying the strings and kneeling to count the Dosh on the grass. She could feel him watching her and the back of her neck burned with embarassment. She was 15,000 short.
"I have 11,100," she said, looking up into what seemed to be a pitying gaze. "What will this get me?" He sighed, setting down the basket.
"The basket and twenty mini bombs. Listen, this has happened before with another apprentice of your Master. She has a habit of forgetting to leave enough money to cover her expenses."
"I cannot go back to her without all of her order," said Irene. Margot approached the basket, stood on her hind legs to brace against the edge then stuck her head in to sniff its contents curiously. Irene pushed her away half-heartedly.
"Why do we not make a deal?" offered Athos. "We will go to the school to talk with your Master about this money issue then you will accompany me on an expedition to replenish the ingredients I used to make the order instead of paying me this time."
"I suppose I can accept that," she replied with a frown. She tucked every last piece of gold carefully into her purse, reattached it to her belt then offered her hand to him to shake and seal their arrangement.