“Cass… Cass… CASS!”
Leah had resorted to physically pulling on the elf’s arm to try and get her to move. She was being thoroughly ignored, however. She was busy peering at a set of bracers that she had been haggling over for the past 20 minutes.
“200 gold? 200 gold?! Are you trying to bankrupt me? 180, and not a copper more!”
“180 gold? My dear, I have children to feed, you would put us on the street! I simply cannot let it go for less than 190 gold!”
“For this workmanship? Truly, you insult me. 185, it has to be 185.”
“These bracers are a steal for 185! I would have to insist on 188 gold.”
At least they seemed to be nearing the end of the heated debate. Unless the two intended to go to blows over coppers, which looking at the rotund shopkeeper, didn’t seem out of the question. Leah groaned, first internally, then externally, and gave up on trying to get Cassandra’s attention. She moved to the shop front, and sat, sulking while Cassandra finished her business. What had started as a trip to get Leah outfitted had rapidly turned into Cassandra’s own personal shopping spree. All she needed was a set of clothes, and they hadn’t even managed that yet. She folded her arms, and glared at the elf, waiting to be noticed. They had seemed to agree on a price, and shook hands over the table. Cassandra pulled out a notepad, scrawled on it, tore off a page and handed it to the man. He checked it over, nodded, and put the bracers to the side.
“Very good. I shall head over post haste, you can come collect them in, oh, shall we say an hour?”
“That sounds good to me. Thanks again.”
“Please, anything for a customer! Please come again.”
Cassandra smiled, and turned to face Leah. Her smile dropped when she saw the womans expression.
“Don’t ‘what’ me. This is the third time today. We are going to get me clothes, now, and if you stop again, I will walk off without you. And I’ll tell Liam you couldn’t control yourself.”
She held her hands up in defence.
“No! We’ll go now. Come on…”
The two hurried out of the shop and back on to the street. Clearly, this was a hub of commerce, as it was lined with storefronts of all kinds. And unlike most of the city, there were people actually standing around, paying attention to the items on display, and otherwise acting like this was a town. They seemed better outfitted than the rest of the townsfolk, and Cassandra pointed out that they were other adventurers. None she knew personally, but their mannerisms and dress sense marked them out clear as day. Cassandra turned to Leah as they walked, and held out her hand.
“Can I see how much gold you have?”
Leah nodded, and handed her pouch over. Cassandra looked inside, and frowned.
“Dammit, he wasn’t joking! That cheapskate! How does he expect me to outfit you on this pittance…”
“I mean, I just need clothes, right? How expensive can that be?”
Leah had worked out over the day that a single gold was roughly equivalent to about £10. At least, from her guesswork as to how much their lunch had cost relative to how much it would cost back home, and some simple maths after that gave her £10 for a gold, £1 for a silver and a penny for a copper. Nice and simple, if her assumptions were correct. Though she was also banking on the fact that inflation hadn’t kicked in as hard as back home, and things were closer in price to a medieval society, which considering there were banks, wasn’t a guaranteed assumption… bah, too many unknowns. Even her newly prodigious intelligence couldn’t overcome that hurdle. She was going with that assumption anyway, and her 20 gold - minus lunch costs - gave her about £200 to play with. That should be more than enough for a simple shopping trip, considering she only needed one or two outfits. Cassandra shook her head.
“No, no, no, this just won’t do. You need clothes, yes, and armour, a weapon, maybe even some accessories… Oh, and an adventurers kit, if we’re taking you out more often, though we have a lot of that and you don’t often need duplicates… Provisions too, but that can wait for a few days, until we leave, and I think I can convince Liam to pay for it…”
“Cass? I really don’t think all that is important, at least right now. I just need clothes! I’m not about to go swinging swords around anyway.”
“Really? And after I took time out of my busy life to train you up. Goodness, I feel betrayed.”
“No! No, I don’t mean it like that.”
She caught Cassandra’s expression, and sighed. She was being messed with.
“Damn you. I mean, I’m no expert now, so is it really necessary right away?”
“Its necessary now more than ever. If you train just with my sword, you are going to learn habits that might not carry over to another weapon. And thats assuming you even work best with a sword.”
“Fine, fine. We’ll sort out your clothing now, and we’ll do armour tomorrow. Deal?”
“Deal. As much as I appreciate the help, these aren’t exactly comfortable. Or clean.”
“Heh. I bet. We need to bathe too, I remember. Gods, its going to be good to get clean after all that travelling..!”
Cassandra looked off into the middle distance, sighing with contentment at the possibility of bathing at last. She was shaken from her reverie by a tug on her arm. Leah had stopped, and was pointing at a storefront.
“Cass..? Were you about to just walk past the place again?”
“Shut up. Lets get inside before I change my mind. You are going to learn to love weapon shopping.”
Leah rolled her eyes, and followed her inside.
“What about this one?”
“Leah, how in the hells are you going to avoid getting that dirty? Its way too nice for travel wear, and you were the one telling me you only need a couple of outfits.”
“But nothing. Anyway, you can’t afford it, not if you are buying those as well.”
It had taken them another half hour, but Leah had managed to pick out a pair of outfits that worked within the limits Cassandra had set her. Limits that Leah thought were far too restricting, personally. She had picked out a pair of tunics, one a dark green and the other a dark blue, and a matching set of tights. With them came a grey cloak and boots, which Leah had complained about, but Leah assured her would break in over time. It all fit at least, and she had managed to attain some, ah, small clothes, as apparently they were called here. She had insisted on only the shopkeeper assisting her with picking those out. Despite their plain nature, they had actually ended up being the most expensive part of the outfit. The shopkeeper explained.
“Ah yes. It is rather expensive to get the designs right for both comfort and support, especially given the craftsmanship that needs to go into each. I hope that isn’t an issue…”
Leah quickly shook her head. She was not going travelling, and especially not riding any horses, without some kind of support. God forbid she needed to run again - her chest still hurt from their flight through the forest, even with the tight armour holding things in place.
“No! No no no, thats fine, I was just curious.”
Finally finished, she had elected to take some time to browse, in spite of Cassandra’s complaints, pointing out that the ranger had already had her turn browsing for things, and Leah expected this to be reciprocated. Clearly, though, she had had enough.
“Right. You’ve got what you need. Time to pay, and leave. The day is getting on.”
Leah grumbled, but counted out the coin for the shopkeeper, who checked it carefully, and thanked her. She took one set to a side room, while the shopkeeper wrapped the other. Once she was dressed, she gave a twirl for Cassandra.
“Like what you see?”
“Very nice. But I’d already seen you wear them, so its not going to work. Come on, we have one last place to go.”
“Caaaaass. We said we were going to do this-”
“Nope. While you were getting changed before, I had a word with a passing adventurer. Theres apparently a really good shop nearby that’ll have most of what we need. They buy up old adventurers gear for cheap, and sell it on.”
“Fine. But I swear, if we end up missing out on a bath…”
“Dear gods no, that would never happen. But we’ll have to run.”
So the two set off, Leah stuffing a package into her pack as they moved.
True to her word, the store wasn’t that far off, only a street away. A small store, it was tucked between two others, with only a small window showing off the goods inside. And they were a mishmash of odds and ends, some of which Leah couldn’t identify. Cassandra confidently opened the door and strode in, Leah close behind. Inside wasn’t much better. Crowded shelves and racks showed off everything from armour to weapons, ropes and flasks, to books and writing implements, and things Leah could only describe as metal monstrosities. Her head turned this way and that as they moved through the narrow store to the counter at the back, where the storekeeper was leaving a back room to greet them.
“Yes? How can I help you?”
“I need to outfit this one,”
Cassandra pointed to Leah, who was still looking around in amazement and interest.
“On the cheap, and fast. She needs armour, a weapon, and a proper pack and gear.”
Leah was shaken from her reverie, and shook her head at Cassandra.
“No, no armour. I’m getting it properly fitted or not at all. I’m not going through another experience of badly fitted… padding.”
Cassandra sighed, and amended her statement.
“Fine, no armour. But a weapon, at the very least.”
The storekeeper nodded, and looked around.
“Well, the pack and gear, that will be easy. Come with me, please, I have a few options.”
He stepped out from behind the counter, and took Cassandra off to investigate a few pieces. Leah was left to her own devices again, and she knew that nothing would stop Cass now that she had gotten into her shopping mood. She had much more interest in shopping for gear than she did shopping for clothes, which irritated her. But, it was what it was. More cultural differences, she supposed, a phrase that she was using more and more as time went on. Maybe one day she’d even understand them all. Or forget her own culture and become fully assimilated. That worried her a little, the idea of forgetting her old life. There was still so much about what happened, and what she was, that worried her, but she distracted herself from another bout of introspection by investigating a portion of the store that seemed dedicated to weapons more than anything else. There were still odd implements and articles of clothing stashed between them, but it was as good a place to start as any.
She hadn’t had that much interest in weapons to begin with, never having had the chance to touch one, or hell, see one outside of a museum piece, before a few days ago, but something was pulling her towards the collection. She just went with it, curiosity overtaking her. Most of the weapons were, well, weapons. Lumps of metal, forged into a shape. Nicks and bumps on them showed their use, but all seemed to be in good condition as far as Leah could tell. A pair of daggers in ornate sheaths caught her eye for a moment, and she picked one up. Something felt off about it though, so she returned it, trying to find what it was that had caught her attention. She knew she had seen something on their way in, and thats what she was interested in, but for the life of her, she couldn’t work out what it was. Until she saw it.
Between a heavy war hammer and a two handed sword was a work of art. That was the only way she could describe the sword. Slender and a pale grey, its blade didn’t so much shine as sparkle in the dim light of the shop. And the handle… the handle was a dark ridged grip, encased in a guard of finely worked metal working a cage around it. The effect was finished with a pommel of the same metal as the blade. She couldn’t take her eyes off it. It was just beautiful. She gently held the grip, and extracted it from its prison of dull metal. Once in her hand, it felt… natural was the only way she could describe it. Her hand fit the ridges perfectly, and the balance… it was perfect. Too perfect. She knew that there was some reason she had noticed the blade, because while it was beautiful, that certainly couldn’t explain her fixation with it. She wracked her brain, trying to work it out, when she was interrupted by a poke on the shoulder.
“Wow, Leah. And you complain about me ignoring you.”
“Wha- Sorry, Cass, I was just-”
“You caught the bug. I get it. Its a beautiful piece.”
She turned and called over her shoulder.
“Shopkeep, how much for this?”
He shuffled around to where they were standing, and took a look at the blade.
“Ah, yes. A moonstone rapier. Its been in my possession for quite a while - no one comes here for an unenchanted blade, no matter its beauty. I would have to say… 250 gold.”
“Are you mad? For an unenchanted weapon? I truly, TRULY can’t go any higher than 150.”
And so another bout of haggling began. Leah had to head this off at the pass before it went too far.
“Cass, I can’t afford this, even if you haggle it down…”
She wanted the sword, even if just to work out the mystery that she was so close to cracking, but she’d bankrupt herself paying for it. Cassandra waved a hand dismissively.
“Nah, I’m paying.”
“What? No, I can’t ask you to-”
“You aren’t asking, I’m telling. Consider it a gift. I’m just glad to see you’re interested in a weapon all of a sudden. Plus, its very you.”
Ignoring that last comment, Leah went back to examining the blade. She certainly wasn’t going to fight Cassandra on the point, if she really wanted to buy it for her. But what exactly was it, what had she seen… There it was. She remembered something. Or, well, knew something. This was a Magalyte weapon, or one forged with their techniques. She could feel the technology, so much like her own, calling out to her through it. It wasn’t visibly enchanted, that she knew, but the workings inside were keeping it clean and in shape, heightening its sharpness and the skill of the user. But, it was inactive. That was why no one could see what it truly was. She kept her face as calm as she could, because she KNEW she needed this sword now. There was probably never going to be an opportunity to get something like this on the cheap again.
The haggling wound on, and eventually a price was settled on. Cassandra wrote out another of her notes - which she had told Leah was a form of bank cheque, that the holder could take to the guild to be redeemed. After confirming the notes validity, he tucked it away in a pocket, and took the sword from Leah, who was reluctant to give it up.
“Don’t worry, my dear. I’ll keep this safe until your return. Come back in a few hours, and I should have it ready for you.”
Leah nodded, still concerned about leaving it behind, but Cassandra didn’t give her time to worry.
“Come on. I already picked out the rest of your gear, and that’ll be waiting with it when we get back. We, on the other hand, have a bath waiting for us.”
That managed to shake her from her mood. The two left the store with a wave of goodbye, and headed for what Cassandra had assured her was a bathhouse of some kind.
It turned out to be, well, the only way she could describe it was Roman. A stone basin was sunk into the ground inside the building, and had water pushed in from holes in the wall, constantly heated and cycled back in as the water cooled. What remained was the perfect temperature for a soak. Fortunately for Leah, the designers had skipped one part of Roman culture, and the baths were individual rather than being communal. Though there was only one room available when they arrived, leaving Cassandra and Leah to share. That had caused the both of them to gulp. They were stood in the room they had rented for the next few hours, both fully clothed and clutching a rough spun towel.
“We should undress, I suppose.”
“Indeed, can’t bathe in your clothes.”
“Definitely can’t do that.”
Leah was the first to act. Someone clearly had to, and Leah felt like she was oddly the more confident of the two right now. She pulled her tunic over her head, and when her vision cleared of the fabric, she saw Cassandra had turned around to do the same.
“Oh come on, Cass. Lets not be shy about this, we’re going to have to look at each other at some point.”
She coughed, and turned slightly, still not meeting Leah’s eyes. Leah, to her credit, did her best not to look, though she caught some sidelong glances. Under her armour, Cassandra was well toned and fit, which made sense considering her profession. Not bulky, but with lean muscle, better suited to quick bursts of action than for lifting weights. And her, ah, assets, were larger than she expected, given the shape of her armour. Finishing undressing herself, she reflected that this had been the first time she had been naked since waking up. She had gathered that she had been nude when she arrived here, but still. She wished she had a mirror, so she could examine herself better, but sadly that was a facility the bath house lacked. That had also brought another point up.
“Besides. You’ve already seen me nude, haven’t you? Isn’t it only fair I get to see you?”
A blushing silence was Cassandra’s response, as she hurried into the water to conceal herself. Leah, confident, but not too confident, covered herself and followed. The water was perfect, though she suspected any bath above lukewarm would be perfect after all the travelling they had been doing. She sighed, and leaned back against the side.
“This is… good…”
Both were looking up at the ceiling, and not at each other, but wasn’t a problem. It was nice just to relax, even if that meant no one was going to be making eye contact. They sat in contented silence for a moment, before Cassandra spoke up.
“So, I uh… have a question to ask you.”
Oh boy. Here it came. She had suspected this would be coming up at some point, especially now that they had a moment to talk, but so quickly…
“What exactly about that sword drew you to it?”
Aaaaand the moment was gone. Either she was embarrassed, or she was clueless. Leah contemplated that it might just be a product of her culture, so she wasn’t too put out by it, but still! She really didn’t want to have to be the one to bring things up. She thought for a moment about the question, before deciding she trusted Cass not to spill the beans before they had the weapon firmly in hand.
“You need to keep this a secret, ok? At least until we get a hold of it.”
“Lips sealed. Now spill.”
“I can’t be sure until I’ve had some time to work with it, but I’m 90%, no 95% certain that the sword-”
“Rapier. Its a rapier.”
“Fine, rapier, is of magalye design.”
Cassandra called out in a strained whisper, her head whipping down from her gaze on the ceiling so fast that Leah worried she might get whiplash.
“Then keep your damn voice down about it, if someone else finds out and goes to make a bid on it before we complete the sale…”
She lowered her voice.
“I take it its rare then?”
“More rare than you think. I mean, magalyte tech isn’t uncommon, but at that price… It must be deactivated, and a unique piece, or it would have been discovered in the appraisal. Oh man, we are so, so lucky.”
Cassandra rubbed her hands together and grinned, no longer worried about hiding herself from Leah, who got a good look while the going was good.
“Liam was right, you are going to be a gold mine!”
“…I hope you aren’t thinking of retracting that gift from me.”
Cass waved her hand.
“Gods, no. That ones for you, I meant that. Consider it another investment in our continued relationship.”
“Oh, our relationship?”
The elf blushed hard, her ears turning bright crimson.
“I meant our business relationship! Obviously.”
Leah couldn’t help teasing a little. She’d worked out her attraction quickly, after their sparring session, and had experience in this field. And seeing that Cass didn’t well, that just meant she could have a little fun.
“Of course, of course…”
Before she could continue though, Cassandra changed the subject.
“So, you wanted to know what it is I do, that I work to achieve?”
That managed to get Leah’s mind off of teasing. She cocked her head inquisitively.
“Yeah, I do.”
“Right. Ok… so, I told you before about how the Empire doesn’t really take too kindly to non humans, right?”
“Right. So, thats been the case for, well, as long as I know about. Hundreds of years, certainly. And the other nations, well, the non human centric ones anyway, aren’t too happy about that. But the empire is big, and pretty well organised for its size. Military intervention isn’t an option, and economic warfare is out for similar reasons. So, various concerned groups got together and formed the Path. Basically, get into the empire, find vulnerable non humans who want to leave, get them out. I work with the Path.”
“Huh. I didn’t expect such… altruism. Not from you, I mean, from, well, nations.”
“Don’t get me wrong, its not totally altruistic. Different nations have different policies for handling the refugees, and because its all unofficial some of them end up being used in some pretty shitty work. But I only work with elves - I know they’ll be fine when they get home.”
“Elves are… well, yeah, you kind of do need to know this… Elves don’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to… making more elves. We have a pretty short window of fertility, and it takes a while for the whole… process to be done with. So, the population of elves in the world is relatively small. Saelong, my home country, really REALLY wants more warm bodies, because… well, I’ll get into the whys another time. Suffice to say that they are just happy to have more people around.”
“Makes sense, I suppose. Is Liam in on it as well, he seemed to know about the Path back in the village.”
“Oh yeah, when we were talking to that priest. Yeah, he’s not on the inside, but he knows about it through me, and he’s in agreement with what we do. So he helps out, and gets treated as a contractor for all intents and purposes. Cheeky bastard gets paid for what I do for free.”
She sighed, and shook her head.
“Still, its good work. I get to adventure like I wanted to, and I get to do good while I do it. I can’t say I’ll want to do it forever - it gets pretty harrowing at times - but I’m happy where I am right now.”
Leah smiled, and leaned back.
“Well, while I’m still working out what it is I want to do, I suppose I’ll be helping you, too.”
“Ha! You wouldn’t get a choice in the matter, if I pick someone up, you and Liam are coming with me.”
“Oh, well, if thats the case, I might just have to be stubborn about it.”
“Like you would. You are too nice.”
“You say that like its a bad thing.”
“It might well end up being that way.”
Cassandra looked at Leah, a serious expression on her face.
“Leah, I know you didn’t have much of a choice, but you ended up trusting me and Liam with a lot, and quickly too. It worked out alright here, but it might not always for you.”
“I know, I know. And I don’t plan on it being a regular thing. I just, I don’t know, got a good feeling about things.”
“If you say so. Well, anyway, lets just enjoy this time we have here for now. Gods know we’ve earned it, and who knows when we might get another chance?”