“I didn’t think you would have friends.” I playfully poke at Kervin.
“I wouldn’t call him a friend, more like a drinking buddy. I met Maz when I first started trading in Drey. His family owns a good bar that I frequent when I’m in town, and he noticed me from our lines of work. We usually spend time complaining about our jobs and drinking ourselves under the table. I can't think of a time we've hung out, and we weren’t drinking.”
I'm surprised how talkative Kervin has been lately. He said he wanted us to be more open with each other, but the change of character is a little unsettling.
“I’ll meet up with him after you leave for your village.” Kervin trails off, and I turn my attention to my new surroundings.
Drey is the first city I've visited in this world, and it doesn't disappoint. After we crossed through the wall, it was like entering a new world. Snow-capped buildings stretch as far as the eye can see.
The street we’re driving on is narrow, only three carts wide, made from grey stone that matches the city’s walls and buildings.
The city is more interesting because it lacks the symmetry of my previous world's counterparts. The buildings are crammed together with people's houses mixed in with businesses. Small alleys are the only thing separating the buildings, and none of them have a yard.
The buildings are made of stone and wood, and all look different with varying designs. I stare up at the biggest building on the street as we pass by it. The sign on the front of the building reads 'The Sleepy Traveler' I chuckle at the generic name but can't take my eyes off the building.
Most buildings we’ve passed are limited to a single floor with only a scant few reaching higher. The inn towers over its neighbors, reaching four stories tall. As we pass by the building, I hear loud voices coming from the entrance; someone's having a good time.
To the right of the inn is a stable crammed with bivol and even a few jelen.
“Are we going to be staying in an inn like that?” I ask Kervin.
He smiles at my question, “I’m pretty sure I told you I have a house here. There’s no need to waste good coin on a cheap inn like that.”
“It didn’t look that bad to me,” I say in defense. I forgot that Kervin mentioned in passing that he stores his extra goods in his home here.
"It's not the worst inn in the city, but we've barely left the wall.”
"Then does that make this the slums?" I ask Kervin. The buildings look similar to the ones in our village, and though there's some animal waste on the side of the road, it doesn't scream filthy.
“I wouldn’t call this the slums. Drey has a few areas you wouldn’t want to walk through at night, but this area is fine. The houses and businesses closest to the wall are some of the cheapest, and become more extravagant the closer you get to the city’s center.”
“Why is that?” I curiously ask.
“What do you think happens when the city is attacked?” Reel says to our side.
Kervin continues to explain. "He's right; if anything happens to the walls, it's these houses that will suffer the most.”
"How often does that happen?" I turn back and look at the massive gate we went through. It's hard to imagine something getting past such an enormous fortification.
“It’s rare, but it does happen. The most recent incident was four years ago during a particularly dry summer. A flock of scorch-wings was flying by and tried to nest here.” Kervin tells me with a grimace.
“Scorch-wings?” I’ve never heard of them before.
"They’re a fire-based magical creature. Think of a bird mixed with a lizard four feet long that likes to light itself on fire." Reel explains with a cocky look on his face.
I ignore him and instead ask Kervin, “What happened?”
“Scorch-wings build nests out of charred wood. They gather lumber into a pile and light it on fire with their bodies, using the charred remains to make a nest. They aren't very aggressive to humans, but the flock ripped apart homes and caused more than a few fires."
"That sounds like a problem for the whole city, not just the homes closest to the wall." I point out.
"Buildings closer to the city's center are made with fire-resistant materials and earth magic, some wealthy individuals even have enchantments guarding their homes. The only usable wood for the scorch-wings to scavenge was the houses built around the walls,” Kervin explains.
I nod in understanding. Flying enemies would make the wall a moot point. I bet some enchantments could help with that, but that would be incredibly expensive. It's easier for rich people to fortify their homes instead of reinforcing the entire city.
“But do monster attacks happen that often?” I question.
"Not like that. Goblins sometimes are spotted near the city, but the local guards take care of them whenever they pop up. Unless something unusual happens, the city goes years without being attacked.” Kervin reassures me.
“That is if we don’t factor in the war,” Reel ominously reminds us. “If the fort falls, Scholl’s forces could be here in under a week.”
“You should say that to the general next time we see her.” Lurte flashes Reel a daring look.
“I don’t feel like dying just yet.” Reel looks away.
A lull in our conversation gives me time to turn my attention back to the city. Plenty of people are walking through the snow, wearing simple coats. I spot two men with shovels clearing the snow from the walkways while a third is shoveling a frozen pile of crap into a wooden pushcart.
Those walking by the men laugh and point at them.
“What are they doing?” I point at the workers. “Why would people make fun of them for cleaning the streets?”
"It's their punishment," Kervin tells me. "You can't see it, but they have shackles on their wrists and ankles. Those who commit crimes are sentenced to menial work to pay back their debt.”
“What happens if there aren’t enough criminals to clean the streets?”
“And what if bivol can fly?” Reel laughs at me.
Kervin gives Reel an annoyed look before answering my question. “Sad to say, there’s never a shortage of hands to clean the streets. Even if someone has the coin to pay off whatever fine the guards give them, the lord requires every criminal to help clean the street for a set amount of time. Steal a pomme, and you’re charged double the price and have to spend a day shoveling snow and shit.”
“Why not lock them up? Couldn’t they just run away?” I ask.
“The only people held in cells are those being investigated or waiting to be executed.” Kervin points to the men working, “The shackles on their limbs will shock or detonate them if they try to leave the city, depending on their crimes. The same thing happens if they don’t check in with guards every day to receive their work orders.”
Holy crap, that takes ankle monitors to a whole new level! "But wait, if they're working for the city all day, how do they earn money for shelter and food?"
"They're still allowed to go home every night and eat whatever they can afford. Those who don't have the means, like vagrants or people with long term sentences, can claim a free meal at the end of the day and a cot to rest for the night. A few of the destitute willingly work for the city during the winter for a place to rest and a hot meal."
As our cart passes the working men, I make a mental note not to break any laws.
We turn down a street and head deeper into the city. The distance between the buildings starts to open up, and I can see a gradual change in their designs. We turn down another street and pass by another cleaning crew; only this one is different.
Three men and a woman are shoveling snow and scooping up the waste around the street, but my eyes are drawn to two women in robes and fur jackets. The women are standing next to a large pile of snow and melting it with fire magic.
“No way, there’s criminal mages!” I shout in disbelief.
One of the women turns toward us and scowls.
“Apologies, this is her first time in the city.” Kervin quickly steps in. The woman scoffs at us and turns back to focus on her spell.
Kervin snaps his reins and tries to get his bivol to move faster. Once we're out of sight, Reel bursts into laughter. "I can't believe you called them criminals!"
I can feel my face starting to blush. I turn towards Kervin and demand an answer, “You said the city uses criminals, why are there mages melting snow?”
Kervin rubs his face and takes a deep breath. "Only for the physical work. Hauling the snow and ice out of the city would take too many hands; it's much easier to melt it into the sewers."
"Why would a self-respecting mage take the time to melt the snow?" I ask inquisitively.
“To earn money,” Kervin’s short response fries my brain.
“Why would mages need to melt snow for money?”
“Technically, they aren’t mages yet.” Kervin takes a side glance at me and sees the uncomprehending look on my face. He looks back to the road and asks me a question, “What do you think makes someone a mage?”
“Aren’t you a mage once you can cast a spell?” I know my simple answer isn’t what he’s looking for.
"Being able to use magic is a start, but that doesn't give you the qualifications to call yourself a mage. When someone introduces themselves as a mage, then they're saying they can use at least ten spells above tier2."
“What does that have to do with money?” I ask Kervin.
“You know that your friend Sandra is studying to be a mage, right?" I nod to Kervin. "Are you aware of how she got her apprenticeship?" His second question stumps me.
“Isn’t it because she’s talented?” I quietly reply.
"If that were the case, then there would be more mages in the world," Kervin tells me with a cynical tone. "The one thing that gets you an apprenticeship with a mage is money. Your friend's family paid a lot of money to send her here and practice under a mage.”
“So, talent means nothing?” I ask in disbelief.
“Yes and no,” Kervin says. “If a noble wants to spend their money for their child to try and learn magic, a mage doesn't care if the child has any talent or not. A few lessons a week, and the mage walks away with gold in their pockets regardless of if the child can cast a spell or not. Mages charge for each spell they teach their disciples, and the time it takes to teach them. Depending on the teacher, I’ve heard of families shelling out over 200 gold for a member of the family to learn enough spells to qualify as a mage.”
"If that's the case, then why were those two melting snow?”
"You asked me how talent plays a factor in who a mage teaches, that's what happens when a mage accepts a student on credit. Those two women were deemed talented enough for the mage to teach, but they owe him every coin they would have had to pay upfront. The city pays mages to melt the snow in the wintertime, which they delegate to their unpaid students. The exact details of the relationship with the different mages staying in the city is a secret. Still, many believe their indebted students are only given a fraction of what the mages receive for the job."
“Does that mean Sandra is out here melting snow as well?” I hastily ask.
“Now, don't worry, I already said her family paid. I helped to deliver the money before she left your village. She’s probably studying at home right now while your brother is working; do you want me to take you to their house?”
“You know where they live?”
“Of course, I do. I stop by whenever I’m delivering a letter from your families. They live on the other side of the city in a house close to the wall.”
I'm tempted to run and see them right now, but that's not practical. I shake my head at the idea. "We don't have time, and besides, they're due back in the village once spring arrives. I’m sure mine and Sandra’s families would rather our reunion be together.”
“If that’s what you want.” Kervin has the cart take a left at the next intersection.
We pass by more people walking around, but I can see the difference in their clothing. Everyone is wearing fancier jackets and looks much more comfortable walking around in the cold. Nicer storefronts sit next to houses that have small yards.
Moving through a city and seeing the difference in wealth at a glance is a little disconcerting. Mother used to tell me short stories of the city she grew up in, but words can't do it justice.
"Looks like we're here." Kervin drags me out of my thoughts. "Welcome to my home." He gives me a soft smile, obviously a little proud of his home."
We stop at a corner lot, and I take a good look at Kervin's house. The house is two stories and is made from black stone and lumber that's been treated with a dark brown polish. I can see the area to the side where he usually parks his cart based on the grooves in the ground. Attached to his house is a small stable meant to hold his two bivol. With him using his space to store his cart and bivol, he has no garden like his neighbors; in fact, I spot quite a few big weeds thriving around his property. His neighbors must love him.
"Isn't it beautiful?" Kervin raises his hands, showing off the grandeur of his two-story town-house.
"It's pretty nice," I off-handedly remark. Kervin looks disappointed at my reaction. It's not that I don't think it's a lovely house; it's just it can’t compare to the homes I've seen on tv and the internet in my past life. Maybe if his house was hovering or made out of magical materials, it would tickle my fantasy heart, but the place in front of me is only slightly bigger than those in our village and made with slightly better materials.
Not letting my lack of reaction get to him, Kervin draws a key out of his pocket and moves to unlock his door. "You must be tired from the trip here; come inside and rest, while I send Reel to contact the local Silver Herd branch."
“That sounds nice,” I follow Kervin through his open door, deactivating Mana Skin as I enter.
As soon as I enter Kervin's house, my eyes start to adjust to the lack of light. I watch Kervin's silhouette shuffle around until he finds what he's looking for. I hear a match strike, and a small glow illuminates Kervin's face. He lights a lamp sitting on top of a table, and the room I just entered becomes visible.
Oh, gods! I immediately regret shutting off my skill.
“Careful where you step." Kervin sidesteps a few small crates and starts walking into the next room. As the light begins to fade, I'm forced to follow him.
I walk through an obstacle course of crates, barrels, and miscellaneous goods scattered everywhere. And the room I follow Kervin into isn’t any better. What I can only guess is his kitchen, judging by the stove, is filled with different pots, pans, and utensils covering every inch of his countertops.
"Can you hold this for me?" Stunned by everything around me, I take the lamp by instinct.
Kervin undoes a latch and pushes hard on the shutters of a window. Grunting, Kervin manages to force the shutter open, and fresh air breathes new life into his house.
The light from outside filters in, and I can better see my surroundings. Everything looks new, but different items have varying levels of dust coating them. I rub my finger against a pan and am appalled when I see it has turned grey.
Kervin sees the dissatisfaction and offers an apology. “Sorry for the mess, I haven’t been here for almost a month.”
I have to bite back a retort. This much dust can’t gather in only a month! If mother was here, I’m sure she would choose to burn the place down to the ground and start over rather than try cleaning it, after she strangles Kervin, of course.
Lurte and Ryiba walk into the kitchen, holding Kervin’s and their supplies and place them in an open corner.
“Did Reel leave already?” Kervin asks his men.
“Yeah, he left,” Lurte answers him.
“He seemed happy to go,” Ryiba huffs.
"That's good; once he gets back, we'll go out and get an early dinner.” I’m happy to hear Kervin say that. I wouldn’t trust anything he has resembling food in this house.
“Where will I sleep?” I ask.
“You can take the first room upstairs. The staircase is around the corner,” Kervin directs me.
I leave the three men behind and head to my room while they continue to open more windows. As I move through his house, I notice the only place he hasn't crammed stuff is the stairs. I see a few items I might have to come back for if my intuition turns out to be correct.
I make my way up the stairs and see my room as soon as I reach the top. I unhook the simple latch keeping the door closed and walk into my assigned room.
“I was right,” I sigh. This room is like all the others, completely covered in dust. Clothes are thrown everywhere, and a pile is hiding the bed. I look down and see my shoes have left dust imprints on the floor.
I'm tempted to waste some of the coins I brought with me and rent a room at a nearby inn.
“No, I’m too cheap for that,” I mumble to myself.
I stretch out my body and throw my things on top of a pile of clothes. I move over to the wall and open a window, hoping to remove the stale air.
I leave my room and walk back downstairs. I quickly find the items I spotted earlier, a cobweb-covered broom and an overturned bucket. I see a rag lying under a crate and take everything I found back into the kitchen.
Kervin and his men are sitting on a few chairs that I distinctly remember being covered before.
“What do you have there, Aaliyah?” Kervin asks as I enter the room.
“Where can I get some water?” I ignore his question and stifle my desire to throttle him.
"Need to fill up your waterskin; I can send Lurte to the closest well?” Seeing Kervin trying to be helpful makes me want to hit him even more.
“I need water to clean my room.” I hiss through my teeth.
"Oh! You don't need to worry about that; you can throw the clothes on the floor, it doesn't matter."
I slowly walk up to Kervin, sitting in his chair, and look down on him. "Water… to clean… now," I slowly say to him.
“I think that barrel has some old water in it, boss.” Lurte points at a barrel that has a stack of plates on top of it.
I leave an astounded Kervin behind and shift things around until I can fill up my bucket. Juggling everything in my arms, I leave the kitchen and Kervin’s guards laughing at him.
"What did I do?" I hear Kervin ask his men as soon as I leave the kitchen. His men only laugh harder at him. For someone so smart, Kervin can be really dumb at times. I guess we have that in common.
I make it back to my room and set everything down on the ground. The room is small at only 150 square feet, but for the first time, I have no idea where I should start cleaning. I scratch my itchy forearm and notice it's covered in dust.
I know it's a waste of mana, but I start by cleaning myself first.
“Ahyt ls weem appiss!”
I immediately feel better as five days of travel falls away from me. During the trip, I used all my spare mana to keep Mana Skin up for the longest time possible and nothing else.
When my magic fades away, a small circle around my feet has replaced the dust with the black specks of dirt my spell leaves behind. I check how much mana I have left, 657.21. That’s enough mana for me to cast my cleaning spell over ten times and still leave enough in case of an emergency. If I'm careful with my magic, I can at least make sure my bed is clean.
I wish I had a higher tier cleaning spell. Should I try making my own?
No, that would be too dangerous in someone else’s house. I walk over to the bed covered in clothes and start throwing them onto the piles already on the floor. Men’s clothes, women’s, children’s, why does Kervin have all of these stashed in his house?
I wrap the first sheet on the bed around me and prepare to use my spell. I’ve used the spell so much I can cast it after only a few seconds.
I start but pause my casting soon after. I haven't tried to improve my three spells in a long time. Their mana cost reduces as I level my mana related skills, but I haven't tried improving my use of the spell since my skill levels were much lower.
Let’s see if I can figure out a way to boost my spell somehow.
I start casting my spell again, but this time I recite it slowly. I focus on how my mana moves through my body and out through my skin. Using Mana Manipulation, I help the spell structure itself around my body, reducing the cost I used to pay when I first learned the spell.
When my spell finally activates, I notice the spell converts the mana surrounding me into the glow I’m used to. The area the spell cleans is bigger than the mana I have surrounding me.
Maybe I can increase the mana surrounding me and use Mana Manipulation to help the spell form despite covering a larger area than intended.
A huge smile crosses my face; I have to try it!
I change out the sheet wrapped around me, so even if the spell doesn’t work as intended, I’ll still clean a part of my bed.
I move to the center of the room and start casting my cleaning spell again.
“Ahyt,” I gather 200 mana just underneath my skin.
“ls,” I expel the mana out of my body and keep it close, so it doesn’t disperse into the surrounding space.
“Weem,” I use Mana Manipulation to structure my magic just like the spell does typically only this time, I make it eleven times bigger.
“Appiss!” The spell completes itself, and the mana structure the spell and I created ignites into a dazzling display of light that fills the room. Everything starts to flake apart, and countless black specks fall to the floor.
I feel a shift in my soul, and I immediately spot the difference. The experience surrounding my soul increased quickly from leveling three of my skills at once.
Cleaning (LV51) (12%)
Mana Manipulation (LV54) (0%)
Empowered Spell (LV2) (3%)
Cleaning finally passed its test, and I gained a new tier 4 magic skill!
The room's air is no longer stuffy, and the wooden walls look like they were just processed. The ground is covered in the residue of my skill.
I’m so happy that it worked!
Now I just need to shake everything out and sweep everything up.
I move over to the bed and shake off the remaining sheets. Once I'm sure none of the black flakes remain, I remake the bed. Next, I shake out every piece of clothing and throw it on top of the clean bed. I wipe off a nightstand, which was the only other piece of furniture in the room.
A massive pile of clothes is covering my bed, but now nothing is on the floor. Sweeping up the remaining mess is easy, and I use the rag to make sure nothing remains.
Now that everything's cleaned, I move all the clothes back onto the floor, leaving enough room for me to sit down and have enough space for folding everything. I place the broom and bucket full of black sludge in a corner to deal with later.
Basking in the success of my skills, I enter a light meditation while folding the clothes into neat piles. My high Dexterity makes the task super easy.
If my mother could see me now, she would be so proud of my cleaning OCD.
I think it’s safe to say I’ve been officially brainwashed over the years.
After everything was folded and stacked against one of the walls, I moved to my bed and entered a deep meditative state. Using Extract Mana, I absorbed mana from the atmosphere to increase my regain speed.
The only reason I'm stopping is that someone came up and knocked on my door. “Miss Aaliyah, may I come in?” I hear Lurte ask through the door.
I swing my legs over the side of the bed. “You can open the door but don’t walk in,” I instruct him.
Lurte pushes my door open, and his eyes become the size of dinner plates when he sees how clean my room is.
“What can I help you with?” I ask him, reminding him he came to ask me something.
“Reel returned; we were asked to take you to meet the regional director as soon as possible.”
“Already?” I ask in astonishment.
“Yes, the others are waiting for us downstairs.” Lurte moves to the side, making room for me to pass him.
I slip on my shoes and grab my sword and coin pouch. “Is it ok for me to walk around with my sword?” I ask Lurte, who's patiently waiting for me.
“It’s fine to carry it with you, but there are consequences if you draw it without a good reason,” He informs me.
I walk out of my room, and Lurte closes the door for me. We make our way downstairs, and I activate Mana Skin again before we step outside the house.
Kervin and Ryiba look surprised to see me clean, while Reel gives me a knowing look. Reel also looks like he’s straightened up since I last saw him. Does he know a cleaning spell as well? I know he's here to spy on me, but maybe I can extract a new spell from him if I’m careful.
“Ready to go?” Kervin asks me.
"I'm ready, but I thought we were meeting your supervisor tomorrow." I give him a questioning look.
"Apparently he was expecting us," Kervin gives a sidelong glance to Reel. "Not only do they have a variety of materials set aside for you to look at, but we were also invited to dinner afterwards.”
I take a quick glance at Reel as well. How is he communicating with Silver Herd? Maybe one of his magic tools works like a cell phone?
I look back at Kervin, "Please tell me we're walking. I don't think I can spend another minute in that cart anymore.”
"Don't worry; it would take too long to hookup the bivol. Our local headquarters is only a fifteen-minute walk from here.” Kervin assures me.
We set out with Reel taking position in front of us while I walk next to Kervin in the middle. Lurte and Ryiba walk behind us, completing our little formation.
Walking on the sidewalk is much more interesting than riding in the cart. Every food and produce stall we pass allows me to see new foods that I've never tried before.
I can see inside the shops we pass, and I regret that we don't have the time to window-shop. Tailors with colorful designs on their walls, I see a pair of boots inside a cobbler's shop that immediately draws my attention; I touch my coin pouch strapped to my side and remember most of my money is tied up with Kervin.
Maybe I should check his house to see what he has before I leave.
That reminds me, "Hey, Kervin, why do you have so much stuff in your house?" I ask him the question that’s been nagging me ever since I stepped inside his front door.
"All that 'stuff' as you call it, is an investment." I resist the urge to call him a hoarder. He continues to explain, "When I was making my rounds to different towns, I would keep an eye out for any deals I could find. Sometimes I would have a bad run and wouldn't sell as many goods as I should've; instead of reporting the bad news to Silver Herd and hurting my reputation with the company, I would purchase my goods at the company’s bottom line and store them in my house. I wait for prices to shift for certain commodities and resell them for a profit.”
That does sound like investing; only he’s working with actual goods instead of stocks. But wait, “That’s cool, but what are you going to do now that you’re only doing deliveries to my village and the army?”
Kervin almost trips over his own feet, and a look of realization crosses his face. His plan would've worked if he kept his route, but now that he's only selling to the army and my village, those goods will probably waste away before he gets the chance to sell them. Our village doesn't need that many supplies, and over half of what people buy from Kervin are mostly perishables. I’m sure the army isn’t interested in the hundreds of plates he has stacked in his kitchen.
“Can’t you sell it back to Silver Herd?” I ask
“I would lose too much money if I did that.” Kervin hangs his head in despair.
“You should have a yard sale,” I suggest without thinking.
“A what?” Kervin gives me a confused look.
Are yard sales not a thing here? I try to play it off like I just came up with the idea. "Well, I was thinking why not wait until spring and try to sell a bunch of items in front of your house."
“How would that work?” Kervin eagerly asks me. I notice Reel looking over his shoulder, listening in on our conversation.
I doubt the concepts of yard sales will break this world, so I better explain the idea to Kervin. "You put up signs around your neighborhood saying you're selling a lot of random cheap items. You fill your yard with goods and let people look through everything. You let them haggle you down to prices cheaper than they could find in a store. Seeing such an assortment of goods at low prices will bring others in, and you'll be able to empty your house without losing too much money."
Kervin looks at me like I sprouted another head. “That’s an amazing idea,” He exclaims.
Kervin would be able to open a convenience store with everything he has in his house. Now that I think about it, I haven't seen any general goods stores. Every shop is focused on a single type of goods.
Kervin and I continue to talk about my yard sale idea, going back and forth, discussing the concept's peculiarities, helping us to pass the time.
“We’re here,” Reel announces while we’re deep in conversation.
We’re stopped directly outside a building even bigger than the inns we’ve passed on the street.
Made mostly from stone and large logs, the building dwarfs the surrounding competition. If the size wasn't intimidating enough, the building screams excess money. This is the first building I’ve seen that has glass windows. Both the wood and stone have designs etched in them, and I also sense an excess amount of mana contained in the building.
I don't think the whole building is enchanted, but I'm sure some of the rooms are.
Reel moves off to the side so that Kervin can take the lead from here on out. I follow a few steps behind him and prepare myself to meet Kervin’s supervisor.