Isra ended up renting a room at the Angry Plum, the larger of Pucklechurch’s two taverns, taking a room across from Alfric. She insisted that the materials from the book be taken out and distributed between their two rooms, which took a fair amount of time given how slow the storage book was, and how many ordinary books were contained within it. Alfric got to glumly watch, once again, as the book gave them descriptions of the books that said nothing about what information they contained. He tried to keep up his well-practiced stoicism, but his eyes went to Isra every once in a while.
On a base level, Alfric understood it. If she didn’t trust him, then she didn’t trust him, and trust had to be earned. But emotionally, it felt like a second punch to the gut to follow up the first. Not only was she going to escort him for what was really just a job for a single person, but she was insisting on making sure he didn’t run off in the night. Obviously if he wasn’t trustworthy, he would just leave, and obviously she had to prevent that, but it still stung, and he wasn’t sure that he’d handled himself as well as possible.
Once the guild message had been completed, he’d stayed up later than he would have liked to admit staring at the ceiling and rehearsing conversations to himself, both things that had already been said and things that he would say the next day.
When he woke up and got dressed, he was surprised to see her outside his door, ready to go. She was wearing different clothes than the day before, brown, but with a crimson head scarf. Her gold piercings had been returned to their place on her face. She moved into his room without a word and began loading the storage book once more. When she finished, she moved to put it in her pack.
“Let me take it,” he said. She raised an eyebrow. “I’m almost certainly stronger than you,” he said, hoping that wasn’t cause for offense. “No sense in you taking the burden.”
“Fine,” she said. Alfric loaded the book up, making sure that it was secure. There was still plenty to carry, mostly those pipes, and they split the load, with him taking more.
“Are we ready to go?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Alfric. “No, I need to fill my waterskin, but yes, after that.” He’d decided on taking his sword but leaving behind most of his armor, including his shield, which Hannah had mostly repaired the day before. The load would be heavy enough without adding more.
They set off down the road together. It was six miles east to the hex border, which would be marked with white pillars, and then once they had warped, there were another six miles to go to the next hex border, and finally, they would arrive in Tarchwood with a second warp. It would have gone faster if Alfric had been traveling by himself, thanks to his stride-lengthening boots, but he wasn’t terribly concerned about the time, and he hoped that he could make an impact on Isra, who seemed to be the second-most capable warrior of the group. Besides, there was a lot to carry.
“I apologize for my reaction yesterday,” he said once they were past the last of the houses. “I understand that it’s hard to trust people, especially people you’ve just met, and I may have overreacted a bit. I think once we get to know each other, you’ll understand where I’m coming from, and how much honor and truth mean to me.”
Isra took a long time to respond. Her face was impassive. “I’ve been stolen from before.”
“So have I,” nodded Alfric. “It’s a horrible feeling, knowing that something that was yours is gone.”
Sometimes a conversation was like an akshi match, topics lobbed back and forth as quick as could be, but Isra seemed to take things like they were one of those western games played on boards with long pauses between any movement of the pieces.
“What was stolen from you?” she asked, after some more time had passed.
“Oh,” said Alfric. He hadn’t quite been ready for that question, only trying to sympathize with her. “I had been planning on being a dungeoneer since I was old enough to know what a dungeon was. I studied, endlessly, joined the Junior League, got training from experts … it was my life’s goal. I mapped out a path through dungeons as best I could, a route that would take the optimal party to heights that hadn’t been seen in decades. I made connections with other people in the Junior League, trained with them, planned with them, shared my knowledge and designs. And then, at the last minute, someone moved in to take my place on the team that I’d put together. They had all my work, all my planning, and I was left in the lurch.” He felt that familiar sour feeling in his gut. “It’s been a year since that happened. I was seventeen then, ready to be authorized to go out, only waiting on our wizard to be old enough. For a while I scrambled to find someone who would take me, but everyone in the Junior League had partied up ages ago.” And there were rumors swirling, which surely must have been part of it. “I tried going younger, to find a workable party who were two or three years below me, but it was awkward, and there were false starts.” Failures, though he didn’t like the word. “Everyone thought there must be something wrong with me, that there was a reason that I hadn’t been able to find anyone.” He shook his head. “All that work was taken from me. They copied my journal and used it for their own. And it worked. They’re all far ahead of me, not as far as they’d have been if I had been the one to lead the charge, but far enough that they’re getting plaudits.”
He snuck a look at Isra, who had been silent through all this. Her face was impassive.
“If I’ve been trying to rush things, this is why,” said Alfric. “I’m trying to make up for lost time.” Again, there were what might later be seen as lies of omission. He wondered whether she would ask what had taken so long, why an entire year had passed without him being able to gain traction, and he would have to admit to failed parties, or perhaps use the excuse of the target on his back, or his personal politics. All that, he was willing to speak freely about.
Isra was still silent, and he gave her some time to process or think while they walked. It was a story that he would share with the others, when the time was right, but it was entirely possible that he should share the other piece of it, the thing lurking in the background that he didn’t want to mention. He would have to, eventually, but he was hoping that it could wait until after their second dungeon.
“My father died when I was thirteen,” said Isra. “A friend of his stole almost everything of value from our cabin.”
“Oh,” said Alfric. “Oh, I’m so sorry, that must have been horrible.” He had the familiar feeling of shame, because his problems were so much smaller and more pathetic. He had a good life, he knew that. He had good parents, his health, access to money, all kinds of advantages. “And your mother —”
“Died in childbirth,” said Isra. “It was just me and my father. I’ve been alone since his death.”
“Sorry,” Alfric said again, as if an apology would do anything. “All alone? At thirteen?”
“How did you,” he started. “How did you survive?”
“My father taught me,” she said. “Trapping, hunting, making fires, getting through the winters. How to make and string a bow. How to preserve food. How to hide.”
“And you’ve just been doing that for the last five years?” he asked.
Isra looked at him, almost glaring. “How did you know how old I was?” she asked.
“The censusmaster,” he said, feeling slightly surprised. “That was how I knew about you in the first place.”
“Oh,” she replied, frowning. “What else do you know?”
“Nothing much,” he replied. “Name, age, gender, occupation, residency status, elevation, eye color, skin color, and hair color are the main things. The censusmaster can give weight and height, but I didn’t ask about those. Guild status, which I did ask about.”
“Occupation?” she asked, still frowning. He was tempted to ask how she didn’t know any of this, but if she’d been living in the woods by herself for the last five years with both her parents dead, it was small wonder. He wondered whether she’d attended the small schools they had in a hex like Pucklechurch, and decided that she probably hadn’t.
“A lot of what the censusmaster knows is an approximation,” said Alfirc. “The Editors — do you know about the Editors?”
Isra frowned. “Vaguely.”
“Well, the Editors are a council of people who are, basically, in charge of the shape of the world,” he said. “They’re not the ones who make the changes, but they’re the ones who decide what changes need to be made. A lot of what the Editors have focused on in the past three hundred years is legibility and information.” He tried to organize his thoughts. “The censusmasters have only been around for the last two hundred years, and some of the information structures put into place from earlier are, uh.” He stopped. “Is this too much for you?”
“I just want to know what he says about me,” she said.
“He?” asked Alfric. “Oh, the censusmaster. She’s a woman. Well, it’s not really what she says, because the information comes to her from a construct that was created by the Editors about a thousand years ago. The construct thinks, though that’s not the right word, that you’re a ranger.”
“A ranger,” she said, as if tasting the word. “I suppose.”
“It’s not a very good system,” said Alfric. “The categorization system predates the censusmasters, and hasn’t been updated in a thousand years, so you get weird things like ectad engineers being labeled as cobblers. Unfortunately, the category system is kind of broken and apparently hard to fix, so everyone just kind of lives with it.” There were many things that were broken and hard to fix, which greatly informed the policy of the modern Editors, which largely involved getting it right the first time and future-proofing as much as possible.
“How do you know so much?” asked Isra.
“Oh,” said Alfric. “Well, no offense to Pucklechurch, but I was raised in Dondrian, which has a good education system, even if your family can’t send you to a private school or hire tutors. My parents could afford both of those. All of this kind of thing was covered in our civics class, because the census stuff is a basic part of governance.” He hesitated. “If you want, I can give you a quick lesson. It’s good stuff to know.”
Isra nodded. “They don’t know where I live though.”
“Er,” said Alfric. “Well, there are seven positions of civic power within a hex, and the censusmaster only knows who lives in or is visiting the hex, not where they are. The structuralist knows where all the buildings are, so if you live in a building, and the censusmaster and the structuralist talk to each other, they might be able to figure out by process of elimination where you are. I don’t know if they’ve done that.” He stopped himself before saying that they should do that.
“Censusmaster, beastmaster, structuralist, cloudmaster, plantmaster,” said Isra. “What are the others?”
“Hexmaster and collector,” said Alfric. “Arguably the two most important.” He hesitated again, unsure of how much to add. “The hexmaster is elected by everyone who has occupancy, and the collector is in charge of information related to aether, mostly as an early-warning role.”
They walked in silence for a bit after that, and Alfric resisted the urge to speak more. He had a bad habit of explaining things to people that they didn’t care to know, and he’d been working hard to curb it. If Isra was ignorant of even the basics of governance and civics, possibly everything, then that might be a problem, but not all that much of one. It was a mark of failure on the part of Pucklechurch that a child had been left out in the woods to raise herself, but that was neither here nor there.
“The beastmaster spoke to me,” said Isra. “She said I was taking too much. She can track the animals through magic?”
“Yes,” said Alfric. “Animals are categorized and tracked. In the city it’s mostly used to make sure that people aren’t bringing in the wrong sorts of animals, fighting them, things like that. I’m not too sure about in more rural areas.”
“The world is so … ordered,” said Isra. That Alfric could agree on, and had said many times. He was just about to enthusiastically share her unease when she asked a question. “It’s the same in every hex?”
“There are a few that are unsettled,” said Alfric. “It takes, I think, about twenty people to get a vote going, and once that happens, the positions are filled by the hexmaster.” He wondered whether she had ever gone through a vote before. “But in those cases, it’s just a matter of knowing things. They don’t really have any power to do anything, and a different group could move in pretty quickly to take the position, if they wanted to.” He shrugged. “We’ll be passing through one of those small hexes soon. Not small in size, they’re all the same size,” he had no idea whether that needed to be said, “But probably not more than a hundred people there.”
Alfric had come in from the west, and they were now going east, down a path he hadn’t seen before. He was enjoying the change in scenery, which was largely woodlands instead of farms. The land wasn’t particularly suited to agriculture, with too rough of terrain, broken up by large slabs of rock sticking up from the ground. The path was in good repair though, which he couldn’t say about all of the hexes he’d passed through on his way from the fortuitously-timed portal. It was pretty common for a hex to have six roads going directly to the hex borders, though it took a fair bit of labor, and local geography sometimes stymied these efforts.
They soon reached one of those places where the geography was definitely not ideal, a steep hill where the road became a series of switchbacks that carefully navigated the outcroppings of rock. In a few places there were short wooden bridges, and embankments holding back trees and dirt. The whole thing was in good repair, but it had a rustic quality to it that Alfric still found somewhat unsettling. Something like this in any of the city hexes would be solid stonework, and if it was a road that was going to the hex boundary, it was much more likely that the city would just make a tunnel straight through the rock.
By the time they reached the summit, Alfric was slightly out of breath, though to his surprise, Isra didn’t seem to be affected all that much by the climb. She was sweating slightly, but doing much better than he was. Granted, she had less weighing her down, but he was still impressed. He stood for a moment, letting the cool air from the top of the hill wash over him. Looking back, Pucklechurch was just barely visible, mostly in the form of a swatch of farmland and the temple as the only building that stood out from the mess of white rectangles and gray slate roofs.
When Alfric turned back toward the path, he realized that the white pillars that marked the hex boundary were right there, on top of the hill. He groaned in disappointment.
“Problem?” asked Isra, furrowing her brow and trying to see what he’d seen.
“We’re at the hex boundary,” he said, gesturing at the pillars. “That means that when we come back, we’re going to have to make that long hike again from the opposite direction. If the boundary were further away, then we could warp before we came near the big hill.”
“Ah,” she said. “That’s a problem for tomorrow though.” She went ahead, walking quickly, and passed through the pillars. She was just about to start on the spell when Alfric called to her.
“Wait!” he said. She stopped, giving him a raised eyebrow. “You need to go further.”
“Further?” she asked, looking at the white pillars. She was past them, but only by about five feet.
“Thirty feet,” he said. “That’s protocol. The pillars aren’t always perfect, and I doubt you want to walk those six miles over again. I’ve had it happen to me once, and once was enough.”
Isra nodded and then moved, and Alfric walked toward her, reaching her just as she vanished. He shook his head and performed the spell himself, using familiar motions that he’d used dozens of times through the past few weeks on his way to Pucklechurch.
The transition was instant, and the design of the warp point was quite similar to that of Pucklechurch, with pillars supporting a roof above an open area. He stepped to the side right away, over to where Isra was standing.
“I was worried that you would leave me,” she said.
“Leave you?” asked Alfric.
“You could have gone back to Pucklechurch,” she said. “All you would have needed to do was to go back to the other side of the boundary.”
“Oh, that’s devious,” said Alfric. “The thought didn’t even cross my mind.” He paused. “Was that a test?”
“No,” said Isra. “I didn’t think about it until I was through.”
“Well, we’re here,” said Alfric, looking around.
The town was much smaller than Pucklechurch, barely more than a collection of houses. From the records Alfric had looked at, it had barely more than a hundred people. There were only three stores, though a few of the houses had workshops attached that might serve as a place of business. There was farmland, but largely just for self-sufficiency. It was somewhat safe to say that without hexilization and the warp, there might not have been a town at all, and in the days before waterstones, they’d have built much closer to the local water source. It was the kind of thing that had fascinated him as a child, wondering how it was that people lived in rural places like this, so far from all the goods and services he was used to.
“Let’s keep going,” said Isra after she’d taken her own look around.
“Of course,” nodded Alfric.
They got a few looks as they went through the small town, but no one spoke to them. It was obvious they were just passing through, and Alfric supposed that this was at least a daily occurrence, especially because this was the easiest path between Tarchwood and Pucklechurch.
“I’ve only left the hex twice before,” said Isra. She was looking around more, now that they were somewhere new. The roads were in much worse condition, more trails than proper roads, the kind that a wagon could get through with some difficulty, risking getting stuck in the mud if it rained. From the town, Alfric hadn’t even been sure that there were roads in all six directions.
“I rarely left Dondrian,” said Alfric. “Why twice?”
“Both times by accident,” said Isra. “I crossed the border without knowing it.”
“And the warp sent you to the center of some other hex,” said Alfric. “That’s always a painful experience, especially if you don’t know quite where you’ve ended up. Adding an extra six miles, at least, when you’ve had a long day, or thought you were getting an early start on things, can be awful.”
Isra nodded. “I used to go into Pucklechurch with my father. The first time, I hadn’t known that the spell could send you anywhere else.”
“Ouch,” said Alfric. “But you made your way back?”
Isra nodded. “Obviously.”
“But I mean,” said Alfric, “Being in a strange place, not knowing what had happened, that must have been scary.”
“It was,” said Isra.
They said nothing more for the next two miles. At various points, Alfric thought of something to say, and then he would look at Isra, and the thought would die on his lips. He had, in his time in the Junior League, met a number of people who were tightly wound and cold as ice, but Isra seemed to be in a league of her own so far as that was concerned. He needed to talk to her, to convince her that being in the party was in her best interests, but he had no idea how to do that. She was an orphan. Shouldn’t she want friends? Wasn’t that, in part, what a party was? Alfric had heard of parties where everyone was only cordial with each other, and of course he’d had many stories about interpersonal drama within a party, but it seemed to him that your party would, inevitably, become your friends. Or at least, he’d thought that before he’d been abandoned, and never really reflected on it afterward.
“Tarchwood is larger,” said Alfric. “I’ve never been, but it has a number of shops that we’ll want to bring what we have to. We’ll see if we can sell the books as they are, but if not, then they can be bleached or have the ink removed, and we can sell them blank. Aside from that, we’ll also need to find an entad shop, which there are two of. I don’t think we’ll get much from what we have, but it’s part of due diligence.”
“Okay,” said Isra.
They went another five minutes. The silence was agonizing. He was starting to think that perhaps Isra just didn’t know how conversations were supposed to go, or at least not the kind of frippery that you were meant to fill the air with when you were walking with someone.
“How do you know?” she asked.
“Know what?” asked Alfric.
“What’s in Tarchwood,” replied Isra.
“Oh,” replied Alfric. “Um, more civics stuff. A hex under the command of a hexmaster can pledge information to a province, which is a collection of hexes, and provinces have their own people and rules and stuff.” He hesitated, feeling foolish for what he felt compelled to say next. “There are also collections of provinces, which is a nation. We’re in the nation of Interim.”
“That, I knew,” replied Isra.
“Alright,” said Alfric. “Sorry.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway, hexmasters can pledge information to a province, and the province pledges to the nation. The nation, through the mechanism of the prime minister, can appoint someone to administer, usually sent from the seat of power, in this case Dondrian, and then they send information back along the national backbone to be cataloged.”
“But how do you know?” asked Isra.
“There are detailed maps available for the public to view,” said Alfric.
“And you viewed them,” said Isra. “And you remembered everything about them.”
“Well, yes,” said Alfric. “Not entirely, because the Interim is one of the largest nations in the world, almost thirty thousand hexes not including all the oceanic territory, but I tried my best to remember everything about this general area.”
“Mmm,” said Isra.
“Did you want another civics lesson?” asked Alfric.
“No,” said Isra. “One a day is fine.”
Alfirc couldn’t tell whether that was a joke or not.
Their long silence resumed.
“Say,” said Alfric. “Where are you from?”
“Not far from Pucklechurch,” replied Isra.
“I mean, where were you born?” he asked.
“Not far from Pucklechurch,” Isra replied a second time.
“Oh,” said Alfric. “I just meant … you have a light accent. And we don’t get many people with our color of skin in these parts.” His own skin was a shade darker than hers.
“My mother and father were from Tarbin,” said Isra. “They moved before I was born.”
“Tarbin,” said Alfric, nodding. “My own family is from North Tarbin, though we didn’t cross the sea until five hundred years ago.” There were relatively few nations left in the world, but North Tarbin had been holding on for a long time, and it was Tarbin they were holding off against.
“My father taught me about Tarbin, but that was years ago,” said Isra. “I haven’t spoken the language since he passed.”
Alfric didn’t speak any of the languages of North Tarbin. It was a point of pride among his family that they were as Inter as they came.
The silence descended again, this time like a thick and suffocating cloud, but as a small mercy, it wasn’t too long until they saw the hex boundary, and then Alfric could pretend that they weren’t talking because they were focused on getting there. If it were anyone else, Alfric would have filled the air with unimportant thoughts about Tarchwood.
The warp point at Tarchwood was larger than the one at Pucklechurch. It was fully enclosed, and it had an attendant, though she was sitting slumped in a chair when they came in and only reluctantly got up from her seat to usher them to the side. Alfric nonetheless thanked her and offered her a tip, but she didn’t seem to understand, and he sheepishly stuck the ring back in his pocket.
Tarchwood was built on the edge of one of the huge Proten Lakes, and the hex had ended up so that it was a short walk to the city proper, which had mostly clumped up by the lake. There were a few taller buildings, though of course nothing like the enormous city of Dondrian, or even a more residential area of Dondrian. Here, finally, there were people, lots of them, and again, they didn’t have quite the numbers or variety that Alfric was used to, but it was something that came close to home.
Isra moved at the same pace she’d used on the roads, but there was something wary and tentative in her movements, to say nothing of her face. Alfric thought she had the look of someone trying very hard to fit in and not show fear.
“I’ll take point,” he said. “I know the names of the shops, and how to navigate a city.”
Isra nodded, and seemed somewhat reassured that the only thing that would be asked of her would be to make sure he didn’t steal anything. He would have to be a fool to do that though, given what he knew her bow was capable of.
Tarchwood had more wooden structures than Alfric was used to, and more than had been used in Pucklechurch. Dondrian had a fire some five hundred years prior, and wooden structures had been outlawed. Looking at the buildings, he couldn’t help but think about that and see the three or four story buildings as being tinderboxes. Putting out fires had become a lot easier since that time, thanks to advances in both magic and coordination, but Alfric had always been more afraid of fire than other people seemed to be. Fires could also, of course, be undone, but Alfric found little comfort in that.
Not that there seemed to be much risk. It was a somewhat wet day, and the air was damp against his skin, as though it had just finished raining moments ago.
“Here, I think this is a likely place,” said Alfric. The sign professed that the store had many things, among them, novelties and henlings. “We’ll see what we can get for them.”
The owner of the shop was a tall man with large ears who eyed them as they came in, particularly Alfric. “What can I do for you?” he asked.
“We’re dungeoneers looking to make a sale,” said Alfric. “We have a large number of books and were hoping to sell them as a lot.”
“And the contents?” asked the big-eared man. He was looking back and forth between the two of them.
Alfric shrugged. “We don’t know. From what I saw, it seems to be a mix, but I’m not sure.”
The big-eared man sighed. “Then you’re just starting out?”
“Yes,” said Alfric, frowning. “Sorry if there’s something I’m missing here.”
“How many do you have?” he asked.
“Six hundred,” Alfric replied.
“Alright,” nodded the shopkeeper. He held out a hand. “Mergan,” he said. Alfric might have guessed that: the sign outside had said ‘Mergan’s Emporium’.
“Alfric,” Alfric replied. He nodded to Isra. “This is Isra.”
“Where is your party stationed out of?” asked Mergan.
“Pucklechurch, for now,” said Alfric.
“So there’s a good chance that you’ll be dealing with me on a regular basis,” nodded Mergan. “Well, the thing you need to know about books is that their worth depends largely on what’s inside them. There are entads for translation, and I have one, but the market is pretty small, mostly made up of specialists and hobbyists. Six hundred books might make you a fortune, if they’re the right ones, or they might only be good for washing the pages clean and writing something else there. With six hundred, that would still make you a good amount, but there’s no one in Tarchwood who does that work, which means that if I bought them, I would have to ship them off to somewhere else. Beyond that, I’d be the one taking a risk, so your price would be quite a bit lower. Now, I’m always looking for up-and-comers, and I hope we can have a relationship of some kind. I’m also hoping that if I do right by you, you do right by me. If we don’t get along, there’s another shop in Tarchwood that deals with dungeon things, though they’re more on the entad side, or you could go the other way, to Liberfell, which has its own buyers. Alright?”
Alfric nodded. “I’m more used to how things are done in Dondrian,” he said. “So any guidance you can give would be more than welcome.” From experience, he knew that some people would sit through a talk like that trying to keep themselves from sighing with boredom, but he had always been an eager sponge, appreciative of others sharing what they knew.
“Dondrian,” said Mergan, shaking his head. “I’d thought you might, given your manner, and the darkness of your skin.” It was common there, a third of the population, almost all of them originally from North Tarbin a long time ago. Mergan glanced at Isra. “The both of you? Siblings?”
Alfric looked at Isra. His skin was darker than hers, and their features quite distinct, but he could see where someone might think that. Most of the people in this particular province of the Interim were light-skinned, with a somewhat sizable contingent from Kiromo, and to them, he and Isra might have seemed similar.
“No,” said Isra. She almost seemed like she would leave it at that. “My parents immigrated from Tarbin and I was born near Pucklechurch.”
“Ah,” replied Mergan. “Well, I’ll welcome you all the same. Good to have a local, to keep the city folk in line. You can feel free to look around while we talk about business, it’s mostly henlings and some dungeon art.” Isra stayed where she was while Mergan turned back to Alfric. “The books, then?”
Alfric pulled out the storage book, and began removing the mundane books from it, stacking them up on the counter one by one. At first, Mergan just watched, but as it became clear just how long this process was going to take, he began looking through the books. He checked the spine first, then leafed through, though Alfric had no idea what he might be looking for. Once a hundred books had been removed, set into stacks of ten, Mergan used a key to open a small box on the counter and pulled out a monocle with a green lens, which he used to look at the books, largely focusing on their spines.
“About half of these are recipe books,” said Mergan. “Those are only worth the paper and the binding, raw material for some kind of magic or another. The recipes have measurements no one’s ever heard of, ingredients that might mean anything, all kinds of problems that make them a curiosity and nothing more. I think I’ve sold two over twenty years running this place.”
“That’s a shame,” said Alfric, who was continuing to pull out more books. He was going to be happy to see the end of this particular transaction. If the books turned out not to be worth much, there wasn’t anything much he could do about it.
“It’s the same for instruction books, manuals, all kinds of things,” said Mergan. “Gardening books for fruits and flowers that don’t exist, using tools that you’d have to make special, from someone who’s got different ideas about what soil is like, that kind of thing. Not all entirely worthless, but close to it, and hard to find a buyer.”
“What about the rest?” asked Alfric.
“Well, I can tell you what I’m looking for,” said Mergan as he flipped through more of them. “I’m looking for stories, I’m looking for books with illustrations, I’m looking for sciences, I’m looking for magic. The two biggest markets for dungeon books are, broadly, entertainment and education.” He stopped in the middle of flipping through one particular book and gave it a closer look, then set it over to one side. “The problem here is that I’m both the appraiser and the buyer, which isn’t a good situation for you, and I don’t want to put you at a disadvantage, because as I’ve said, I like up-and-comers bringing their finds to me. Now, you’ve got two options. The first is that you just trust that I’m a good guy, which I don’t think I’d do, if I were you. You’d appraise them yourselves, obviously, but respectfully, you have no idea. The second option is that you bring someone in to take a look.” He had been looking through the books as he talked, and setting aside perhaps one in every twenty of them. “Now, options are limited in Tarchwood, and so far as I know, there are only two or three people who’d be qualified to check my estimations. The entad shop, that’s run by a husband and wife couple, but they trade in henlings and such too. The wife, that’s Eddel, she’s got a head for numbers and I’m sure she’d be willing to take a look and maybe give you a counteroffer, if you want to fetch her.”
Alfric nodded. “If it’s alright with you, I’ll go get her,” he said.
“Of course,” said Mergan.
“I’ll stay with the books,” said Isra. There was distrust in her voice, and Alfric didn’t like that, not when it was so obvious. They had just met this man, Mergan, but from what he knew of small towns, the proprietors had too much to risk if they tried to swindle or cheat someone.
He took off, hoping that she would be okay on her own.