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Alfric left and went down the street, finding ‘Sharpe & Eddel’ without too much trouble, and explained the situation to the woman behind the desk. Her shop was much more clean and organized than Mergan’s, with most of the wares inside glass cases. There were three mannequins, two of them with armor, and the last wearing miscellaneous items. If they were all entads, Alfric could imagine himself spending his share of whatever he got from the books there.

“‘Counteroffer’,” scoffed Eddel as they walked. She was well-dressed, with all kinds of embellishments built into both her vest and dress. Her hair was dark, almost black, but with streaks of grey. “Mergan is too damned scrupulous for his own good, and I wouldn’t mind him making sure things were squared away, but this is the fifth time this month he’s brought me in.”

“And did you counteroffer?” asked Alfric.

“Not once,” Eddel replied. “But I gave my own assessment of what things were worth. Mostly Mergan does it to make himself feel better, especially with the young ones.”

“And you’re still coming with me,” said Alfric.

Eddel waved a hand. “Well, of course, he’s right, you’re juniors, and if we’re lucky, we’ll be seeing a bit of you, if you come here instead of Liberfell. Liberfell is bigger, no doubt, but we’re next to the water, with shipping across the lake and a shorter trip to a major leyline. Without dungeoneers, I’d have no stock, and nothing kills an entad shop faster. Of course, a lot of young dungeoneers flame out early on.” She gave Alfric a look as she hustled along. “You seem like the kind who will stick it out though.”

There was a tightness in Alfric’s chest as he went through into Mergan’s Emporium, worried that somehow things would have deteriorated in his absence, but when he got back in, Isra was laughing. The laughter faltered when Alfric came in, but she made no attempt to hide her smile.

“Are we interrupting something?” asked Eddel. She immediately went to the books and started flipping through them.

“Just a joke,” Mergan said with a smile. “I know a scant amount of Tarbin, and three or four jokes. Jokes are the most useful thing you can learn in a language.”

“It was quite rude,” Isra smiled. When she saw Alfric looking at her, she turned away from him and toward some of the cluttered shop’s other goods.

“All the best jokes are,” Mergan replied.

“These are the worthwhile ones?” asked Eddel, pointing at the small stack of books that sat next to the much larger one.

“In my opinion, anyway,” said Mergan. He turned to Alfric. “You’ll have to understand that I don’t have the time or inclination to go through everything with a fine-toothed comb. If that’s a requirement for you, you’re best going somewhere else. Or, you could look through the books on your own, separate them out, and I could use that to inform my price.”

“We’re looking to sell quickly,” said Alfric. “Besides, I can’t read any of what’s written in the books.”

“You can still tell by looking,” replied Eddel, who was leafing through the small stack. “Sometimes there are one or two pictures, sometimes you can tell from the headings, sometimes just looking at the shape of the paragraphs.” She pointed to one open page. “Punctuation is usually done with small marks, different from the glyphs they use for letters or words, so if you see marks that seem to be annotating something, they can be pretty obvious. Here, you can see that these are probably quotation marks, though I’d be hard-pressed to bet on it.”

“They are,” said Mergan, who had slipped the monocle into his front pocket.

“It lets you make a good guess, anyhow,” said Eddel. She looked at the large stack of books that had been put off to the side. “And all those are dross?”

“Not dross,” said Mergan. “But I’d sell them as henlings, or ship them off to someone who’s willing to do the work of bleaching, or a wortier.” He clucked his tongue and looked at Alfric. “Alright, I’m thinking for these,” gesturing to the small pile, “Three hundred a piece.” He pointed at the other pile. “For the stinkers, five each.”

“Five?” asked Alfric, folding his arms. “That’s nearly robbery. It’s high quality parchment and good binding, and beyond that, they’re nearly standardized.”

“Five is a fair offer,” said Eddel. “It’s good parchment, but it’s got ink on it, hasn’t it?”

Alfric deflated somewhat. “But that’s what, thirteen thousand for the lot?”

“When you say it like that, it seems like a worse deal for Mergan,” said Eddel. “Personally, I’d offer less.” She turned to Mergan. “You think you can recoup three hundred a piece for those? Or did you see something I didn’t?”

“I think it’s a fair price,” said Mergan. “And I think they’re worth more considering how many of them there are, all from the same place. They could be sold as a set.” He shrugged. “You’d get a better price taking them back to Dondrian, but that’s quite a journey to make, and travel comes with costs of its own.”

Alfric had been prepared to get less than the fifty thousand he’d dreamed of, but so much less was a real blow. The money didn’t matter that much, and it might help keep the party hungry, which was important in the short term, though he tried his best not to listen to that intrusive thought. Still, he had been certain there were things to be had over at Sharpe and Eddel’s, and he was equally sure that they would be expensive. Perhaps there was something to going further afield, but without fortuitous timing on a portal, he’d have a wait ahead of him, and then another wait coming back, all while risking leaving the party stillborn.

“If you don’t like it, you don’t like it, but I’m not buying the books,” said Eddel. “And I know if you’re hot off a dungeon run, you’re probably coming my way soon, so I’ve got every incentive to get you to milk this poor bugger.”

Alfric looked at Isra, who was standing impassively. “Thoughts?” he asked.

“The opening offer is never the limit,” said Isra.

“It is with me,” said Mergan. He was standing still, as solid as a rock.

“Fourteen for the lot,” said Alfric. “I don’t think you’re trying to squeeze us, but I think there’s some give, and this is getting split five ways.”

“How it’s getting split isn’t my problem,” said Mergan. He looked at the small stack of books again, which wasn’t actually all that small. Alfric tried to see where his eyes were landing, and failed to see which of those books was the money maker. “Fine,” Mergan finally said, holding out his hand.

Alfric shook, feeling mixed emotions. Barter was a crucial aspect of being a dungeoneer, but it had always been a weak spot for him. In an ideal world, it would have been the responsibility of someone else on the team, but the party wasn’t a team yet.

“Well,” said Eddel, “Should I expect you over shortly, flush with rings?”

“Of course,” nodded Alfric. “And thank you for your input.”

“Oh, it’s no problem,” said Eddel. “We’re competitors, of a sort, but we also have to watch each other’s backs. I suppose I’ll wait for the transaction.”

It took some time to settle up with Mergan, in part because while he had fourteen thousand rings on hand, they were locked away in an entad that took some time and effort to open. It was a large sum of money, and Alfric was mildly surprised to see so many high-value rings in one place. In Dondrian, most purchases like this would go through banks, with nothing actually changing hands except a signature or seal. Here in Tarchwood, it was done differently, perhaps owing to the lack of banks, or possibly the fact that people were a bit less trusting of each other, or had fewer methods of enforcing trust.

The three of them, Alfric, Isra, and Eddel, went over to her store together.

“Now then, looking for anything specific?” asked Eddel. “You’ve got the funds.”

“Unfortunately, there are only two of the five of us,” said Alfric. “So most of the money has to be reserved.” Along with what he had on hand, he’d got a hundred rings to spend, and he was hoping that she would have something good for that price. Looking more closely, he could see that none of the entads on display had their prices listed, only descriptions.

“If I can offer a bit of advice,” said Eddel. “And this is only because I want you to succeed for my own selfish reasons — it’s best to hold off on buying some of the more common stuff. You’re a new party, aren’t you?”

Alfric nodded. “How’d you know?”

“You were talking to each other rather than using the channel,” said Eddel. “And you’re not as dripping in entads as I’d expect. Anyhow, if you’re a fresh new party, you’ll be finding stuff in the dungeons, and it’s a shame to spend rings on something basic only to come across it in the very next dungeon.”

“We could sell the extra to you though, couldn’t we?” asked Alfric.

“You could,” she replied. “But I take my cut, and my cut can be pretty big, because I’ve got floorspace and presentation to worry about. Beside that, there’s always the problem of binding.”

“How much for this set of arrows?” asked Isra, who had been looking at the displays.

“Two thousand,” said Eddel.

Alfric winced. Eddel had been with them when the deal was struck, and now knew exactly how much each of them could afford. Her going over there had definitely not been altruism.

“They’re indestructible?” asked Isra. “The price seems high if they’re not.”

“If you manage to destroy one without magic, I’ll refund half your rings,” said Eddel. “They passed the scratch tests with flying colors, and I had the cleric of Oeyr look at them last time he was in.”

“Wait, the book might help,” said Alfric. He took the book from his pack, again ruing how heavy it was, and laid it on the floor. He took one of the arrows from Isra and fed it into the book, then waited for the description to appear. From their tests, it hadn’t been able to identify entads or their functions, but it could do something that was nearly as valuable, which was to give an indication of their material composition. “Described as being like corum,” said Alfric. “Which is a rare metal, virtually indestructible.”

Isra nodded, and took another one of the arrows from the case they were in. She looked it over, examining the flight and the head, then tried to snap it over her knee. She winced in pain, but the arrow was unbroken.

“Don’t try that with anything else in the shop,” said Eddel, frowning. “Not without my say so.”

“Range?” asked Isra. Alfric had no idea what she was talking about, but she had read the description on the case, and he hadn’t. He extracted the arrow from the book and handed it to Isra.

“It’s time, not range,” said Eddel. “One second of motionlessness and they snap back to where they were.”

Isra nodded, then looked down at the description again. “But you can only fire four,” she said.

“If you want to have them return, yes,” said Eddel. She smiled. “Can you shoot more than four arrows in six seconds?”

“The bow slows down time,” said Isra, gesturing to the bone-white bow on her back.

“Ah,” said Eddel. The smug expression fell away. “Well, perhaps it’s a sub-par entad for you then, but it’s the best I’ve got when it comes to archery, if you’ve already got the bow covered. I do have a few other arrows, since they’re common enough, but nothing so indestructible. Novelties, really.” She waited, looking at Isra, then turned to Alfric. “And you?”

“The book is going to be our storage,” he said, hefting it back up. “But I was looking for something that would help with travel. I know travel is common enough, but the party is still forming, and I don’t think there’s much confidence that we should all uproot our lives. Being able to bring them directly to the next dungeon would be helpful.”

“You made fourteen thousand off just the books,” said Eddel with a frown. “I’m not sure how it is in Dondrian, but that’s a windfall for any new party in these parts.” She must have seen something in his face. “But not everyone is fully on board, are they?” She looked over at Isra.

“I am,” said Isra, still inspecting the arrows. She took one of them and nocked it in her bowstring, drawing back to get a feel for it.

“No shooting in the store,” said Eddel.

“Some of the others though, no,” said Alfric. “Not fully on board.”

“And then you’re the one who has to take up the coordination and everything else,” said Eddel, looking Alfric up and down. “That was what I did, in my adventuring days. Not only are you filling your role in the group, but you’re checking times with everyone, making travel arrangements, scoping out the dungeons, gathering information, all that work, and everyone profits off it unless you try to make sure you get a larger cut, which no one likes, because they don’t see it as work.”

“I don’t mind the work,” said Alfric. “I’ve been dreaming of going into dungeons all my life. I’d have taken the world by storm a year ago, if plans hadn’t fallen through.” As soon as he’d said it, he realized it sounded like arrogance and puffery. It was the kind of thing you weren’t supposed to say out loud, even if you thought it was true. And if he tried to justify it with his lineage, or his extensive knowledge and practice, it would sound even more like arrogance.

“Better to be older, I’d say,” nodded Eddel. She went over to one of the cabinets, which was packed with stuff, and began looking through it until she found what she was looking for. “Here,” she said, handing a dagger to Alfric. It was a small one, slightly dull, with a handle of jade. “It’s a part of what you need, and the best I can part with for what I know you have. Once a day, you can go to where the dagger is. It works for the last person the dagger cut, but the weight limit is high, and it’s only weight. You could take another with you, if she were light enough and standing on your feet. Any more than that, you’d need floatstones.”

Alfric nodded, feeling the dagger. “How’d it do on the scratch test?” he asked.

“Somewhat poor,” she said. “You could probably get away with stabbing someone with it, or using it for cooking, but I wouldn’t go into battle with it or use it against armor. Seventeen hundred for it.”

“So all I would need to have a good setup is a second one of these, then some way to take people with,” said Alfric. “One third of what I need, let’s say.” It seemed like a high price to pay, but equipment or services that allowed rapid traversal of the world always were. Floatstones would be a fairly significant expense, but they were probably better than trying to find an entad.

“It’s only a piece, but it’s what I have as far as travel goes,” said Eddel. “I’ve got three more entads that I don’t think you’d have much use for, all with some use in travel: a staff that lets you walk through trees about a mile at a time but in a random direction, a sail that can harness unseen winds, and a pair of boots that allow for long jumps.”

“How long of jumps?” asked Alfric.

“Fifty feet, or thereabouts, but you can do as many in a row as you’d like,” said Eddel. “The man who brought it in twisted his ankle using it and, I suppose, lost his taste for it.”

Alfric hefted the dagger. “You said, when we came in, that it was better not to buy something we were likely to get more of.”

“And I stand by that,” nodded Eddel. “But travel is vital, and one of the big things that stops dungeoneering teams. You might want shelter too, but that’s not vital in the same way that travel is. You might want food, but again, it’s not the hardest thing to get on your own.”

“I was told that I should never get an entad that replaced something I already had in my backpack,” said Alfric, nodding.

“Well, whoever said that was a fool, or someone wise who was trying to be too pithy,” said Eddel. “Replacing something that weighs ten pounds with something that weighs one? That’s almost always worth it, unless someone’s trying to charge you an arm and a leg.”

“Speaking of overcharging,” said Isra, stepping forward. “I’ll take the arrows for a thousand.”

Eddel shook her head. “That’s half their asking price. You should think about it in terms of what you save by never having to visit a fletcher again.”

“I have thought about it,” said Isra. “The arrows pay for themselves, but that will take time. They’re blunt, and there’s no way to sharpen them. And they’ve been sitting in that display case so long there’s discoloration on the wood.”

Eddel shifted in place. “I need something more than a thousand.”

“We’ll come here first when we come to Tarchwood,” said Isra. “You’ll have first pick of whatever we pull out of the dungeons. But then you’d have to knock another hundred off the dagger.”

Eddel sighed. “Fine, I can already tell you’re not going to be my favorite dungeoneers.”

“If you wanted the dagger?” asked Isra.

“I think I do,” nodded Alfric. “If I could hire a cartier, I’d be able to travel around quite a bit faster.”

“A deal to both then,” said Eddel. She went behind the counter and pulled out a sack of rings, with rings of different denominations on separate loops. “Have you gone to see Wilch yet? He’s the ectad man in Tarchwood, though he doesn’t have full facilities.”

“He’s our next stop,” said Alfric. “And then we were hoping to head back to Pucklechurch and get there before nightfall. That should be doable, right?”

“Depends on if you can find Wilch,” said Eddel as she took the rings that Alfric was offering. “He runs odd hours. If you want a recommendation on an inn, I’d say the Hare’s Rump would suit you.”

“If we don’t spend the night, that’s nearly twenty-four miles of walking for the day,” said Alfric. “I’m already feeling it in my shins.”

“This will be my second time staying at an inn,” said Isra as she put her arrows into her quiver.

“Really?” asked Eddel. “So you’re all very new at this.”

“We are,” said Alfric. “But we’ve got good plans in place, and a good party.”

Eddel didn’t quite roll her eyes at that, but Alfric could feel her skepticism. “Well, you feel free to look around and spend the rest of your rings, or square away what you don’t have funds for. I can put a hold on things for up to a few weeks, if you’re serious about coming back with the money.”

Alfric did end up selling her one of the entads they didn’t want, the red cloth, but she didn’t seem terribly interested in the book that recorded conversations, so he held onto it. It was the kind of thing that you’d get more for in a larger city, they both agreed on that, and Alfric hoped he wasn’t being derelict in the mission that the party had entrusted him with. Once that was finished, Alfric and Isra browsed the store together, and spoke about what they’d want in the future.

“Food is easy to find,” said Isra. “An hour or two in the woods can get you what you want.”

“But it’s an hour or two you’re spending,” said Alfric. “There are better things to do with your time.”

Isra shrugged. “I like hunting.” She looked over the entads. He was relieved that she seemed perfectly capable of reading, which had been in question given some of the peculiarity that clearly accompanied her upbringing. “Storage would be good. Something to help carry a deer.”

“Strength could do that too,” said Alfric. “But they’re more rare. Might help you get more draw from the bow though.”

“Mmm,” said Isra. “And you want something that can take the others to a dungeon while you spare them the travel.”

“I’d like that, yes,” said Alfric. He did have the dagger now, but they would have to properly test its limits. It was best to assume entad sellers had already done that, but you never knew. “We have a good party, I can feel that, but we need to stick together, and we need to be hitting the dungeons as quickly as we can. With the right travel entads, we could be doing two a day.”

Isra nodded, though Alfric didn’t think she was nodding because she thought that was a good idea.

“The dagger is good,” said Alfric, who had carefully stored it in a cloth. “It’s also possible that we could use it as a shortcut. Bards can do some amazing things, and if Verity can send a dagger from one member of a party to the other, then … well, we’d still have the limit of once a day, but it’s a definite start.”

“It can be used to collect whoever wants to be there least,” said Isra.

“Yeah,” said Alfric. He wanted to ask whether she was committed, but held back, because it seemed like perhaps he was gaining ground with her. From a pure utility perspective, he could afford to lose her more than he could afford to lose the others, even if she’d gotten an amazing bow from their first dungeon and seemed to have more of a head for combat than the others.

They found nothing else they’d wanted, and followed Eddel’s directions down to Tarchwood Ectads, which was owned by a man named Wilch, who, according to Eddel, was a layabout that kept odd hours. Tarchwood was on the shore of one of the enormous Proten Lakes, and that was where Tarchwood Ectads was located, with a dock sticking out the back.

“The sea is enormous,” said Isra when they were halfway down the hill.

“It’s not a sea, it’s a lake,” said Alfric. “The Gornorian Lake. Freshwater, not salt.”

“Ah,” said Isra, but she still had a look of confusion on her face.

“I’m guessing geography isn’t a strong suit?” asked Alfric.

“No,” Isra replied, lips tight.

“I always took to it,” said Alfric. “Let me know if you have any questions.”

“Mmm,” Isra replied.

Tarchwood Ectads was closed, a sign on the front informed them, and there was no additional information on when they would be open again.

“Well that’s unpleasant,” said Alfric.

“The stones,” said Isra.

“Huh?” asked Alfric. He looked where she was looking, to a stretch of shore without any houses or businesses on it. It was a rocky beach, one covered in smooth stones with barely any sand to speak of. The stones were black, grey, green, and blue, mostly subdued tones but with a few standouts. “The stones?” asked Alfric.

Isra went forward, hopping over a barrier, then stooped to look at the stones up close.

“I’ve never seen such stones,” said Isra. Her breath caught slightly as she picked up a particularly green one.

“Oh?” asked Alfric. He stood next to her, feeling awkward.

“Do you think I can take them?” asked Isra, looking up at him.

“The stones?” asked Alfric. “But … why?”

Isra didn’t reply, and instead began putting the rocks into her pockets, moving quickly, as though someone was going to come along and stop her. Alfric, having nothing better to do, stood by. She seemed to be pulling up the ones with the brightest colors, but every so often something dark and shiny would catch her eye instead. He half-wondered whether he should be helping her, but he still didn’t quite understand what she was doing or why. Eventually, she slowed down, then finally stopped. By Alfric’s estimation, she’d added almost thirty pounds of rocks to her pack.

“Are you going to tell me what that was about?” asked Alfric. He glanced back toward Tarchwood Ectads, whose errant owner still hadn’t returned.

“Why dungeoneering?” asked Isra. “You said it was what you’ve wanted to do since you were a child.”

“Oh,” said Alfric. “Well … my mother and father were both dungeoneers, along with cousins, aunts and uncles, it was a family thing.” This wasn’t the half of it. “But for me, it was the idea that there were these other worlds out there, that there were riches and power to be had through them, things that were impossible to get any other way. It fired up my imagination, I think, and it was the first thing I can remember wanting to know absolutely everything about. And then, with everything that I learned, I wanted to learn more. Learning led to training, and training led to planning, and I loved all of it.” He shrugged.

“Mmm,” said Isra.

“Why do you ask?” asked Alfric. “And what was with the rocks?”

“I thought it might be the same for us,” said Isra. “It’s not.”

“You … like rocks?” asked Alfric.

“No,” replied Isra. “I’m a collector.”

“Of what?” asked Alfric.

Isra shrugged. “Everything. Small treasures. Special stones, odd sticks, plants.” She frowned at him. “It’s not so strange.”

“No,” said Alfric. “No, of course not, I didn’t mean to judge, I just … I never really would have expected it of you.”

“You don’t know me,” said Isra.

“I’d like to,” said Alfric. “If we’re going to be a party, we’ll be spending time together, working together, and a solid relationship is the foundation of a strong team.”

Isra seemed as though she had some choice words to reply with, but she looked past him instead. “The ectad shop is open,” she said.

And whatever else they might have learned about each other, it would have to wait.

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Alexander Wales

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