Word count: 1600 (3 to 13 minutes) | Rating: T | Original Fiction: Into My Shadow | Note: Fantasy races (common and original), magic, post-apocalyptic setting
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The Blossoming of Year 185: Dawn’s Strike Era
The streets of Garres were like veins, carrying goods and people wherever they needed to go in the city. Sometimes, to places they’d rather not be. Reliable and chaotic, the contradictory way life worked anywhere else. It made the cobblestone streets easy to map in her mind, especially with practice. Anyone could tell the sunbaked almshouse walls from the lofty towers of the governmental district, but only a local could get from one to the other without being late or lost.
Exactly why living in one place for years wasn’t so bad.
Mari knew the routes and schedules of most carriages there. Not to mention basically everyone who kept the city’s blood pumping. Not that any of them really saw her. She was known for her ties to the Union. Only the half-elf who ran their errands and did their chores. Beyond that, she was no more than one of the strangers outside. And it was incredible, the things people let you see and hear when you were invisible.
But if there was one skill she had mastered, it had to be knowing when to wait for the right moment.
The morning mail coach came soaring down the road, and everyone knew they had the run of the road. Stopping one meant paying a fine—even if you did it by mistake. Mari was in a hurry too, poised to hop across the street on the raised steppingstones the moment it went by. She was close enough to feel it rush past, and a small splash from puddles of yesterday’s rain hit her boots. Nothing that wouldn’t dry. Especially if she ran, and she always did.
Her boots barely tapped against each roughly circular stone that kept people above the water, waste, and manure, then she was on the other side. The poor ladies and gentlemen serving the country from its capital couldn’t do that in their fine heeled shoes and fluffy wigs. Their jobs seemed important with all the shouting, but pretty stifling. So long as she did hers to avoid getting yelled at herself, it didn’t matter.
Darting around frantic storeroom maids in the center of the market square, Mari made her way to the weapons and armor marketplace. The heavy smell of molten metal and coal from smithies burned her nostrils before she even saw the magic shops. All the stores there were more like workshops where you could buy goods, not like the tents and stalls of most other places. Maybe the merchants of magical wares didn’t quite belong there, but there they were. No one really wanted to see them while they picked out a new suit before the festival season or resupplied on early summer vegetables and wines.
Pulling the empty satchel up her shoulder, Mari kept her eyes up and stuck close to the wall. The only people around the weapons shops were assistants to the Guard Captain, hunters, and mercenaries. They covered the whole nation’s people: dwarves, elves, people with mixed descent like her, and even the lone chiali now and again. None of them were gifted with patience for anything that didn’t apply to their work, or none that Mari knew. All she had to be was fast and out of their way. She had to move quickly anyway since it would be hot and muggy soon, and Mari wouldn’t be up to as much running.
She ducked into the open rounded doorway of the mages’ goods shop soon enough. Could have done it with her eyes closed, but it was better that she didn’t.
“Hm?” The shopkeep frowned over the counter, glaring down at her from his stool. That sternness was just part of his expression, she learned that shortly after they first met years ago. He was framed by jars of all kinds of magical goods, some open and easy to reach and others sealed and locked on the top shelves behind the front counter. His thick, black moustache with flecks of grey twitched with his ‘tsk’. Fat fingers tied off the thin rope around some gathered stems of faintly glowing thistles that she didn’t recognize. Not yet. The dwarf was no mage, but he knew more than she’d ever forget about magic in the wild—and he liked to remind anyone who came in of that. “Just you, is it?”
“Yeah,” she said with a nod, dropping the rolled parchment on the counter. The Union’s crest was emblazoned on the outside beside the ribbon holding it closed—a precaution for all their parchment in case something important was lost, supposedly. “Got the whole Union order here.”
He kept that surprising delicate touch from the flowers when he swept up the scroll, pulling the ribbon loose to unroll it. From habit, he muttered it out loud as his dull blue eyes moved down the list.
That week’s resupply trip called for more of what Mari recognized. No Union storeroom run was complete without basic healing herbs, but this one included various roots and powders to carve into protective sigils on armor and shields. Plus some fake-sounding items like will-‘o-the-wisp dust. Mari read about them in the Union’s in-house library when most people were asleep, and she doubted they gave off anything like dust. If finding your way back to your original spot after getting tricked by a will-‘o-the-wisp only meant following a dust trail, why did people stay lost?
But if the Union mages asked for it, it had to be real. Maybe it wasn’t literal. Like sprigs of baby’s breath.
“The glass is new,” she interrupted his mumbling and pointed to the windows. Usually, just fancy clothes and jewelry stores had glass windows, but they had gotten more common in other shops with decent sales. Having the Union buying through him most of the time would do that for his profits. She heard him stomping down the ladder from his stool while she leaned to check for outside hinges through the window. “Kept the shutters. Smart.”
“Mmhm. Wait here.”
Wait, he said, like it ever took him long. Mari was barely taller than him when she did her first supply run for the Union, and she was amazed at how quickly he measured and packaged everything. While he worked, she put her satchel up on the counter and flipped it open for him just in time for him to nestle the first bag of herbs in.
“Walk gently,” he ordered as he pat down a box of packed powder.
“Not how you usually dart around here.” He pierced her with another glare, tossing the tired leather flap over her bag to close it.
“I mean it.” Punctuating that with a calloused fingertip pointed at her, he moved the bag over to her open hands at the counter’s edge.
“I said yes,” she repeated with an uneasy grimace, not sure what else he wanted. Mari raised the shoulder strap over her head for the steadier carrying it obviously needed.
“And this.” Less gently, he brought a package up onto the smooth wooden countertop and pushed it over to her. The wrapping job wasn’t like his usual. No practical plain paper held in place with twine, but deep slate blue paper with thick silver ribbon adorning it. The contents were clearly a book. Mari softened her grimace but didn’t reach for it. In all the years she knew him, he didn’t adorn anything. If someone wanted to get a gift to a member of the Mages’ Union, they wouldn’t go through him and definitely not her. Even a surprise gift would be better off handled by actual delivery people.
“For you.” Glancing back down to it and again to him, Mari closed her hand around the strap over her chest. This just got more and more confusing. Who would give her something? Mari didn’t talk to anyone she didn’t have to, so there was no one to send her an unexpected present.
“A gift,” he observed, being his usual blunt self, but without any of clarity that usually came with it. He must have read something in her glance at the present because he muttered something before offering something she could hear. “If you get your mind set on working at that place ‘til you’re grey, you need to be serious about educating yourself. Before you get killed.”
“Alright,” she asked, as bewildered as ever. No one got a nice shop with glass windows and shutters because they gave out gifts to the spry little stray running tasks for the Union. Still, she picked up the package. It was heavier than she guessed it would be… Probably two books, then. Trading the grimace for a level stare, Mari thanked the stars she was talking to someone who didn’t waste words. “But what’s that to you?”
The long hairs of his moustache ruffled in his scoff as he settled back up onto his stool. Leaning over the counter, he almost looked like he was smirking. “You have a birthday, don’t you?”
“Suppose I do.” Giving him a shrug, she continued her answer. “Not sure when it is, though.”
“In that case, doesn’t matter when you get a present.” Nodding to the book, he scooched back into his seat and reached for another bundle of glowing thistle. “There’s your gift.”
“From?” He quirked an eyebrow, clearly at his limit for questions. She should have figured it was straight from him anyway. The people who knew about her and magic and also apparently had a reason to present her with a new book… Well, there weren’t a lot of them. “Right. Thanks.”
“Mmhm. Don’t die.”
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