The First Steps – 4.07

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“This letter should reach within four days at the standard rate of 10 rials, given the location, guaranteed delivery fee, and the border toll,” said the clerk at the desk after she weighed a letter for Alice, sealed in an envelope, on a scale.

I was in the Town Hall at the moment, in the section of the building where the postal service operated from. As every major town or city had one, letters and packages could be transferred from one to another for a price determined based on a number factors. The letter was ordinary paper and ink with no exotic materials or enchantment, but the distance made up the bulk of the fee.

I gave her a single silver coin with the emblem of the Biquila on it. Minted by the Asindria Royal Family, it was the exact value she asked for. That done, I walked out of the building and into the center of the town with assurances the letter would reach its destination.

The stone building gave way to grey clouds and the market beneath it, filled with people and stalls. Since all the major roads converged here, Twistril Plaza was among the largest in the town and thus a premium location for business. It also made it a pain to navigate through at this time of the day, as there were so many people talking back and forth that it made me yearn for the rain just to disperse the crowd.

I wormed my way through to the alleyway perched between a boutique and bakery, where Aeria and Elsa were waiting for me. “My apologies for the detour.”

It’s not a problem, Sweetie,” Elsa told me, holding onto a small sack. Judging from how Aeria was hovering around it, they must’ve been the snacks she’d made for the children. “We still have more than enough time to get to the Dalen district since its just northwest of here.

I waited for Aeria to perch herself onto my head before following Elsa towards the home of the Bancrofts. Since it was still within the afternoon, the main roads were crowded. That made it more convenient to use the alleyways to travel, albeit winding enough that I would’ve lost my way without Elsa as a guide. Even so, it took roughly an hour to make it to the district itself.

Looking around, it seemed like the homes were rented out per floor. Most were about three stories high, the peeling plaster and timber-frame showing signs of aging beneath roofs that had broken shingles and tiles. The light slipping through the clouds above were filtered even more by chimneys that churned light smoke and kept the floors warm.

The lack of care compared to the area around the plaza made it clear this was a place for people who struggled to make a living and prioritized shelter. Most likely those who performed unskilled manual labor without a trade. And it was made that way intentionally judging by how the streets littered with broken cobblestones were narrower while the buildings were clustered together, positioned off the main roads and thus away from the public view.

Women and children were the majority of the people who I could spot along the way. Most likely the men were at work, probably at the farms past the south gate. Some of them avoided looking at the Mountain Spirit, which wasn’t surprising given how unusual she could look to those not accustomed to her presence. But one woman actively approached us upon seeing her.

Ellyn.” The Mountain Spirit came to a brief stop to greet the rotund woman with brunette hair, likely a housewife from her attire of a simple tunic that went down to her ankles. “How are you this afternoon?

“I nearly tripped and twisted my ankle because of what happened to the road in front of my home, but I’m fine other than that.” She turned to me, head tilting as her eyes then drifted to Aeria perched on my head. “I see you’re not with your boy today. Who’s this handsome young man and little lady?”

Elsa introduced us. “This is Kowler and Aeria. He studied under Wilhelm before becoming an official apothecary and alchemist, and she’s been his spirit for a few years now. They’ve both returned for a little while and will be helping us out with Miss Bancroft’s little boys today.

Ellyn placed a hand on her cheek and sighed. “I do hope you’ll be able to do something. She’s been working so hard since her husband passed away. Losing them too would be a terrible thing for her to go through.”

We’ll make sure that they end up back on their feet and running around. As for the road, the Stonemasons would be upset if I did their work for them in such a blatant manner. But if it’s only a small section then I can fix that much after we’re done. Is that fine?

“I’d really appreciate it if you did.” She smiled and held up the basket in her hand. There was a third of a loaf of bread, dried fruits, and nuts within it. “I’d better be off to give these to my daughter. Tell your boy to visit her some time. She’s been eager to see him.”

I will, but he’s being so stubborn with his work. You both take care as well.” Elsa watched her leave towards the entrance of the district before turning back to us. “She’s such a nice woman, isn’t she?”

“I wasn’t aware you were so cordial with some of the people in this district.”

Her daughter was one of Wilhelm’s patients. There was a bit of an outbreak due to the number of mosquitoes last season and the local apothecaries increased the price of the medicines needed to manage the symptoms, forcing the people here to pay more if they wanted to treat it.”

I frowned. “And the guild was okay with that?”

Most of the trades and crafting work that required skilled laborers were overseen by a variety of guilds. They were generally beneficial as they provided training and supplies for those taking on the craft, handled disputes and self-regulation within their craft, and provided common facilities and storefront space for those who wanted to ply the trade but couldn’t afford to open their own shop or stall. If a business fell into their domain the owner had to pay a fee and operate according to the guild’s guidelines, or they would be pressured out since the major guildmasters were part of the council that oversaw Veralis’ governing.

Elsa’s gown of moss bristled, and her voice gained a hint of an edge. “The inquest juror overseeing this district has been taking bribes to keep silent on the matter from what I’ve heard. That means they can do what they want, and even if the people wanted to file a complaint there’s been a fee established to do so for every guild. Most of the people here live hand-to-mouth and there’s no guarantee that the complaint will reach the guildmaster, or that he’ll do anything about it.

Ah, that would explain why Miss Ellyn was so cordial and why she reached out to Wilhelm so far from the area where he lived. If their voices wouldn’t reach the guildmaster, then their only option was to find another apothecary with lower prices or pay the higher prices. And finding a district with lower prices meant a longer walk and the risk of a shortage, especially if there was an outbreak.

Aeria fluttered her wings and circled us. “Is that why there’s something weird mixed in with the air here?

The red stalks visible on Elsa’s body flattened out as she settled down. “After we helped out as best we could, we gave everyone who lived here a few dried petals of Golden Calen I fiddled with to burn in their chimneys for a few days, driving off all the pests. I also changed the property of their chimneys so that they were porous enough that the smell would cling to them easier. Now a faint amount gets carried up every time they light a fire, so it’ll keep them down for a good while.

The Golden Calen was a flowering plant that had several uses, with the petals housing aromatic compounds that had a smell that most insects didn’t have a fondness for. Knowing Elsa, she was being literal when she said that she’d given everyone a few petals to burn. Most likely she ensured that each one had a stronger potency for the best results.

Still, while I do find some satisfaction in how they managed to undermine those unscrupulous apothecaries, I couldn’t help but worry that they would try to retaliate. Not physically, of course. But they could try to have legal action taken against them. “Did the guildmaster try to have you charged for illegal practice?”

We didn’t sell anything, so it wasn’t practicing illegally. We didn’t intervene with the apothecaries directly and there’s no law against exchanging folk remedies between citizens either, so we weren’t obstructing their business. They have no legal grounds to retaliate against us, and what I did to the chimneys wasn’t obvious either, so the Stonemasons won’t be able to tell without a magic-user to specifically check.

“What about frivolous or false charges?”

Even if the guildmaster were to try something funny like that, a few of the other members of the council will run interference for us due to various reasons. So we’re pretty well-protected.

I thought back to my brother’s words last night. “You mean you’ve been doing favors for them, so they’ll do the same for you?”

Some,” she admitted, a note of discontent in her voice as she continued to lead us. “To be honest, I’m not very fond of doing things this way myself. Back in the mountains, it was natural for us to help each other. But here even helping people has a price, and if you can’t pay it you’re forced to watch people suffer.”

It doesn’t sound like you like it, so why don’t you move somewhere else?” Aeria asked.

I couldn’t help but agree to an extent. “Perhaps it is rude of me to ask this when we’ve benefited from your presence, but is there an obligation that leaves you and Mister Rieth stuck here if you find the situation so undesirable?”

Elsa came to a stop and turned to face us. “It’s complicated, Sweetie. And as much as I like you both, there are some things I have to keep secret too.

It sounded as though we managed to somewhat upset her, so I apologized. “Forgive us if we overstepped our bounds. We meant no disrespect.”

You didn’t say anything wrong, but…” Her fibrous digits entwined her torso, as if she were holding herself. “I don’t want you to get the wrong impression of Wilhelm because I’m telling you this. He genuinely does want to help people without asking for anything in return, but the world isn’t so simple. In the end, sometimes we must do things we don’t like in the moment, so that we can do things that benefit everyone else in the future.”

I had no right to criticize her when I didn’t know what those favors were, or the people they did them for. Much less so when Aeria and I directly benefited because she could remain here. I could only put my faith in her words and character as I had until now. “Again, forgive us.”

Her lips pulled back into an uncanny smile once more. “It’s fine, Sweetie. Besides, it’s not all bad. Moving here gave us the chance to meet so many wonderful people as well, like you two. You’re like the grandson and daughter I’ve wanted but Wilhelm refuses to give me.

Moving on from that, we continued walking. Along the way she told us of her plan to avoid what happened with the mosquitoes next year by giving them satchels of potpourri, dried flowers and herbs and roots that would replace burning the petals in their homes. Since one of the components would include a copious amount of resin from the bark of a specific tree native to the Yalona region, it would take months for it to arrive. But it was a worthwhile wait since it held a potent fixative that could be worked into a Supplement to make the scent last for almost a decade.

I considered it to be excessive but said nothing as we arrived at our destination.


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4 thoughts on “The First Steps – 4.07

  1. “Most were about three stories high, peeling plaster and timer-frame wood showing signs of aging beneath roofs that had broken shingles and tiles.”
    timer-frame wood -> timber-frame (The word “wood” creates unnecessary redundancy.)


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