If Donovan had learned one thing in all his years, it was never to hope too hard. So despite hoping that the mayor’s word-of-mouth would result in more customers for Odd & Ends, Donovan was only mildly disappointed to find that it did not.
Indeed, Odd & Ends’ second day was even less exciting than the first, and Donovan passed much of it reading Grizzled Grisby and the Werefish of Pulson Pond (a mystery novel written by Derby Kertan, a local author) and checking outside to see that the “open” sign was out (which it always was). When Karessa came in halfway through the seventh hour, Donovan almost told her to go home, but he just had her sweep instead. After all, it seemed like she needed the money. Not that he had any to give her.
He hit his head against the counter a little harder than he meant to.
“You alright, Mr. Allman?” Karessa asked.
“Donovan,” he corrected through gritted teeth. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“Well, Donovan,” Karessa said. “You look like you need some fresh air. Have you even left the shop today?” Donovan shook his head. “Come on. You’re new here, right? Let me show you around town.”
Donovan fidgeted with the cash register pensively. “Maybe,” he said. Karessa had a point. If he was now penniless, running a failing business atop a floating rock in the sky, he might as well get to know the rock. “Let’s at least wait until Nestor’s here. What if there’s a customer?”
“Fine. When’s he coming in?”
“He should have been here hours ago,” Donovan sighed. He’d contemplated sending out a search party, but Donovan hardly knew the gnome. They hadn’t yet set agreed-upon hours for themselves, so perhaps Nestor just wasn’t a morning person.
So they waited. And they waited. Before long, Donovan had asked Karessa to dust, sweep, and wash so many surfaces in the store that he was beginning to feel like Ingrid Nittlepick, so the two of them abandoned any pretense of actual work and simply lazed about the shop.
Eventually they resorted to playing around with a rubber ball that always bounced back to the thrower on the third bounce. They were trying to see if the other person could prevent the ball from returning to the thrower’s hand, but as of attempt number forty-eight, there was no such luck. Just as one was closing their hands around the ball, it would manage to slip through them no matter how certain they were they’d caught it that time. The game came to an end when Karessa tossed the ball out the window, and it bounced clear off of Skymoore.
“Good luck bouncing back from that,” Karessa said.
“From what?” Nestor asked as he entered the shop. The gnome looked slightly out of breath, as though he’d just realized what time it was and bolted over the shop. Donovan had to admit, Nestor was a lot of things he found vexatious, but he wouldn’t have assumed unreliable to be one of them. “Is Donovan wearing the spring shoes? Oh, phew, I think as they are now he’d never have come back down.” Donovan just stared pointedly at Nestor for several seconds. “Oh yes, I can explain that!”
“Save it,” Donovan said, holding up a hand. “Karessa and I are losing our minds in here. We’re going to get some fresh air. You man the shop. Just see to it that you warn me next time you’re going to be several hours late.”
“But! Wait, Mr. Allman!”
“Goodbye, Nestor. Let us know if you sell anything.”
“Mr. Allman, wait!”
A breath of fresh air was just the thing Donovan needed. Inside, his mind was clouded. Every breath of air felt incomplete, like the oxygen couldn’t quite get where it needed to be. But outside? The clouds gave way to Sol, and Donovan’s body and mind could relax a little.
It occurred to him, not for the first time, that the shopkeeper life may not be for him. Down on Solkin, when they called him The Suntouched, Donovan spent most of his days on the road, and most of his nights with the stars above him. He might stay at the occasional inn, or attend some prince’s banquet, but ever since he was a child Donovan would make any excuse to be outside. As he passed some woman’s muffin cart, he thought that might have been more his style.
But he’d opened Odd & Ends, and now people depended on him, so it seemed he was stuck with it.
Donovan seemed distracted throughout Karessa’s tour, which is just as well because she didn’t like Skymoore enough to be a proper tour guide. There wasn’t anything wrong with the city, mind you, she had just developed the mild distaste that many youths do when they stand still for too long. The crystal blue ponds no longer seemed to glitter in the afternoon sun, the rustic agricultural district seemed less quaint and more old-fashioned, and the interminable pleasantness felt like a city coping with its isolation rather than thriving in it.
So yeah, that’s why she worked as a clerk at a failing magic shop and not in The Grand Tribunal of Public Relations.
The tour ended at The Church of Sol, the closest thing Skymoore had to a community center (this includes Skymoore’s actual community center, which is just a patch of grass in the center of town. When Skymoore was still on the ground, people used to stand in a circle, shove someone into the center, and relentlessly yell insults at them). The church was a modest wooden building painted garishly warm colors that clashed with the more muted earthy tones of the agricultural district. There was a middling hum of activity from both music playing within the church as well as people talking and shouting happily among themselves in the fields and dirt roads without it.
“Karessa Plunderton!” a gruff voice called from behind them. It belonged to Telmark Graugh, a humanoid man with blue and black scales and other reptilian features. He wore the yellow and green robes of a Sol priest and delivered aggressive, manly sermons two or three times a week. He looked mad.
“Good afternoon, Telly,” Karessa said. He hated that nickname. Or any nicknames. “Something the matter?”
“Only that I haven’t seen you around here in months, and when I finally do, it’s with him!”
“You know who I am?” Donovan asked, sounding inordinately alarmed. His demeanor changed to Serious Donovan.
Telmark snorted. “Yes, I do. You run that magic shop.”
Donovan relaxed a little. “You know about Odd & Ends?” Karessa asked.
“That foppish fellow, Pinkly. When he’s here he won’t shut up about the place. But I think it’s an embarrassment.
“Ever-polished tools? Mailboxes that build themselves? This is the kind of laziness and degeneracy that plagues today’s youth. Is that what it’s like down on Solkin, Mr. Magic Shop? Everyone using magic while they laze about?” He didn’t wait for Donovan to answer. “Well I ask you this. Which is closer to our Lord Sol, eh? Those surface dwellers don’t know the first thing about a holy life, and I won’t have you spreading their filth to this blessed city. I’ve been telling everyone at my sermons to avoid Odd & Ends, lest they spend eternity in a cold hell.”
“What?” Donovan snapped. “You’re the reason we lack customers? Because you’re afraid our everlasting pinwheels and glow-in-the-dark snowglobes will affect your flock’s piety? You think it right that my employee here goes penniless while you make your living spouting ignorant swill?”
“Mr. Allman!” Karessa said, tugging at his belt. “Donovan. You’re making a scene. And besides, he can breathe fire.”
Donovan took a deep breath. Telmark looked equal parts smug and angry. The tension began to fizzle, and the small audience that had assembled quickly dispersed.
“Telmark, get inside,” a woman’s voice called from the direction of the church. “Leave the newcomer alone,” a young man’s voice said.
With a dramatic swish of his robe, Telmark did as requested. Karessa knew without having to look that the voices belonged to Armin Delugance. Armin was in some ways just a taller-than-average human and a run-of-the-mill Sol priest. However, in two key ways, they were not.
For example, Armin had two heads. One resembled a young man with long, dark bangs; and the other was that of a more mature-looking woman with a blonde bob cut. Furthermore, from beneath their exceptionally heavy priest robes emanated a barely-contained brilliant yellow light which would be literally blinding if set free upon the eyes of the public. It was also several degrees warmer in a radius of about five feet around them. Karessa wondered how they refrained from sweating constantly.
“Sorry about him,” the blonde head said. “He’s just…passionate. Welcome to our city, Mr. Allman. I’m Armin Delugance, one of the caretakers of this fine church. We don’t get new residents often, so it’s a great pleasure to make your acquaintance. And, for the record, I think your magic shop sounds lovely.”
“Ms. Plunderton,” the dark-haired head was saying at the same time. “You haven’t been to church in some time. I always thought you loved it here. Is everything alright at home?”
“Thank you for saying so,” Donovan said. “Perhaps you could tell that to your congregation?” They laughed and said that they would.
Karessa meanwhile found a great interest in her feet. “Yeah…things are fine. You know, considering.” Armin nodded compassionately. “It’s nothing against the church. It’s just school, theater, and now I’m working for Donovan. Keeps a girl busy.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Send your mother my regards,” they said. Then suddenly, Armin clapped loudly to change the mood. “So!” both heads said in unison. “What brings the two of you to the ol’ church of Sol? Doesn’t sound like it’s hearing Sol’s word if you don’t mind me saying, Mr. Allman.”
“Karessa here was just giving me the tour of the town. I haven’t had much of a chance to explore.”
Armin rubbed their hands enthusiastically. “Excellent, excellent. Well, she’s sure brought you to the right place,” one head said. “As you can see, the church here is quite the community hub,” said the other. “Sure it’s a place of worship and spreading the Word, but more than anything it’s a bastion of warmth and goodwill for all of Skymoore.”
“Are those children playing polardogm?” Donovan asked.
Out in the field beside the church was a small paved area where children of all shapes and sizes were tossing around a rubber ball. To the untrained observer it was madness, but to someone who understood the rules, well…it was madness, but ordered madness. Karessa was not someone who understood the rules.
“They sure are!” Armin said. “We have a league that plays here three times a week.”
When Donovan smiled, it was clear to Karessa that all his smiles the previous day were a complete fabrication. This smile, however brief, showed teeth and illuminated his eyes. It was real.
“In the village where I grew up, a minotaur merchant came through one day, selling his wares all the way from the O’grofkala Mountains. Using the pittance I had saved from a sewing apprenticeship, I bought a strange, sweet fruit from him which to this day I do not know the name of. He took a liking to me, and so he spent an hour or two teaching my friends and I the rules to polardogm. Said that for a minotaur to pass it on was a great honor. We played it every day, regardless of weather, for at least a year after that.”
Armin looked positively delighted with Donovan’s story. “That’s so sweet!” they said. “Why don’t you come out to the games? You could bring some of your wares, too. I bet it’d go a long way toward undoing whatever ill will Telmark’s stirred up.”
“That sounds delightful,” Donovan said.
“Oh, hold on!” Armin’s other head said. “I’ve got something for you. Do you have a minute? It’s in the church.”
“Donovan,” Karessa said once they were safely out of earshot of any priests. “So you’re a big fan of The Suntouched, but you don’t believe in Sol? Does that mean you don’t believe the legend about his skin?”
“You mean do I believe that he climbed Mount Paylor, and that the sun reached down to touch him with all its force, burning him alive and letting him live to tell it?” Karessa looked at him expectantly. “Well, of course I do. Everyone on Solkin saw it. The way Sol stretched out, a column of flames descending upon the world like a giant’s finger upon a gnat.”
Karessa raised an eyebrow. “You look too young to remember that. How old are you?”
“What a rude question,” Donovan said. “Don’t they teach children manners up here?”
Karessa rolled her eyes.
“Regardless, you asked if I believed in Sol. It clearly exists.” He pointed at the sun. “And it clearly touched The Suntouched. Those two realities do not necessarily prove that Sol is a god, even if that is how the church would have you interpret it. Perhaps Sol is a god, perhaps it isn’t. Either way, men like Telmark pretending to know the will of things far outside their understanding only leads to trouble. And bankruptcy, it seems.”
When Armin returned, they handed Donovan a sheet of elegant cardstock. “The community calendar,” they said. “Get involved. Not only as your shop, but as yourself, too. Skymoore’s people, particularly those who come here, are wary of outsiders. If you get involved, even a little, it’ll go a long way.”
“Thank you,” Donovan said. “I will. Now if you’ll excuse me, Karessa and I need to make sure Nestor hasn’t leveled the store. Good day, Armin. It was nice to meet you.”
On the way back, there was a lightness in Donovan’s step that had been absent all morning. Not to be too cheesy, but it seemed to Karessa that the stormy clouds that had plagued Donovan since opening Odd & Ends had been replaced by the tranquil light of Sol.
Gross, she thought, that was definitely too cheesy.