“Is there some kinda magic word, or does it just work?” asked Pendleton Witherby, an unusually gangly dwarf, as he fiddled with the amulet he’d just purchased.
“Just works,” Karessa said. “Activation words are for things you might not want active at all times, but there’s no harm in a little confidence.”
Pendleton placed the amulet around his neck. “I was a little skeptical at first, to be honest. Frankly, a lot of your offerings sound like scams. But everyone seems to agree that these things really work.”
“Yeah, they’re our most popular items,” she replied as she wrote up the receipt. “Can you spell your last name?”
He did. “So how do these things work, exactly. It’s not just a trick of the mind? Placebo? It sounds like…”
“Magic. Yep, that’s it.”
“Oh. Right. It just sounds so…”
“Our mayor is a talking plant man,” Karessa said. “Honestly isn’t it weirder something like this didn’t already exist?” Pendleton shrugged. “Well, we have a money-back-guarantee, so don’t fret. What’s this for, anyway? Date? In-laws?”
“Audition, actually. I’m trying out for the choir.”
“I know how that goes. Theater, not choir, but it’s all the same.”
(It actually isn’t. Theater auditions typically consisted of reading lines from a script. Choir auditions typically consisted of singing an improvised tune, set to improvised music, about one’s personal connection to Sol. The song was to be sung while walking the Tightrope of Faith, situated above the Fiery Pit of Faith. They say on a moonless night in the Skymoore Cemetery, you can hear the songs of those who failed the test. Nobody ever does this, however, because those songs are bad.)
“Oh, at Luminous? I saw your play the other day. It was great.”
“Oh, thanks. We put a lot of work into it.”
“It shows! You can tell there was a lot of effort without getting all pretentious. You’re nothing like those stuffy folks at the Sun Stage.”
Karessa beamed, and wished Pendleton a nice day, as well as good luck on his audition. Nestor, who had been reorganizing a selection of enchanted dolls so that they appeared to be sipping tea and discussing fine literature, practically ran across the store when he left.
“Karessa! Finally!” The gnome stared up at her brimming with joy. When she returned only a puzzled look, he continued. “That was your first smile all day! I was starting to get worried.”
“You…keep track of that?” Before she’d even finished her sentence, Nestor was scribbling on a notepad labeled ‘Smile Log.’ Her face fell, and he pulled out another, which simply said “Frowns.” “This is really not okay.”
“What could be wrong with monitoring my friends’ happiness? These help me figure out when you’re in a good mood, and when you’re not, and develop a formula for guaranteeing maximum joy!”
Karessa was at a loss for words, a silence Nestor seemed to take as a victory. After nearly four weeks of working with the gnome, Karessa had learned that arguing with him went nowhere. Fortunately, Donovan came in from the storage room just then, bringing with him a change of subject.
“Nestor, I have some – oh, good afternoon Karessa. Forgot you were scheduled today. Don’t you have school?”
“It’s Saturday,” she said.
“Right. Well, I’ve got some good news and bad news. The good news is, our amulets and rings are big sellers. They’re just about the only things that sell, but it’s enough to keep the doors open for at least the next couple weeks. The bad news…we’re completely out of them.”
“Why is that bad?” Karessa asked. “Cheap things like that? I know a guy in the Mish Mash who could get us more for practically nothing.”
“Not quite,” Nestor said. “I could enchant cheap stone and metal, but it wouldn’t hold very long. Our amulets have a Stickystone core, which holds the enchantment. To put it oversimply, the bigger the core, the longer it lasts.”
“Down on the surface, it’s called Orchalum,” Donovan went on. “And it’s so valuable that elves and dwarves fought over it for five centuries. Here, it’s relatively cheap because most people don’t know what it’s good for. I was wondering if you two could check out the blacksmiths and try to get us a good deal on a bulk purchase.”
“Sounds great!” Nestor said.
“Well, I’m not gonna say no to my boss,” Karessa said. “But those blacksmiths weird me out.”
“There’s a reason I’m not doing it myself,” Donovan said. “Just to make this a little more fun, whoever gets a better deal will get a small bonus on their next payment.”
Karessa was practically out the door before he finished speaking.
Of the two smithies in Skymoore, there was only one Karessa had any business visiting, and that was The Dusty Hammer, the ironically occult forge. The building itself was hardly noteworthy, perhaps because of the exceptionally noteworthy enormous stone tablet which leaned against it, utterly dwarfing anything that might stand out about the smithy. The tablet had paragraphs and paragraphs of script in a language unknown to Karessa, placed seemingly at random across the tablet.
Tending to a small garden outside the shop was a dwarf sporting a goatee and thick-rimmed glasses. He was tearing flowers out of the soil and replacing them with beautifully painted ceramic vases. “Planted pots,” he explained to Karessa as she approached. “You probably wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh, that’s cool. Do you work here?”
“I choose to think of it as attempting to express myself despite being a wage-slave in this enshackling economy to which we are all bound the moment we are born into the constricting comforts of modern culture, but yeah I suppose you could say that I work here. I am Unfinished Portrait.”
Our mayor is a plant, Karessa reminded herself before judging too harshly. “Karessa Plunderton. What’s with the uh…that,” she asked, gesturing to the gargantuan stone.
“My life’s work,” Unfinished Portrait explained. “If I had to devalue it by ascribing a Common word to it, I guess you could call it an autobiography, with some elements of fiction, numerology, and stream-of-conscious poetry.”
“What language is that?”
“It’s not a ‘language’ in the traditional sense because language is an inherently communal and descriptive phenomenon. Could it be called a language if it is understood only by me, detailing concepts only as they are seen through my eyes? The moment I try to explain what one of these etchings means, I destroy it, because I have to filter it through the perspective of Common or Dwarvish or Human, which runs entirely contrary to the project’s purpose.”
Karessa just nodded. “Well…I’m here on behalf of Odd & Ends. You made our doorknobs?”
“Of course, of course. Retired Wanderer’s place. How’s my work?”
“Well, the gargoyles are a bit much, but they open well enough. Oh, yesterday when I touched one I suddenly knew my exact likelihood of catching a cold if I didn’t wash my hands soon. That was weird.”
“Oh, must’ve been channeling the Poulterzeitgeist. It’ll do that every now and then, and hypochondria is in right now if you hang with the right people. So have you come for more doorknobs?”
“Stickystone, actually. We could use a bulk shipment. I was wondering if-”
Unfinished Portrait held up and hand and shushed her. “This is crazy. This is actually insane. Is your name…don’t tell me. Karessa…hold on. Plunderton?”
“Ba-oh whatever. Yes.”
“I had a dream last night about this very conversation. Well, not this exact conversation, but I was riding a dragon on the Pale Moon and the dragon had your name, at least I think that was it, and at one point it imprinted an image on my mind. The image of a Skymoorian Chomper, the Toothed Bird.
“When I woke up, I checked with The Almanac – the guy who sells shrunken feet down in the Mish Mash? – and he said that the Skymoorian Chomper is stopping here to lay eggs soon, an event which occurs every eight years. So I’m almost positive that dream was prophetic. If you can bring me the silver tooth of a Skymoorian Chomper, I’ll give you what you need.”
Unfinished Portrait looked almost offended. “Discount?” He said the word like it was a bug he’d swallowed. “For a silver Chomper tooth and the honor of realizing a prophetic dream, I will gladly trade you all the Stickystone I have in storage.”
Karessa balked, but she did not complain.
Of the two smithies in Skymoore, Nestor could hardly pick his favorite, but there was no denying that he was more at home among the pristine clientele and displays housed within Ingrid’s Immaculate Ironworks. After all, it was the only pink building in Skymoore, and pink was an honorable mention on his list of top fifteen shades of red.
As he walked along the well-kept path leading up to the building, its door creaked open pathetically as a downtrodden young human man trudged sullenly toward the gnome, making eye contact with only his shoes (which did actually have eyes painted on them. At least, Nestor assumed they were painted).
“Good afternoon!” Nestor said. The young man stopped and looked at the gnome with drooping eyes. “Dug Pifton, yes? It’s a wonderful summer day in Skymoore, the best city in all of Solkin. Sol is shining brightly, the clouds are just fluffy enough that you can lose yourself in daydreams of laying upon them, and you’re a young, healthy man with his greatest years ahead of him. What, may I ask, is bothering you today?”
Dug took a deep breath and waved his arm in the direction of the smithy. “I’m Ingrid’s a-apprentice. Or I, I was Ingrid’s apprentice. S-she’s in a mood about…s-s-s-something. And as you see I’ve got a bit of a st-stud-stutter when I’m nervous and…” Dug took another breath. “I sneezed first thing when I went in today, and while I was apologizing I messed up her name and, well, he-h-here I am. Fired.”
Nestor knew full well that Ingrid Nittlepick wasn’t the type to change her mind about something like that, and he couldn’t risk upsetting Donovan by ruining Stickystone negotiations. Much as it pained him, he couldn’t fight for Dug’s apprenticeship, at least not right now. Instead, Nestor took off one of his boots, reached inside, and produced a smiling yellow sticker. He put it on Dug’s sleeve.
“O-oh…thank you,” Dug said, smiling slightly.
“What’s your favorite thing to do, Mr. Pifton?”
Dug was puzzled. “I…I like to feed birds,” he said. “Out in the old boathouse.”
“Do that the rest of the afternoon. That’s more relaxing than working anyhow, right?”
Dug smiled for real, now. “Yeah. I suppose it is,” he said. “Thank you.”
Nestor took off his hat and bowed. “My pleasure,” he said. And it was. With everyone’s day a little brighter, the gnome skipped on into the smithy.
Ingrid, the shop’s sole occupant, was frantically thumbing through a stack of papers when Nestor entered. “Welcome to Ingrid’s Immaculate Ironworks,” she said. “If you’re interested in an apprenticeship you’ve come at just the right – oh, hello, Nestor. Looking dapper as always.”
“Hello, Ingrid! You’re looking splendid as well. How are you on this fine summer-”
“Sorry, Nestor, I actually don’t have time for pleasantries right now. I’ve just lost an apprentice and now I have to man the front but the Skymoorian Chomper arrives today and it won’t be back for another eight years and well I’m just a bit of a mess right now and you know how much I hate that word.”
“Maybe I could help? You said something about a Skymoorian Chomper? Is it time already?”
“Yes and if its silver tooth is melted down and used in one of my creations, it will stay shiny and beautiful and rust-free for all time. Can you imagine?”
“Well, I don’t have any plans today. I could get it for you.” Ingrid’s eyes lit up. “If I do, could I buy some Stickystone for you at a discounted price?”
“Yes! Yes! If you do this for me you can have Stickystone for free for all I care! I’ve been waiting eight years for this, Nestor! Eight. Years.”
“Well I’m your gnome, Ms. Nittlepick! And good luck with your apprentice search. I’m sure you’ll find someone-”
“What are you doing? Get on it before someone else does!”
“Right away, Ms. Nittlepick!”
“Oh, and Nestor?” The gnome stopped halfway out the door. “I was caught up in the moment when I said you could have it for free. We’ll talk discounts when you return.”
“Aye aye, Ms. Nittlepick! I’ll be back faster than you can teach a Two-Step Toucan to dance!”
Ingrid didn’t have time to ask if Two-Step Toucans were exceptional dancers, or even a real bird, because the gnome was long gone before the thought even occurred to her. She shrugged, and returned halfheartedly to the stack of apprentice applications. This Dug Pifton fellow seems qualified, she thought. Perhaps I’ll send a courier centaur his way.