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Fair Trade

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Rock Splitter
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Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Tue Nov 01, 2016 10:12 pm

If she went to bed early, Aileen always dreamed of caramel turtles. They flitted through her mind in swarms of pattering pecan fins, all glistening with a healthy coat of her grandmother’s special chocolate. Aileen giggled and bounded after them through the meadows of her imagination. It was always right when she managed to catch one that she was forced to wake up.

The cauldron had been set for five o‘clock, but it was always a minute fast. It’s steam gauge assembly wound, primed, and chimed. With a musical toot the boiling contraption shot a musket ball across the room. The projectile struck a wooden switch on the wall and deflected into a brass funnel. It rang and warbled like a drunken bell as the ball whirled faster and faster, in smaller and smaller circles, before it dropped through the bottom and into a tin tube to begin the longest stretch of it’s daily journey.

The tube, which Aileen kept polished and free of dust, rattled and clinked with the ball’s passage down and around all five book-lined walls of her bedroom. Hewn from solid stone, but paneled in heartwood, the small space was a tidy mash of library, study, and sleeping closet.

Aileen winced as she fought to stay in her dream. Beneath her many blankets, she felt warm and snug as a sausage roll. The still rolling ball emerged onto a wooden track built into the head of her bed. It’s passing struck a series of chimes that played Bouncing Baker’s Breakfast, a happy children’s song that had the same tune backwards and forwards. Aileen rolled and mewled. The jingle repeated a second time, a third, and on.

By now the musket ball had run the final chute and plopped back where it started, thereby activating the clockwork cauldron’s final sequence for pouring her a cup of tea. Whirring armatures measured and stirred without spilling a drop and added enough milk and sugar to bake a cake. Still the jingle of Bouncing Baker’s Breakfast, rang out again and again. Not from the chimes, but from a cloth-covered cage on a stand in the corner.

Aileen finally forced herself to emerge, wincing and frowning like a newborn kitten. Her pointed ears stuck out at right angles from her wild orange hair. A good brushing would set things right, though her messy locks still smelled like storm salt and mushrooms even after bathing the night before. With a sniff, she noticed her hands did as well. That was one of the downsides of being a mage: Magical residues clung to her like soot to a chimney imp.

Fortunately, the smell of her favorite tea was much stronger. The tune coming from the cage changed to Winking Girls, a bawdy tavern song. Then came a whistling rendition of Butter In The Well and back to the chorus of Winking Girls before a great shout of “FRESH FISH! WE CATCH’EM, YOU BUY’EM!”

Aileen slid from her bed. She was tiny; in the fullness of her maidenhood but still flat-chested and all of three-foot nothing from the top of her head down to her dainty feet. She didn’t even weigh enough to make the floorboards creak as she staggered to the cage and uncovered it.

The parrot inside flapped and shouted, “GOOD MORNING HAEGAN! SPECIAL SALE TODAY!”

“Good morning, Zuzu,” Aileen replied, and rubbed the sleep from her eyes with a wane smile.

“GOOD MORNING ZUZU!” said Zuzu. He was all grey as coal smoke, except for a blood-red tail and a hooked, ebony beak. His eyes were the color of buttermilk and gleamed as he paced and bobbed on his perch. The bird was far more eager to begin the day than his mistress, who fumbled with his cage door. Impatient, Zuzu whinnied like a horse and screamed “LIMITED TIME OFFER!”

“I know, I know,” she assured him, and finally opened the wire gate. Zuzu climbed aboard her outstretched hand. He was big as an eagle relative to her size, and squawked as soon as he saw what she had for him: A white-capped rumnut. Zuzu leaned in to take it, but Aileen held it out of reach.

“Say please,” she reminded him.
“BUY ONE GET ONE FREE!”
“No. You can have one. Say please.”
Zuzu flitted in frustration but relented.
“Please,” he said, dutiful and with less volume.
“Good boy.”
“Good boy.”

Zuzu grasped the nut with his beak and Aileen set him atop his cage. While he was preoccupied with cracking open his treat, Aileen made her bed. She was swift in combing the tangles out of her long, voluminous hair – as orange and soft as peach fuzz.

“Haircut!” Zuzu called. “Haircut half off today!”

Aileen giggled at him as she changed out of her frilly pajamas.

Zuzu was a joy, despite how loud he could be sometimes. A raven or owl would have been a more traditional familiar, but the peculiarity of a parrot suited Aileen’s style. After all, peculiarities were what she had built her fortune upon: Both the mundane and the extraordinary, the alchemical and the arcane. The legal and slightly less so.

The clockwork cauldron chimed a final time before winding down. Her tea was ready.

The whole contraption looked like a fat brass spider turned on it’s back. A few spells would have been much simpler for a task as domestic as brewing tea, but both the cauldron and it’s adjoining wake-up device had been invented by a close friend. One of Aileen’s many agents, though not the one that had her worried.

The craftsmanship was impeccable, and the steam machine had not erred or broken down even once. The awaiting tea cup swirled and steamed. However, Aileen would not trust any artifact with the final step. The mage withdrew a folded paper pyramid from a hidden drawer. In it was a self-prepared dose of colorless power.

It was medicine, after a fashion - bitter and dangerous in large doses, but vital. It contained ingredients for boosted energy, mental focus, a preventive for sore feet, and a heavy portion of ingredients to ward against certain complications that arose from anxiety. Aileen stirred it into her tea and sipped just as Zuzu cracked the final layer of his own breakfast.

With no need to stand on ceremony, the tiny mage swallowed her concoction with one very unlady-like gulp. The warmth of it banished the tiny chill she had felt standing in her underclothes. Despite all the milk and sugar, the intermingled drug still left an aftertaste akin to rotgut whiskey, and never failed to remind her of how she knew so. Nevertheless, Aileen felt instilled with a satisfying sense of propriety. She felt right, like a crooked painting set straight again.

The enchanted wardrobe beside her bed opened at a gesture. As a mage and a business woman, Aileen was determined to always look the part of her brand. She dressed in a skirt of umber and apricot with a matching tunic that tapered to a point above her navel. A cerulean sea-gem circlet resonated with her most important accessory: Her staff.

It looked modern – carved rather than grown. The crystal focus was as big and blue as a mermaid’s heart with soft, polished edges. The haft, barely thicker than a wand, was hewn from beech wood boiled in troll fat. Together the two halves seemed out of proportion. In anyone else’s hands it would have looked like an over-long lollipop. In the care of Aileen, however, it was a true practitioner’s instrument equal to none in this tier of the city. Only those in the Seat of August and the Haga-Magia could boast better, but they would not be making Aileen’s kind of coin this morning.

She gave her staff a whirl over her shoulder. Without hooks or straps, it clung to her back like iron to a lodestone. Now. Now she was ready to face the day.


Beneath Aileen's bedroom was her store. The bead curtain at the bottom of the stairs trilled as she entered with Zuzu on her wrist. The showroom was long and narrow - an offshoot of the mine shaft which the busy street outside had once been. Bottles of potions and tonics lined the walls in a cast of fever dream colors. Their alchemical ingredients were stocked in bins and baskets, on the floor, on tables, even hanging from the low rafters which had been half-blackened by some long ago fire. Aileen's Cures and Curios was only the latest of many businesses that had occupied this niche, but her's was the first to offer high quality potions at prices which most in the lower tiers of the city could afford.

This would have been impossible if it were not for Aileen's side business dealing in rare - and often illegal - curios. For these, she relied on a handful of talented agents, plus the wit and research needed to help steer them towards treasures of the Old Empire, and sometimes more dangerous fair. The scheme had been running smoothly for five years. Despite the odds, none of Aileen's agents had died in her service. At least... until now.

Aileen set Zuzu onto a tangle of branches woven around the front door - his play gym - where he could greet customers as they entered, surprising many. Rather than immediately climbing to the top, the bird raised his feathers and leaned towards his mistress. She gave him his expected scratches, and smiled in spite of her worry and almost not wanting to open the thopter hangar built into a high corner of the storefront window. It was the size of a bread box, and might have held relief or grief in the form of information gathered by her thopters, six in all. When Aileen lifted the lid to find out, all of their nooks were empty. Though the thopters were delicate things wrought from little more than brass and canvas, the hand-sized scouts were bound and motivated by enough mana to keep them aloft for an entire year. Aileen tallied day 61 since their departure, and closed the lid.

Fear that Rock Splitter might indeed have died in The Frozen Lands, where even the gods would not be able to find his body, was torture that intensified as more time passed. Worse was how much worrying about him aggravated her condition. She had increased her daily dose of tea and tonic twice already, and still it pressed upon the borders of her mind. It would be so easy to surrender to it. She had always felt better after she did. It had been too long since she had spent a night at the quarry. If she did not release there, she knew she might unwittingly do so here. There would be little left of her store when she woke up. If she woke up.

But she couldn't. She wanted to know the moment one of her thopters returned with the news she needed to hear, for better or worse. In the meantime, her work helped to preoccupy her. Once she opened the door, the shop was bound to get busy. With the Merchant Guild's annual festival just days away, many would come to her for reagents needed for their wares, or tonics to steady their nerves. She could see that outside, a great throng of people were passing up and down the street. Many strolled by dressed in the finery of higher tiers and even a few coaches emblazoned with the sun tokens of those who lived in new highrises on the surface.

The sign above Aileen's door was swinging. It was carved and painted into a flaming mortar and pestle, and though it hung from a bar on short chains, Aileen had never seen it budge. Not once. Had someone hit it? The answer greeted her at the door. A light breeze blew in the moment before she could poke her surprised face outside. Wind! The breezeways near the cliffs, which overlooked the harbor always had plenty of wind, certainly. But to think any of it could reach this far below! The little mage smiled, sure that it was a good sign of things to come. She drew back inside to stand upon her stool behind the counter, whilst Zuzu preened above the door.

Sensing something, he paused. "Wool blankets!" he declared.
"Prepare for Lady Winter! Buy wool blankets!"
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Wed Nov 02, 2016 3:44 am

As if summoned by that line, so much so that the little elf was likely expecting to disappointingly tell her first customer of the day that they did not, in fact, stock wool blankets, and that the parrot learned most of his dialogue from vendor sale calls, the door opened, filled at least partially by a girl's silhouette. More than two feet over Aileen's height, and probably in her mid teens at a guess. The apology on the elf's lips died before it could leave them, however, as the temperature plummeted in the room, no doubt making her second guess her choice of attire and wish for one of those blankets, herself. The sudden cold snap even threatened the magical fires in the cauldron behind her, and the thought almost passed through her mind before she caught it, she could almost think her whole store had been transported to the Frozen Lands that had been so occupying her thoughts. And then her eyes fell to the girl's hands, where one of her thopters hung, encased in ice, and her mind gripped onto the passing thought.

The girl's voice was practically pleasant as she stepped into the dimmer lighting of the store, struggling to remain if it were based on torches, and she was clearly foreign, with slanted almond eyes and a skin tone that was almost more what people associated with elves, and yet she was clearly not an elf or half elf. Her head turned up to see the source of the call and her blue-painted lips smiled. "My, what a smart bird you are."

Her attention turned to the other occupant of the room, and the pleasantness seemed much more dangerous than it had been when it was directed at the bird. The thopter came down on the counter with a casual heft from the delicate-looking girl despite all of the weight the ice added. And despite its encasement, the If Found, Please Return sticker she had so thoughtfully added was clearly visible. "This is the address of Aileen's Cures and Curios. Are these your contraptions that have been trespassing on my lands?"

* * *

Yuki had been minding her own business, reclining on a balcony of her castle overlooking the beautiful, pristine landscapes of her homeland. Rolling white hills and plains glistening like a sea of diamonds interspersed with pillars of blue ice worn smooth and etched by untold ages of wind like giant sapphires jutting from the ground. Night went for months here, but the moon was also particularly bright, and one could hardly tell it from the daylight, especially when it'd been so long since the sun had been seen. It was far more than sufficient to read by, and the warrior princess was doing just that, sipping a fluted glass of ice wine while reading one of her mother's books of poetry. It was one of the darker pieces of her mother's collection, all about cursed ravens, hearts still beating within the walls, cannibalism and collapsing dynasties. She tried to make it a point not to read that last one, but as for the rest, they were a deliciously macabre reading for the mood she was in.

It had almost been boring since night fell, it always was. She had typically used the down time for stay-at-home projects, sorting through her treasure room, rotating plants in the underground garden, even trying her hand at works of art. Not ice sculptures, that was entirely too cliche. And, of course, plenty of time keeping her mind and body fit with training. But it was hardly dusk this year before that had been disrupted.

The girl's expression grew sour as the wind gave a now-familiar sensation to her. That of an intruder to the air, small but entirely foreign. Normally, the things ran if she confronted them, and she had mostly been content to let that be the end of it, but this was getting entirely too tiresome. She marked her place in the book and set it aside, took another sip from her icewine and set it back down on the table on her opposite side, then got to her feet, taking a moment to adjust her gauntlets. If she took it in one piece, perhaps she could divine where they were coming from.

The wind spoke to her the exact location of the construct, and she willed her own orders upon it. Even as she casually took to the air and moved in its direction, the wind swirled and tossed about the thing, making it impossible for it to go in any direction from the convoluted and unnatural turbulence. As she hovered up before it with a scrutinizing looks, its motors revved as they always did to try to flee, but the wind held it steady. Almost bored, she looked it over, ignoring the automated response.

And there, on the hard underside ... She thought she would have to dismantle the thing and find something more mysterious to track down, but her invader had thoughtfully left an exact address ...

She came back up before the creation and gave it a cold smile, though she was sure it could neither hear nor see her. "Well, it has been a while since I've gone into mortal lands, and that tag on you asks ever so nicely for you to be returned." She took a deep breath and gently exhaled onto the construct as ice crystals multiplied over it until it was completely encased in ice. She caught it by a handle before its newfound weight could drag it down from the wind holding it aloft. "Let us go see what this Aileen finds so interesting about my lands."

After all, it wasn't like her drink wasn't still going to be nice and chilled by the time she got back.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Wed Nov 02, 2016 9:48 pm

The first customer of the day brought a shocking chill with her. Aileen was taken aback, certain the plunge in temperature was too great to be anything but spellcraft. Such a wanton exertion of power was considered rude, even among notices. Zuzu, however, was master-tier greeter and knew when he was complimented. "Quality guaranteed," he replied, and waved with one X-shaped foot.

It wasn't the first time the friendly parrot had prompted his mistress to remember her professional courtesy. She smiled as she knew she ought to and waved. "Welcome, welcome! Yes, this is Aileen's Cure's and Curios. There are many cures and even more curios, but only one Aileen. That's me!" She cocked her head with an insincere giggle, fighting hard not to shiver and eager to warm herself with a ward against could when the stranger wasn't looking.

But oh was she looking. None of Aileen's wares caught the piercing gaze of this mysterious woman, who had eyes only for Aileen herself, as well as a bone to pick. It was one of her thopters. Intact but trapped in ice like a dragonfly in amber. Aileen's smile wavered as she was questioned. She began to shiver, and hated how it made her sound nervous. She told herself she wasn't. That she felt her medication working a little harder laid the lie plain. And lying seemed like a very bad idea in present company.

"M-mm-my, my! That's one of my thopters alright!" Resisting the urge to wrap her skinny arms around herself, Aileen kept her arms straight down her sides like she'd been carved from quaking wood. If she shook any more she felt sure she'd tip right off her stool. Frost gathered on the bottles and even Zuzu puffed to stave off the unnatural cold. "Firewood for hearth and home," he said.

"I'm-m sorry if it caused you any trouble, madame," Aileen said, unable to help thinking how rarely she addressed anyone as madame in her store. Her old high-tier manners were acting up. Perhaps, out of nerves, or - as seemed likely - in response to the undeniable regal air that hung over the stranger. Aileen knew it well, just as she knew she was now had to be dealing with an ice mage (if that) of great power. She radiated cold the same way a blast furnace gave off heat. Opposite extremes, but both were unbearable.

"I'm hah-hah... happy to have it back," Aileen went on, still with a cracked smile hanging lopsided on her face. "Th-thank you. And... If you wouldn't mind doing me just one more favor before we conduct b-b-b-business... C-c-c-could you please..." Aileen made a slow, imploring gesture towards the stranger. "If-f-f-f-f you don't m-mind...?
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Thu Nov 03, 2016 2:08 am

The young woman who had yet to identify herself frowned at the request, but not in ill temper. Rather, it was a look of confusion, albeit without losing the sternness she had pinned the little elf with upon entry. "Could I what?"

... Was that possible? She certainly seemed oblivious to the temperature drop. Her perfect porcelain skin didn't even have goosebumps despite the fact that, take away the armor, and she really wasn't wearing attire covering any more than Aileen's. She likewise hadn't seemed to take notice of the frost gathering over the bottles, and unlike Aileen and poor Zuzu, her breath did not condense into a visible puff as it left her mouth, a biological impossibility that would require her internal temperature to be within the same range as the air around her, a far beyond fatal condition for most mortal races. Was it really possible she didn't realize that she was making the room colder?
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Sat Nov 05, 2016 9:59 pm

Aileen’s shivering voice steadied as it became tinged with wisps of anger. It seeped through her smile like poison from a cracked phial, but her professionalism still persisted. “It’s a fine bit of spellcraft,” she said. One of her eyelids twitched. “You do your fellow ice mages credit. Truly. But mind the bird , will you? And my stock.”

The tiny proprietor motioned to Zuzu, who was puffed and hunkered down on his perch. His eyes were closed tight, but shot open when a jug of something volatile burst with a gout of purple flame which quickly died in the chilled air.

“I’m afraid I must charge you for that,” Aileen said, her eyes glaring. Mismatched, her smile was still in place only because it was a habit. “Many things in my store do not react well to cold, Madame. We simply cannot conduct business like this. So please just give it a rest.”
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Tue Nov 08, 2016 4:52 am

The girl's eyes narrowed. She had gone from stern to angered, and the temperature reflected it, as if the heat in the room was fleeing from her temper. "You believe me a mere mage, mortal? I am the very breath of winter, you may as well demand to the water that it cease being wet. Your magic only imitates what I am." She tapped the frozen thopter. "You shall not charge me for anything. If my intrusion into your little hole causes you discomfort, you should have thought of the consequences before you first intruded into my lands. I came to give you opportunity to speak in your defense to your trespasses. Do not tempt my ire, lest I forego such generosity."

She stepped aside and motioned with a sweeping arm to Zuzu. "See to the needs of your bird, and to yourself, and to your property, then we shall speak. But do not dawdle. The glaciers may be known for their infinite patience, but the blizzard is not."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Wed Nov 09, 2016 4:02 pm

More bottles cracked and burst as the cold intensified. There had been no invocation or casting of any greater frost spell that Aileen could sense. Anger had been the only catalyst. It was clear then that this woman was no mage. No mere mortal, as she had pointed out.

Ice flaked from Aileen’s cheeks as her smile withered, and her aching ears drooped. Stories of beings from the Frozen Lands were varied and vague but held to one shared truth: Such creatures were not to be trifled with. To think that one would ever wander into her store first thing in the morning was too ridiculous by half, even for a fairytale. But here she was. Far from being a petty annoyance, this customer was the most dangerous thing Aileen had ever met. Realizing that made something in her smile, and she felt it. She felt it with all the wizened terror of a sailor sensing the birth of a hurricane just over the horizon.

Aileen cast professional courtesy aside. With a force of will, warmth encapsulated her and she glowed as if standing under a noon sun. With a gesture, it spread to Zuzu, who perked up at once. “Spring time, spring time,” he sang. “Spring sales are here for spring time!” The mage motioned a second time and her stock thawed in an instant. Mist formed were warm and cold air met and repulsed each other. A spilled restoration potion made new leaves sprout from the wooden shelf it spread upon, though all froze and died where they grew too far.

Here Aileen’s business with the ice woman might have begun in earnest. Instead the elfin mage hopped down from her stool and out of sight. Padding on moth leather slippers, she emerged from behind the counter with a face kept straight with effort. Aileen walked a deliberate half circle around her guest, keeping a safe distance without once making eye contact. She reached the front door, fought away the urge to run, and turned the lock. It clocked shut and she let out the breath she had been holding.

Zuzu mimicked the sound of sharpening butcher knifes. “Fresh meat! Lamb slaughtered just this morning!”
“Zuzu,” Aileen said darkly, her breath fogging the door knob. “You stop that.”
The bird flitted but had the last word. “Warning: Contents under pressure.”

Aileen was still for a span of moments. When she turned around her smile was back, though it held all the strain of a mooring line ready to snap. She smoothed her dress and cleared her throat, but did not move away from the door.

“Now then,” she said. “About my thopter…”

Aileen grew an inch taller, then an inch shorter.
She kept talking as if nothing had happened.

“I’m so thankful you came all this way to return it to me. It’s an oh so very long road from the Frozen Lands to Haegan. I’m sorry if it bothered you in any way during it’s search – for that is why I sent it, you see. A friend of mine has been missing for some time, and I hoped to find him there, or anywhere, really. He is one of the masked people. One of the Pho. They’re a rarity here on the continent. His name means Rock-Splitter in our tongue, so it’s that he goes by. You haven’t seen or heard word of him, have you?”
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Fri Nov 11, 2016 2:40 am

If her visitor noticed her increasingly tense behavior, she was coldly ignoring it. "I have," she replied without a moment's hesitation, and went on to give the details of her knowledge without any concern for the consequences. "He also invaded my lands, looking to steal from me. I offered him many opportunities to leave without any fear of retaliation from me, and he took none of them. He turned himself into a statue as a last line of self preservation, and so I put it in my treasure room. He is still there, his stone encased in ice, not unlike your spying device."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Fri Nov 11, 2016 12:55 pm

“Frozen and fresh,” Zuzu said with a merchants toot. His mistress was tight-lipped. She stared up at the ice woman for several heartbeats while her aura warped in disturbing ways. There was real fear in her eyes now, but not fear of her customer.

“I… see,” she said at last, and anxiously smoothed her dress as a ripple of muscle passed through her tiny body. Breasts bulged under here dress where there had been none before, and were gone again quick as they had appeared.

“Rock can be very stubborn,” she admitted with a fake giggle. “I told him not to get himself into any trouble, but you know how Phoan men can be. You got to admit, when they get an idea in their heads…” Aileen trailed off. When she smiled again, the tendons in her neck stood out like cathedral buttresses before returning to normal.

There was something very wrong with this mage. She was trying as hard as she was failing to hide it.

“At any rate,” she resumed with a slight tremble in her voice. “Might we discuss this further over tea? I could really use a cup, myself. I take it you prefer yours cold? No sugar?”

“Do not exceed recommended dose,” warned Zuzu. “Prices subject to change.”
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Fri Nov 11, 2016 5:01 pm

She arched an eyebrow at that. "Why would I-- Oh. Of course. The ice. I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you were being serious and not attempting to mock me." She motioned as if to give the merchant permission to move within her own abode. "I did tell you to tend to your needs, and you clearly have something wrong with you. I assume you require medicine for it. Go ahead, but be quick. My patience is thinning and you still have not properly answered my question."

She continued talking even as the alchemist headed back, though she, herself, stayed, in some manner of respect, on the customer's side of the counter. "You knew the man who came to steal from me, after all, and you knew where to look for him. That implies you very likely know what he was there for. In fact, I'd guess you're the one that commissioned the theft. Invading is bad enough, but do you know the penalty for attempting to steal from imperial hands?"

Her stern, icy gaze had followed the short girl back as she went to mess with her tea pot, but then, jarringly without a proper break from her previous sentence, she closed her eyes and lowered her head slightly. "Hot, two sugars, with milk if you have it."

It might have taken Aileen a moment to process that wasn't the penalty for royal burglary in the Frozen Lands. It was her tea order.
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Mon Nov 14, 2016 10:24 pm

Aileen's eye's twitched at the word "imperial," but her surprise was plain to see when the ice woman requested hot tea. The little mage set about it's preparation without remark. In her state, she was afraid of what she might say. Or indeed, which half of her might say it. There were already whispers in the back of her mind. They echoed with each of her convulsions, becoming louder each time. The infidelity of her body was always most maddening when she fought it down for too long, but she needed more time. She couldn't give in. Not here. Not yet.

Though eager to get her fix, Aileen did not forget her manners as hostess. The guest's tea must always be served first. She stirred in the sugar without klinking the spoon against the cup. Though thoughts of using milk of a different kind tempted her hand, Aileen never hesitated. The milk she added was from an ordinary cow. This time.

"Matriarch's Way," she said, naming the tea as she gently pushed it across the counter with just her fingertips. Aileen formed her words carefully, as if mere conversation required as much concentration as spell casting. "It is a local flavor. They grow it underwater... Just outside the bay. One might not suspect mermaids of exceptional farmers, but they are nothing if not... Full of surprises."

Aileen caught her breath, and decided that was enough. She prepared her own tea with a touch more haste, but slowed herself to keep from appearing desperate. Her medicine dissolved into the tea like sugar, which she didn't bother adding. It took one last effort not to grimace as she drank it straight. Then she felt like herself again. The convulsions that threatened transformation ceased and her thoughts, though a little piqued, were her own.

She sighed with the first genuine smile of their entire encounter thus far. "Now then..." With her cup set aside, she leaned forward on the counter, and steepled her fingers. She spoke with the quiet confidence of a priestess, and her cheerfully professional tone was back on point.

"Returning to Rock Splitter, then. I'm fortunate to know him. Blessed, furthermore, that he is one of my... employees. Indeed, one of my very best."

"Accept no substitute," Zuzu agreed.

"He's not a thief, though. Not at all. I encouraged him to search an area in the vicinity of the Frozen Lands, but he ought to have known better than to stray close enough to disturb the, um... You." She flashed her beguiling grin once more. "For which, as his employer, I'm truly very sorry."
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Tue Nov 15, 2016 4:33 am

Her guest seemed unfamiliar with a European style tea cup, its little finger loop confusing her briefly before she put her index finger through it with a look of focus. But then, given the Oriental theme of her look and attire, and the location of the Frozen Lands, that her culture was more impacted by that vein of humanity. Still, she seemed to adapt quickly and took an experimental sip from the cup, followed soon by a hum of approval. "Black teas are always stronger than I am prepared for, but the flavor is good."

With this revelation that she was, in fact, capable of common conversation, the discussion returned to the purpose of her visit. With Aileen's clearer mind and greater focus on her as-yet-unnamed guest rather than on herself, she might notice the girl's knee-jerk response to the apology, a subtle easing of her closed eyelids, a throat tensing as if about to say something, but then she took a sip of her tea again and she opened her eyes to focus them again on the mage with a frigid air. "What do you know of the Frozen Lands, shopkeeper? From what basis do you speak as if from such a mastery of its geography and consistence?"
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Tue Nov 15, 2016 9:40 pm

“Only the stories, for the most part,” Aileen admitted with reluctance. “You’re not especially known for hospitality... Pity, that.” The mage nibbled her lip in thought as she gave her customer that was more appraising than fearful.

“I know much more about what the Frozen Lands were versus what they are. As antiquity has recorded, your empire was once part of another – what many simply call the Old Empire in this part of the world. Haegan was as well, back when it was little more than a mining colony. That was a long time ago… But the Old Empire left many heirlooms for us to find.” She nodded in Zuzu’s direction.

“Prices and participation may vary,” the bird advised.

Indeed, there was a shelf near his perch that held just such a treasure. An old imperial legionnaire’s helmet. Though tarnished – marking it as a late age model made when the empire could no longer afford to mass-produce enchanted steel – the dignified helm watched over the front counter with hollow, angular eyes. It looked like a scowling, toothless skull. Aileen never failed to lie about it, claiming it was a well-made reproduction and therefore entirely legal to own. The truth was Rock had pulled it from the sand in Shaddrak two summers ago.

“Alchemy and spellcraft are my bread and butter,” she said. “But I do enjoy archeology as a bit of a hobby.” The mage cast a wistful gaze down the rows of bottles. “I’m tied to my business at all times of the year. Although, I’m blessed that I can afford to hire capable adventurers like Rock. Truly.”
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Thu Nov 17, 2016 7:32 am

The girl frowned deeply at that line of dialogue, her disapproval evident, but not actually upsetting, seeing as it did not further affect the temperature of the room. Deadly as it was, at least her affliction on the mercury made her mood easy to read. "It is easy for Man to claim lands he never treads upon if no other man ever does so, either. Many have done so. The Frozen Lands have never belonged to any of them." She turned her attention back to the elfin shopkeep. "I reflect the land. If you see me as inhospitable, it is because the Frozen Lands are inhospitable. They accept the companionship they want, not the ownership that would be forced upon them."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Thu Nov 17, 2016 9:57 pm

"Better to be alone than in bad company," the mage recited. "A wise way to live in this day and age, things being as they are." She noticed she was wringing her hands. All the tonic in her suppressed the worst anxiety, but the double dose of energy blend was sinking in. Standing still would be more of a challenge with each passing minute. Their discussion needed to be brought to a head, but Aileen still paced herself.

"And who wouldn't accuse Old Empire of overreaching?" She chuckled. "History shows claiming dominion in the Frozen Lands was not the worst of their mistakes. Not by half." Still leaning on the counter, Aileen absently twisted her hips from side to side. Then she stopped. Her ears twitched at the approaching sound of clinking armor and weapons. Zuzu heard it too. "Make way for the King's Guard!" he trumpeted. Aileen paled. Here? It couldn't be.

Fortunately, the bird's guess was off. A contingent of the royal marines came marching down the underground avenue in full regalia. There were seven in all, a formation of six lead at the front by their high-crested captain. The cream and azure tabards they wore depicted a mermaid clutching a broken sword in each hand - symbols of nations Haegan had defeated in the Founding Era. Aileen's gaze was pointedly fixed on her guest, but she made sure the marines were in the corner of her eye until they had moved on. She kept her relief hidden and continued.

"It's really just as well that you apprehended Rock when you did," she said. "It was your right, first and foremost, but you also saved him days of fruitless searching. Much like my poor thopter." Now she felt she was getting close. "As it stands, I would like to negotiate for our Phoan's safe return as soon as possible, if it pleases you... Your Highness, was it?"
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Thu Dec 01, 2016 2:26 pm

The girl had arched her eyebrow at the stomping of soldiers, but seemed unimpressed. Indeed, she didn't recognize their insignia at all. Not that it really mattered. If they came up with any reason to take issue with her presence, she'd just kill them, problem resolved. Instead of fretting like Aileen did, she calmly sipped her tea, then turned back to the shopkeeper when they had gone on by.

"That will suffice," she answered the tentative Highness offering. "But it is still cumbersome, despite being simpler than my full title." The cup clicked against the counter, and despite not standing, her tone had a suddenly commanding air not out of place if she stood over Neelia with a trident in hand and a crown upon her brow. "I am Yuki Musume, Warrior Princess of the Frozen Lands. But you are plainly under many sources of stress, and as I said, it is a cumbersome title to recite every time, even if it would be my preference. As such, while we ... negotiate, I will permit you to address me simply as Yuki."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Wed Dec 14, 2016 1:09 am

The tiny mage beamed with a genuine smile. "It is an honor to have you in my store, Yuki. You are very considerate - which will not be overlooked, I assure you." Aileen leaned back and teetered a bit on her stool, but steadied herself. Her medicine had begun to affect her balance - a bad sign. It was still preferable to having an episode, though. Especially not when Rock's freedom, and indeed his very life was at stake. I just need to hold on a little while longer, she thought. For him.

"It is true that I really have been under a great deal of stress today. And that I also have a... condition." She fidgeted and felt another suppressed ripple of muscle pass through her body. "It gets worse when I'm fearful or fretting... Of which I've done quite a bit since Rock seamed to go missing. I feared the worst. Now it pains me anew to know he's alive but out of reach."

Tears, very likely real, welled up in Aileen's amber eyes and her ears drooped with woe. "Please, Princess Yuki. What demand can I satisfy for his safe return?"

"You break it, you buy it," Zuzu quipped.
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Wed Dec 14, 2016 2:52 am

"Oh my, you're very near to breaking, yourself, aren't you?" Yuki observed as the mage practically fell apart in front of her. Was there a bit of sympathy in her cold eyes there? It was hard to tell, as she shut them thoughtfully, crossing her long legs as she took another sip of tea to consider the question.

"Well, so long as he never comes back to trespass on my lands, the only real issue to me is that his return would rob me of a fine new addition to my art collection. If he would make a stone statue to replace himself, I will consider his crimes paid for and see to his repatriation."
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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Rock Splitter » Thu Dec 15, 2016 2:07 am

Aileen brightened at once. Her ears shot up and her tiny body literally swelled with joy in the moment it took for her to find words for thanks. After so much fear and doubt, Yuki’s terms were a windfall of mercy. She could not have asked for a better deal.

“Yes, Princess Yuki! Of course! Thank you ever so much. This is easily done.”

Zuzu gave great flap with a triumphant squawk. “Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back!”

Giddy with gratitude, Aileen was smiling like a little girl who’s mother had finally consented to bring a new puppy into their home.
She giggled as such, and offered her hand to shake on the deal.
-.-. .-.. . ...- . .-. / --. .. .-. .-..

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Re: Fair Trade

Post by Ninmast » Thu Dec 15, 2016 4:19 am

But the girl only stared, blinking, at the hand as if not sure what to make of it. Her eyes suddenly registered understanding and she gave an, "Ah!" of realization.

... And shifted her cup. "I'm sorry, I haven't yet finished my tea." She thought the shopkeep was trying to retrieve her cup.
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