In Which An Interlude Comes To A Close

I really didn’t want to wait to get back to the dorm so I could start playing with my new toys, but then Two announced that I’d earned a trip to the bookstore. She sounded so pleased… whether with my good behavior or her magnanimous wielding of her temporary authority, I wasn’t sure… and I hated to disappoint her, to say nothing of disappointing Nicki.

I knew I could come back into town and go to the bookstore by myself any time. I had done so a few times over the summer, because if I’d wanted to do anything over the summer I’d done it by myself. But by the same token, I understood how hard it could be to get up the nerve to do something like that when you were alone. A decade of being a loner hadn’t made it any easier for me to do anything by myself except for keeping to myself.

I believed that Nicki was in the same boat, or even more so… being alone had become the base level of my existence before I came to school. For her, the natural state wasn’t being alone, it was trying not to be. I knew that I could get used to being alone. To Nicki, that would probably be like giving up.

So even though it was perfectly clear that Hazel couldn’t stand to stay in town much longer without insisting that we stop for dinner, too, I didn’t offer a word of complaint about the delayed departure.

Of course, we had long since ran into the downside of shopping without Amaranth… we had acquired more bags than our group had hands, and since the majority of the purchases were my own I felt awkward about letting the others carry them. The logistical side of things hadn’t crossed my mind, since I’d never bought so much without having Amaranth ready to stow it away until we needed it again.

“There are lockers for rent at the gate end of the market,” Nicki suggested.

“I wouldn’t leave a stack of coppers in one of them, unless they were unlucky and I wanted to pass them on,” Hazel said. “The locks on them are nothing a child couldn’t spring, and there are children enough in the market to pick it clean before the professionals show up… you can bring your own padlock if you don’t like it, but a locksmith bought mine off me last spring and I’ve not yet bothered to replace it.”

“Aren’t there guards?” Nicki asked.

“Broadly speaking, yes,” Hazel said. “And they have a guardhouse near the where the lockers are, but they don’t actually keep one stationed there. The market guards are supposed to prevent theft, but they care about the stallholders first and hindmost.”

“Don’t you mean foremost?” Nicki asked.

“That, as well,” Hazel said.

“It’s a short line,” Steff explained. She put her hands on my shoulders. “Anyway, Mack can be her own magic lock… can’t you?”

“I guess,” I said. “I mean, I don’t know how to do actual wards, but I could enhance the difficulty of the lock and decrease the openability of the locker. That wouldn’t keep out someone really determined, though.”

“I can do wards,” Two said.

“See? Anyway, you don’t need to keep out the determined,” Hazel said. “Only the opportunistic. When there’s that much acreage of locks to choose from, it doesn’t take much to make it not worth someone’s while.”

“Okay, but by the same token, someone who makes a habit of rummaging in lockers isn’t going to be relying on guessing the contents,” I said. “I think I have a few items that would make it worth circumventing my first year enchantments and any wards that Two could legally put on a rental locker.”

“Well, it’s not like you’d need to rent an inn room to change your belt and put on a jacket, is it?” Hazel said.

“That’s a good point,” I said, and I meant it… it hadn’t occurred to me that even if I couldn’t start playing around with my new gear in a hands-on fashion, I didn’t have to wait to start using them in the conventional sense. Now I had an excuse. “Okay, let’s do that.”

The lockers weren’t very big, so we ended up putting coins into three of them, side by side.

“Aren’t you going to be really hot?” Nicki asked me as I slipped on my new jacket. It felt unfamiliar, but I felt good.

“She frequently is,” Steff said.

“I don’t really notice heat,” I said. “Except when it’s gone.”

I strengthened up the material of the lockers, especially the locks and other moving bits, and put some enhancements on the security of the locks. I anchored the spells with a version of the binding technique that Acantha had taught us for wand charges… not quite the right way to do such things, as I was aware, but something that would work well enough for a few hours.

Once I had done what I could and didn’t need to touch it anymore, Two… who had been reading the posted rules for locker use… laid a series of light blue protective runes over them, which faded mostly from sight a few seconds after they were created.

I recognized them as progressive alarm wards. The first contact from anyone other than her would make the wards glow for a few minutes, advertising their presence. The second contact before they faded again would sound a warning tone that would persist and increase in volume until the violator withdrew. Once it had reached a certain point, it would continue unless they left the area completely.

A serious disruption to the object they were placed upon… like it being broken… would skip right to the full effect.

It was only a small deterrent, but one that was harmless and difficult to trigger by accident. The market’s rules didn’t say anything about wards in particular, only that permanent alteration of the lockers was not permitted. I assumed that Two knew the relevant statutes on the subject and was following them as scrupulously as she’d follow anything. I wouldn’t say that it didn’t matter at all to her what she was following, but anything that she chose to follow, she would follow well. She was a natural adherent.

I didn’t think she had it in her to be religious. There had been golems of faith, but her creator had been practical and had not burdened her with an overabundance of things like philosophy.

“There is seriously nothing to these,” Hazel said, standing on her toes to peer in through the keyhole of a less-protected lockeer. “I was a little surprised at how lightweight the locks on the dorm rooms are, but then I realized that they don’t think of them as properly ours to begin with… we’re more like long-term guests than residents, so I put it down to a mixture of public safety and not feeling any particular need to respect our privacy. But this? It’s like humans don’t know the first thing about putting together a decent set of tumblers. You could pop this one just fiddling around with a paperclip.”

“How exactly do you know so much about picking locks?” I asked her. I knew that she was considered less than respectable, but I had a hard time imagining her getting up to anything any more disreputable than swimming or shaving her feet.

Hazel shrugged.

“It’s just something you pick up, you know?” she said.

“I thought that was picking pockets,” Steff said.

“To be specific, I learned it from my cousin, but she learned it from one of the neighbor’s boys,” Hazel said. “They had a kind of a… to call it a gang would probably conjure the wrong image, but they went around raising hob at all the less decent hours of the morning. They spent their summers getting into as many burrows as they could… not to do much of anything when they got inside, mind. Just to see if they could.”

“So why did you and Honey get in on it?” Steff asked. “Maybe I got the wrong impression back in the bad old days of early last year, but I can’t really picture either of you getting up to that kind of mischief… or any kind of mischief.”

“Oh, we didn’t go along with them. She just wanted to know how they did it. She had her own reasons for wanting to be able to get around a lock without asking for the key,” Hazel said. “I won’t say they were good reasons, but I will say they were hers, and that’s all I’ll say.”

“So what about you?” Steff asked.

“You never know when Old Grayrobes will come knocking,” Hazel said with another shrug.

“What does that even mean?” I asked.

“Don’t know,” she said. “It’s just… something people say, isn’t it? ‘You’d better practice what you can while you can, because you never know when Uncle Grayrobes will come knocking on your front door.'”

“That sounds… morbid,” Nicki said.

“It’s not about dying, if that’s what you mean,” Hazel said. “Not directly. Grayrobes is sort of… well, he’s sort of like a spirit of… well, you know… er, venturing forth in a generally outward-from-home direction, basically. When a gnome does something that other gnomes would find a bit silly, they say ‘Oh, look who’s had a visit from Uncle Grayrobes.'”

“Gnomish sayings are weird,” Steff said.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a stitch in time save anything, personally” Hazel said.

“Human sayings are also weird,” Steff said. “And before you say anything: elven sayings are exactly equally as weird. But gnomish sayings are weird in strange and unfamiliar ways.”

“And human and elven weirdness is familiar and comforting?” Hazel said.

“Like a pair of old socks,” Steff said. “Or two socks from different pairs.”

“See?” Hazel said. “Weird and indecent. Now… we had a bookstore to go to, I think. This would be one of those modern giant ones that sells sandwiches and pies, I take it?”

“I think they have some food in the cafe,” I said. “Not exactly what you’d call a meal, though.”

“I could surprise you there,” Hazel said. “Remember, I’ve done my research.”

In point of fact, Borderlands had redone their cafe area over the summer. I had mixed feelings about what this had done for their drink menu, but hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the food offerings. They were now noticeably smaller in both variety and portion size. It was more like a snack bar than a cafe now.

Hazel bore up under the burden of it all admirably, though.

“I love places like this,” Nicki admitted once we were all settled down together with food, coffee, and/or reading materials. “I mean, I like the little out-of-the-way neighborhood bookstores, too, but they’re always so…”

“Out of the way?” Steff guessed.

“That, too!” Nicki said. “But I mean, I feel awkward browsing in them. I always feel like I’m going into someone’s house and pulling things off the shelves… and sometimes the people there look at me like they feel the same way.”

“I’m sure they’re happy for the custom,” Hazel said.

“Maybe,” Nicki said. “But I get the feeling that some of them could do without all the steps leading up to it, starting from the one that involves me stepping into their shop and including the one where I touch their books… don’t get me wrong, I know there are nice and welcoming people who run nice and welcoming little stores…”

“They exist, and they’re a right treasure,” Hazel said. “Though in a city like this I suppose they can get buried just as deep as one, I suppose.”

I understood what Nicki meant. People often complained about the bigger stores being so impersonal, but sometimes you didn’t want to deal with the personal touch. Sometimes you wanted to go where no one knew your name, or cared… not because they treated customers badly, but because they treated everyone the same.

Which is to say neutrally to pleasantly, but at a safe distance.

It was quite a bit later than I’d expected by the time we retrieved our purchases and left town, but it had been a successful trip. I wasn’t of the opinion that just going into town with friends needed to be a something that could be scored as a success or failure… I’d decided more than once that my life could do with fewer big dramatic productions and more things that just sort of happened in their turn… but we’d set out with a goal and achieved it, even if the exact end result wasn’t quite what any of us had expected.

Even with the ups and downs along the way, it had definitely been a great distraction from my nocturnal problems and the matter of the owl-turtle thing’s subliminal training regimen. The weird pseudo-flashbacks seemed to have wrapped themselves up at some point when I hadn’t been paying any attention to them, but as the evening wore on into night I couldn’t help thinking that my day out with friends had only been a temporary respite from the threats I had to face on my own.

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30 Responses to “Chapter 90: Sojourney's End”

  1. Just as a reminder: Due to the holiday weekend and me being all a-con over it, there will be no update on the 29th. Tales of MU will resume next weekend.

    Current score: 0
    • N'ville says:

      Everybody is entitled to a bit of “Me” time, so hope you enjoy.
      Mine is next weekend here in the UK due to her Majesty having a jubilee celebration. All week off from the grindstone.

      Current score: 0
    • OhPun says:

      Recovery time is necessary after Wiscon. I saw you there and said hello a few times but you seemed distracted. I hope you had a good con.

      Current score: 0
  2. Allan Belcher says:

    “Uncle Greyrobes” love it!!!!

    Current score: 2
  3. Month says:

    Got it. Have fun and rest well. We won’t be going anywhere… I hope.

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  4. J says:

    Omg, Uncle Greyrobes! Love it.

    Current score: 0
  5. pedestrian says:

    These chapters have been an interesting change of pace. Getting things done, handling minor crises without blowing them out of proportion and achieving communal goals. Very satisfying read.

    Also covering a lot of hanging plotpoints without interrupting the flow of narrative. Yet still gifting us readers with more puzzles and mysteries to be solved.

    Have fun this holiday Alexandra and we will be eagerly awaiting your return.

    Current score: 0
  6. Luke Licens says:

    “Hazel said, standing on her toes to peer in through the keyhole of a less-protected lockeer.”

    I’m assuming that it should read ‘locker’.

    Current score: 0
    • Lunaroki says:

      Typo Report

      “And they have a guardhouse near the where the lockers are,

      Extraneous “the” before “where”.

      I wasn’t of the opinion that just going into town with friends needed to be a something that could be scored as a success or failure…

      While technically valid, the “a” before “something” doesn’t sound right.

      Current score: 0
      • Zergonapal says:

        My Academic skills lecturer would say it breaks the narrative flow which is a bad thing, looses you a mark and alerts the grader to look for other waffling.

        Current score: 0
  7. Riotllama says:

    Heh. Does uncle greyrobes blow smoke rings, perchance?

    Current score: 1
    • Apollo says:

      I swear to old BOB that I didn’t get the reference ’til I read your post. -facepalm- I think I need to revisit the Shire.

      Current score: 1
  8. N. says:

    An update on my birthday? This is the best.

    I liked their discussion on the merits of shops big and small.

    Moreover, progress! That jacket of utility and style is awesomely convenient. It’s so Mackenzie-temperature-appropriate.

    Current score: 0
  9. N says:

    Ah yes, good old Uncle Greyrobes. Wonderful little slip-in there!! Have fun in Madison! I’m in Madison too, just… too busy to go to Wis-con and meet one of my favorite web authors!!!

    Current score: 0
  10. Zathras IX says:

    For a burrow gnome
    Hazel knows how things tick like
    Any metro gnome

    Current score: 1
  11. Markas says:

    I love the Tolkien Ref!

    Current score: 0
    • cnic says:

      The sad thing is I knew she was going Tolkien but I am so used to her linguistic gymnastics I was trying to think how to link Bilbo Baggins to Uncle Greyrobes with word play. Then in an idle moment I thought “it would be so convenient if there was a character that wore grey robes” when it finally dawned on me and then I felt dumb.

      Current score: 0
  12. anon y mouse says:

    “I’m sure they’re happy for the custom,” – customer?

    Current score: 0
    • pedestrian says:

      “I’m sure they’re happy for the custom,”

      another britishing we would have translated as:

      “I’m sure they’re happy for the business,”

      today it would be conflated into:

      “I’m sure they’re happy for the customer traffic,”

      Current score: 0
  13. Erm says:

    you never know when Uncle Grayrobes will come knocking on your front door.

    … but a wizard is never late.

    he’s sort of like a spirit of… well, you know… er, venturing forth in a generally outward-from-home direction, basically.

    … of adventure? 😛

    Current score: 0
    • pedestrian says:

      adventure/adventuring is an obscene word in rural gnome society. Lots of euphemisms get invented that way. Listen to people talking to children or grandchildren, how often do you hear them use terms such as wee-wee, hoohah, pecker, doo-doo, ad nauseum?

      Current score: 0
      • Erm says:

        I know, hence the “:P”

        Current score: 0
  14. Xi says:

    Did Mack just make it though an entire day outside with nothing more eventful than an easily over turned racist shopkeeper?

    And is it me or is it somewhat sad that not only is the lack of eventfulness eventful… but the singular event barely even counts where it comes to Mack?

    Current score: 0
    • erianaiel says:

      The store keeper was quite a bit worse than racist…
      What she said to Hazel could be called ignorant (if you are feeling generous), but what she tried to do to Mackenzie made having all the sensitivity of a falling brick pale in comparison.

      Current score: 0
  15. Stonefoot says:

    “Borderlands”? I was a customer of Borders bookstore when there was only the one in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It eventually expanded into a “corporate empire” which completely lost track of the original philosophy of Borders. They’re gone now, but the Borders I knew was gone some time before the corporation collapsed.

    If I won the lottery, I might start a bookstore like the original Borders. (Yeah, and I’d like to establish world peace, end hunger, end bigotry, cure cancer, hiv, and the common cold, and….)

    Also, the internal label for this chapter is still “Chapter 89: Voluntary Fashion”, not “Chapter 90: Sojourney’s End”.

    Current score: 0
    • Stonefoot says:

      Either I was mis-reading the link as a label, or it’s fixed now.

      Current score: 0
  16. Helge says:

    Nice finish to the interlude.

    “Of course, we had long since ran into the downside of shopping without Amaranth…”

    That should be “run.” Past perfect takes the past participle. (Trust a German to correct someone’s English, right?)

    Current score: 0
  17. ShadowKat says:

    I know amy stores things away and that she can’t really be killed as long as her field’s ok, but what happens to her stored away things if her human-like body dies? Does it all appear in her field?

    Current score: 0
    • pedestrian says:

      I suspect that is one of the many dangling particulars that Missy-chievous Alexandra deliberately leaves unanswered to tantalize her readers. Kinda like having your sex partner run their nails up and down your skin, just hard enough to balance you on the cusp between pain and pleasure.

      Current score: 0