18 Meeting the Gnomes
The silver light dissipated like a family of fireflies scattering after a reunion – the food dragging them down, and the alcohol playing pranks with their steps. By the time the last drunken relative had winked out, a whole new set of lights took the stage. We were standing in the mouth of a narrow alley, overlooking a busy street. Although it was still day, every shop opposite us had some lamp shining in their window, each one boasting a unique shape and color. There was only one sidewalk, which was on our side of the street, and lining the border between the sidewalk and street were wheeled carts with all manner of items.
The buildings appeared clunky at first glance, as if they hadn't been quite built level to the ground. They looked like they might rock if gently pushed. On top of that, while some of them had uniform windows, others had different windows on each floor. They ranged from two to four stories, and the only characteristic they shared was the metallic sheen that caught the sunlight at unpredictable angles, and the dark green ivy that stood out as the calming mediator within the multitude.
"This is Azael, home of the gnomes, masters of magical tools." Xipil said, introducing this outlandish scene with a broad sweep of his hand. "Other hominids try their best, but true dedication wins out in the end of the day."
"It's amazing," I said, watching a group of people walk by. Judging by their pose, they were clearly adults. They also averaged around four feet tall. Three of them had silvery hair, and two of them had copper hair, and all of their hair had short strips of green, the color of oxidized copper. They had rounded chins, high cheekbones, and wide nostrils. They were laughing as they walked, occasionally patting each other on the back and nudging each other with their elbows. Their enjoyment was infectious even from this distance, and I would have loved to join in the merriment.
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Xipil also observed the group. He frowned and looked at me, specifically my hair and ears.
"You stand out too much," he decided. "You're going to need a disguise." He whispered something unintelligible, circled a finger, and tapped my nose. "Congratulations," he said, "you now look as human as you actually are."
"What did you do?!" I had felt a tingling start at my nose and rush through the rest of my body. I grabbed at my beloved curls, the ones that were similar to my dad's shape and my mom's color – the perfect combination of my parents. They were still there.
"The color changed," Maxine said. "And your ears are round."
"No!" I wailed. "Not my ears!" Feeling at them, I could tell that they had indeed lost their pointiness. The movement had brought my hands to my attention, and I saw that my skin was no longer tanned, but a light brown, closer to my father's natural shade than my normal artificial one. I pulled a curl straight, and the color was revealed to be dark brown, reminiscent of my previous life.
I glared at the smug gryphon.
"It's not permanent, right?" I asked.
"You don't like my work?" He had the gall to look hurt, even though mirth was clear in his eyes. I didn't answer and he rubbed my head. "It's not. You will need a new name to complete the set. How about—"
"Lexi," I said immediately.
"That's an unusual name, therefore it will stand out too much. How about—"
"You stubborn thief. I give. What's so important about the name Lexi?" Xipil said.
"Nothing," I replied. "I like it. Now where are we going?"
He growled softly, but set off, turning left as he exited the alley. Now that we were out on the street, we clearly stood out from the crowd as both taller (myself by virtue of being carried) and non-gnomes. There were a few other humans here and there, but no demons. Xipil's blue hair was also unusual, since humans tended to have brown, black, or blonde hair. Despite my grumpiness over the forced change, I was grateful that I didn't stand out more than I already did. The extra stares would have been distracting, and the street was too fascinating to miss.
As we walked along, Maxine and I excitedly pointed out new sights to each other, and Xipil would chime in every once and a while. He couldn't hear Maxine, so I would pass on her words when necessary. It turned out that Xipil's unusual hair wasn't a problem, because he was well-known. Shop vendors called out to him, and we even received free food. He never entered into conversations longer than a few sentences, and occasionally he would casually drop my assumed name in slapdash introductions. The gnomes seemed used to his mannerisms, and responded with cheerful laughter as they waved him on.
"Everyone here is really nice," I remarked after swallowing my last bite of sausage.
"Depends on who you are. For example, they hate demons." Xipil said.
"Why?" My fingers curled into nervous fists.
"Well, they're pointless. They never buy anything, because they don't use magic tools." Xipil pointed out the stores across the street. "The gnomish economy and society are built entirely on developing magic tools. If they can't sell them, then they can't procure the resources to continue researching them. They're forced to farm and engage in other necessities for daily living, but all of that is considered secondary. It's almost impossible to sell to other gnomes, because there's hardly a single gnome who can't create their own tool. Poverty is low, crime nonexistent, and they have a surplus of food thanks to their inventions – but the whole lot act as if they're constantly starving as they scramble for the limited resources to make more tools. Don't be fooled by them. They're ravenous beasts."
A woman wearing a bright pink blouse and a dark red skirt waved at us with a huge smile from her vegetable stand.
"You're joking," I said.
"Beasts," he repeated.
"Why do they like you? You don't use magic tools."
"Who says I don't? Humans aren't the only ones who find them useful. For the most part, however, you're right. I'm not a huge customer." He accepted an apple from a kid whose features put him in his teenage years, but who was only a few inches taller than me. "I'm a supplier. And that's even more important than a customer."
The apple disappeared in a few bites, and we crossed the street to enter a store with two large windows on either side of the door.
"Foral!" Xipil sing-songed. "You've got customers!"
"Xipil?" A stocky, silver-haired gnome swiveled around in a chair. He had been facing the back of the shop when we had first entered, and he nearly fell out of his seat with the sudden movement. "You're early! What metal do you have? Or is it gems this time? Do you know that I've been needing the leaves of the willow in Secta recently? Damn demons don't appreciate fair trade and open access. Should be public property, damn it. Should be my property! I've been trying for weeks to get a trader who would actually make the trip. Who's this?"
"Customers," Xipil emphasized. "I don't have anything for you today, but I need something for this little lady. This is Lexi. Lexi, this is Foral. He creates some of the best tools for beginners."
"You mean the absolute best, Xipil, if you want anything from me. Welcome, Lexi." He squinted at me. "She's too young, Xipil. Humans shouldn't be learning magic before they're five. Come back then."
"No can do. I made a promise to her. She's an odd one, anyway, so she'll probably be fine."
"Xipil, you didn't kidnap her, did you? You should break that habit. You know that humans don't like it when their young is taken from them." Foral snorted. "You would think we had taken their gold, the way they carry on."
"I have her parents' permission."
"Fools they be, then. Never trust a gryphon with a kid." Foral leaned over the counter. "Lexi, how old are you?"
"Metal o'mine, she still has a lisp. How is she supposed to cast spells if she can't even speak properly?"
"I can speak properly!" I protested.
"Yeah, kid, just beautifully." He said. "Xipil, bring her back in two years."
"I can speak properly!" I looked at Maxine. "Right?!"
She dodged my gaze. "You may have a slight lisp… It's really cute, though." She patted my neck comfortingly. "Don't worry. I can understand you."
"You mean most people can't?!"
"Who's she talking to? Her imaginary friend?" Foral peered at me with a combination of curiosity and disdain. "She doesn't even have the right mentality for learning magic. She'd be overwhelmed immediately. Dead, if she's lucky. Two years, Xipil, and I'll sell you a tool for her if she's lost the imaginary friend."
"Now, Foral, don't force me to go to your competitors." Xipil said.
"They'd be more fools than her parents if they sold you a tool. I thought gryphons were supposed to have infinite time with infinite patience. What's the rush?"
"I said she's odd. I want to see how magic reacts to her." Xipil replied.
Foral shook his head. "There are better ways than my tools. The humans use Yorli's tools for Observation and Diagnosis. You should go to one of them."
"I'm not sharing," Xipil growled.
"You kidnapped her after all! Xipil, you have to stop doing that! You're going to get me in trouble also, if you bring her here!" Foral reached for a small box. "I'll call the human embassy. We can get in touch with her parents and clear everything up. There are better ways to satisfy your curiosity than getting my poor business in trouble with the authorities."
"Foral." It was but a single word, and yet all three of us – Foral, Maxine, and I – held our breath. The air crackled and a faint whine emanated from the various objects on the shelves. Maxine dived into my shirt and I wished that I could follow her, but I was too afraid to catch Xipil's attention. His eyes were yellow. I could feel the fingers that held me slowly change into long, cold talons. If I moved even an inch, I was going to have to finally figure out how to make excuses for Maxine's healing powers.
Foral was in an even worse state. As the target of Xipil's anger, he was shaking like a rabbit. Sweat beaded on his upper lip, and a tear formed in the corner of his eye.
"Foral." Xipil repeated quietly, his voice echoing throughout the shop. I heard a series of thumps. The humans who had been browsing in the back during our conversation had fallen, hopefully only unconscious. Foral whimpered. "You try my patience. The tool."
"I… can't…" He gasped.
"Foral." The gnome fell from his seat. Xipil slowly walked to the counter and leaned over. Foral was on all fours, panting and digging at the wooden panels. "I will sign an oath that I have her parents' permission and that I am both prepared for the consequences and fully equipped to handle them. I will also swear that if you had not sold me the tool, I would have destroyed all of Cowel Street and refused to supply materials indefinitely to any gnome in the future, only dwarves. Now. Sell me the tool."
Foral nodded frantically.
Xipil's eyes simultaneously darkened to brown and lightened to white. He turned his fully human face to me and smiled.
"A lesson for the future, little thief." He said lightly. "Negotiation is the heart of sales."
I needed more negotiation tools.
Maxine peeked out of my collar. "Can we go home?" She asked pitifully.
"Soon," I whispered.
Foral had dragged himself off the floor. With barely a glance at his unconscious customers, he walked around the counter to study the shelves. He hopped nervously from one foot to the other, then finally pulled one item down.
At this point, after all the hassle, I would like to say it was amazing, mind-blowing, and absolutely worth the trip. That it had intricate designs, lights, and gears. That it made me forget everything that had just happened, and that I was even more excited to learn magic.
It was a stick.
Another damn stick.
"This wand has enough fail safes and protective spells carved into it that even if she accesses magic improperly, you will have to time to save her." Foral said as he carried it to Xipil. He was still sweating, but he spoke steadily. "With proper maintenance, it will last for three years. Fire magic and air magic will decrease its service life, and water spells will require more maintenance. I recommend sticking to earth spells." While Xipil examined it, he retrieved a transparent jar with green jelly and a black cloth. "After use, wipe it down with this. At the minimum, wipe it down once a week." He cleared his throat. "Is this acceptable, dear customer?"
"What do you think, Lexi?" Xipil handed the stick over. Now that it was closer, I could see the faint outlines of carvings, and there appeared to be small circles carved from different woods plugged in a line from top to bottom. It was round at the bottom, and tapered to a point at the top. It did not bend at all. It was smooth, brown, and looked like it had been taken from a tree. There was nothing magical about it.
"It's a stick," I muttered.
"It's a wand. Human beginners have trouble directing their spells. Straight objects make it easier to direct, so that the caster can focus on the fundamentals." He handed it to Foral. "We'll take it. And a carrying case."
"Of course, dear customer. That will be 47 silvers. And here's paper and pen." Foral said.
Xipil wordlessly took the pen in his left hand, and swiftly filled the paper from top to bottom, finishing with a flashy signature.
Foral sighed as he checked what Xipil had written, then carefully folded it.
"You're a pain." He said. "You always make my life difficult."
"Willow leaves, was it?"
Foral did an amazing 180, his face lifting like a sunflower to the sun.
"You're always welcome, dear supplier!"
Xipil laughed, waved his hand, and my heart returned to my mouth. Blinking away the silver lights, the meadow greeted us.
Finally standing on my own two feet, I stretched with a groan.
"Why did he not want to sell it to us? I thought you said that gnomes wanted to sell their tools."
"They do. It's their life's obsession."
"He didn't seem like it."
"He was. He wouldn't have been able to sell if the government revoked his permit, which they would have if they found out he sold to an underage kid."
"Oh." I kicked at the ground, scuffing my polished shoes. "Xipil?"
"You… didn't you overdo it, back in the shop? You could have offered the oath at the beginning."
Xipil crouched in front of me.
"I am an all-powerful gryphon. And I do not take threats – I give them. Understood?" Grinning, he rubbed my head. "When you're as powerful as I am, you can try it. It's exhilarating."
I blinked at him. He looked so satisfied with himself, somewhere between either preening or licking his whiskers.
"That's mean." I said.
"But I'm nice to you." He pinched my cheek, then patted it. "Run along home, little thief. I'll keep your wand here, and we'll start your lessons tomorrow."
I made a face at him, but my stomach was grumbling and I didn't want to push him again. If I did, I might have been the one fainting on the floor this time around. I said a quick "Bye" then walked to the path.
I looked back just once before I entered the trees. The giant cat-bird was rolling in the tall grass, his tail smacking the trees, causing the leaves to fall. He was actually cute. And astounding. For all the magic and swords and killing I had witnessed, watching the mythical animal acting like a domesticate cat was perhaps the oddest thing I had seen yet.