Chapter 2:

Prologue part 2: Anh's Bookshop

Deus Ex Machinarium

It was a good morning. Although ‘morning’ was a relative term, since in the outside world it was almost noon. But that didn’t matter, because Anh spent the last fourteen candles inside, reading. And the book turned out exquisite. Even judging by its look and cover, which no tanai would even consider, the folio was rather desirable: thick, large, bound in sheep’s leather, and closed off with stylish, polished metal clips. Each page was calligraphed with a firm hand and with ink that still retained its sheen, despite its age. The text was framed in colorful marginalia and stylish initials, and even though these were slightly faded, they indubitably required expensive inks as well. The most interesting part, however, was the illustrations. They were taking up whole pages and were full of significant substance and attention to detail. When he finished the last page and closed and locked the cover, he felt a weird mixture of sadness and satisfaction. One because the book inevitably ended, the other because he could experience it in its full glory and without interruptions.

Who would have known that a two centuries old Maargardian cookbook would be such a treat?

Now, however, the trancelike state evaporated and this fact was brutally used by Birdekk, one of his kinfolk companions, to unceremoniously remind him that now would be high time to eat something, change the robe, and maybe visit a potty, since it has been an all-nighter. Also, the time for the store to open had come and gone and much preparation was still needed before that would happen.

Anh slowly lifted the folio off the reading pedestal using his natural telekinesis talent, and then meticulously placed it on a shelf.

He wasn't a very easily identifiable example of his people: just like any other tanai, his head was disproportionately large in comparison to the rest of his body, which was thin and frail. Just like any other tanai, he wore common robes, which did a good job hiding his nigh-emaciated physique, and just like any other tanai he had very pale skin, a neat goatee and almost straight eyebrows.

What would help in differentiating him from the rest of his people was the color of his facial hair, which was currently brownish, and perhaps the fact that his eyes were set slightly wider than was the standard.

Anh always maintained that it gives him an advantage in terms of field of view.

He initially wanted to sulk a bit, since the reminders almost thoroughly ruined the aftermath of reading. After a little ruminating, he had to admit that indeed the shop was supposed to be opened three candles ago and food probably should also have been administered at least a candle before that. The smell of the robe indicated that a change of clothing was necessary. So, all in all, Birdekk was, as usual, right.

Thankfully no one tended to visit the shop until late afternoon, despite the official opening time being set at four trumpets since dawn. Anh didn't see the need to keep up with the schedule, and neither did Thernohh, and so the sole reason for having the shop open earlier was through insistence and nagging by Tow.

The tanai floated off the reading pedestal and took a long look around the backroom of his shop. Located on the ground floor of the end-of-terrace townhouse in the borough of Gregorki, its main advantage was the favorable ratio of rent to size. In other words, it was large enough, whilst being comparatively inexpensive. Which allowed him to house a sizable collection of books he dragged in when he moved to the city, a little over a year ago. He expected that his first attempt at being a merchant would fail and he’d need to sell all his belongings and move out altogether, but surprisingly the enterprise turned a profit. To the extent that he managed to rent the rest of the ground floor, thus adding a back room and significantly enlarging the shop. All this was possible solely because Thernohh kept Anh on a tight schedule, ran strict accounting, and then ruthlessly enforced the results.

The establishment was called "Trawins Bookes end Leiterary Curioes", and this name, proudly painted in bold letters above the entrance, was itself a subject of much dispute, but Greoo was adamant this spelling would seem more sophisticated and attract more custom. Anh thought it to be extremely silly and preferred using a different name.

The shop floor comprised a single, large room fitted to bursting with books. Wooden racks lined the walls and were also arranged in several isles. They were all overflowing with folios, loose parchments, and scrolls. Opposite to the entrance stood a counter, which admittedly had seen better days. Lightning was provided through regular lighting crystals hung from the ceiling, as the proximity of so many books meant that beeswax candles were not a real option unless someone intended to have a massive bonfire. Getting the crystals warm enough to illuminate the room was usually the most mundane part of his job.

But that was for later. Now he floated to his minimally sized kitchen and opened a cabinet, filled with a variety of clay jars.

-*so, mr dominant, what sort of exquisite concert of tastes are you going to treat us to today?*- asked Tow, smirking.

-*porridge * honey * cream we bought recently *


-*you know very well, Tow, we are in the middle of mars *- Birdekk chimed in -* and we went through our stash of jam and dried fruit a long time ago * besides we need to use all that cream soon * before it spoils * not like the last time *

Tow responded with a grumble, or what passed for that sound in their shared mind space.

It's very likely that to most people, the scene now playing out in the kitchen would seem at least weird. The tanai didn't seem to be doing anything apart from floating in the middle of the floor with a bored look on his face and hands buried deep in the loose sleeves of his robe, and yet the iron doors to the stove opened with a slight creak. Then a few logs of wood floated from a pile in the corner of the room and landed one by one in the firebox. Then spontaneously and entirely of their own accord, they caught fire.

Anh yawned. Even though the tanai required very little sleep, pulling an all-nighter did cause some fatigue.

The firebox closed shut and locked itself with a long squeak. Then a brass pot, usually residing on a shelf, and a wooden bucket, innocently sitting in the corner, lifted at the same time and floated slowly towards the stove, where the pot landed with a muffled bang, and the bucket tipped, sending a stream of water into it.

-*right * so as this heats up we need to change *- commanded Birdekk.

It took almost a quanter to freshen in cold water, change underwear, dress up in a robe and apron, and prepare a sizable bowl of porridge. It was a routine that Thernohh started developing ever since they arrived in Sheridawn, and after a year they managed to optimize away almost two tenters worth of time. This in turn gave Anh a few extra moments to enjoy his meal.

Meanwhile, it started raining.

Every time he had porridge for breakfast, which is to say just about every morning, he was internally giggling at the thought that in the eyes of common hoomin the tanai were surviving solely on it - “skinny as a porridge daemon” - as the saying went. Birdekk went to great lengths to procure vegetables, meat and baked goods for them to eat, partially to spite the stereotype. But if it was left to Anh, they would survive solely on oatmeal, dried fruit, honey, and cake, which made the stereotype so poignant. Especially since even with proper planning and work on diet diversification they were buying the vihrsstale oats in 25 kigram bags anyways.

The course of this morning's not-exactly-routine was interrupted by a loud knock on the door.

-*...and now we need to go to the front door *- grumbled Anh.

-*the shop is formally open*- responded Birdekk -*and you made that rule*

-*well, actually it is Tow who made that rule* - replied somewhat offended Anh.

-*it is a good rule * you just fail at enforcing it* - Tow added in a dry manner -*routinely * i might add *

-* all right, all right *- said Anh with a sigh -*we’re going*

The spoon he was using landed with a clatter straight in the middle of the workbench, and almost got lost in between the randomly scattered collection of chisels mixed with half-finished sorts. He wiped his hands, out of habit rather than anything else - they couldn't have gotten dirty, since he hadn't physically touched anything this morning - then proceeded to float towards the door navigating through the dark labyrinth of book racks. The banging echoed once again, with added intensity.

- "I’m coming, I’m coming!" - Anh shouted towards the door.

Before he opened the door, he peeked outside and noticed that the prospective customer was a tall and well-built hoomin male. The man seemed reichly dressed and was armed with a sword. His face was hidden in the shadow made by a hood. The bookkeeper unbolted the doors and opened them.

- “Welcome to Anh's bookshop!" - he said professionally, and moved aside - "I’m sorry we’re not open yet, but that's due to unforeseen factors outside of our control. Please, sir, come in.”

-*liar*- commented Greoo playfully.

-*yes, but it was a white lie * designed specifically to ease the uncomfortable truth*- smirked Anh to the chorus of giggles and scoffs of his kinfolk -*besides we speak to a hoomin*

The man stepped inside, took off his coat, and looked around, apparently searching for a peg to hang it. In the meantime, the tanai reached for his lumehexic craft and, one by one, charged up the lightning crystals. Soon, the shop bathed in a warm, yellow haze. The guest waited patiently, while water dripping from his cape created an ever-growing puddle on the floorboards.

Once the tanai finished, he turned his attention toward the man. In full light, his thick, curly black hair, well-defined facial features, and olive skin identified him as a Nord. A by-the-book inhabitant of the northeastern part of the continent. There were only so many of his kind in Sheridawn, or Cammot for that matter, but the tanai had seen a few in the past year.

-*that, my dominant is money*- quietly noted Greoo -*lots of it *

-*how do you know*- answered Anh -*I can see this here fellow is well off, but don’t exaggerate*

-*The doublet is made of soft, glossy densely threaded velvet * gold embroidery * and made to fit exactly * these are made in two places really * both in sorres * hose * made of soft wool and tailored * expensive lincarn green dye * not worn stretched or faded * thus has multiple pairs * the satchel bears a sign of master kechelski from weidana * even the cape is tailored for his height * and impregnated * boots are made for left and right foot * not worn or stretched either * not what the peasants wear * - Greoo spat out the facts at the speed of thought - *this fellow is wearing hundreds of ryals* speak imperial * this might be an aristocrat or a high ranking clergyman *

Even though the entire man's attire has just been thoroughly scrutinized, it all happened in less than a blink of an eye, leaving him none the wiser.

-*thank you * replied slightly overwhelmed anh -*will do*

- “Prithee alloweth me to handleth thy coat.” - recited the bookkeeper and courteously extended his arm towards the guest.

- “No need for being pompous.” - replied the hoomin and then handed over the cape - “I have a business proposition, which might take… some time to explain.”

-"Please, follow me" - the tanai nodded, then gestured vaguely towards the back of the shop, but instead of moving, the man just coughed quietly.

- “Before we continue, I would like to advise that my business requires a certain level of discretion.”

- *this is going to be good* - commented Tow, while Anh reached with his Craft and pulled two sliding bolts across, thus locking the entrance. If the nord felt any discomfort at the sight of locks falling into place entirely on their own, he didn't make it shown. The bookkeeper wiggled his eyebrows.

- “This will have to suffice and anyway it should not be a problem. People rarely visit my shop before noon. Now please, let’s go to the counter.”

- *will you finally make that office, so we can handle prestigious customers, like this one*- grumbled Birdekk in a somewhat nagging tone

- *soon*- scoffed Anh.

When they finally arrived at the counter, the tanai floated Brandt’s coat onto one of the pegs stuck into the wall, then used his pyrohex to light a bronze candlestick with a semi-translucent crystal instead of a candle, which stood on the countertop, then finally floated behind and put on a professional smile. The hoomin remained on the other side, waiting.

-”Prior to engaging in detail…” - said the guest - “I would first query whether you possess the skill I need. Do you have knowledge of ancient Kherrid?”

Anh squinted a little bit, thinking.

-*I think I can read all dialects, except the earliest one *- said Tow


-*because it is primal precursorial, very few artifacts remain and most are hoarded by the church*
-*should I tell this to our guest?*

-*yes* - added Tow with a somewhat irritated tone.

-"That would be a tentative yes." - said the tanai out loud - "I can read all dialects to a satisfactory level, with the exception of the earliest one, as no publicly available learning materials exist."

-*tell him about the books we have*- quickly added Tow.

-“I also have some dictionaries and elementaries and, ummm…” - Anh stopped for a brief, uneasy moment, then continued in a hushed tone - “...some original books from the 6th century onwards. About twenty volumes in total. They are not for sale but I can make copies of selected material...”

The guest interrupted the monologue with a dismissive gesture of his hand, then looked the bookkeeper straight in the eye.

-”I think you might be able to help me. My name is Brandt Zerster. ”

-*’zerster’? of the zerstbank?*- noted Birdekk -*tread lightly*

-”Anh Trawins.” - replied the tanai and wanted to add a bit more but was again interrupted.

-”There is one thing I need to make clear.” - the nord’s tone seemed dead serious - ”From now on, none of the things I say or show to you will leave this room. Do we understand each other?”

-*now that is just silly*- commented Tow -*just say what you have to say*

-*he won’t*- added Greeoo -*because hoomin never do*

-”Yes. Of course.” - Anh replied assuringly - “Full confidence.”

Brandt took off his satchel, then undone the buckle and reached inside to take out a thick, leather tubus. After popping it open he finally extracted a visibly weathered, faded and yellowed sheet of paper. He stretched it on the counter, close to the crystalabra. Anh reached below the counter for a magnifying glass, leaned over and started to study it.

-*by all that is active!*- exclaimed Tow -*do you see what I see?*

-*a page, with text in kerrid*- said Birdekk flatly -*fairly small font * wait...*

-*this is printed*- usually quiet Thernohh barged on to the conversation -*and printed in kerrid * as far as I know * nobody makes sorts in such a tiny size * printing presses are, what? * two centuries old if that? *

-* can this be a forgery? *- inquired the dominant.

-* it sure can * but it would be illogical * who would go to such lengths to make it? * - continued Thernohh - *and for what purpose? * to hide with it in the back alleys?*

-* we would need to do some alchemy to be sure *- said Tow -* but if I recall correctly then this particular color is an effect of weathering of the specific type of paper from that era * we can’t make it and it's not easily forged either *

This to-and-fro continued for some time and only a steady movement of the magnifying glass and occasional appreciative noise suggested that something was happening.

- “What is the verdict?” - asked Brandt with only the tiniest hint of irritation - “Can you read this?”

Startled, Anh looked up from the page and then put the glass down with a barely audible thud.

- “Sir, now I understand why you wanted secrecy. This is most likely a precursorial artifact. From just after or even before the Cataclysm. So thousand and four hundred years old. At the very minimum.” - the tanai gazed straight at the hoomin with all seriousness he could muster - “This is… priceless. It should not be carried in such a way, but enclosed between two panels of glass.” - he paused, looked at the page again, and then added -

-“I’m not going to ask how you managed to obtain this.”

The man nodded and fell silent for a few moments, gathering thoughts.

-*he has more of it*- Tow commented just as the nord opened his mouth again.

-”I have several more pages like this.” - he admitted, unfolding his hands - “Probably around forty. In various stages of deterioration.”

-*he has two scores more of it!*- shouted Tow ecstatically, but Anh didn’t respond right away. There was a decision to be made. Hard decision. His decision.

On the one hand all of the kinfolk, himself included, and perhaps except Birdekk, were immediately fascinated by what they just studied. On the other hand, dabbling in precursorial remnants was a risky business. Sheridawn might be some distance away from the long paws of the Church, but even here it could land him a hefty fine, or even prison time. Or worse still - draw the attention of the Ordo. Since the ongoing conviction rate for heresy in the central provinces oscillated around eighty-something per-cent, the risk was more than real.

-”I understand if this is the last you want to see of it.” - said Brandt, seeing the tanai hesitate. He took the page, rolled it and put it back in the tubus.

Then again this was a situation that might never occur again. Such artefacts were very rare and whenever and wherever one surfaced, it was swiftly and inevitably collected by grim men with Fouring as their insignia. This was, for all intents and purposes, once in a lifetime opportunity. Play safe and lose it or risk it all.

Tanai are curious to a fault.

-”What do you want me to do with it?” - he responded finally. The Nord, who was closing his satchel and was just about to leave, smiled and nodded.

-”I will bring you the remaining pages. I would like you to copy what can be copied and then interpret what can be read.” - he said in a solemn tone, and then leaned on the counter - “Money is of no concern, however, as your reluctance conveyed just now, the secrecy is of utmost importance here. Understood?”

The tanai just nodded, longingly eyeing the satchel.

-”I will return tomorrow, after your shop closes, to discuss the matter further.” - added the hoomin, taking his coat off the peg and putting it on. He then glanced around suggestively - “Please have some space ready.”

The tanai escorted his customer to the door, unlocking and opening it kinetically as they came close. The Nord went outside, looked around, pulled the hood over his head, and disappeared into the rain. Anh engrossed himself in thought, listening to the sound of raindrops hitting the roof. His variunity had much to discuss, and the decision needed to be made, whether he would allow himself to be ecstatic about this development, or worried about whatever trouble it might bring.