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~ Previous Chapter ~
Time for shopping! No, really.
On the Edge
OF ALL THE drawbacks of flying across the north in the backend of winter, Stirla decided this had to be the worst. A quarter-moon of flying from Kaskad, over the highest Etherian mountains, across a blizzard-filled Cloud Sea and many, many leagues of Kevian mountains they had at last reached Kirihte Point, where the distance between the Greater West and the Heighlen Range was at its shortest. Rather than using their last day in the West to recover from the journey so far, however, Stirla instead found himself trawling through the narrow streets of one of the dreariest towns across the whole Overworld.
Worst of all, it wasn’t even on a tavern crawl. No, Maegla preserve him, he was shopping. With a princess.
Only the thought of what Captains Myran and Hylan would say if he dragged home a royal icicle kept him going through the interminable afternoon. Having Derrain along to carry the bags should have helped too, but the cursed boy was so amused by his lieutenant’s discomfort that Stirla was tempted to tell him to go away. If he wasn’t so worried that Neryth would wander off and get lost in the darker parts of town, Stirla would have gladly gone away himself.
“How about these?” Neryth sauntered across the length of the shop, hands in her pockets to hold back her coat tails and better reveal the over-the-knee boots she was wearing. “They’re certainly comfortable. Warm too.” She turned out her ankle to display the decorative stitching that ran up the outside of her calf: a miryhl in flight.
Stirla shared a look with Derrain. They both sighed.
“Are those doelyn leather?” Stirla asked wearily – this was the fifth pair of boots Neryth had tried on in this shop alone. They’d already exhausted three other places.
“Mm,” the princess agreed absently, stroking an appreciative hand down the length of one, before rising onto her toes to check the give. “Wonderfully soft. I’d hardly know I had them on if they weren’t so warm.”
Derrain patted Stirla on the shoulder as the lieutenant shook his head. “Is tan the most practical colour, do you think?” the student asked.
Neryth wrinkled her nose, peering over her shoulder and twisting out her heel to see how they looked from behind. “Possibly not, but after a few treatments they’ll darken up a treat.”
Derrain gave an I tried shrug and passed the be-sensible argument ball back into Stirla’s hands.
“We talked about doelyn leather before,” Stirla reminded the princess.
“I know,” Neryth agreed, a touch of wheedling creeping into her tone. “But those were of much poorer quality. These are perfect. I mean look at them. Just look.”
They dutifully looked. All Stirla could see was a waste of good leather cut into an excessively daft design, further ruined by fancy stitching. The soles were paper thin and the uppers looked distinctively like suede. These were shoes designed for exhibitionists who wanted to play at being Riders or pirates, while keeping those same expensively shod feet firmly on the ground. No self-respecting professional of either stamp would have been seen dead in them. It was no wonder they’d attracted the princess.
“They won’t last two days in the saddle,” Stirla said flatly, ignoring the glowering cobbler, who should have known better than to create such monstrosities. “The first hint of snow, sleet or rain and that fancy suede’ll leak. Give it a few more days and the stitching will rot, maybe another day more and the soles will fall apart. But as long as they’re comfortable and will keep you warm, Neryth, that’s all that matters.”
The princess blinked, releasing the sides of her coat in astonishment. Until now Stirla had been all charm and persuasion as he steered his royal charge away from spending ruinous amounts of money on all the wrong things. But no more. Enough was enough. He was tired and not looking forward to the next several moons’ worth of journeying one tiny bit. A shopping expedition on top of everything else was just too much. The faffing about stopped here.
Apparently sensing his lieutenant’s foul mood, Derrain coughed to draw the princess’ attention. “If you’ll listen to me, Highness,” he murmured, so the shopkeeper didn’t hear – since they were trying to keep her identity quiet, “I’d suggest we leave these boots here for now. If you still want them later you can come back.”
“No, no. You’re quite right.” Neryth heaved a heavy sigh and with a last, loving stroke over the embroidered miryhls, she headed back across the shop to begin the laborious process of taking them off. “Not even remotely practical,” she agreed with Derrain as the student went over to help, ending up quite red in the face after twisting, hauling and yanking the offending footwear free. “I wasn’t thinking.”
Making himself busy gathering up their bags – containing extra socks, extra-thick wool underwear and fleece-lined bedrolls – Derrain shot Stirla an assessing glance. “I might know of a place to find what you need,” he offered tentatively.
Holding open the door for the struggling student, Stirla raised an eyebrow. “What kind of place?” he had to ask, imagining everything from a merchant warehouse to a hock-shop.
Derrain grinned. “A practical kind of place. All above board and ship shape, I swear.”
“Hmm,” Stirla hummed doubtfully.
Neryth, on the other hand, looked intrigued. “Sounds like we should have started there first. My apologies, I let the novelty of this experience get away from me.” The princess looked a little sheepish. “I’ve never been shopping before.”
Derrain took this revelation in his stride, but Stirla gaped in astonishment. “What, never?”
“No.” Neryth shook her head. “At home I had the palace tailors and an Attendant of the Wardrobe to see to all my clothing needs. If I ever required anything, I simply asked. If it wasn’t in the palace a footman would be despatched to acquire it for me.”
Derrain chuckled. “Life in the Riders must be a permanent eye-opener then, Highness.”
Neryth smiled wryly. “I live to learn, Derry.”
“But you have sisters!” Stirla was still stuck on the never-been-shopping part of the conversation. “And, and you’re female!” However unconventional she may be. “How did you escape?”
“I’m a princess,” Neryth pointed out unnecessarily. “And female friends are much more fun to shop with. Or so I’m told. I’m afraid I’ve never had many. My pursuits so rarely accord with theirs, making my sisters more appealing, and my father likes to keep me busy.”
Stirla scratched his head. “My sisters never thought so. They loved to take me shopping.” And since he had six, he’d had a lot of time to observe their preferences. As well as carry their purchases. Not to mention grow to hate the merest mention of the word shop. Even now the merry tinkle of a bell over a door could bring him out in a cold sweat. Having six sisters had been bad enough, being younger than all of them had made it worse. For too many years he’d been unable to avoid their demands. Even window shopping was enough to give him nightmares.
Just another way the Riders had saved him.
“Well.” Derrain clapped his hands to draw his lieutenant back from his childhood horrors. “My sisters were more concerned with throwing their food around when I left home. But as a young midshipman I’ve been in plenty of towns, seen many a shop and gone through plenty of clothes too. Now I know the best places to go, wherever I happen to be, to replace my things with as little fuss, as low a cost and with as high a quality as possible.”
“Sounds too good to be true,” Stirla had to point out.
“Perhaps,” Derrain agreed, smiling. “But I never said these things were new.”
“Not new.” Neryth wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sure, Derry. I’ve money enough for better than that.”
“But does our good lieutenant have enough patience for you to find them?” the student replied, only half joking. “Besides you live to learn, Highness, right?”
Still doubtful, Neryth turned to Stirla for guidance, but he just shrugged. “It’s worth a look.”
“In which case, gentlefolk, follow me.” Derrain turned away from the main shopping street and down a dark alley Stirla hadn’t even noticed. “And prepare to learn how skysailors shop.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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