SMage 38 – Bookshop
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“Is there any general knowledge book?” said the pretty young man as he went through the book on the shelves. 

They might be plain in color, but his set of clothes was screaming luxurious to her. How lucky one could be to have both looks and status? But at least he didn’t rub it at her like other smug bastards.

“What do you mean by general knowledge?”

“Oh, you know, how magic works, the elements may be, just the basic stuff?”

“Basic stuff?”

He groaned annoyed for some reason. “Any book about those five old trees?”

“You mean the elemental trees?” she said. The young man was very odd, everyone local should have known about those ancient trees. “Are you new around here?”

“It is obvious, isn’t it?”

“Yes, now when you’ve said it. But a bookshop isn’t the most popular place to visit for newcomers. How about ‘Introduction to Karleaz’? The book has a short story about the elemental trees.”

“Yes, that would be great. Then again, an introduction to everything would be nice.”

“You are really here for the books, aren’t you?”

“No, not really,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “I’m not an avid reader like you but for what else I should be here?”

“I don’t know, maybe me?” it was her turn to chuckle. 

That was the usual reason why young masters came into the shop, to woo her. Of course, most of them were just looking for playthings rather than anything significant. She couldn’t blame them though as a plaything was a lot better than being a nobody.

“Oh? Do you want it to be about you?”

“No, please don’t, I have enough of those.”

“I can easily tell,” he turned around from the book in his hand and smiled at her. “You are a very pretty, very warm looking girl,” he said while the purple eyes looked straight at her.

Her cheek felt hot as she heard the plain compliment. It wasn’t the first time she had heard something like it but it sounded so honest to her. Other men would have and had tried much harder to flutter her heart. Their boundless effort was almost funny.

The mysterious young man had flipped through the pages as if he was only browsing the content, but something told her he was actually reading the words somehow. It was clear when he had placed a finger on the page he was reading before turning towards her. The gesture was to mark where he had stopped reading.

‘Is it a skill?’ she wondered. 

She would want it if it was a skill. It would really help her at digesting the uninteresting books faster. More than just basic knowledge to get into the academy, and why else she would have worked here with very little pay. List of Edicts or whatnot were all inside her head. She could never afford to buy any of these books, well unless she didn’t eat for a few years.

“But I’m not really a fan of reading, I rather have a person read it for me.” He closed the book in his hands. “You seem to know enough, what do you say, miss?”

“I’m called Paige, young sir, but I’m afraid I’m just a worker here, a commoner,” she said the line that would turn away any rich youngster looking to flirt with her. 

It was better for them to know it earlier than later. They would have accused her of lying even if it was they who had asked her out without finding out first. One time almost being thrown to the dogs was enough for her. She would never survive a single day after being thoroughly used and humiliated by those men. That was the story of her everyday life working here in the bookshop.

Risking her honor for a chance to step up the ladder.

“I’m a commoner myself, just a Neophyte from a far off place.”

“A, a Neophyte?” she queried while looking around. “Without anyone escorting you?”

The young man chuckled as if it was an achievement. “You don’t have to believe me, but I could pay upfront for the service,” he took a pendant out of his shirt. It had what looked like a storage ring hanging with it.

“No, I don’t mean money,” she corrected him. It wasn’t the coins or the truth that was in concern as no one would dare to claim themselves as a Neophyte. Not even established mages.

“But isn’t that Amberhand's family insignia?” She had blabbered it out loud before she realized it. Her hands closed her big mouth shut from further nonsense spouted out. 

Paige couldn’t believe it. Commoners like her could only dream to be close to one of these chosen youngsters as many of them had made it to the top. Moreover, Paige recognized the very specific pendant of the magi family. Its unique design had been beautifully drawn in a specific book.

She hurriedly searched for the book, the bibliography of the first-ever female blue-flamed mage in history. The young man looked amused as she turned to the specific page with the drawing and compared it to the real-life object.

“H-how?”

“It’s a long story, how about we talk over lunch?”

“But the family would have better knowledgeable teachers, way better than me, why-”

“I just wanted an unbiased source, that is all I ask,” he said. “I’m Artus, by the way.”

“Again, I’m Paige, nice to meet you, Artus,” she closed her mouth. “Is it fine to call you by name?”

“I prefer nothing else,” he said with a smile that looked sad for some reason. “So, are you interested in answering my questions over lunch?”

“Yes,” she answered while she braced herself. “If I got to choose where to have our lunch?”

“Of course,” Artus chuckled and she breathed in relief. 

You could never be too bold with young masters like him. Why else did the blue flame mage herself give away the priceless pendant? Once bound to a person, no one would take it even from his corpse as it would become a useless piece of metal before its owner died. That’s how powerful the enchantment was.

There was this one restaurant that she had dreamed of entering, but someone like her would never allow it. A Neophyte of his status would easily get a private table. But she wondered what kind of man who didn’t care about their difference in status. Was he acting like he didn’t care? Was he looking for a plaything?

Regardless, she didn’t care what he had in mind. At worst, she would have to sleep with him, and no girl would mind if someone like him asked. He got both the status and the looks.

Artus waited outside while she closed up the shop. She was sure that Mrs. Kate wouldn’t even notice it, but in case the lady did, she left a simple note. An Amberhand’s Neophyte had invited her for lunch, there was no way any mid-class people could or would refuse it. Let alone a commoner like her. 

The lady might even leap in joy when she read that as she could use her to gain some leverage. She was accepted to work there for that reason. Paige was using the lady’s collection of books in exchange for the lady using her as an asset.

She stepped outside and locked the door behind her, and only after a few steps, she was reminded of one more issue. Paige unconsciously had gripped her old dress, the only dress she had and it wouldn’t even allow her to get close to the place. She looked up and noticed that Artus had been paying close attention to her.

“Do you know where we could stop by and buy some clothes?”

“Yes, I know, but you don’t have to-”

“It’s okay, it is not my money anyway.”

“But-”

“Come on, let’s go already, you already agreed, right?” Artus offered his arm to her.

“Okay,” she muttered as she took his arm. 

Paige stared at her feet as her face turned steaming hot for some reason. She kept reminding herself that this was just business but she couldn’t help herself. They also could have taken a ride, given his bottomless pocket, but she was too embarrassed even to ask.

‘That’s right, I’m only embarrassed,’ she told herself a few times.

They walked in silence as her thought wandered around aimlessly. Being an object of men’s infatuation was nothing new to her, in fact, Artus was the gentler ones. Most just straight demanded her to spend a night with them. Others had even asked her to become their bitch. 

But Paige could only refuse without actually saying no. She had been lucky to work in a respectable shop. Regardless, commoner girls like her would be lucky if they even remembered the time they spent together.

The only thing that was mind-boggling her was how the mysterious man had predicted all this to happen to her. He was right down to Artus buying her things, she only knew it was a dress after she had met the young man. 

The growling voice had called her from the back alley just yesterday and passed a note to her of his prediction. She had only read the note just because she was curious. She hadn’t even taken it seriously at all.

“This is the place,” she said when they arrived at one of the local shops.

“Alright,” he quipped and led her into the shop.

“Paige,” said the shopkeeper in her beautiful, fine dress. An object of every commoner girl’s dreams. 

“What a fine young man you have here,” the lady drew a huge smile on her face.

“Yes, Mrs. Rebecca, I’ve told you, I'll enter the fine shop of yours one day. This is Artus, Amberhand’s promising Neophyte, recruited by the female blue-flamed mage, herself.”

The lady’s eyes bulged open, “but, she hadn’t-”

“Yes, this is the only male Neophyte she had personally recommended in her entire long life. It says something, isn’t it?”

“Yes, yes indeed. The Lady is a stout fighter for female rights. All of her recommendations had been girls.”

Artus chuckled, “yes, that really sounds like her.”

The lady’s surprise went up another notch. The lady exchanged looks with Paige as they both had been surprised by his casual statement. Not one of them dared to ask if he did know the esteemed Lady Veronica that personally.

Mrs. Rebecca softly cleared her throat before she asked. “So, young man, would you be joining us to see if the dresses fit her?”

“No, I won’t be joining,” he said with a tinge of red on his cheeks which quickly disappeared after clearing his throat. “I’ll wait, just don’t take it too long, I’m beginning to feel hungry.”

“Then, how about some light snacks while you wait?”

“Sure, that would be nice.”

“Rose, dear, would you please bring some snacks to our guest?”

“Yes, mama!” cheered the girl. “I would love to!”

Of course, the lady would definitely take this chance to present her daughter to the young man. Anyone would have done the same if not more. The girl even pushed her lively breast to his arms as if he was already hers.

Paige told herself that she had just to be a little patient. Not everyday anyone would find a higher class young man who didn’t care about who he interacted with. 

She dared to say, most commoner girls like her wouldn’t even mind if the age gap was much bigger. Like it or not, anyone needed to learn to accept the fact if they wanted to improve their livelihood. 

Of course, she had always never been this way.

Paige had fought against the norm at first, but she had to change her ways after witnessing those who had gone too far punished for their crime. Expulsion and being banned from entering the city might be light in punishment, but it was enough. They might be able to live in other towns but they would lose the unique opportunities this city had to offer forever. 

The chance to enter the Academy and climb the ladder of life. They would be denied their own dream and source of envy.

Paige had followed the lady into the dressing room as her thought went back to those who she had called friends. She missed them and feared the worst. There was no news from them at all, and she could only hope the noblemen they had crossed with didn’t uphold their own kind of justice.

Mrs. Rebecca fit her with her finest fabric and design solely just to impress the young man and no one else. She could see the hint of greed in the older lady’s eyes who was secretly making her own plans as she measured and adjusted the dress. The lady took her time with her also because she wanted to give her little girl more time with the young man.

Paige, however, would benefit from the old woman’s schemes regardless. The astonished look he had was enough to reward her patience, but the disappointed pout on Rose’s pretty face was even more rewarding.

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