I recognised her the moment she walked into the shop. It wasn’t the rune-encrusted armour or the greatsword that stood out. A dozen heroes a day came through Blackroad wearing such outfits, on their way to adventure in the Blighted Land. But I’d seen her face before, part of a regular adventuring party, one of those that made a living out of this barren landscape of dead men and monsters.
She killed time looking at the jars on the shelves, waiting until the other customers had left. Then she walked over to the counter.
“I’d like to buy some mercy,” she said, not looking me in the eye.
“You’re Tolarch, aren’t you?” I asked. “The one they call the Bond-Breaker?”
She nodded. “Do you have any?”
“Preparing for a big quest, are we?” I smiled, stepped around the counter, and latched the door. This was a customer with a big reputation and a deep purse. She deserved my undivided attention.
She nodded again.
“Then might I recommend some fortitude?” I took a glass bottle from the shelf and held it out. The trapped emotion swirled inside like an oily sheen upon the air. “Always good for the long haul.”
“Just the mercy, please.”
“How about courage?” I held out a clay jar. “I know it’s not fashionable to admit it, but everyone wavers from time to time. There’s no shame in a little something to see you through.”
“Just the mercy.”
“Maybe a little rage? For when you really need to-”
Tolarch glared at me so hard that I staggered back in fear, almost knocking over a table of love, lust, and passion – my best sellers.
“So sorry,” I said, sidling towards the counter. “I was just-”
“You don’t even have it, do you?” Her whole body sagged. If I’d had a use for weariness, I could have bottled a whole crate of it right then.
“I do,” I said, pulling out a box of dusty old jars from under the counter. “But it’s an odd choice for an adventuring tool. Do you have a berserker who needs soothing at the end of a fight?”
“No,” she said, staring at the box like it held all the answers to the world’s questions.
“Is it for use on a monster, to make it hesitate and give you time to escape?” The question was partly a matter of professional curiosity, looking for new angles to sell my wares. But more than that, I wanted to know what weighed so heavily upon her.
“No,” she said. “It’s not for an escape.”
“A distraction then?” I asked. “To turn a torturer away from his task, and so-”
“Stop asking!” She bellowed, her face red with fury. “Just give me the damn bottle.”
She slammed a pouch down so hard it split. Gold coins rolled out, enough to buy half my stock. But my attention was on her bulging muscles, on her bared teeth, on the hand instinctively reaching for her sword. I pressed myself trembling against the back wall, desperately trying not to piss my britches.
“Oh, gods,” Tolarch said, her face falling. Her hand slid from her sword. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
She sank forward, propping herself up with her elbows on the counter, her head in her hands.
“Do you know how many people I’ve killed?” she asked.
“No,” I managed, still pressed up against the wall.
“Neither do I,” she said. “Orcs. Zombies. Ratmen. Minions of evil wizards. You tell yourself they’re just monsters. That gets you through at the start. But then you start to notice the fear in their eyes, the desperation to live, and you realise that they’re just like you.
“Now every one I kill is a fresh scar on my soul. I see them after I close my eyes at night and before I open them in the morning. I can’t let go of what I’ve done, and it’s driving me insane.
“I thought perhaps a little mercy might help.”
“So that you’d stop killing them?” I asked.
She shook her head. “So that I’d stop punishing myself.”
She raised her head and peered hopefully into the crate. Her eyes were red. It was only now I noticed how pale and drawn her face was.
I could sell her a useless old pot of mercy for more money than I made in a year. But I had a better plan.
I slid through the curtains at the back of the store, unlocked the most secure crate in my storeroom, and took out two small crystal bottles. Carefully, I carried them back through and placed them on the counter in front of Tolarch.
“Forgiveness,” I said, pointing at one. “The other is the will to change. The rarest feelings one can buy.”
She looked at me in confusion.
“You could just take a little mercy and keep on fighting,” I said. “Or you could take this opportunity to listen to your heart and become who you want to be. I think these might help.”
She picked them up gingerly, as if she was cradling an infant.
“How much?” she whispered.
“To you?” I asked. “Nothing. Consider it a regular customer discount.”
“I don’t think I’ll be a regular any more.” She smiled sheepishly.
“I hope not,” I said, pushing the coin purse back across the counter.
As she left, a warm glow flowed through me. That sensation was worth all the profit I’d let go. Some feelings you just can’t buy.
Not on a shopkeeper’s pay.
* * *
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