Walking at a brisk pace, Ian made good time on the way to the last smithy mentioned by Aria, though not without bumping into a few people in the most crowded areas. However, due to a long day of constantly traveling on cobblestone road while weighed down by a fifteen-kilogram backpack, his feet burned with soreness. As a result, he greatly anticipated finality for his search.
The smithy happened to be located in the far southeastern corner of Conncinnata. Apparently, the area consisted mainly of residential areas. Because of that, he ended up having difficulty finding the smithy itself. When he finally discovered its location, he realized, to his dismay, that he had passed by it multiple times.
As it turned out, the smithy was hidden behind the owner’s house, which looked far nicer than the other homes in the neighborhood. Most of the nearby houses looked no bigger than a trailer home at best. However, the supposed blacksmith’s house obviously contained multiple rooms and even a second floor. Various gardens full of colorful flowers skirted the edges of the building. The lawn itself probably spanned at least a full acre. A stone wall taller than Ian surrounded the entire property.
A dirt path led from an opening in the wall to the front door. Another path split off from it and curved around the house to a small stone building, likely the smithy. Considering the eccentricity of the house compared to the other buildings in the vicinity, it came as no surprise that he had overlooked it.
Even though he felt awkward walking straight onto a person’s property, Ian decided to follow the dirt path to the smithy in the back. No other shops in the area had closed yet and countless people still milled about the streets, so it only followed that the owner would keep his smithy open as well. Without further ado, he opened the door to the stone building.
Inside, he discovered a shop area. Many types of armor and weapons were neatly displayed on racks and stands. Although the place did not compare in size to any of the previous smithies, something about the weapons seemed completely different from the other shops.
Curious, he picked up the nearest sword and examined it. Turning it around and glaring at it did not help him pinpoint why it felt different. All he knew was that these works of craftsmanship made everything else he had seen today look no better than butter knives.
“Can I help you?” a gruff voice asked from Ian’s left.
When he faced the counter, he saw a middle-aged man both taller and bulkier than himself by a good margin. Apparently, the man entered through a door behind the counter while Ian had been engrossed in studying the sword. The man looked curiously at Ian with purple eyes the color of late sunset.
Purple eyes? Ian wondered in amazement. Surely, colored contacts did not exist in this world. The unusual coloring threw him for a loop.
Another look verified that the rest of the man could be considered fairly normal. He had jet-black hair tied back in a short ponytail. A dark 5 o’clock shadow grew on his angular chin. His clothes, although similar to Allon Smithson’s, looked more used in comparison.
Responding to the man’s previous question, Ian said, “The girl at the Visitor Center told me about this place.” The man’s eyebrows rose in curiosity. However, Ian ignored it and continued speaking. “She said you don’t normally accept apprentices, but I’m at the end of my rope here, so I figured it would be worth asking if you would be willing to take me in.”
For a moment, the man remained silent with pursed lips and furrowed brows, his penetrating gave briefly sending a chill down Ian’s spine. Then, after a few moments, he asked, “Aria did tell you I don’t take apprentices, right?”
Seems he’s quite familiar with her… Ian noted. Shrugging, he answered, “Yes, but none of the other smithies would take me since I don’t have backing or money. Figured this was worth a shot.”
“I don’t take apprentices, so there wasn’t really a point for you to bother coming here.”
Truthfully, the man brought up a legitimate point. However, Ian had no idea why he had stubbornly decided to haphazardly charge over in order to give this place a shot even though he expected the man to decline anyway.
“Not sure what to tell you,” Ian straightforwardly replied, “other than I felt like it was worth trying.”
“Not the best reason,” The man said. “If you want to buy that sword, though, I don’t mind selling it to you.”
Well, the man at least had some business sense.
“Oh, I don’t really have money, so I was just looking at it,” Ian replied, regretting the fact he lacked the funds to buy such quality equipment. However, on a whim, he asked, “May I ask something?”
Seemingly unperturbed by Ian’s refusal to buy anything, the man answered, “Sure, ask away.”
For a second, Ian hesitated because he did not know if the difference only existed in his imagination, but he went out on a limb and asked, “Is there a reason your weapons feel so different from all the others I’ve seen today?”
To Ian’s astonishment, the question visibly interested the man.
Rubbing his chin, the man asked, “What exactly do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” Ian answered, shrugging, “They just feel different somehow. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe you’re the best blacksmith in town or something?”
The man chuckled at the polite insinuation, but quickly straightened his face and asked the follow-up question, “Are you familiar with Dark Matter?”
“Say what?” Ian responded, raising a brow. As he recalled, theories about dark matter existed but never reached the point of being proven.
“Hmm… What are your Innate Gifts?” the man asked, noticing Ian’s confusion.
Oh, so it has something to do with those Gifts, Ian realized. Answering the man’s question, he said, “I have no idea, but Aria tested me with a strange box, though she wouldn’t tell me what they were unless I paid five silver.”
“Really? That stingy girl lowered the price that much? Are we talking about the same person?”
“It actually was a discount? … Uh, well, anyway, yeah, pretty sure it’s the same person.”
“Hmm… alright, then,” the man muttered. He followed up by grumbling to himself for a few moments.
“So… are your weapons different, then?” Ian inquired in an attempt to steer the conversation back on track.
In response, the man stared at Ian with an unflinching gaze as he raised his right hand and asked, “Can you see this?”
“See wha-” Ian did not even finish his question before falling silent, for the man’s thick blistered hand began emitting little black particles similar to the ones he saw during that seizure session upon first arriving in this world. The particles drew his whole and utter attention as they danced around the blacksmith’s hand.
“Apparently, you can see them…” the man muttered as the particles swiftly retreated back into the man’s hand.
“Eh? Is that a bad thing? Wait, forget that. I have loads of questions right now.” Yeah, Ian had questions. If questions were bullets, he would need a Gatling gun ASAP.
“Ask later,” the man replied somewhat sternly. “I need to go speak with Aria for a bit. Wait here.”
Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?! I want my questions answered! Ian exclaimed within his mind. However, it was already too late, for the man brushed past before he was even aware of the guy’s movement.
“What just happened?” Ian muttered. Well, he would probably have a few minutes to himself, so he may as well admire all the shiny weapons and armor.
* * * * *
Aria sat on her stool behind the Visitor Center, calmly reading the last few pages of her book. It had been a wonderful tale full of adventure and romance and she highly anticipated the thrilling climax… only to be disturbed by a gust of wind that startled her into dropping the book on the floor. She stared at the poor book, mourning the fact that she had been so rudely interrupted. Knowing who stood on the other side of the counter without even having to look, she frowned and asked, “So, what can I do for you, Mr. Marlow?”
“You sent a kid over to my place. I need to know his Gifts,” the man bluntly answered.
Puzzled, Aria tilted her head and asked, “Are you talking about Ian? Don’t tell me… you actually plan on taking him in?”
“Yeah. I don’t really have a choice. Just let me know his Gifts.”
Aria was stunned speechless. Earlier, when she first mentioned Mr. Marlow to Ian, she had zero doubts he would be sent away in a heartbeat, not that she would ever let him know about it. Apparently, it turned out okay for him. Maybe Ian would even thank her and give her a tip… no, scratch that thought. Such a thing would probably never come to pass. From what she could tell, that guy lived as frugally as her, if not more so.
“Are you going to write it down for me or not?” Mr. Marlow sharply asked, breaking Aria from her musings.
“Oh, sure. That’ll be ten silver.”
Mr. Marlow cocked his brow and replied, “That kid mentioned you offered it to him for five.”
“Tch.” Aria clicked her tongue. Of all the things they had talked about, why did that fact have to be brought up? “Fine, five silver. This will never happen again, just so you know.”
“Sure, sure. I’m sure you’ll say the same thing the next time that kid comes here asking for something,” Mr. Marlow said, waving her off while sporting a sly grin.
In response, Aria stared the man down while grabbing some paper and a quill. Maintaining her glare, she proceeded to inscribe Ian’s Gifts on the paper. Even while writing, she wondered if there had ever been a time a conversation with Mr. Marlow that didn’t end with bickering. Usually, the old geezer somehow came out on top, which irritated her to no end. To some extent, they got along fine, but mostly because of his wife and daughter being such absolute angels.
As soon as she finished writing, she shoved the paper toward the man. Ignoring her sulking, the man swiped the paper and closely inspected it.
“Hmm… It’s no wonder he wanted to be a blacksmith. It’s basically hammered into his soul. Hehe,” Mr. Marlow said, chuckling at his own pun. Aria did not chuckle. Continuing with a more serious expression, the man muttered, “I suppose his Gifts are rather surprising, but the unknown Gift is there, just as I thought…”
“I noticed it, too. Is it important?” Aria asked.
“For me? Yes. For you? No.”
“Either way, do you happen to know where this kid came from?”
In reply, Aria shrugged and said, “I have no idea, but he probably came from some obscure village looking for work. You know, kinda like that Ice Queen everyone has been raving about for the past year?”
Without giving any hint of affirmation, Mr. Marlow kept his gaze trained on the sheet of paper. Although he somewhat expected the question marks, the other Gifts certainly took him by surprise. Such talent couldn’t be bought. What kind of idiots turned him down today? In fact, he almost felt jealous. If his own Gifts had been that high during his younger years, then…
“So, is that all you wanted?” Aria inquired.
“Oh, yes. By the way, will you be coming over to visit Bianca anytime soon?”
“Maybe when I have a day off,” Aria answered while brushing her hair away from her eyes.
“Alright, be sure to let her know. She gets lonely if you stay away for too long.”
Sighing, Aria replied, “Yeah, I know.”
“See you later, then,” Mr. Marlow said as he sauntered toward the door.
“See ya, you old fogey,” she replied, only to realize he had already vanished. “Tch… that wimp, running off before I could insult him… Still, to think he accepted Ian as an apprentice. The world won’t end, right?”
Shaking her head, she reached down to grab her book from the floor. She stopped.
“That geezer didn’t give me my money…”