Chapter 7.6

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Ward, still uncertain if the money belonged to him, moved through the gloomy store examining the items on the shelves with interest, but without any intention of buying anything.

There was a human skull with a tallow candle inside it, an ancient six-handed tempus with images of people dying horribly around its face, a fire poker with a leering demon's head on the handle, a stoppered flask filled with a liquid that looked suspiciously like blood, an umbrella with a corkscrewing handle made from the horn of some exotic creature, a blunderbuss, an entire case filled with evil-looking knives, the skins of animals Ward did not recognise, and a gigantic severed foot hollowed out and filled with walking sticks. From time to time they came across one of the grim little men, who offered no assistance, and didn't even look at them. Nonetheless, Ward had the uneasy feeling they were being watched.

Mildew stood before a strangely carven mirror trying on old jewellery, turning this way and that. Oh that's right, she's a girl, Ward thought.

"Whaddaya think?" she said, turning to him, earrings swinging crazily back and forth.

"I dunno," Ward said. "I'm not good with that stuff."

"You sure aren't," she observed, turning back to the mirror.

"It makes you look – older?" he suggested.

This seemed to please her. "Aren't you buying nothing?"

"I couldn't find anything I liked."

Mildew squinted at him but said nothing.

When they went to the counter there were two people there: a man and a girl. The man wore patched overalls; the girl a school uniform. The man was talking to one of the grim shopkeepers as the latter, stationed behind an ancient cash register, examined an object, turning it about in his hands and peering at it. It was made of wood, and about the size of a baby's head.

"Take a few on consignment," the man in the overalls said. "It won't cost you a cup if they don't sell."

The shopkeeper shook his head slowly. He put the object down and pushed it back across the counter. Then he picked up a quill, dipped it in an inkpot, and began scratching away at a ledger as if the man and girl had ceased to exist.

"What is it?" Ward said.

The man turned to him, and looked him slowly up and down before saying: "A toy." The girl peered out from under his elbow.

"Did you make it?" Ward said.

The man nodded slightly.

"I'll buy it."

"That will be two six," the shopkeeper interrupted smoothly, having dropped the quill and taken up a cloth bag, into which he swept the toy.

The man seemed about to say something, but the girl nudged him in the ribs and he closed his mouth again.

Ward counted out the money with some help from Mildew (this drew curious looks from the man and the girl), and it soon vanished into the register. Ward took the bag. Mildew purchased her jewellery, and they were out on the street again.

"Why'd you do that?" she said, but before Ward could answer the man emerged from the shop, the girl trailing.

"I wanted to say thanks," he said.

Ward tucked the bag under his arm. "That's okay." He was conscious of the girl staring at him. Mildew was looking pointedly away.

"What's your name?" the man said.

"His name's none'a your business," Mildew broke in. "We're going. Come on," she said to Ward.

"Nice to meet you," Ward said apologetically as Mildew herded him away.

He glanced back as they turned the corner into an alley. His eyes briefly met the girl's. Then the man and the girl were gone.

"Why'd you do that?" he said after he'd caught up to Mildew.

"What'd you want it for? It's a toy. For kids."

"I like it. I'm going to keep it – for good luck."

Mildew snorted. "Good luck? That's a banned object for sure. He coulda been MSI. Prolly planting it."

Ward wondered why anyone would plant a banned object in a store that was full of them, but he just said: "You didn't have to be rude to him."

Mildew smiled coldly and walked away. She said nothing more their entire journey back to the dorm. Once back she vanished, and Ward soon forgot about their argument.    


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