Kenneth had traveled often with his parents as a child, staring out of carriage windows at rich rolling countrysides or at the glowing, ivy-festooned homes and mansions of mage cities. But every time they had traveled through a talentless town, his mother had bade him away from the carriage windows, the curtains tightly shut.
At the collegium, the talentless portions of the city were rightly referred to as slums. The talentless living there had little wealth other than what they made from selling either wares or unsavory services to magi. Kenneth had long avoided it, only venturing in once to get steel for his class.
And then he had met Thorn, and his life, and opinions, had changed.
Now the twisty, dusty roads he rode Jade down no longer seemed dreadful and filthy. The buildings, made of wood or cement and in some odd places iron and steel that skewed the building if it reached past three stories, told tales not of poverty, but of resilience and invention. Children darted past Jade, but she just flicked an ear, as placid as her owner.
Of course, there were still the stares. But with Thorn there, they were less fierce.
“I should have lent you some clothes,” Thorn said from his place on his horse, walking steadily next to Jade. “If you played the role of a talentless, you could truly blend in and see what’s it like.”
Kenneth watched as a woman carrying an enormous sack walked past, and she darted away faster when she caught sight of him. “I’m not sure I could pull that off.”
“Me neither,” Thorn said with a snort. Kenneth frowned, but figured Thorn was probably right.
“This way,” Thorn said, turning his horse. “Down to the square. You’ll see how we make our money, and trade ideas.”
Kenneth nodded, following Thorn down a winding alley and finally out to where a set of buildings had been built in a semicircle, forming a courtyard. People bustled to and fro, shouting voices reaching his ears from his place in the shade of the largest building.
“Heaters! Never fail!”
“Electric lights, and an easy to use generator!”
“Automata! Please the little ones!”
Kenneth stopped Jade as the sun streamed over his shoulders, pausing on the edge of the bedlam. Men and women in ragged clothes like Thorns stood at tables and displays filled with inventions. Other individuals, perhaps talentless but with one or two magi clear in their woolen robes, strode back and forth. At one display, where small clockwork mice crawled back and forth, money changed hands.
Kenneth stared. “This is where magi buy talentless wares?”
“Not just magi,” Thorn said, clucking his tongue at his horse to rein him in beside Kenneth. “Anyone who needs it. Not every talentless has the skill or training to make things, you know, so they buy it from those who do.” He nodded at the displays. “Every collegium student has to put up a sale their first year. If they can’t sell any of their items, they can’t move on in their training.”
Kenneth watched as a small metallic object trundled around the perimeter of the courtyard, followed by a man who was gesturing at it, getting the attention of a woman with a child by her side. Nearby, someone else sold another contraption that moved on its own, steam hissing from the top. It reminded him of Thorn’s contraption, that one that had made Jade nearly throw him and had led to their meeting. “What was your first sale?”
“A heater,” Thorn said. “Very basic. Easier to sell than prosthetics, though I’ve sold those too.”
“Of course. With something like that, though, its made to order. Clients come see me, and I design what they need. Or, designed. As I’ve come close to graduating, I’ve focused on my final project, and then of course there’s you.” A heavy weight formed in Kenneth’s stomach, but Thorn was smiling. “If I’m going to be an Enforcer, I won’t necessarily have the same line of work, will I?”
Kenneth stared again at the crowd, at the small child who was tugging on her mother’s sleeve, pointing at the toy. More money shone in the sun as it changed hands, a woman having just sold some contraption with whirring blades. It looked like a weapon, but the client held it in front of their face, air blowing their hair back. A fan.
This was what Thorn would be leaving, to follow Kenneth as an Enforcer. This had been his life. He could do a lot of good selling prosthetics.
“Are you glad to leave it behind?” Kenneth asked, twisting the reins in his hand.
Thorn raised an eyebrow. “Everyone leaves it behind, no matter what they do. If I had become a specialist, I would have opened my own shop. That girl there?” he pointed at the woman selling the fans. “Her work is grand. She’ll make her own shop, or her own line, of those fans and make a name for herself. No one wants to be here, selling their work with inventor’s college students, once they graduate. Things here sell cheaply, too, for the clients who can’t afford better things. But its where I got my start, and something I thought it would be neat to show you.” He sighed, a small sound. “But in a way you’re right. I suppose I’ll miss some part of it. The memories, maybe.”
“Oh.” Kenneth’s shoulders loosened. “So…” he swallowed. “Let’s get something.”
Thorn glanced at him. “Noble magi don’t need that sort of stuff. I know that much.”
“Not for me,” Kenneth said. His nerves fizzed. “For you. To remember it by.”
Thorn blinked, then broke into a smile. “Remembering the inventor’s college by buying something from the journeyman fair…” he laughed. “Whatever we get might break in less than a year’s time. But sure. Yeah, let’s get something.” His eyes gleamed with amusement. “Why don’t you surprise me?”
Kenneth nodded, urging Jade toward the displays. He knew exactly what he would get.