The evening rain drove Gheris out of the Denerim alienage, and into the markets. There wasn’t any shelter anywhere; the other street rats had beaten her to all the good places. Their hollow eyes watched her from beneath the shelter of leaning buildings and stalls hurriedly packed and abandoned. She considered sitting in the middle of the market plaza, in the middle of the rain, cursing the Creators openly, but decided that might test them too much. She would get sick, have nowhere and nothing to help her recover, and what good would that do her?
There was one place. It was unlikely. She would be turned away as soon as her muddy boots could make prints on the doorstep, but it was better than sitting out in the rain.
Rickety was the owner of the largest, finest pawn shop in Denerim. She’d fenced her stolen goods to him when she needed to steal to make a living. He was a distant sort, which suited her fine then, but now made her nervous when she was banking on the kindness of people’s hearts. Gheris crept up his steps, hesitated, then pulled her boots off before she entered and clutched them. She didn’t want to track mud inside. These boots were terrible, besides. She ran barefoot through forests – these boots confined her feet, but it would be strange to Denerim citizens if she didn’t wear them.
Inside, the shop was warm, but dark at the entrance. Her footsteps were silent. She ignored the trinkets on the shelves. As when she had left, she found him in the back of the main room by his desk, quill smoothly running across his ledger. The two candles were his only light. She stopped short, watching him with a sad fascination. She reached into her pockets, where she had preserved the letter in a small square wrapped in a piece of leather torn from her old armor to keep it from getting wet. Most of the armor was gone, sold for very little, but enough to buy food when she was desperate, but she’d kept a small patch from the gold-colored inlay.
“Rickety,” she called before she could stop herself.
His hand stopped moving and he looked up, spying her immediately. “Well. Heard you were back. Didn’t believe it, after what happened.”
He was a human man, with notched, leathery skin. He was around fifty, by Gheris’ estimate, but big-armed and muscled and his torso solid. He did not smile. Rickety wasn’t from Ferelden, but she couldn’t tell where he was from.
“I never thought I’d return,” she answered.
“You fencing something? Haven’t heard about any heists of late.”
She inhaled. “No.”
She shook her head rapidly. “No.”
“What are you here for, then?”
She fumbled. She no longer owned gloves, and the frigid rain had made her fingers cold. After nearly dropping it twice, she finally managed to open the letter and thrust it forward.
“I need you to read me this letter,” she said. After a moment’s consideration, she added, “Please. Sir.”
Rickety’s brows lowered. “Do I look like your maidservant? Read it yourself.” He looked back down at his ledger.
When she didn’t move, arms still outstretched, he looked at her again. This time, slowly, taking her in – the worn clothing, skin pink from the cold, her jaw clenched but chin out. She had always been a little too thin to be healthy, but her bones stretched her skin now. His expression softened slightly, brows rising some. She hadn’t come here to do this, but now that she had started, she didn’t want to give up on it. It was shameful. A woman of the People begging for knowledge from a shem. But she couldn’t go back out into the freezing rain.
“You can’t read, can you?”
Gheris shifted her shoulders uncomfortably. Leave, you’re making a fool of yourself, an old piece of her shouted. “I can write my name.”
“Aye, and a farmer can beat stray dogs from his land, but that don’t mean he can fight.”
“There are no stray dogs in Fereldan.” Gheris’ hand lowered slowly. “The humans love their dogs here.”
He nodded shortly in agreement. “Stinking things, but so are their masters.” He snorted to himself and Gheris inspected the letter again to hide a smile of her own. “I’m not reading it for you.”
“It’s short. I just need to know what it says.”
“Then learn to read.”
“I can’t!” she blurted out. She folded the letter back up, creasing it again and again as she worked out what she wanted to say. He waited with the patience only elders had. “I’ll… I can carry your messages. Or clean. But I can’t cook. I’ll just set your shop on fire if I do. Or I can hunt. I don’t think it’s legal for me to do it in the king’s personal hunting lands, but I would never get caught.”
“Doesn’t do me no good in the city, does it? Are you any good with numbers?”
She frowned, nails running along the edge of the folded parchments over and over. “I can count.”
“Can you add or subtract?”
“What about multiplication or division?”
She scowled, planting a hand on her hip. “I have told you what I could do in return for teaching me! Is your answer yes, or no?”
Now she was sure she wanted it. There was nothing else for her to do in Denerim if she wanted to keep an honest life. Learning to read would help. Somehow. She was sure of it. If not this, she did not know what else to do, and she had no desire to drag herself back to the Dalish clans as a failure. Gialinn may have died Dalish, but Gheris was better than her. Rickety rubbed his jaw, just under a large, faded scar. Gheris pushed her hair from her face and waited. The wet tangles flopped back down. Something about the way he examined her made her feel challenged. She squared her shoulders and stared right back, feet apart, hand tight around the letter.
Just as he opened his mouth to answer, Gheris cut in. “I won’t do any… n-nightly favors. I know some Alienage women do it, but I’m not – I won’t.”
Rickety’s brows shot up and he burst into laughter. It was a low, growling sound and made Gheris take a few steps back, hunched, ready to bolt. “Oh, you’re too much a twig, girl. Too tiny. You’re more man than woman, and I like women.”
She felt herself flush. This shouldn’t have bothered her, but since Casidhe, a lot of things that used to upset her now didn’t and a lot of things that didn’t now did. She bit down on a retort and instead buried the feeling, never to be heard from again.
When Rickety was done laughing, he leaned back in his chair. “I’ll teach you your letters and numbers, I will. In exchange, you’ll learn to organize the shelves. Mayhap you’ll learn to keep my books in time.” He tapped his ledger. “I’m getting old. Can’t stay on my feet too long. Starting to squint. You’ll be running messages to Valendrian and the alienage. Elves are good scavengers. I’m sure they could use the money from it. You start tomorrow at dawn.” He groaned as he rose from his seat and rolled an aching shoulder. “I could probably find you some side work with the local thieves. Better lot than the ones you ran with before.” He shook his head. “Idiots.”
“No,” she said hurriedly. Rickety raised an eyebrow at her. “I… made a promise. Not to steal.”
Her eyes slid away from the man and to the floor. “I won’t steal anymore. But I can do everything else. Just – teach me to read.”
Still gripping Naessa’s letter, she turned to leave the shop.
“Where are you going?”
She stopped but didn’t turn back. “I ought to find someplace to sleep.”
“Back room’s got space. Not the biggest, but it’ll likely turn to snow tonight.” Gheris turned slowly to look at the man. He gestured to a door behind him. “Go on, then. Just don’t set my shop on fire. And don’t touch anything in there. Specialty items. You break it, you pay every copper back.”
She scooped up her boots and edged carefully around him, then darted into the back room before he could change his mind. The door creaked back open a second later. “_Ma serannas_.” The words were hard to choke out. The door slammed shut again.
Inside, she sat on the tiny cot and clutched the letter, wishing she could absorb it and learn it in spirit. She felt herself leave a wet spot as she dripped the rain onto the blanket, but she didn’t mind. Her fingers were thawing out. She could feel her toes again.
Creators, she thought anxiously, what have I gotten into now? She was learning to read. For someone who had saved the world, that seemed a… meager living. If Rickety kept his word. For a Dalish, this was absurd and demeaning. But she was no longer truly Dalish, was she? Her hands tightened around the letter. Naessa’s invitation to stay had been a kindness. Pity. But Gheris had no place there, and she would not go crawling back as mother did. It remained that she ought to find a place here, where humans were lords and elves were just ears with legs.