“Nobody ever wants to do the grunt work, Brandon, but someone has to.”
“Yeah, but it’s so …” He struggled to find the right words to express his displeasure. He’d been stuck with the rats in the tavern cellar job.
“I was thinking more ‘mundane.’”
“Oooh, mundane. And here I thought you were having difficulty adjusting to this other side of the world. I guess I can really cut loose and take you to all the really tough spots now!”
“No! No, that’s fine. I just …”
“You wanted something a bit more exciting?”
He thought back to all of the fantasy books he’d read, all the Dungeons and Dragons campaigns he’d played, all of the computer role-playing games he’d gone through. Most of them began with some naive young soon-to-be hero who was in too much of a rush to get out there and do the impossible, the crazy, the brave, the heroic thing. The exciting thing.
“I guess … maybe rats aren’t so bad. But does it really have to be so … so … cliché?”
“Things become cliché for a reason; it’s a commonly heard story. Rats live where people live. That’s true no matter which side of the world you’re on, yours or ours. And that means someone has to deal with them, one way or another. Here, we deal with them this way. And look on the bright side! It’s your ticket to your guild ticket.”
She’d explained the guild system to him after leaving the Hero’s Hall. “You’re not far off, I guess,” she’d explained after he asked if it was like the trade shows he was familiar with from his side. “One part trade show, one part union, I’d say. People pay to join the Hall, and they organize and distribute work to those who are looking. You want jobs, they got jobs. But the better jobs, the type we want, you’ll usually need to have tickets for those.”
The tickets were used to bid on work. The choicer the assignment, the more tickets people were likely to bid on it, so it paid to save them. And of course you had to do jobs to get tickets, so newcomers to the Hall ended up getting those jobs that nobody else wanted to do.
Even for jobs that didn’t require tickets, there was some level of bidding, mostly in the form of bribes and manipulation. Few people wanted to get stuck with the lowest of the low, clearing taverns, inns and the like of rats.
“Don’t you have cats on this side of the world?” he asked. It was something he’d wondered about in every game, every book he’d read where the hero had to start doing some low level menial job like this one.
“Of course we do, but they caught on to it centuries ago. Now only rich places can afford to hire ‘em to keep places clear.”
“You’d think they’d be anxious to take advantage of free food.”
“Oh believe me, they’re better off with this deal, more’s the pity for the rest of us. Most of these jobs clearing them out? Yeah, they’re set up by the cats. You’ll find the bounty’s only paid for full bodies, un-poisoned.”
“You don’t mean—”
“Yes. They pay us to do all that pesky hunting and killing for ‘em. Uh, that’s not common knowledge, by the way, and they prefer it that way. I wouldn’t go spilling it out around town. They have pretty good hearing.”
All he could do was shake his head. “And all this time I thought the mice were the ones in charge.”
“The less said about that, the better,” she replied with an unusually subdued undertone, like she was anxious not to be heard.
“You have got to be kidding.”
“Shhhhhh! I swear, every time one of you comes across with knowledge of that damned book … you wouldn’t believe the messes that it makes. I don’t want you—or me!—to be one of them.”
They’d crossed over several edgings, as she called them, the spaces where one could go from corner to corner around the world if one knew how. They were in a sparsely-populated hill country now, light forest keeping them from seeing too far in any one direction.
The sky was a dull slate gray, pierced by brilliant streaks of lightning now and then, always followed by the hollow boom of distant thunder. The wind gusted in fits and starts, as though unsure whether it should stay or go. When it blew, it was thick with the smell of rain, though they hadn’t seen a drop so far. He expected that to change at any moment; they were getting close to the tavern.
They crested a tall hill at the edge of the woods; Sorcha pointed out the distant glow of window lights on the far side of the shallow valley they stood above. A hamlet stood wearily to either side of the dusty dirt road they trod.
“It’s down there,” she said. As if on cue, the thunder rolled and the first fat drops rained down on them, or at least on Brandon. The drops were huge, and wide-spaced, and Sorcha seemed to have a knack for not being where they landed.
“Well,” he said, “it looks dry and warm, anyway.” They hurried down the hill and up the road toward the beaconing lights.