Half asleep and chewing on a crust of dried bread, Penny descended the stairs from her apartment to the shop. The old wood creaked and groaned beneath her, like it did every morning, and like every morning, she didn’t notice or care. It was one of the many benefits of a solitary life: no one to bother and no one to bother her about it. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs and yawned, stretching for anyone outside the window to see.
Behind her, on the counter, was the contract she and Sigmund had signed the night before. She picked it up and read it over again. Six turrets at a gold apiece. She smiled just like she had when she put it down eight hours before. With expenses the way they’d been of late, that sale alone would keep things running for the next two seasons, freeing up all other income to go toward her eventual purchase of the shop from Maurice, her landlord. She popped the last bit of crust into her mouth and swallowed it triumphantly before slipping the contract into a drawer behind the counter and turning on her bare heels toward the workspace behind the curtain. But, as she pulled the curtain aside, her face fell. In the course of the night’s business deal, she’d forgotten all about the golem project that had lately given her so much grief. Now she was once again face to face with it, the problem that refused to be solved.
“Oh, great,” she groaned. “You again.”
Whether it was real or imagined, she could feel a headache coming on as she rubbed her temple. Like a deflating balloon, she sighed, shrugged, and slid her hands along her wild hair to tie it up. A week or two back, the prospect of this project had deeply excited her, stirring her inventor’s imagination into a creative frenzy. Now it had become a chore: an obsessive chore, but still a chore, and it was time once again to get to work.
There was a knock at the door.
She looked up at the steam clock before turning around. No one ever came to the shop this early; she always had at least two hours past sunrise before anyone even thought to come to her for anything, and it was only an hour past. Penny turned toward the door to tell whoever it was that it was too early and they’d have to come back later. As she turned, she found it was Minkus. His head popped up in the window as he struggled to peak up over the sill. Beaming and waving at her, he kept hopping into view, his ears flopping with each jump.
Somewhat reluctantly, she walked to the door and opened it enough to peer out. “Hi,” she said, blinking hard in the morning light. “What are you doing here?”
“You said I should come back to continue helping you,” he replied, grinning.
She couldn’t decide if he was pulling her chain. “Do you see that sign?” She pointed to her own window.
“The closed sign?”
She closed her eyes and put her hand to her head again, unsure if the potentially imaginary headache were returning or if it had simply never left. “Yes,” she said, reopening her eyes. “The closed sign. I’m still closed.”
His smile faded, and he reached out toward her, palms out. “Oh, I’m very sorry. I don’t want to intrude on your morning.” He took half a step back. “I had just seen the sign when I noticed you inside. I thought perhaps you were opening, but if not, that’s fine— that’s perfectly fine. I can come back later. There’s plenty more for me to do anyway.”
“That would be great.” She tried to smile before starting to close the door.
“Oh, wait!” Before she could get the door closed, he stuck up his hand, which held a small roll of papers tied with a red ribbon. “You should take these. Perhaps they’ll come in handy before I get back.”
She reached out and took the roll. “OK. What’s this?”
“Well, it’s pretty basic,” he answered, shrugging a little, “but those are some notes on golemancy, according to Zinn. I thought it would help you in your project.”
“Oh.” She looked at him, then at the papers, neatly rolled and held with a tiny bow. “Well, thanks.” His smile returned a little as she continued. “When you come back, we’ll talk about it.”
“Excelsior. I’ll see you then, Penny!”
And with that, Minkus turned, took a step, and disappeared from her view behind the door. She leaned out to watch him go, strolling down the Melandru High Road, nearly bouncing with each asuran step. Penny shook her head.
Not wanting to push his welcome, Minkus let several hours pass before coming back to the shop. When he did finally return, he entered to find Eddie sweeping the floor and Penny kneeling beside the counter, handing a small, clockwork chicken to a human boy of eight or nine.
“Alright Peter, this is the last time,” she said, looking him square in the eye as she placed the toy in his hands. “Cluckers don’t swim. If you put this thing in the pond again, its walking days are over, because I’m not fixing it. You got it?” The boy nodded. “Good,” she said, grabbing him by the shoulders, spinning him around, and smacking his butt to drive him toward the door. “Now head out. Adults have work to do.”
The boy ran toward the door, beaming, until he caught sight of Minkus and slowed down a moment, staring. The asura bowed and smiled, and after a second, Peter did likewise, before running off out the door and down the street.
“Kid’s always breaking those things,” said Penny, who was now standing, wiping off a wrench. “Always bringing them back to get them fixed. I’m just too much of a pushover to charge him for it.”
Minkus closed the door. “You’re just being kind,” he said. “Hello, Eddie. Good to see you again.”
Eddie paused his sweeping and raised a hand.
Penny continued, “Kind. Pushover. Call it what you want.” She put down the wrench and rag on the counter and picked up a sheet of paper, waving it at him as she spoke again. “I started reading this over, and it sounds like you’re right, Large. Technology and magic. This was specific to a different type of intelligence core, I guess, but I get the idea. So where did you get it?”
He gave a toothy grin and raised a hand full of more rolled papers. “Same place I got these. The Durmand Hall.”
“I thought that place was full of tomes, not single sheets of paper.”
“Oh, it is.” He handed her the additional sheets and continued. “I copied all this from a tome on the golemancy of Zinn. Can you believe they have written record of Zinn’s work here in Divinity’s Reach? It’s amazing—not that I understand much of it, but I do like his writing. He’s so sassy! In Maguuma, Zinn’s documentation was all incinerated. Some people say there’s a collection of his work hidden somewhere in the College of Synergetics, but—”
“Wait,” Penny interrupted, looking more intently at the now larger pile of papers in her hand as she flipped through them with her thumb. Her eyes rose back to Minkus, full of skepticism. “You mean to tell me, you went to the Durmand Hall and copied all this today?”
The asura scratched the back of his ear. “Well—” he stammered, embarrassed by her tone. “Not all today. I started last night after I left here.”
Eddie continued to sweep, having now moved behind the counter. Penny gawked at Minkus for a moment before turning her attention once more to the sheets. Quickly she was lost in the content, no longer paying attention to either of them. She laid the stack of papers on the counter and began fanning some of them out, repositioning specific sheets across the full width of the surface. Minkus stood, watching her pull out a few more, examine them, put a couple back, and pile the rest. She found a pair of pages covered in hand-drawn schematics and laid them beside each other a foot away from everything else. She stopped. Head tilted to one side, she grabbed the schematic on the right, rotated it ninety degrees, and moved on. For more than a few minutes, the swish of broom bristles on the coarse wood floor was only accompanied by the rustle of papers on the counter. Minkus, though very interested, couldn’t actually see what Penny was doing on the counter, so he waited patiently for any type of response.
“It’s certainly impressive,” she said at last, still looking at the pages on the counter. “A lot of work to write all this up.” It wasn’t clear if she was talking to Minkus or herself, but she continued. “Hell, it’s a lot of work just to make sense of it all. I think I get the gist. The unit’s intelligence core actually doesn’t run on electricity at all. The electricity generated in the power cell only stimulates the crystal, starting and stabilizing the flow of magic to the core. Magic,” she harrumphed, crossing her arms. “Not sure how magic makes anything run— and I can’t read any of the glyphs on these schematics— but it’s a start.” Then she turned back to Minkus. “So, what do I owe you?”
He squinted at her, confused. “Owe me?” he questioned. “You don’t owe me anything.”
Penny’s eyebrow arched. She crossed her arms and stepped toward him. “Come on, little man. You did all the work of finding what I need and copying it for me. We gotta get squared away.”
Once again, he had that innocent expression for which Penny had no category. “Oh, we’re very square. You needed something, and I had the resources, so I wanted to help.” At that thought, his eyes brightened even more. “Speaking of which, there’s still more to do, and I don’t think we have all you need yet.” He paused, pursing his lips and looking a little sheepish. “Actually, I’m not sure I really know what you do need. I just copied everything I could from pages that seemed to concern what we were discussing yesterday. I’m not really much good at this kind of thing. Golemancy wasn’t my strong suit.” He paused. “Neither was schematics.” The asura slipped off in thought for a moment, before returning to Penny with the start of a grin once again spreading across his face. “But I can copy text—and there’s still plenty more to copy—and there might be a tome for translating those glyphs into New Krytan.”
Eddie had stopped sweeping and was now watching the conversation, aware that the air had shifted in the room. In the few years that he’d apprenticed with her, Eddie couldn’t remember a time that he’d ever seen someone refuse Penny’s payment, at least not without an ulterior motive. This asura seemed earnest enough, but Eddie could see she was calculating her next move with the worst possible scenario in mind. She’d been taken one too many times to trust kindness without reservation.
Arms crossed, Penny shifted her weight and eyed the asura incredulously. Her jaw tightened, but she changed her expression to soften the tension a little, “Thanks for the offer, but I’m paying you for your work. I’m not much for charity.”
“Well,” Minkus began, rubbing his chin as he considered his response. He too could feel the tension build in the room, though he had no idea why. “I really am happy to help you however I can. But, if you must pay me something— oh! I still need something for my sister. I’ll help you on this project in exchange for something for her, whatever your specialty is. Will that work?”
Penny thought about it a moment, starting to nod. She unfolded her arms and lowered herself to his level, extending her hand to him. “It’s good,” she said with a subtle smile. “You, sir, have yourself a deal.” With a shake of the hand, their short-term partnership was established.
The two got to work immediately. Their first order of business was completing the transcription, and though Minkus could well have done it alone, Penny required that they do it together, so that she could see the tomes for herself, skim the original manuscript for a fuller understanding, and help select the parts necessary for her work. Minkus had no qualms with that plan, as he voiced on more than one occasion, he hardly believed he had the ability to collect and transcribe the right portions of the tome without either getting assistance or simply transcribing the whole thing anyway. Leaving Eddie to attend to the shop, the two made their way across the city to the Durmand Hall and continued their research.