The capital was everything that I had expected. The streets were crowded with merchants and beggars alike, ramshackle stalls propped up against the sides of buildings. It looked richer in people than in money.
Lining the route through the streets from the city gates were dozens of two-storey buildings. There were shops of every kind that I'd ever heard of, and several I'd never even imagined existed. Shoemakers, glassblowers and carpenters stood neatly alongside buildings shrouded in dust and the overwhelming impression of...time. There was magic in some of them, but not many, and not much. Those with crystal balls and similar on direct display tended to resonate the least. A small wooden structure, painted green as though this would somehow stop it looking seconds away from collapse, ended the terrace. The windows were darkened with age and dust, and from the looks of things the door itself had broken off a while ago. The doorway was marked with the remainder of its hinges, a small stone step, and some splintered shards of wood near the wall. I suspected it might have been broken into, though I couldn't think why anybody would have taken the effort.
The raucous noise of the street-sellers crying their wares left me desperate for something - anything - quieter. With barely a moment's hesitation, I stepped into the little green shop. The inside was as bare as it had looked from outside. A few shelves lined the walls, decked with scrolls of various sizes, rolled up and bundled together. If there was an order to it, it wasn't one that I could recognise. At the far end of the room, a man was hunched over an angled wooden desk, surrounded by small metal tools and various writing instruments. A piece of parchment lay across the desk, pinned down and weighted. I could just about make out inked scrawls and patterns marked across it.
I cleared my throat lightly. The sound of the streets outside were filtering through, muted only slightly by the glass window, and it was more than likely that the man hadn't heard me enter.
He heard the cough, though, turning in his seat. His face fell when he saw me. I guessed he knew I wasn't here for business. "Can I help you?" he asked, sounding weary. He was still half-hunched over the desk, pen in hand. He dipped it in a nearby inkwell and continued working whilst awaiting my answer.
"Yes, I was wondering if you could..." I trailed off automatically as soon as he turned back. His face was lined and grizzled, and something about it set me on edge. My master had been old, older than this, but not nearly as worn.
"Well? Spit it out, boy. Some of us have work to do." He shifted in his seat, facing the parchment again. As he shifted, a drop of ink fell from the pen in his hand, silently landing on the parchment. The man cursed.
I couldn't help but feel as though part of it was directed at me. I took a couple of steps closer to the desk, watching as the man began unfastening the parchment. I frowned in confusion. One stray drop of ink couldn't justify scrapping the entire thing, surely? Closer to the table, I saw where it had landed. What had seemed like unintelligible scrawls were names, marking borders. The ink had landed directly on one of the names, and the parchment had soaked it up. The map was effectively ruined.
In the cartographer's eyes, anyway. I placed my hand on his wrist, pinning him to the desk as I looked over the map. It covered the greater part of the south, paying particularly close detail to the capital and where borders began and ended. I knew little about mapmaking, but judging by the detail it must have taken at least the better part of a day.
"Can I?" I asked, reaching to take the pen from his hand. He let me, presumably because he had nothing left to lose. Judging from the mixture of confusion and irritation written across his face, he thought I had some inexplicable desire to add something to the map, probably graffiti of some sort. A swear, maybe. He didn't seem to have a particularly high opinion of strangers, particularly not young ones.
I refilled the pen as carefully as I could, making sure not to tip the inkwell. There was a limit on how much I could salvage. The wording that had suffered from the inkblot was spaced a little away from the closest border. Thankfully, the blot hadn't been large enough to touch it to anything else on the page. I leaned closer to the page, scratching the pen in a downward stroke beside the blot. A few more strokes outlined the rest of the place name - El---si Falls, somewhere further north. I'd never heard of it, had no idea what letters had been blotted out. From there, it was a matter of the right symbols and structures, and the right way to connect them. The magic was all too familiar to me - half of my apprenticeship had been taken up with mistakes, and learning how to get rid of them.
After a few more scribbles, both the blot and the symbols around it had vanished from the page, inkstains on my forefinger and thumb the only proof of my effort.
I was aware of the man's eyes on me, though he looked more suspicious than entranced. His irritation hadn't relented much, even despite my help. "Should've mentioned you were one of them," he muttered. "What is it you're after? If it's books, you're better off with the binder down the street. I only do diagrams and translations. And don't think you'll be getting any discount." He jabbed a finger in my direction, though his face was softening a little.
"No, I..." My lips had gone unexpectedly dry. "I'm not in need of any services right now, sir. Though I'll be sure to come back here when I am," I added quickly. He merely grumbled. "The fact is, I'm new to this city. I was told there were craft guilds here, but I've gotten a bit lost. Is there any chance you could..?"
"Over there." He jabbed his finger to the rough east of the shop. "Head up towards the palace, second street on your right, fourth building on the left. Can't miss it. They make a show of themselves. Your lot often do. All show and no use." He scratched at his beard. "Thanks for clearing up. Now get out, if you're not buying. I've got work to do."
I hurriedly thanked him for his time before stepping back out into the street. The crowds seemed to have dispersed somewhat, and I was able to follow his instructions with little trouble. It was only when I had the building in sight, focused on my goal, that I neglected to watch my own step, and brought both myself and a young woman toppling to the ground.