THE Cobbler blew fuzz and dust off a pair of field boots and set them on the shop counter. He patted the toes with a satisfied smile. The boots belonged to one of the Yellow Queen’s elite warriors: a Laurel. For her sacrifices, he deducted ten percent from his normal price. Repairing them had been a simple endeavor, anyway. A lace length adjustment here, a few stitches there, and a good deep shine and buff all over had restored them to near-new condition. He didn’t have to hope the Laurel would find her shoes expertly repaired. His customers always did—even if he made a few minor “adjustments” to their fit.

He retrieved a similar pair of boots from behind the counter, which belonged to a Chonokian girl he’d seen come into town every so often. The Cobbler didn’t trust her at all with a pair of boots like these. They barely seemed different from the Laurel’s boots, and indeed if he saw them on the street, he doubted he would be able to tell the difference. The Chonokian girl said she was a peddler. He didn’t believe it for a minute. No peddler he knew of had any garment, much less leather boots, so indistinguishable from those of a Laurel. At best, she’d stolen them clean off the feet of some poor Yellow Army corpse. At worst…he snorted and shook his head. At worst she was a spy for the Blue Queen.

All sorts of folk passed through here: Zoldoni, Rahvi, Charivi, and sometimes Ochetski savages. Of course, the village was situated right smack on the border of Zoldonmesk, Rahvesk, and Chariv. He grunted. She could be a spy. It wouldn’t surprise him. He knew he had not one lick of proof the Chonokian girl was anything other than a peddler. Because of that, he couldn’t very well go to the Laurels billeted here raving about a spy. But, if she was a spy, she deserved every single punishment that could be inflicted.

Though no one else was watching him, he glanced around his shop before scoring the Chonokian girl’s boot laces—not too deep, and only in the places where they’d eventually snap anyway. Earlier, he’d taken in the seam near the little toe just a tad. Sure, blisters were always a hazard, but he wanted a guarantee. Keeping the Blue bastards down at any opportunity was any good Charivi man’s duty to the war effort, after all.

He put the Chonokian girl’s boots on the counter and considered them alongside the Laurel’s. A little bit of a markup—say, fifteen percent—would make up for the loss on the Laurel’s pair quite nicely. A sliver of guilt wheedled into his mind. He wished he could simply hand the Laurel her shoes free of charge. It being wartime and all, folks didn’t have much tadril to send shoes off for repair. He couldn’t afford to turn down payment.

Moving behind the counter, the Cobbler stooped to find his box of parchment scraps. After setting it on the counter next to his pen and ink, he picked up two pairs of children’s shoes overdue for retrieval from the back room, placing them near the Laurel’s and Chonokian girl’s boots. As he sat down to write receipts, the shop door opened.

“Hello?” asked a high, thin voice.

His cheeks flushed. It was Vivalya, the baker’s daughter. She carried with her a loaf of bread. He looked down to hide his flushed cheeks and stuttered, “G-good afternoon.”

Vivalya set down the loaf in front of him. “And a very good afternoon to you. I hope your day has gone well so far.” She twirled the end of her currant red braid between her lithe fingers.

“Oh, very well now. What have you done today?” He snuck a glance at her. She was gorgeous, a vision, the very definition of true beauty. Her milky gray skin was nearly flawless, and she had the most stunningly vibrant yellow eyes he had ever witnessed.

He listened to her talk, hoping she didn’t stop until the sun set and her mother called her home. Every word was like music, beautiful music he’d never guess came from a mortal mouth. Someone entered the shop, but he barely noticed them stop in front of the counter, take a pair of shoes, and leave a small pile of coins in their place with a huff.

Another customer came in and waited patiently by the door while Vivalya spoke, clearing his throat loudly whenever she paused. Feeling the man’s icy stare boring into his head, the Cobbler said, “Apologies, Vivalya, I need to take this customer. Hello, sir. How may I assist you?”

“I have an order here for two pairs of children’s shoes.” The man’s rough cadence made no attempt to hide his displeasure. He tapped them. “I want my receipt.”

“Of course. One moment.” Muttering to himself, the Cobbler wrote out the receipt and handed it to him, noting the Chonokian girl’s boots were gone. He took his coins and the girl’s. When the door shut, he asked Vivalya, “You were saying?”

She continued her retelling of her morning while he counted out the coins. A tenpiece, a fivepiece, and a onepiece. He smirked. Stupid girl paying an arm and a leg for basic work. He pocketed the coins.

Again, someone came into the shop; a woman, head covered with a dingy, gray cowl. She waited patiently in front of the Laurel’s shoes.

Vivalya glanced at her, then the Cobbler, and said, “It’s clear you’re quite busy. I’ll come back tomorrow.”

Damn it, he muttered under his breath as he went to help the Laurel with her shoes. When he instead saw the Chonokian girl’s all-too-pleased face hiding under the cowl, he nearly choked.

“The work done on these is much better than expected, considering the price. I’ll certainly be coming back here when I’m in the area.” She dropped three fivepieces on the counter.

Speechless, he watched her leave. A cold sweat broke over his forehead. If the Chonokian girl picked up the Laurel’s shoes, that meant the Laurel…

He sank onto his stool, holding his head in his hands. The Laurel had taken the wrong pair of shoes.

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