Hate was such an unusual thing. Hate could be applied to so many things: enemies, animals, emotions, random people, freedoms, abilities, on and on unto infinity. But for Alex, hate was the emotion he felt whenever an entire place seemed against him.
Navigating the maze of buildings proved far more difficult than necessary. Despite meeting only a few people and creatures along the way, just exiting the street that held him prisoner was a nightmare. He had narrowly managed to avoid random pieces of trash flying from windows, more water than could possibly exist within the city walls and all manner of guard beast imaginable. If that weren't enough, just as Garth had warned, the crowds lining the third street were unbelievably massive. If not for the pungent smell now emanating from his body, Alex was sure he would have been no match. Rather than question such a blessing, he took it and ran, quite literally, until he found the red sign he was looking for. He opened the simple wood door separating the small shop from the massive horde outside. It was amazing any business took place inside, as it seemed no one had visited in quite a while.
"Hello?'" Alex called out as he stepped inside. He gently closed the door, noting the soft ringing of a bell positioned just behind it. He walked in a little further until he could finally take a look around. Shelving ran the perimeter of the small shop, various antiques, trinkets, and other objects waiting on display upon them for just the right person to take notice. A few rows of shelving also lay in the center of the store, each pack full of similar items. Sunlight streamed drearily through the window, distorted by a dark tinted veil shrouding its frame. It seemed as if the shop had been abandoned. No life stirred within the darkened place except for Alex himself.
"I guess the shopkeeper just isn't in today," Alex sighed before turning to leave.
"Ah! Please don't go!" Alex turned around in surprise as the voice called him back. "I apologize for the delay, but I was in the back enjoying a nap. Please, feel free to take a look. You might find something you didn't know you needed." Alex searched for the owner of the voice, finally spying him standing behind the counter near the back. The man was short, maybe only five and a half feet tall, but he appeared much younger than Garth. His black hair was touched white in places, as was his face. He wore goggles over his eyes, similar to those Alex had seen jockeys in beast races wear. A friendly smile was across the man's face, but the awkwardness with which it came suggested the man may not have been used to receiving customers.
"Hello. My name is Alexander Daeroen," Alex said. "I was wondering if a Mr. Merrick was available? I would like to speak with him about the open position."
"The job, you say?" the man said now walking toward Alex. "Well then you are certainly in the right place. Ah, manners, manners, where are my manners. My name is Merrick Baurroughs." The man stuck out his hand for a handshake. Alex responded in kind, wincing at Merrick's incredible grip. Apparently, it was common for people in Bergeon to give suck bone-crushing handshakes. "If you'd please follow me, I shall gladly begin the interview." With that, Merrick spun around and began quickly walking back toward the counter. Alex stood in place a moment longer, taking note of the stiff way in which Merrick seemed to move.
"Coming?" Merrick called.
"Huh? Oh! My apologies," Alex said, embarrassed. He quickly followed the shopkeeper, walking carefully so as not to accidentally touch anything. Once he had reached the counter, Merrick turned and disappeared into the wall. Alex stood dumbfounded until Merrick's waving had revealed the location of a hidden doorway. Alex felt a little uneasy but entered anyway.
"Took ya long enough," Merrick chided. "Please take a seat. Are you thirsty?"
"No thank you," Alex replied. He sat down in a nearby chair just a little smaller than was comfortable. The room appeared small but was surprisingly roomy. A single large candle on a table in the center of the room was the sole source of light, casting odd shadows about the walls. Merrick seemed even smaller, his frame almost swallowed by the shadows wrapping all around him. He took the seat opposite Alex at the table, pen, and paper in hand.
"Right, let's start," Merrick said. " Your name was Alec Damien, right?"
"No, sir. My name is Alexander Daeroen."
"Daeroen, sir. Spelt d-a-e-r-o-e-n."
"Ah, thank you. And where are you from, Mr.... Dae... Dae,"
"Daeroen. I am from Valence City in the Kuoba region. I came here wi-"
"Kuoba, hmmm?" Merrick cut in. "That's quite a ways away, is it not?"
"Yes, sir. It is a five mo-"
"Please spare the details," Merrick interrupted. "Now, what experience do you have in antiques, jewelry, antique weapons, and charms?"
"I'm sorry, but I don't have any experience in antiques, jewelry, antique weapons, or charms." Alex was suddenly very conscious of just how unprepared he was. He began hoping his lack of skill wouldn't hurt his chances, but he knew well skills usually meant everything.
"I see," Merrick mumbled while jotting down several notes. "Now, why do you want this job?"
"Uhmm, well," Alex stumbled, selecting his words with care. "I was robbed while traveling through the forest, so I was hoping to restock on supplies, but it seemed I was robbed of gold as well. I was hoping to work here until I could make enough to purchase a month's worth of supplies." Realization struck Alex as he watched the pen scrawling more words on the pad. Perhaps suggesting he was seeking temporary employment wasn't exactly the best idea. Alex could feel the sweat pouring off him now. He felt all but certain he wasn't going to be working here.
"Mhmm, mhmm. Now, one last question." Alex swallowed. I guess he already knows whether I'm worth it, he thought.
"For this final question, I want you to answer truthfully," Merrick stated, looking directly into Alex's eyes. "No hesitation, no questions, and no unnecessary information. Understand?"
"Y-yes s-s-sir," Alex stumbled.
"Good." Merrick smiled. His face suddenly drew serious. It seemed as if the room grew darker as if matching the mood. Alex was on the verge of losing his mind. The stress felt unbearable.
"So tell me. Do you know the muffin man?" Alex froze. Something didn't seem right. Why was a nursery rhyme the last question?
"Y-yes, I-I know t-the m-muffin man, w-w-who lives o-on Drury Lane," Alex answered. His mind suddenly went blank as Merrick suddenly dropped the pen. The two stared at each other, nothing spoken for several moments.
Merrick smiled, the burst out into a massive wave of laughter, causing Alex to jump. What was so funny? He had answered according to the requirements. Must be because I came here so unprepared, Alex thought. He sighed and prepared to leave.
"Where are you going?" Merrick managed between another round. "You haven't even bothered asking if you got the job yet." Alex hesitated before moving again. He sat down, prepared to at least hear the results.
"I apologize for my rudeness," Alex said. "I hope I haven't wasted your time. Before I go, may I know whether I passed or not?"
"Pass? Pass? This wasn't a test, Mr. Alec," Merrick answered. "Rather, you should be asking is whether you got the job. Don't you believe that is a more fitting question?"
"Then, have I earned the job, sir?" Alex sighed. To him, there wasn't a difference between asking if he passed or if he earned a job. He had already given up anyways.
"Did you earn it? Earn it?" Merrick echoed. "By the gods, you didn't earn it. You exceeded it! I'm not interested in someone already experienced in these things I've collected. I want someone who I can train to understand the complexity and uniqueness of each and every single item here in this shop. And not to mention your final answer was perfect. Not everyone can bring themselves to answer such a silly question the way you did. That requires a person who's not afraid of embarrassment or mockery. Of course, since you are an adventurer, there is the matter of you only providing temporary employment. However, I'm sure I could find someone to take your place before long. Now on to the matt..."
Alex couldn't believe it. It was finally clear to him why he felt so uncomfortable during the interview. Merrick was crazy. That had to be the answer. Why else only ask for basic information? Not to forget that ridiculous nursery rhyme. It didn't matter if he had the job or not. Was it really worth his sanity?
"-EC!" Alex jumped to his feet as he snapped back to reality.
"I'm sure you missed much of the information I just provided you, but we won't let that worry us now," Merrick said. "Now, since this is your first night in Bergeon and I'm sure you have yet to acquire a room, I will provide you with a little help. But, in return for this assistance, I expect you to arrive here early tomorrow ready to learn. We have a lot of material to cover and not enough time to do it, so don't be late."
"Yes sir," Alex said. He knew he should have felt grateful, but something within him made him just a little worried. At least he wouldn't be the one paying.
Merrick walked over to where Alex was standing and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry so much," he said. "I assure you the inn is nothing like you are expecting. And besides, I can't have my new assistant resting just anywhere, can I?" Alex nodded. Merrick responded with a smile. Though still a bit worried, Alex felt mostly reassured. Despite his oddness, it seemed Merrick had a way of calming a person with just a look.
"Now," Merrick said. "Take this and go to the inn across the street. Tell them you're in need of a room and Merrick sent you. Oh, and take this too. It's for a gentleman named Garth. He should be there sometime around supper. Make sure it is him and him alone."
"Garth? You mean the gate guard?"
"Precisely. Now go. It's not good to be caught outside after sundown. Take care, Mr. Alec. We shall see each other tomorrow."
"Thank you," Alex replied. "I look forward to it." He turned and left the room. As he made his way outside, curiosity struck him. I'm sure a peek won't hurt, he thought. He stopped and made sure one was watching. He peeled the wrapping covering the package for Garth, hoping to get just a glimpse.
"Oh, still here?" Alex panicked and quickly tucked the wrapping back into place. He hoped Merrick hadn't noticed what he was doing. "I'm sure you're curious as to what that package contains. But remember, it's for Garth, no one else."
"Y-yes s-s-sir," Alex stammered. He hurriedly turned and raced out the door, embarrassment etch in his face. He could tell it was going to be a long few months.