On average, once the numbers are tallied and the proper percentages derived, Birna’s shop sees about one and a half customers a day.
It is, apart from Dagur’s meadhouse, the most prosperous establishment in Winterhold.
“Enthir,” she says to the soft creak of the door, not looking up from polishing the counter—she knows her first customer of the day by the way he stamps his boots on her worn rug. Behind her, just south of the moldstain shaped like a bird, a leak in the ceiling drips snowmelt into a pail. “My supplier won’t be back until the thaw, but if you let me know what you’d like me to order in—”
Her customer, cold-flushed and unshaven, silences her with a frantic flick of the hand. He glances left and right. Then he nods and leans so far over the counter that Birna, adopting a look of polite interest, can count the sparse hairs on his chin.
“I need—I need a cauldron,” he murmurs, narrowing his eyes. “A silver cauldron. Now, listen, it has to be silver, because hydrofluoric acid eats through most other substances. And I need three pear flasks, and a box of twelve or so test tubes, and a hatchet—”
* * *
“D’you sell mice?” asks the second customer of the day.
Birna stares at him. “Mice.”
“Mice,” the mage-prentice agrees, giving her a pleading look. Like most of the students who come down from the College, his robes are rumpled, his eyes bloodshot, and his smile more panicked than polite. “Little skittery things. Long tails. You know. I need—as soon as possible, mind—a, a certain quantity of mice.”
Plick, goes the water in the pail. Plick. Plick. Plick.
“We don’t sell mice,” says Birna.
“Dammit,” the apprentice mumbles, tugging his braid. “Knew I should have gone to Enthir.”
* * *
“—and a filter flask, and a pair of round-bottomed titration flasks, and a retort, and two barrels of methylamine—are you writing this down? I think you ought to be writing this down—”
* * *
“I don’t buy stolen goods, Malur,” says Birna to her third customer of the day, her voice flat as trodden snow. “Give it back to Nelacar, grovel a little, and he might not fry you like a bit of buttered cod.”
“But you’d—you’d fetch a fine price for this staff, my chilly friend,” says Malur Seloth, smiling at her as a prisoner on the block might smile at the approaching headsman. “Look at the, uh, the fine carvings on the—”
“Might make enough coin to fix your roof, selling this genuine—”
“Get out of my shop, Malur.”
* * *
“—and three greased pigs—”
“If I get you a tub of lard, Enthir, can you—do you think, maybe, that you could grease the pigs yourself?”
“Yes, yes, whatever. And I’d like one of those lozenges. And I hope you won’t object if I pay for everything else upon delivery, not before—”
* * *
Plick, goes the water in the pail. Plick. Plick.
Birna, who hasn’t seen a customer in four hours, slowly lifts her face from her hands.
The tall stool in the corner, the one that her brother had promised her he’d fix, still wobbles. Of course it still wobbles. She drags it out anyway, wedges a book under the short leg, and climbs up to scowl at the leak in the ceiling.
“Might make enough coin to fix your roof,” she mutters, twisting her face in an uncharitable, but not inaccurate, impression of the Jarl’s shiftless steward. “Ought to fix his roof. Enthir’s, too, the old—”
The door bursts open as if kicked by the wind, whirling snow upon the shoproom rug. Birna shrieks and grabs the nearest beam. The stool clatters to the floor.
“Good—good afternoon,” she calls with desperate cheer, dangling from the rafter. She feels for the stool with her toes, without success. “How can I—help—you?”
“Hullo,” gasps the same apprentice as before. Wild-eyed, his hair sticking out in all directions, he clutches the counter like a seaman clinging to the last storm-tossed plank of his ship. “D’you—please, d’you sell cats?”
* * *
Birna has sold a grand total of one lozenge by the time Nelacar sweeps in. Grandly.
“Birna, bright Birna,” he says with the usual pomp, put on to make her smile. “How burns thy star?”
“Dimly,” mumbles Birna, unsmiling. She rubs her temples—she can feel the coming headache in her teeth—and sinks down upon the stool. “Plummeting earthward. Nelacar,” she adds, staring strangely at the town’s sole wizard, “what, uh—goes on—up at the College?”
“These days it’s moneylaundering, I imagine,” murmurs Nelacar, thoughtfully scanning the shelves. “Though I wouldn’t rule out piracy. Or ritual sacrifice. I don’t suppose you’ve got any staves?”