Bismuth stood by the open door and watched the twins settle their packs and sleeping bags.
"You are guests of The New City, so no one will disturb you. You may leave your possessions unguarded without fear of theft. This can be your home for as long as you wish, but as I said, after tomorrow afternoon you will need to pay for this lodging. We also have a public eating house. The food there is good and can be trusted, but of course not free."
"Thank you again for your welcome and hospitality," answered Gypsum. "Can you tell us what this shelter and the food would cost us?"
"Very little, actually. A single drop of silver for each of you, or one gold for both. Meals are the same.
"If you wish to trade work, the city has several projects that could use the efforts of strong young men. Most involve assembling buildings or digging holes. We pay two silver drops for a half-day's honest work."
Feldspar came right to the point of their visit. "What are your customs of courtship? Must we earn the right for that, or only for the right to select one for a mate after the courtship?"
"We have no requirement for courtship, save that it must cease if the girl insists. We do not allow men to pursue where their attentions are not welcome.
"For marriage, though, a trial is required and it is not an easy one."
"Good. It is much the same in Groakpod."
"But you are fortunate. We have lessened the demands a little. It was necessary. The last four candidates for one of our girls failed to complete their tasks."
"So, were they required to move on?"
"No. He was allowed to stay and try again if he wished. After he healed he did try again. A very brave young man he was. So were the other three, we assume."
Bismuth answered their unspoken questions with a sad shake of his head.
"It is too bad that none of them returned. The courage they possessed would be welcome to pass on to the next generation of citizens."
"Return from where?" asked Feldspar, though he suspected he already knew.
"From The Old City, of course. That is where all trials take the young men. There are treasures there of many kinds."
"Who sets the details of the trial? The city or the parents of the girl?"
"Both. It is discussed and decided to the satisfaction of all, including the young woman involved. But they often want the trial to be too easy, so their preferences are given the least amount of weight."
"Our thanks again. Could you direct us to the public eating house? We have not eaten today."
"Of course. Then you may wander and see out city." Bismuth continued proudly, "You will find it clean, orderly, and an excellent place to live. Also, you may see more than one attractive female, and they may all, of course, see you."
Even if the twins did find mates here, they had little intention of staying. But they chose not to reveal that sentiment until much later.
They followed Bismuth to the aromas of cooking food, their stomachs whimpering like starving children