Ryoka knew that she didn’t have the same sense of normality she used to have. Her reactions to things like monsters and magic had been tempered by her experiences in this world, and she could look at Goblins and magic spells without batting an eyelid.
And of course Erin and Octavia were both independent young women who had experienced just as much, if not more, than Ryoka had. But it was still slightly worrying that of the two of them, Octavia was the one who reacted normally.
“How did you—was that a teleportation spell?”
“What kind of flour did you mean, Ryoka? Did you mean acorn flour, or wheat flour? Oh and, how did you do that?”
Ryoka felt like throwing up. Her insides felt like someone had shoved an electric egg beater in them. It had been like that last time as she recalled, although at that point she’d appeared above the rooftops of Celum. She’d been more preoccupied by not sliding off the roof she’d landed on to worry about throwing up.
The smell wasn’t helping. Octavia was staring at Ryoka in shock, but Erin had, in her own way, adjusted to the situation in a second. There was almost something commendable about her mental resilience.
“So was that a spell? Oh wait—you look like you’re going to throw up. Here!”
She handed Ryoka a large, empty jar. It looked like the disposal container for failed alchemical reactions. The taller girl pushed it aside and took a few deep breaths.
“I’m fine, Erin. Just give me a moment. And fresh air.”
She stumbled towards the door of the shop. Erin hesitated, and followed her. Ryoka had to step around upturned chairs and avoid two puddles of potions. Octavia’s shop was trashed. What had happened here?
Oh, right. Erin.
It took a while for Ryoka to regain her internal sense of balance. Her head was still spinning, but when she felt ready to explain things and not throw up, she looked around.
Erin was standing next to Ryoka, staring up into the cloudy grey sky. The winter air blew her hair wildly, but she didn’t appear to notice.
She was smiling. It was so surprising to Ryoka that she stared. Despite being marooned in an unknown city and all she had presumably gone through, Erin was still smiling.
Ryoka touched her own face. She wasn’t smiling. She rarely did.
Erin grinned at Ryoka. The other girl was clearly happy. Then she threw her arms around the other girl.
“I’m so glad you found me! I was so worried—but you just poofed out of nowhere! How did you do it? Was it magic?”
“No—it was a mage. I met a mage on one of my deliveries, remember? Teriarch?”
“You mean that grumpy mage guy? He teleported you?”
“Yes. He did. He helped me find you and get to you. I was…worried. But it looks like you were okay. What happened?”
“I don’t know! One second I was taking a nap as Toren pulled me around, the next…poof! I’m out in the middle of nowhere and there are wolves and bears! Well, just one bear.”
Ryoka listened as Erin gave her a garbled explanation of what had happened. She shook her head.
“You fought off a wolf pack? And scared away a bear?”
Ryoka wanted to disbelieve, or at least believe Erin was exaggerating or boasting, but one look into her eyes told her Erin was telling the truth. It almost made Ryoka’s adventure seem normal.
Almost. The Dragon and the game of riddles still trumped beating down wolves with your bare hands. It felt like a dream, even minutes after it had happened. She’d talked with a Dragon. A Dragon. They were real. He was real.
Ryoka sighed. She was back in the real world. She had to focus. She noticed Erin still hadn’t stopped hugging her and frowned.
“Okay. That’s enough. Get off.”
She broke Erin’s hold and the girl beamed at her.
“I’m just so glad you’re here! You’ll never believe who I met! That girl in there—the angry one—she’s named Octavia and she’s an [Alchemist]! Can you believe it? She’s got all kinds of cool potions, too!”
“I can believe it. I know her, actually.”
Ryoka looked back inside the shop. Octavia had left the two girls alone for a few moments to try and mop up some of the potion on the floor.
“What the hell happened? I saw a bit when Teriarch scried you—”
“Whoa! He can scry people?”
“—But I didn’t get a good look. Erin, what are you doing?”
“Come on, let me show you!”
Erin tugged Ryoka back into the shop. The instant they entered, the noxious smell in the air assaulted Ryoka’s sinuses again. Her nose had already gone numb.
“No! No! Out!”
Octavia shouted the instant she saw Erin enter. To Ryoka’s surprise she jabbed the mop at Erin like a spear, trying to keep the [Innkeeper] at bay.
“Hey! Watch it, Octavia! I’ll help clean up! Ow!”
Ryoka caught the mop and stared at the girl made of fabric and stitches. Octavia looked like a normal person, albeit with a Frankenstein-esque appearance with all the stitches on her shoulders and neck. She also looked uncharacteristically flustered. She pointed at Erin.
“Ryoka, you know this girl?”
“Hi, Octavia. What’s happening?”
The dark-skinned girl waved her hands and tried to push Erin back out of the shop.
“Do something about her! She’s an insane fool who’s going to get us all killed!”
“Oh come on! It was only o—two accidents!”
Erin protested, but Octavia was clearly upset. She glared at Erin, fists clenched.
“You melted a hole in my kitchen! And then you nearly poisoned us both!”
Ryoka interposed herself between the two girls. Both tried to explain at the same time, with much arm waving and accusations.
“I just wanted to make some magical stuff! Like food or a potion! I even paid Octavia a lot of gold to help me out!”
“I thought you wanted to do a few experiments! I had no idea you were this insane!”
Octavia pointed a trembling finger to the part of the shop where the smell was most overpowering. Ryoka saw what looked like the epicenter of a localized disaster; a cauldron had partly melted, and a thick purple residue clung to all the nearby surfaces. The [Alchemist] turned to Ryoka, imploring.
“Please, keep her away from my ingredients and potions! She just keeps mixing them together without any sense of the danger.”
Both girls turned and stared at Erin, who looked hurt.
“That’s how alchemy works, though, right? We have to experiment to—”
Octavia clutched at her dreadlocks. Ryoka had to agree with her on this one.
“Erin, you can’t just throw ingredients and potions together. If alchemy is anything like science, you need to document your work. And all this stuff is magical. You need safeguards.”
“That’s what I said! But you create a poisonous cloud and melted—”
“Octavia, shut up for a second.”
Both girls shut up and stared at Ryoka. She almost felt like an elementary school teacher dealing with a bunch of brats. But still, Ryoka had to smile a bit. Erin was fine, and she’d even managed to piss off Octavia. And Ryoka had a bag full of money and a spellbook. Wasn’t something supposed to be going wrong by now?
“Let’s start over. Octavia, I’ve just finished a delivery and I came here to find Erin.”
“But how—I don’t know anyone who can just cast a [Teleportation] spell out of nowhere. Wait—that delivery to the High Passes…”
“Runner’s confidentiality, Octavia. I can’t tell you anything.”
The stitch-girl looked disappointed. But then her eyes widened.
“Is it the potion maker? Do you have another—”
“Shut up. Please. Octavia, this is Erin. A friend of mine. She’s an [Innkeeper] in Liscor, far from home.”
“And Erin, this is Octavia, an [Alchemist] who talks too much for her own good. And she tries scamming everyone she meets, so don’t take any of her bargains.”
“Now, explain to me how you two met. And what happened. From the start.”
Both girls looked at each other. Then they began a more coherent narrative that Ryoka could actually follow.
The story went like this: Erin, coming into the city had a jar full of bees and two jars of honey. She also had a desire to get rid of said jars, and thus went to find an [Alchemist] to sell them to. Octavia, being known as the enterprising (and annoying) [Alchemist] she was, was only happy to take Erin’s goods and her money if possible.
The interesting part of the story was that Erin was only too willing to give Octavia both, if she helped Erin do her own experiments. Octavia had happily accepted, but it turned out that Erin’s style of experimentation was insane, to say the least.
“She just threw two potions into the mixture. Just like that.”
Octavia pointed a shaking hand to the place where all the poisonous smoke had come from. It had been neutralized by some kind of white powder, but Ryoka and Erin were both keeping clear of the area.
“That was after she melted a hole in my best cauldron trying to make soup with ground up Corusdeer horns!”
Erin shrugged helplessly.
“I thought I could make something warm and tasty, you know? Something magical.”
“I told you it wouldn’t work. Corusdeer horns can get so hot they’ll melt through almost anything. Putting them over a fire is just asking for a melted fireplace. And in a soup? You’d melt a hole right through your stomach!”
“But Ryoka said—”
“Erin, Octavia has a point.”
Erin looked at Ryoka as the other girl shook her head. For her part, Ryoka was uncomfortable with Octavia’s description of Erin’s activities as well. Erin could easily have blown up Octavia’s entire shop or killed herself trying her mixtures out on herself.
“I know you’re excited, but you should really try and think over what you want to do before experimenting. Set a goal, make a hypothesis, and then mix something up, okay? And run everything by Octavia first.”
The shorter girl sagged a bit. Octavia looked relieved.
“Good. Now, I’ll expect you to pay for damages. I’ll send you the bill—you can leave and—”
“What? I’m not going. I haven’t even finished half of the things I wanted to try yet!”
The [Alchemist] froze.
“What? You can’t be serious.”
Erin looked indignant. She grabbed her money pouch and jingled it in front of Octavia’s face.
“Didn’t I pay you for experiments? Sure, a few of them went south, but I still get to try out more stuff! You promised!”
“I said that, but—you can’t seriously expect—”
Octavia spluttered and tried to argue, but Erin was already looking around for more ingredients and potions to mix and match.
This looked like one particular bargain that had backfired spectacularly for the stitch-girl. Ryoka’s lips twitched. She saw Erin looking at a rack of mana potions. Octavia angrily reached for Erin’s shoulder, but Ryoka caught her arm.
“Don’t try to stop her, Octavia. Erin’s a better fighter than I am; I’ve seen her kill zombies with only a frying pan. She can beat a Gnoll in a fistfight.”
That was all true, but it made Erin turn red and Octavia hesitate.
“But—now, I understand a deal’s a deal, but let’s be reasonable here, Ryoka. You can’t just expect me to fulfill my end of the bargain now, can you? What about damages and the costs of my lost reagents? True, I factored that a bit into the price, but I should be recompensed for my damaged shop and trauma, I really should. You can’t really justify letting Erin continue after all she’s done, can you? Let’s call it quits and I’ll throw in one—two potions, free gratis, alright?”
Ryoka watched Erin’s eyes glaze over as Octavia wheedled and pleaded with her. She raised one eyebrow at Octavia.
“How much did Erin pay you for letting her use the shop?”
The stitch-girl hesitated.
“If it’s over ten gold coins, she could probably buy out that entire rack of potions. I know they’re not high-quality. And how much do carrots cost? A few Corusdeer horns?”
“Well—that is to say—you can’t just simplify the base ingredients cost to a few coins, Ryoka! You know that. You and me—we’re businesswomen. You know there’s transportation fees and procurement costs for adventurers and in the winter prices go sky high—”
Ryoka stared Octavia in the eye until the other girl’s words ran down. She looked back at Erin.
“Go ahead, Erin. Do your worst.”
Erin smiled brightly. She already had some carrots in her hand and another Corusdeer horn. Octavia went pale.
“Stop that! Don’t you know how much those c—no, not that one! That’s rare! I only have—Ryoka, do something! Ryoka!”
Alchemy really was quite fun. Erin didn’t want to be an [Alchemist], and Ryoka had told her she shouldn’t take any other classes in any case, but she enjoyed the feeling of experimenting with all the things Octavia had in her shop.
True, she’d nearly poisoned herself once with that terrible cloud, but that was a mistake. Now that Ryoka was here, Erin was taking things slow. She wasn’t even mixing potions now; she was doing something she’d always wanted to try. She was making magical food.
Slowly, Erin stirred the last of the powdered Corusdeer horn into the big pot of soup bubbling over the fire. This time the powder dissolved without causing the entire liquid mixture to glow white-hot and melt the pot, so Erin considered that a good sign.
“Mm. Smells good, doesn’t it, Ryoka?”
That came from a desk a few feet away. Ryoka was lying on the desk, slumped over, using one of Octavia’s stools as a seat. She’d cleared away all the alchemy equipment so she could sprawl out on the smooth surface.
She looked tired. But she was staying with Erin as she worked, and Erin was glad to have her here. It had been so surprising to see Ryoka just fall out of the air. Was it magic? She hadn’t really told Erin anything, but Erin was fine with that. Ryoka had found her!
Carefully, Erin added some dried thyme to the soup. That wasn’t part of her magical formula; it was just for taste.
Octavia was off sobbing somewhere, or so Erin assumed. She got really mad because Erin wasn’t being cautious enough, but that was what [Dangersense] was for, right? Besides, Erin hadn’t destroyed anything after those first two attempts. She’d just used up a lot of Octavia’s stuff; that was all.
And it looked like it was all worth it. Erin breathed deeply and inhaled the scent of her new soup. Ryoka’s suggestions had done the trick.
“Let’s see. Cold carrots with a gelatin, lots of wheat flour, and less Corusdeer horn. And I washed the horn this time!”
Erin wasn’t sure about edibility of any of Octavia’s ingredients, but the powdered horn had been washed, and now it was being boiled. That was okay, right?
Ryoka cracked open one eyelid and stared at the bubbling soup.
“Why did you add the herbs? Won’t that mess up the entire mixture?”
“No…I don’t think so. See, if this were potions, you’d have to add all the stuff while it was hot and I couldn’t add stuff like seasoning. But this is just one ingredient, so Octavia said it would probably be okay.”
“Ah. There’s no catalyst, huh?”
“Um. Yeah? It’s just food, so I’m really not doing proper alchemy.”
“Looks good to me. Is it supposed to bubble like that?”
Erin looked back at the pot and yelped. The Corusdeer horns had made the soup extremely hot. But the flour and thicker mixture was diluting the heat; it was only bubbling over rather than meltingly hot. She stirred and blew and added more flour and water as Ryoka watched.
“It’s sort of surreal to see you here, Erin.”
“Yeah, I can’t believe all that happened already. Weird, isn’t it? I never thought I’d get to visit a Human city so easily.”
“Neither did I. You know it’s over a hundred miles from here to Liscor?”
“You made the trip in one day. Even if you were asleep, Toren had to have been booking it to run that far so quickly. And you say you slept through the entire thing?”
Erin scratched at her cheek awkwardly.
“I, uh, well, I didn’t get much sleep the night before, okay? I might have slept for a long time.”
Ryoka sighed. Erin felt moved to turn and look at her now her soup was back under control.
“You okay, Ryoka? You seem down.”
She saw two shoulders twitch on the Asian girl’s comatose form.
“I’m sort of tired. Been a long day.”
“It really was.”
Erin reached for a stick and lifted it into the air. She eyed the pink smeared layer at the end, and then shuddered and dipped it into the soup, praying it wouldn’t interfere with the taste.
Octavia had an interesting way of testing potions. She had this…thing. It looked like a layer of flesh on a stick, really. It was gross, but it came out of this jar with magic runes on it. According to Octavia, it mimicked Human flesh and other body functions. And it was reactive, so you could see what happened to skin or your stomach if you dipped it in the potion. If anything burned, turned black, or started dying, you had a problem.
It was also expensive, and Erin had burned the last four tests she’d used in the soup. Something about the mixture was making it literally too hot for consumption even when Erin had taken the pot off the stove. But now she thought she’d done it.
“Oh, hey, look Ryoka! This time it’s not burning!”
Ryoka grudgingly raised her head and eyed the dripping flesh-tester as Erin lifted it out of the soup.
“That’s disgusting. Remind me why you wanted to even use Octavia’s shop, Erin?”
Erin hesitated. She stirred the soup a bit more and then took it off the fire. She spoke as she filled a bowl with the bright orange-yellow mixture. It had floating bits of thyme in it, and Erin’s [Advanced Cooking] sense told her it was probably not too bad in terms of taste. But the real test would be seeing how it affected someone.
“I wanted to make something magical. Something…useful. Something other people can’t steal that only I can do, you know? Maybe even something that can help people – not just feed them. Like the faerie flower drink.”
She offered the bowl to Ryoka.
“Here. I think it’s done. Want to try some?”
The other girl stared at the bowl of steaming liquid and looked back at Erin.
“Why don’t you try it? Shouldn’t you do it if you’re the creator?”
“Because…I don’t want to.”
“Well then, why should I try this stuff?”
“Aw, come on. It’s probably harmless. The flesh-test didn’t do anything.”
“That doesn’t reassure me. I could still get food poisoning or have a horrible reaction.”
“My [Dangersense] isn’t going off. That means it’s okay, I think. And Octavia said the Corusdeer horns aren’t poisonous or anything. Just…hot.”
Ryoka eyed the soup like someone watching a ticking time bomb slowly counting down.
“Aw come on Ryoka, I dare you to eat it.”
Erin pushed the bowl onto the table. Ryoka pushed it away.
“I said no.”
“I double dare you.”
“I triple dare you.”
“I triple double dog dare you.”
“I quadruple dog d—”
“Alright, fine. Shut up. I’ll try it.”
Ryoka grabbed the bowl and hesitated as she eyed the soup. Cautiously, she dipped a finger in and looked back at Erin.
“If I die—”
“You’re not going to die. Just try it!”
The other girl looked around and pointed to a wall.
“The healing potions are over there.”
“And Octavia’s neutralizing potion is there. It’ll take down most potions.”
“Ryoka, it’ll be fine! Just try it.”
The tall girl eyed the potion, sniffed it, sighed, and then reluctantly sipped a bit of the bowl. She instantly made a face.
She licked her lips, paused to consider, and then swallowed some more.
“It tastes…good, actually.”
Erin smiled widely. Ryoka nodded as she drank the rest of the bowl.
“Whew. It’s hot. And it’s…staying…hot. Erin? What’s happening?”
Gingerly, Ryoka prodded at her stomach as Erin tried to explain.
“Corusdeer horns burn for a long time. I thought—you know, since this stuff is magical I could use it in a food to warm people up. Because…it’s so cold.”
Ryoka considered this. She prodded at her stomach and then shrugged.
“It doesn’t hurt. And the warmth seems like it’s spread out. I feel like I could walk outside naked without a problem. But it doesn’t feel bad…”
“Pleases don’t go nude.”
Both girls laughed. Then Ryoka grew silent. She stared at the pot of soup and then looked at her friend.
“Erin. Do you know what happened? Why did you suddenly vanish? Where did Toren run off to?”
She had an idea, but Erin didn’t want to say it out loud. Slowly, she nodded as her smile faded.
“I think he did something. I think he was the one who abandoned me in the middle of nowhere.”
Ryoka nodded. She let Erin stare into the fire for a few seconds before she asked her next question.
“…What are you going to do?”
Erin shrugged. She felt odd when she thought of what Toren had done. It was betrayal. She didn’t know why, or how—she hadn’t even thought he could do that. But when she thought of her skeleton deliberately leaving her to get lost or die, her heart hurt. She kept her voice low as she replied.
“I might have to kill him. Or—if he’s just disobeying orders, maybe Pisces can fix him? I need to ask Pisces. But if he’s dangerous, I’ll have to take care of him somehow.”
“Is that even possible? He seems immortal and he’s dangerous.”
“He’s not that strong. I mean, he’s a bit stronger than before, but if you break him into pieces you can keep him from coming back together.”
Ryoka nodded slowly. Erin smiled, bitterness mixed with ruefulness.
“I might need help, though.”
“That’s why I’m here, right? I’ll give you a hand.”
Gingerly, as though her face were unsure of how it all worked, Ryoka smiled. Erin smiled back.
“Wanna show Octavia the soup?”
“I suppose. I’ll get her. She’s sulking upstairs.”
Erin poured more soup into a bowl as Ryoka went to get Octavia. The [Alchemist] didn’t have a very welcoming expression on her face when Ryoka finally got her to come back and look at Erin’s creation, but her natural curiosity got the better of her and in minutes she was trying the soup herself.
“It is hot, even when it’s not on the fire. Look—I added some snow and the temperature didn’t even change. Tastes waterier, though.”
Octavia patted her body and then took one of her arms off and studied the cloth. She reattached it as Erin gaped and shrugged.
“Seems like the effect spreads from the stomach. It didn’t affect my arm as cloth, but the effect works when I reattached it. I feel warm all over.”
“I feel warm. Hot, even. If I was outside I’d be fine. And…hold on, I wonder if the effect actually protects you from the cold or just makes you feel warm?”
Ryoka commented as she fetched some more snow from outside. She melted the snow she was holding in seconds, and soon she was smiling.
“I bet I could run barefoot as long as this lasts.”
“I can sell this.”
Octavia’s eyes glittered. She looked at Erin.
“Mind you, it still felt really hot going in. You might want to adjust your recipe.”
Ryoka nodded. Then she had a thought and scowled.
“Damn it, Erin. It is going to be this hot coming out as it felt going in?”
“Ew. I hope not. But doesn’t it warm you up?”
Erin put aside Octavia’s magical arm trick for a second to bask in her own success. She sipped her soup and felt the warmth spread. Yes, she’d done it!
“How did you know this would work?”
Octavia stared at Erin curiously. Erin shrugged.
“I just have this…skill. It’s called [Wondrous Fare] and it sort of works like [Advanced Cooking]. I get a sense of how to make food magical. I think.”
Ryoka scratched her head.
“What I don’t understand is why the soup works like that. What’s in the horns that does all that?”
“Dunno. It’s magical.”
Octavia cleared her throat.
“Corusdeer horns are used as alternative fuel sources by [Blacksmiths], [Chefs]—anyone who needs a really hot fire. They burn for a long time and they burn so hot you have to divide up a horn into sections to really use them. One horn can go for as much as twelve silver pieces or double that if there’s a shortage—want to know how many you used?”
She glared, but Erin only stared back.
“Wanna know how much I paid you?”
“That barely covers—”
Octavia hesitated. Even she had a problem telling barefaced lies, apparently.
“The soup will be a good addition to my stock. Just write down the recipe and I’ll improve the mixture. I can probably sell—”
“Hold on, that’s Erin’s soup. Not yours.”
“Oh, she can have it. I don’t need any right now; I know how to make some. But I’m not sharing the recipe.”
Octavia moved with the speed of greed. She stopped in front of Erin, glaring. Ryoka reached for her shoulder but this time Octavia pushed her hand away.
“That wasn’t part of the deal! I let you experiment here—I deserve to know the recipe!”
Erin blinked at the alchemist girl.
“Yeah, it wasn’t part of the deal.”
“It wasn’t part of the deal. I just wanted to experiment; I didn’t say I’d give you the recipes.”
“Yes—but—let’s not be hasty now, Erin. We can make a trade—”
“Tomorrow, maybe. Ryoka says we’ve got to do other things right now. So I’ll be back tomorrow, Octavia! I want to try making a lot more stuff next time.”
Ryoka shut the door in Octavia’s face, grinning. Erin grinned too as they walked out the street. Ryoka had already taken off her shoes and put them in her Runner’s pack, and she was cautiously walking along the frosted cobblestones with her bare feet. She grinned.
“This stuff works well. I’m surprised, though, Erin. I didn’t expect you’d be that rude to Octavia. She’s pushy, but that was surprising.”
As a matter of fact, Erin felt guilty. She made an unhappy face.
“Yeah, I figured out she was trying to cheat me pretty early. I didn’t want to be mean, but she just doesn’t let me do anything unless I just do my thing, you know?”
“That’s fine by me. It works well on her.”
Ryoka stepped into a snow drift and out of it, shaking off the melted snow. This time her smile stretched across her face, like the Cheshire Cat. Erin had seldom seen the other girl so happy.
“This is fucking amazing. I can run with this soup, Erin!”
“Can’t you run anyways? I’ve seen you running in the snow—”
“Not like this.”
Ryoka waved her hand and shook her head.
“Running in those shoes? I’m slow in those. I’m at my fastest barefoot; this stuff is helpful. I’ll buy all of your soup even if no one else does.”
“I think a lot of people will eat my soup! Isn’t it amazing how no one made it until now?”
“Yeah. Amazing. Or…impossible.”
“What do you mean?”
Ryoka led Erin down the street, attracting plenty of stares as she walked outside in what was essentially a t-shirt and shorts without shoes on a wintery day.
“I’d like to know whether Octavia could reproduce that soup even with a recipe. It might be that she can’t, or at least, not so easily. You have a skill, right? It could be that [Wondrous Fare] allows you to make magical food without needing some other kind of reaction or spell.”
“Really? That would be so cool!”
Erin hurried after Ryoka, struggling to keep up with the taller girl’s stride. Ryoka noticed and slowed her walk down, leading Erin deeper into the city.
“Where are we going, by the way?”
Eying one of the signs where two streets crossed, Ryoka took them right. She slowed again to walk next to Erin, speaking over the rumble of an approaching wagon.
“First things first. We should get word to Liscor and let everyone else know you’re safe. Olesm, Selys, Klbkch—even Halrac was worried about you, you know. Mrsha kept trying to follow me when I left.”
Both girls walked to the edge of the street to avoid the wagon as it moved past them. Ryoka especially kept her feet clear. The driver of the wagon stared at Ryoka as he passed, nearly running down another pedestrian who started cursing at him.
“Haven’t you ever wondered how cities kept in touch besides Runners and caravans?”
Erin had assumed Runners were the only form of communication. Ryoka shook her head and explained.
“There’s a spell—[Message]. You can send, well, the equivalent of magical emails to people. Not a long message and I think there’s a mana cost with the distance involved and perhaps even the atmosphere, but—”
“Oh! You mean, like Twitter? Magical Twitter?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“It’s really expensive, though. So we’re only going to send a single message for you. Think of what you want to say; make it concise. It’ll cost a couple of gold coins either way.”
“That’s a lot of money for just one spell!”
Erin was indignant, Ryoka resigned.
“It’s one spell, but there aren’t that many people willing to play telephone all day long. Besides, not all [Mages] learn the spell. Ceria told me it’s not easy to cast, either. You have to be at least Level 15 or so. Here. It’s down the same street as the Runner’s Guild.”
She was staring so much at all the sights that Erin nearly missed the building Ryoka pointed to. The other girl acted as if this was nothing special, but this was the first city Erin had been to besides Liscor, and even then, she’d never really explored every alley and building there either.
The people were so normal-looking it almost hurt. True, they wore rougher garments with a lot less color and logos than Erin was used to, but they were all Human. Sure, some wagon drivers cursed at the pedestrians and some people had swords, but wasn’t that the same as angry people in cars and people carrying guns from her home?
People were people. And though Erin was happy to call Drakes, Gnolls, and Antinium her friends, she always felt a bit alone in Liscor. But here everyone was Human.
It made her smile. And because she smiled, Erin had a different experience of walking through Celum than Ryoka.
The Runner strode through the crowds, impatient, often waiting for Erin, a semi-scowl plastered on her face. But Erin smiled and said ‘hello’ or ‘excuse me’ to people as she walked past. And for every person who gave her an affronted look or just ignored her, two more gave her a smile or a surprised word in response.
Erin stood out from the crowd. Ryoka noticed it as she waited for Erin next to a large building with the symbol of a wand with wings painted on a sign. What the other girl saw was that Erin had no problems waving to an adventurer or a guardsman striding down the street. Other citizens walked wide of people with arms unless they knew them, but Erin was fearless. And these surprised warriors usually waved or smiled awkwardly back.
All Erin noticed was the odd look Ryoka gave her before she pushed back the door. Inside, Erin gasped at the sudden change in temperatures.
“It’s so warm!”
It was indeed like walking into a completely different environment. Despite that, there was nothing like a fire in the large room with one large staircase set against one wall. Ryoka glanced at the doorframe.
“Heating runes or something like that. Looks expensive.”
She let Erin further in. Neither Ryoka nor Erin had ever set foot in such a building, and so both stared around in surprise, if not awe.
This building which was not a Mage’s Guild was expensive, to say the least. Smooth floorboards of rich wood glowed as hovering mage lights gave steady, clear illumination to the room. A second floor overlooked the lobby-like ground floor, where several receptionists were busy tending to their queues of people. There wasn’t too much of a line; but those who were waiting looked like they were all rich, or employed by rich people. The only exception to that rule were the two adventurers waiting in a line of their own.
It was that one that Ryoka took Erin to. Erin stared in fascination at the sheets of paper the people at the counter were writing on. Once a stack had been collected, they were sent upstairs.
“Oh. I get it. They’re writing it all down so it can be sent off!”
“Looks like they make backlogs and the mages come in later. Might be a little bit before our message gets through.”
The adventurer in front of Erin and Ryoka finished his business, and then the man at the desk gestured and Ryoka and Erin walked forwards.
“Are you an adventurer? This line’s for adventurers or runners only.”
The man spoke briskly, barely looking up from his paper. Then he noticed Ryoka’s bare feet and scowled briefly.
“I’m a City Runner. Here’s my seal.”
Ryoka reached into her travel pouch and pulled out a glittering seal that was made of some blue metal and silver. Erin was entranced by the way the colors blended together and sparkled, but the man barely looked at it. Heed nodded and passed it back.
“Do you have a message to send, or are you here to pick up? The mage on duty hasn’t collected any incoming messages for your guild.”
“Message to send.”
The man grabbed a fresh piece of paper and dipped his quill in the ink pot.
“She’ll be sending the first message.”
Ryoka gestured to Erin. Erin smiled.
The abrupt response made Erin feel like she was at an airport or something.
The man scribbled down on the piece of paper, quill blurring so fast that Erin could barely follow. He wrote faster than most people could type, and his writing—far from being ink splattered and cursively-illegible—was almost agonizingly straight and easy to read.
“And who are the recipients of your message? Please list more than one person if at all possible.”
“Okay. Selys Shivertail or Krshia Silverfang. Selys is a Drake and Krshia’s a Gnoll. Oh, and Klbkch! You can add him too. He’s an Antinium.”
The receptionist’s quill paused when Erin mentioned that. Erin sensed Ryoka was covering her face in her hand as everyone in earshot looked at her. She blushed.
“Well, he is.”
The man at the desk recovered quickly.
“Very well. And the contents of your message? Be aware of the prices for longer messages.”
He pointed to a board over his head. Erin gulped as she noticed how expensive messages got.
“Okay. Um—this isn’t part of the message. This is just me thinking. Uh, write this. ‘Hi guys, this is Erin. I’m well—’”
Wearing a pained expression, Ryoka interrupted Erin.
“Cancel that. Write this instead. ‘This is Ryoka. I am with Erin in the city of Celum. We are both well, and we will attempt to return soon.’”
The man efficiently scribbled down their message and then crossed out the parts Erin had said. He offered the sheet of paper to the two young women.
“Does that appear to be correct? Yes? Then the price will be…”
Erin’s face fell, but Ryoka just dug at a pouch and dropped several gold coins onto the counter. The man collected them, and then for some reason used a magnifying glass to stare at each of the coins in turn.
“What’s he doing?”
“He’s checking to make sure they’re authentic.”
That done, Ryoka received a few silver coins in return.
“A mage will send your message via spell sometime today. If there is a response, we will hold the reply for one week before disposing of it. Thank you.”
That was that. Erin turned to go, but Ryoka hesitated.
“…Wait. I’ll send one more message now.”
The man looked up.
“Very well. Your name?”
“Ryoka Griffin. The message is also to Liscor, but the only recipient is Krshia Silverfang.”
Erin watched the man writing on a fresh piece of paper and looked around the room. This was a lot of work compared to using a phone, but she could also see how useful it was. No wonder a lot of merchant-types looked like they were sending messages to other people. You could get good tips about the markets in other cities. Or evil monsters trying to swallow people whole.
“And the contents of your message?”
Erin looked back as Ryoka took a deep breath. The other girl seemed to think for a moment before she nodded and spoke.
“Send this: ‘Krshia Silverfang, this is Ryoka. I have what you want. Tell the others to wait for my return.’”
The man looked up.
“Is that all?”
Erin noticed something then, as the man showed Ryoka the piece of paper. He’d looked sort of bored when she spoke to him, but when Ryoka had delivered her cryptic message he’d become more interested. Come to that, so had the woman standing at the counter next to them…as well as the other man behind the counter. They looked the other way when Erin stared, though.
Ryoka paid for the second message and then she and Erin walked towards the entrance of the building. Erin told Ryoka what she’d seen in a hushed voice. Ryoka only shrugged.
“Don’t bother keeping your voice down, Erin. I’d bet there are spells that can record our every word in here. And you can bet that more than one person’s going to read that message or pass it along before it gets to anyone in Liscor.”
“Really? How do you know?”
Ryoka smiled crookedly.
“Because knowledge is power, or money. [Message] spells don’t seem to be that well-encrypted magically in the first place, but having secretaries handle the mail means that all kinds of secrets are probably sold off or kept. Most people might not know that, but you can bet all those [Receptionists] read all the messages before they go out.”
She hadn’t bothered to lower her voice. A rich, fat man waddling towards an exit looked at Ryoka with a horrified glance, and Erin winced as the people at the counters glared daggers at Ryoka’s back.
“Are you sure?”
“It’s Human nature. But I didn’t say anything they can use; just so long as our friends know we’re safe, it’s fine.”
They were outside the building now. The rich guy had done a u-turn and was moving at speed back to the desk to confront one of the flustered secretaries. Just in case though, Erin lowered er voice.
“What was that message to Krshia, though? What do you have? A delivery?”
Ryoka didn’t look around, but she jabbed Erin with an elbow. Gently.
“That’s private. Let’s not talk about it; I’m sure that spells can be extended past a building, and there’s always Skills as well.”
That made Erin worried for two entire streets, until Ryoka paused to reassure her.
“Don’t worry; Runners are used to transporting all kinds of secret stuff. I doubt anyone would pry too far into my business, but I’m just being cautious.”
“You really think about different stuff than I do, Ryoka. I just try not to let a monster eat my face off and make good food.”
“We all have our skills. Don’t worry about any of it. Right now, our next goal should be finding you transport back to Liscor.”
Erin made a face at Ryoka as they walked along through the snow. Ryoka still looked completely fine wearing practically nothing, even though it was starting to snow. She was making Erin feel cold.
“I don’t know how we’re going to do that, Ryoka. I left my sledge outside of the city, but there’s no one to pull it. Unless you—?”
“No. I suppose we could buy a horse for you and I could run with you, but that’s risky.”
Ryoka looked exasperated.
“The roads aren’t safe, Erin. The main ones might be, but there’s always the chance of a monster or bandit attack. I can outrun most monsters and I’ve got some items that will help me, but even on a horse you’d be a target.”
Scowling, Ryoka kicked through a pile of snow, ignoring the looks the other pedestrians gave her.
“It’ll be hard getting you back quickly and safely. A caravan’s normally how people travel, but those are slow. We could hire adventurers to guard you, but that would cost a lot of money.”
“Adventurers? Isn’t that overkill? Look, Ryoka, I don’t know about riding, but why don’t the two of us just go back together? You’ve got those martial arts moves and I have some skills. If we get some stuff from Octavia we can probably handle most monsters, right?”
The other girl considered Erin’s suggestion.
“I did get more of the potions and bags from her. I suppose you might have a point but…damn it, I don’t know if there’s any dangerous monsters or bandits nearby. The Runner’s Guild would know, I guess.”
“Oh, did you need to go check in with them? If you want I can wait—”
Ryoka shook her head.
“I can check in later. I want to get you back to Liscor before I take on any requests. But I can ask for information. Okay. Let’s say we go by ourselves. We still need provisions, more of Octavia’s potions and bags, a damn horse—I wonder if we can rent one—”
Erin’s stomach growled.
“Can we talk about all that stuff over dinner? I haven’t eaten in ages.”
Neither had Ryoka, as it turned out. And once Erin reminded her, it turned out that both girls were famished.
“We’d never get to another city before dark, I guess.”
Erin nodded in agreement. She was tired; all of what Ryoka was saying sounded like a lot of work she didn’t want to do right now.
“I have to go bother—see Octavia tomorrow, anyways. I want to do more experiments before I go. And it’s late. Why don’t we stay at an inn?”
“An [Innkeeper] staying at an inn?”
The notion seemed to amuse Ryoka. She led Erin down another street, and both girls looked out for inns.
“This’ll be great. You know, I was really scared when I woke up, but now I’m thinking this could be more like a holiday.”
“You always look too much on the bright side of things.”
Ryoka grumbled as she pushed the door open to an inn. Erin followed her inside and felt the heat of a roaring fire wash over her at the same time the babble of several voices and the clink of metal meeting pottery hit her ears. She smelled roasted and burnt meat and found herself in an inn.
It was weird. Despite her profession, Erin had been in a grand total of two inns in this world before this, and one of them was hers. And this, clearly, was not her inn.
For one thing, it was a lot more run-down than Erin’s brand new sparkling inn with glass windows. This inn had only shutters, no glass, and it also had stains and tracked in dirt that Erin noted the instant she walked in. There was a bit more mess and a bit less polish, but the inn made up for that with its clientele.
In that it had some rather than none. The room wasn’t exactly heaving, but there were about fourteen people inside, not counting the staff. Two young women circled the room, delivering food and drink to the tables as weary-looking men and women ate. At the far end of the room, a group of five noisy adventurers were laughing and drinking loudly.
Yes, it was an inn that failed to impress, but it gave Erin the sense that it would be a decent place to eat and sleep. It might not have been home for her, but it was clearly looked after by someone who cared, and that alone made it worthy of respect.
Ryoka gave the inn and the entire room one look before she turned to go.
“Come on, Erin.”
“What? But why?”
Before Ryoka could respond, the [Innkeeper], an older women in her mid-thirties, rushed out of what looked like the kitchen. Spotting two potential customers she hurried forwards with a big smile on her face. Her apron was slightly smutched, but she looked friendly—if harried. She slowed as she recognized Ryoka, and then beamed.
“If it isn’t a City Runner! Miss Griffin, isn’t it? Do come in, please!”
Ryoka wore a pained expression as the woman approached. Erin smiled and received a wider smile in return.
“Welcome to the Frenzied Hare! Do take a seat. My name is Agnes; and I do know you, Miss Ryoka Griffin. You stayed at my inn just as you were starting out as a City Runner. Do you remember?”
It was something that Erin had noticed. Whenever Ryoka didn’t want to say something or talk with someone, her face would become very closed off and she’d change her posture to be more withdrawn. She was doing that now, even though the woman was acting really nice.
“I’m sorry. I don’t recall. Please excuse us; we were just looking in.”
“Oh. I see. But if you’d like to stay, we have food hot and ready.”
“That sounds good to me!”
Erin smiled at the woman. Agnes smiled back.
“Oh, and who are you?”
“My name’s Erin. Please to meet—”
“One second, please, Miss Agnes.”
Ryoka dragged Erin away before she could introduce herself. Erin glared; Ryoka was being rude, but Ryoka herself looked annoyed.
“We’re not staying here, Erin. We can afford a much better inn.”
“What? But she’s nice. And this place doesn’t look so bad—”
“I’ve seen good inns, and this isn’t one of them. The food smells burnt, there’s an obnoxious group over there, and the inn’s not crowded despite it being dinnertime. There are better places to be if we’ve got money. Let’s find one.”
She had a point, but Erin was reluctant to concede. Ryoka walked back to Agnes, whose smile had slipped slightly. She had a resigned look in her eyes before Ryoka even spoke.
“I’m sorry Miss Agnes, but we really have to be going.”
“I understand. But if you ever want to stop by…”
The older woman looked crestfallen and slightly hurt. That made up Erin’s mind.
“Nah, let’s stay.”
She interrupted Ryoka. The other girl turned and glared silently at her, but Erin ignored the look. She smiled at Agnes, who gave her a more genuine smile of surprise in return.
“I’d love to have whatever you’ve got. And we’d like to stay the night, wouldn’t we, Ryoka?”
The other girl looked exasperated, but gave up.
“I suppose we will. A table for two, Miss Agnes. Away from those two, please.”
She nodded at the adventurers who were spilling a lot of their drink on the floor in proper quaffing style. Agnes beamed and led the two girls to a table at the other side of the room, talking excitedly with Erin.
“Oh thank you. You know, it’s been hard since my poor husband fell ill. He’s been abed these last two weeks with a terrible fever, and I’m trying to keep the place running, but I just don’t have his levels, I really don’t. I was a [Tailor] by trade before I became an [Innkeeper] with him…”
“Really? That’s so odd. You know I’m an [Innkeeper] myself, Agnes.”
“Someone as young as you? Bless my heart, that’s quite an achievement! No wonder you’re friends with Miss Griffin, Miss Erin was it?”
“Please, call me Erin. Yeah, I have this inn near Liscor, but I’m uh, travelling abroad for a bit…”
By the time Erin had sat down with Ryoka and they’d ordered some beef with potatoes, the meal of the day, she’d become entirely invested in Agnes’ struggle. She’d even met the two barmaids, Maran and Safry, and they’d both been cheerful and welcoming, if tired. Agnes had chatted happily with Erin before going back into the kitchen to cook, a scene so familiar to Erin that she felt a strong bond with the woman.
Ryoka sat with her arms folded, a scowl on her face. She had refused to take part in any of the conversations. Now she was waiting for their food, clearly annoyed that Erin had chosen this inn to stay in.
“Aw, come on Ryoka. Agnes is nice! Don’t you think so?”
That was her problem. Ryoka got grumpy if she didn’t get her way. Erin was determined to remain upbeat, though.
“Agnes said she knew you when you just got here, Ryoka. You really don’t remember her?”
Ryoka shrugged, looking uncomfortable.
“She’s an [Innkeeper], Erin. No offense, but I sleep in a lot of inns in my job.”
“You remember me, though.”
“You kind of stand out, Erin. This place…”
Ryoka let her voice trail off. She shrugged, looking darkly resigned.
“Let’s just eat. We can talk over dinner.”
“Ooh! I think I see the food.”
Erin turned in her seat and smiled as Safry came out of the kitchen, balancing two plates and two drinks – boiled water and milk in her hands. Ryoka sighed.
“Don’t get your hopes up. Food around here isn’t always as good as your inn.”
“You’re so pessimistic, Ryoka! Come on, how bad could it be?”
“Tell me you didn’t just say that.”
It was entirely the meal Ryoka had expected, and clearly, not the one Erin had envisioned. She saw Erin’s face visibly react to the slightly charred meat and lackluster potatoes as Safry put them in front of them. Ryoka took a fork and poked at her meat, wondering if she’d even be able to get the fatty bit down or whether she should just order another plate and choose the best parts between the two of them.
Safry apologized to Erin as she put the drinks down. She was already friendly with Erin, something Ryoka couldn’t believe.
“Sorry. Agnes ain’t got a Skill. You sure you don’t want anything stronger to drink? Helps wash it all down.”
“No, it’s fine. Thanks Safry!”
Erin smiled at the other young woman, and then went back to looking at her plate. Ryoka sighed.
“See what I mean?”
“It could be good!”
Erin tried to be optimistic as she speared a bit of meat and put it in her mouth. Ryoka watched as Erin chewed, tried to swallow, and was forced to chew more. Her face fell.
There was way too much gristle in their meat. Ryoka was picking at her potatoes with her fork; they could have used more boiling and they were bland as, well, bad potatoes.
“Looks like the husband had all the cooking talent in the marriage. That, or this inn makes most of its money serving alcohol.”
“Ryoka! Don’t be rude!”
Erin swallowed her bite with some effort. She looked visibly disappointed, but she tried to eat another bite of potato.
“Okay, this isn’t good…but maybe Agnes just doesn’t know any recipes?”
“More like she’s probably never had to really practice until now.”
Ryoka sighed. She’d begun to understand the advantages of levels, as well as the drawbacks they created.
“Her husband—I guess he had the cooking Skills. Agnes doesn’t, and so she never bothered to learn how to cook that well since she didn’t have to with him around. After all, what’s the point? Someone with [Basic Cooking] can do all of what’s needed, which means that unless you live in a Gnoll tribe where the work gets passed around, you probably don’t learn a lot of skills unless that’s your job.”
Ryoka took a bite of her potato and grimaced.
“Or maybe it’s just her. We can still find another inn, Erin.”
“No, we’re staying here. Agnes is nice.”
Erin was wearing her mule-like expression. Ryoka hated that look; it meant Erin was determined to do things her way. She signed and chewed the potato and washed it down with water. Food was food, after all.
Why was she so upset, anyways? It was just one meal. After all that had happened today, she could take a terrible meal and a lumpy bed. It was just—Ryoka had gotten spoiled from Erin’s cooking, that was all.
The two endured two more mouthfuls of food before Erin put down her fork, looking distressed.
“This is really no good.”
“I told you. We can leave—”
“No, I said we’re staying. But I’m going to have a word with Agnes.”
“What? Erin. You can’t just—”
Too late. Erin was already up and walking into the kitchen. Ryoka ground her teeth. If Erin caused more trouble, she’d…she’d…
Do what, exactly? Ryoka’s memories kicked her and showed her an image of her challenging a Dragon to a game of riddles. Compared to that, what was getting tossed out of an inn by an angry [Innkeeper]?
Erin was gone for quite some time, and Ryoka was idly wondering if she could pull out Teriarch’s book of spells and read it under the table, somehow. Given that it was practically the size of the table, she doubted she could make it work. The adventurers were still laughing and getting on her nerves across the room, and she was just about to order some alcohol and get stinking drunk to put an end to her miseries until tomorrow when someone called her name.
“Ryoka? Is that you?”
A familiar voice caused Ryoka to jerk up in her seat. She looked towards the entrance, and there in the doorway stood a familiar giant young woman.
Garia Strongarm strode into the inn with a huge smile on her face.
It had been a long time, or Ryoka would have remembered to watch out for Garia’s crushing strength. The hug the shorter girl gave Ryoka made her bones creak, but Ryoka didn’t care. She was even moved to smile at Garia as the other girl took a seat with her.
“Garia, it’s been a long time. How have you been?”
“Oh, you know. I’ve been running deliveries; nothing special. But you—I haven’t seen you in weeks, Ryoka! I didn’t even know you were in the city—no one in the Runner’s Guild mentioned seeing you. What happened? Were you on some kind of really special delivery? I thought you were just going down to Liscor for a while!”
Ryoka realized with a pang that she hadn’t told Garia about what she was going to do. She shook her head.
“It’s a long story. I’m not doing any deliveries at the moment; I’m actually with a friend.”
“A friend? You?”
Garia’s open face was a bit too shocked for Ryoka’s comfort, but she sat and Ryoka flagged down one of the barmaids—what was her name again?—and soon they were talking.
“Anything new happen? Where’s Fals?”
“Oh, he’s out on a delivery. Nothing’s new—unless—have you heard about Persua?”
Ryoka made a face.
“Tell me she’s dead.”
Garia broke off and sniffed at the air. Ryoka stopped and looked up too.
Something had changed. The odor of the inn, like background noise, had long since stopped sending active messages to Ryoka’s brain. But something had changed. The odor of slightly burnt meat had changed, and something new and fragrant was in the air. It made the mouth water, and it was coming from the kitchen.
“What’s that smell? Oh, did Jerom recover? He’s a good cook, although Miss Agnes who runs the inn right now isn’t so much.”
Garia looked guilty and glanced around for the innkeeper as she talked with Ryoka.
“I never expected you to come here. I stay here all the time because it’s cheap and Agnes is so nice, but the food isn’t that good. You can probably find a better place, Ryoka.”
“You’re telling me?”
Why was a nice innkeeper the only requirement for both Garia and Erin? But Ryoka was still bothered by the new smell. Her eyes narrowed as one of the barmaids went into the kitchen and came out with a very familiar bun and burger on a plate. The barmaid offered it to one of the customers and Ryoka groaned.
“Who? Is someone doing something?”
Erin. Damn it. It was always her stupid ideas. But even as Ryoka watched, more food began to come out of the kitchen as both Maran and Safry struggled to keep up with the flow.
“Here’s a, uh, hamburger, Miss Ryoka. [Innkeeper] Erin said you’d want one.”
Ryoka eyed the burger with the toasted bun and thick, fried patty. This was a homemade burger with all the fixings; it even looked like Erin had mayonnaise somehow and put it with the fries.
How the hell could she cook so fast? It had to be the [Advanced Cooking] skill, but she was still far quicker than she had any right to be. Ryoka’s stomach growled as she stared at the wonderful hamburger, a far cry from the plate of food Ryoka had pushed away.
“Is that…what’s that, Ryoka?”
Garia was staring hungrily at the burger, and even Safry looked like she could use some. Ryoka grunted and took the plate.
“Tell Erin to make another for Garia. And if she’s making more food—”
“Oh, she is. Like lightning, that one. She’s got [Advanced Cooking]. Isn’t it amazing?”
“[Advanced Cooking]? That’s really impressive. Ryoka, do you know the new cook?”
“She’s my friend. She decided to help your innkeeper out. She’s an [Innkeeper] as well.”
Ryoka grumbled into her burger as Garia tried to press her with questions. The juicy meat was making her feel a lot better, and Garia’s eyes nearly popped out of her own head when she got hers and tasted it.
“This is delicious! And what’s this stuff did the barmaid say fries? Oh! They’re a potato! Your friend is amazing, Ryoka!”
Both girls devoured the food as Ryoka watched the room change. The diners hadn’t exactly been diving into their meals, but now everyone from the tired workers to the adventurers had found a separate stomach for Erin’s far higher-quality food. It flew out of the kitchen and in accordance to the laws of commerce, the livelier mood and smells drew more customers in.
“And now she’s talking with the guests. Wonderful.”
Ryoka tried to catch Erin’s eye, but the girl had now exited the kitchen and was animatedly talking with people, being trailed by Agnes who was giving the other girl amazed looks.
Garia was munching down her second burger, but she stopped to stare at Erin.
“She looks so…so normal. Nothing like you, Ryoka. How did you meet her?”
Should she lie or tell the truth? Ryoka was debating answering Garia when she noticed a disturbance at the other end of the room.
The adventuring group was clearly not a group of Gold-rankers, like Halrac and Griffin Hunt, but they were certainly boisterous enough for two groups their size. They’d been laughing, telling rude jokes and generally causing a mess since Ryoka had come in, growing progressively drunker. She already hated their guts, but even the exclusively-male team had found some delight in Erin’s cooking.
Unfortunately, that had only made them more excited. Ryoka saw one of them grabbing Safry’s arm as she came by with a refill for their tankards. She tried to pull away, but then one of the men grabbed at her breasts while the other felt at her legs.
She knew that it was common in a time before lawsuits and rules about sexual harassment, but Ryoka’s blood boiled at the sight. Safry finally pulled away, looking clearly distressed, but the men only laughed harder. Ryoka growled and tried to stand up.
“Ryoka. Don’t pick another fight, please.”
Garia had seen the same thing as Ryoka, but she only looked uncomfortable rather than angry. She tried to tug Ryoka back down as the other girl eyed the adventurers. There were five of them and two were still wearing armor. Ryoka itched to pick a fight, especially with the man who slapped at Safry’s butt as she retreated.
She had two options. Do something, or do nothing. Most of Ryoka wanted to get up and kick that adventurer’s face in, but one part of her and Garia was telling her that was a bad idea.
“Don’t, Ryoka! If you cause trouble you could get hurt!”
That was true. It wasn’t her fight, and the men had only treated Safry like an object. That was all. Perfectly normal. Ryoka clenched her fist, and then felt the missing fingers on her hand.
She looked down. There were stumps there. She sometimes forgot, now, that she’d lost her fingers. Garia hadn’t even noticed yet; Ryoka had kept her right hand under the table. She’d lost her fingers to overconfidence. A curse, maybe, but the Goblin who’d bit them off had taken her off-guard. And that was only a Goblin. It only took one second, one mistake…
She stared at her hand. She stared back at the man. Slowly, Ryoka relaxed back into her chair. The moment had passed.
Simmering, Ryoka sat back down. The adventurers hadn’t even noticed her. She watched them now, and saw how both Maran and Safry clearly didn’t want to go near their table. But all too soon their tankards were empty, and Maran went this time to give them more alcohol.
This time it was more jokes and more grabbing hands in all the places they shouldn’t be. Garia gripped Ryoka’s arm with a hand strong enough to hold her in place. Maran turned red as one the men tried to tug her blouse down.
Again, Ryoka agonized, but this time Erin saw. One second she was talking to Agnes and an older man at a table, the next she was standing in front of Maran, pushing the man’s hands away. Ryoka heard her voice clearly across the inn.
“Don’t do that again, please.”
The entire room went silent. Garia’s mouth formed a perfect ‘o’ of horror, and Ryoka saw men and women stop and stare at the adventurers. All five men had gone still. Agnes looked horrified. Erin was just calm.
“Hey mistress, we didn’t mean anything by it. We were just being friendly!”
Ryoka heard the drunk words; an echo of other phrases she’d learned to despise at parties by drunk men and women. She gritted her teeth, but Erin was still calm. She gave the adventurers a big smile.
“Please don’t touch Maran. She’s just trying to do her job, okay?”
“Or what? We paid good coin to sit here. Don’t you know who we are? We’re the Brilliant Swords of Celum!”
One of the men threw that out there, looking proud as if he expected applause. Erin didn’t bat an eye.
“Yeah, but you’re still guests. And this is my—Agnes’ inn. But I’m in charge for tonight. If you don’t behave, I’ll kick you out.”
This time all the adventurers went still, and Ryoka could hear people edging away from Erin. But she didn’t even blink as the bigger men stared at her. Then one laughed, a forced laugh that sounded far too jovial.
“Fine. We’ll not lay hands on her. My promise, good mistress.”
Erin smiled and turned to go. As she did, the man reached out and slapped Erin on the butt.
The room fell silent. Ryoka knocked back her chair, but Erin moved first. She turned around and looked at the grinning adventurer in the eye. He smirked at her.
The fist that crunched into the man’s nose sent him flying backwards in his chair. He crashed to the floor as his buddies stared at Erin in shock. The entire inn was a frozen scene; Ryoka’s smile could have cured depression.
Then one of the men roared and pushed himself back from the table. He reached for Erin, but she grabbed a mug from the table and smashed it across his face. He staggered back and she raised a chair and smashed it across his chest.
Bar fighting. Erin kicked the table over and then punched another man hard enough to send him to the floor. Ryoka watched as customers fled, and then heard a voice.
Garia was sitting in her chair, staring at Erin as she took on all five men at once with a good deal of success. She stared at Ryoka, pale-faced.
“That’s your friend, Ryoka? She’s even crazier than you are!”
“I know. Isn’t she great?”
Ryoka grinned. Then she turned, vaulted a table, and kicked a man in the back. He staggered into his buddy and Ryoka got to do a roundhouse kick on the man who’d slapped Erin on the butt. She saw Erin kicking one of the downed adventurers and grinned when she saw a plate of potatoes and meat mostly untouched.
She’d just managed to smash it across a man’s face when someone else tried to grab her. But Ryoka hit him with fast jabs and he missed as he swung at her clumsily. It was chaotic and messy, but Ryoka had been trained a lot better than a bunch of idiots with swords who were drunk. And she had Erin to watch her back.
Between the calls for the city watch and screams, Ryoka felt her blood pumping as she punched and kicked and dodged. The best part of the fight was when Garia seized one of the men and threw him into a wall hard enough to make him lose all his dinner. And that was before one of the regular customers decided to join in and help out Erin by laying one of the adventurers out with a punch.
It looked like it was going to be a good day after all.