As soon as the walls to the town were in sight, Leah jumped off the horse. She had decided long before during their trip that she hated riding, and would never do it again if she could help it. She ached in places she didn’t even know could ache. Liam was definitely right about the bumpy road too. She ignored the pain, and looked over at the town they had been travelling to. It didn’t look like much to Leah, though she admitted that she didn’t have much experience in that field beyond one village and a lot of preconceptions from fantasy games. Aside from a stone wall, not much was visible from where they were - having come up from below the town, there was no opportunity for them to see beyond the walls from above, and clearly there were no tall buildings. It seemed quite wide, though. Maybe this civilisation didn’t have much in the way of multistory buildings?
The other two jumped down in beside her, holding the reigns of their respective horses, and looked on with Leah.
“Welcome to actual civilisation, or what passes for it out here, anyway.”
“I’ve got to admit, its not what I was expecting.”
“And what WERE you expecting?”
“I don’t know. Towers at least.”
“Not much call for them, really. The hinterland barony’s are more functional than the rest of the empire. If we ever go south, you’ll see more, well, ostentatious designs.”
Cassandra cut in.
“But we won’t be. Not without a fight, anyway.”
“Yeah. This is about as far as we tend to come into the empire, usually anyway. I haven’t been that far south since… oh, since I left home, I think.”
Liam looked off into the distance, as if in thought, then shrugged.
“Oh well. Better get to work. Once we’ve met with the Baron and… delivered the bad news, we can take the chance to rest up. So lets get it over with.”
The three set off on the final stretch.
The guards at this gate, in contrast to the guards at the village, seemed in much better order. Their armour wasn’t polished, but looked in good nick to Leah’s untrained eye, and their weapons were clearly well used. And there were four of them, in comparison to the two at the village. One of them stepped forward to intercept the party, as another was dealing with a man on a cart.
“And whats your business today, then?”
“Turning in a quest. Not good news, I’m afraid, so we’re in a bit of a hurry…”
“Ah. Sorry to hear that, but we’ve got checks to make anyway. You know how it is, I’m sure.”
The guard gave him a smirk, and Liam patted a pocket. Fishing out a coin, he flashed it to the man, and returned he smirk.
“Oh, well, in that case, surely we can give you a tip for your excellent service.”
“That would be most welcome!”
Coin was handed over, and the guard was soon waving them through the open gate. He moved over to ‘help’ his friend with their probably shakedown. Liam anticipated Leah’s question.
“Bribery is the fastest way to get anything done, anywhere you go. Don’t be too surprised.”
“Honestly, I’m not. Though, I didn’t expect it to be so prevalent even amongst the guards…”
“We aren’t monsters, clearly, so the only reason they have to stop us is if they think we’re trafficking something. And given that, there are certain processes that can be skipped. Plus, we obviously look like adventurers, and therefore we obviously have the gold to pay them off. Its just one of the costs of business.”
Nodding, the carried on through the town. Leah was right about it being flat - the tallest buildings were three stories, and those were dwarfed by the wall. She wondered to herself how they managed to construct such a tall wall, yet seemed not to be able, or willing, to build up their buildings. That wasn’t exactly a pressing issue, though. They walked through the streets, less bustling than Leah expected. Anyone in the streets seemed to move with purpose, with very little lingering around in front of stands or stores. Cassandra fielded the inevitable question.
“Its a frontier town. Anyone here is doing it for the money, not for much else. Of course, it all changes after dark. Things get a lot rowdier. The Baron’s place isn’t far from here, anyway, so people like to look like they are working.”
They reached the place, and Leah was surprised. She’d been expecting a lavish palace, or a fortified castle. Not a town house that wouldn’t have been out of place alongside any of the others in town. Well, perhaps it would have. It was many times larger, and was surrounded with its own wall, masking private grounds. They were stopped again by a pair of guards, who looked distinctly less bribeable than the last lot. It was once again Liam’s job to get them through. He pulled out a scroll from another pocket - Leah wondered internally just how many pockets the man had - and handed it to one of the guards. She looked it over, nodded, and handed it back.
“All seems to be in order. Harold will escort you to the audience chambers.”
They were taken through the grounds - again, less lavish than Leah expected. Low fences ringed small patches of garden and lawn, intersected by paths and small structures like sheds. Occasionally someone would emerge from one and move to the house, or vice versa, but the grounds look generally as placid as the town. More so, in fact. It was rather unnerving to see such a quiet and still environment, when the sounds of the town were still audible from their position. Inside the house was much the same. Plain wood panelled walls, plain wooden furniture with minimal padding, the occasional piece of art depicting presumably ancestors - it was all very utilitarian and functional. The party were led to a small chamber with chairs and a small table of fruit and water.
“Please be seated. His lordship will be with you momentarily, and you will be called when required. If you require any refreshments-”
“We’ll handle it from here. Trust me, you want to be as far away from this room as possible when we deliver our news.”
The attendant - Harold, presumably - visibly paled, and swallowed.
“Ah, am I to assume the worst?”
“Yep. Best you get going.”
The attendant fled the room hastily. Liam and Cassandra flopped into a chair each, and Leah joined them.
“So… I take it this is going to be a pretty bad meeting?”
“As bad as it can go. Delivering news of a failed quest sucks at the best of times, and considering the lord’s son was the target…”
Leah gulped. She turned to Cassandra, who waved a hand in her direction.
“We’re unlikely to face punishment for this. Guild law, you know the risks when you hire adventurers. If he takes it out on us, then he’ll lose the guilds support, and more than likely face consequences from higher up the food chain. He simply cannot afford to lose the adventurers guild in a place like this.”
“You’ve mentioned adventurers before. Is this a formal title, then?”
Liam snorted, and Cassandra gave him a look.
“Formal is a bit of a… strong word for what we do. Yes, we’re registered with a guild, and we have to follow their rules to an extent, but we’re generally left to our own devices when it comes to taking on assignments. The guild generally just forms a support network for people like us. Cheap accommodation in foreign parts, access to gear and training, some general information gathering services… that sort of thing. Its handy to have around, and if they pull out of this place, then there’ll be less people willing to make the journey out. Less adventurers means less freelance workers, means the baron would have to pay out of pocket for the security of his lands. Its a formal position, yes, but there are people who do the job without guild representation. And many who are under the guild who either don’t travel, or do very specialised work. We’re, well, generalists.”
“In a manner of speaking, anyway.”
Liam cut in.
“We each have - had - our own role to play in the party, but we can all handle a lot of general work too.”
“It sounds like the adventurers thing is pretty handy, though. Will we be staying in this ‘cheap accommodation’ while we’re here then?”
“Tonight? No. You aren’t registered, and splitting ourselves up will be a real pain. So, we’ll be picking up our pay and getting you registered after we leave here, and hopefully you’ll be processed by tomorrow. You’ll have your references from us, so there shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll look out for a cheap inn on the way around town - I’m going to need to handle something private, by the way. Cass, you alright taking our little cheater out to see the sights on your own?”
He gave her a knowing grin, which elicited a blush from Cassandra.
“Yeah, fine. Do what you need to. We’ll meet at the guild at sundown.”
“Makes sense to me.”
A knock at the door interrupted their conversation. A head poked through, different to before.
“Excuse me, but your presence is required. Please follow me.”
They were taken through to the largest room Leah had seen in the house. Quite apart from the narrow hallways and the tiny waiting area, this was almost a hall. Clearly doubling as a dining area, a long table lay straight down the middle of the chamber, high backed seats lining its length. At the far end, another high backed chair - a throne, really - was inhabited by a grim looking man. With one hand propping up his chin, he looked bored, yet his eyes gleamed with interest in what they had to say. By Leah’s guess, he would be in his late 50s, with grey beginning to appear in his hair, and the beginnings of lines appearing around his eyes. Yet he still looked fit and hale, which seemed to be a running theme amongst the leaders she had seen. She’d ask about that one day. He watched as they approached, and Liam and Cassandra took to a knee. A moment later, Leah joined them, after a glare from Cassandra. He watched them for a moment, then beckoned for them to rise.
“What of my son.”
Liam and Cassandra looked nervous, and that too made Leah nervous. Despite their talk about how they weren’t going to face any punishment for failing to bring back his son alive, there clearly must be some doubt between them. Liam coughed, and spoke up.
“Dead, my lord.”
Silence reigned through the hall. Leah kept her eyes glued to the ground, not wanting to make eye contact with the man who’s gaze she knew was drilling into her as they waited. Almost a minute passed before he spoke again.
“Very well. Leave. An attendant will stamp your papers.”
She heard him stand, and leave the room before she looked back up. Liam and Cassandra were looking at her.
“Are you sure you, ah, are from somewhere else? He seemed to know you.”
“Or at least, the way he was staring at you implied that.”
“I could feel him. Ugh, that was-”
“Something we can talk about when we get outside the baron’s personal home.”
True to his word, their papers were stamped on the way out, by a third attendant, this one looking as pale as the first. They hurried to leave the grounds before the lord changed his mind about them. Leah finished her sentence when they were clear.
“Creepy. I was going to say it was creepy.”
Cassandra frowned, stood between Leah and the grounds.
“I agree. There was something, off, about the way he was looking at her. Liam, get anything?”
“Nothing. I mean, he just found out his son is dead, so I was expecting more emotion, frankly. He looked… I don’t know, like he’d already processed it and made up his mind on what to do. I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Is there any way that a message could have arrived before us?”
“There is, but its unlikely in this case. It takes a lot of mana for a sending, and we would have felt it. Hell, we would have felt if any of the mercs were carrying enough mana to use a sending at all. Its hardly a subtle form of communication.”
“Well, no point in us dwelling on it. Lets go get paid, and try to relax. Its been a hell of a few days.”
“Hell yes it has been. All I want right now is a bath…”
“Funnily enough, I know the perfect place.”
“Ladies, ladies, please. Lets get paid before you start thinking of ways to spend it all.”
Their trip to the guildhall was uneventful. They arrived, and Liam took the papers in to be processed, while Cassandra took Leah to be processed in her own way. All she had to do was sign a single page, which Cassandra insisted she read in full before signing. It seemed pretty boilerplate. Don’t attack other guild members, don’t take assignments from blacklisted parties, all earnings are taxed at 10%, this contract is magically binding and will be represented on your very soul. Ordinary stuff that she expected, and frankly was a breath of fresh air compared to some of the EULAs she had seen in her previous lifetime. She signed it with no issues, and the clerk filed it away behind the counter.
“Very good, very good. Now, you’ll need to have this paperwork signed by two guild representative, to show you are of good standing…”
Cassandra snatched the papers from him, flipped to the second page, and scrawled something on the bottom. She then beckoned over to Liam, who stopped flirting with the clerk on his side of the room long enough to fill out his own signature. He also handed Leah and Cassandra a small pouch of gold each.
“Don’t spend it all in one place, alright?”
The clerk peered at Liam’s signature, then at Leah, and finally at Liam.
“Young man, I hope you didn’t take a non affiliated party along with you on an assignment.”
“Actually, picked her up on the way here. And I owe her some money, so this is all above board.”
The clerk rolled his eyes, and muttered something about rogues, before shuffling away with the paperwork. He returned moments later, with a small handbook.
“This is a collection of our, ah, unofficial regulations and advice. We give them to all new members, even those that apparently do not need them. You aren’t a full member until the paperwork has been filed at headquarters and distributed to all guildhalls, so we cannot provide you any services listed in there until such a time. However, I believe that should only take a day or two.”
“We figured. Do you know of any good, unaffiliated inns or taverns in town? We’ll need somewhere we can all stay together while we wait for the processing to complete.”
The clerk hmmed, and turned around, leafing through what looked to Leah like a wooden filing cabinet. He extracted a ream of paper, and picked through it.
“Ah, yes. The Crescent Moon. Recently established, I knew I remembered something like this. It’s actually seeking affiliation, since one of our other establishments was kicked off the register. Your staying there would greatly help them, so you should get a good price.”
“Excellent. Thanks, admin.”
“Is there anything else I can help you with today?”
“No, thank you. Come on Leah, lets let Liam know.”
They walked away from the counter, and Leah turned to talk to Cassandra.
“Short for administrator. Its the general nickname for any of the staff at a guildhall - generalists tend to roam pretty far, so learning names is a bit of a pain.”
“I figured. I just think its funny that they are called admins, when thats likely what I would have ended up being in my… other life.”
Cassandra looked at her sidelong.
“Really? Let me guess, its a very different position though.”
“Actually, surprisingly not. Dealing with a system that most people don’t understand, having to explain things to people who don’t appreciate what you do…”
“Well, most adventurers do appreciate the admins. Without them and their local knowledge, we’d have a much harder time. Plus, they push the papers so we don’t have to.”
“Ha! Maybe I should have been born here in the first place. It sounds like a utopia in comparison.”
The linked up with Liam, and the three took a seat on one of the couches in the guildhalls small lounge area.
“Gold’s been put into yours and my accounts, Cass. 1000 each. The guild’ll be handling the affairs of the… others… once their bodies arrive. Their share, and anything in their accounts that isn’t being taxed, is going to their families.”
Cassandra sighed, and nodded.
“Small mercies, at least.”
Liam looked to Leah, then down at her attire.
“That unfortunately includes your clothing, Leah. It was part of Thomas’s effects, and while its fine for you to be using it…”
“It’ll be sold to help fund his survivors benefits.”
“Ah. So, I’ll need to go shopping, then?”
Cassandra perked up at hearing that.
“Oh! Of course you will!”
Liam gave her a stare.
“No. Being. Frivolous. Especially you, Leah. Part of that gold in your pouch is mine.”
Leah looked down at the small pouch she was holding tight, and frowned.
“Wait, you said a thousand gold, right? This doesn’t look like it could hold anywhere near that amount, and Cass’ isn’t much bigger.”
“No, thats got about 20 in it, in assorted change. Most of the gold is kept by the guild, and we can withdraw it at any guild hall, minus a fee. Saves having to haul around thousands and thousands of gold at a time, its easier for the guild to tax our earnings, and its safer than keeping it under your bed. The system works for us all.
“Oh, so its like a bank then.”
“Yes, except don’t go asking for a loan from any admins. They’ll shoot you down before you even get to the end of your sentence.”
“We better explain the currency system to her too, Liam. She probably doesn’t know whats what.”
“Oh, right. So, theres gold, silver and copper pieces. Silvers are worth 100 coppers, and golds are 10 silvers. Nice and easy to remember. It used to be way worse, before the empire actually got its act together about standardising…”
“Most nations have a similar policy as well, and thanks to banks and guilds, most money is accepted in most places. And if it isn’t, you have an easy place to change up.”
“That seems… incredibly efficient.”
“Oh, it took a lot of work to get to that place. The world is a lot closer together than it once was. A couple hundred years ago, you’d be scratching your head trying to work out if 10 shtrucks is worth 64 genns, or is it the other way around? Once someone in the guild uncovered the communicators though…”
“Yeah, great big devices. They were all over the place, and no one knew what they were for. Then, someone was adventuring on the dead continent, found a working one, and whoosh, the whole lot of them woke up at once. Now, sending messages between towns, cities, even countries, is as easy as talking to the communicators guild, and paying them to send a message along. It all works out great, unless you are going away from a major settlement anyway.”
Leah nodded along with the explanations. It all seemed remarkably useful knowledge to have. Though, she worried now that if her secret got out, then everyone in the world could know before she even reached the next town over. She shuddered, while Cassandra spoke up.
“By the way, we have a place to stay. The Crescent Moon. Apparently its on the east side of town. We’ll meet up there later?”
“Sure, sure. I’ll swing by before I sort myself out and check us some rooms.”
“And you aren’t going to tell us what it is you’ll be doing?”
“Nope. Like I’m sure you two won’t tell me in excruciating detail about how the other looks when bathing.”
He dodged a swing at his head from Cassandra, grinning all the while.
“Thought not. Anyway. I best be off. See you two this evening?”
“Yeah. And you better not try following us.”
He held a hand against his chest.
“On my honour as a rogue.”
“Which means nothing. Come on Leah.”
The two left the guildhall, slightly heavier with gold, and Cassandra looked up and down the street.
“Damn, probably should have asked about shops too, while we were there… Still, I think I know the way to the market district. Lets go.”
The two set off in the direction Cassandra indicated. Cassandra turned to talk to Leah while they walked.
“So. This might sound like a weird question, but have you thought about what you want to do?”
“Like, after we get to Ironshod, and get you sorted out there.”
“Well, I’m going to keep working with you guys. That was the plan, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, but. That can’t be your whole plan, can it? You have to have something you want to achieve.”
“Honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it much. I’ve not really had the time to. We’ve been basically on the run since I got here, and all of that time has been spent doing practical thinking. I barely even know anything about this wor- land. And honestly, even before I… changed, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. What about you, and your goals?”
“Me? Why would you want to know that?”
“Well, because I want to get to know you better.”
Then, cutting herself off and blushing slightly, she continued quickly.
“And you know, it might help me work things out if I knew what you are working towards. You know, like an example!”
“Yeah, an example…”
Cassandra gave Leah an odd look, one she wasn’t sure how to work out. She didn’t seem as flustered as she would have expected from previous conversations like this. Had she been wrong..?
“Sure, I can tell you. But later, when we have a bit of privacy. I don’t exactly like talking about these things around people I can’t be sure I can trust.”
“Oh? So you can trust me now?”
“You saved my life in the forest, and I saved yours on the wall. Battle is a bonding experience, and you have to trust those you fight beside. Besides, I already told you I trust you, after you trusted me with your status page.”
“I did do that, didn’t I… You know, its stuff like that, not knowing these things, that really makes me wonder how much I know about this world, this land. Maybe thats what I can work towards.”
“Working things out. Learning about the world. Honestly, now that I stop and think about it, this whole situation, its almost a dream come true.”
“What, being threatened by death and faced with horrible monsters on a near daily basis?”
“Well, yes and no. My old life was, well, boring. And dull, and uninteresting and all those words to describe something you don’t want to be doing. I had a boring plan to get a boring job, work for 50 something boring years and then retire just in time to be a boring person. I would have lived and died never doing anything. The world was mostly worked out, you could look anything up and find it at a moments notice. It felt like there was nothing to explore, to wonder at. Except maybe the stars, but that wasn’t exactly in the realms of possibility for me… Here, I can actually explore a new world, and see new things, maybe even things no one has ever seen before. I can’t just look it up online and find the answers right away. Its hard, and I reckon things will only get harder, but its… exciting. I feel excited just being here, walking down this street. Is that weird?”
She looked back around to Cassandra, who was giving her another funny look. This one was more readable, as confusion.
“Look anything up? Exploring the stars? What the hell kind of wo- land did you come from?”
“Heh. Its not all that, I assure you. It all seems quite dull when you’ve lived around it your whole life.”
“I suppose it might. So to answer your question, it does seem a little weird to me. But I think I get where you are coming from.”
“And hey, at least I’ll get to explore it with you guys, which is nice too!”
Cassandra’s blush from that wiped away any doubts in Leah’s mind about how the elf woman saw her.