For a village kid, there wasn't much opportunity to ride the train. Even though he thought himself an adult, Nero could only smile and stare out the window as the countryside sped past. They were in a private cabin, the four of them, tickets sponsored by his parents. The sound of wheels grinding, pistons releasing their gas and moving, the smooth vibrations of the train as it rushed down the rail.
"Nero, you're drooling," Altia complained.
He sat back and saw his mother smiling and his father brooding. His level cap was proving to be a hard pill for the stoic man to swallow. He hoped the volcano in front of him didn't erupt and was satisfied with just blowing smoke and debris. If Byron went on a rampage, it would take some Royal knights to stop him. The man once punched a hole through a tree. That the tree was thick enough to not fall even with the hole speaks of its girth.
They were with their best outfits. Altia was with a dark blue strap dress and a white shirt underneath, with frills on her sleeves. Rhynne had to fix the left sleeve so the Arbittrium could fit inside. She had her hair tied into a bun at the top which she swore was the latest fashion among cosmopolitan circles. Nero was wearing brown trousers and a leather jacket while Byron went with a black leather outfit that looked like he wanted to ride something with fewer wheels than the recommended for balancing a vehicle. Rhynne looked like a princess from the storybooks. A pale yellow dress with embroidered lace overlaying the fabrics, pure white silk gloves with frills on the wrists. She was also carrying a staff with a red gem that every now and then shed a faint glow. He had his clockwork sword and Byron sported no visible weapon. Nero knew he kept his favorites slotted in his device.
Back home they'd rested the whole day and then departed the next morning before the sun rose. They traveled eight miles on foot until the communal train station at the hamlet of Madbreach. It served all the villages on the outskirts. They took the 8 AM train and the trip would take two hours. Honeywitch was a city ruled by Count Honeywitch and the local trading hub. It wasn't the first time Nero was traveling by train but it has been so long he all but forgot how it felt. It was all coming back to him, the sensations of more than a decade ago coming alive again.
"Sorry. I was just remembering the last time I took a train."
"Oh, and you still remember that? You were this tall," Rhynne showed a height, "and an adorable lad."
Altia nodded. "I remember. Nero was so cute, I wanted to take him home and dress him up like a doll."
Nero glanced at his father and the big man slightly shook his head. The boy wrongly interpreted that as him being unwilling to help. He decided to play along.
"And now, do you still want to dress me up?"
Altia grinned, a hungry smile, like a mouse looking at a wheel of cheese. "Mrs. Rhynne, do we have time in our schedule to visit a haberdasher?"
Byron quietly brought his hand to his face.
The rest of the trip was spent planning what to do. It's been a while since the last visit and Rhynne wanted to visit a bakery for some refreshments, then buy pastries as gifts when they went to visit some old acquaintances. They would visit a shoemaker to get custom-made boots and shoes for the youngsters, then they would split. Byron had an errand to do alone at the Essence dealer and the others would browse the card shop while he was away. Afterward, the haberdasher, because Nero couldn't take a hint and somehow Rhynne, roped Byron into getting new clothes as well. The veterans had an inn where they always stayed as guests. On the second day, the men would go visit the guard barracks where Byron had some friends and the women would go shopping for female necessities.
Nero saw the train take a bend and then head straight for a big wall. Honeywitch might be small but was still a fortress city. The vehicle slowed down and massive steel gates opened to allow passage. It kept moving slowly and soon arrived at the station. Through the open window, before he could take in the sights of the city he took in the smells. His village smelled normal, at least to him. If he had to describe, it was something between dinner being cooked and herbal gardens. But Honeywitch smelled of oil, sweat, and hurriedness.
As soon as the train came to a full stop, he tried to stand up but Rhynne raised her hand, signaling for him to sit down. Everyone in the train and the other cabins seemed to wish to disembark first, as they cluttered the tight corridors with their luggage and pressed against one another in the vain attempt to make those ahead move faster. Big city people seemed to have no time to waste.
"It never changes," Byron mused, breaking an hour-long silence. "These urban folks like their clutter. Cities are like anthills, Nero."
It took about ten minutes for the corridor to empty. Rhynne stood up and took her small briefcase from the overhead compartment, the others following her. Both adults were wearing their bandoliers and the valuables were safely stowed inside the pockets. They got to the platform and it was almost empty.
"I thought the train would go onwards," Nero mused.
"Ha. Used to be, but with rumors of a war brewing between us and the Zoltris to the east, the military is conducting inspections. Everyone has to disembark and then get back on the train later," Byron explained.
"See these gentlemen ahead? They will inspect our packs," Rhynne added. "That's why we are traveling light."
Truly enough, a squad of four soldiers, all of them with their bracers and the Count's livery were waiting for them, the last ones to get off the train. Others were walking along the rail near the engine, inspecting the train with some strange device.
"Halt. Nome, Class, and reason for visiting!" One of the guards shouted.
"Rhynne, [Magus], shopping. These are my family, Byron, [Armsmaster], our son Nero, novice, and our daughter-in-law Altia, also a novice."
The guards froze for a moment at the mention of the classes. Novice was the term for those that hadn't selected a Class yet and both youngsters blushed when Rhynne introduced Altia as a daughter-in-law. The girl was looking away from Nero but the way these guards were suspicious, he trusted his mother's judgment. Giving one's Class was a quick gauge of the power level of an Adventurer. It put Nero's parents in the 150+ bracket.
The guard examined the tickets of the group and then waved them past. "You are clear to enter, ma'am and family. Welcome to Honeywitch." His behavior changed. The world respected power.
"Thank you," Rhynne replied.
Nero noticed the multi-storied houses and buildings, most of them made of stone. The streets were lined with cobblestones and the place was noisy. Nero's ears were assaulted by the throbbing and humming of Essence engines, the clacking of wheels on the stone pavement, the drivel and blurb of thousands of people moving and talking at the same time. He could see why his father compared the city with an anthill. Everyone had intent in their gait and a drive to keep moving forward.
"Stay close to one another and pay attention to your surroundings. There are thieves and cutpurses around," Byron warned. "Consider the city a Dungeon and keep your wits about you."
"Daggers in the back alley?" Nero asked, remembering a story he liked.
"I wish. It would put some spice in our visit."
Altia held his hand and they walked, gawking and taking in the sights and smells of the city. The streets had less scent of oil but it was replaced with a faint and encompassing smell of sewage. Nero pointed it out and earned a snort from his father.
"Sounds right. These city-dwellers are full of shit."
"Husband!" Rhynne hissed and changed the subject. "But I noticed, there are more people than the usual."
"A war is brewing, what did you expect? People flee from war as rats from a sinking ship."
They went through the streets, turning corners and moving at the same speed as the city-folk. There was no way of not going with the flow. Nero noticed a lot of beggars and dirty street urchins looking for easy marks. The party of four, everyone with their Arbitrium clearly visible worked like a repellent for these pickpockets. They stayed away as if they were projecting a bubble. Nero noticed he saw very little Adventurers and pointed out the fact to his father.
"There's no Dungeon in this city, why would people waste time here? The Count was a fool to keep the city here even after the local Dungeon was destroyed. He should've moved and rebuilt elsewhere."
"Byron! Don't badmouth the Count," Rhynne chided. "At least not in the open," She added in a whisper.
"You know I'll punch him for real if he makes a pass on you again. I will keep my promises," The grumpy man grumbled.
"That was before Nero was born! Get over it! And I can defend myself very well."
"We won't see the Count this time. Just keep your opinions to himself. I don't want trouble again and the Count is very influential."
Byron snorted. "I pity the fool," he pressed on. "He's a hundred forty-nine, stuck without a fourth-tier Class forever."
Rhynne smashed the end of her staff on the man's foot then turned back to see Nero's reaction. He'd have shrugged it off if it weren't for the sliver of protective pity he saw on his mom's eyes. He felt his chest seize and stopped walking. Altia noticed a half-step later and latched to his left arm, rubbing him over the jacket.
The [Armsmaster] kept moving, then looked behind to see what held everyone back and shrugged. "That's the way of the world, kid. Learn to deal with it and grow a thicker skin."
They'd interrupted the flow of people but the passersby didn't bump into them. They were moving around, feeling the tension in the air. Byron kept walking and Altia leaned to whisper in his ear.
"I won't insult your father, but I don't have a high opinion of him," She said. "But as much as I hate to admit, the world will treat you even worse if they learn about you. I'm here and we are getting through it together."
She leaned, kissed his cheek then quickly did a playful nibble on his earlobe. Then she pushed him forward and they resumed their stroll. The mood, however, was ruined. Nero was brooding, not unlike his father. Altia noticed the similarity and wondered if Nero would grow to be like his father, quickly dismissing the thought. Byron had a big level cap from the start. Big enough to be a top Adventurer without being dragged into the Knights. Everyone pampered him, looked up to him, and he grew to great power as if it was his birthright. That made him haughty.
Nero, on the other hand, will have the exact opposite of that. Everyone that learned his level cap would scorn him. But she saw his true self. Down in the depths of the Dungeon, where nobody else could control you, he showed his true colors and she loved him for that. During their last delve, she'd pretended to be asleep to see if he would do something to her, but he was content with just looking at her. Nero didn't do anything untoward to her. Altia wondered if it was the same with Rhynne.
They walked in silence, each one absorbed in their own thoughts when they finally reached a building with a lot of pretty tables with parasols in the front yard.
"Here it is. Heavenly Delights, the best bakery, and café of the County," Rhynne explained. Let's go inside, I want a table on the balcony."
Nine-foot tall double doors separated the outside from the inside. An elf waiter with a fancy black jacket and bowtie opened the door for them.
"Ma'am, master, youngsters. Welcome. Where would you like to sit?"
Nero noticed that the establishment was unusually tall. Maybe to cater to bigger races.
"The balcony, please. Facing the castle," Rhynne said. "And if Pats still works here, tell her Rhynne says hi."
The waiter's pointed ears just twitched. "As you wish, milady Rhynne. I will inform mistress Patricia her friend is here."
"Mistress? Does Pats own this place now? Where is the old fart, Gaius?"
"I am afraid master Gaius, our founder, was called to the gods' side eight years ago."
Rhynne sighed. "I'm sorry for your loss."
"I worked here 'only' for four years, ma'am. I did not meet the founder."
A shout from the kitchen door interrupted them. "Rin, you third-class witch! I thought you'd become monster food already!"
A brow-furred bear-kin lady the size of his father was coming straight at them, wearing an apron and a chef's hat with straps that wrapped around her round ears. He noticed she had a device so she must be some old adventurer, not that he had any way to measure her age. Nero was taken aback for the treatment. Nobody called his mom Rin. So far.
Rhynne just smiled. "I'd hate to ruin this fine establishment with my third-class witchcraft, Pats. And no, I wasn't feeding monsters, I was raising this fine lad here."
She pushed him forward. He noticed traitorous Altia abandoned him and melded into the background, half-hidden behind his parents. Nero hated being put on display by his mother but he played along.
"By all the gods! Such a fine and handsome lad!" Patricia squealed. "You have your mother's nose!"
The huge woman picked Nero up as if he was a doll and hugged him. Nero could feel his ribs complain and gasped for air.
"Good to meet you too, ma'am Patricia," Nero groaned when he could get some fresh air.
"I can't believe how that cute tyke grew into this handsome young lad! It is almost as if you didn't marry that ugly hairless brute of a sorry [Swordmaster] you used to hang around."
"I'm right here, Patricia," Byron grumbled.
"Of course you are, little one," She said then dismissed Byron's presence. "And look at you, and Adventurer already! With a fancy sword and all. How wonderful." Patricia tilted her head. "And what do we have here? A daughter? You did promise me I could eat your firstborn daughter, didn't you, Rin?"
Patricia snarled, showing sharp teeth Nero was sure could pierce steel, if she was anywhere close to his parents' Level.
"Pu-pleased to meet you, mistress Pa-Patricia," Altia curtsied awkwardly. "I am Nero's fiancé, Altia."
Nero had no recollection he was already engaged.
"I was joking! We don't eat people. Come here, my darling. Let me treat you to the finest tiramisu this side of the ocean."
They were led upstairs and shown the exact table Rhynne wanted, a nice table with a view to the Count's castle. A stone manor, with walls just a bit shorter than the city's, sat on a hill on the western side of the town.
"Everything is on the house today," Patricia said then ordered the elf waiter. "Bennolin, please bring a full sampler, a bit of everything, thank you. Please do order to your hearts' content. Oh, Rin. You stayed away for too long but for a good reason. And he is already engaged to such a fine lady. Oh, please I need to hear everything. We have a decade of catching up to do!"