“Stupid, stupid, stupid!” I continue to kick myself as I run down the final strip of the forest.
What is wrong with me?
I completely lost it for a second there when my brother demanded I return to the village with them.
After our confrontation, I used my anger to fuel my running for a while and covered a lot of ground, but when I finally stopped to rest, and my emotions evened out, I realized how in the wrong I was.
I mean, I even used Sense Soul on my brother and my best friend, for god's sake!
I was riding a wave of excitement from my earlier run, and seeing them in the middle of the forest was the icing on the cake. Everything was going well until brother just had to open his mouth.
Both brother and Sandra only had my best interest at heart, but I lost my cool for some reason.
I let out a long sigh. I've lived two lives, and apparently, it's still possible to have a mood swing. It was like, as soon as brother demanded I listen to him, anger I didn't notice I was harboring revealed itself. I felt so tired of having to defend my actions to everyone, and I just snapped.
I’ll have to apologize when I see them again.
“What a great way to loses a runner’s high," I growl in frustration. I reach down and rub my cramping stomach, thinking today is only getting worse.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it just so happened to be that time again for me.
Wait a moment, when was the last time I…?
I feel my face flush when I finally understand why my body had randomly started feeling heavier this morning when I restarted my run.
“Of all the times!” I complain out loud.
Despite the slowly growing pain in my stomach, I pick up speed. Stupid me never considered my period would pick now of all times to start, and being the genius I am; I didn't think about bringing a pad with me on my run.
Now that I think about it, it’s been a while since the last time this has happened.
Despite technology being close to medieval periods back on Earth, the women of Yurilia actually have a much easier time with their monthlies. Mother taught me what happens to growing girls from a young age and cleared up the gaps in my knowledge of the subject.
I was initially terrified of the thought of having to deal with my body once a month, but I learned the magic of stats once again played a significant role in my new life.
Woman's monthlies help flush their systems, a fact every adult knew in my past life. So, what happens when a woman has a body strengthened well past anything thought possible?
Basically, the stronger a woman is, the less often their bodies need to clean house.
For someone like me, who's always had a high level and impressive stats, I've rarely been visited by my Aunt Flow.
The problem is I've been gaining a lot of levels recently, making it utterly impossible to guess when my body would see fit to give me trouble. Now that I think about it, my last period was in the middle of summer, nearly ten months ago before the goblin attack.
I forgot I even needed to carry a pad with me with everything that's been going on. The trees are starting to space out, meaning I'll get to the plains around Drey soon.
It’ll be awkward to ask around for, but I can purchase a pad in Drey or from Mr. Grey if I have to.
As I continue to run, I question if my period was part of the reason I snapped at my family?
No, no matter how much I would like to blame my outburst on hormones, I can’t use that as an excuse. Even at its worst, I've never had an outburst like that when I was growing up.
It’s ironic, Sandra, the one person I would try and talk to about these feelings, is one of the people I went off on.
I push the worrying thoughts regarding my family to the back of my head and pick up more speed. I specifically picked my most comfortable pair of underwear for this run, and I'm not going to chance ruining them when I'm so close to my goal.
I shouldn't have to worry because of my cleaning spell, but once you get an image in your head of something dirty, especially your delicates, it's tough to forget even after they’re clean.
My surroundings open up, and I'm officially out of the forest.
I worry I might have to slow down as I get closer to the city so that other pedestrians can't see how fast I'm running, but Drey's road is surprisingly desolate. My feet blur under me as I quickly pass past the many farmsteads surrounding Drey.
Though I’m eventually forced to slow down as I near Drey's walls, looking up, I expect the city’s walls to be covered in guards, but the ramparts look emptier than the first time I visited.
As I follow along the city’s walls towards the gate, I only spot a handful of people keeping watch on the city’s surroundings.
“Why would the city not see fit to properly man their walls when they know an army is approaching? What if they have some sort of shock troops that can cover large distances?” I once again question how the local nobles are handling their situation.
I'm about to complain to myself a little more when I finally see the gate I entered and left through during my last visit.
It's no wonder there are no guards up on the walls; they're all at the gate trying to control a max exodus of people.
When I first came to the city, the line of people trying to pass through the gate into the city was at least three times longer than the one of people trying to leave. Instead of the gate being divided into two sections for people to enter and exit, the gate's right and left sides are now inspecting carts of people trying to flee the city.
Looking down the road that leads to Blaiton and Yleles, I can see a line of people and wagons stretching into the distance.
The entire gate is packed with people yelling at the local guards to let them through.
“Reason for leaving!?” A guard yells over the crowd at a portly merchant who’s sweating profusely, seated snugly up on his cart.
“I wish to purchase goods in Blaiton and bring them back to our glorious city.” The merchant answers, dabbing a handkerchief at his face.
“Liar!” A chorus of insults come from the people waiting in line to leave the city.
“I need to check your cart to make sure you aren’t taking anything other than personal weapons out of the city,” the guard informs him.
The gate guard nimbly crawls up the cart and starts shifting the goods around. When the guard inspects the goods directly behind the merchant, I watch the merchant stealthfully slip a coin pouch into the guard’s pocket.
The guard pretends not to notice that his trousers are now heavier and crawls off the merchant's wagon. "Everything appears in order; thank you for thinking of our city." The guard waves the merchant off without a shred of guilt.
I watch the fat merchant whip his bivol as hard as he can and race off into the distance. There is no way that man is coming back to the city.
Other gatekeepers are denying people from leaving the city, stating multiple reasons, from a person being too old to survive the trip to Blaiton, all the way to saying that too many people of that person's profession have already left the city.
It would look like the guards are letting random people leave, but I keenly spot it's the people dressed in slightly better clothes that are making it through the checkpoint.
As I question my faith in humanity, my gut tightens.
Watching the chaos unfold distracted me for a second there.
I walk up to a guard who is waving yet another merchant through. “Excuse me!” I call out to him.
The man was so distracted by the crowd of people trying to leave the city; he didn't notice me approaching him. When he manages to compose himself from the small fright I’ve given him, he looks me up and down, scrutinizing me. “What do you want?”
“Village runner,” I tell him. “I have business with Silver Herd inside the city.” I use a calm and sure tone despite the rude look the guard is giving me.
"Runner?" The guard gives me a questionable look before a dirty smile crosses his face. "Alright, one silver, and you can enter the city."
I’m reaching for the small coin pouch I brought with me when I realize he just said a silver. Five of us entered the city last time, and even though Kervin got a discount, it was only 6 large bronze coins!
The guard laughs at my shocked expression. I narrow my eyes at the man making my displeasure known. “Why the high entry tax?” I ask him.
“City’s in trouble, higher taxes.” The guard tells me in a matter-of-fact voice.
The cramping in my stomach intensifies, and the idea of ripping this man a new asshole steadily sounds like a better and better idea. Why is everyone continually looking down on me? I know I look like a young girl, but this man is supposed to protect this city. Even if I'm all for leaving Drey to defend itself, I still won't use this situation to take advantage of people.
I beckon the guard closer with my finger. I'm slightly taller than him, so I lean into his ear. "I have official business with Mr. Grey of this city's Silver Herd branch. Let me through, and I won't use my connections to report how much money you're skimming from everyone." I briefly look at his soul, causing him to scurry away from me with a look of terror written across his face.
“Please proceed, mam.” The guard lets me walk past him without daring to look at me.
I have to push my way through the crowd around the gate, but people are all too happy to let someone move to the back of the line.
Someone tries to reach for my coin pouch in the commotion, but one karate chop later, and I'm walking past a man on the ground crying and holding his limp wrist. It looks like I need to hold back more; if someone spots me doing that when I'm not in a crowd, I might be drafted by the army.
When I finally make it past the crowd of angry citizens into the city proper, I see the madness isn't isolated to the gate. Many shops are being boarded up, there are almost no stalls on the side of the road, and judging by the amount of animal shit in the middle of the road, the city isn’t prioritizing its sanitation any longer.
Almost everyone I see walking around looks like they think the world is ending, and to them, it might as well be. People won't know how Scholl will treat the city until they arrive.
As I walk down the street that leads to the city’s Silver Herd branch, I finally spot a clothing store that doesn’t appear to be preparing for a hurricane.
I push open the shop's door and smile at an older woman operating the counter. Behind her is an older gentleman working on a thick vest; he looks up from his work and glances at me before returning to his work. I quickly spot the sword he has stashed next to his workstation.
The area for customers to stand has colorful sample fabrics hanging from the wall. The atmosphere of the store itself is warm and inviting.
"Hello dear, what can I help you with today?" The sweet lady beckons me over to the counter.
I can feel my cheeks turn red. Mother has been the one to make all my pads, and It never occurred to me, I would have to walk into a shop and buy one someday.
"Ugggg, I need…" I trail off in embarrassment. The gentleman working on the vest looks back at me again, which only makes my face redder.
The woman gives me an understanding smile. "You need new undergarments?" I nod, and she beams with a soft smile. "First time buying your own? Don't feel embarrassed; most first-timers have a hard time asking for unmentionables. My husband over there and I have run this shop for thirty years and have seen it all." She proudly proclaims.
Her reassuring smile calms me, and after a few quick seconds of Meditation, I regain my cool. "Thanks, but it isn't exactly underwear I need."
I think I'm cryptic, but the old lady just nods and turns to look through her stock. "We're usually a more tailor-made store, but we always have a few pads lying around." The woman proceeds to start moving all manner of 'specialty' underwear to her counter.
I thought I had what it takes to endure, but by the time I pick out what I want, I can't even barter the price down without wanting to bury my head in my hands.
“Are you leaving the city?” The woman asks me after I hand her the money I owe her, motioning towards my pack.
"Oh, I don't live in Drey," I tell her. "I'm a runner, and I have business in the city."
“That explains why you look so fit for someone your age. But was coming here a good idea?” I manage to keep a respectful smile up as the older woman gives me a concerned look. I know it’s what I’m going for right now, but how many people are going to look down on me this trip?
“She’s fine.” The woman’s husband says out loud without looking away from his work.
My strained smile eases into a genuine one at the man’s praise. Is he being polite, or does he notice something I haven't noticed?
“That sets my old heart at ease,” the shop owner raises her hand to her chest, not questioning her husband in the slightest. “We have a changing room in the back if you need it?” She kindly offers.
“I would greatly appreciate it,” I tell her.
She leads me around her counter and past her husband. I steal a glance at the vest he's working on and notice it's nicer than anything I've seen mom make before. If most of my money weren't tied up in materials, I probably would have tried buying something else from the couple.
I’m led to a small changing room and start changing my garments. This is another experience I missed out on last time I visited the city. I never got the chance to experience the city on my own terms.
“Everything fit comfortably?” The shop owner asks me as soon as I leave the room.
"Yes, thank you very much," I offer her my sincere thanks for helping me solve one of my problems.
“That’s good,” she tells me while leading me back through their shop.
As we pass by her husband, I stop for a moment. "Excuse me, sir?"
He looks up and grunts, “Yeah?”
“How could you tell?” I ask vaguely out of curiosity; I don’t want to give myself away by accident.
He grunts again and points at my pack. “Your posture is too good for someone your age. You’re carrying everything like it doesn’t affect you in the slightest.”
My eyes widen as he points out the flaw in my disguise. I lean forward a bit and tense up my shoulders, “better?”
He looks me over once more before nodding and going back to his work.
Satisfied, I make my way over to the shop's front door.
“Be careful out there, sweety,” the lady offers me more well wishes as I’m about to open the door.
“The both of you as well,” I politely return.
"We've been here thirty years, and we'll be here for the next thirty as well," the old man shouts from his workstation.
I'm about to leave when I realize I haven't caught their names. "I'm Aaliyah. Can I have your names?" I ask respectfully.
"I'm Ella, and my husband is named Vincen."
“Thank you for all your help; I'll be sure to come back in the future.” I wave to the lovely older couple.
I needed that, I think to myself, as I hear the shop door close behind me. Even as the city falls apart, there are still some good people in it. I turn and look at the clothing store one last time and wish them the best of luck before continuing down Drey's street.
With my new armor donned, I confidently continue to make my way towards Mr. Grey’s branch.
The closer I get to my destination, the closer I get to the wealthier parts of the city. Unlike the shops closer to the walls that are boarding everything up, I pass by shops that are completely empty and others with signs of magic ready to be activated to defend their businesses.
The more affluent citizens are making it out of the city or holding up in their own forts while everyone else is left to panic.
I wonder how Silver Herd is handling everything?
The deeper I get into the city, the less I see signs of people panicking. And it's not until I see Silver Herd's Drey branch that I'm once again reminded how much of a panic the city is in.
Multiple people are entering and exiting the building carrying rolls of parchment, and I spot three carts being loaded with goods.
The double doors are held permanently open by two of the company's guards allowing people to enter and leave quickly. When I enter the main lobby, I notice almost everyone I see running around is wearing Silver Herds uniform.
People are dropping off pieces of parchment at the front desk, which the lady's behind are frantically sorting and handing off to others waiting nearby. Maybe coming unannounced might have been a bad idea.
While I'm considering how I should approach the front desk, a bubbly, excited voice sends shivers down my spine. "Aaliyah?"
I make eye contact with the head receptionist, and her eyes widen in surprise. She quickly waves me over. “What are you doing here, sweety? I would’ve heard if you were coming.”
I put on my merchant smile, ignoring the second thing she said and what it implies. “My village received word from the local nobility. I figured this is my best chance to meet with Mr. Grey, so I came here by myself. Though seeing how busy everybody is, I fear I might be inconveniencing you.”
"No, no," the head receptionist waves her hand in a dismissing gesture. "You could never inconvenience us. I'm sure Mr. Grey can make time to speak with you. Give me a moment," she grabs a small piece of parchment, and her hands bluer across its surface. She stamps the paper and hands it to a runner, “to Mr. Grey, priority,” all in under ten seconds.
The man nods and runs off.
I wish I could move over to the nearby chairs, but the receptionist reaches out and grasps my hands with her own. "So, you came all by yourself; it must have been difficult?"
"Not really, the run was uneventful," I try to pull my hands away, but this woman's tentacled grip doesn't relent.
"That's quite impressive," she leans closer to me, and her eyes feel like they're drilling into me.
I wish I could use my real strength to escape this woman, but that would just give me away. The last thing I need is this lady realizing how much I've improved since the last time I saw her.
“For you, head receptionist,” I’m finally released when the runner comes back with a reply from Mr. Grey.
The head receptionist only takes a second to read the paper before she stands up. "Just as I thought, he has time for you. Let me escort you up to his office.”
I’m about to decline and tell her I know the way, but she smoothly rounds the large desk and locks arms with me as Sandra would sometimes when I was smaller. The receptionist gives me a look that leaves no room for argument.
“So, how long did it take for you to get to Drey?”
“Not that long.”
"I heard you had an accident last time you returned home; anything exciting happen?"
"Your skin looks brighter since I last saw you; what's your secret?"
The woman continues to try and pry information out of me as she leads me to Mr. Grey’s office. She even purposely walks slower to get more time with me. By this point, she isn’t even trying to hide her intentions.
"We should hang out after your meeting," the head receptionist offers as we come up to Mr. Grey's office.
“Sorry, but I plan to head back towards my village as soon as I finish talking with Mr. Grey.”
“That’s no fun,” she pouts.
“And aren’t you guys busy right now?” I ask as the doors in front of us open.
“It will be fine,” the head receptionist says in a monotone voice. With a look of utter certainty, she says, “Silver Herd will weather this storm and come out stronger.”
She releases my arm, and I take a step away from her.
“Have a productive meeting,” the head receptionist gives me a polite bow and turns back down the way we came.
“Aaliyah!” Before I can process what I was just told, I hear Mr. Grey call out my name from behind his office desk.
Without his room cluttered with metal samples, Mr. Grey’s office feels bigger than the last time I was here. He even has a pair of chairs placed in front of his desk, so I won’t have to sit on a crate this time.
Moving to take a seat, I spot Mr. Grey's bodyguard in the corner as usual. "Nice to see you again, Max," I give him a polite wave.
He returns my greeting, “always a pleasure, miss.”
As I take my seat, I see Mr. Grey leaning back with his cheeks puffed up with a sour expression. “You greet Max before me; you wound me, Aaliyah." He says in a joking manner that sounds forced.
"Don't worry; I'm sure you can afford a healing potion," I smirk back at him, wondering if the stress is getting to him?
He laughs and fixes his posture. "Not that I'm unhappy to see you so soon; I wasn't expecting you to visit Drey as things currently are." I watch Mr. Grey's mirthful appearance settle into something more business professional.
“Are we free to talk here?” I hesitantly ask.
Mr. Grey looks surprised for a moment before glancing at Max with a serious look. Max glances around outside Mr. Grey’s office before shutting and locking the doors.
“We should be fine,” Mr. Grey tells me.
I have to be careful about how I go about this. If Silver Herd remains faithful to Drey and Olebert, I can't mention how my village plans to handle the coming war. So, I start by asking something simple. "Is Kervin fine? He was around Teeburn when the fort fell, right?”
"You do not need to worry about him,” Mr. Grey reassures me. “He made his delivery before the fort fell, and our people put him and many other evacuees a day or so away from the city.”
That’s one thing off my chest. “What about Teeburn?”
A complicated look crosses Mr. Grey’s face, and I swear I see a hint of anger. “Fell to Scholl the minute they reached their gates.”
I swallow a lump in my throat. “Are they taking prisoners, or are they raiding?” If School’s goal is to loot our entire area, our village remaining neutral may be a moot point.
Mr. Grey looks to be thinking deeply about how he should answer my question. “You didn’t hear this from me.”
“Of course,” I nod in understanding.
“My informants tell me Scholl hasn’t killed a single citizen that has surrendered to their rule. In fact, they've made it a point to bend over backward, convincing everyone they will rule the city better than Olebert ever has." That's some good news; at least they probably won't pillage everything.
“Does that mean they’ve already started their march to Drey?” I ask, surprised.
“Half of Scholl’s forces marched out of Teeburn this morning.”
“Only two weeks then,” I mumble.
"Excuse me?!" Mr. Grey asks, flabbergasted. “How do you know that?”
“An educated guess,” I tell him.
“You never cease to amaze me,” Mr. Grey gives me a big smile, but it feels forced.
I want to keep the conversation moving, so I give a small smile at his compliment and ask my real question. "With time ticking away, how is Silver Herd planning on responding when Scholl reaches the city?"
"You're asking me a difficult question." Mr. Grey's expression is stone-cold as we stare at one another.
“It would mean a lot to me if you could answer.” I try to convey my feelings through my eyes.
Mr. Grey sighs, “how am I supposed to say no to that?” He starts tapping his fingers up against his desk. “If what we discuss gets out, the two of us could be in deep waters.”
“All right, our branch plans to have most of our people evacuate the city with most of our resources and fall back to our headquarters. Our company has already been informed by the nobility that we are not to leave anything of value behind for Scholl.”
They are abandoning the city.
"However, a few of our merchants and staff will be 'caught up' when Scholl moves to take the city. Those who remain will continue business for their own safety. I don't suppose I need to clarify further, do I?"
I shake my head, no. I understand him completely. Silver Herd plans to try and walk the line between the two forces, just like our village plans to. "Does that mean I can place one last order, or have you already started moving everything?"
“Depends on what you need?” Mr. Grey asks, looking intrigued.
“I would like as much Kaglese as you can bring me before Scholl arrives.”
“You wish to continue making the arrows, then,” he immediately guesses my intentions.
“Well, you did say you could find other buyers, didn’t you?” I offer Mr. Grey a smirk.
Mr. Grey gives a hearty laugh, “I did say that.” He leans back into his chair, “moving goods like yours will be troublesome when Scholl arrives. But I’m sure I can manage something.”
Now it’s my turn to get serious. “I appreciate the help, and I want to continue doing business with you guys, but my village also has its own plans. After I get my last delivery, it would be best if we cut off contact for a few months.”
Mr. Grey goes silent and crosses his arms in front of himself. “I can understand why you would want that, but you have to understand we would be fronting you quite a bit of money.”
Even with what I made from the general's arrow, I know that will only cover my debt for the earlier suppliers and my amulet. And now I'm asking for more without giving a definite timeframe of when I'll pay them back.
“I’ll need insurance,” Mr. Grey informs me. “We’ll need a contract, a formal one between the two of us.”
"Between the two of us, not between Silver Herd and me?" I ask him. I was expecting a contract, but I figured it would be between Silver Herd as a company and me.
“The contract will be between us; I’ll be covering everything you need out of my pocket.” Mr. grey smiles, and I can clearly see the greed in his eyes. Was I just blind to it earlier?
“Why would you do that?” I give him a suspicious look, to which he reins in his merchant persona.
“Because I know a good investment when I see one. As a branch manager, it would not be easy to justify extending your credit with your terms, but as an investor… Your failures will be my failures, and your success will be my success."
I get caught up in his speech briefly, but when I feel Mental Resistance activate, I realize he's using a skill to influence my decision. Even with my skill activated, I still feel like accepting his proposal is a beautiful idea, meaning his skill is at a high level.
I allow myself to be caught up in his skill as to not draw suspicion to myself. With a smile, I inform him, “it means a lot to me that you would say that. If you’re willing to invest in my work that much, it would be rude to decline.”
Mr. Grey beams a smile at me, but now I distinctly see what lies behind his eyes. I thought it was all in my head the last time we did business, but I guess that was to soften me up the next time we meet. With Scholl coming, he's probably making his own moves.
Fine by me.
I'll let you think you have me by the ropes, but it's me who'll have the last laugh.
“Give me a moment to draw up a document.”
"Can I watch?" I feign excitement. "I've formed a contract with Kervin, but it wasn't an officially drafted one. I'm curious how it looks." It's actually thanks to the effects of Mr. Grey's skill that I can act so well. I feel genuinely good about working with him, while my skill helps me keep my wits about me.
"Uh, sure, just give me a moment." Mr. Grey gives me a smile that doesn't reach his eyes.
That’s right; show me everything. I wonder if I can get even more out of this lying fool?