There were many mysteries surrounding the Oculus Sea. It wasn’t just its formation or the ever-circling stormy clouds that loomed over its deepest parts that baffled the rest of the world. For instance, there was also the matter of its krymer population. How, why, and when they’d settled the inland sea was something even the fish-folk weren’t too sure of. The weird marine life that inhabited was another head-scratcher. It wasn’t particularly dangerous, just bizarre. A good example of this was a species known as the bloodfin mackerel. These fish were, for no discernible reason, perpetually swollen with blood to the point of being akin to blood bags with fins, hence the name.
That said, some of those mysteries had their upsides. Though worrying at first, the eternal storm at the center of the Oculus Sea made the coastline climate extremely predictable. It rained for two consecutive days once every five weeks, almost like clockwork. The weather was positively beautiful the rest of the time, with clear skies and pleasant breezes. There also happened to be several long stretches of beach that were in the middle of white spots, meaning there was a near-total lack of monsters in the area.
As such, the Oculus shoreline was dotted with a number of settlements that were popular vacation spots for three-fourths of the year. There was a small number of oddballs that visited these resorts during the winter, but they were insignificant compared to the amount of tourist traffic the region saw the rest of the time. Naturally all the prices were jacked up during these periods, especially the cost of lodgings. Inns and hotels along the shore were so expensive that most commoners could only afford to stay for a week or two once every few years.
There were ways and means around this, of course, but a certain couple had found a brand-new loophole. Rather than paying exorbitant prices for a room or crashing with some relatives, they had instead arrived with a house of their own. It had appeared one day about a week ago on the outskirts of a town called Moorlane, along the sea’s western coast. None of the locals had seen it happen, but they weren’t too perturbed by it. Their only issue with this was that the structure had settled on a plot of land in the nearby forest that wasn’t owned by anybody, so nobody could charge the residents for their stay.
This, of course, had been the couple’s intent. It wasn’t as if Keira and Rowana couldn’t afford to spend their entire honeymoon at the beach. In fact, that had been their intent ever since they were engaged and had made the appropriate reservations. However, that had all happened before they had found a literal house mimic. Rowana was a bit embarrassed about the whole affair, but she agreed to her wife’s idea of having Homer shelter them during their vacation instead. After all, not only would they be saving themselves a moderate fortune, but they’d arguably get more privacy than in a hotel full of strangers.
The only downside to the arrangement was that getting here had taken a lot of time. The sight of Homer stomping through the countryside had caused quite a few run-ins with both adventurers and law enforcement officials. Most of those encounters were resolved amicably once Keira revealed she was, in fact, the Hero of Chaos, but convincing each group that Homer was not a threat and merely passing through took time and effort. The beastkin had not considered this rather obvious flaw in her plan, which led to her and Rowana having quite a few arguments over it.
That was all behind them at this point, though. Once Homer had settled in, the couple were able to focus their attention purely on enjoying themselves… and each other. Keira woke up feeling relatively refreshed and revitalized when considering that she and Rowana had been going at it quite fervently last night. That stamina-boosting Ranger Skill had unexpected applications in the bedroom, it would seem. The elf, on the other hand, was still passed out, so Keira just quietly got out of bed and let her lover recuperate from the midnight marathon.
She walked downstairs and started making a fresh kettle of tea as she yawned and stretched pleasantly. She kind of missed having Manny or Tablesworth prepare breakfast for them, but the rest of the house mimics couldn’t come. Having a whole bunch of sentient furniture and objects around seemed like it would ruin the point of the honeymoon, as it was supposed to be just about the newlyweds. As such, all of them had been left behind in Azurvale.
“Yip! Yip! Yip!”
Well, almost all of them.
“Yes, yes. Good morning to you too, Minic,” the redhead said lazily. “Just keep it down, okay? We had a… late night.”
The rectangular avatar of ridiculous luck had naturally found its way into the couple’s company even though they had supposedly left it behind. Neither of them were surprised when a passing eagle dropped Minic right onto Rowana’s lap one afternoon. A few hundred kilometers of dry land were hardly an obstacle to it considering it had crossed the Shimmering Ocean to find them earlier that year. They’d even packed a whole tin of dried hylt fruit to feed it once it showed up, which was what Keira was reaching for. She squatted down and fed Minic a few pieces while waiting for the kettle to boil.
Rowana woke up several minutes later when she heard the kettle whistle from downstairs. She grumbled into her pillow something about being a bit sore and lazed around for a short while more. When she eventually rolled out of bed and made her way down to the lower floor, she was met with a rather curious scene. She saw Keira standing on the balcony with a mug in hand, dressed in nothing but her underwear. The beastkin turned around and smiled softly, the morning sunlight bouncing off her bronze skin in a way that seemed to make her glow.
The elf couldn’t help but turn away while clutching her chest. In that moment, her wife was so lovely, beautiful, and ravishing that Rowana felt like her heart was attempting to go on a vacation of its own. They’d been together for almost three years now, and the beastkin continued to get even lovelier every day, and this morning she was literally breathtaking. People usually said that Keira was the one with the weird luck, but at that point in time, Rowana felt confident she was the luckiest person alive.
This idle thought wasn’t too far off from the truth when considering all the extremely unlikely things that had led up to this situation.
“Morning, love,” Keira smirked. “Enjoying the view?”
“It’s so unfair,” the elf grumbled with envy. “You know how hard I have to try to look as good as you do after you just roll out of bed?”
“Of course, I do,” the redhead walked over and kissed her on the forehead. “I know very well. And I appreciate it more than I usually let on.”
Keira understood why Rowana went through the trouble of doing her hair and makeup every single day. At first the elf only prettied herself up to boost her self-confidence, but these days she also did it because she wanted to look her absolute best in front of her lover. There was no way a responsible spouse would ignore or try to curb the feelings that went into the seemingly superficial act. Of course, it also helped that Rowana knew exactly what she was doing. Though Keira liked to think her wife’s natural countenance was already beautiful, she couldn’t deny that the elf looked even better after finishing her morning routine.
“Oh, stop it,” Rowana rolled her eyes, though her cheeks were blushing. “Go and put some clothes on, you never know if some random pervert might be peeping on you out here.”
“Uh, hello? Prodigal Ranger here,” Keira stated incredulously. “Trust me, the only pervert looking at me right now is you.”
“… Aaaand you just lost whatever points you scored earlier.”
The redhead raised an eyebrow as she took a sip of her tea.
“This morning or last night? Because if memory serves-”
“Just get dressed, will you? I’d like to actually make it into town before noon today, and watching you strut around half-naked isn’t helping.”
It wasn’t as though Moorlane was difficult to reach from where Homer had parked its considerable underside. The issue was that the sickeningly lovey-dovey couple were so busy consummating their marriage that it took them several attempts to merely make it out the front door. Something about this whole honeymoon thing had reignited their passion like nothing else, but today they managed to leave after only a single impromptu make-out session. After yelling at Homer to lock everything up, it took the couple about fifteen minutes to reach civilization.
The town of Moorlane was something of an oddity, though that could be said for every settlement along the banks of the Oculus Sea. They all had something unique, a gimmick meant to attract a specific type of tourist. Moorlane’s big thing was something called the fairy wheel. It was a sixty-meter-tall contraption of metal, stone, wood, and magic, which was fitted with a number of private, dangling cabins. It took about fifteen minutes for the big wheel to do a single revolution, during which those riding it would get a breathtaking view of the surrounding area. There were naturally quite a few ways one could achieve the same, most notably magical flight, but none of those offered the same relaxed and romantic moments that the fairy wheel could. It was supposedly especially beautiful around sunset or at night, when the town would put up various multi-colored lights.
The main issue with the thing was that actually getting to ride it was difficult. Moorlane presented itself as a ‘lovers’ retreat,’ so the place was full of vacationing couples that all wanted to experience the fairy wheel. Demand was high, and the number of people that actually got a chance to ride the thing at the evening hours was severely limited. As such, one had to buy their tickets before they sold out for the day, which usually happened just before noon. Keira and Rowana had attempted to get some for the past three days, but their aforementioned distractions kept getting in the way.
Today they finally managed to score some, the time slot being just after sunset. Keira tried not to mind the cost of admission, but it wasn’t easy. 50 GP per person seemed like extortion, if she was being honest. Admittedly they’d saved a lot of money by bringing Homer along, so she rationalized it by ‘reallocating the lodging budget to the entertainment budget.’ The redhead then wondered if she was always this much of a penny-pincher. It seemed a bit odd to dwell on this considering the things she’d thrown money at in the past, but she ultimately attributed it to Rowana’s frugal side finally rubbing off on her.
After securing tonight’s entertainment, the couple went to relax at the beach for a few hours. Keira immediately went off for a swim while Rowana stayed under an umbrella and enjoyed the sea breeze with a book. The elf’s pale skin did not fare too well in the sun, after all. She was showing a lot of it, too, since both her and Keira were sporting some exotic swimsuits. Well, exotic for the region, anyway. This place was effectively within Imperial territory, so it was quite removed from Azurvale’s fashion sense. Rowana’s appearance naturally attracted a bunch of curious interest, but nobody approached her with lascivious intent. Moorlane was notorious for being a couples’ resort, so there were a number of implicit reasons why it would be inappropriate if someone were to just show up and try to chat her up.
And yet someone approached her anyway.
“Yes?” Rowana looked up from her book. “Can I help you?”
In front of her was a dwarvish man somewhere in his thirties, wearing nothing but a red short-sleeved tunic, a straw hat, and some blue shorts. His hair and beard were trimmed and slicked back, giving him a very orderly and meticulous look. The rest of him was well-built, rugged, heavily tanned, and lightly scarred. This guy was clearly a man’s man, the sort of person who wouldn’t even flinch after getting hit over the head with a wooden board. His intense presence made him appear bigger and more significant than all of the other men around him even though he was, objectively speaking, the shortest one there.
“Aye,” he nodded firmly. “Sorry for interrupting yer reading, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I know ye from somewhere.”
“Look,” the elf sighed, “I don’t mean to be rude, but you do realize I’m spoken for, right?”
It should’ve gone without saying, yet this guy approached her with that cheesy old pick-up line.
“Oh, sorry, missy,” he raised his hand in apology. “I dinnae mean it that way.”
“Uh-huh. Well, for your sake, you’d best leave all the same. My wife might flip out if she…”
Rowana’s words trailed off as she noticed said spouse making a rapid beeline for the guy’s back on her way back from her swim.
“Ah… Too late for that, I suppose,” she mumbled.
“Huh? What’s that s’posed to- No, wait! I got it!” the dwarf raised his voice. “That’s why ye look familiar!”
Without skipping a beat, he turned around, pressed his heels together, straightened up his back, and saluted just in time for Keira to dropkick him in the face. To his credit, the miniature mountain of a man managed to maintain his posture, though his heels did dig several centimeters into the sand. The beastkin remained suspended in midair for a few moments following the impact, her eyes widening in realization as she landed on her feet.
“Strongarm?” she asked immediately.
“Yes, ma’am,” the dwarf replied resolutely.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was hired as extra security detail for the town, ma’am,” he maintained his salute. “I’m currently in the middle of making my rounds.”
“Oh. I see,” she calmed down. “Why would the town need extra security, though?”
“Just a precaution, ma’am. The town’s lord-mayor is currently away and his deputy is worried something might happen in their absence.”
“Any evidence of this?”
“None that I’ve seen or heard of, ma’am. My understanding is that my employer is simply engaging in a bit of healthy paranoia, is all.”
“I see. I trust you’re still taking your assignment seriously?”
“Then where’s your Plan S?”
“Right here, ma’am.”
The dwarf’s hand moved away from his forehead and towards his shorts. A swift movement later he was holding a large serrated knife that had a curious red sheen to it.
“Very good,” Keira nodded. “Carry on, Strongarm.”
“Yes, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.”
With that he marched off somewhere, presumably to continue patrolling the beach for troublemakers.
“Uh… What just happened?” Rowana couldn’t help but ask.
“Oh, a former student. Nothing to worry about,” the beastkin waved it off.
“Ah… Was that why he was so casual about getting kicked in the face?”
Keira sighed and collapsed on her beach towel out of embarrassment.
“Guess I got a bit too hot-headed again, huh?” she grumbled.
“Heh, that’s one way of putting it,” Rowana chuckled lightly. “Well, at least you went easy on him, so I’d say you’re showing improvement.”
Did I, though? Keira questioned inwardly. I’m pretty sure I kicked him as hard as I could…
She had very clear memories of knocking down bigger and tougher creeps with that very same move. Granted, Strongarm had a lower center of gravity, but that hit felt like a joke compared to what the beastkin thought she was capable of. It was easy to just handwave it away as the dwarf having a split second to brace himself, but this wasn’t the first time Keira experienced this odd sensation. There had been over twenty instances ever since her wedding where she felt she was underperforming somehow.
“Keira, you’re overthinking things again,” Rowana calmly stated.
“Oh, right, sorry,” she apologized awkwardly. “Occu-”
“Occupational hazard,” the elf finished her sentence. “I know, sweetie.”
It wasn’t uncommon for the beastkin to get lost in her thoughts. She would latch onto seemingly inconsequential events and then start looking for connections and patterns between cause and effect. It was a natural thing for the Hero of Chaos to do, and also what made her an outstanding adventurer and investigator. However, it had its downsides, as the enlightened mind would sometimes fabricate a pattern when there were none to be found. Indulging these thought processes too much was a bad idea, as it could lead to paranoia. The unhealthy kind. Keira knew all this, yet she couldn’t help herself. That’s why she was so thankful that Rowana was there to keep her grounded in reality.
Well, that and there was a certain part of her subconscious mind that gently whispered ‘it’ll be fine, don’t worry about it’ into the back of her head.
And indeed, Keira spent the rest of the day without a care in the world. She and Rowana enjoyed the local sights and delicacies and then had a blast riding the fairy wheel. The next few days were just as blissful, with only minor and easily-forgotten disturbances to ruin their fun. The couple even got some preferential treatment from the security detail. Apparently Strongarm had mentioned he’d bumped into his scouting instructor to his colleagues. Word got around fast among the local adventuring community and a lot of people wanted to meet the infamous Hero of Chaos.
The upside to this popularity was that it allowed the newlyweds easier access to some of Moorlane’s more popular venues. However, it also meant that heavily armed strangers would regularly approach the couple and try to strike up a conversation with the beastkin. Though Rowana was more or less used to this, having it happen on her honeymoon was more annoying than usual. The elf had been looking forward to this trip for months, and had been dreaming of something like this for almost a decade. She tried to be reasonable and mature about it, but couldn’t help but feel disappointed whenever something interrupted it.
Things then took a turn for the worst. Word got out that Rowana was, in fact, the chosen Hero of Helena, the new Goddess of Love and Mercy. Having that sort of reputation in a resort town filled with couples was akin to being the only gold coin in a cave full of mimics. By week two of the month-long honeymoon, the elf could scarcely enter town without being swarmed by people asking her for blessings, guidance, and advice regarding their own relationships. A few more persistent ones even followed Rowana back to the lodge in the woods. Thankfully the sight of Homer standing up and then relocating itself was more than enough to scare them off, but it was clear this couldn’t continue.
“I can’t take this anymoooore!” Rowana moaned while curled up in the corner. “I’ve no idea how you deal with this!”
“Uh, I don’t, actually,” Keira awkwardly scratched her cheek. “I mean, I’ve had a parade or two in my honor, sure, but I’ve never had crowds swarm around me like that.”
“No, of course not. They’re too afraid you’ll start clawing their eyes out or something!” the elf threw her hands up in exasperation.
“Well…” the beastkin took a long sip of her tea. “They’re not wrong.”
The difference between the two Heroes’ admirers lied in the sort of attitude they put forward. Keira was known as a professional problem-solver who would hear out anyone that approached her amicably and genuinely. On the other hand, those that disrespected, threatened, deceived, or otherwise aggravated her without good reason risked bodily harm. She’d already gotten in trouble several times over the years because of repeated assaults, so that reputation was well-earned.
“I can’t do what you do, though!” the elf continued whining. “I’m not going to start stabbing people just because they’re an inconvenience!”
Rowana, on the other hand, was entirely too approachable for her own good. At a glance she looked like a gentle and modest person who would never hurt another living being. This assumption wasn’t entirely accurate, of course, but it was close enough. She had no idea what to do whenever the other tourists gathered around her, and as such failed to set a clear boundary as to what behavior was and was not acceptable. The masses took this to mean that it was, in fact, perfectly fine for them to badger her with their own personal issues.
“So, why not just give them what they want?” Keira shrugged.
“I’m no authority on relationships! The only reason I have you is because you’re incredible and I’m just superbly lucky to have met you! I’m not even sure why Helena chose me in the first place!”
The beastkin already knew that Rowana’s appointment was a purely political move. Anyone with a moderate amount of skepticism would deduce that, and the redhead has had her fair share of divine disappointments.
“I don’t see how that’s stopping you from just telling them whatever they want to hear,” Keira shrugged.
“… Oh my goodness, you’re serious,” the elf looked up, shocked. “You want me to lie?”
“You could. Or you could just say whatever comes to mind first.”
“But I’m a Hero! Those people are going to latch onto anything I say and take it as some kind of sacred decree! Isn’t it dangerous to just make things up on the fly like that?!”
“You do realize that all ‘sacred decrees’ were made up at some point, yeah? It’s people’s faith and beliefs that made them real after the fact.”
Rowana paused for a long minute as she mulled those words over. Keira had previously mentioned that the religion shaped the deity just as much as the deity shaped the religion. It was like an ideological feedback loop. And much like all loops, it had to start somewhere.
“Huh. I never really thought about it, but you have a point,” the elf conceded. “No, wait, doesn’t that mean that I’m solely responsible for inventing an entire religion?!”
“Sure, if that’s how you wanna look at it. If you ask me, you should just do what comes naturally. If Helena doesn’t like what you’re doing, then she’ll let you know,” the redhead shrugged as she took another sip of her tea. “Or she can find someone else to be her representative.”
“Wow. That’s an awfully irresponsible way of going about it, isn’t it?”
“Maybe. But hey, it works for me and Jumbledorp.”
“What about all those people out there relying on me? I could tear people apart if I say something carelessly.”
“Hey, if a relationship falls apart just because some stranger with a fancy title doesn’t validate it,” she paused for yet another sip, “then it probably wouldn’t have lasted anyway.”
Rowana took a long, deep sigh.
“How did you get so good at dodging responsibility?”
“I’ve had lots of practice, love.”
Granted, Keira couldn’t think of any examples at the moment, but she certainly felt she had.
“Yeah, well, I haven’t. I’m not used to being the center of attention. I’ll just freeze up again.”
“You can always rely on me for that part.”
“Thanks, but I think I’ll need more than your moral support,” the elf sighed yet again.
“Uh, no? Not moral support,” Keira corrected her.
“I mean your Sensory Link, Rowie. Remember? The thing that lets us be in tune both physically and emotionally?”
“Ohhh. Right. That was a thing that I could do,” Rowana finally remembered.
So far, the couple had only used the Skill to make their evenings extra intimate, but that was far from its only application. The elf could use it to draw upon the bravery, confidence, and level-headedness that her wife had developed as a veteran adventurer. Doing so would make it a lot easier to face a bunch of random people in a public setting.
“You seriously forgot?” Keira mumbled in disbelief. “I swear, you’re worse than the greenest of rookies I’ve had to teach.” She then took another long sip of her tea.
“By the way, how much tea is in that damn mug?” Rowana raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been sipping on that thing for the past hour.”
“Oh, this? A wedding gift from Nao. He called it an ‘Infini-mug.’ Pretty handy, if I do say so myself.”
It wasn't literally infinite, of course. The porcelain cup was enchanted to hold about three-to-four times more liquid than it normally would. Additionally, any liquid poured inside would take half a day before it cooled off or warmed up to room temperature. Keira didn’t really need all that volume, but every now and then it was nice to fill it up with tea and then leisurely enjoy the drink throughout the rest of the day.
“Ah… Did I get one?” Rowana asked hopefully.
“No, sorry, it was just the one.”
In truth, there actually used to be two of those - one for each newlywed - but the beastkin had accidentally lost Rowana’s Infini-mug somewhere. This mishap bothered her immensely, and not just because she’d deprived her wife of a gift. Keira liked to think she was exceptionally responsible when it came to handling valuable possessions, yet she had messed up in such a basic and mundane way. The beastkin was so embarrassed about the whole thing that she decided to pretend that the missing magical mug never existed in the first place.
“That’s fine,” the elf stood, looking much calmer. “I prefer cups anyway. They’re more elegant.”
“Suit yourself,” Keira shrugged and sipped. “So, what’s the plan? Walk outside until a crowd gathers and then you can practice your Hero duties?”
“No, I think I got a better idea actually.”
Within four days, Moorlane had itself a new, exclusive, and extremely limited offer - tickets to a face-to-face consultation with the Hero of the Goddess of Love and Mercy. They were remarkably cheap when compared to the other prices, but were still immensely profitable considering the event cost nothing to set up. Rowana got a share of the proceeds, of course. That way the tourists would get the audience they wanted, the town and the Morgana family would both earn some extra income, and the chaos would be contained. It looked like a good thing for everyone involved.
At least until the thing started. Rowana saw ‘clients’ in a specially prepared house the township had given her access to, with Keira nearby for support and security. At first the elf was nervous about what she might say, but she ceased to care too much after the first twenty or so meetings. She realized her clients were, for the most part, exactly what her wife said they’d be - young people in new relationships that sought validation and little else. They would leave either disappointed, angry, or thrilled depending on what they were told. Rowana handled these by ear, with sessions lasting only a few minutes each. She was no soothsayer, but she could see what was in front of her, and years of dealing with irate sick people as an apothecary had honed her insight to a reasonable degree.
There were, of course, some older couples that had been together for decades. Those saw the whole affair as just a bit of fun, something to look back at and laugh. A few of them had legitimate, long-standing issues, but the most Rowana could do was smile and nod while her clients argued amongst themselves. She knew she was woefully under-qualified to actually help these people, and as such did everything she could to avoid making things worse somehow.
After several days of almost non-stop back-to-back consulting, demand for the new attraction plummeted. Word eventually got around that the ‘Hero of Love’ was just as inexperienced at the whole relationship thing as the rest of them. A week later, the whole affair seemed to have blown over. As Rowana and Keira walked down the street on their way back after an afternoon at the beach, there were no nosy strangers forcing their personal problems on either of them. Sure, a few pedestrians gave them friendly waves and quite a few more looked as if they were trying to murder them with their glares, but that was the extent of it. This passive sort of attention was something both of them were far better acclimated to.
“I’m kind of surprised that worked, to be honest,” the elf said idly. “I thought I’d have to deal with that kind of stuff forever.”
“Heh. Same here, actually,” her wife chuckled. “Guess we lucked out.”
“But… that whole thing was your idea,” Rowana raised an eyebrow dubiously.
“Yeah, and it was a terrible one, in hindsight. You just handled it in a phenomenal way.”
“Really? I don’t think I did anything that exceptional.”
“Well, I do.”
Keira would never have thought to make the whole thing official by getting the local government involved. It wasn’t her area of expertise. Sure, she was incredible when it came to improvising and thinking on her feet, but was rather horrendous at organizing things. In fact, it could be said that Keira’s problem-solving skills were well developed primarily because of her inability to adequately plan ahead. That was why she felt so unbelievably lucky to have found Rowana. The elf, though usually quiet and reserved, was brutally efficient when it came to bureaucracy and agendas.
“That focused face you put on whenever you hover over paperwork is surprisingly sexy,” the beastkin whispered with a smirk. “I can barely hold myself back whenever you do our taxes.”
“Oh, stop it, you!” the elf playfully slapped her shoulder.
The two of them kept flirting shamelessly as they walked down the main street, blending in perfectly with the other lovebirds around them. They walked by a bunch of colorful stalls offering various treats, games, and entertainment. One of these caught Keira’s eye. The stall was covered by an eye-catching tarp with blue, white, and gold stripes, and seemed to be a bit more popular than the others. Upon closer inspection, it was housing a shell game with various prizes up for grabs. Most of the customers seemed to be gunning for the grand prize, which looked to be a cutesy stuffed griffin toy so large that it could almost serve as a mattress.
“Hold on,” Keira told Rowana. “I want to give that a try.”
“Oh, come on, sweetie,” the elf tried to dissuade her. “We both know those are scams.”
Indeed, between Skills, Attributes, Spells, and magic items there were hundreds if not thousands of ways one could cheat at a shell game. Commoners had no chance of winning, and even experienced adventurers would struggle immensely.
“Yeah, but that’s what makes it fun,” the redhead smirked.
Keira was a Ranger, and as such took pride in her exceptional perception and powers of observation. She took that stall’s existence as a challenge, and she felt like accepting.
“Alright,” Rowana agreed with a sigh. “Just don’t take it too far, yeah?”
“Sure, love. Back in a bit.”
Keira gave the elf a quick peck on the cheek and lined up. While she waited, she looked over people’s shoulders to get a better look at the whole thing. The man running the game was a youthful human in his late twenties, with a handsome face and flowing locks of golden hair. He looked slightly better than the typical sleazy dirtbag who made a living by scamming tourists out of their money. He was also going out of his way to be as entertaining as possible, doing various tricks with his nimble fingers to dazzle and amaze. It seemed as if his customers had fun even though all of them lost, so they didn’t mind too much.
Keira, however, was here to win, and she got her chance soon enough.
“Step right up, step right up,” the man called out invitingly as he got ready for his next customer. “Come and try your luck against the fantaaaaah-!”
He let out a surprised shout when he looked up from his counter and his eyes met Keira’s.
“Well, that’s a fine how-do-you-do,” the redhead frowned. “You treat all your customers this way?”
“… Uhm, s-sorry, madam. I was just a bit startled. I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
“You know me, do you?” Keira crossed her arms.
“Something like that,” he collected himself.
The beastkin didn’t care too much. It wasn’t that outlandish for someone to recognize her, all things considered. The way this guy reacted is what got on her nerves. It was almost as if he’d seen a ghost or something. Then again, she did have a reputation. Not only was she the Hero of Chaos, but this was far from the first time she’d challenged a shady game of chance over the past few weeks. Things had gotten a bit heated a few times, so she assumed word had spread of her… antics.
“Good,” she nodded. “Then you know what I’m here for.”
“Yes… I’m afraid I do,” the stall owner steeled himself.
Keira then slammed three gold coins on his counter, and said in a low voice.
“Let’s do this.”
The man blinked a few times in confusion. He then alternated his gaze between the beastkin’s resolute expression and the coins on his counter.
“Well?” she asked impatiently.
“Oh, right. Sorry, madam,” he put away the gold, “you’re just a lot more, uh, intense than the folks I usually get.”
Keira did feel a bit silly for getting so serious over a stupid game, but she tried not to let that show on her face.
“Alright! Here we go, madam. Keep your eye on the ball!”
The handsome dirtbag then tossed a thumbnail-sized steel ball underneath one of three identical shells, and started shuffling them around at blinding speed. A veritable storm of cracks and scrapes later, the whole thing came to an abrupt halt with a loud clack.
Keira, having kept her eyes on his face the entire time, calmly raised her finger to the leftmost shell.
The shell was raised, revealing the steel ball underneath.
“You can do better than that,” she said coldly. “Hit me with your best shot.”
“Oh! I see. Well, then-!”
“No, wait, I don’t think you understood what I said,” Keira interrupted him. “I meant your best shot. I want you to shuffle that thing like your life depended on it. Got me?”
The man swallowed nervously, then nodded.
“Alright. You literally asked for it.”
He reached behind his counter and brought up four more shells, bringing the total to seven.
“Best five out of nine,” he said sternly. “You win, you get the grand prize. I win, you fork over five hundred gold pieces.”
“Yeah. Now we’re talking,” the beastkin grinned.
What followed could be classified as an intense duel, if only it wasn’t so one-sided. Fifteen minutes later, Keira had flawlessly guessed the ball’s position five times in a row. She left that stall triumphantly carrying a gigantic stuffed doll. She had no intention of giving it to Rowana, though. This thing was a trophy, proof that she triumphed in a game of skill over some random guy she met in passing. Some would have called this petty, but to Keira it felt like a hard-won victory against a professional conman running a rigged game.
Except that, unbeknownst to the redhead, the victory hadn’t been ‘hard-won’ at all. As she walked away with her prize in one hand and her wife on the other, the man she’d ‘beaten’ was calmly closing down his stall. He had used every trick at his disposal to put that steel ball under whatever cup the beastkin chose, and that had taken a lot of effort. He also no longer had a big flashy prize to lure in customers with, so it seemed reasonable that he’d pack up for the day.
The man naturally had a very good reason as to why he would go through so much effort to give away an expensive toy like that. It wasn’t anything sentimental like, ‘the Hero deserved it for her past deeds.’ Nor was it some elaborate marketing strategy to attract more customers in the future. In fact, the stall owner was planning to immediately leave town and never return. The cause for the man’s odd behavior was something far simpler.
Though he managed to keep it together for the most part, meeting Keira like that had filled the conman with fear. He was afraid because he knew exactly who she was. He knew her all too well, actually. It could be said that this individual knew more about the redhead than she did, and it was that accursed knowledge that made him panic hard enough for it to leak through his facade. It was an understandable reaction, though.
After all, that man was actually none other than the doppelganger once known as Reginald Namhel. When the shapeshifter saw Keira, he assumed she was still Boxxy T. Morningwood on the inside, hence the shocked scream. After everything that’s happened between the two ‘gangers, Reggie couldn’t help but assume that him bumping into the Hero of Chaos was no coincidence. Worse still, he knew full well he was hopelessly outmatched should things turn violent, and had no choice but to play along with what he thought was a sick joke.
But then, the shapeshifter realized there was no monstrous intent behind Keira’s actions. Or rather, not the monster he knew of. If that truly had been Boxxy, it wouldn’t have approached him in the street like that. The creature in question would have stalked him from afar until he was alone, at which point it would either assassinate him or, if Reggie was lucky, try to recruit him. Talking Facade to Facade accomplished nothing at best, and risked exposing both of them at worst.
However, there was no way Reggie could deduce what had actually happened between Boxxy and Keira. As such, there was only one logical explanation that he could think of for how that interaction went down. Namely that this was all a coincidence, and the Hero of Chaos had no idea it just ran into its old partner-in-crime. The doppelganger naturally didn’t want to push his luck, so he got rid of the redhead as quickly and believably as he could, then set about putting as much distance between them as possible.
Once he was out of town, Reggie calmed down and felt a grin well up from within. He’d been dreading that meeting for almost two years now - ever since he’d started planning the Collapse. And yet it had already come and gone like a disappointing stage play. Shaking his head in disbelief and relief, his thoughts turned back to his retirement. He was far too old to restart his criminal empire, and at the same time didn’t feel like Ranking Up. Sure, it would extend his lifespan, but all of his options had the subtlety of an opera singer having a seizure in the middle of a parade. He was just too set in his doppelganger ways.
“Either that or I’m actually growing sentimental,” he murmured. “I guess being brainwashed by a bunch of crazy elves for a few decades will do that to a guy.”
That particular detail aside, Reggie was quite content with his life up until now. He’d orchestrated the greatest act of sabotage the world had ever known, and in the process single-handedly made an entire nation cower in fear. Not to mention that he had also pulled one over on history’s deadliest box without getting caught. The best part, though? Someone else had taken the blame for his handiwork. As doppelganger sensibilities went, that right there was a magnum opus.
Reggie had won, and nobody would ever know.