1.26 R – The Wandering Inn

1.26 R

The Ruins of Albez sit at the heart of what had once been a magical kingdom. Or perhaps a community of mages. Or an ancient citadel of—you know what? It doesn’t matter. There’s almost nothing left anymore to tell a visitor what it had been.

Once, this hillside of collapsed dirt and dug-out structures was something vast and incredible. When the first people found the Ruins of Albez, the records indicate that they noticed a dome of glass two hundred feet wide poking out of the ground. They dug down and found magical stone, entire wings of preserved libraries, and magical laboratories.

—And monsters. Over eighty-nine years, the ruins were stripped, first quickly, then slower as fewer and fewer groups found anything of note. The monsters remained, and then the remaining rubble that wasn’t magical became pockets of tagged debris, with symbols from older teams of adventurers and treasure seekers who left markings to show what had been explored—or throw other groups off the scent.

From the dirt excavation, the ruins looked more like an archeologist’s project, with entire excavated rooms and areas laid bare to the sun. Plenty of ruined edifices and roofs to hide under, despite that. Which is the true danger. Any number of people might come here to explore on the vague chance of finding a magical item worth a year’s earnings—if not for the monsters.

The entire area is saturated in magic, so much so that it makes my hair tingle.

My actual hair tingles. It’s not like static electricity, more like a kind of energy filling you up. So similar—but it has a different feel than the pure charge of the air. It makes you feel alive. No wonder monsters love coming here, because this place is a wonderful home for them to live in, especially if they eat magic.

Final fact from my quick research into the area. Albez is built on a leyline. Before the Humans came, it was apparently settled by a tribe of ‘Gnolls’, furry folk who used to live here. Which explains the issue.

On one side, you have monsters who are inhabiting this area. On the other, you have adventurers, hoping to find what no one has discovered. Naturally, conflicts ensue.

I’m staring down at one of the open courtyards from my position on a hilltop. Actually, I’m prone, and the grass is really itchy. A big chunk of stone gives me additional cover, and I doubt anything can see me—because I can’t see much of anything unless I raise my head high enough. But I’m not about to get up. I can see a flash and then a brilliant blue crackle of lightning.

Slower than regular lightning. But ‘slower’ in the sense that it flashes across the ground, strikes a pillar where someone dives to safety, and blows a goddamn chunk out of solid stone. I swallow.

That’s going to do the same to me if it hits. And then—wonderful—I see the lightning bolt followed by a ball of roiling flames. It lands as someone shouts below.

“[Fireball]! Cover—

Someone runs five feet, leaps, and clears the blast zone just in time. The ball of fire expands, and the shockwave actually makes the air move around me. Someone drags away the figure who made it to safety; the blast kicked them like a mule, and I have to imagine they’ve been deafened and possibly blinded and baked by the heat.

That’s magic. Combat magic, and it’s really, really unfortunate I’m going to be running down there. But from the looks of it—the group of people ducking the hostile spells need my delivery right now.

Healing potion! Get me a healing—

Someone’s shouting. The other figures mill about, but they’re out. I can see a woman with a bow poke her head up, dodge an arrow that rattles off her cover, and loose an arrow back.

It doesn’t seem to do much good, but it does draw the ire of the enemy spellcaster. Another streak of magic shoots her way—another lightning bolt. I’ve seen two spells so far, and they’re either a ball of fire or bolt of lightning.

I’d say it’s stereotypical, but it’s working. But what amazes me is that the woman with a bow doesn’t die—she takes cover, and a huge voice shouts. A bull-man with horns roars.

Horns! Move up and support Marian! Ceria, take out that spellcaster! Shields up!

Ten figures move forwards, taking cover and spreading out around the courtyard, loosing arrows and charging to meet yellowed skeletons holding swords and rusted axes. But they’re watching the spellcaster all the while, forcing it to attack people in cover. 

They actually have good strategy. Which is the only reason they survived long enough to send a [Message] spell for help, I guess. 

The adventuring group currently occupying the ruins is known as the Horns of Hammerad. A Silver-rank team notable for their relatively high average level—most members are above level 20—and their leader, a Minotaur [Fighter]* who wields an enormous battleaxe in combat.

 

*I still don’t get classes. Apparently, [Fighter] is a general class, although some call it [Warrior] depending on the culture. Does that mean they have the same Skills? Either way, it’s the first class most warriors take, but if this Minotaur guy were higher-level, he’d be an [Axemaster] or [Knight]. But we call him a [Fighter] or [Warrior] because we don’t know his exact class. Because that’s private. Huh.

 

The general consensus is that they’re quite competent in combat, and they’d received official permission to search the ruins for the duration of the week. That means that while the Horns are in the ruins, other adventuring groups can’t interfere or look for treasure. It was an arrangement that allowed the nearby cities to reap a profit for charging access and prevented conflicts between their adventurers.

All well and good, and normally, the Horns would have expected a moderate payout at the very least. They were well equipped and prepared for anything.

Which was why the sight of their disorganized party fighting and retreating across the ruins is even more alarming. The roaring bull man is hacking down a skeleton one-handed with an axe, but he can barely move.

…Because of the spike of ice lodged in his midsection. He’s got it covered with a tourniquet, and he’s, somehow, still upright and fighting. But then I see a deadly hail of ice shards flying towards another adventurer and gulp.

The other warriors and mages—the Horns of Hammerad is a large party, ten members strong—are either hunkered down or exchanging shots with the monster that has cornered them.

Even as I watch, an armored warrior deflects a sword strike from one of the skeletons attacking their group and smashes it with a mace. The skeleton falls to the ground, lifeless. But that’s attracted the attention of the leader of the undead, and a huge blast of fire engulfs the area once more.

I wince as the armored warrior runs out of the blaze screaming in agony. He rolls on the ground as a mage with a staff shoots a few magic bolts of rippling light to attract attention away from him. Two other adventurers rush forth and drag the burnt warrior into cover as a hail of ice spikes nearly pincushions all three.

Well, crap. That’s the fifth member of the Horns down. I was hoping they’d sway the battle, but at this rate, they’ll be wiped out. No help for it.

I shouldn’t go down there. The [Receptionist] whose name I can’t remember told me not to risk it. Either signal them to grab the potions or wait till the fight is over. Even for an Emergency Delivery, a Runner is under no obligation to risk their lives in an active combat zone.

That thing firing off spells could kill me in a single shot. Even if I wanted to risk it, it’s smarter to wait and find a way to sneak down. But I can hear someone screaming for a potion. So…slowly, I get up and feel at my legs. The broken stones still obscure most of my body if I shuffle over to where it’s at its highest.

I take two deep breaths and then stretch my legs out. Right leg? Check. Left leg? Stretching…check. Okay.

I peek over the piece of rubble I’m hiding behind. Clear? Okay. Here we go—

I vault the rubble and dash down the slope. From where I am, there’s a moderate incline down into the heart of the ruins, where fallen buildings and rubble make for treacherous ground. Loose stones can twist my ankle, or I can kick a piece of stone at high-speed and break my toes.

But what’s worse is the danger of being killed by the monster fifty feet in front of me. The problem is that I arrived on the wrong side of the ruins. So I’m closer to it than the adventurers.

I charge down the hill towards it. The robed figure notices me as I’m halfway there and turns. Two glowing blue points of light in its eyes shift towards me as I sprint directly at it. A jaw made of bone clatters open, and I see a dead…skeletal body rotate my way. 

It’s a Lich*, an undead skeletal mage. The skeleton looks wrong, like a reptile, and the bones are subtly different, yet it is a skeleton—it even has a skeletal tail, and the ancient robes hanging on its body are the only things not worn away by rot.

 

*I personally have problems with calling it a Lich. Apparently, unlike in games and stories, Liches are rather common. They’re more like an undead type rather than unique and rare examples of mages living forever. They’re not even that deadly. Well, they’re very deadly, but even scarier types of undead exist apparently.

 

For a second, I don’t think it even knows what it’s seeing. A lone Human running straight at it without a weapon? It hesitates, but then raises a finger. This would be the part where I die in its plan. In mine? I think I survive.

If it seems stupid to charge at a monster capable of blasting me to bits with a single spell, well, it probably is. But I had a good reason for doing it. Over the last five minutes, I’d scoped out the Lich’s battle against the group of adventurers and picked out a few important details about how it acted. I had three good reasons for my plan of action.

Reason A: I’d noticed that the Lich could cast several spells, such as a miniaturized lightning bolt, a fireball, and those nasty showers of ice spikes. Of the three, I really only had to worry about the fireball and the ice spikes. The lightning looked dangerous, but it grounded itself too easily at a long distance on the nearest object. Since I’m not wearing any metal, it would be far harder for the Lich to hit me.

As for the fireballs and ice spikes, well, they were slower and the Lich had to point first. Its aim also wasn’t the greatest in the world. It was a risk, but so long as I didn’t get cooked when the fireball exploded, I had a shot.

Also, Reason B: was that I’d noticed the Lich tended to defend itself with a barrier of bones it summoned from the ground whenever anything got close. That stopped it from casting spells for a few seconds.

And Reason C: I’m stupid.

The Lich pointed at me and cackled something that made my ears hurt. I dove and rolled and felt my right side go slightly numb. It felt like the worst static electricity shock I’d ever experienced times a hundred, but that meant the lightning had missed me. And I was still alive.

Hit the ground, roll onto my feet and run. I closed on the Lich, and it raised a protective hand. As I expected, a wall of bones erupted from the ground in front of me, a grotesque puzzle of interlocked bones and skulls as solid as rock*.

 

*Seriously. How the hell does it do that? Are there that many bones in the ground? Or is it just magic?

 

Now’s my chance. I immediately veer left and accelerate towards where the adventurers are. The Lich makes a crackling noise as it realizes it’s been duped. It tries to lower the bone barrier, but it’s too late.

Run. Run faster. Dodge behind the pillar. Pause. Go left. Move right. Fireball! Close. Now—sprint left as fast as possible.

In one of the many safety seminars my dad made me attend after every mass shooting, they taught us what to do if a gunman ever opened fire and we had to escape. Some of it was common sense stuff like don’t scream or do something stupid and think before moving. But I did remember one important tip.

When someone’s firing at you, don’t run in a straight line to get away. Zig zag, make it hard for them to get a bead on you. And in my case, duck behind rubble and place as many obstacles between me and the Lich as possible.

I run, and I run as fast as I can. The instant I slow, I’m dead. The air around me is static; fire explodes around me, and flying ice threatens to pierce my skin.

You can’t tell, and I don’t have a mirror, but I’m pretty sure I’m grinning.

 

——

 

“Status?”

Calruz, leader of the Horns of Hammerad, grunted at the other warrior as the two hid behind one of the fallen walls in the ruins. The Human, his second-in-command, glanced down at him and shook his head grimly.

“I think Terr got hit by a [Fireball]. Coblat and Grimsore dragged him away, but he’s down for the count as well.”

Damn.

The Minotaur hit his thigh and winced. The huge spear of ice protruding out of his midriff oozed more dark blood, and he sat back against the wall and breathed out. The tendons on his neck strained, and sweat stood out on his brow despite the freezing cold.

“What about Ceria and Sostrom? Why the hell aren’t they taking this thing out? We are a disgrace of a team.”

Ceria and Sostrom were their [Mages]. The other man grimaced as he saw someone poke her head up, swivel around with her pointed ears twitching, then duck an arrow loosed by a skeleton holding a bow. It was more amazing that the filthy, corroded bow and string could even fire, but it did, and the arrow was weak and badly aimed—but it could still do a lot of damage.

So could the skeletons charging their flanks on-and-off. A rusted hatchet from the bone limbs wasn’t nearly as hard as Calruz could hit someone—but a sharp blade would still cut or kill by infection later, and there were a lot of skeletons.

Even so—they would have taken the lesser skeletons to pieces an hour ago, when the fight began. As it was, they were barely surviving, and they’d burned through all their healing potions. Because of the Lich. The other man scratched at his mustache soaked with sweat, a habit, and glanced out again as the half-Elf poked her head up.

“They’re trying, but whenever they fire at that monster, it just raises a shield. It’s got more mana than all of our casters combined. We need to get in close if we want a chance.”

“Fat chance of that happening with all those skeletons and zombies guarding it.”

“I think Terr got rid of the last of them, but we still can’t get close. It’s too flaming quick.”

“We have to.”

That was all the Minotaur said. He grimly stared at the spike of ice in his stomach. If he pulled it out, how long did he have?

“Do you have half a potion left, Gerial? Give it to me. I’ll yank this out and charge. Everyone who can move goes.”

“You’ll get roasted. No way.”

Gerial glanced at the Minotaur in alarm. He was two heads shorter than the bull man, and Calruz’s biceps were massive; he was a fit warrior even by the standards of his people. Right now, his eyes were clear blue and concentrated with pain and cold calm.

“We must take the monster down. No Runner can get to us with it here, and no other adventuring team can bail us out. I am Beriad of the House of Minos. It would be a disgrace for me to let my team down.”

“Beriad my ass.”

Calruz turned, snorting, and Gerial grabbed his arm.

“We’re not doing a suicide charge. Just give Ceria a chance. If she can damage it, we’ll fall back and try to escape. The horses are—”

A sudden commotion stopped the argument dead, and Calruz lifted his axe, swearing. If it was another skeleton horde, they were in trouble.

The vice-captain of the Horns of Hammerad chanced a peek around the wall he was hiding behind. There didn’t seem to be any more [Fireballs] coming his way at the moment, which was good and also worrying. Had the Lich turned its attention elsewhere? Doubtful. But then why—

His jaw dropped. Gerial focused on something in the distance as Calruz whispered an oath to his homeland. His hand tightened around the piece of ice to tear it loose—when he heard Gerial exclaim, and his tone was different.

“Who is that?

Calruz grunted and tried to twist his head, but fell back weakly.

“Who? What’s happening?”

“It’s a Runner! She just charged down the hill at the Lich! She’s coming this way!”

The Minotaur’s eyes opened wide.

“You’re joking. She’ll never make it.”

“She’s doing it.”

The vice-captain watched as the long-legged runner dashed across the broken landscape. She was leaping over pieces of rubble and running in a serpentine motion while fireballs and shards of ice rained down around her. From this distance, all he could see was raven-black hair and tanned skin, but the vice-captain was sure he’d never seen this particular runner before.

She had odd features, which would have told him she was part-Japanese, or at least Asian, if those words had meant anything to him. 

“She’s foreign. Chandrarian? Balerosian?”

He turned, and the Minotaur edged over. He glanced out and grunted.

“You idiot. She’s Drathian.”

Drathian? What’s one of them doing across the world?”

“No clue. Shut up—give that Runner covering fire! Everyone up!

Gerial himself lowered his sword to grab a loose rock and heave it in the general direction of the Lich. It fell well short, but several arrows and a spike of ice made the undead turn and begin firing their way. Yet it was still after the Runner, and every second, the Minotaur expected to see her go down with the next spell.

Any second he expected her to be blown away by an on-target [Fireball] or be seared by a lightning blast. But she didn’t. And then she was right on top of Gerial.

 

——

 

Ryoka leapt around a pillar of stone and slammed into the Human man in armor. She knocked into him and felt cool metal before she stumbled back. He pulled her into cover as icicle shards crashed against the rubble.

It took her two deep breaths of air before she could speak. Ryoka unslung her pack and nodded at the gaping vice-captain.

“Delivery.”

Dead gods!

The vice-captain stared at Ryoka. He gestured to her, the ruins, and then waved his gauntleted hands a bit.

“That was the most amazing sight I’ve ever—you just ran right past that Lich! Are you insane? Or crazy?”

She was pretty sure she was. But Ryoka’s mouth was on autopilot as she fumbled with her pack. Was she dead? She felt alive! But there were explosions going off as the Lich attacked, and she turned to the two. Then she recoiled as she saw the Minotaur staring down at her.

He was seven feet tall. Before his horns. Maybe some of that was due to the steel armor he wore, but he was a mammoth! 

Imagine a bull’s face on a humanoid body, only he had toes, or what she thought were toes, in feet-like boots. Chestnut fur, short and fairly smooth, covered every inch of his body, and two horns, again, curved like a bull’s, sprang from his head. But there were two caps of gold on the tips of the horns and his eyes were intelligent, if strained with pain at this moment. 

He looked like a monster himself, out of Greek legend—but only for a second. He held that axe with too much care, and his eyes flitted to his companion and his team, with urgency and attentiveness to their condition. So not a monster but another kind of man.

Despite looking as though he should have been able to smash the Lich down one-handed, the spike of ice in his midsection showed Ryoka why the team was in trouble.

It was dripping with water and blood around a cloth bandage, and he was holding it with one huge hand, possibly supporting it so it didn’t pull a bunch of his organs out of his body. Ryoka’s mouth worked a second before she spoke.

“I’m a Runner. I’ve got a delivery for the leader of the Horns of Hammerad. That you?”

“That’s me.”

Of all the stupid things to say—but he actually nodded to her. Sweat dripped off the Mintoaur’s brow as he bared his teeth.

“Calruz of the Beriad, Captain of the Horns of Hammerad. Son of Minos, at your service.”

He was as polite and formal as could be—right until he tried to make a gesture with his free hand. His face twisted, and he muttered.

“I hope you’ve got our delivery, Miss Runner.”

Ryoka nodded rapidly. She put her pack down, then yanked the top open and placed the heavily-wrapped bottles down on the ground in front of the Minotaur. Instantly, he reached for the bottles.

“Fifteen healing potions, five mana potions. All unbroken. Delivery to Horns of Hammerad. Your seal?”

“Seal? Oh, of course!”

They were all in shock. The vice-captain gave Ryoka a blank look, then automatically fumbled with his pouch. He pulled out a silver and copper token and handed it to her. It was a unique seal with a hammer standing on a mountain embossed on one side.

“Thanks.”

Ryoka stowed the seal securely in her waist pouch and then peeked around the wall. The Lich was exchanging fireballs with another mage wearing a red wizard’s hat. She nodded to herself and lowered into a sprinter’s crouch.

“Wait—are you going?”

Ryoka didn’t glance at the vice-captain as she tried to judge when would be the best moment.

“Yep.”

“You can’t! I mean, that’s even crazier!”

The vice-captain stared at Ryoka in consternation and then looked at his leader for support. Calruz was trying to open one of the bottles. He grunted as he pulled the cork out of one of the bottles and downed the thick, syrupy, green liquid. Instantly, he straightened and began to pull out the piece of ice. Ryoka watched in horrified fascination as his skin began to knit, starting to push the ice spike out of his body. 

The Minotaur growled, and she saw his eyes slowly begin to turn red, the blue irises and whites filling with blood. He stood taller and slowly turned his head to the Lich, who stopped attacking the half-Elf screaming curses at it as if it could sense the danger.

“Let her go if she wants. Runner—thanks for the assistance. Not many of your lot would do this. The Horns owe you a debt.”

She paused.

“No problem.”

He nodded to her. She nodded back. Then the Minotaur yanked the piece of ice out and hurled it to the ground. An armored foot stomped, and it shattered to pieces. Gerial looked relieved, but he turned to Ryoka.

“At least let us reassemble and give you a diversion. Once we get these potions to all our members, we can finally bring this guy down.”

Ryoka thought about it.

“That’ll take too long. You want an opening? I’ll give you one. I’ve got more deliveries to make.”

The vice-captain tore at what hair he could reach underneath his helmet.

“He’ll blast you the instant you leave cover!”

She grinned at the vice-captain, breaking her expressionless mask.

“He can try.”

The Minotauar’s eyes opened wide, and he gave her a smile like hers. But his was blood and glory. He took a breath as his stomach wound closed and bellowed.

“You heard her. Horns of Hammerad—covering fire! Potions have arrived!”

 

——

 

Five minutes later, the adventuring party, the Horns of Hammerad, watched the Runner break out of the ruins and sprint away even as the Lich fired a final parting bolt of lightning in her direction. He missed. The Lich shrieked, a strangely piercing wail coming from the skeleton’s mouth, then turned to attack the adventurers.

But they were deep in cover, and it hovered, uncertainly, then raised a barrier of bones again. It couldn’t tell where they were—

And they had regrouped. The half-Elf broke away from the healing potions going to her teammates, who were getting on their feet, cursing, and crabbed under a buttress of broken stone to where Gerial and Calruz were sitting. Gerial was mouthing to his Captain.

“She did it. She actually did it.”

“She told you.”

Calruz grinned and watched the young woman disappearing over the hill. He turned as the half-Elf tapped him on the shoulder. Her blonde hair was sticking up from all the static electricity it had absorbed, and she looked exhausted from her running battle with the Lich. 

But she too was getting a second wind; she held a wand at the ready, tip glowing faintly with frozen ice along the alabaster length of stone.

With the other hand, she was gulping down the foul, off-blue potion swimming with green swirls of color. She gagged, then spoke.

“Is that a new Runner? She must be. I haven’t ever seen her before, and I think I would have remembered hearing about one as crazy as that. Dead gods, she saved us. Gerial, you alright? Marian is going to make it. So is Terr. He’s on his feet.”

“Thank the Five Families.”

Gerial breathed out, and the Minotaur corrected him.

“Thank the Runner. Ceria, how’s your mana?”

She grimaced. The half-Elf tipped the jar of liquid up, gulped it down, and her eyes bulged. Both Gerial and Calruz hesitated, afraid she’d spew it out, but she swallowed.

“Potion’s working. Dead gods, that’s nasty. I bet Octavia made it. It tastes cheap and foul as hell.”

“Coming from our bug-eating, tree-kissing half-Elf? It must be bad.”

Ceria jabbed Gerial with her wand before Calruz growled.

“Stop bickering. We’re at full strength again, thanks to that Human. Speaking of. Did anyone catch the Runner’s name?”

Neither Gerial nor Ceria had. The man scratched at his chin.

“We can ask later. She looks different. Drathian, you said? She’s definitely new; no one around here has the guts to do an Emergency Run like that.”

Ceria raised her brows.

“Drathian? Well, we can ask questions later. Potions are distributed. What’s our plan, boss? Charge in and eat another ice spike? My vote’s not to do that—the Lich can throw better spells than I can, and I’m the [Elementalist].”

The Minotaur gave Ceria a huge glare, and Gerial raised a hand as if to break them up. But this was just banter, and Calruz jerked his head over.

“We take a page out of the Runner’s book. Did you see how she escaped it? We moved in too slow. This time, we spread out. No shields, just run from cover to cover. Gerial, you’ll take one group left. I’ll head right. Put Marian and the other archers up and tie it up. Force it to shield itself, and give me an opening. Ceria, can you tag it at least once?”

The half-Elf flexed her hands and produced a shard of ice from her palm. She grinned as her eyes seemed to regain a spark of…magic.

“Can do.”

Calruz raised his voice.

“Horns! Did you hear that? We’re going in. The Runner’s bought us our moment, and we’ll all buy her a drink. But I’ll be drinking it out of that Lich’s damned skull. Advance!”

He swung himself up as the Lich whirled. It raised a staff, and a spike of ice shot towards the Minotaur, but Gerial was already up and his shield caught the spell. He stumbled back, swearing, but before the Lich could fire a bolt of lightning from one hand, a shard of ice hit it in one eye-socket.

It recoiled, skull cracked from the force of the blow. It looked up and saw a half-Elf pointing a wand at it. She grinned, and then shard after shard of ice began firing from her wand, hitting the Lich with pinpoint precision. Then the other adventurers were emerging from cover, shouting as they sprinted for positions closer.

The last skeletons rose to their feet to defend their leader as the Minotaur emerged with a roar, punching through one’s ribcage without even deigning to swing his axe. The Lich recoiled, trying to back up, but it was too late.

As one, the Horns of Hammerad abandoned their position in the ruins and began a full-scale assault on the Lich and the remaining undead.

 

——

 

After she’d run ten miles away from the Ruins, Ryoka finally stopped to catch her breath. Her lungs were burning, and her legs felt like jelly. The adrenaline was finally draining out of her, and she felt exhausted.

She could still feel tingling in her legs from the lightning bolts missing her skin. Only when she raised her arm did she feel a flash of pain and see the singed flesh and soot. White blisters were already rising on her skin.

It hurt. She had nearly died, and her legs trembled. She felt cold and remembered that shiver of seeing the flames burning in the hollow sockets of the Lich’s skull. A feeling of dread upon seeing something far, far more real than any Halloween mask or costume.

A malevolent intelligence and hatred towards her. 

She had nearly died. Ryoka’s body began to tremble. A second too slow, or if she’d dodged left instead of right—

The trembling continued, but Ryoka’s lips twitched. She tried to smile.

“Fun.”

The word felt fake. She tried to put on a daring grin, but then she thought of the adventurers and looked back. Had they made it? Ryoka exhaled, and the trembling stopped a bit. She amended her statement.

“Good run.”

She hoped they would survive. Then she kept on going.

 

——

 

I’m still high on adrenaline when I’m standing at the Runner’s Guild, in front of a [Receptionist]. Shame it doesn’t make this part easier.

“You completed the supply request for the Horns of Hammerad?”

“Yep.”

The receptionist stares at me. I shrug. What does she want me to say? I nearly died? Liches are scary? 

I feel like I’m in a different world. The worn-down room of the Runner’s Guild is a far cry from the grassy plains or the rubble and destruction of the Ruins of Albez. The woman raises her brows. This isn’t the one I recognize, by the by. This is a middle-aged woman with a frizzy shock of green hair in a stripe running through her brown hair. I think it’s not even a style; some people just have magical hair as part of their genetics.

Lucky. She’s taking notes, and she looks relieved.

“That’s incredible. Are the Horns already finished fighting? The magic communication we got said they were fighting a Lich and a horde of the undead.”

I shake my head as a few Runners in line poke their heads up, interested. I point, as if I’m pointing at the distant ruins.

“They’re still fighting. The Lich is still around. Not sure about the other undead. Looked like they were mostly dead. Undead.”

The receptionist doesn’t smile. Didn’t she get the joke? Darn. She’s still giving me that ‘I-don’t-believe-you’ look. I hand her the Seal.

“Here’s the Seal from the Horns of Hammerad.”

She checks it over and then double-checks. Her eyebrows rise.

“It’s real. So you’re telling me you delivered the supplies in the middle of the battle?”

Why is she making a big fuss? I thought that’s what all Runners did on this kind of mission.

“Yup. Emergency Run, right?”

“Incredible.”

I’m silent. I mean, what am I supposed to say to that? ‘Oh, yeah, I’m really amazing, now give me my money?’

After a few moments, the receptionist finally shakes herself.

“You could go to Invrisil, if you cared to risk your life like that. The City of Adventurers always headhunts brave Runners. But a Lich? Well, well, this is all in order. Would you like the payment now or…?”

“Later.”

I can collect my pay whenever, but most Runners do it in one lump sum at the end of the week. It’s more convenient that way since we have to sign to confirm we’ve been paid and the receptionist has to validate it. The [Receptionist] is still staring at me, and she smiles.

“Well, I think you’ve earned your break. Unless—do you think you could do another delivery? I wouldn’t ask, but you’re the only City Runner here right now.”

I’m tired, but that’s only because of my adrenaline low. I know my legs have got at least another good run in them, so I nod.

“Where to?”

“Celum. It’s another request from Lady Magnolia. Another Runner just brought it from Remendia, but he’s too tired to keep going. It’s been passed from six Runners so far, and we need to get it to Magnolia within the hour if possible.”

Okay. Now that’s tricky. I hesitate.

It’s not that I don’t think I can do it in time. I can get to Celum in less than an hour even with something heavy on my back. But I’d done another run for Magnolia—delivering a big, fancy vase—a few days ago. By the ‘unwritten rules,’ that meant I should wait for at least another week before I took the request.

Damn. Damnation. Drat. Fals’ warning sticks with me, and I’m half tempted to take the delivery just because I hated his annoying hints and threats. On the other hand…I don’t need to meet Magnolia Reinhart again.

What should I do? This is the exact kind of situation I hate. I glance around at the other Runners and see mostly Street Runners.

“There aren’t any other City Runners around?”

The receptionist shakes her head.

“They’re all out on deliveries, and I don’t want to wait longer than I have to. I was about to ask one of the Street Runners to do the delivery, but that would have been a problem too.”

Well, in that case…why not? The Magnolia rule can go to hell for all I care.

“I’ll do it.”

The receptionist smiles in relief.

“Thank y—”

“Hold on!”

The receptionist’s head turns. My head doesn’t. I’m taking this moment to say a few choice words in my head*.

 

*Oh, please no. Not that stupid, inbred rodent girl. No one in the world has a voice more high-pitched and annoying than her and her moronic cronies. I’d rather go back and dance naked in front of the Lich than deal with this.

 

I turn and see a familiar face. She stands in the doorway of the Runner’s Guild, wiping sweat from her face. She looks at me as her two best friends, Claudeil and Toriska, wave at the Runners inside. They’re both taller than she is, but she’s in charge.

Two pigtails instead of a braid, brown, flax hair, despite all the gels she puts in it, and she looks like she’s starving.

Or hungry. She’s thin, but she always looks like someone’s just snatched a sandwich from her, and I’ve never seen her not looking accusatory. Especially now as she gives me a triumphant look as if she’s just caught me red-handed. Today, she’s wearing a light-green hooded jacket to keep out of the rain and long, loose leggings like most Runners. She also wears open-toed sandals when she runs, the monster, secured by leather ties.

She’s famous enough that other Runners turn and some smile at her, but I see a few just looking apprehensive behind their smiles. The [Receptionist] in front of me actually makes a small groaning sound, and I look at the worst Runner in the region.

Persua. Her voice is strident, high-pitched, and makes me long for the whine of a [Fireball] passing by my ears. Especially if it hits her. She gives me a huge smirk.

“There’s no need to give Magnolia’s request to her. I’ve just arrived, and I can take care of it myself.”

The young woman—no, the annoying teenager who strides towards me brushes past to stand at the counter. She keeps her back very straight, probably because I’m taller than her by a head. I catch the overpowering smell of perfume masking her sweat and step back so her brown hair doesn’t smack me in the face every time she tosses her head. Which she does quite often.

I know her. Or rather, I know her sallow* face. She always looks like she’s pursing her lips at everyone, and she annoys me every time I look at her.

 

*Is sallow the right word here? I think it means pinched and narrow, but I could be wrong. That’s the problem with not having the internet. Anyways, her face is shrewish, although I forget what a shrew looks like too. I’m going with sallow either way.

 

“Oh, Miss Persua. I didn’t know you were still in the city.”

Persua. A name fit for her. Persua tosses her head impetuously and nods. Her two friends, Claudeil, all sneers and eyes on my chest, and Toriska, who looks straight past me, follow Persua over as if she needs the emotional support at all times. Persua herself is the worst, though, and she smirks as if she’s being clever.

“Well, I was doing that delivery to Remendia, but once one of my friends let me know Magnolia’s request was sitting in the Runner’s guild, of course I came back to fulfill it.”

She what? I give her a blank stare. The receptionist looks uncomfortable.

“You—haven’t finished the other delivery? Well, I was going to give the request to Ryoka. She’s free, and she’s—”

“She’s already done a request for Magnolia this week. By rights, that means I should have a turn. Claudeil will do my run, right?”

The receptionist frowns at Persua. So does the young man. He brushes at his hair.

“I will? I mean—of course, Persua. That frees it up. Toriska and I will go.”

“I’m going with Persua. You can go—or Miss Ryoka can go, Claudeil. We can trade up!”

Toriska giggles, and the [Receptionist] stares at my face as I debate kicking the other Runner. Although—they are armed. Claudeil has a crossbow, and Toriska has a wand and knife for emergencies. I’ve seen both showing off their weapons to Street Runners.

I bet I could kick them both in the face from here. However, the [Receptionist] breaks in, trying to mediate…Persua.

“There’s no rule that explicitly gives precedence to other Runners. Besides which, I need this delivery done as quickly as possible. It is literally getting…warmer? As we speak.”

“So?”

Another head toss. I notice some more of Persua’s ‘friends,’ the other Runners—mainly Street Runners who are new or lower on the totem pole—watching me. They always gather around when she appears. I stare at them until they look away. I hate their guts. Too bad Persua doesn’t back down as easily. Doubly too bad is her annoying voice.

“I can easily do Magnolia’s request. Ryoka can just switch with me.”

The [Receptionist] was beginning to look exasperated.

“It doesn’t work like that. Unless Ryoka agrees, I can’t just give this to you. Besides, as I’ve said, this is a speedy delivery. I can’t give it to—”

“To what?”

Persua looks at the receptionist coldly. But I fill in the gap silently in my mind, probably with everyone else in the Runner’s Guild.

To a slower runner. One of the slowest, in fact. Persua might be a City Runner, but she’s slow. Or lazy. Actually, she’s both. She’s also an idiot, but that’s just my observation. She doesn’t take as many long-distance contracts, and she only delivers light-weight stuff like flowers or letters.

However, she does tend to get deliveries done—possibly because her friends often run with her. The [Receptionist] bites her tongue and tries a smile, which clearly fails, even to me.

“I just meant that Ryoka is the fastest City Runner. Even Fals can’t beat her time.”

“Yes, but I’m sure she’ll switch with me, won’t you, Ryoka?”

Persua glances at me and then away. Passive-aggressive bitch*.

 

*What language! I’m ashamed of myself. Mainly because I don’t have a wider vocabulary to describe someone like her. I could get vulgar, but I’d rather just slap her on the back of the head. Must resist temptation.

 

I hesitate. I should give the request to Persua. Even if she fails it, there’s no skin off my back. In fact, if she gets in trouble for failing the request even better. Although she’ll probably wriggle out of it somehow.

Yeah, I hate her guts. And I don’t feel like giving in to her bullying, especially because I know the only reason she wants to do the delivery is for the easy money and the opportunity to sponge off of Magnolia. So you know what? Let’s escalate things.

“It’s urgent.”

That’s not what Persua wants to hear. She glances at me in irritation.

“So? I can make it.”

The receptionist glances around uncertainly.

“If we can’t get it to Magnolia within the hour, the delivery won’t be any good. Can you make the run in time? It will melt, that is what I am told, and the Runner’s Guild will bear the costs of reimbursing Lady Reinhart if it is ruined. I would like it there in forty minutes. Or less. Miss Persua, you have no sprinting Skills while Miss Ryoka is the fastest. Can you do it?”

This time, Persua noticeably swallows, but she glances at her two friends and then nods.

“I can.”

“So can I.”

Both the receptionist and I glance at Persua. She’s already sweating, probably from running back to the city to take the request.

“Can you?”

She glares at me. But I know bodies, and I know running. Sallow girl is sweaty, tired, and she has terrible running form. I’ve done a run too, but unlike her, I know how to conserve energy. I turn to the receptionist.

“Give me the request.”

Persua’s sallow face grows even more pinched, if that were possible. She glares daggers at me.

“That’s not fair. You’ve already done a request. I deserve it! Claudeil and Toriska are both with me—they both deserve chances too!”

“Toriska’s not even a City Runner yet.”

The other young woman glares daggers at me and reaches for her dagger, and Persua stamps her foot.

“So? Claudeil is!”

“Yeah, and you always deliver to Magnolia together. This isn’t about—getting to hobnob with her. She needs it fast? I’m ready.”

The idiot is ready to argue with me, but even Claudeil is hesitating because he knows I’m right. Persua strides over to poke at me and I’m ready to break her finger, but an urgent voice interrupts the two of us.

“Persua, please.”

The receptionist is already wrestling with something under the counter. She lifts it up to me and gives me a smile of relief. I guess she really didn’t think Persua could do it either. She brings out a huge metal…canister?

Yes, a locking canister of metal. I blink because it’s more ornate than I thought this world had for metallurgy, but that’s the nobility for you. It’s cold, too, and I feel how heavy it is. Must be something solid in there.

“Here’s the delivery. It’s packed in ice, so try not to get it too warm if possible. You know where Magnolia’s house is. They’ll be expecting you.”

Persua stomps her foot angrily as I put the large metal canister in my backpack. Cold. And it is wrapped with melting ice, so I’ll have a wet backpack after my run. But it’s worth it to see her get mad.

I don’t think this is a good idea.”

“Good for you.”

If looks could kill…but Persua’s looks only annoy. She stomps towards me until my nose burns with her stupid perfume. She hisses at me.

“You’ll regret this.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yes!”

Some people. I turn away from Persua and hear her make a sound like an angry hamster. Claudeil, Toriska, both are giving me what they probably think are sinister looks. I look around and see most of the Street Runners pretending not to see this altercation.

Whatever. I really don’t care about their opinions or whatever Runner’s Code they claim. I’m here to do my job.

I nod to the receptionist.

“I’m off.”

I’m out the door before Persua can make another comment. I hear a strangled scream of fury, then a barrage of complaints. You can’t tell, and I don’t have a mirror.

But I’m grinning again.

 

——

 

This time, it’s the head maid who opens the door. She sniffs down at me.

I nod at her. I’m out of breath, tired, and my back is really, really cold. But I feel great, because I made it here in just forty minutes. That’s almost a record, and it’s at least twice as fast as Persua’s best time.

“Delivery for Magnolia.”

“That’s Lady Magnolia, Miss Ryoka Griffin. Wipe your feet.”

Now here’s someone whose looks can really kill. I shrug and take off my pack. I do wipe my feet again.

“Seal?”

“Wait.”

The head maid closes the door on me as I wrestle with my damp delivery. Well, looks like I won’t be talking to Magnolia today. That’s actually a relief. I don’t mind the bubbly, excitable noblewoman, but I actually prefer the maids. They might be abrupt and rude, but that means less talking.

Okay, icy package is in my hands. I wait as patiently as I can outside the door and then hear a muffled conversation. It sounds like someone arguing, and then I hear a familiar energetic voice.

“Nonsense! Ressa, how could you—of course I insist you let her in! Dirty feet or not!”

The door opens, and a familiar woman greets me. How can one woman’s hair stay that curly? I’m fairly certain they don’t have hair curlers in this day and age, but Magnolia’s blonde locks look as stylized as any I’ve seen from my world.

“Please, allow me to apologize for my servant’s rudeness. Come in, please!”

I hesitate, and the maid—Ressa—standing behind Magnolia looks unhappy.

“I can just deliver the package if you have the seal—”

“Oh, I won’t hear of it! Come in!”

Ressa makes a face, and I try not to. Reluctantly, I walk into the foyer of Lady Magnolia’s mansion and wish there was a rug to wipe my feet on. Magnolia beams at me while Ressa perfects her death-glare behind her back. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want my dirty feet walking all over the marble floor. I’d prefer not to be here too, but the delivery isn’t done until I get the seal.

“This way, please. You can put it in the drawing room. No, not the secondary one, Ressa. The main one!”

She leads me into a carpeted room. Again, I hesitate, but there’s no helping it. The rug is very soft, and my feet are very dirty, but Magnolia doesn’t care. She peers excitedly at the metal container burning my hands with frost and dripping onto the carpet and beams at me.

“Oh my, that was quick! I was told this would be travelling the entire way from the port city of Hazenbrad! Did you bring it here yourself?”

“No. Other runners brought it most of the way.”

“Well, you and your people have certainly done me quite a service! Thank you! My, you look exhausted. Won’t you take a shot of stamina potion? You’re not supposed to mix it with anything—terrible effects, alchemy, you know, but you can chase it with a drink. I find a lemonade works. But perhaps you’re busy? I did remember this time to have my seal ready!”

Magnolia presents me with her silver-sapphire seal. I’m actually gratified she remembers, and she looks me up and down.

“It’s Ryoko, isn’t it? It’s rare that I see the same Runner in so many days.”

Ryoka. But I’m used to people mispronouncing the name. I take the seal and slip it into my pouch. Right, now how to get out of this place tactfully?

“I’ve got to go. More deliveries.”

Actually, I don’t have any more, and I’m tired. But I’d rather go to sleep now and deal with annoying jealous Runners tomorrow. Magnolia’s face falls. She glances at Ressa, who looks amused for some reason, and flutters her hands at the couch.

“Oh, but won’t you stay? I’d love to share this delightful treat with you—and you’ve run so far and so quickly too! When I heard a Runner was setting out from Wales*, I was sure it would take at least an hour for you to get here!”

 

*Yeah, that’s the city I left. Wales. It’s odd that it has the same name as a country from my world, but then again…it’s not. There’s only so many words in the English language after all.

 

“Mm.”

Again, what do you say to something like that? ‘Yeah, I’m awesome, now give me more money?’ This is why I hate talking to people. However, Magnolia just peers at me and then claps her hands as if she’s recalling something else.

“And you look so tired! Did you do another delivery today? You Runners are out and about! Wales, Wales…I say, are you the one who bailed the Horns of Hammerad out of their predicament? I was wondering which brave Runner actually ran into a battle, and I will just bet it’s you!”

That makes me start. I blink and look at the woman.

“The Horns? They made it?”

Magnolia Reinhart smiles and gestures to her couch again. It’s pink. Who makes pink couches? 

“They did indeed. Did you leave before the battle ended? I’m told they slew a Lich and a horde of undead. Found very little, but the bounty on a Lich is quite high, and I imagine if it was wearing any artifacts, they got those too. It sounded like they were returning to Wales for the day.”

“I…that’s great. How did you know?”

Even I hadn’t heard of that by the time I returned to the Runner’s Guild. Magnolia beams as I sit, and she indicates Ressa.

“Oh, I do keep up with the local adventurers and their exploits. It pays to be informed, you know, and I was quite concerned when I heard they were in danger. And you were there! You must tell me about it. I insist. Ressa, the potion and some lemonade for Miss Ryoka!”

And suddenly, I’m trapped. Ressa gives her mistress an exasperated look, but she steps back. Magnolia seats herself on another pink duvet across from me and keeps on chattering on as I eye the canister of metal that one of her [Butlers] or something is slowly prizing open.

“Besides which, I was never able to talk properly with you both times before now. I truly would love to converse with you—and ask about your peculiar choice of footwear, or should I say, its lack! Won’t you stay for a while?”

Magnolia entreats me with her eyes, and Ressa the maid gives me a look that says I should do whatever she wants and stop sweating and getting the carpets dirty while I’m at it. She’s already back with a shot glass of red liquid followed by lemonade. I take both, swallow the horrible stamina potion—and feel myself perk right up.

Wow. But as I sip the lemonade, my heart sinks. Now I have to be polite. But then again—she did tell me the Horns survived.

I hesitate. I’m tired, and I don’t feel like talking. Like always. True, Magnolia is better than Persua any day of the week, but her enthusiasm makes me feel tired. So I stand and edge towards the door.

“I’m sorry, but I really should go. I’m very busy.”

Magnolia smiles at me.

“Are you that eager to be away? You may simply tell me if you don’t wish to converse.”

I jump* and stare at her. Magnolia smiles.

 

*Well, not literally.

 

“Really, my dear. It’s written all over your face. But besides that, I am a [Lady], and most of us learn [Sense Intentions] quite early. And I am quite high-level at that. So, therefore, sit.

I sit. I don’t even think about it. She spoke, and I—okay, that was something else. Her voice suddenly had something in it, like it was speaking in my mind. Magnolia sighs.

“I am seldom so straightforwards, but I would like to talk with you. And you are so flighty, Miss Ryoka Griffin! It is rare that I meet a young lady as interesting as yourself.”

Try to stand up. No? Okay legs, I’m your boss. Stand. Stand.

Magnolia gestures to the couch I’m trapped in.

“Please sit here. I would like to share this delivery you’ve worked so hard to bring me.”

I’m still struggling with my unresponsive body. Magnolia gives me another smile and addresses her hovering maid.

“Ressa? Please be so kind as to open up the delivery? And I believe we will need two bowls and silverware. I would like the blue porcelain today.”

“Very good, milady. I’m sure the color will detract from the quantity you intend to gobble down like a pig for slaughter.”

I choke on my lemonade. Did I just hear that? Magnolia shoots Ressa a quick glare, but not outraged, like I’d assume. She shoes Ressa off, and the woman gives me a silent, warning look. Probably to tell me to behave, and she disappears out the door. She’s probably going for reinforcement maids. And that leaves me with Magnolia.

The larger woman gives me another charming smile. For the first time, I eye her, and not just as a rich, silly lady. Sure, she looks like something of a stereotype with her bright clothing and expensive jewelry and unambiguously good-natured personality, but what the hell did she do to me? Is that a Skill?

She looks like your image of a valedictorian [Lady] in the modern era. Charming, trendy, and I assumed, mostly fixated on fashion and…noble, rich person stuff. Which I am acquainted with via my family. All show, little substance, lots of drama.

But she knew about the Horns, and her Skill is still locking me in my seat.

“I do hope you like sweet things, Miss Ryoka. Forgive my rudeness, but I simply find that sometimes it’s best to pin people down and get to know them, don’t you?”

“Mm.”

“I’m so glad you agree! My, between you and Ressa, I am simply spoilt for fine conversation, aren’t I?”

Now, that. That sounded a bit like sarcasm. Well, well. Looks like Magnolia has layers. Or her petticoat does. Looks like I’ve underestimated her.

“Well, continue sitting there for a moment. I simply must try this delight, although I fear it’s rather ruining the carpet. Ah, well, it was due for a change.”

Magnolia bustles out of the room. I try to run for it, but my legs are still unresponsive. Well, damn. She’s got some power. It might be worth talking with her after all.

Magnolia. What an aggressive, pushy lady.

I think I like her.

 

——

 

Lady Magnolia fussed around the drawing room, and her maids fussed after her. She was busy overseeing the opening of a large metal cask, the contents of which had been surrounded in ice.

Ryoka sat in front of one ornately wrought table, conscious of her dirty feet on the rug. It might not have been Persian, but that was only because Persia didn’t exist in this world. It was certainly expensive, and it was certainly getting dirty the longer her feet were on it.

Occasionally, Ryoka’s legs would tense, but she remained sitting, much to her vexation.

“And here we are!”

Magnolia clapped her hands together in delight. Ryoka glanced up as the two latches on the metal canister were undone and icy vapor escaped. She had no idea what she’d brought, and so it was with interest that she saw a maid carefully scoop something out of the canister.

It was…white, wet-looking, with a few dark flecks mixed in the creamy color. Magnolia’s eye sparkled as another scoop was transferred to a blue and white porcelain bowl. Even the maids looked covetously at the soft cream.

To be specific, the soft ice cream.

Ryoka stared. Magnolia’s smile intensified, but the stare was not because Ryoka was taken with the novelty of the unheard of, expensive treat that she would have never eaten before. That was Magnolia’s one error.

The [Lady] gestured towards her guest, and the maid hesitated before setting the bowl down in front of Ryoka. The young woman stared silently at the gold filigree on the spoon she was handed. She stared down at the ice cream.

“Now, this is quite a treat.”

One of the maids pulled a chair out for Lady Magnolia, and the noblewoman sat across from Ryoka. She accepted another bowl and smiled at Ryoka.

“Don’t be afraid. This is in fact a very rare delicacy I had imported. It’s quite, quite expensive, but once you try it, I think you’ll agree it’s worth the cost. And I was sure a fast Runner would take it to me! I would have been so…disappointed if it was late.”

Ryoka hesitated. That sounded like she had really bailed Persua out of trouble, but she was still flummoxed by the appearance of the ice cream. She wasn’t sure if she should eat first, but Magnolia waved one hand at her.

“Oh, go on. What kind of host would I be if I did not allow you the first bite? I must warn you, though—it’s quite cold! Eat too fast and you will suffer, as I’ve learned.”

Ryoka hesitated, but Lady Magnolia was staring at her with earnest expectation. That was in sharp contrast to the maids behind her, who were all giving Ryoka the glare of death. She had the distinct impression refusing would not end well for her.

Prompted by all the eyes on her, Ryoka slowly took a bite. Her expression didn’t change one iota. Lady Magnolia blinked. The maids would have muttered, but their training kept their faces carefully neutral.

“Huh. Ice cream.”

Ryoka paused and cursed inwardly. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Again, Magnolia blinked at her, and her mouth fell open delicately.

“My. You know what this is?”

“…No?”

Magnolia’s eyes sharpened, and she stopped with a huge spoonful of ice cream. She delicately took a bite, then sighed.

“My dear, remember what I said about my Skills? I know you’re lying. But how can that be? I would swear that this delight hasn’t been invented but for a week! I just heard it had been created by a master [Chef] in the northern continent. But you’ve had some before, haven’t you?”

She could tell the truth, or she could lie and reveal the truth. Ryoka shrugged.

“Yeah.”

The maids murmured. Magnolia sighed and tasted the ice cream herself.

“Delicious. Oh, but pardon me. I couldn’t help myself. Well, this is one surprise that quite trumps my surprise! I must say, I’m rather put out and delighted that you know this treat. What did you call it? ‘Ice cream’?”

“Is it called something else around here?”

“I believe it was referred to as ‘gelato’ or some such. But I rather like your name! It certainly is quite reminiscent of cream, isn’t it? But the coldness—and of course the sweetness is incomparable!”

“Mhm.”

Now, Ryoka was sweating. Magnolia leaned over, but Ryoka was astounded at how fast she ate the ice cream. No wonder she got a brain freeze!

“Well, now you simply must tell me how you know of this treat.”

“Uh, it’s common in my home country.”

Magnolia raised her delicate eyebrows.

“Common? It is not in Drath, I assure you. Surely you—but you are telling the truth. How curious.”

Ryoka shifted in her seat. This was bad. She felt like her mind was being read. Well, even if it were just her intentions and whether or not she was telling the truth, there were enough landmines in the conversation to fill a battlefield. She had to shift the conversation.

Gingerly, she took another bite. The ice cream wasn’t actually as sweet as one from her world, but it was hauntingly familiar. She pointed to the melting canister.

“Uh, how much did this cost?”

That wasn’t an appropriate question to judge by the glares she got from the maids. But Magnolia seemed to take the question in stride.

“Well, I hate to bring up such issues in polite conversation, but this little treat cost seventy gold coins, not including the cost of shipping it across the sea and rushing it all the way here.”

Ryoka choked on her bite of ice cream and nearly bit the spoon in half. Magnolia waved a hand at her.

“Oh, please. I know it’s a lot, but for a treat like this? Very worthwhile.”

“So worthwhile you could not eat two bowls.”

Ressa muttered out of the corner of her mouth. Ryoka stared down and saw Magnolia was already getting a refill, and they weren’t small bowls. Magnolia sighed.

“Ressa, you’re right. Of course.”

“I am?”

The [Maid] looked caught off-guard, and Magnolia clicked her fingers lightly.

“I must make this batch last. I shall have some cherries, raspberries, and strawberries in my bowl. Delightfully sweet. Will you have any, Ryoka?”

None of those fruits were in season, but Ryoka had no doubt Magnolia had a stockpile. She shook her head as the fruits appeared within a minute and were ladled into the bowl. That was an entire lunch in and of itself. But Magnolia simply picked up her spoon in delight as Ressa gave her the look of someone watching a truly horrific act of consumption.

Silently, Ryoka stared at the canister of ice cream. It was probably, when all was said and done, the size of a tub of ice cream she could have bought for three dollars in any supermarket in her world.

In this world, seventy gold pieces was about seventy weeks of pay for the average person. And Ryoka just bet that the ‘shipping’ and rush delivery might have doubled the price. If it was overseas? She didn’t want to think about it.

Oblivious to her inner thoughts, Magnolia smiled again at Ryoka as she delicately spooned more ice cream into her mouth.

“I fear we must eat quickly before our ‘ice cream’ melts. But I’m sure we could chat over tea as well. And then you can tell me about how you know of this ice cream and where you come from. I must say, your features are quite striking.”

Ryoka’s expression didn’t change, but Magnolia’s eyes flickered.

“Well, if you don’t prefer to say, I quite understand. But I would like to chat.”

This was hard. Ryoka frowned at her mostly melted ice cream and thought carefully. She was looking for something to distract from the topic of where she was from, and she had nothing…until an idea formed. Then she looked up. Magnolia’s smile grew even wider. She was a third through her bowl! Ryoka glanced at her rapidly moving spoon.

“Aah. I mean…I could talk about one thing.”

Magnolia’s eyes twinkled with anticipation.

“Oh? I know it’s terribly rude to point out what you’re thinking, but that was quite the inspiration you just had.”

“Yeah. I was just thinking about the ice cream.”

“Would you like another scoop? We could all have a third bowl.”

Magnolia instantly offered Ryoka more, and Ressa and both [Maids] shook their heads behind her. Ryoka bit her tongue, amused despite herself, and glanced at Magnolia.

“No. But I do know a lot about it. Ice cream, that is.”

“Really? You are a fan or familiar with the recipe? I’m afraid I wasn’t able to learn anything about what creature produces such a delightful treat. Or how it was made! Do you know where it comes from? I have a small culinary bounty for my [Chefs] to replicate it because I love it so. Any hints I will be sure to reward!”

Magnolia leaned forwards in excitement. Ryoka looked down her bosom and felt like she understood part of the attraction of visiting Magnolia. At least, the attraction for some City Runners. She smiled, once, hesitantly, not the wild grin of someone running. But she did smile, and that was the first step.

“Better. I know how to make it.”

 


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