They called her the Deadly Flower Blooming in the North. Which was…a mouthful of a title. After her first meeting with Magnolia Reinhart, Ryoka Griffin had asked who, exactly, she was.
‘Head of the Reinhart Family,’ was her answer. Which begged the question what that meant. The Reinharts were one of the Five Families. Well, what did that mean?
They were called the Five Families of Izril, and she was the scion of her family. Not the matriarch, but the one who was in control.
This was the woman who bounced on her tip-toes with excitement and opened doors by herself. And who Ryoka Griffin had snarked.
She looked nothing like what Ryoka imagined. She was blonde-haired, the tips slightly curling and cut short, and she was neither as tall as Ryoka and Ressa nor half as fit as either one.
Then again, Ryoka Griffin realized how strong Ressa might be when the woman took the canister of ice-cream. It was still half-full and packed with now-melted icewater. The entire thing was a lump of steel. It had to weigh, oh, ten, fifteen pounds at least? It certainly had weighed Ryoka down on the run here, but her pack had been balanced.
No way Persua would have made it. Ressa tossed it up one-handed like someone catching a football, then flicked it sideways at a man in a butler’s costume.
Ryoka stared as the [Maids] led her to the kitchen. Anyone could toss a fifteen pound weight around, but she had never seen someone flick something like that with their fingertips.
Lest Ryoka think the canister had gotten magically lighter, the poor butler caught the canister with both hands like it was a load of bricks and staggered slightly. He almost fell until a [Maid] caught his arm.
Ressa politely gestured.
“This way to the kitchen, Miss.”
She ignored Ryoka’s look as Magnolia clapped her hands together. The [Lady] was indeed nowhere near as tall or even as lanky as Ressa. And Ressa herself was tall, thin, precise—severe might fit her demeanor.
Although the word dangerous suddenly popped into Ryoka’s head as she stared at Ressa longer. She couldn’t have said why, exactly. Why did you think that when you stared at a grinning hyena? Ressa wasn’t smiling nor was she showing any fangs. But the word still appeared for the same reason.
Nor was Magnolia half as heavy as someone who ate that much ice cream—apparently on a daily basis—should be, in Ryoka’s mind. She was actually just—normal. She had the faintest of scars on her chin, barely visible, a nick, really, and a penchant for pink, like her dress and even a sofa.
What made Magnolia Reinhart earn a second glance, or third, were her eyes. Like Ryoka’s, they were green, but more like a forest: darker, less vibrant, and wholly impenetrable if you tried to find out what she was thinking. The pattern in her irises were actually reminiscent of tree branches themselves, waving and dancing.
They would crinkle with mirth or dance from object to object, but those eyes seemed to make untruths harder around them. And there was one more thing that Ryoka saw, which compounded something she’d heard of Magnolia.
Her gaze seemed very, very distant. Ryoka had often seen superior expressions. Her father hosted such people, often friends of his, quite a lot. She had seen arrogance, sometimes in the mirror.
Never once had she seen—the distance in Magnolia Reinhart’s gaze. Not as if she were above but watching from afar. Even when she was up close, it was like she was staring at something far away.
A great, distant goal, like the very mountains in the distance. Thoughtfully—until she noticed you watching.
Then she smiled and winked at Ryoka Griffin. And that look disappeared into merry mischief.
“Do pardon Ressa. She’s grumpy, but a family servant. Which means she takes all the liberties. I wouldn’t have it any other way. To the kitchens! Oh dear, I hope this one is well stocked. This is my vacation home in Celum, you see.”
“You have a lot of homes, then, Lady Reinhart?”
Ryoka trailed after Ressa as the woman and a bevy of servants headed down the halls of this place. Ryoka supposed it was ‘small’ for someone as important as Magnolia seemed to be—but she passed through a foyer with three stories. Yet Magnolia Reinhart just sighed.
“I have a more permanent residence in Invrisil, but travel takes me everywhere. I have a number of residences, oh, all over the north.”
“Nowhere in the south?”
Ryoka realized she’d made a mistake a second after she said that. Ressa turned her head back, and Magnolia laughed until she realized Ryoka was serious.
“The south? Oh, no, the Drakes would never tolerate my kind that far south. Nor would I if I was them. You know the saying, ‘better a serpent in bed than a Reinhart.’ Which is terribly hurtful and entirely accurate.”
She had a grand chuckle at this, and Ryoka hesitated. She felt like running away already, but she had offered to make ice cream. So she saw Magnolia catch her breath.
“—But you truly aren’t from Izril, Miss Ryoka. The north has a strained relationship with the south, which I think you should bear in mind if ever you go past Esthelm and deliver to a Drake city. Not that there’s anywhere safe but Liscor. Unless the Bloodfields have opened up, Ressa?”
Bloodfields? What the heck was that? Ryoka glanced at the [Maid], and Ressa replied.
“Not until the first frosts, Lady Reinhart. In here, Miss Griffin. What will you be needing?”
She showed Ryoka into a huge kitchen, and the young woman hesitated.
“Oh, just a few things. A pot, uh, something to stir with, and—”
Then she realized Magnolia Reinhart was following her into the kitchen. Ryoka gulped, but the [Lady] just fluttered her hands and clasped them together.
“Don’t mind me! I’ll just watch if that’s acceptable. I do admire good cookery. I had lessons, but it never stuck. Imagine it, making gelato! I’ll be the talk of Izril.”
Some days were odd days. Some days you ran, and some days you found yourself in another world with nothing but an iPhone and the clothes on your back. Some days you made ice cream.
But it was a rare day that Ryoka found herself making ice cream in a noblewoman’s house, surrounded by maids, in a kitchen that could have rivaled any cooking show’s setup for expense and expensive things.
She felt out of place in the spotless room, handling the equivalent of stainless steel cooking utensils. They weren’t stainless, but they were steel—and a lot had expensive handles or were magical. Ryoka was still barefoot, and she was painfully conscious of how her feet were dirtying the flawless floor tiling. Not that Lady Magnolia seemed to mind.
The beaming lady of the mansion hovered around Ryoka, excitedly showing her the contents of the amply-stocked kitchen.
“Help yourself to anything you need, Miss Griffin! Oh, but watch out. That knife is hot.”
It was! Ryoka nearly put it back in the block of wood as the red handle warmed up.
“A heating knife. I think you use it to slice meat or…you know, I don’t cook. Ressa, are there [Chefs] here?”
“No, Lady Reinhart, the staff has accommodated your every need without the expense of a live-in [Chef] for your Celum home. That knife is meant to sear what it cuts. These are regular knives, Miss Griffin.”
Okay, magical cutlery. Ryoka put the knife back, and Magnolia bustled around, mostly getting in the way of Ressa, who was pulling out what Ryoka asked for.
“What do we have here? Oh my! We do have a full pantry! Do you need any of this, Miss Griffin?”
She opened pantry doors and revealed shelf after shelf of exotic ingredients that Ryoka half-recognized. Sugar, okay, that made sense. But red sugar? Harvested from the desert? And that was normal compared to delicacies like Wyvern meat. She pointed at a slab of purplish meat in what must have been an enchanted space to keep it fresh.
“Far too tough for me. I tried it once but couldn’t bear the taste of it. It’s very healthy, or so I’m told but…what does this ice cream need?”
“Crimson sugar or regular sugar? Nali-sticks?”
“What are those?”
Magnolia glanced up.
“Oh, a Balerosian treat. Akin to concentrated sugar, I believe. Well, we have regular sugar—I import the stuff, you know. I have a little deal with an [Admiral] about shipping it.”
Now that sounded like an important person talking. Ryoka just stared before she saw Ressa plonk a regular bag of sugar on the table. Reminded of her task, Ryoka got back to work, trying to remember what she needed.
The oddness of the kitchen wasn’t that it was so grand or had so many equivalents to modern cooking equipment. No, it was that most of the food storage in the kitchen consisted of shelves of food left out in the open. And even in the pantry, items like milk, butter, and even fresh vegetables had been neatly stockpiled away without any kind of refrigeration.
There was no helping it. Ryoka had to ask. She cut off Lady Magnolia as the other woman began talking about a strange jello that looked like it was moving.
“Doesn’t all this rot?”
Magnolia glanced at the shelves of uncovered food while the maids following her gave Ryoka silent glares.
“This? I shouldn’t think so. I paid for the best preservation spells, and I have an [Enchanter] come by every year or so to make sure the runes are holding. My people are quite pleased with all the space, which I do need for all the delightful treats I order.”
Ryoka stared at the tiny etched runes on the side of each cupboard. They were in no language she knew. Preservation runes? Well, that was handy. She wondered just how expensive they were.
“Not too expensive, at least for the quality of work done. Mages charge very affordable prices. I gather most inns and some of the larger shops use such runes quite often.”
Lady Magnolia smiled as Ryoka’s head shot up and the younger woman looked at her.
“Not mind reading my dear. Just an educated guess and a few Skills. I’m sure you’ve heard it said that it is a frivolous class, but [Ladies] have a few useful tricks in social situations. You do scream disapproval now and then.”
Wait, she could tell when Ryoka was annoyed? The City Runner began to sweat, and Magnolia clapped her hands before waving them to reassure her.
“Please don’t grow alarmed! Or take offense. Oh my, you are quite taciturn, aren’t you? Dragons should be more forthcoming! Please, I will stop bothering you, but let us make this ice cream! How shall we begin?”
Magnolia waited excitedly as Ryoka looked around the room and tried to remember all of the ingredients. It had been a long time since Ryoka made ice cream. She’d almost forgotten how, but as a child—
“We need some salt too. A pinch of it. And vanilla.”
“Of course. Ressa?”
The head maid nodded and directed her maids to the appropriate shelves. She paused as one maid brought her a bundle of wrapped vanilla bean stalks.
“They are quite expensive, milady.”
Lady Magnolia pshed and waved at Ressa impatiently.
“Oh, nonsense, Ressa, don’t be a spoilsport. I’m minded to give Ryoka anything she wants if she can make this ice cream.”
“One stalk is fine.”
Ryoka accepted the dry, stick-like piece of vanilla from the glowering maid and broke it open. She sniffed at the strong smell and began extracting the beans from within.
“Now we need to heat the milk, salt, and sugar together in a pot. Got a big one?”
Lady Magnolia clapped her hands together as Ressa glowered and found a large, polished pot and set it over one of the kitchen stoves. She started the fire underneath the pot with a single touch to a glowing red rune on the stove front.
“Oh, I see! You’re making a custard! How delightful!”
Silently, Ryoka mixed the ingredients together and created a creamy, off-white custard in the pot. She poked at it with her spoon and decided it was thick enough for ice cream. What next? Oh, right.
This time, Ryoka’s language nearly earned her a slap on the back of the head. Ressa’s hand twitched, and a small vein began to throb on her forehead.
“I might not be able to make this after all. I forgot something.”
Lady Magnolia looked dismayed. She peered into the pot.
“It looks perfectly fine to me, but—is there an ingredient missing?”
Ryoka shook her head. She gestured at the pot.
“We need to freeze this. Or rather, we need to freeze it slowly while stirring.”
That was a big problem. For all this world had things like preservation spells, Ryoka was sure they hadn’t invented freezers or air-conditioning. But to her surprise, Lady Magnolia laughed and put her hand over her ample bosom in relief.
“Oh, is that all?”
Magnolia waved an airy hand. She turned to another one of her maids.
“Yvony, would you be a dear and send a message to the Mage’s Guild? Tell them I need an [Elementalist] mage capable of using basic ice magic.”
Bemused, Ryoka watched as Yvony, a fair-haired maid with fairer complexion, bowed and quickly trotted out of the room.
“Is she going to run there?”
Lady Magnolia chuckled politely, and the other maids smiled.
“We are not all as fleet-footed as you Runners. No, she’s just here to bring me—ah, thank you Yvony.”
The maid had returned with a small, blue book with gold lattice work on the cover. Lady Magnolia opened it and showed Ryoka the blank pages as Yvony unscrewed an ink pot and dipped a quill in it.
“If you will observe, this is a magical book. One of two, in fact. Whenever one writes on one page, the other book immediately copies over the same writing. It’s quite the ingenious way of talking without needing to cast a [Message] or [Communication] spell each time.”
She handed the book to Yvony as the maid wrote a few brisk, short lines on the paper. The book glowed once, and then the light faded from the pages. Magnolia clapped her hands together and turned to Ryoka.
“And now we wait. A [Mage] should be along in a matter of minutes. The Mage’s Guild is quite prompt at responding, and happily, they are located only a few streets away. Shall we retire for a cup of tea?”
Given her choice, Ryoka would have refused, but the thing about a request made by a lady is that it is not really a request. In short order, she found herself sitting and sipping from a hot cup of tea and trying not to make a face.
Her heritage as a Japanese-American said that she should at least appreciate good tea, as Ryoka had Japanese grandparents who insisted she try the stuff. But her American roots and personality insisted coffee was the only way to live. Sadly, she hadn’t encountered that beverage here yet, so she pretended to drink her tea while Magnolia seated herself in the guest room on the pink sofa again.
Once again, she surprised Ryoka by offering her a bowl of sugar herself. Ryoka passed it up—then saw to her mild horror Magnolia repeating the same trick as she had over the ice cream.
Namely—she took the lid off the bowl, and ignoring the spoon, poured a fourth of it into her cup. Ressa’s face was blank as Ryoka saw Magnolia stir.
“You, uh—like sugar a lot, don’t you?”
“It is one of life’s pleasures. Now, a snack. Ressa! How about some baked Yellats? Are you a fan of them, Miss Griffin?”
“I’ve never had any.”
“Really? They are a quite common food across Chandrar, the desert continent, you know. Some people consider them as plebian as potatoes, but I find them delightfully good in any number of dishes. Spicy, too. Ah, here we are.”
Ryoka was served some hot, steaming root or starch vegetables. They were almost as orange as carrots, but more resembled broccoli. They had the texture of sweet potatoes, but they were indeed spicy!
Magnolia nibbled on one as Ryoka found they were good enough to eat. Ressa walked off as Yvony came back, and the butler hovered around with a tray as Magnolia kept speaking.
“I must say, I have been absolutely dying to know what it is that makes you run, Miss Ryoka. If I may confess—I’m not asking you solely out of pure interest as well. I have a teensy bet going on with some other ladies in my gossip circle about it. I told them I had heard of a City Runner running barefoot, and they all assured me none of them had heard of anything like it! They live all abouts, you see. North, northeast, northwest—Celum is too far south for most of the nobility to live.”
Ryoka paused. She was used to attention for running barefoot, but this was the first time she’d ever been bet on.
“Really? It’s that fascinating to you? Um, Lady Magnolia?”
The [Lady] covered her mouth with a hand as she laughed.
“Why, haven’t you realized what a splash you’ve made? A young woman becomes the fastest local Runner practically overnight? Yet alone running barefoot? People are wondering why you run barefoot. Is it part of a special class? Or is it a secret?”
Magnolia waited, but the young woman sitting across from her said nothing more. She cleared her throat politely.
“Then—would you mind telling me? I would simply love to know.”
Lady Magnolia leaned forwards over her tea eagerly. Even the maids were quietly listening as they bustled around the drawing room performing menial and unneeded tasks.
“I just like running barefoot. I hate shoes.”
Her audience blinked at her. Ryoka shrugged. There wasn’t much more to say. She eyed the maids as they shifted and exchanged glances behind their mistress’ back. Idly, Ryoka wondered how much gossiping they did when they were done with work.
Silence followed Ryoka’s answer, which was then broken by laughter. Lady Magnolia chuckled and then laughed quietly. It wasn’t boisterous or uncontrolled; like everything else about her, it was polite and refined. But it was genuine.
“You, my dear Ryoka Griffin, are the most delightful young lady I have ever met! You give away nothing.”
She lifted her cup, and a waiting maid filled it with the dark brown tea that Ryoka was trying not to ingest.
“Ah, well. A simple answer, but not from a simple person. I suppose our little gossip circle will have to annul the bet. How interesting. But then, to be fair, I’m told half-Elves do eschew shoes all the time. Did you learn that from them?”
“Nope. I’m not—acquainted with half-Elves that much. It’s just a hobby. It’s good for your feet. Sort of.”
Ryoka was proud of her reply. She knew that half-Elves existed, but she had only seen one while delivering all those potions to the adventurers. She did want to meet them, and Magnolia shook her head.
“Well, I cannot imagine how you don’t poke holes in your feet like that. And you are so fit! Did you ever think of joining a [Knight] order?”
“I’m not big on law enforcement.”
Truer words had never been spoken. Magnolia laughed at that uproariously and shook her head.
“Then have you run like that all your life?”
“All the time.”
“Indoors and outdoors?”
Magnolia Reinhart put her chin in her hand. Ryoka hoped at this point the [Lady] would leave her alone. She had been the most uncooperative, inhospitable guest she could imagine, and anyone else would have surely thrown her out on her head. But Magnolia either wanted ice cream that badly or something else was going on.
The latter turned out to be true, because the [Lady]’s eyes lit up and she clapped her hands together with a sigh.
“Fascinating. You know, I’m completely stumped. Ressa, do you have a guess?”
She turned, and Ryoka jumped as she saw Ressa appear with the tea kettle in hand. The [Maid] had entered the room, and she bowed.
“I’m out. Either she was lying—and I had a truth spell on her the entire time—or it’s somewhere you missed, like a paradise nation.”
Hm? What did that mean? Ryoka felt a moment of uncertainty as Magnolia nodded.
“Not Izril, Baleros, Chandrar, Terandria—well, maybe the Kingdom of Keys or somewhere new like…? Taimaguros? But she would know [Knights]. Wistram’s rare children know magic, and no one would be allowed to run around barefoot in Drath, the likeliest option, because of how rude that would be. Nor on Rhir for safety. And Izril? I am stumped.”
Ryoka Griffin’s blank look began to turn more and more alarmed as Magnolia began reciting names. Names which Ryoka Griffin vaguely recognized as every major landmass in the entire world. Magnolia Reinhart beamed at Ryoka, and Ressa stared at the now-nervous City Runner.
“For all the money, then, Miss Griffin. Do the seas carry you home? A [Storm Sailor] or one of the Drowned Folk might walk a deck barefoot.”
Ryoka Griffin hesitated. And she opened her mouth to say something, before she realized—
Did that woman, Ressa, say truth spells? She had no idea what the Drowned Folk were, but if she said yes, she lied. If she said no…
Magnolia Reinhart kept that gaze on Ryoka, and that distant look in her eyes—was suddenly gone. Then, two green irises stared at Ryoka, and the young woman felt like she was engulfed in a forest of green. A watchful forest, and Magnolia was suddenly there, and the young woman saw the real [Lady].
The Deadly Flower Blooming in the North smiled and chuckled as someone knocked on the door. The [Mage] had come.
“Just a joke, Miss Griffin. I know you didn’t come from a ship. Or else someone would have known you from a port city. Well, I am stumped, and I thought I was playing the guessing-game well. That should be our [Mage]. Now for ice cream!”
She shot to her feet and headed to the door with alacrity. Ryoka, though, stopped a moment and glanced at Ressa. The [Maid] smiled at her, and Ryoka had to ask a question.
“Is…I heard she’s the hero of some kind of war.”
The [Maid]’s smile vanished in a second. She gave Ryoka a long, long look, and the City Runner realized she might have made another mistake. But Ressa just dipped her head.
“The Antinium Wars? Those are ancient history. She was no hero, the kind you’ll see in statues. But she was.”
Ryoka expected Ressa to follow that up with, ‘so show some respect,’ but the [Maid] just held out a hand.
“May I take your cup, Miss?”
Ice cream. It tasted sweet, was hopefully cold and, apparently, was about as addictive as hardcore drugs to those who’d never had it before.
She hadn’t been too sure about her recipe, but at Lady Magnolia’s insistence, Ryoka had filled a huge pot with custard. After the mage had arrived and the ice cream had been successfully churned into the frozen treat with a few hiccups, Lady Magnolia, her maids, and even the mage had joined Ryoka in eating the ice cream.
As a result, the big pot was now empty, and Ryoka’s stomach was not happy with her. The mage had left just half an hour ago, clutching at his stomach and head. He still had a blissful smile on his face, though.
To Ryoka’s surprise, the mage had been quite interested in making ice cream. Perhaps that was just his personality, but it was also probably due to Magnolia’s infectious enthusiasm. She’d had a maid taking notes of Ryoka’s every action as she’d figured out how to mix the ice cream properly.
Well, that was fine in the end because it meant that Ryoka didn’t have to explain how to make the ice cream twice. And now that the ice cream was eaten, Ryoka could finally leave. She was at the final stage of that process—trying to shake off Lady Magnolia at the door.
The [Lady] did not bring up Ryoka’s point of origin again, and Ryoka could almost believe that Magnolia was just a kindly [Lady] trying to noblesse oblige to the max.
“I still can’t believe you won’t take at least some token for teaching me this delightful recipe. Won’t you take some of it with you? To the Runner’s Guild at least. You could let them all share it. Or some gold coins? I do intend to replicate the recipe, and that will put my supplier out. Oh, and Ressa? Make a note for the [Farmers] in First Landing to grow some vanilla. Bully them gently into it. With love and kisses from me, or they’ll miss the profits in a year.”
Ryoka shrugged and tried to back out the door as Lady Magnolia fussed around her. The almost-lethal amounts of sugar the older woman had imbibed didn’t seem to be slowing her down like it had the other maids and Ryoka. Even Ressa, the faithful head maid, looked slightly ill after coming down from the sugar high and realizing how much she’d eaten, but Magnolia was as energetic and bright as ever.
“I don’t want any ice cream, thanks. The other Runners—I’m not that chummy with them. They can eat cake. And it was just ice cream. I don’t feel right about taking the gold.”
Plus, if Persua learned how much money Magnolia was offering her, she’d never stop complaining.
With a sigh, Lady Magnolia gave up on the issue, much to Ryoka’s relief.
“If you’re sure. I suppose there’s no harm in it if it won’t aggravate things. I do know the Runners compete. How about a little gift, though? Say, a bag of holding?”
Ryoka hesitated as the maid named Ressa coughed and muttered about the expense. Did she say a bag of holding? As in—the magical object that would hold things? That was tempting. But again, Ryoka looked at Magnolia’s dancing green eyes and remembered that intent look.
“…No. I’m fine, thanks.”
Lady Magnolia sighed, but she made no further arguments, much to Ryoka and her head maid’s relief. Ryoka finished stretching out the leg that had fallen asleep and then moved to open the door. Ressa intercepted her and held the door open politely. Her hands were gloved. Apparently, that made a big difference to what she could touch and Ryoka couldn’t.
Time to run. But Ryoka turned at the door and nodded to Lady Magnolia.
“On the contrary, it is I who should thank you, Miss Ryoka. But if I might have one last question before you go?”
Ryoka reluctantly paused at the door as Ressa closed it in her face. She turned slightly and glanced at Magnolia.
“Do you, in fact, come from any place in this world?”
Silence. Ryoka’s face didn’t change, but Magnolia smiled. She looked straight at Ryoka Griffin and then nodded to Ressa. The door swung open, and Ryoka stumbled a bit as she trotted out the door. But now she was looking back over her shoulder.
“I hope you will accept more requests from me in the future. I would so love to chat.”
The [Lady] twinkled merrily. She looked Ryoka in the eye, and the Runner inhaled. Then Ryoka was gone before Magnolia finished speaking.
“You scared her off. I thought you were trying to be subtle.”
Ressa closed the door as Lady Magnolia watched Ryoka Griffin running for the hills. The [Lady] turned as she dropped the smile, but she still looked amused. Then she put a hand over her chest and pretended to swoon.
Her maid let her bounce off a wall and onto the carpet. Magnolia glared up at Ressa as Yvony and her staff dashed over to help her up.
“…I think I’m going to have a heart-attack. Thank you for catching me incidentally, Ressa.”
“Self-inflicted injuries are not my job. You don’t think she’s actually from somewhere else, do you?”
Ressa scoffed, and Magnolia sat up.
“She didn’t answer, but the look in her eyes—that was a joke, Ressa. That was supposed to be a joke. I really thought I’d hear she was from some provincial place.”
“And you just let her run off, never to return. You didn’t even put a tracking spell on the bag of holding.”
Magnolia stood back up and brushed at her skirts.
“She’ll be back. Or we will find her, but I would hope she returns of her own volition, Ressa. A young woman as vivaciously intelligent as that will, even if she has all the manners and social graces of a rabid Eater Goat. If only to make excuses. I hope she’s no runaway [Princess] or daughter of someone important. We have enough of those already.”
She gazed out the window and saw Ryoka Griffin was already turning down the street. Magnolia shook her head as Ressa glanced out the window.
“My, but she is quick. Oh, and Ressa? One more thing. Get in touch with the old man.”
“…Which old man is it? The pervert or the lazy one?”
“The one we like. Wake him up if you can. Tell him I need a favor. Tell him to look into…er…how do you spell ‘Ryoka Griffin’?”
“I believe the Runner’s Guild has her name written down.”
“Right. Yes. Use that.”
I have to slow down after I get a few streets away from Magnolia’s house. I put my hand on my stomach and try not to throw up.
Ice cream is not good for my body, especially if I have to run. I feel like I’ve got a rock in my stomach. And yet, it might have been worth it. If only it hadn’t been vanilla,* life might have been perfect.
*If I have to eat ice cream, it’s got to be mint chocolate chip. Vanilla is just vanilla. But I love mint. And peppermint. And spearmint. I…really wish I had some gum.
As I slowly walk and then transition back into a slow jog, I think about Magnolia or as I now know her, the scariest person I’ve met in this world. Apparently, someone with her class can practically read minds, or at least tell how I’m feeling. That is not a comforting thought.
Jeez. She nearly figured out where I came from in a few minutes. What a terrifyingly scary lady.
It might be wrong to think, but when I first met her, I thought she was just another plump social butterfly without a thought in the world. But…that’s what she wants people to assume about her. The real Magnolia is sharp and intelligent. Remember that next time you visit her.
…Which won’t be for a while. I know there’s going to be hell to pay if Persua has her way, and besides, now I have a good reason not to visit Magnolia in the future.
“Right. No Magnolia deliveries for a while.”
But with that said, I will be doing research on her. War hero? I’ll just bet Garia knows something about her—how Magnolia got her wealth, if she was married, etc. Know your enemy, right? Well, Magnolia isn’t my enemy, and I’d like to keep her that way.
Does she really think I’m from another world? No—no, I should have played it off. Stupid Ryoka! The last thing I need is to cause a stir. What are the dangers of talking about Earth? Gee, let me make a list. But I can pretend I was just surprised. I just need to go back once I’m ready, which means I need intelligence.
It’s too bad there are no libraries around. That’s medieval times for you, but at least I have a resource in a local—Garia.
…Garia. Her name triggers a thought in my mind as I run down another street. It’s getting empty this late in the day, but I see another Street Runner disappear the instant I turn down the street. Garia. Oh. Oh yeah.
Tomorrow, I have to do that delivery with Garia. That will be a pain. Not just because we’ve got to carry fifty pounds on our backs, but because she’s going to talk to me the entire time. Which is fine. It’s a normal, Human thing to do. It’s just a pain in the ass.
Well, I promised, so that’s that. Forget about it, but don’t actually forget about it. At least I won’t have to stick around the Runner’s Guild too long waiting for another job.
I wonder whether there will be any consequences for making ice cream. What a ridiculous thought but…let’s explore that. Hm.
It probably wasn’t a good idea to share the recipe, but it made Magnolia happy, and I guess that’s better than her being upset. But what does it mean to spread that kind of information?
Well…if I had to guess, it would mean that the poor person who invented ice cream isn’t going to be as rich as she or he hopes. But it also might mean a revolution of sorts within the city. Ice cream is exceptionally possible, and thanks to magic, easy to make even in this day and age.
Does that mean I might soon see it on the streets? But no—unless you have a mage on standby, ice cream isn’t easy to keep. I guess the nobility will enjoy it for the most part until someone revolutionizes the ice box or fridge. That’s the way it goes, right? Trickle-down, just like how the ice cream cone melts.
I get that far in my reasoning when I notice the other runners.
As I’m jogging down one of Celum’s streets, I notice a few people keeping pace. I’m not going full-tilt with pedestrians, and so I see a lanky stride and turn my head. I blink as a familiar face appears.
Claudeil. He looks busy, running ahead of me; I’m catching up to him. What’s he doing here? He must have gone to Celum with Persua. Hah! I bet she dragged them both here, hoping I failed.
Well, he’s ignoring me, so I ignore him. I’m already looking for somewhere to turn when I frown and realize I’m hearing pounding shoes on the paving stones to my left. I turn my head, and there’s someone else.
Toriska. She comes out of a side-alley, and I blink. Her pace is slower, but every eight steps she blurs ahead a bit. It’s some kind of Skill that makes up for her shit running form, but she’s here too. She gives me one bored look and then glances away as she heads down the street.
The same way as Claudeil. I feel a tingle on my neck and start to slow, but then I see something behind me. More Runners.
They appear from behind me and from other streets in a huge crowd. Ten—no, twenty Street Runners appear out of nowhere and surround me. It’s so sudden that I don’t think of running away before they’re all around me. I drift left—and half a dozen Street Runners from the guild I was at plus Claudeil and Toriska are elbow-to-elbow with me.
What the hell is going on? Suddenly, I’m running in a crowd, and they’re jostling and forcing me to run at their speed. I recognize a few of them from the guild, but why are they here? Well, whatever they’re doing, it’s aimed at me. I try to push out of the crowd, but they’re packed too tightly.
I growl, and they ignore me. Well, of course they do. I try to shove my way left, but when I do, they bunch up and ram into me. Hard.
I throw an elbow, and Claudeil swears as I hit him in the ribs. He’s a big guy, though, and shoves me back. I make a fist.
Okay, no more nice girl, not that there ever was one to begin with. I stop suddenly and trip up two of the runners behind me. It turns out to be a mistake, because they trip and fall, and their shoes kick into my feet and ankles as they go down.
Gyaaaaaaah! That really hurt! But now I’m free. I really want to check my feet and see if their stupid shoes ripped any skin, but something’s up. I turn and run left even as the pack of Street Runners turns to follow me.
“Don’t let her get away!”
That’s Toriska’s voice. I’ll get her and Claudeil! Although he does have a club and Toriska has a knife. Wait—where’s Persua? But before I can think of that, someone cannonballs into me, and I go stumbling left—then a bunch of hands drag me sideways.
They shove me left, onto a smaller street. At this point, I’m really starting to get annoyed. And slightly—worried. I could get nastier, but if it comes down to a fight against this many people, they’d kick the crap out of me. No, screw it. I can lose these idiots the instant I get out of the city gates. I’ll go to Remendia, and if more of them show up there, I’ll talk to the City Watch. Or the Runner’s Guild.
All I have to do is break free of the group. And that’s easy and hard at the same time. The easy part is grabbing one Runner by the shoulder and shoving her hard so she smacks into a wall. The hard part’s going to be when they start trying to hit me.
But they don’t. All at once, the pack of Street Runners in front of me breaks up. I run forwards, towards the mouth of the alleyway before Claudeil and Toriska can catch up. Another three steps and I’ll be in the clear. Why the hell would they—
I see it too late. A foot’s there to trip me up, and though I try to jump over it, it catches me, and down I go. I stumble forwards and hit the street so hard I think I split my lip.
Ow. All the air goes out of me. My teeth explode into pain. I look up—and someone’s staring down at me.
I don’t have the time to speak before she leaps back. The other runners are already retreating as she backs up.
I’m going to kill her. I push myself up, then blink down.
My feet are—sticky. There’s something on them. It looks like a spiderweb? Thick and—and then as I’m trying to tug my legs, I realize I hear something. I hear and feel something.
Rumbling. I feel it in the ground and look up too late. A heavy cart pulled by a large mule thunders at me down the small street.
Oh. Of course.
I roll and see a familiar sallow face grinning at me as the other Runners disappear into alleys. Get up. Get up!
The cart barrels down towards me as I scramble to my feet, despite the webs gluing my feet together. I dodge left, but then something slams into me. It feels like I just hit a patch of solid air. Magic. Down I go, winded.
I look up and see the massive wheels crunching down the road towards me. So quick. And I’m lying right in its way.
Oh. Yeah. I’d almost forgotten what I hate about the world. Sometimes I forget, but I’m always reminded in time. What I hate about the world is—
For once I’m too slow.