Ryoka sat in an inn and munched on her potatoes and stewed meat. She felt guilty about it, but the dinner menu hadn’t exactly been diverse with options, and she was hungry. Still, she felt guilty.
Her plate was about 80% potato and 20% meat. And it wasn’t great meat at that. The potatoes actually weren’t that bad—the people here spiced them up pretty strong with their unique blend of peppers and herbs, so they were palatable, but it was definitely not the kind of meal a healthy runner should eat.
Plus, this was her second plate. The guilt was real, but Ryoka couldn’t do much about it. She took another bite of the steaming potatoes and tried not to think about dieting or proper nutritional intake.
Normally, she avoided carbo-loading unless she was actually going to run a race but…she deserved a treat. Besides, she was officially resting at the moment after all the healing she’d been doing. And again, the inn wasn’t serving anything else, so she had to make do.
Potatoes and meat, with a lot more gristle than she was used to. Still, it tasted good, and she was used to rugged fare, especially when she went camping.
Not modern-day camping, either. Ryoka disdained people who slept in their own car or, worse, in a huge trailer they towed to campsites. No, she preferred roughing it with a sleeping bag, enough food for a few days, and the bare essentials. That was living.
But she had to admit, it would be nice to have a hamburger once in a while. And fresh vegetables like kale. Right now, harvest season had passed and it was late fall (although it certainly didn’t feel that cold), and vegetables were in shorter supply.
More meat, more vegetables, a lot fewer carbs. That would be better. But you got what you paid for. Ryoka sighed and ate another chunk of potato. It wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t great either. At least someone else was enjoying her meal.
Garia finished her third plate of potatoes and meat and took a deep draft from her mug before sighing contentedly. She had a good appetite. Well, she would. Ryoka surreptitiously eyed Garia’s arms and body. She might not have a six pack, but Ryoka hadn’t seen arms that thick on another girl outside of an MMA tournament.
Not that she was muscled like those idiots who used steroids. Garia was just a heavier girl, one who clearly was used to heavy lifting.
“Do you always do the heaviest deliveries possible?”
Garia paused as she raised her mug to her lips.
“Um, yes. Normally. I mean, I’m not too fast, but I can still earn quite a lot on an overnight delivery.”
Ryoka was trying to pretend her shoulders didn’t hurt. Which they did. Immensely. The strain from hauling that much weight…and Garia seemed fine. So Ryoka was fine. Fuck you. She was so fine—she coughed as she reached for a cup of water.
“Those spices you carried here. All the way from Wales. They were heavy. I saw the size of your pack. Must have been sixty, eight pounds of weight. And you jogged the entire way here?”
Garia shifted and blushed a bit.
“Well, if you distribute the weight properly, it’s not that bad. And sometimes I walk a bit if I get tired.”
Holy shit you’re amazing. But that part didn’t come out. Just a grunt—and Garia’s look of pleasure and blush made Ryoka feel so guilty she pretended she didn’t see it.
Ryoka bit into another potato and eyed the browned onions as Garia turned red. She clearly wasn’t used to praise, but Ryoka was impressed by anyone who could run with that much weight.
“The Runner’s Guild requests are a mix between fast deliveries, safe deliveries, and heavy deliveries, right?”
“That’s right. Most deliveries people want fast over long distances, like the ones you take. But sometimes they want to make sure no one reads their message, so that’s important too. But when they need something delivered quickly—well, faster than by cart or wagon and it’s small enough—we get the heavy requests. I take those most of the time. It’s safe. No one wants to steal raw ore or a few bags of sugar. The most expensive stuff I carry are weapons and spices.”
Ryoka wondered just how efficient Runners were compared to a wagon. But then, she’d seen the traffic jams that occurred in cities and how muddy the roads could get. Runners might be expensive, but if you needed something now, they were your only real option.
As Ryoka lifted her fork to her mouth, she glanced up and saw a man staring at her across the room. He immediately glanced back down at his plate as their eyes met, but he was far from the only one. Several other men and women of various ages glanced away or, in a few cases, met Ryoka’s gaze as she looked around the room. Even the barmaids eyed her surreptitiously as they delivered another plate of food for Garia.
Ryoka scowled. Garia noticed the other Runner’s expression and realized what was making Ryoka unhappy.
“They’re just interested, Ryoka. There’s no need to look like that.”
“If they’re so interested, they can come over and talk or they can bugger off.”
Garia blinked. Sometimes, Ryoka used the strangest expressions when she talked, but Garia could usually understand what she meant. The glare Ryoka leveled at her watchers was unmistakable, though. Garia tried to sound reasonable.
“Well, can you blame them? I mean, you are the only Runner to survive the High Passes for years—and without a scratch at that! And when you fell out of the sky—”
“Don’t remind me.”
Ryoka scowled down at her plate and tried not to remember. Her back still ached, even though the healing potions had done their work. Shoulders ache, back ache…headache. At least she hadn’t broken anything again or landed on her head.
“Damn elfish mage bastard.”
“Nothing. Anyways, I didn’t get out unscathed. I got torn up on the way in, and I needed serious healing or I would have died.”
“Oh, so you found a healing potion? Ceria was so worried when she realized she’d given you the mana potions.”
“…Something like that. And it’s odd. I could have sworn she gave me healing potions too.”
“She’s really, really sorry, you know.”
“I know. Anyways, it’s both our faults for not double-checking.”
Ryoka scowled at her half-finished plate. Garia fidgeted, clearly wanting to clear Ceria’s name
“She said she tried to contact you several times. Didn’t you, um, notice?”
Ryoka glared harder at her innocent plate. She tried not to let her voice get too defensive, but it was hard.
“How was I supposed to know I was supposed to touch those damn fireflies to speak with her? I thought I was being hexed or something.”
“Oh, no. That’s the way students at Wistram Academy communicate apparently. Ceria doesn’t know other spells so…”
“I get it. I’m not mad at her. Anyways, I survived. It all worked out.”
Except of course that she had more problems than she’d started out with. Ryoka could still feel Teriarch’s words burning in the back of her mind. But she could ignore them, so long as she reminded herself she still needed to prepare. The strange potion he’d given her was locked in Ryoka’s chest upstairs.
“Come to that, where is Ceria? I haven’t seen her. I’d have assumed she’d be right here along with Gerial and Calruz.”
Garia shook her head.
“They’re all out of the city. Calruz came by and gathered all the members. Apparently, they’re going to Esthelm to prepare to enter the ruins in Liscor.”
Ryoka’s expression didn’t alter noticeably, but she swore internally. She raised her mug to her lips, opened her mouth to ask another question, and this time swore externally.
Fals walked across the inn, flashing a smile at one of the barmaids and clasping hands with someone he recognized. He stopped at Ryoka’s table and hesitated. There were three chairs, but Ryoka’s foot had magically appeared in the third seat.
“Ryoka, how are you? I was hoping I could talk to you!”
Ryoka stared as Fals dragged up another chair and sat next to Garia, who blushed and edged away from him. Ryoka wasn’t quite glaring—mainly because Garia was kicking her none-too-gently in the shins and trying to get her to play nice. She didn’t feel like playing nice.
“I just wanted to congratulate you on your delivery. Everyone in the city’s talking about it.”
“Good for them.”
Garia glared, and Ryoka toned down the rampant hostility in her voice. Fals cleared his throat, looking abashed.
“Look, I’m, ah, sorry about earlier. We didn’t part on the best of terms, did we?”
Ryoka stared. Fals hesitated and then went on.
“The Guild—and I—would like to apologize. Clearly, you’re a great Runner, and we’d hate to lose you. We’ll talk to Magnolia, and if you’d like to take on more requests, we’ll be happy to let you take any one you want.”
Mentally, Ryoka translated his statement. Since she’d won and defied Magnolia, she had stopped blocking Ryoka. Or the Guild wanted a share of her delivery and was willing to flip Magnolia off because they’d had enough of her bossing them around. Well, she could live with that. And so would the Guild.
She didn’t respond, though. Instead, Ryoka slowly and deliberately took a big bite of potato and chewed slowly as she stared down Fals. It was awkward as hell, but she enjoyed his discomfort.
Fals cleared his throat and glanced at Garia, but the other girl was trying not to make eye contact with him and wolfing down her food.
“So, um, how were the High Passes? Did you see a lot of monsters, or were you able to outrun them?”
“Saw a lot of monsters. Nasty ones.”
“…Any interesting ones?”
“Gargoyles, birds with teeth, killer goats, and wolf packs. You’d love it there.”
“Ah. Well—well done on avoiding them. What about the client? I take it you got the request from him in person, right? What was he like? Or is it a she?”
Garia looked up, curious. Ryoka glanced around. She felt like several nearby patrons on each table were listening. She nodded to herself and then looked at Fals.
The conversation stalled. Well, it hadn’t really been going that well in the first place, and Ryoka bluntly shot down all of Fals’ attempts to ask about the High Passes or her delivery. At last, he leaned forwards and gave Ryoka his most charming smile.
“I know you’re still recuperating, but I’d love to go on a delivery with you sometime. Maybe you, me, and Garia could do a request?”
That was Ryoka’s way of saying no, and all three Runners knew it. Fals didn’t falter though.
“Is there, um, anything I can do for you? I know you’re probably still mad, but I’d love to make it up to you. Would you, say, let me buy you a few drinks?”
Ryoka thought about this while Garia tried to signal her to say ‘yes’ covertly. She nodded at last.
“There is something you can do.”
Fals smiled in relief. He exhaled, and his head rose—it had been sinking progressively with each rejection. He gave Ryoka a huge, expectant smile.
“Really? Well then, what is it?”
Ryoka nodded, deadpan.
“You can clear out. I’m talking to Garia.”
He blinked at her while Garia groaned audibly. Fals tried to smile it off, but Ryoka’s expression was still deadpan. After a few seconds, he stood up awkwardly.
“Well, ah, I’ll be going. It was nice talking to you, Ryoka. And I’ll see you around, Garia.”
He walked around the table and paused for only a second by Ryoka. She heard him whisper just loud enough so she could hear it.
“Watch yourself. Persua left the Guild with her group this morning. She’ll probably try something. Even if the Guild’s watching her—she’s gone mad.”
She glanced up. Fals gave her a Gallic shrug and walked off. Ryoka shook her head in disgust and then received a sharp kick to her shin. She glanced up.
“You didn’t have to be so rude.”
Garia hissed at Ryoka, her normally amicable face clouded over by a frown. She looked at Fals as the Runner left the inn, disappointed. Then she turned back to Ryoka.
“He was trying to say sorry, Ryoka. Why’d you chase him off?”
“I’m not going to ruin my dinner listening to forced apologies and have him try to find out what I’m delivering. You know that’s what he was here to do.”
“Not—necessarily. He, uh—why don’t you like him?”
Ryoka blinked at the sudden change in topic.
“He’s annoying. I hate charmers, and he’s not even that charming to begin with. Whose side is he on, anyways?”
“No one’s. He’s trying to keep the Guild together, Ryoka.”
“By stepping on anyone who gets out of line? Good method. He didn’t stop Persua and her cronies from attacking me—and he’s not going to do it again by the sounds of it.”
“He would if you let him stick around. Fals can’t do anything to Persua except talk to her, but he’s trying to help. He was celebrating when he heard they got demoted to Street Runners! And he told Claudeil when no one was sure if you were going to walk again—he told him that if you didn’t walk, he should leave the region that night.”
Ryoka Griffin blinked at Garia. She hadn’t known that. Was Fals going to…pull a Persua on Claudeil? But almost instantly she had a thought, and faster than she could think twice, Ryoka sneered.
“Oh, how chivalrous. Too bad he couldn’t say that to Persua. And I’m not sleeping with him either way.”
She snorted—and Garia pushed her. It was a shove—which sent Ryoka sprawling out of her chair and rolling across the floor.
Garia was surprised—Ryoka rolled into a table and sprang up as the background noise stopped.
Holy heck, I was just pushed by a gorilla. That wasn’t an insult—that was how it felt. Terrifyingly strong. Garia was beet-red as everyone stared at her. Ryoka slowly sat down.
“D-don’t be nasty. Fals likes you. He’s just not—don’t be nasty. You’re the one who keeps provoking Persua, you know. I know she’s bad, but he’s on your side.”
Ryoka raised her eyebrows. She sat without a word. She hadn’t expected that. Nor did she quite believe it. The two Runner girls sat in silence as Garia grew less red, and Ryoka took her time replying. She tried to be more diplomatic this time—and the end result was moderately better.
“Good for him, but I don’t need help.”
“Not even with Persua?”
Garia saw Ryoka’s hand tighten on her fork, almost crushing the cheap pot metal.
“Not even with her. I’ll deal with Persua now that I know what she’s like.”
Garia was doubtful.
“She’s like a dog, Ryoka. Even if you hurt her, she’ll keep coming back. And if you do get her mad, she gets vicious.”
“Oh, she’s like a dog. A female one. And you know what? I’m tired of her shit. If she tries anything again, I’ll put her down.”
Ryoka was about to go on, but Garia started frantically signaling her to stop. Ryoka didn’t stop, though. She’d already seen the multiple reflections in her mug, but some things needed saying.
“She’s annoying, stupid, craven, and she doesn’t know how to run. I still owe her a broken leg. If she thinks she can try something else—”
Ryoka looked up. Persua stood in front of the table, smiling in a not-so-friendly way down at the two Runners. She had her usual group of cronies at her back, and Ryoka spotted a bigger guy behind them. Toriska and Claudeil were flanking someone six-foot-four—with a neck like a tree stump. But Persua was the one Ryoka focused on.
Fals hadn’t lied. The little, false, ‘friendly’ look Persua always gave had calcified. Now, it flaked away, revealing a sharp dagger of hatred that jabbed at Ryoka. She wasn’t just pissed…but it came out of her voice in the most syrupy-sweet tones Ryoka had heard. It made the hairs on her arms stand up.
“Ryoka, Garia! I’m so glad you’re okay! I almost didn’t spot you, but then I saw Garia—she’s impossible to miss even in this crowd—and I decided to say hi!”
Garia turned bright red and looked down at her stack of plates while Ryoka looked up and met Persua’s eyes. A spark of hatred wouldn’t be enough to describe the look that flashed between the two.
Mean girls. Ryoka remembered them from school. Persua was a perfect representation of the school social climber who would tear down anyone she didn’t like.
And like the other girls Ryoka had clashed with, Persua didn’t need an invitation to keep talking. Her eyes flicked to Garia and then back to Ryoka.
“So sorry to interrupt your conversation. Were you talking about me by any chance?”
Garia flinched, but Ryoka’s expression didn’t change. She nodded and raised her mug to Persua and smiled a tiny bit.
“Yeah, sorry, I just called you a bitch.”
Persua’s smile vanished in a heartbeat. Claudeil made a sound that might have been a guffaw—but then he went quiet. Garia’s mouth opened in an ‘o’ of horror as she stared at Ryoka. Toriska looked at Persua, and even she looked worried.
“That’s not very nice. I’d hate to think you were talking behind my back, Ryoka.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll do it to your face. I’m busy, Persua. Go somewhere else.”
“What if I want to stay? I’ve a right to sit in this inn, same as you.”
“Find another table. But if I were you, I’d get out.”
“Is that a threat?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Persua hesitated. She probably hadn’t expected Ryoka to confront her this quickly, but Ryoka knew how the conversation would have gone regardless. She nodded at Persua and her group.
“You lot gonna piss off or do I have to make you leave?”
If Garia could have edged any further back from her table she’d be sitting at the one behind her. For a second, Persua and her friends hesitated. They might be Runners and outnumber the two by a good margin, but Ryoka had a certain edge about her. But then someone shoved his way through the group and stood next to Persua.
Ryoka looked up past Persua and into a solid face. Solid, or ugly, if you wanted to be unkind. Toriska had her knife—but Ryoka had just been facing down Gargoyles and goats with knives for teeth. Toriska was the one who took a step back, and even Claudeil hesitated.
“Persua, the Guild’ll—”
“Hey, Claudeil? Shut up.”
She turned her head, and her friend went quiet. The rest of the Runners were edging back, not wanting to be seen and get in trouble, and if it was just Persua, Claudeil, and Toriska, Ryoka would try them all on—she could grab a plate, and they could eat shards of pottery.
But Persua had brought backup this time. An adventurer scowled down at Ryoka and leaned forwards over the table.
“I’d watch your mouth if I were you, Runner. You should show more respect to your seniors and betters.”
Of course. Ryoka stared into murky green eyes and cursed herself for not remembering. Another trick mean girls liked to use when they couldn’t solve things with words. Run to the biggest boy in the room.
“I don’t know who you are, but you’re in my face. Go away, and take Persua and her crew with you.”
The adventurer blinked. He was doing the classic male trick of crowding Ryoka, and it wasn’t working. She wasn’t even leaning back, and they were nearly nose to nose.
“This is Arnel. He’s a Bronze-ranked adventurer in Celum.”
Persua smiled from behind the adventurer. She patted Arnel on the shoulder, and he straightened and smiled back at her. She made a face when he turned back to glare at Ryoka. It was almost sad to see how obvious her contempt for him was and how much Arnel was being played. Almost. Ryoka had little sympathy for any guy playing the bully part.
Arnel leaned forwards again, this time towards Garia, who shrank back. He glared at Ryoka, who stared back at him until he blinked.
“I think you should be a little more respectful to Miss Persua. An apology would be a good start, and I’d insist on it.”
Garia kicked Ryoka again, hard.
Arnel looked back at Persua, who laughed shrilly. He smiled hostilely at Ryoka.
“I guess then I’d have to teach you a lesson in manners, Runner.”
“Really? That would be amusing to watch.”
The adventurer’s face went blank for a moment. Again, this wasn’t going according to how his brain had plotted the conversation out. But Persua stepped in to help him. She glared down at Ryoka.
“Arnel’s an adventurer. He’s fought monsters and slain countless Goblins. You don’t have that oaf of a Minotaur and that freak half-Elf to protect you now, Ryoka.”
“Who says I need backup?”
This was too much for the impressionable Arnel. He was aware some of the other inn goers were snickering at him, and even the fat innkeeper was working up the nerve to order him to take the fight outside. He snarled and pushed Ryoka roughly in her seat.
“Look, you idiot. I’m giving you only one warning—”
Ryoka stood up. She was shorter than Arnel, but far taller than he expected at 6’1’’, and when she pushed back her chair, the inn went silent. She still had her mug in her hands. Arnel was trying to come up with a good threat, but Persua backed away as Ryoka raised her mug to her lips.
She took a sip of her drink—mainly just for show—and then tossed the rest of her mug’s contents into the adventurer’s face. He blinked as watery ale ran down his nose and chin. Garia’s expression was a waxwork. Persua smiled evilly. Toriska and Claudeil hesitated and looked at Persua’s face and then at each other. Their Guild memberships! But if Ryoka started the fight—
The adventurer was still shifting from shock to outrage when Ryoka decked him with a spinning backhand. He crashed to the ground, and she tossed the mug at Persua. Not hard—well, okay, hard enough that the other girl had to duck before the container broke her nose, but not as hard as Ryoka could have tossed it. The cheap pottery shattered to bits, and Ryoka waited for Arnel to stand back up.
“You craven whore!”
He shouted as he rushed at her. Ryoka waited patiently as he came at her. She’d already moved far enough away from the table and cleared the chair from behind her.
The adventurer rushed at her, over a hundred—maybe two hundred pounds of angry guy. Ryoka shifted her weight and timed her strike. When the adventurer was only a few feet away, she moved.
Ryoka balanced on one leg while her other extended. She didn’t quite kick—it was more like a push. A powerful push that broke the adventurer’s charge and sent him stumbling back.
He came back, of course. They always did. But by that point, Ryoka had the room, leverage, and timing to set up her roundhouse. It came up and across his ribs, making a dull thudding sound as it struck him.
The adventurer gasped, lost the air in his lungs, and stumbled back. But he didn’t fall down.
Ryoka tried not to wince. She’d hit him hard, but he was wearing something hard underneath his clothing. Chain mail? It felt like she’d kicked that.
Quickly, before he could move, she snap-kicked him in the chest. It wasn’t a Muay Thai move—but she didn’t have enough room for anything else.
This time, Arnel fell down, but he got up at once. Ryoka grimaced and hopped back as he swung at her. She threw a punch, but he caught it and lashed out at her face.
Ryoka caught his fist on an arm and felt the heavy blow. Damn. This wasn’t good. Now Arnel was really mad, and he was swinging wildly at her. She dodged and weaved backwards, but she had little room to maneuver. Plus, Ryoka was on the wrong foot mentally.
She wasn’t used to people getting up after she hit them.
Dodge, dodge—Ryoka threw a counter and hit him squarely on the jaw. But he was tough, and when he struck back, he finally landed a blow.
Ryoka felt the impact on her head and twisted her neck, but it still hurt. She backed up, and the adventurer came at her. She tried to keep him back with punches, but he was more than willing to trade hits.
He kept rushing her, and the tables and chairs made it nearly impossible for Ryoka to weave and dodge like she’d been taught. She instead raised her hands up around her head, forming a guard on both sides of her head. It was a traditional Muay Thai guard, but the problem was the adventurer wasn’t trying to hit or kick her that much.
He was a guy, and she had the definite sense he didn’t want to hit her so much as take her down. He kept trying to go for the bear hug. She let him get close but grabbed his shoulders and swept his feet out as he lunged.
Again, he went down. Ryoka wanted to stomp on his face or kick him in the nuts or both—but something flew at her head. She struck the mug down with one hand and glanced up. Persua glared and threw another glass, which missed Ryoka by miles.
Ryoka’s moment of inattention cost her. Arnel surged upwards, and she was too slow to get away. He seized her left arm and began punching at Ryoka. She hammered at his face, but he wouldn’t let go.
He was strong. She couldn’t break free just by pulling, not that she had any intention to. Arnel hit Ryoka twice in the side of the face—not hard because he couldn’t get a good angle. She’d bloodied his nose and got him twice on the face, but he now pulled back for a big punch.
There was no way to get away. Ryoka got ready. She’d take the punch and then hit him with a knee. Hopefully she wouldn’t kill him or break anything too vital, but enough was enough.
She braced herself for a hit to her ribs. Arnel swung—
And Garia grabbed his hand.
All of the man’s momentum carried him forwards, but Garia was a tree that he crashed into. He fought to get her to let go, but Garia had hold of his hand with her own, and her grip was like steel.
It was a three way tug-of-war with Arnel holding Ryoka and Garia holding him. Not for long, though. The instant his attention shifted to Garia, Ryoka acted. She clocked the man with a downwards elbow so fast he’d let go and she was away before he could blink.
“Calm down! Everyone calm down!”
At last, Ryoka could hear what Garia was saying over the roaring of blood in her ears. Arnel was still cursing at her, tugging at Garia’s arm, and Persua was shouting for her friends to help him. But the other Runners didn’t want to get close, especially once they saw how Garia was effortlessly holding the bigger man back.
“Let go, damn you!”
“Come on, we can work this out—”
Ryoka tried to move to block, but Arnel’s fist caught Garia on the mouth even as she was talking. The bigger girl stumbled, and he wrenched his hand free. Triumphantly, Arnel turned on Ryoka and raised his fists.
Garia stumbled, put her hand to her face, and looked up at the other man as Ryoka danced back. Her eyes burned, and she straightened. Garia made a clumsy fist and then moved forwards.
Ryoka was playing tag with her fist, and Arnel’s face was it. He still wasn’t going down or even slowing, but then a planet interposed itself between her and the adventurer: Garia. Arnel raised his hands for a hammer blow, but too late. Slow as she was, the other Runner was in the way. And then it happened.
Garia threw a punch.
It was slow. Ryoka saw the other girl telegraph the motion, and she had terrible form. But when she hit the adventurer, he made a sound. Or rather, his body made a sound.
Ryoka had never seen someone’s feet leave the floor from a punch. Arnel levitated for a second and then touched the ground as Garia’s fist let him down back to earth. He folded up like a sack of potatoes.
He was out. Completely out, without even a chance to object. Ryoka blinked down at the adventurer and saw the chain mail had deformed around Garia’s punch. The other girl rubbed at her hand and then turned.
Claudeil had a chair raised. It was mid-swing when Garia caught it. She lifted it out of his hands, and he tried to hang on—until he felt that strength. Then he let go. Toriska had her dagger drawn, but she hadn’t jumped into the fight—mostly waved it around. She looked at Garia, at the Bronze-rank adventurer, and backed up. Ryoka was one thing, and Claudeil and Toriska hated her enough, but—Garia?
The rest of the Street Runners were already running. Persua had slipped out the door before the fight had even ended. Her friends made to follow suit, but Ryoka caught Claudeil and threw him into a table. He scrambled up, yelping, as she gave him a damn good kick to his back. Ryoka managed to punch Toriska hard enough to bruise her cheek, and then they were gone.
The aftermath of a tavern brawl was never fun, especially when you had an innkeeper screaming at you. But Arnel had money—barely enough to cover the costs—and Ryoka wasn’t about to pay for something she hadn’t started. Well, she had started it, but she still wasn’t going to pay.
The upshot of it was that Garia and Ryoka were kicked out of the inn, at least for the rest of dinner. They walked down the street, Garia talking excitedly to Ryoka.
“You were amazing! He barely touched you the entire time!”
“Eh. I should have knocked him out in the first few moments. He was tougher than I thought. Got me a few times.”
Gingerly, Ryoka touched at her cheek and arms. Bruises. Not too deep, but annoying. She deserved them, though, for being so sloppy.
“But the way you moved! He was an adventurer, and you treated him like some kind of Level 1 [Thug]! How’d you do it?”
“Oh, it’s just martial arts. A bit of Muay Thai and other styles.”
Ryoka glanced at Garia’s blank face and elaborated.
“It’s a way to fight unarmed. You learn how to kick, punch, throw, etcetera properly.”
“Really? This Muy—muy tai thing is good? Is it a Skill?”
Ryoka wanted to groan or roll her eyes.
“Not a Skill. It’s something you learn, not a class or anything. I learned it when I was a kid. You could learn it too.”
“Really? Well, I mean, I’d love to know how to move like that. You were amazing back there! You’re practically as good as an adventurer yourself!”
Ryoka laughed shortly.
“He wasn’t that great. And martial arts don’t work on monsters. Believe me, I figured that out the hard way.”
“Still, I couldn’t believe it. When you threw the mug in his face I thought we’d have to run for sure. But you took him down!”
Ryoka stopped. She eyed Garia and shook her head with a frown.
“No. You took him down. With one punch.”
Garia blushed and shook her head.
“I was just angry. You hit him way more than I did.”
This time, it was Ryoka’s turn to object.
“Don’t sell yourself short. That last punch was serious business. I hit that guy several times and he didn’t fall down, but you went right through his chainmail shirt. You’re far stronger than both me and that adventurer. That last punch you threw was harder than my kick.”
“Well, you know…I carry a lot of heavy things…”
Ryoka realized Garia was turning red, and not because she was happy. The barefoot girl stopped in the nearly empty street and eyed Garia.
“What’s wrong? It was a great punch. Your form was terrible, but being strong’s not a problem.”
“It’s just—it’s just a bit embarrassing, that’s all. You know?”
“No. Explain it to me.”
Garia clearly didn’t want to, but Ryoka wouldn’t let her off the hook. She sighed.
“I’m a [Runner]. And—I know I’m bigger than most girls. I just don’t like talking about my size.”
“I’m glad you think so, but—it’s because of my class. And the way I eat, but my class is part of it. That’s why I’m so strong too, but it’s embarrassing.”
There was no getting out of it. Garia looked around, but there was no one around to hear her. Even so, she lowered her voice.
“Um, I was a [Farm Worker] before I became a [Runner]. I got to Level 14 before I changed classes. That’s why I’m so…so…”
She blushed deeply red. Ryoka looked blankly at Garia.
“So strong? What’s the problem?”
“I’m big, Ryoka! I don’t want to be, but [Farm Workers] bulk up, and it’s impossible to lose weight! My dad says it’s fine and that I take after him, but I’d rather my mother. I don’t want to be big. I want to be small and light like you and—”
Garia looked like she was about to cry. Her face was red, and she was starting to stammer. After a moment, Ryoka patted her on the shoulder.
“I’m not light. Well, I am in shape, but so are you. What’s wrong with being that strong? Anyways, a [Farm Worker] doesn’t sound like that bad a job—class. Why do you care?”
Garia shook her head despairingly. She didn’t know how to explain it.
“It’s not a great class. Or a job, really. Even [Farmers] get more respect since they actually know how to till the land and take care of it properly. I just helped out with the plowing, lifting, and so on. But when I used to tell people what class I had, they’d laugh—or they’d figure it out because of how I looked.”
Ryoka didn’t get it. She really didn’t, but it sounded like there was some elitism amongst classes. Class warfare in the literal sense? But she understood the general problem.
“People are bastards no matter what world you’re in. Look, forget about it. That class helped you out if you’re that strong without needing any training, right?”
Garia nodded and sniffed.
“It was helpful. Even if no one likes the class, we get some useful Skills. [Lesser Strength] is the first Skill most warriors get, but [Farm Workers] get it too. Um, I got that on my second level up. But then there’s [Enhanced Strength], which is what I have, and I’ve heard if you reach really high levels, some people get [Greater Strength].”
“And that’s rare?”
“I’ve never seen anyone with it. But yeah, [Enhanced Strength] only comes to warrior classes around Level 30. The fact that I got it so early on means I’m a lot stronger than normal. Dad used to make me help him pull out tree stumps instead of using a horse.”
You had to know something about farming—or roots—to understand what that meant. She and her father had…?
That was impressive. Ryoka had always guessed Garia was strong, but this afternoon had confirmed it for her. She paused and thought before asking another question.
“If this Skill is so good, why doesn’t everyone become a [Farm Worker] for a while before becoming an adventurer? That seems like the smartest move.”
Garia looked surprised.
“Why would they do that? No one wants to work on a farm. It’s boring and tiring, Ryoka.”
“But for the Skill—”
“You don’t know you’ll get it right away. I just got lucky. Okay, a lot of workers like me get at least [Lesser Strength] quickly, but it depends. Anyways, I worked on my father’s farm until I was eighteen, and I only hit Level 14 even though I worked every day from dawn till dusk. It’s not worth it.”
It sounded—well, it sounded like there was some inefficiency in the way people thought about Skills. Ryoka didn’t play many video games, but if she could get this [Enhanced Strength] from working on a farm as a kid, she’d do that. But then again—18 years was a long time, it was true.
It was a moot point anyways since Ryoka didn’t intend to level, even if she was jealous of Garia’s strength. But the other girl was clearly embarrassed by her body and her class, so Ryoka let the topic drop.
“At least Persua got taught a lesson, although I missed my chance to break her arm. I’ll have to do it next time I see her.”
Garia winced. She knew Ryoka wasn’t kidding.
“Please don’t. If you do, she’ll try something worse.”
“Worse than getting an adventurer to beat the crap out of me? I think I’ll take my chances.”
Ryoka shook her head. She’d have to do something about that girl. Killing her was tempting, but she probably couldn’t get away with it.
“Never mind. I appreciate the help. But I’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
“You’re hungry? I know a good place to eat if you want—”
“I mean, I’ve got stuff to do. Look, you said Ceria’s in Esthelm, right? Where’s that?”
Garia scratched her head as she tried to remember.
“Near the road that goes to Liscor. It’s down south, about sixty miles away?”
Ryoka nodded. She could do that in a single night. She eyed the rooftops surreptitiously and looked around. Casually, she raised her voice as she talked to Garia.
“I’ll sleep here for the night. Then I might go and head on down. If you want to learn how to fight properly, visit me there.”
“Maybe. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing—or if I want to fight. I don’t like violence.”
Ryoka clapped Garia on the shoulder.
“It’s your choice. But with a punch like that, it would be a shame not to learn how to hit the right way. I’ll teach you next time we meet, how about that?”
It was the first time Garia had ever seen Ryoka being pushy about—anything, really. She agreed she might give it a shot and watched as the barefoot girl jogged back to her inn for the night.
Garia stared down at her hand. It was still callused from her days of long work out in the sun. She made a fist experimentally. It felt clumsy, but Ryoka had been impressed. That was rare enough.
“But all the way to Esthelm. That’s a far…”
But she didn’t have anything else she was committed to doing, and there was always work for someone willing to haul heavy goods long distance. More to the point, it might be better for Garia to skip town as well.
The Runner girl thought about what Persua’s reaction to the day’s events would be. Not to mention the local Adventurer’s Guild. They would not be happy to learn one of their own had been beaten by a civilian, let alone a Runner. Garia shuddered and thought that maybe she would take a few long distance requests this week. Probably towards Esthelm, but at the very least away from Celum.
She began to slowly jog off back to her own inn. From a rooftop, the [Assassin] watched Garia go. She wasn’t important, but any friend of Ryoka needed to be reported to Magnolia. It was just as well the girl had ended the fight before he’d needed to step in.
Silently, the nondescript man followed Ryoka stealthily back to her inn. It would ordinarily have been a chore protecting the girl from the inevitable reprisal from both Runner and Adventurer’s Guild, but tonight was an exception. All he had to do was wait. Someone else had an appointment with Ryoka Griffin, whether the girl liked it or not.
Ryoka retired to her room early and slept for about one hour. Well, slept was a strong word. She napped lightly, waking up when her iPhone quietly set off its alarm.
Having an iPhone was incredibly convenient. She just wished she could cast the [Repair] spell rather than needing a mage to do it. Just another reason to visit Ceria.
It was fully night as Ryoka got dressed. She moved around her room quietly, gathering items while her ears strained for the faintest noise.
Nothing. Well, she hadn’t expected to hear anything. She just hoped her closed curtains were enough to conceal her movements.
Ryoka’s eyes flicked to the window. In Celum—in every city in this world really, the night truly was dark. There were no neon lights or passing cars to provide illumination. And while some lamps and torches provided light on the street, the rooftops and many streets had only the faint moonlight to light the way.
Ryoka didn’t have much. Just some clothes, some money, her iPhone, and books. And she’d sold the books she’d already read, so all of her possessions fit neatly into her Runner’s pack. She left a few coins on the table and opened the window silently.
The [Assassin] who was reluctantly known as Theofore stood on the inn’s rooftop and tried to keep his senses alert. It was hard, though. He was dressed in nondescript dark clothing, but it wasn’t quite enough to keep the night’s breeze from chilling him. Winter would soon be upon the land, and when that happened, stakeouts such as these would become direly painful without heating crystals or expensive magics.
But this was the job, and he was a professional. Not a high-level one, but he was still competent enough to be assigned to Lady Magnolia on request. That was also because the Guild really didn’t want to waste a higher-level member on a trivial assignment, but this Ryoka Griffin had proven to be quite a challenge to keep track of. The High Passes incident had been disastrous. But at least she was asleep—
A movement below made Theofore jerk up. He heard a window slide open, and then a lithe figure swung herself up onto the roof. There was nowhere to run, and so Ryoka saw Theofore crouched silently in place over her room.
For a moment, both figures stared at each other across the short distance. Then Ryoka got to her feet.
Theofore leapt up, hands going to his knives, but of course he couldn’t attack. He had to keep her in the inn, though, which meant hand-to-hand combat. Again, he was trained in this area as well, but Ryoka Griffin was far stronger than the average Bronze-rank adventurer.
Ryoka stepped forwards on the roof, and Theofore leaned back just in time to avoid the quick jab she aimed at his face. He struck out at her with his one unarmed combat Skill—[Nerve Strike: Paralysis]—but she swatted his hand down.
Damnation. This was bad. The inn’s roof was on a slant that made dodging and fighting twice as hard, even for an [Assassin]. If Theofore had the [Sure Footing] Skill, things might have been different, but—
Ryoka lashed out with an overhead chop. It was completely easy to block, but that was the point. As the [Assassin]’s arm went up, Ryoka stepped forward and kicked.
He’d seen her fight, but he still wasn’t prepared for the low kick that smashed into his right leg, just above his knee. Theofore staggered. It felt as if an axe had struck his leg, numbing it with pain. He danced backwards, trying not to show any trace of agony on his face.
But Ryoka didn’t advance; instead, she hefted her backpack and turned. Theofore cursed and dashed forwards, but she was already running. Ryoka’s bare feet kicked off as she ran along the slanted rooftop. She reached the edge and leapt.
In the darkness of the night, a lone figure hurtled over the rooftop and landed with a heavy thump on another rooftop. She ran, vaulted over a chimney with both hands, and started leaping across buildings in a style known in her world as Parkour.
To Theofore, it looked hauntingly similar to the movements of higher level [Assassins]. He gave chase, cursing as his injured leg slowed him down. Ryoka was already gaining speed. He could not lose her.
She knew he was following her. Her head turned back for a moment as she saw him dashing across the roofs after her. Theofore couldn’t see in the darkness, but he thought she smiled for a moment.
Ryoka turned her head forwards and increased her speed. One hand came up, and a finger rose in an unmistakable gesture.
Theofore growled and ran faster, ignoring his damaged limb. He wouldn’t lose her. He was a professional, and he’d been trained to outrun even [Runners] if necessary.
The two raced from rooftop to rooftop, vaulting, rolling, and jumping, probably giving the inhabitants within a start as they pounded across the uneven terrain. Ryoka was ahead of Theofore by a few houses, but he would catch her soon enough. He was an [Assassin], and she was just a [Runner].
He would catch her. [Assassins] were known for their ability to follow their targets on high-speed chases. They were known for their mastery of climbing and swift movement on rooftops. They were known for—
Ryoka leapt onto another roof and slid down the roof tiles, knocking them out of place. She kicked off the rooftop, flipped over, and rolled as she struck the street cobblestones below. Theofore gaped as Ryoka rolled back onto her feet and kept running without even pausing. In seconds, she was out of sight.
He paused on the rooftop. Even if he’d known what she would do, he would have wasted valuable seconds finding a handhold and swinging down. He definitely would not have tried jumping all the way down like she did. Was it a Skill? Or—
It didn’t matter. She was on the ground, and Theofore knew he wouldn’t catch her now. He knew where she was going, which was a small mercy.
But Theofore knew Lady Magnolia would not be happy with his failure. Slowly, reluctantly, he began moving back to the inn where Ryoka had been staying. He would have to report. There would be repercussions, and they would fall on his head. He would most likely be reassigned or a senior member of the Guild would be sent. But that was only the Guild. More importantly, Lady Magnolia would not be happy.
She wouldn’t be happy at all.
Lady Magnolia was a happy woman almost all of the time. She was deliberately happy and good natured because people liked a happy person. It lowered their guards, and besides, she found happiness more preferable to suspicion or pessimism anyways.
And in this case, Magnolia was happy because she was finally able to reach a confrontation. True, it wasn’t on her terms, but you couldn’t win every battle. Ryoka had managed to avoid coming to her for quite some time, so Magnolia would go to her.
It was a poor bargaining position to be the seeking party rather than the one holding all the cards, but sometimes it was necessary to be proactive. And in this case, Magnolia had decided to up the ante.
Happiness was good, as was being kind and generous. Generosity opened many doors that threats would not. Generosity and implicit but unstated threats opened even more doors in Magnolia’s experience.
Case in point. Magnolia was visiting an inn, a lowly establishment not suited to a woman of her rank and station. Personally, she would have enjoyed visiting an inn if it weren’t unseemly, but in this case, her visit was purely business. And here generosity had done its work well. A kind suggestion or two and a few gold coins and the innkeeper had cleared out the inn for her.
It was late, and no doubt the occupants were unhappy to be roused and sent out. But some money and a meal courtesy of Lady Magnolia and most ills would be soothed. It was fine if they disliked her.
The Runners of Celum and the entire region had protested her requirements that they fulfill every delivery. They claimed they were exhausted. They stated, fairly, that she was pushing them past their limits and working them to the bone.
And yet they were levelling. A fact that they conveniently seemed to forget. Magnolia remembered it. Kindness…kindness was a useful, moral thing in some situations. In others, it was inefficient. Useless for doing what had to be done.
A [Butler] opened the carriage door as Magnolia let Ressa help her out. A light rain had begun to fall over the city, so a cloth parasol enchanted with the best [Water Resistance] spells was immediately placed over the [Lady]’s head.
Her maids and a few other men and women she’d discreetly hired had spread out around the inn, and ‘discouraged’ several Runners and a few adventurers who’d been lurking around the back door.
Ressa accompanied Lady Magnolia to the second floor. The other [Assassins] and [Maids] remained below, awaiting Magnolia’s orders. She had no fear. Her Head Maid was enough of an escort even if Ryoka should prove belligerent, and of course a [Lady] had her own means of defense.
But Magnolia did not anticipate much trouble. Or rather, she expected she could handle whatever trouble emerged with her own Skills. She stopped in front of Ryoka’s door and knocked.
No response. Magnolia exchanged a glance with Ressa, and she tried again more loudly.
Again, there was no response. The [Lady] frowned. She would have expected Ryoka to notice the inn’s occupants being roused, but, ah, perhaps the girl was being stubborn. Very well.
Lady Magnolia raised her voice.
“Good evening Miss Griffin. May I come in?”
There was no response.
Strange. Lady Magnolia knew that should have worked. She raised her voice.
“Ryoka, my dear? Hello? Is anyone there?”
Dead silence. Lady Magnolia frowned.