I am an [Emperor]. That is fact.
But I don’t know what it means. After an entire day of speculation and worry, Durene has no more answers for me. Myself, I’m just content to find out.
I guess it’s because of my class that Durene is freaking out so much. To me, it’s just a title that doesn’t mean much; something that happened to me because I tried something new. But to Durene, that class automatically makes me royalty.
No—isn’t an [Emperor] even higher in status than a [King]? A king might rule by virtue of lineage, but an emperor could in theory rule over multiple countries, and thus kings.
I guess it’s a huge deal, but again, I’m only Level 1, and all I have is one odd skill. When I told Durene, she said she couldn’t see anything like an aura about me, but Skills don’t work all the time necessarily. Some, like her [Enhanced Strength] skill are essentially permanent passive changes, but others have to be used.
As far as I can tell, there’s no word or catchphrase that activates [Aura of the Emperor]. Believe me, I tried and probably looked quite silly doing so. Whatever it is, the skill like my class is a mystery that will have to wait.
I sigh as I carefully walk across the dirt forest path near Durene’s house. It’s been a while since I’ve been by myself, and to be honest, I needed this break. My lovely host has been fussing over me all day, and she didn’t even want to let me go out on my own.
That was an argument she was never going to win. Her concern is touching, but I’m hardly a quadriplegic; I need to stretch my legs and I hate being chaperoned all of the time. It’s fairly easy to keep track of the dirt path, and I’m hardly about to wander off that far. Durene showed me the route, and I have it memorized.
“What a mess.”
It really is. I’ve gotten used to living in this world thanks to Durene, but now a bunch of questions are circling around in my head. How can I get back home? Is it even possible?
Durene is convinced that whatever happened to me was the result of magic. I tend to agree, but if any normal spell could teleport me across worlds, I’ll eat my hat. No, something big happened that dragged me here, and I need to find out what.
And I won’t be able to do that in Riverfarm. I need to go out into the world. A lone, blind guy in a world full of monsters and magic.
That would be my death. But it’s different for an [Emperor], isn’t it? What’s the difference between a blind man and a blind [Emperor]?
Maybe everything. Because one of them is an [Emperor].
Norton I of America. Do you know why I loved his story? Because he was the Emperor of the United States in his head, and nothing could take that away from him.
Being blind sometimes sucks. For me it’s normal, but there are days when I grow frustrated. Frustrated because other people can do things so effortlessly that I struggle to do. I’ll never catch a ball, or drive, or even paint. I can’t experience some of the things people talk about.
It’s a bit unfair. And when I was young, I hated the way I was treated. Sometimes, yes, sometimes, I felt like less of a person because people thought of me that way. Here’s a blind kid. He can’t appreciate this, or do that. He’s different. Not the same.
But I am blind. I have my own worth, regardless of whether people acknowledge that.
I stop walking. Here I am, in a forest I can’t see. In a world totally different from my own. Some might say that it’s not that different for someone who can’t see, but I can sense the difference in every step I take. I feel the same wonder when I hear a new bird’s call, or touch Durene’s hands and know that she is different.
I am an [Emperor]. No one can take that from me. I may have gotten that class easily—just by declaring myself so. But I believed in it, even so. I believed. When you are blind, sometimes the world is uncertain. I have to trust when I get up and walk around my house that everything is the way I left it.
I trust the things I touch with my cane, just like a seeing person trusts their eyes. But I am prepared for the times when I miss a branch or something with my cane and walk right into a shrub. I am ready, in short, to walk off a cliff some days because I can’t ever be 100% certain something is right in front of me. But I have to believe I’ll step onto solid ground.
So believe this: I am an [Emperor]. I should start acting like one rather than worrying about what it means.
What should I do, then? What would an [Emperor] do? I think for a while as I continue my slow amble through the forest.
“I am an [Emperor]. Ergo, everything I want to do is what an [Emperor] would do. There are no wrong choices.”
But are there even more right ones? I remember studying Charlemagne’s history. The man was an imperialist; as far as I can recall he was more or less personally involved in wars of conquest. And yet, he also instituted huge reforms across his empire.
So did Norton, at least in theory. He wanted to abolish Congress to safeguard his empire, and rumors have it that he actually stood in front of a mob to protect Chinese immigrants during race riots. Regardless of whether that’s historically true or not, an [Emperor] has a duty to his empire and those he rules over. He keeps them safe, protects them; makes them better.
I would like to do the same for Durene. If she is my one subject, then what can I do for her? I walk and think, and only stop when I notice Durene not-so-subtly trying to shadow me in the forest. She really can’t hide at all. But she does care, which is why I like her.
I do like her a lot. I just wish she’d tell me everything.
What would any good [Emperor] do? What would any sensible person do when finding themselves in another world, much less a game world? Today I asked Durene countless questions about Riverfarm and the world. I’d asked her a lot before, but today I compiled it all together in my head.
“So you’ve never really gone further than a few miles outside of the village?”
Durene and I sit together, sipping from some home-brewed mint tea. It’s quite strong since we’re using actual mint steeped in hot water. It’s a shame we can’t add some honey or sugar, but Durene has neither.
She’s not rich. That much is clear, although I have to dance around the topic a bit.
“So you earn a few coins from selling your crops and animals now and then. But you’ve never gone with the trading cart to town?”
She shifts in her seat and slurps from her tea. She’s uncomfortable. I sigh.
“You know, Durene. I don’t really care if you’re a bit different from other people. You’re a nice young woman; regardless of who you are, I won’t judge you.”
Silence. Then, her deep voice quavers.
“Do you—? Did someone—?”
“No. But I am smart enough to know you’re hiding something. But I won’t ask until you’re ready. I do hope you know you can trust me, though.”
“I do. I do! It’s just—”
It sounds like she’s on the verge of tears. I reach out and touch her mug instead of her fingers. Durene laughs as I make a face and find her huge hand.
“Take your time. I’m not going anywhere. Now, tell me. What’s it like living here? Do you ever see any monsters?”
Monsters. I can’t even imagine what one of them would be like. According to Durene, they’re not that bad around here. Goblins are the only real nuisance, and the village immediately sends for adventurers to root them out if they’re spotted nearby.
But—yeah, there is a huge difference in the amount of danger people in this world have to live with. I might worry about bears in parts of the world, or muggers, or war, but never horrible little green creatures with teeth like knives.
God, they sound creepy.
“It’s bad when Goblins come. Everyone has to give money to raise a bounty on them, but it always takes the adventurers a few weeks to arrive, and I don’t know what we’d do if a Goblin Chieftain ever showed up.”
Goblins are apparently a bigger threat in the north part of Izril than they are the south. It’s about population density, or so I’m guessing. Humans occupy more of the north than the south which belongs to Drakes and Gnolls and something called the Antinium. So monsters accordingly spring up more near the north since there’s more to eat. Odd; I would have expected them to be more plentiful in places where Humans are less common, but then, these monsters aren’t prey, but our predators.
Riverfarm isn’t that far north—it’s decently far away from the High Passes—a huge mountain range similar to the Himalayas which divide the continent in two. Apparently the biggest city close to us is Invrisil; the city of adventurers, so named because they have the largest population of adventurers active and retired on the continent.
“They’ve got Gold-rank teams there. You can even find Named Adventurers passing through sometimes! And they say the markets are filled with magical items and wondrous things, like the parts of dead monsters and rare gems and artifacts.”
Durene’s voice is filled with wonder as she describes the city. I have to confess, the image sways me as well. Of course, the adventurers that Riverfarm can afford are a far cry from those elites.
All of the villagers, including Durene, are frankly poor. Durene is especially poor, but the villagers aren’t exactly rolling in wealth either. They earn a few gold coins every year when the weather is good and the crops are plentiful. At best. During the worst times they’re subsistence farmers, or they’re starving.
“Folks save their coins. Mister Prost saves all his coins for instance; he only spends money when he has to buy new tools or fix his wagon. He’s going to have to buy a new plow horse soon; I help out, but Evera—the horse—is old. And they want to start raising pigs, but that’s an investment, and they could always use more coin to fix up the house…”
“Is anyone rich in your village? The [Blacksmith]?”
“Not really. He doesn’t have that many levels and you know, he’s still a [Farmer] as well. There’s another [Blacksmith] in town that has more levels. Occasionally some people from other villages come by with work, but never for more than a few silver coins at best.”
“It sounds like your village does fairly well for itself.”
“Some years. Last year was okay, but the year before that was hungry. If we have a bad harvest or if winter comes early, it’s very hard. The villagers do their best, but sometimes bad things happen. And ever since they took me in—”
She breaks off. I think I understand this bit. Durene is huge. She’s not necessarily fat; she doesn’t let me touch her, but I know that she can move about with surprising speed, faster than I can. So she’s probably not fat, but she is big. She eats roughly four times what I do every meal, at least.
“I try to help out a lot. But I can only pull and lift stuff. I don’t have any Skills.”
“You said you were a Level 6 [Farmer], didn’t you?”
“Yes. I’m not too low-level for my age—some people are around Level 15, but I didn’t even apprentice and I taught myself so I leveled up slower.”
“What about your father? Your mother? What did they do when you were growing up?”
Durene hesitates. I wait in silence, the empty cup of mint tea in my hands, shedding the last vestiges of warmth. Then her voice mumbles.
“Mom died when I was four. I never met my dad. He’s dead too.”
I think Durene is still depressed after our last conversation. We don’t talk much—that is to say, not about important things. I spend most of the time helping Durene finish up her harvesting. Most of her plants are fully grown, and we pull up several pumpkins today.
She wants to get ready for the winter, although it feels perfectly fine to me right now. Then again, I don’t know this world so weather could change a lot quicker around here.
I also sense that Durene is wrestling with something in her head, most likely whether to tell me about her past. It feels like it’s on the tip of her tongue sometimes when she pauses in talking with me.
But not yet. I abide. I’ve learned patience, and in the meantime I can teach Durene some things.
“So, your heart sends blood across the rest of your body. From your head to your toes. So you could lose an arm or a leg if you made sure to stop the blood loss, but your heart is essential.”
Durene scratches at her head.
“But doesn’t the heart get tired? I get tired from walking all day. How can a heart keep beating all the time?”
“It’s the strongest muscle in our bodies. And it does get tired. People have heart attacks—times where the heart stops—as they get older. There’s a reason we can’t live forever; our bodies start breaking down as things stop working.”
“Oh. That makes sense.”
“I don’t know how old people get in this world, but the oldest people from my world are around a hundred years old. Rarely more than that.”
“A hundred? That’s a lot! Old man Schnel died when he was 62, and he was old.”
“Well, some things affect how old you’ll grow. Some of it is just chance or your body, but what you eat, how you live—all of that can affect your health. Like food. Remember what I said about a balanced meal?”
It’s fun teaching Durene the basics of biology, science, and so on. I didn’t really feel like math was that important and her speaking skills are good—she can’t write though, and I can’t help her with that.
No one taught her. But I will. Not everything will be necessarily that practical, but I hope some of it will help. Durene drinks down all of my lessons like a sponge as we harvest and cook. Helping her grow is something that makes me happy. It’s what an [Emperor] would do. What I will do.
More harvesting. Apparently, the other villagers are also making their last harvests of the season. They might get one more yield from their crops, but maybe not. We’re storing a lot of Durene’s goods in the cellar.
…I had no idea her house had a cellar, but she has a rather large root cellar outside! That’s one of the things that blows me away; I would have never guessed there was a trapdoor right over there.
I leveled up last night! I am now a Level 2 [Emperor]. What triggered the change? Durene has no idea, but I think I know. She’s my subject. Teaching her and tending to this small cottage which I claimed as my own is the same as improving my empire, all of it in fact. It’s all about perception. Perhaps there is a limit to how much exp I’d get this way, but for now I’ll take what I can get.
No idea what the extra level will do for me, though. I haven’t gotten any skills and still haven’t figured out the [Aura of the Emperor] yet.
I wake up when I hear the oddest sound. Footsteps; Durene’s. Crunching.
Now, footsteps are generally easy for me. I can tell some people apart by how they walk. There’s a tempo to their pace, and of course weight makes their footsteps sound different too. Durene is clearly distinct.
But what is she stepping on? It can’t be what I think it is.
It is snow! Apparently the entire world decided to up and change as I slept. Durene tells me the Winter Sprites must have brought snow to the region, which makes me wonder if she doesn’t understand how the weather works.
But no—apparently in this world, weird dancing lights known as Winter Sprites can manipulate the weather. They’re also a bit of a hazard, according to Durene. They’ll throw snow at you if you bother them or play tricks.
That doesn’t quite make sense, but the important thing is clear: it’s winter. And oh boy, it’s cold!
I help Durene strike some sparks into the fireplace of her cottage. She had to run outside for some firewood early in the morning.
“I usually keep a pile inside, but I forgot to this year. The wood’s a bit wet, but I think it’ll light.”
Durene sneezes after she says this. She sounds cold. And there’s an unpleasant amount of chill in her house without a roaring fire in her fireplace. I said her home was cozy, but it’s apparent that Durene could use a better house, like the ones in the village perhaps.
Frustrating. That’s what it is. I help make a thick soup while Durene clears snow, brings in chopped firewood and so on, and we have a hearty meal. But I can’t help but feel like I am a drag now that snow is making it practically impossible for me to find my way around outside.
It takes a while for the fire to start, but once it does we’re warm again. Durene claims she can chop enough wood for the winter and she’s hopeful about food—she says she had a good harvest, but this is living closer to the edge than I’d like. There are no supermarkets here.
At least we have some winter clothes. The villagers sent some clothes up with Prosts’s wife, Yesel. She came by around midday, with some coats and other garments for me. Good thing too—I was getting tired of my one set of clothes.
Etiquette demands we offer her something to eat and some of the now wonderfully warm mint tea. I chat with Yesel; she’s quite happy to chatter on with me while Durene listens. It’s very nice, but I sense the way she talks to Durene. And the way she hints to me.
“We’d be happy to put you up in our home for a few days. Just until the first chill goes away. The children could squeeze together in one room I’m sure.”
She’s not even really hinting. She’s flat out telling me she wants me to go back with her into the village. And Durene’s clearly unhappy about it, but she doesn’t want to object.
I sip my tea calmly. What’s the best answer here? Well, clearly: no.
“I’m sorry Miss Yesel, but Durene’s made such a nice place for me—we just got the second cot set up. I’d love to join you for a meal or two later, but for now I feel I should stay here. I’d hate to be out on the road in my condition, you know.”
“Oh yes. I’ve made a good spot for myself, Miss Yesel. And I can get everything Laken needs here—”
“I’m sure you have, Durene.”
Yesel interrupts Durene politely. I get the feeling she’s not actually smiling, but her tone sounds friendly as she reaches out to touch my hand. I jerk and she takes her hand back. I hate it when people touch me without warning me.
“Do excuse me. But I’m sure we could get Durene to pull the wagon if you don’t want to walk. It would only be a few minutes’ trip.”
So polite. So friendly. I can feel the invisible looks she’s giving Durene. My skin prickles, but I smile in her direction.
“Nevertheless, I’d truly hate to take over your rooms. Kids should have a lot of space, and I wouldn’t want to cramp you all.”
Now she’s hesitating. I know for a fact that my poker face is perfect; but she can’t quite tell if I’m innocently being obtuse or refusing her. Now she takes a different tact.
“Well—the Beetrs have also said they’d be delighted if you came over for dinner. And they have an empty room after their daughter sadly passed away last summer. You could join them. What do you think?”
“It would be so much larger than here. I know Durene has done her best, but isn’t this a tiny bit too small for two people?”
“I—I could sleep outside! Or in the root cellar. I’m fine with—”
“I actually like the closeness, in fact.”
This time it’s my turn to interrupt Durene. I smile placidly, although I’m getting more and more annoyed by the second. I can sense Yesel reacting across the table.
“I think I’m fine, I really am, Miss Yesel. Durene is an excellent hostess. She’s helped me out immeasurably and I have every confidence that she will continue to do so.”
Durene’s silent, possibly embarrassed, and Yesel is quiet. Then she speaks to Durene directly.
“Durene? Why don’t you go fetch us some more firewood? I’m sure Mister Laken is feeling quite chilly.”
I bite my lip as Durene rises without a word to do as Yesel says. Mister Laken is feeling fine, thanks. And Durene shouldn’t have to obey someone else’s order in her own home.
But because Yesel is giving us a gift and because I don’t have the full picture—not yet—I listen. Yesel leans forwards to talk to me as I hear Durene moving about outside.
“Durene is a good child, Mister Laken. Sometimes. But we put her out here so she wouldn’t cause trouble if—has she told you what she is?”
“No. I believe she will tell me when she feels comfortable.”
“Yes, but—I think you don’t quite understand what the problem is.”
I raise one eyebrow.
“Problem? I haven’t had a problem with Durene, Miss Yesel. Unless you think otherwise?”
She says it, clearly meaning the opposite. I hear a slurp, and then her voice again.
“But some of us in the village—Durene was wonderfully good about taking you in, but she’s not someone that should be kept cooped up with you—with someone like you—all winter. It would be better for everyone if you stayed in the village. We’d love to have you.”
And I’d probably hate it there. I listen to Durene lifting something with a grunt, and then shake my head.
“I have no problems with Durene, Miss Yesel. I will stay here.”
Now frustration enters the other woman’s voice.
“I really don’t think that’s wise. Durene is—”
“—Is Durene. I think that’s what you meant to say, Miss Yesel. Please don’t say anything else. I prefer to let people keep their secrets.”
This has gone on long enough. I stand up.
“Good day, Miss Yesel. Thank you for the clothes.”
There’s not much she can say after that. I practically chase her out, and Durene, covered in snow and bewildered, barely gets to say goodbye.
Okay, maybe it was rude to bundle the woman off so fast, but she was being incredibly rude. I know Durene has a secret, but why wouldn’t they trust her with me? I’ve slept under her roof for over two weeks now without a problem.
It’s cozy and warm in Durene’s cottage after Yesel leaves. I’m perfectly content, and Durene is almost pathetically relieved that I’m staying. She keeps chattering nervously about everything but what that conversation meant.
It occurs to me later what the problem is. I don’t have a problem with Durene, no matter who she really is. But Yesel and the other villagers don’t like that I don’t care.
Not one bit.
I’ve just begun to adjust to the new circumstances of freezing weather. It’s impossible for me to really find my way around outside without Durene, but we can still go walking in the snow. Of course, I have to be bundled up like a sausage, but that’s okay.
And it’s not like we lack things to do inside. There’s still so much that no one ever taught Durene—whether because this world doesn’t have any standard of education or because no one taught her specifically, and I enjoy talking with her.
But sometimes we do crave the outside, if only to perform vital tasks. Despite the decent construction, Durene’s outhouse freezes all my bits the moment I try to do my business. That makes everything slower, but she waits patiently for me as I attempt to speed up my natural body processes.
That’s when I hear the laughter, and the malicious voices. Children—the village children—come running up the path towards Durene’s cottage as I sit in the outhouse.
“Freak! Come out, Freak!”
“There she is! Get her!”
It’s like listening to a movie, only I’m sitting in a freezing-cold movie theatre and I don’t have a bag of popcorn. And this is real, so my heart immediately pounds harder when I hear Durene’s voice.
What’s happening? I hear paffs, the sound of snow hitting—
Snowballs. Those little bastards are throwing snowballs! From the sounds outside Durene isn’t doing anything, just trying to shield herself. But the children are laughing.
“Get her! She’s a [Witch]!”
“She’s tricking the blind man! Let’s slay the Freak!”
“I’m not! I—ow!”
More laughter, and the sounds of more snowballs being thrown. I fumble with my pants, trying to think of what to do as the situation outside escalates.
Those—there’s a difference between having fun and being malicious little demons. I have to do something. But what?
For a few seconds, I worry about consequences and repercussions. Durene has her own relationship with the villagers. Who am I to interfere with that?
Who am I?
How could I have forgotten? This house is my empire; Durene is my subject. And those annoying little brats are harassing her. I have a duty to her.
I don’t quite kick the outhouse door open, but I do push it out with more force than normal. Frankly, I’d hate to break the door even in my anger. No one wants to have wind and ice flecks blown right at their private parts in the midst of an intimate moment.
The laughter cuts off as soon as I step into the snow. I turn in the direction of the kids.
“Hey. You lot. Stop that.”
Not exactly fighting words, but I’m deadly serious. And these are just kids. I hear uncomfortable shifting, and then voices.
“What should we—?”
“He don’t know nothing! He’s blind!”
“Yeah! We gotta chase away the Freak!”
I point in their direction.
“I don’t appreciate bullying. Keep away from Durene. If you little bastards throw snow at her again, there will be consequences.”
For two seconds I think that will work. Then one of the children laughs uncertainly. He jeers at me.
“You can’t do nothing! You can’t see!”
“Yeah! He likes the Freak more than real people!”
Something flies past my face and I flinch back. Crap. Suddenly all the animosity of the gang of children is transferred at me. A snowball filled with ice bursts against my coat and I wonder what I should do next.
Something huge interposes itself between me and the children. I feel Durene protectively shielding me.
“Look! The Freak’s in the way!”
“Throw these! Eat pinecones, Freak!”
Something bounces off Durene and she yelps. That’s when I lose my temper.
I push Durene aside and the word comes out of me like a shout. But it’s not quite a shout. It’s…something else.
The rage burning in my chest ignites, and it attaches to the word. It bursts out, and I feel it leave like a physical thing.
What happened? What did I just do?
I hear screams, and then the sound of someone throwing up. Then I hear footsteps, running, confusion, screams—
“Durene? What’s going on?”
I reach out and touch a thick back covered with cloth. I feel Durene’s cold skin shivering, and then she takes my hand with her callused palms.
“Laken? I—I don’t know. You did something just now. The kids—they’ve all run off!”
“I did that?”
I must have. And it must be—
“[Aura of the Emperor]. Durene, tell me what happened.”
We stand in the snow as Durene tries to relate what happened. According to her, it was suddenly as if I shouted and something hit the kids. She felt a presence—and sudden fear. But what I did wasn’t aimed at her, so it was brief.
The children clearly had a more violent reaction. They made tracks. I don’t know what I did, not exactly, but I can guess.
“I was angry. Seriously pissed. I must have used that to scare them. The aura—I might be able to use that in other ways as well.”
I can remember the sensation. It was physical; like sending part of myself out into the world. It was amazing, and terrifying. I’ve never felt like that before, but I’m glad.
Yes, I’m glad I did it. And so is Durene. In her own way!
“You shouldn’t have done that. You shouldn’t have! There will be trouble—”
“If there is, we’ll be causing the trouble. Those children had no right to harass you.”
“But that’s just them being…”
“That’s them being intolerant idiots. I won’t let anyone do that again. It stops now.”
How? All I know is that I mean every word as Durene and I dry off. How would I stop those kids, outside of using that skill again?
Fence? Too hard, and they’d just climb over it or get around it somehow. Bear trap? Probably not.
“I suppose we could just bury them in the snow head-first next time they come by. I’ll hold their legs; you dig the hole.”
Durene giggles nervously, and I smile as I tell more jokes to make her laugh. But I can’t help but feel like I’ve started something.
I’m right. Not thirty minutes later, I hear someone approaching. Durene tenses up and she tells me Prost has come by. We invite him in, and he gets to business in a matter of seconds.
“The kids say you did something Mister Laken. They weren’t hurt none although they’re fair terrified. But we’d like to know what happened.”
“Oh, you know Mister Prost. I heard them throwing snowballs and pine cones at Durene and had a word with them. We can’t have children going around attacking people, can we?”
“No, I suppose not. Still, that was a bit of a thing to do over a little thing like that, wasn’t it? I’m sure the children didn’t mean nothing by it. They tease Durene, but there’s nothing in it.”
I keep my voice light and friendly, like a calm before the storm.
“I’m sure you’re right, Mister Prost. I’m sure they didn’t meant anything by the snowballs. Or the name calling.”
He shifts, and I hear Durene swallow.
“Mister Laken, you seem like a nice enough young man. But there’s something you don’t know about Durene.”
“So I’ve been told by you, the children, and your wife. I thought I made it quite clear that I don’t care.”
“Nevertheless, sir. Durene’s different.”
I can almost feel Durene shrinking back. And now I’m even angrier than I was at the kids.
“Stop that. Yes, you, Mister Prost. Durene has been nothing but friendly to me since I arrived here. Your children on the other hand attacked her, and then me.”
“I know that sir, and I’ll make sure they remember it. They won’t be walking straight, you have my promise. But Durene—”
“What is your problem with her?”
I snap. I can’t help it.
“Durene is different. I get that. But what does that matter? She’s a friend. My friend. If she has a secret, she will tell me herself. Now, I think it’s time you leave.”
Prost hesitates, but he doesn’t get up.
“You might think Durene is fine, but you don’t see her like we do. Now, Durene, you’re a good enough girl, but—”
I stand up.
“Enough. I think you should leave, Mister Prost. Now.”
The other man stands up. He’s angry, now.
“You don’t understand the situation, Mister Laken. Durene’s our village’s problem, and she was easy enough to manage before this.”
I’d almost forgotten Durene was in the room. She sounds like a mouse—a big one—as she tries to speak.
“I’m not doing anything! I just want to help Laken!”
The other man’s voice is flat as he replies.
“You don’t belong with our kind. You help—but we keep you away for a reason. Remember your father? If his kind came back or you lost control—you’re not like us, Durene. And Mister Laken doesn’t know that!”
“He likes me! He doesn’t care! Why is that so bad?”
For once Durene is arguing back. I don’t respond and let her raise her voice. But now Prost is shouting.
“Don’t you raise your voice to me! Who do you think took you in, fed you? We risked our necks for you!”
“You only did that because my mother asked you to! And you gave me scraps! I had to sleep in the barn with the other animals! I never—never ate with you all! And now you’re trying to take away my only friend!”
Now it comes out. Durene’s voice is filled with emotion, and I can hear her hands cracking the wood of her table as she grips it. There’s a crack, and I feel the table I’m sitting at break.
Prost knocks over his chair and retreats to the door. Durene’s on her feet—not advancing—but I get up before anyone can act.
“That’s enough. Prost, it’s time for you to go. I’m staying here with Durene, and nothing you tell me is going to change that.”
“But you don’t understand!”
It sounds like Prost is nearly tearing out his hair—if he has any—in frustration. But he’s afraid of Durene as well, I can tell.
Durene’s voice is cold.
“If that’s what Laken says, he stays. I’ll take care of him here. Now, you’ve gotta leave, Mister Prost. This is my house, and you’re not welcome here any longer.”
She advances, and I hear the man rush out the door. I follow Durene out, and hear Prost’s voice. He’s far away from us but shouting.
“Do you know what she is!? She’s a monster! A freak!”
My pulse is boiling in my veins. I glare in his direction.
“I don’t care. Go away and stop bothering us!”
“You don’t know anything, boy! She’s tricking you by acting friendly, but her kind can’t be trusted! She’s a monster. She’s not Human she’s a—”
The word doesn’t come from Prost’s mouth. It comes from Durene, a shout. My heart skips a beat, and then I hear her shouting.
“Troll! There! I said it! Troll, Troll, Troll!”
Her voice is huge. Huge and deep, and it’s so loud I swear snow is falling from the trees. She screams at Prost, leaving the man speechless.
“Why can’t you let me have this? Why did you have to tell him? What harm would it have done if I—”
Durene is crying, sobbing as she shouts as loudly as she can. She rails against Prost, cursing him. I hear an impact and sense she’s fallen to her knees. In the next silence I listen and hear distant crunching in the snow.
Coward. My heart is beating too fast, and I feel something clenching at it. I’m furious, but right now Durene is more important.
Slowly, I step forwards towards her, reaching my hand out. I touch her—and her rough skin slides under my fingertips. She makes no move; only sobbing as I slowly touch her.
Arm. Rough arm, practically bursting the seams of her clumsily-sewn clothing. And then up to her shoulder, twice as broad as mine. Her muscle is as dense as a rock, and her skin feels like an elephant’s hide.
Then her neck, her head. It’s like a Human’s but big enough for her body. Her nose is…wide, and she has eyebrows. And hair. Long and coarser than Human hair, but not by much.
That’s the secret. That’s what she feared. Her terrible, meaningless, sad secret. But she told one lie, and as I touch her face, I know. I see everything.
I murmur the words into the snow as I touch her tears.
[Emperor Level 4!]
[Skill – King’s Bounty obtained!]
Troll. What do you think of when you hear that word? I’m told that movies have wonderful images of Trolls, but I have obviously never seen them.
So I can only work off the descriptions of Trolls I’ve read in stories. When I first read The Hobbit, my notion of Trolls were these slightly bigger-than-average Humans with cockney accents and weird names. One of them was called Bert, for goodness sake!
But then I listened to The Lord of the Rings movie, and my idea of Trolls was different. The idea of some massive, grey humanoid creature that roared and swung a club around fixed itself in my head. Even when I read the descriptions of green Trolls with noxious odors, the image of the Troll with stone-like skin and savage, dimwitted rage stayed with me.
That is not Durene. So when I listened to her, I threw away all the notions and preconceptions I had about Trolls. All of them. I put the stories I’d heard in a box and tossed it out, because she deserves to tell me who she is rather than have me judge her before I know her.
And I do know Durene. She isn’t violent. She isn’t angry. And from what she tells me, neither are Trolls.
“I didn’t know my father. He was—he was a wandering Troll, and I think he met my mom during the Spring. He was hungry and she was living by herself and—”
Trolls are monsters. Everyone considers them as such, apparently. They don’t have a civilization like Drakes or Gnolls, but they are smarter than your average monster. Smart as a Goblin, which might not be saying much. I don’t know. But not all Trolls are violent.
“He must not have been hungry, because he didn’t eat my mom. Not all Trolls eat…people.”
We sit together in Durene’s home as she tells me everything. The fire crackles, but aside from that, everything else is quiet. I sit silently at her broken table, listening as Durene’s low voice speaks into the silence.
She’s done crying. All the grief and fear of last night is gone, and now the truth comes out of her. All the things she wanted to tell me, spilling out. I can feel the fear in her voice, that I’ll judge her, run from her. Fear her. I listen to it all in silence.
“Mom was living alone, away from the others. She’d been married—I think she’d had a husband before, and another kid. But she lost both so she had a small farm by herself. And Dad was hungry, so she found him in her fields. And I guess she must have liked him, or gotten to know him somehow, because a few weeks later she was pregnant.”
“That’s how they met?”
“I don’t know. Mom never said, and the villagers just said that Miss Yesel came up one day and found her pregnant and alone. And Troll tracks nearby. I think that’s how it happened. I hope it is. Otherwise…”
Otherwise, her mother was attacked by a Troll. And Durene will never know which is true, because her mother is dead and none of the other villagers were there. But they speculated, and Durene probably grew up hearing that speculation.
“Anyways, they let Mom stay, but an adventurer heard about a Troll and came to kill it. He—he did. And afterwards, he wanted to kill me too, but Mom wouldn’t let him.”
“Did she raise you alone?”
“She tried. But after I was born she was so weak because I was too big—and she never fully got better. She died when I was four. After that, the village took me in, but I didn’t really have a home.”
Sleeping in a barn. Fed scraps. I can only imagine what it was like.
“When I was bigger, I made my home here, where Mom used to live. I’ve been living here since, and the villagers only call me when they need help. I was alone, and I’d hide every time adventurers came by. I hid from other people too, in case they thought I was dangerous. Until I met you.”
I get it. The crying in the woods, the hope that I wouldn’t immediately judge her, the villagers wanting to separate me from the potentially dangerous half-monster.
It all makes sense. It’s such a predicable story in some ways.
And it’s such crap. Durene doesn’t deserve any of this.
I choose my words carefully in the silence after Durene’s confession. I really don’t know what to say, but I know what not to say.
“Durene. I’m sorry all of this has happened to you. But it doesn’t change anything for me.”
“Laken. I—I’m sorry I lied.”
“No. It’s not. I should have told you. And you don’t have to—to say nice things. You can leave. I’ll bring you into the village and apologize.”
“Why would I do that?”
“I’m staying here. With you.”
“You being half-Troll doesn’t change anything. I told you that, remember? I got to know you, and that means I won’t run away just because you’re not Human.”
“I—you don’t understand. I’m half Troll. Adventurers would kill me on sight. If I were in a town or a city I’d probably have a bounty put on my head!”
“Probably. But that doesn’t mean I’ll go. It’s okay, Durene.”
“No! Stop being so nice!”
“Durene, calm down. I’m not upset.”
“I know! But—it’s not nothing! Stop being so nice to me! What I am—I’m not Human! I’m not normal! Don’t pretend you don’t care!”
“I care. But I know you.”
“No you don’t. You can’t see—you’d never trust me if you could see.”
“That’s what the villagers have told you. But they’re wrong. They look at you and see a monster but they are wrong. They. Are. Wrong. Do you understand that, Durene?”
“…I can’t. No.”
“Durene? Where are you going? Durene? Durene!”
I’m on my feet as the door slams open. The cold winds of winter rush in, and I hear massive footsteps thumping away. I run after her, shouting.
Only after I’m outside does it occur to me that maybe I should have given Durene more space. She’s right; I was treating this like nothing. I should have shown more of the surprise swirling inside of me.
But I didn’t want to hurt her feelings and I still meant what I said. How could a girl that nice and caring be a monster?
And now I’m running through the snow, without my cane. I slow the instant I realize that.
Oh shit. The snow is deep around me, I can’t see, and there is nothing like a path that I can follow.
For a few seconds I just turn, trying to look for my tracks in the snow. But I can’t find them. I shout for Durene, but she’s not coming back. I’m by myself, and I can already feel the cold piercing my clothing.
This is probably a blind person’s worst fear. Without any tools I can barely find my way around, and without people or landmarks in this freezing weather—I’m so dead.
I start walking forwards, trying to feel for anything that reminds me of Durene’s cottage. I don’t have a choice. Either I could stay and hope Durene comes back—and she could be gone for hours—or I try to return to the cottage.
I only ran a little bit outside. But that distance could be miles as far as I’m concerned. This damn snow! It’s falling from the skies and making everything unfamiliar. Even my tracks—I try to kick up as much snow so I can find my way back.
Okay. Let’s go…ten steps this way. No? I feel nothing familiar, so I try to retrace my steps. I find my tracks and get back to roughly where I thought I was before. Now this way. No?
…Where did my tracks go? I spin around, confused. The snow—it’s too thick! I bend down, but my hands feel only the same level of snow around me. It’s as if I never started walking in the first place.
Oh no. I’m starting to panic. I stumble forwards, feeling my way ahead.
Gah! Damn it, I just ran into a tree. That’s bad. I’m in the forest. I try to turn back, but I’m not 100% sure I’m not going further into the forest.
Another tree. And now I’m trying to listen for anything that can help me find my way to Durene’s cottage.
I might die out here. I take a deep breath.
“Durene! I’m lost out here! Can yo—”
I trip. My world shifts and I hit the ground hard. Something just caught my foot! Not a tree root—
I scramble back towards whatever it was in the snow. I’m praying that I tripped over one of Durene’s plants and I’m in her garden.
It’s not a plant. It’s not anything like a plant. Instead, as my aching foot could attest, the object is heavy and partially buried in the ground. I feel at it.
Not a rock…the outside is rough and coarse. A bag? Yes! I can feel the opening here, and two drawstrings. Curious now, despite the cold, I undo the strings.
Is this some kind of bag of fertilizer? But no, why would that…
Hold on. My fingers encounter something hard in the bag and jerk away. I touch again. Something clinks as I shift it.
Round, hard, circular objects. Lots of them. I feel them, lifting one up and dropping it.
“What the hell…?”
There’s only one thing that makes that kind of beguiling, attractive sound. And the weight of it! I pull at the bag, but I can’t even get it to shift in the frozen ground.
Is this what I think it is? Really?
I hear someone shouting my name in the distance. Immediately I stand up and bellow back.
“Durene? Over here!”
Immediately, I hear crashing through the woods. Branches splinter off Durene as she crashes towards my location, showering me with snow. I splutter and then feel two arms around me.
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry! I didn’t realize you were out here!”
“It’s okay! Durene! You’re squishing me!”
Immediately she lets go. I gasp for air—I’d heard of a bear hug, but this is the first time I actually felt someone literally squashing me.
“It’s okay. I’m really glad you found me. Durene, I’m sorry.”
I grasp her arm. She falls silent, and I do too. For a few seconds, I just listen to my heart beating, and hear snow softly falling in the background. Durene’s skin is rough under my palms. Rough, but not unpleasant.
“This is the first time I’ve really touched you, you know.”
“Really. You’ve helped me along, but I normally grab your clothes.”
And she never let me touch her before that. I feel Durene gulp as I hold her.
We stand like that in silence for a little while. Then I feel the chill seeping into my bones.
“I guess we should go back.”
“Right! Let me carry you.”
Durene wants to lift me up, but I shake my head.
“I found something in the ground. Can you pull it up?”
“In the ground? Where?”
It takes me a few seconds to find it. Durene covered it when she ran over. But when I show Durene she lifts it up. It sounds like she’s uprooting a huge amount of soil and I cover my face as some of it flies at me.
“What’s this bag? I’ve never. Oh.”
Her voice goes silent all of a sudden. I feel around, and then find the bag in her hands. I reach into the open top and pick out two of the heavy little circular things within.
“Hey Durene. Would you mind telling me what you see? I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but…”
I tap the round object against the second one and hear that delightful chime of metal on metal. Each coin is heavy, and as I weigh them in my hand I notice the rough, smooth stones in the sack as well. Well, well, well.
“I could be wrong, but I hope I’m not. Because unless I’m very much mistaken, this is a gold coin. And this would be buried treasure.”
I’m remarkably calm about that bit. That is, until we get back to the cottage and start counting.
“It’s all gold!”
Durene exclaims as I place another coin on the careful stack of five on the table. I have to move carefully so as not to knock over my stacks, but with Durene’s help we’ve tallied the contents of the mysterious sack at last.
“One hundred and forty one gold coins and eight gemstones.”
I sit back in my chair and reach for the mug of tea. Durene pushes it into my hands and I savor the warmth. I still feel a bit cold after my little exploration outside.
“It’s a fortune. A huge fortune! Where did it come from?”
“I have my suspicions.”
I can sense Durene’s curiosity. I smile. The treasure I found managed to calm Durene down. She forgot about her woes to bask in the radiance of gold. Myself, I can’t see the appeal. It’s just heavy metal to me, but I’m told it’s quite valuable.
And in this case, it’s literally more money than Durene has ever seen in her life. By her estimates, I could literally buy Riverfarm six times over. At least. She has no idea where the money came from, and I tend to doubt that someone would just leave a fortune in the ground like that. But there might be another explanation for my good fortunes.
“[King’s Bounty]. It has to be my Skill.”
It tickles my sense of humor a bit that I got a skill probably meant for [Kings]. I didn’t really have time to even wonder what it meant, but this is a pretty good sign of what the Skill does.
“You mean you got money because of a Skill?”
“Perhaps. It might be that I can’t be poor if I have [King’s Bounty] as a Skill. You know, like how a [King] should never be poor? Haven’t you heard of something like that happening before?”
“No. Never! But—I have heard of [Treasure Hunters] that can find buried treasure. But why would an [Emperor] have that skill?”
“Perhaps because any ruler should have money? Doesn’t it make sense that the Skill would be doing this?”
“Yes, but Skills aren’t normally this powerful! Not at early levels!”
“Right. You mentioned that. Normally people received weaker skills the lower level they are. Only when they’re above Level 30 do the skills become powerful, right? But maybe this is a crummy skill for an [Emperor] by comparison.”
“I can’t believe it. I can’t.”
“It’s certainly useful, although I wonder how we’ll spend it. There’s not exactly a lot of shops around here.”
“I told you Durene, I’m staying with you. And you helped me dig this thing up. Without you, I would have frozen out there in a few more minutes.”
I reach out and touch her. This time I get one of her sides. She freezes, but I trace my hands upwards. I find her face, and feel her trembling.
“Durene. I’m going nowhere. And I don’t care if you’re half-Troll or half-Goblin or half-Frog. You are who you are, and I like you for that. You can run, and I might not be able to follow you in the snow, but when you come back, I’ll be waiting. So why not just stay?”
I feel silly, and I’m sure what I said didn’t make too much sense. But Durene trembles, and I feel wetness at my fingers.
“I don’t know what to do. I want you to stay, Laken. I do. But what if—what will the others say?”
“What they say is their business. Not yours. I’m asking you if I can stay here, Durene.”
“Then that’s settled, then.”
“But you and I. I don’t know what I should—I must be so strange to you.”
“Only a bit. But that’s because I don’t know you just yet. I know a lot but…Durene. Will you let me touch you? I can’t see, but I want to get to know you.”
“You—what if you hate me?”
“I never would.”
“Then—can I touch you?”
A rough hand, a finger gently brushes against my face. It feels as light as a feather. I feel at Durene’s face, tracing the contours of her features, trying to understand her in my own way. She touches me, gently, as if she’s never touched another living thing before.
Slowly, I work my way down from her face. Durene shivers, but her touch is just as light. I am curious, and so is she. There’s no words, but I think we understand each other completely in that moment.
No more secrets. No more hidden truths and untrue and unkind words. Just a light touch; an intimate question whispered from one person to another.
And there’s more touching, but I won’t talk too much about that. The snow falls heavily, as inside, Durene and I explore one another. We are who we are. No more.
I feel like I shouldn’t share much of this day either. Let’s just say that today the pile of gold and jewels went nearly completely untouched, until we accidentally knocked the table over. Turns out gold coins hurt when they’re dropped on your body.
Mm. More of the same, really. But we talked about the future. We talked, and I made her laugh. As we did before. As I hope to do.
A bunch of kids called out for Durene as she and I were having breakfast. They needed help; a roof had collapsed in the village under the weight of the snow and the villagers needed Durene to lift a beam.
I told her not to go. Durene wanted to help. In the end, I waited for her to return. When she did, she was upset.
Tears, hot and wet, fall on my fingertips. Durene’s skin feels a bit like cracked stone as I brush against her cheek. Swords or arrows would have a hard time piercing her skin.
But words? Words cut deepest of all.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m not a monster! But they just think I’m like my father. I don’t know what to do. Laken…”
Neither do I. But I can’t bear to see her crying.
“I can’t do anything. Just lift things. Like an animal. That’s all I do. I can’t build or cook. I can barely grow things—”
It takes her a long time to get to sleep, but eventually it happens. I sit up, anger and sadness fighting like snakes in my belly. What can I do? What could—
What could I do for her?
And then I have it.
“Is it like a [Knight]?”
“Almost. But better. After all, any ordinary monarch can make a [Knight]. But only an [Emperor] can give someone this class.”
Durene shifts next to me. I hold her hand, and feel her quiver.
“I’m not sure I’m a warrior.”
“Are you a [Farmer]?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Then try this. They weren’t always warriors. Culture just interpreted them that way after a while. Before that they were just servants. Great warriors, true, but they served Charlemagne in more ways than just in combat. I think.”
I haven’t actually spent that much time studying the etymology of that class, even though I once played as one in a D&D session. Oh well.
“If you want to be one, I’ll make you one.”
“Just like that? It sounds too easy.”
“It’s not. I’m the only [Emperor] on this continent; only I can choose who is worthy of this class. And of all the people in the world, there’s no one I’d want to be with me than you, Durene.”
“I—please. I don’t want to just be a [Farmer].”
I feel her bend down in front of me. I reach out and place my hands on her shoulders.
“I knight you, Durene. I name you as my [Paladin], my foremost champion who will protect and serve me. Will you do this?”
She whispers it, then says it louder.
Something changes. Just a bit. I bend down to Durene and give her a kiss. On the forehead, then elsewhere.
“Is that part of being a [Paladin] too?”
I have to laugh.
“It would be a surprise if it was.”
She rises, and I feel something different about her. It’s subtle. But it comes to me as I’m sleeping. Perhaps it’s not confidence; not yet. There’s no marked change in her, no sudden shift. But there is one thing she has now that she never had. And it’s growing slowly, like one of her seeds.
“I’m…I’m a [Paladin].”
So Durene says as I wake up. I smile, and hug her, and then she laughs and shouts it.
“I’m a [Paladin!]”
A lot can happen in a month. In the weather’s case, the atmosphere changed from a nice, pleasantly warm fall to a blizzard-filled winter almost overnight.
Even now, it seems like the snow won’t stop falling. Twice Durene’s gone out to clear a path. She does it quickly and efficiently—even the deepest snow tends to go flying if she exerts herself.
A lot can change in a month for people as well. A young woman who would run from children and names has turned into someone else. Someone confident enough to chase away the obnoxious little monsters who tell her she has to help out a village full of idiots and bigots. She walks and speaks with something else in her now.
And I, I changed quite a lot as well. For one thing, the young man named Laken Godfray suddenly became an [Emperor] and found someone to love. That has to be worth something.
In a small cottage a few miles outside of the village of Riverfarm, I sit. I am the Emperor of the Unseen, Protector of Durene’s House. I have one subject—or should that be consort? She is a half-Troll, a young woman named Durene.
And she is beautiful. She was a [Farmer]; now she is a [Paladin]. And what that means neither of us know. I have a bag of gold, and a village full of fools that can’t accept Durene for who she is.
I have no sight, but I have a dream. A grand one, where Durene and I leave this place that she could never call home. Or maybe we change it. But either way I know we will do it. I am an [Emperor], and for her, I would change the world.
And so we shall.