When I came down with Ivolethe on my shoulder Erin freaked out.
“Oh my god! A faerie!”
She doesn’t do subtle. As every eye turns to me I glance at Ivolethe. The small fairy is just sitting on my shoulder, looking around with keen interest.
She’s not even that cold; she’s definitely part ice, but she’s not giving me frostbite, which I think is a definite improvement. To be honest, it’s like having a miniature air conditioner on my shoulder. Not ideal in the winter, but I’d pay anything for one on a hot summer day.
“How’d she get in? Don’t cause an avalanche again! Please? It’s not even my inn!”
I have to smile as Erin tries to shield herself with a serving tray as a shield. She really, really can’t do subtle. I wait for someone to ask what Erin’s looking at—
Until I realize they’re still staring. Everyone. Agnes, the guests, the two barmaids—everyone. And they’re looking directly at Ivolethe.
Slowly, I look at the faerie on my shoulder. She looks like normal, but—
“Hey Ivolethe. Can the others…see you?”
The faerie shrugs as she looks around the room.
“Perhaps. There is much iron here. Too much for a glamour.”
She looks at some of the gaping faces.
“Yes. I think they can, or they would not gape like buffoons.”
Agnes exclaims in tones of ringing horror. Yep. They can hear Ivolethe, too. I stare at Erin. She stares at me.
“Wait, where are the rest of them, Ryoka?”
I look around the room. Everyone’s still staring. This is amazingly awkward.
“I’ll uh—explain in a bit. Can we get a seat, Erin? Agnes?”
That breaks the spell. In a few seconds I’m seated in the center of the room, while everyone tries to cluster around me asking questions. I hate it. I try to relocate to a corner of the room, but Erin won’t hear of it and Agnes is beaming. She probably smells another attraction for the inn.
Ivolethe looks unconcerned as well. She stares up at the Humans around us, older men and women mostly, mostly married couples or travelers, and sniffs. I’ll say this for her and the other faeries; they’ve all got the air of little queens, with the arrogance to match.
“Well? What are ye staring at?”
No one moves. Even Erin’s staring with fascination at Ivolethe as she sits on my shoulder. I clear my throat.
“She’s right. This is private, so if you’d all leave now?”
“Yes, begone or I will curse ye with faerie magic!”
No one moves. Ivolethe scowls. For my part, I’m at a loss. Normally my…charming disposition helps scare away even the friendliest busybody, but these people are too fascinated by her. One of them, a burly man with massive forearms, speaks.
“Is this really a Winter Sprite? Truly?”
“Yup! Doesn’t she look cool? I guess faeries can’t disguise themselves when they’re indoors, huh?”
More confusion and looks among the other onlookers.
“Faeries? What are faeries?”
I open my mouth at the same time Erin does, but both of us pause. This world doesn’t know about the fae? Even though there are actual faeries that visit regularly? Ivolethe sits up with indignation on my shoulder.
“Welp! Ignorant fool! I am a member of the Winter Court! I demand respect!”
The man just looks at her curiously. I sense…trouble.
“They’re the creatures that bring winter each year?”
“And throw snow at us from the sky?”
“And torment the animals?”
Some of the other onlookers look closer at Ivolethe. To her credit, she shows not a whit of fear. Can faeries even feel fear? When have I ever seen them even acting afraid? Oh yeah. When they were facing down a fire-breathing Dragon. Shit.
“I don’t think annoying her is a good idea.”
Erin looks scared. She told me the faeries once threw an avalanche into her old inn when Pisces bothered them. I…don’t want to see that here.
But Ivolethe appears remarkably restrained despite her clear ire. Why? My analytical side takes less than a second to give my unhappy brain a response.
Normally, any of the faeries would have thrown snow or frozen the people around us if they were this mad. But Ivolethe hasn’t done that because she can’t. Cold iron saps a faerie’s strength and makes them mortal. She can’t use her magic here.
What she can use is her mouth. So she does.
“Leave me you fool, or I will make you suffer! A faerie’s oath on it!”
That’s bad too! I open my mouth, but the big guy isn’t impressed any longer.
“You can’t do anything. You’re just like one of them Fraerlings in Baleros. Tiny.”
He cautiously pokes her where her breasts would be if she had nipples. I open my mouth and shove my chair back, but Ivolethe moves first. Her tiny mouth opens and bites.
The scream is immediate and loud. Ivolethe might be tiny, but she’s still big enough to take a chunk out of the man’s finger. Not just a chunk; she bites so far down that I see bone as he yanks his hand away. Her teeth cut through his flesh like nothing.
The man screams again as he holds up his bloody finger. Everyone, including me, stares in horror at Ivolethe. The faerie looks supremely unconcerned as she turns her head and reveals bulging cheeks. She chews, swallows, and grins at us with bloody teeth. Then she waves at Agnes, whose smile has frozen on her face.
“Innkeep! Your finest meat and drink! I am a guest here, am I not? I want service!”
The onlookers desert our table in seconds. The big man might have come back for vengeance, but Agnes drags him away with promises of a healing potion. Erin and I stare at Ivolethe as she hops off my shoulder and onto the table. After a while Erin looks at me.
“So…Ryoka. Introduce me to your friend.”
I nod. Ivolethe triumphantly leaps up as one of the barmaids comes hurrying back with some stew. Erin must have made it ahead of time, because it smells delicious. The faerie leaps into the bowl as if it were a hot tub and immediately begins chomping down on her immediate surroundings. I carefully move the bowl into the center of the table and clear my throat.
“This is…Ivolethe, Erin. She’s one of the Frost Faeries that’s been following me around since I met them. And she is my friend.”
“Right. That’s what I said.”
“No, I mean, she’s my friend. I am friends with a faerie.”
Did I say that with too much reverence? Maybe. But the words that I speak aloud are magical in their own way. A faerie. I really have one of the fae sitting in front of me, chomping down on a slice of potato the size of her head in a bowl full of soup. My friend.
“Oh my gosh.”
Erin finally gets it. She puts her hands on her cheeks in delight.
“You made a friend! Ryoka made a friend! I’m really pleased to meet you, Ivolethe! Any friend of Ryoka’s is a friend of mine. I’m sure we’ll get along great—”
Ivolethe doesn’t even look straight at Erin. She takes another bite of the potato and squishes it into a ball with both hands. Then dunks the potato into the gravy and scarfs the rest of it down. Her eating is both disgusting and fascinating to watch.
“I will not be your friend, Human. I have made one friend, and she is the reason I entered this place of iron and sacks of flesh. I do not need another, and if I did, it would certainly not be ye.”
Erin’s face falls. I don’t quite look at her, and I’m not quite smiling behind my hand. Looks like she’s met someone she can’t instantly charm. Hah!
“What? But you guys like me, right?”
“Why should I or any of my kin like a thoughtless waste of space like ye?”
“I…I made that big feast for you all! You loved it! And you paid me in gold, which turned out to be fake flowers—but you said it was a great meal! You did!”
“I don’t think Ivolethe was there, Erin. Not all the faeries stayed around your inn. Some were with me the entire time.”
“Oh. But I did make food! Magical food! I even got a Skill from it!”
Ivolethe looks slightly impressed. She stops eating to study Erin from head to toe, at any rate.
“Truly? A faerie’s banquet? I was not there, but my kin spoke of it. My answer remains no.”
I interrupt Erin before she can try again. I’m not sure how Ivolethe would react if Erin pushed the matter—and I don’t want her losing a digit.
“I’m sure Erin respects your decisions, Ivolethe. But she’s my friend as well. My best Human friend. I uh, was just wondering if we could talk. Unless you’re busy?”
Erin gives me a betrayed glance, but Ivolethe just shakes her head. She sinks deeper into the bowl of soup; I notice the steam has already stopped rising, and it looks like the gravy is starting to congeal thanks to Ivolethe’s freezing presence.
“If I had aught to do, I would be doing it. And we are already talking, fool.”
Yikes. Ivolethe may call herself my friend, but she’s clearly going to be the kind of friend who uses words as barbs no matter how close we are. I always wondered what having a friend like that would be like.
I wondered what having a true friend would be like, too. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop smiling. Erin’s looking at both me and the faerie oddly.
“You look so creepy right now, Ryoka.”
“Shut up, Erin. Ivolethe? Why can everyone see you indoors? Is it because of the iron?”
Ivolethe sits up a bit in her bowl as two more come for Erin and me, complete with soft, warm sliced bread. She stares around at the other tables, and the other guests instantly look down at their food.
“Hmf. It is the iron. Too much of it interferes with our magic. Outside it would not matter, but indoors is like a cage in a way. I cannot use my spells. But I can bite.”
She grins at me again with those sharp teeth. Erin shudders.
“Interesting. But Erin and I can see you no matter if we’re outside or not. Why is that?”
A tiny shrug.
“I do not know. If ye had the eyes of a cat or god—or ye were great masters of magic like Myrddin, it would make sense. But ye aren’t.”
Erin looks confused.
“Oh. Oh. Merlin! He’s real! What’s he like? Does he have a cool staff? What kind of magic did he—”
I cut Erin off, although I really want to know as well. The thing about faeries is that you have to stick to one subject and keep bothering them about it. Get sidetracked and they’ll lead you down a merry trail of breadcrumbs, but never get to the truth.
“We don’t have that kind of magic, Ivolethe. So how else would we see you? Are they any ways mortals can see faeries?”
She shrugs again.
“Plenty. If you stood in the right place under full moon, or caught us dancing without glamor—if you had the secret drink of the fae, you would be able to see us, but I would know if ye were taught thusly.”
“Drink? Of the fae?”
Erin looks confused…again…so I explain it to her. How does she not know any myths about faeries?
“The faerie’s drink would be given to people trusted enough to enter a faerie mound. They would be able to see the secret world with it. Could it be that?”
A rude snort.
“Hardly. Ye cannot simply make the faerie’s drink by chance. Ye would need the essence of countless gases and things not known to ye humans. Poisons and humors of foul natures beyond your ken.”
Ivolethe sighs dramatically. But there’s a wicked gleam in her eyes.
“Ye truly want to know? Then, grab as many insects as ye can, Humans! Crunch them up in your mouth, for one of the ingredients is the shell of bugs that may be used to create blood out of water.”
“Ew! You have to eat that?”
Ivolethe nods in satisfaction as Erin wrinkles her nose. But I pause. Blood out of water? That sounds like part of a riddle; probably the rhyme to the faeries’ drink they’d tell people. Blood out of water. A dye?
“When you say insects that can be used to create blood out of water…do you mean carmine? In that case, Erin and I have eaten lots of that already.”
“What? We have?”
Erin turns horrified eyes to me. Ivolethe looks up sharply as well. I nod.
“Carmine is a big ingredient in anything colored red, Erin. Skittles, lemonade…if you’ve had anything like that in the past, you’ve eaten ground up insect shells.”
Just a little bit, in truth. But Erin turns pale and Ivolethe looks…
“Well, there are many other things that go into the brew. Not just…that.”
“Maybe we’ve eaten all the ingredients before.”
“Really? Like bugs?”
“We eat countless bugs each year, Erin. They’re all ground up in our food. And companies use a lot of preservatives…”
I think out loud as Erin makes gagging sounds over her meat.
“The U.S. government started putting fluoride in the water decades ago. And we breathe in any number of pollutants that we didn’t in the past. Add that to whatever they put in most foods in the form of preservatives and to change the taste…Ivolethe, what else goes into your brew?”
“As if I’d tell you! The brew is secret to all mortals! And ye’d never guess in a million years!”
“Really? Let me just list off a few things and you let me know if I’m getting close. Sodium nitrate? Propylene glycol? Uh…what’s it called…olestra? Monosodium glutamate? Sodium benzoate?”
She glares at me.
“I do not know half of these names! You must be making them up!”
“Really? Well, sodium benzoate originally came from benzoin, a resin found on trees. It’s an ingredient in incense—”
I see Ivolethe’s eyes widen. Just for a fraction of a second, and then her head spins away.
“I-I don’t know anything about such things. This talk bores me!”
Erin and I exchange a glance. But Ivolethe’s mouth is clamped shut. Erin leans over to me, looking slightly green.
“Do you think it’s true?”
“What, that we ate all of the ingredients of the faerie brew? It might be possible. We eat a lot of weird stuff, Erin.”
“Not that! Do we really eat bugs?”
“Yes. We do, Erin. You know about all the stuff food companies put in candy and fast food. Why are you surprised?”
“I thought they were just chemicals and poisonous stuff! If I knew bugs were in Skittles, I’d never eat any again!”
“That’s not—why would you be okay with…? Okay, never mind Erin. Ivolethe?”
“You shall get nothing from me! I will not reveal my kind’s secrets so easily!”
The faerie sinks up to her ears in the cold soup. I raise my hands.
“I’m not going to ask you any more questions. I was just curious. Why don’t we talk about something else.”
Erin grabs her milk and drinks deeply from it. With a little coaxing, I get Ivolethe to come out of her stew. She dries herself off on a slice of bread, and then she sits on the table with Erin and me. And we talk.
“So, what did you do after I left you, Erin?”
“Oh, I just made some stuff at Octavia’s. You know, more experimental stuff.”
“Huh. Where’s Octavia now? I’ve never seen her eat—does she do it at her home or should we invite her here now and then?”
I think that would be the polite thing to do, but Erin shakes her head.
“I don’t know, but Octavia won’t want to eat today. She’s in bed with bad food poisoning.”
“…And how did she get so sick, Erin?”
The other girl doesn’t quite meet my gaze.
“I uh, fed her something that didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped.”
“I would like to try it!”
“Oh no, it’s impossible. I threw it out—it was starting to stain the pot. It was just another failure.”
Erin sighs. I eye her.
“You’ve been going over to Octavia’s every day. Still trying to make new recipes?”
“Yup! I don’t want to go back to Liscor until I figure out how to make more cool stuff.”
“What about your inn?”
“What about it? Mrsha’s safe with Selys, and I don’t know where Toren is. My inn can stay where it is, right?”
“But Lyonette’s in it.”
Erin smacks her forehead lightly. I shake my head. Erin hesitates.
“She’ll probably be okay. I really want to stay here for a little while longer, though, Ryoka. I can experiment with Octavia all day, and I can help Agnes out at night!”
“And you’re not bored? You’re okay with that?”
Erin looks at me blankly.
“Yeah. Why not?”
Ivolethe and I shrug at the same time.
“Doesn’t matter to me.”
“‘Tis your choice to die of boredom.”
Erin scowls at us, but then she smiles widely at Ivolethe again.
“Soooo…Ivolethe! You must have lived a long time, right?”
The faerie eyes Erin suspiciously.
“That is obvious.”
“And you met all kinds of cool people—like Merlin and King Arthur, right?”
“Perhaps. What of it, mortal?”
Erin throws up her hands.
“Tell me stories! Tell us all about Merlin, and the knights of the round table.”
Ivolethe considers this, one tiny hand on her chin.
“I do not want to.”
“No. Such tales are too grand for the likes of you.”
I put a hand on Erin’s shoulder.
“You heard her, Erin. Ivolethe doesn’t want to tell, so you should respect her wishes. Besides, she probably didn’t see any of the good parts.”
Ivolethe sits up in outrage. She leaps upwards and flies towards my face.
“Ye think I did not witness the legends in person?”
“Well, you don’t want to say. So I just assumed—”
“Fool! I was there when the boy became a king! I witnessed the instant the true king fell, and I have seen countless miracles besides! I saw the three kings die to each of Lugaid’s spears! How dare ye!”
“I’m just saying, you talk big, but if you’d care to share a story that you remember—”
“Hah! I will recount to you a legend beyond all else!”
Ivolethe flies into the air and raises her voice.
“Behold! I will tell you for the one true king of Camelot! His sword still sits in Avalon, waiting for his hand to draw the ancient blade! Listen well mortals!”
All heads turn as the small faerie begins to declaim. She has an amazingly loud voice, and the story—
I’m going to get to hear King Arthur’s story. I feel like a kid again. This is amazing.. Erin gives me a delighted look, and I wink at her. What can I say?
I do know a bit about faeries. Or at least, this one in particular.
The next day dawns bright and early. Or so I suppose. For once, I’m sleeping in.
So is Erin. And the rest of the guests in the inn for that matter. In fact, some are still snoring as I walk downstairs and find them lying on the tables or ground.
As it turned out, Ivolethe did know the stories of King Arthur, the entire story. The true story. And she told it to us last night, with many dramatic flourishes and a whole host of embellishments it’s true, but it was true. Every word of it. Faeries don’t lie, and to look at Ivolethe as she was speaking was to believe.
It was true. And if I were an author I would have tried to capture every word she spoke on paper. Or maybe that would have been an impossible task, because her story was one of the greats.
In the end, we just all fell asleep listening to the tragic end of the tale of the King of Knights. His kingdom in ruins, his knights dying on the field, and only the hope of his eventual return to keep spirits strong in the dark times to come. Thus, the King of Camelot closes his eyes and breathes his final breath.
And here I thought I was being smart by ripping off the poets of my age. No wonder faeries looked down on us mortals for not creating stories that can match that level. If you’ve got forever to live, your standards for good storytelling rise accordingly.
Of course, that was last night. In the light of the day, all I want is for a hot meal before I go running. But with Erin so tired, that might be asking too much.
She has [Advanced Cooking] as a skill, but apparently you need to be at least moderately conscious to make it work. Or else not even that skill can fix dumping a bag full of flour onto an iron griddle. At least I got the pan off the fire before the flour combusted.
Mandatory near-death experience for the day completed, I finally make myself eggs and let Erin snore in the kitchen. I open the door—
And find Ivolethe waiting outside. The faerie grins at me, hovering in the crisp winter air. Honestly, I hadn’t even realized she’d left when I dragged myself into my room upstairs.
“Ivolethe. How are you doing?”
She flies immediately to my shoulder and lands on it. Then she fidgets, and flies up to my head. I stare up at her dangling legs and sigh. But I make no comment.
As I begin to walk down the street a tiny frozen leg kicks me on the temple.
“So, what are ye doing today? More staring at books and cursing? Or will ye run about like a snail once again?”
“If you’re bored, you can leave. You don’t have to follow me all the time.”
“Bah. I might miss something interesting. Besides, there is much to do that will amuse me in the meantime.”
I shrug, but feel a bit better. I try not to smile so openly; it doesn’t feel natural.
It’s a short jog to the Runner’s Guild, but I pause at the door. Ivolethe senses my intentions and tenses, but she makes no move to get off my head.
“I’m going inside. Do you want to wait somewhere else?”
“I will stay right here.”
“The iron won’t bother you?”
“Not overmuch. It is simply a shackle indoors, not a needle in the skin. Even if it feels so.”
Huh. I wonder how uncomfortable it is? Are faeries allergic to the metal, or is it like kryptonite?
“If you don’t want to go inside, that’s fine with me.”
“I shall stay.”
“No, I really don’t think you should go inside.”
After her last interaction with people other than Erin and me, I really have a bad feeling about letting Ivolethe inside a building. But she bends down to glare at me.
“I insist! I do not fear the iron!”
I sigh. For a being that calls herself my friend, Ivolethe doesn’t seem capable of yielding on any point. Or maybe she considers her stubbornness part of friendship.
“Just don’t cause trouble, okay? And…can I persuade you to hide in my belt pouch?”
The faerie is silent on my head for a few seconds.
“Mayhap. Is there food in the pouch?”
“Let me get some.”
That was how I found myself stuffing fried meat and sticky-sweet jam buns into a belt pouch, much to Ivolethe’s muffled delight as I walked into the Runner’s Guild. I close the pouch; Ivolethe assured me she wouldn’t suffocate inside if I did, and I’m honestly not sure if faeries breathe.
I’ve got a Frost Faerie in my belt pouch. Well, there’s that. I walk into the Runner’s Guild and stop when I see a familiar face.
The broad-shouldered girl turns and gives me a big smile. But then her expression changes to one of dismay.
“Ryoka? I didn’t know you were here…today.”
I walk forwards, frowning. Garia seems nervous. And then I look over her shoulder and see a crowd of people, Street and City Runners alike, clustered around one person. She has a familiar face. Sallow, I would call it, although pinched is the more accurate word.
She’s standing in the center of the room, surrounded by a huge number of people—everyone in the Guild, in fact. Even the [Receptionists] have come out from behind their counters, and an older man is standing by Persua’s side. I think…he’s the Guildmaster. I don’t know. He normally never comes out of his small office.
Persua is basking in all the attention, talking loudly in her shrill voice and laughing often. When she laughs, the others laugh with her. It’s like how she normally interacts with her posse, but now everyone’s doing it. She’s so engrossed she hasn’t noticed me yet, and from the way Garia drags me to one side of the room, maybe that’s a good thing.
“What’s going on?”
I whisper to Garia as I look back at Persua. She doesn’t look that different—new clothes and running gear maybe, but she’s just the same unpleasant person who once had my leg crushed by a wagon. My fists itch to break a few of the bones in her face.
I don’t see Fals. He’s normally in the same room as Persua, mainly because she tends to follow him about wherever possible. He’s not here today, though, and his absence is somehow conspicuous.
“Ryoka, why are you here? Didn’t you hear what was happening today?”
“No, I did not.”
I frown at Garia as I take a seat at a far table from the group. No one tells me anything. Mainly because I don’t listen if it’s an invitation to hang out or hear the latest gossip. But this…I probably should have paid attention to.
“What’s going on, Garia?”
“It’s Persua. Today’s her going-away party. She’s going to move to Invrisil, or—some other city up north. She might come back this way, but she’s not going to be around here so everyone’s having a party for her!”
Persua? Going north? Best news I’ve heard all day, and I’m barely awake still. I smile at Garia with genuine pleasure.
“What’s wrong with that? If she’s going, I’ll congratulate her as well and help her on the way out.”
Garia doesn’t grin at my response. She doesn’t like violence anyways, but she looks worried. There’s an odd emotion in her voice I can’t quite place. She lowers her voice even more.
“Ryoka…she’s going to be a Courier.”
I can’t believe my ears. Persua? A Courier? She’s not nearly fast enough to be one. I should know—I saw Valceif and Hawk running, and they’re like lightning compared to me. Persua’s barely quick enough to be a City Runner, and she’s lazy to boot.
But Garia’s eyes are deadly serious as she nods. And I remember that moment where I swore she passed me on the road earlier—
No. It couldn’t be. Could it?
“She leveled up and got a Skill, Ryoka! A rare one—she’s not even Level 20, I know that for a fact, but she learned a powerful movement Skill. Everyone heard about it! Ever since then, she’s been completing deliveries so fast none of us can keep up.”
A Skill. Of course. I feel a bit sick. Persua’s got terrible form, bad endurance, and she’s got no incentive to train or push herself. But give her a Skill and suddenly she can outrun anyone.
“Was it just luck? Or—how do you get Skills?”
Garia looks miserable as she shrugs. No, not just miserable. Jealous. That’s the emotion I’m seeing in her.
“Normally the good ones come up every ten levels. But you hear stories—some of it is chance, and Persua got lucky. Really lucky.”
“Okay, what skill did she get?”
“[Double Step]. It’s one of the core skills most Couriers have. That and [Quick Movement]—those were the ones Valceif had, remember? If you get those, people say you’re already two thirds of the way to becoming a Courier!”
Fuck. I remember Valceif running as if he was taking two strides for every one of mine. Garia’s right; get even one of those skills and there’s no Human from my world that could touch you. That is…completely unfair.
“Why’s she going north, then? It sounds like she could stay here and make a comfy living.”
“Well, Couriers make way more money and have more respect up north. And, Perusa has been doing just that! She’s completed almost half of the requests in the guild by herself. They’ll have to make her a Courier soon, or we’ll all be out of work!”
I drum my fingers on the table, good mood completely forgotten. Persua the Courier. I wanted to be one, but I can’t run fast enough. Valceif told me that I might be one if I proved myself, but Persua? Before me?
It’s really, really pissing me off. But—and I have to think of the plus side here, at least she won’t be bothering me again. And if she’s taking high-level requests, maybe someone will put a hit out on her and she’ll end up dead. I can only dream.
But for now, I think I’ll get out of the way before I have to deal with Persua again. I’m about to ask Garia if she wants to join me at Erin’s new inn so I can drink the bad taste from my mouth when Garia makes frantic gestures. I don’t even have to guess to know that Persua is coming my way; it just makes sense. When I step in crap while running, oftentimes there’s a second pile waiting for my other foot*.
*Translation: When it rains it pours. Plus, Persua’s a spiteful little monster, so she’ll take any opportunity to try and piss me off.
“Why Ryoka, I didn’t see you there! Come to congratulate me on my special day, have you?”
Garia freezes, and goes pale. I stare at her, considering my next move. I don’t turn around. I don’t change my expression.
“Good morning to you too, Ryoka! How are you today? You were gone for so long in Liscor, I thought you were dead. But you aren’t. Did you get a lot of deliveries done while you were away? Or did you just like sleeping with non-Humans that much?”
Is that an insult? I shrug. I’m not giving Persua anything, even if she’s not apparently the best Runner around.
“I had fun.”
I still refuse to look her way. Persua’s shrill voice goes up an octave as she grows frustrated. She walks around me and I catch a glimpse of her pale, sharp features and her pursed lips that compliment her sour expression.
I don’t like her. I hate her guts. But I’m also smart enough to know that she’s goading me in her hour of triumph, hoping to get me in trouble. And you know what?
I’m not going to do a thing. It’s time for the ultimate Ryoka skill: acting impassive. Guaranteed to annoy anyone with an ego.
“I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but I’m going to be a Courier now. Isn’t that wonderful?”
The old man who’s probably the Guildmaster clears his throat nervously.
“Actually Persua, that’s not decided yet. You’re a wonderful Runner of course, but a Courier—”
He brakes off as Persua gives him a vicious look. She turns back and gives me a big, fake smile. I just grunt.
“What do you think, Ryoka? Won’t I be a wonderful Courier?”
She blinks at me, and then frowns. I look slowly around and see the other Runners standing and watching us. I know some of them by face, if not name. They’re City Runners, the people who band together and pat each other on the backs. They follow the leader or the fastest Runners, like Fals. Some of them are Persua’s people, but most are just like Garia; afraid to cross someone like Persua.
The others are Street Runners, desperate to suck up to anyone for a bit of help, a leg up, anything. They’re standing behind Persua as if they’re afraid she’ll blast them to ash if she gets unhappy. Garia is frozen in her seat, and I’m at the center of this maelstrom. No way out but deflection. Bring it on, Persua.
“Don’t you want to say something to me? Before I go?”
I wish I had a drink so I could sip it calmly. I study Garia’s face as Persua’s fake smile turns into a frown.
“You know, I saw you yesterday. Well, I think I saw you. You were moving so slow, I thought, ‘that can’t be Ryoka’. But you were gone so fast—it’s hard, being the fastest Runner around.”
“I’m sure it must be.”
Another scowl, covered up again. Persua might have all the abilities of a weasel, and the ability to backstab people and even orchestrate attacks, but she’s not that good at concealing her emotions.
“You know, I’ve been taking all of the deliveries recently. I just…do them. One after another. It’s so easy.”
Some of the City Runners shift at that, which makes me privately happy. They don’t like Persua much, and I’m sure they’ll be glad to see her back. But I don’t let my features change for an instant.
“Good for you.”
Persua grinds her teeth audibly. I keep my hands on the table, calm, cool, collected. I’m wondering if I can get her to storm off or throw the first punch. I would enjoy that.
But she doesn’t blow her lid. I see Persua pause, and then her eyes flick to the tabletop.
“I notice you’ve lost something. Did you leave your fingers behind on one of your runs?”
The other Runners go silent. I feel the spike of emotion in my stomach. My fingers. Garia gasps in horror as she notices them for the first time, but I refuse to react. I look at Persua coolly, meeting her evil little eyes.
“Are you going to stand around or do some deliveries, Persua? Because if you’re just going to stand around talking, then do it in another corner of the room.”
She blinks at me. I don’t blink back. I hold her gaze; I’ve beaten her in a staring contest before and I’d love to humble her again. But she doesn’t play my game. Instead, she smiles and looks back on me.
Crap. I shouldn’t have reacted. She knows I was annoyed. No help for it.
“I’m so sorry if my little party is bothering you. I suppose great City Runners like you are too busy to socialize, right? Too good for us lesser Runners?”
Persua’s face goes flat, and little pinpoints of rage appear in her eyes. She smiles at me again.
“It’s just—and I know you don’t mean to be rude, but you are—you haven’t told me how happy you are. And I know you wouldn’t want to be rude, would you?”
She wants me to congratulate her? I meet her gaze steadily.
“Come on. Don’t you have anything to say?”
No. But she might go away. But no and never and not in a million years.
“Can’t hear me, Ryoka? Did you lose your ears as well as those fingers?”
“I heard you. Congratulations. Piss off.”
The words pop out before I can stop them. I hear an audible gasp from the peanut gallery, in more than one place, and some titters of laughter as well, quickly silenced. Persua’s pale face blushes and blotches in places.
That was a mistake. I just humiliated her, and instead of backing off, she’s going to try and make an example out of me rather than lose face. I know how the routine goes. I grit my teeth and wonder how I can deal with this.
Maybe if I just walk out? But no, she’ll just call that a win or block me from leaving. And I don’t run from bullies. Let’s see what she does next.
Persua looks around, and meets the eyes of some Runners around her. Her personal posse, the ones who kissed her ass even before she learned her fancy Skill. She jerks her head and they move out from the crowd. I count them. Four—six…seven…
“That is such a rude thing to say, Ryoka. And on my special day as well! Here I am, Courier-to-be and you—you’re just a Runner. I think you should apologize. In fact, I insist on it.”
Oh? She’s going to get her friends to beat me down? I’m impressed; most girls wait a few months before they get that nasty. But then, this is another world and Persua’s a demon wearing crappy skin.
The other Runners step back when they see what’s about to go down. The old man tries to interject, but his voice is wavering with nerves.
“Persua, I really think—”
Her head turns and the Guildmaster goes silent. I feel a moment of sympathy for him; he’s probably not going to get much respect once she goes. Everyone’s going to remember how she walked all over him. But then I remember that he’s supposed to be in charge, and that he’s a coward. The other runners flank me, as if they’re a local mafia boss’s thugs and I’m the cringing victim.
“Well? I’m waiting for my apology.”
Persua faces me, supremely confident because she’s got a few Runners behind her. Oh come on. They don’t even have combat classes, most of them! I’m taller than all but one of the guys, and she’s seen me take down a Bronze-rank adventurer.
Okay, there are ten of them. Plus Persua. But I’ve changed a bit since we last met as well. The first day I found Erin, I had Octavia refill all of my potions and alchemical bags. I’ve got two of everything ready to go, and I know several magic tricks as well.
I keep still. Not exactly a power play, but I’m not going to react to her stupid little posse.
“I’m not apologizing for anything. And if you don’t get your obnoxious little cronies out of my face, they’re all going to suffer.”
Of all the things I know Persua was expecting, she wasn’t expecting that. Her face goes slack, and I feel the people around me shift. Garia’s looking at me as if I’m insane and trying to signal me to say I’m sorry, but I’m calm.
If they want a fight, I’m completely ready. Persua might have a Skill that makes her faster, but I’d love to see if she can dodge a pepper potion to the face. If she tries anything I’ll use [Flashbang] and then hold her down while I pour the potion in her eyes. I’m just hoping she takes the bait.
She doesn’t. Persua eyes me, her companions, and then decides not to risk it. She tosses her head and turns away.
“You’re not even worth my time.”
I toss the insult at her back and see it stiffen. I don’t know why I said it; my mouth just won’t stop in situations like this. Persua turns back, a smile full of hate on her face. We don’t even try to pretend towards civility now.
“Fingerless insect. My back is all you’ll see of me from now on.”
“Beats looking at your face.”
“How many mutts and lizards did you sleep with in Liscor?”
“Oh you know, one or two. More people than you’ll ever sleep with in your life.”
“I wouldn’t touch one of those mongrels or scaly freaks with a stick.”
“They’re just run away screaming when they saw your face.”
“You’ll be stuck here forever, you pathetic, classless slug.”
“And you’ll never be a proper Courier in a thousand years.”
We meet eyes for one last moment, and then Persua turns away. I let her walk to the other side of the room, followed by the group and don’t make any move until she’s laughing loudly with them and not looking at me. Then I sigh and turn back to Garia. She looks like she’s swallowed her tongue.
Well, that was fun. Now I’ve got to warn Erin about Persua as well.
I hate my life.
“I’m out of here. Garia, do you want to join me in the Frenzied Hare? I could use a drink.”
Garia starts and stammers as she looks at me.
She doesn’t want to get on Persua’s bad side. Fine. I sigh and stand up. My heart is pounding fast, but I got the better of Persua in that one. No matter how hard she laughs—
I’m halfway across the smooth wood floor when I sense a blur. Persua seems to blink across the room, and then I feel her foot tangle with mine. She moves too fast for me to react; I trip forwards—
And catch myself, thanks to an ungainly wind milling of arms. I’ve been tripped before, and I’ve got a good stance. Nevertheless, I stumble forwards and hear Persua’s mocking laughter.
“How clumsy of you. What happened, Ryoka?”
I turn and look at her. She’s smirking off to one side, daring me to say something. I consider my options, and decide it’s not worth it. That’s her small victory; if she does it again she’s dead.
I walk on, adjusting my belt pouch. Persua’s still laughing, but I just make sure she didn’t grab anything from me. Potions? Check. Teriarch’s bag of holding? Check. Belt pouches?
One of the pouches is undone. I feel at it, and find cold, greasy meat and jam-covered crumbs in the pouch. Nothing else. My heart skips a beat. I whirl around—
The shout springs from the tiny Frost Faerie that flies at Persua’s face. The girl only has a moment to scream before Ivolethe is all over her. The faerie flies around Persua, shouting triumphantly as Persua screams and people shout in surprise.
“Take this! And suffer that, ye mortal wench!”
She rips at Persua’s hair, tearing out strands and bites and scratches at Persua’s face. The girl is screaming, flailing at the small creature, but Ivolethe is everywhere. But then Persua’s hand connects with the faerie by pure chance, and Ivolethe is flung to the ground.
“What is it? Kill it!”
Persua shrills as another Runner dashes forwards and scoops Ivolethe up. She yells at him and tries to bite, but he has a finger under her chin. Everyone goes silent as they see for the first time what Ivolethe is.
“What creature is this?”
“Is it—it’s not a monster? A Fraerling? It’s too pale! And it has wings!”
“Let her go.”
I stride forwards, but Persua and her cronies immediately block my way. She stares at me, blood dripping from the scratches on her face and the places where Ivolethe yanked away skin as well as hair.
“You did this.”
I ignore Persua and look at the Runner holding her. He’s uncertain, but his grip on Ivolethe is strong and no matter how hard she struggles, she clearly can’t break free. And neither is she freezing him either; she must not be able to without her magic.
“That’s not a monster. That’s a Frost Faerie. Let her go, now.”
“A Winter Sprite?”
He looks at Ivorethe, stunned. She tries to move her head, but his fingernail is under her chin. She glares and dripples spit onto his thumb, but that’s all she can do.
Persua hisses at the other Runner. He hesitates. My heart constricts, and I raise my voice.
“Harm her, and I will kill you. My word on it.”
The Runner looks back to me. He’s one of Persua’s flunkies, but I know my eyes are serious. I mean every word. Persua looks at me, and then at the faerie. Then she smiles evilly.
“Is this your friend? Do you have to make friends with monsters since no one else likes you?”
I ignore Persua and hold out a hand.
“Give her to me.”
“Don’t listen to her.”
Persua interposes herself between the Runner and me. She gestures, and now her posse steps around me. I don’t even look at them; my eyes are on Ivolethe.
“I’ve never seen a Winter Sprite before. Is this what they really look like? They must be the rarest of all monsters; how did you catch this one?”
I try to tune out Persua’s words. What can I do? If I grab for her, what if Ivorlethe gets hurt? How can I talk Persua down peacefully? No—it’s the Runner who’s got her. Focus on him.
But Persua blocks my view of the Runner. She looks at me, and now I see the hatred shining in her eyes, pure and simple. She turns to look at the other Runners.
“Have any of you ever heard of a Frost Faerie being captured? No? I bet that if we sold her to a [Merchant] or an [Alchemist], they’d pay hundreds, no, thousands of gold coins for her.”
The Runners around me shift. The mention of that kind of money changes their eyes, and some of them slowly walk over to the crowd around me.
Shit. This is bad. But I have to let Ivolethe get free. I look past Persua and raise my voice.
“If you harm her, you will suffer for it. I don’t care how many people you’ve got; I’m not letting you take her. She’s a living being.”
“She attacked me!”
Persua hisses with fury. She takes a step forwards, and her arm jostles the Runner holding her. Instantly, Ivolethe shouts, her voice ringing in the Guild.
“Sisters! Sisters, hear me call and take retribution—”
Her voice cuts off as the Runner reapplies pressure on her chin. But the damage is done. I see the other Runners looking nervous and try to capitalize on that.
“Did you hear that? She just shouted for her sisters. You’ve seen the Frost Faeries and what they do when they’re mad. What do you think will happen if you kill one of their own?”
That makes the Runners think twice. Some of them shift and edge back a bit. No one wants to suffer the vengeance of creatures that bring the winter, no matter how much they might earn.
Persua looks uneasy too, but she’s too stupid to think straight. She whirls and screeches at the Runner.
“Shut her up! Squash her already!”
“Don’t do it.”
The Runner holding Ivolethe hesitates. His hand shakes and the faerie is gasping, but he doesn’t let go. I step forwards.
“Let her go. Now.”
“You coward! Give it to me! I’ll do it!”
Persua’s patience snaps. She reaches for Ivolethe, but the Runner pulls away from her as well. I step forwards again, thinking he’s seen reason, but he raises her up. I halt, hand outstretched. Persua stares at the Runner, eyes flinty daggers.
“What are you doing?”
He licks his lips. But he’s staring at me now. He opens his mouth and croaks a word.
“You—you want her back, you’ve got to pay for her.”
I stare at him incredulously. He can’t be serious. But oh, yes, he is. He pauses again, but he holds onto Ivolethe tightly as he looks at me.
“We all know you’ve got a lot. Well—give it over. And then I’ll let her go. Otherwise—”
He squeezes a little harder and Ivolethe cries out. My blood boils, but Persua’s all smiles now.
“That’s right! Just hand over your belt pouches—and your potions—and we’ll call it even. Okay?”
Those greedy bastards. But the Runner’s eyes are serious, and Ivolethe is in pain. What should I do? If I give them Teriarch’s gold coins—but Ivolethe—
I stare at Persua. I stare at the Runner. I stare at Ivolethe, and come to a swift decision.
“Fuck it. [Flashbang]!”
The world and sound itself explode into confusion and chaos. I closed my eyes, but the sound wave still hits me like a physical thing. My ears ring and go silent; but I’m already charging into the Runner, body-checking him to the floor.
There’s no time for thought or anything else. I reach for his flailing hands. I have to get Ivolethe free. Get her loose. Grab his arms. Break his bones. Bite his fingers off. I punch him repeatedly as I search for the small blue shape among the dancing spots in my vision. Where is she?
Nowhere. Gone. She’s free! I see a blue shape flying towards the door, and then someone strikes me from behind.
Persua is on top of me, fingers clawing, biting, kicking. She’s like a wildcat, and some of her friends try to batter me as well. I roll over, and pull out one of Octavia’s potions.
The pepper potion would be better as a spray. But one good toss still gets it on a lot of faces and eyes, including Persua’s. I shield my face and feel the hot liquid stinging as it reacts with my skin, but the screams are worth it. I stumble up and see Persua stumbling away from me, shrieking as she rubs at her eyes.
Something in me snaps. Her little insults, her tripping me, my crushed leg—and Ivolethe—all explode outwards in a fist that catches her on the cheek and sends her to the ground. Persua tries to get up, but I kick her down and then mount her as she flails and begin to punch.
Punch her. Hurt her. My ears are ringing, but now I hear the roaring of blood, and all that I want in this or any other world is to bash her face in. I hit and hit and hit, until something drags me back. I struggle, fighting, but whoever’s holding me is too strong.
The rage hammering every inch of me subsides after a while, and I stop struggling. That’s when I hear and see and think again, and realize I’m being held by two strong arms.
I look around and see my friend, her nose bleeding furiously, holding me back as Persua lies on the floor. People are still shouting in pain—I see Runners clutching at their eyes and more raising their voices, deafened. Two people are with Persua, and then I see the girl herself lying on the ground.
Her face is—I only now begin to feel the pain in my hands. My fingers hurt terribly, and I feel small lacerations and bruising on my skin. I see the echoes of their impressions on Persua’s face.
It’s already swollen. I can barely see her features, and there’s blood. A lot of blood. I broke her nose, even parts of her face. She’s crying, and shaking, and the [Receptionist] holding the healing potion barely knows where to start. But as the swelling reduces a tiny bit, one of her eyes swivels towards me. And I hear her voice.
She struggles, but the two women hold her down. Persua’s face is filled with blood and snot and tears and who knows what else. But her voice is intact. It’s a trembling mess of emotions; not a shriek, but a warbling, piercing whisper.
“I’ll kill you.”
I’m near enough to Persua that I can feel her spitting as her malformed lips form the words. Her eyes fix on me, wild, and the words pour forth, hatred in each syllable. Tears run through the blood on her face, but she still stares at me.
“I’ll kill you. I swear it. I’ll have you raped and killed. You’ll die screaming.”
Garia tries to pull me back, and the [Receptionists] try to force us apart. But Persua thrashes and I refuse to move. She screams.
“I’ll kill you! You’ll die horribly! There won’t be pieces left of you! I’ll kill you and everyone you love, you—”
The [Receptionist] tries to jam the potion in her mouth, but Persua just spits out a broken tooth with the potion as she continues shouting at me.
There’s a crazy look in her eyes. Garia holds me back as I stare at Persua. She continues speaking, half-sobbing, half-cursing. There’s nothing I can say to her, nothing to reply with. So I just kick her in the stomach and watch her puke before Garia pulls me away.
Two hours later, I stand outside in the cold snow. I barely feel it, even though I haven’t had any of Erin’s soup. I feel the cold air blowing my clothes and don’t care.
The faerie hovers in the air next to me, looking uncharacteristically serious. I’m dressed up, and she’s naked. But I feel like the colder one. My heart is very cold. Very still.
I slowly sit down in the snow, and the faerie flies down next to me. The snow is wet—I don’t care. I don’t have anywhere to be, and I can’t stand. Not right now.
After a while, the faerie speaks.
“‘Twas an unexpected encounter, was it not?”
I look at her. Ivolethe looks back.
“What the hell am I supposed to say to that?”
“I am not sure. But did it end how you expected?”
I laugh, shortly.
“What do you think? I’m banned from that Runner’s Guild—maybe all of them right now. They might press charges, or make me pay for what’s left of the building.”
Shortly after I left, the other Frost Faeries appeared. They crashed an avalanche of snow into the building. If it hadn’t been deserted—as it was, it destroyed nearly everything inside. The last I saw, the building was so full of snow that people were having to chip away at the compacted ice.
“What a mess.”
The short version of what went down is that Persua went to the best local Healer around to get treated for the injuries the potion couldn’t fix. The Runners scattered, mostly thanks to the other Frost Faeries pelting them with shards of ice, freezing them, and so on. I think the Guild staff would have liked to hold me accountable, but when they saw the faeries literally destroy the entire Guild in one go, they had second thoughts. So did the Watch, which is how I found myself politely asked to leave the city now rather than be kicked out.
I probably could have stayed. But I didn’t want to be anywhere near Persua, not even in the same city. I still remember the look in her eyes.
It’s not over. I’ve never seen anyone look like that, but I know without a doubt that she meant every word she said to me. Part of me wishes I’d gone back and taken my knife and stabbed her right there and then. She’s never going to forget. But I’m not a murderer.
No matter how close I got back there.
“What a mess. What a horrible, terrible…”
The faerie looks up at me. I stare down at her. In a way, this is all her fault. Persua would have left me alone if I’d just walked on. But I can’t hate her for what she did. It’s what I’d do for Erin, the exact same.
“From now on, I’m not taking you inside ever again. Got it?”
“That is fair.”
I shiver. Now I’m feeling the cold again, but I stay seated, cross-legged.
“I’m just glad you’re okay. If that Runner or Persua had tried—would they have killed you?”
“Better that you had let them. If she had slain me, her death would have followed before the next moon rose in the sky.”
Chill from within, chill without. I stare at Ivolethe.
“Who would have killed her? The other faeries?”
She shakes her tiny head.
“Not my sisters, no. There are others among the Winter Court who move in matters of death. And they are far more terrible than we.”
I don’t want to know. I don’t. Ivolethe’s face—I don’t want to know. Some things about the fae terrify me.
“It’s better that you didn’t die.”
“Perhaps. But that girl—she swore a dire oath against you. Such things can only be resolved in blood.”
“You’re probably right.”
I know she is. But I can’t think about that now. I can’t, or I’ll have to choose between killing her now or—
“She’ll be a Courier. And I won’t see her.”
“Bah. That one would give up all for vengeance. Her blades will find you no matter how far apart ye are.”
“I guess I’ve just got to outrun her, then. Although she’s faster than I am now.”
We sit in silence for a while longer. I bow my head. Ivolethe just looks at the still landscape.
“I was jealous of her, you know. Just a bit. I don’t like Skills and Classes but—I’m so slow and weak without them.”
Ivolethe looks up at me silently. I avert my gaze; look at the gray horizon as I try to explain.
“It’s always the same argument. I think I’m giving away something by leveling up. Or—or I’m compromising, taking the easy route to success without any effort. But there is effort required, and what’s the harm in doing what everyone else is doing? It’s only logical.”
More silence. Ivolethe just listens as I externalize my struggle and confess.
“But it’s hard. I want to be strong. Erin’s—she’s stronger than me in so many ways. But I thought that would be fine. I could do things my own way, become a Courier even—I had Octavia’s potions, and I can even do magic. But it turns out I can’t even do magic that well.”
Some snow blows off of the ground and into the air. I watch it whirl upwards and away.
“I can’t do magic. And I’ve hit my limit physically. I could—try altering my body, I guess. Teriarch mentioned that. But that’s cheating too. I just wish there was a way to be faster. Just faster. If I were faster, I’d be happy with the rest.”
“So what is it ye wish?”
Ivolethe turns to face me in the snow. I look down at her, and feel that same sense of envy.
“I wish I was better. Just…better.”
“‘Tis a tall wish. Even a King could not grant your request. Why not be content with your self as it is now? You are brave and quick; is there aught else you need?”
I know she’s right, but at the same time, she’s wrong. I shake my head and shiver.
“Who I am isn’t enough. I want to become more. Is that too much to ask?”
For a while Ivolethe studies me. Then she smiles, teeth flashing in the winter sunlight.
“It is. But mortals have always wished for such. That is why you spread like wildfire while we remain, timeless.”
She looks rueful and sad, and happy at the same time, like an adult watching a child play. My heart aches.
“I don’t know what to do. What would you do, in my place, Ivolethe?”
She looks at me from head to toe.
“What is it you’ve dreamed of, Ryoka Griffin? What do you wish for with all your heart?”
It’s an important question, but I know the answer in a second. I just have to think back to the day I started running. I speak my reply to her and the cold.
“I always wanted to run like the wind. I felt it once, when you led me and Mrsha away from the Goblin army.”
I remember the rushing air behind me, and the sense of weightlessness I felt. Each step was forever, and I watched the world fly past me. For a second I was wind, and I lived my dream.
“Well then, I would search for that. I would seek to run as the wind, for that is my dream. If I did not chase such things, I would not be mortal, no?”
I have to laugh.
“Even a Courier couldn’t run like that. At least, not Val or Hawk. And certainly not without levels. How would I ever get that fast, when I can’t even outrun Persua?”
Ivolethe spreads two tiny hands.
“We are friends, are we not? What do friends do but help each other?”
She grins at me again, and I pause.
“What? How could you help?”
“You want to study magic? To become better? I told you once; you will not find what you look for in a book. But perhaps it is because ye haven’t seen what magic truly is.”
I know what she’s hinting at. But I have to hear it out loud.
“What are you suggesting?”
Slowly, Ivolethe flies upwards until she sits in the air in front of me. She looks me in the eye, still smiling.
“I’ll teach you the ways of the fae, not the tricks mortals use. I will teach you to listen to the wind and run like we do. That is what a friend does for a poor mortal who wishes to be better than she is.”
My heart is thundering. My breath catches in my throat.
“Can you do that? Isn’t it against the rules?”
“No one has made rules against this. No one has been mad enough to try. But for you, friend, I would try. It’s worth a shot, eh?”
I look at her. Ivolethe grins at me, a tiny, mad faerie. My friend. I stare back at her, a shivering, depressed Human girl who dreams of flying. Slowly, I offer her a hand.
“If you’d be crazy enough to try it, I’d be forever in your debt.”
Ivolethe wrinkles her face in disgust and slaps away my hand.
“Bah. Do not make such promises so lightly. Nae, I offer you this: I will try to teach you to run like the wind for one thing.”
She offers me a tiny hand. I don’t hesitate. I reach out, and her grip is like melting ice, winter’s thaw, the moment of tiny warmth in the frozen heart of the world. We shake, and it is done.
A faerie’s bargain. A friend’s promise. A child’s dream.
The wind blows, and my heart races off with it.
To run like the wind.