Erin Solstice carefully flipped a fish on the frying pan she was holding over the fire. She watched the one golden-brown side of the fish turn over and land neatly on the oily surface of the pan. Instantly, the uncooked side began to sizzle.
That was all she said for a while. There was nothing else that needed to be said. She just inhaled and smelled the fillet as it cooked. When it was done, she had a plate ready. She slid the still-juicy, crispy-golden fillet off the pan and looked at it.
It was a bit of perfection, at least for her. Back home, she’d never made anything nearly as good as this, not even close. The old Erin wouldn’t even have known where to begin, let alone mix up the batter that gave the fish such a nice, spicy taste.
And indeed, this fillet could have probably won her an award if she’d entered it in a local cooking competition. Erin knew it certainly could have gotten her a job at a local restaurant.
And it was all because she had a Skill. Erin stared at the fillet as it gently steamed on her pan. It really was a wonderful bit of food she’d created.
Erin turned with the plate in her hands, and then dumped the fillet she’d just fried to perfection onto a cutting board. She diced the fillet in a few seconds with a cooking knife, and then shoved the remains into another pot.
This pot contained soup. To be more accurate, it contained blue soup, thick as molasses, with bits of green and some kind of yellow substance that looked like mutated pond scum bubbling to the surface. Erin mixed in what had been the wonderful fillet and sighed.
“It looks awful. But I think it will work.”
Compared to the fillet the soup looked about as appetizing as dirt. Undeterred, Erin poured some into a wooden bowl. Carefully, she took it out of the small kitchen and into the shop. There she stopped and called out.
“Octavia? I’ve got more soup for you to try!”
No one replied to her voice. Erin frowned and looked around. Octavia’s small shop, Stitchworks, was fairly big, but it felt cramped because of all the shelves full of potions and alchemy reagents stockpiled everywhere. Thus, she quickly found the dark-skinned girl with braids hiding under one of the tables.
“There you are! Come out and try the soup!”
“I’m not going to. You can’t make me!”
Octavia refused to budge, even when Erin put down the bowl of soup and poked her a few times in the side.
“Come on out. I promise it’s not going to be that bad this time.”
“I don’t want to. You eat it!”
Erin put her hands on her hips and sighed.
“You’re the one with all the Skills that prevent you from being poisoned or dying, remember? And I don’t have a detachable stomach.”
“Just because I can eat it, doesn’t mean it tastes good! And I still feel the effects of what I eat! I was squatting over the toilet for hours after that last soup you made!”
“Aw, come on. You weren’t there that long…this time will be different, I promise! I didn’t add anything dangerous to the food this time.”
“No! Eat it yourself if you’re so confident!”
The girl hesitated, and stared at the bowl of soup on the table. It was probably safe. Her [Dangersense] wasn’t going off, at any rate. But she didn’t want to taste it, even so.
“I’ll pay you.”
There was silence. Octavia slowly poked her head out from underneath the table.
“Four silver coins?”
The head withdrew. Erin thought quickly.
“Fine! Two gold coins! If it makes you sick or does anything bad to you. Deal?”
Octavia was out from underneath the table in a second. Erin sighed, but there was something gratifying about how easy it was to just pay Octavia to do things. The Stitch Girl had a refreshingly simple way of looking at the world. If it was profitable, it was probably worth doing.
Even if the it in question involved eating another one of Erin’s soups. But then, Ryoka had paid Octavia quite handsomely to help Erin, so in that sense, Octavia was actually earning more for just doing her job.
Then again, even Erin had to admit she’d been feeding Octavia a lot of horrible stuff over the last few days. She would have actually volunteered to eat some of it herself, but without Octavia’s Skills that helped protect her against acid, burns, poisoning, and other nasty effects, the [Alchemist] would have been dead from eating some of what Erin had cooked up.
Instead, she’d just gotten horribly, sometimes violently, ill. Which explained her reluctance to sample any more of Erin’s experiments. However, Octavia loved gold even more than her health, so she didn’t look that put out as she stretched and looked at Erin.
“Alright. What horror am I supposed to be eating this time?”
Erin beamed as she showed Octavia the bowl. To her credit, the Stitch Girl didn’t even blink at the appearance of the soup. She sniffed at it cautiously as the human girl explained.
“It’s a variant of the last stew I made. This time I think it’s all mixed correctly.”
Octavia sniffed disparagingly; her nature as an [Alchemist] made her look down on all of what she called Erin’s ‘abominations of cooking and magic’.
“You found a way to stop the Stonelizard scales from mixing with the lemon juice and melting?”
“I…think so. I kept the heat low and made sure to add a lot of mint. The soup hasn’t melted through the bottom of the bowl, so it probably worked.”
Octavia sighed. But she obediently picked up a spoon and gingerly spooned some of the blue glop into her mouth. She chewed a bit and swallowed as Erin held her breath—then Octavia made a face.
“It’s all mushy!”
The girl did so, albeit reluctantly. Erin stared at the stitching around Octavia’s neck as the Stitch Girl slowly consumed the bowl of soup. It still seemed weird to her that Octavia was actually just cloth held together by string. Shouldn’t some of the soup leak out around the stitches, no matter how tightly it was sewn? But apparently, once Octavia’s cloth parts were connected, they acted like real flesh and blood.
The sound of the spoon scraping the bottom of the bowl made Erin look at Octavia sharply. The [Alchemist] sighed in relief as she put the spoon down and looked up at Erin.
“…Huh. It tasted pretty foul. Way too minty, and was that fish in there?”
Erin nodded, smiling.
“The pan frying and batter did the trick. The fish helped warm the soup without making it burn like last time.”
“Smart, I guess.”
Octavia looked grudgingly impressed. One of the biggest challenges Erin had had to overcome was the issue of heat. Octavia could regulate the temperature of her potions with ice and flame, but Erin had less options when it came to cooking. Just making the soup bubble in some cases could lead to dramatic—and dangerous—reactions.
“I think it might have worked.”
The [Alchemist] said this after a few minutes. She prodded at her stomach. Erin felt surprised, and immediately happy.
“Pretty much. One of my Skills would have kicked in by now and I’d definitely be feeling the effects if anything harmful was in the soup. The only thing to test now is whether the effects were reproduced.”
“Oh. How are you going to test it? I could hit you—”
“No, thank you. I’ll use a pin instead.”
So saying, Octavia went up to her counter and rummaged around below it. She came up with a small box of pins, some scissors, and quite a few spools of thread. Erin guessed that was the equivalent of a first aid kit for Octavia.
“Alright, here goes.”
Octavia pulled out a rather long and sharp pin out of the box and extended her arm. Erin expected her to lightly poke at her flesh, so she was shocked when Octavia took the pin and pressed it straight into the center of her arm.
It looked as bad as it must have felt. The innkeeper winced as Octavia pushed the pin into her skin with all her strength, grimacing with pain as she did. Erin held her breath—it was almost hard to watch, but she had to know if the soup had worked.
“Well, would you look at that?”
Octavia’s grimaced expression changed to one of amazement. The Stitch Girl held up the pin, and Erin felt a jolt of elation in her stomach as she saw the pin was bent.
Erin threw up her hands and shouted in delight. Octavia just stared down at the pin, blinking as if she couldn’t believe it. Once Erin had calmed down—she couldn’t really run around waving her arms in the shop without knocking over something delicate—she and Octavia sat together and discussed Erin’s latest creation.
“It really works, doesn’t it! Your skin is tougher—although it still hurt when you poked yourself with the pin, didn’t it?”
“A bit. I was more ready for the pain than anything else.”
Octavia studied the pot of blue sludge and Erin’s scrawled notes, shaking her head.
“This is—insane. It’s definitely a magical effect like you’d get from a potion, but how are you coming up with this stuff? First the strength stew and the Corusdeer soup that warms you up—now this?”
Erin beamed as she circled the particular combination of ingredients that had worked on the grubby piece of parchment.
“I’m on a roll. And you said it couldn’t be done!”
“I was wrong, clearly. That’s my mistake. Why does everything have to be a soup, though?”
“Soup is easiest. I’ve tried batters, but I need to get all the ingredients right before I can use them. Now that I know the ingredients for this soup for instance—I could probably make a stir-fry or something out of it!”
Octavia fell silent, drumming her fingers on the kitchen counter. Erin stopped and stared at the other girl.
It had been nearly a full day since Ryoka had run out of the city. It had been even longer since Erin had come to Celum—nearly a full week, in fact. And all that time she’d been splitting her time between Miss Agnes’ inn, the Frenzied Hare, and Octavia’s shop, Stitchworks. As a result, Erin was not only financially sound for the moment—Agnes had told her she was earning more in a week than she and her husband normally did in a month—but she’d managed to come up with some amazing new discoveries in Octavia’s shop!
Erin had been trying to cook with alchemical ingredients to create foods just as amazing as the soup she’d come up with that Ryoka kept using. And she’d made progress. Amazing progress, even Octavia had agreed. It was just that…
Some of Erin’s elation faded away as she stared at the soup in the pot. It had taken her nearly a hundred tries to mix this up, costing countless gold coins’ worth of ingredients. That wasn’t the issue, though.
Octavia didn’t seem to notice Erin’s feelings. She idly poked the pin into her hand as she stared at the soup.
“You know, if you want to try making the soup into an actual dish I wouldn’t mind trying it again.”
“Maybe later. I want to try and finish the other dishes, though.”
The Stitch Girl frowned at Erin.
“How many more times are you going to come over and take over my shop? I do need to make potions myself, you know.”
Erin nodded absently.
“Yeah, but Ryoka bought out your time.”
“She did, but…”
Octavia waved her hands in the air, trying to express her displeasure.
“It’s been—how long? Nearly a week?”
“Something like that.”
Erin helped herself to her own bowl of soup now that she knew it probably wouldn’t kill her. She made a face as she tasted the horrible dish she’d made—the mint really was too powerful, but it was sour as well! She’d have to find some other way to combine all the ingredients—blend the mint into the fillet batter and keep the lemon juice out of it until the very end, or something.
But the dish was edible. Octavia shook her head as she stared at the small pot of soup Erin had brewed up.
“How am I supposed to deal with this? You’ve just created—what? A Thickskin potion? But you’ve used way less reagents than I usually do.”
Octavia glared at Erin, incensed by the bland response.
“Don’t you know how incredible that is? If you could do that with every potion I’ve made—just think of the savings! This is amazing! Revolutionary!”
“Yup. This really tastes bad.”
Erin made a face and Octavia made a sound of disgust.
“Well, I’ll admit that you have some skill at this. But—and I’m asking again—how many more times are you going to use my kitchen and store?”
“Ten thousand times.”
“Ten thousand times. That’s how many times I’m going to cook. If I can, that is.”
Erin suddenly felt very tired as she turned to Octavia. The dark-skinned girl’s mouth was open in shock, but her eyes were flittering left to right in sudden calculation.
“If you did that, I’d have to at least charge you—”
“I’m not being serious! Jeez!”
The Human girl scowled at Octavia. Octavia scowled back.
“You could have fooled me! I’m just giving you a price quote. Why ten thousand times, anyways?”
Erin sighed. But she felt like explaining, so she took a seat and spoke to Octavia between spoonfuls of the horrid soup.
“Back where I come from—there’s this guy who said that the best way to get good at something was to do it ten thousand times. Or something like that.”
Wasn’t it ten thousand hours spent practicing? Erin couldn’t actually remember that well.
“Anyways, the idea is that if you want to learn how to do something well—really well, I mean, you have to practice that much. You can be as talented as you want, but in the end you still need to practice.”
“Oh. So that’s why you’re trying to make all this stuff?”
Erin nodded, stretching her neck out a bit and wincing at the cracks. How long had she been cooking today? Already three hours, probably.
“I have a Skill—[Advanced Cooking]. It lets me cook really well without practice. But lots of people have that Skill. I’m an [Innkeeper], but there are a lot of people with higher levels than me, I bet. They have better inns, more Skills…I want to match them, somehow. So I decided to try to learn something new—even if this is boring.”
“Boring. I think making all this alchemical stuff is boring. I know you don’t—”
Octavia’s outraged glare was proof enough of her feelings. Erin just shook her head tiredly.
“—But I don’t like wasting food, and making all this complex stuff. But it’s all that I can do.”
The other girl paused before she could give Erin a tongue-lashing.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not like Ryoka. She can run around and do cool things—she’s even got Ivolethe as a friend.”
Erin ignored the question. She stared at the mostly empty bowl of soup and took another bite. It tasted awful. But it was magic.
“I can’t be a hero. I don’t like fighting, and I’m scared of getting eaten. Or stabbed. Or stabbed and eaten. All I can do is try and make my inn better. And if I had something magical to sell to my guests—no one would be able to copy that. That would make my inn unique. That’s why I’m doing all this.”
Even if it was hard. Even if it was exhausting. This was her big chance; Erin knew that. She raised her head and saw Octavia’s face. The girl didn’t look irate like she normally did around Erin. Instead, she looked impressed.
“That’s actually quite thoughtful for you.”
Octavia had to grin. Her teeth flashed in her dimly lit shop. Then she looked back at the bowl in Erin’s hands and her eyes narrowed in a calculating look that made Erin groan internally.
“You know—not that I’m trying to renegotiate the deal Ryoka made with me or anything—but you have benefited a lot from the recipes I’ve come up with. If you’d consider selling me them, I’d cut you in on a deal. In fact, why not let me sell them to other inns and taverns? Why, you’d earn a lot more if everyone was making this stuff and not just you. I’d only ask for a small commission on each sale—and I’m sure that the profits alone would—”
“It’s not going to work, Octavia.”
“You don’t know that! If you’d just listen to the rest of my idea—”
Erin shook her head, cutting the other girl off. She handed the recipe of the soup she’d just made to Octavia.
“Try making it yourself.”
The [Alchemist] was surprised, but she wasn’t one to turn down an opportunity to make something useful—and, Erin suspected, memorize the recipe. But although Octavia eagerly piled the ingredients into another pot and followed all of Erin’s instructions to the letter, her hands quickly slowed down as she frowned at the floating objects in the water of the pot.
“What’s happening? It—it’s not even reacting. It’s just sitting there. Like…”
“Like nothing is happening?”
Erin nodded and took the spoon from Octavia. As she began to stir, the soup began to change. Octavia’s eyes widened as she stared at the way the individual ingredients suddenly began to dissolve, mixing together.
“How are you doing that? A Skill?”
“Yup. It’s my Skill. Without it, no one else can make this stuff.”
Erin watched as the mixture slowly thickened, and continued following her instructions, although she knew how to make the soup by heart. She explained to Octavia as she reached for a glass of lemon juice she’d painstakingly squeezed earlier.
“I tried to show Agnes how to make the Corusdeer soup. She couldn’t do it, even when she copied me exactly.”
“What skill do you have? [Magical Cooking]? I know it can create magical dishes but this—this is different.”
“[Wondrous Fare]. That’s what I have.”
Erin didn’t tell Octavia how she’d gotten it, but she explained how she could make the faerie flower drink. True, alchemy ingredients weren’t the same as hallucinogenic faerie flowers, but Erin thought what she was doing still made sense. Octavia nodded, finger on her lips as she thought out loud.
“You’re probably bypassing one of the natural steps in the creation process. Perhaps you’re skipping the need for a particular reagent? There are some high-level [Alchemist] skills that can do the same. Some really save on costs since you can practically create lesser healing potions for free by skipping on the need to mix up the proper base first—”
She broke off, shrugging.
“It doesn’t really matter. But there goes my idea of marketing this stuff and making a fortune. Only you can make it, after all.”
Erin nodded, smiling a bit. But the smile slipped.
“It’s good. I’ve finally got something only I can make, and it’s useful. It’s just—I wish it wasn’t so boring, you know?”
“Boring. Even though I worked this hard—there’s still so much more to do, Octavia.”
Erin stretched out on her seat, feeling her tendons snapping as she tried to shake off some of the tiredness that felt like it was in her bones.
“I’m just so—tired thinking about it. I’ll get back to my inn, and then I’ll start selling this stuff. But even though I’ll probably get more customers, I still need a new helper, to build up my inn, buy some magical runes—there’s just so much to do and I can only take one small step at a time. It’s exhausting.”
“So what? ”
Octavia just looked blank. Erin glared at her.
“Don’t you wish you could be more like Ryoka? She doesn’t have to do stuff like this. She just—runs. She can do amazing stuff. I wish I could do something cool so quickly.”
Erin sighed. She didn’t like fighting or anything like that. She wasn’t athletic as Ryoka was. She knew that. It was just that this was—well, it had been fun. But now she was just tired.
But Octavia just snorted in derision.
“Only adventurers and crazy people like Ryoka can become rich and famous quickly. Everyone else just has to work hard and gain as many levels at they can. I’m going to save every coin I can, level up and learn as many recipes as possible so I can expand my stores, make better potions, and do more business until I’m the highest-level [Alchemist] on the continent.”
She gestured around her small shop.
“I might not reach my dream for years, but it’s a lot safer than swinging a sword around. Well, safer when you’re not around, that is.”
She realized she didn’t really have anything to say against that. Erin let her voice trail off unhappily.
What Octavia was saying was right. She was taking the smart option. Even if being an [Alchemist] was slightly dangerous, it was nothing like being an adventurer. It was just so boring to think of, though. But part of Erin thought that was just what being an adult was like. It was thinking about the big picture. She knew that.
So then why did hearing it all laid out like that make her so depressed? Erin didn’t know, but she did come to one conclusion which made her sit up in her seat.
“I’m done cooking for the day.”
Both she and Octavia brightened up when she said it. Erin was fed up with making useless soup, and Octavia was tired of eating it.
“Good! I’ll just pour your horrible soup into a jar, shall I? I can probably sell it—at a markdown of course…I can give you a good split of the profits if you’d agree to oh, a vendor’s fee of—”
Erin left Stitchworks and Octavia behind mid-sentence, shaking her head. She didn’t mind Octavia—well, she did sometimes. But there were just some days when she needed some alone time. Or more precisely, not-Octavia time.
The sky was still gray and the streets were still snowy when Erin left the shop. She walked carefully so as not to slip as she wandered down the busy streets. Celum was always bustling, even if it was a smallish city. Erin walked past countless faces who didn’t seem that different from hers—Humans, going about their daily lives who didn’t give her a second glance.
That was reassuring, but also disheartening for some reason. Erin missed Liscor. She missed seeing Drakes and Gnolls, fantastic creatures going about their everyday lives. Celum was nice because it was reassuring, but it was also boring for the same reason.
Boring. That seemed to be the word of the day, didn’t it? Even though Erin had come up with an amazing discovery—she still felt the word in her soul.
Bored. She wanted to do something exciting. No—not just that. She wanted to be with someone exciting. She missed Ryoka already. And not just Ryoka. She missed all of her friends.
They were back in Liscor. And Erin was far from there. She kicked miserably at a patch of snow and then looked up. What about the Horns of Hammerad? That nice Runner guy had come by yesterday and told her Ryoka was going to see them. They were close by!
But just as she had that idea, Erin’s face fell. She could go meet them—Erin knew they were still probably in Ocre—but going there would be dangerous, wouldn’t it? Everyone was still talking about the Goblin attacks and besides, Ceria and the others would probably come here instead, if Ryoka had told them where Erin was.
All she had to do was wait. And practice her alchemical cooking while she still had time. Erin knew that.
But…she didn’t want to.
The sky was grey. The people wore thick clothing and walked briskly to get about their business as quickly as possible. Few people stopped to chat in the cold weather, and no one talked to Erin. She walked alone, staring at the city and feeling that this was all wrong.
This world was missing something.
Octavia had said it: the people in this world didn’t really have much fun, did they? Back home, well, Erin knew there were crummy office jobs or backbreaking jobs with bad pay all over the place. But at least people could go back home and drive to a pool, or watch videos on the computer, or play videogames or—or do things.
But here? What did the people here have to do in their spare time? As far as Erin could tell, they just kept working. They worked hard to earn more levels, or to be rich, or to enjoy themselves. But that was always for ‘later’, never now.
There was just something so wrong about this idea that Erin couldn’t stand it. How could anyone live like this? Was this really what life had been like back in her world, back before the modern era?
What did people do for fun back in the Middle Ages? Erin couldn’t remember. Go to festivals? See jugglers and performers? Get drunk?
This wasn’t the Middle Ages of course—there was a lot more handy technology, not to mention magic. But magic seemed so far away in day-to-day life, even in Octavia’s shop. Oh, there were [Mages] around who cast spells like [Message] all day, but that wasn’t real magic. That was just more work.
If she’d been back home, what would Erin be doing right now? Thinking about college, or being in college no doubt. But if she’d just been back at home, she would have been practicing chess, debating calling one of her friends, watching a Youtube video, talking with her pare—
Nope! Can’t do that! Erin stopped in the street and slapped her cheeks hard enough for them to sting. She couldn’t think about home or friends or fa—
She couldn’t think about it. She’d done well so far, but being in a city full of Humans was making her nostalgic. And Erin didn’t need nostalgia right now. She needed…
So saying, Erin set off walking in a specific direction. She wasn’t far from where she wanted to go, so in a few minutes she was pushing open the door to the Frenzied Hare.
A welcoming voice instantly called out her name. Erin turned, smiling, to see Miss Agnes bustle up to her, all cheer and good humor.
“Why Erin, it’s a surprise to see you this early! Are you already done with your business at the [Alchemist]’s? Or—don’t tell me, Miss Octavia’s concocted some nasty brew that’s set her store on fire again?”
“Nothing like that Miss Agnes. I just finished up early. How’s Mister Jerom doing?”
Erin smiled at the older woman as she took a seat at the table. While it was true she was sort of the new boss around here—at least when it came to cooking—Miss Agnes was the one always running the inn, and Erin was gone outside of breakfast and dinner most days.
Miss Agnes smiled at Erin as she always did when Erin asked about her sick husband. Ryoka never asked, even though Erin kept reminding her to. Although…Erin wasn’t sure Ryoka even remembered Mister Jerom’s name, or Agnes’ some days.
“He’s doing as well as can be expected. Still feverish and he sleeps too much, but I’m hopeful the new alchemist’s potion we bought will sort him out. We have you to thank for that of course—we’d never have been able to spare the coin if you hadn’t come by.”
“Oh, it’s—I’m really glad I could help.”
Erin smiled and waved her hand. Agnes smiled at her, and then glanced at the kitchen.
“You know, if you’re done with work, I’m sure the morning crowd would love to sample your cooking—”
There it was again. Erin’s smile twisted a bit on her face. It was always work, work, work. Even here.
Agnes saw Erin’s expression and hurried to reassure her.
“We don’t have that many guests, and I’m sure if you’re not feeling up to it—”
“I’m just a bit tired today. Um, I was wondering if I could have some eggs?”
“Of course! Why, you must be tired—Maran! Some eggs for Miss Erin please!”
The [Barmaid] glanced up from one of the tables and waved at Erin in acknowledgement. Soon, she was back with the eggs, and she and Agnes sat with Erin and talked. The inn wasn’t at all crowded and Safry was cooking whatever was needed in the kitchen while she served the tables as well.
Erin chewed the decent eggs with a bit of pepper and salt added for flavoring and chatted with Maran and Agnes. They didn’t have much to say, to be honest. Business was good—but Erin knew that. Maran was dating another guy, a young [Cook] whom Agnes wanted to lure to the inn, but Maran wasn’t even sure if they were serious about each other—soon enough, Erin felt compelled to bring up the issue on her minds.
“Hey, I’ve been wondering…what do you guys do for fun?”
The two women exchanged a surprised glance.
“Well, what do you mean, Erin? If you’re asking about fun things to do on a date—Maran would know more about that.”
Erin shook her head.
“Not like that. I mean—what do you do for fun, when you have time, I mean? Read books?”
“Free time? There’s precious little of that here. And books? I’m sure Jerom and I don’t have the coin for that, even if I wanted to spend hours reading. No, that gives me a headache.”
“Then what do you do?”
“The other day I went shopping and bought a pair of earrings. The gemstones are just quartz—but they’re so beautiful and they sparkle in the light! I’ll show you tomorrow.”
“Okay. But…did you do anything else?”
The young woman blinked.
“Anything else? I didn’t have time to do anything else.”
“Oh. Well…what else do you do for fun?”
Maran and Agnes looked confused, but they told Erin what they did when they had a day off for whatever reason.
“I have been known to have a pint or two when the dinner rush is slow—usually with Jerom—”
“I’ll dance in any tavern, that is, if I haven’t been on my feet all day—”
“There’s a [Shepherd] who plays beautifully on a flute. He goes to other inns sometimes and plays—I wish I could have him here so we could listen to the music—”
Dance, drink, gamble, listen to music—Erin listened to the short list and felt the small hole in her heart grow wider. It wasn’t that any of it was bad, but it wasn’t interesting either. Her ears did perk up when she heard Maran mention a familiar word, though.
“Oh? You have holidays here too?”
“Of course! We have a few every year, and everyone looks forward to them.”
Apparently, even Agnes would close up her inn most of the day on such occasions. The entire city would celebrate special days in the year, a lot of them right around the time holidays were observed in Erin’s world.
“The real fun is during one of the festivals. There’s candied apples, games to play, entertainments bought by the city, and so much to do! The Winter Solstice is coming up—there’s always a good time to be had then.”
“And it’s such a romantic time as well.”
Maran sighed wistfully, and Erin suspected a certain [Cook] had been chosen to share that special day with. Agnes smiled mischievously.
“Of course, there’s another way some folks entertain themselves each night—”
The [Barmaid] raised her voice in shocked outrage, and Agnes laughed. Both women looked at Erin—she looked just as unimpressed.
That’s it? Of course, Erin got the attraction, but besides festivals, was there really nothing else to do? Flummoxed by Erin’s indifference, Agnes and Maran tried to come up with other things that were fun to do.
“There’s always a good time when a [Troubadour], [Bard], [Tumbler], or some other person with a class like that visits. I always try and go see them if I have the time.”
“They wander from city to city?”
It made sense, but that was just as…well, at least they were some fun people who visited now and then. But still. It seemed like people in Celum just waited a long time for fun to occur. Erin sighed, even more melancholy than before.
Agnes looked a bit worried that Erin was so down.
“Are you well, Erin dear? Would you like to have a rest, maybe?”
“Nah. I’m not tired.”
Erin pushed her empty plate back and stood up. If there was no fun to be had here, at least she could see if…
“I’m going to go see Fuzzylips. I mean…yeah, him.”
“Who? Oh, you mean Wesle? You go visit him practically every day. Has he caught your eye?”
Maran and Agnes smiled knowingly at Erin. Erin gave them a blank look.
“Not really. I just want to know if he’s found my skeleton yet.”
The [Guardsman] had been napping, or maybe just resting his eyes, but he sat up in his wooden chair and looked attentive the moment he heard his name. He relaxed when he realized his superior wasn’t calling his name—and then he straightened up in his chair again when he realized Erin was standing in front of him.
“Oh, Miss Solstice! I didn’t realize—um, let me—would you like a seat?”
Fumbling at his words, blushing, Wesle stood up and offered Erin the only seat in the room. His. Erin just laughed at him until they left the small room which was meant for—well, probably napping [Guardsman]—and talked.
“I didn’t expect you to be here so soon. Ah, what can I do for you, Miss Erin?”
“Any news about Toren?”
Wesle was ready for the question, because Erin asked it every day. He shook his head ruefully.
“You mean the skeleton? No, Miss Erin. I haven’t heard any of the cities reporting any sighting of the undead—and I did send out a request asking if any reports had been logged with the Adventurer’s Guilds as well.”
Erin knew that was the response she’d likely get, but she sagged anyways. No one had seen Toren. Selys would have messaged her if he’d appeared around Liscor, but he hadn’t gone back there. And no one had mentioned seeing a walking skeleton around the cities either—it was like he’d disappeared.
Where was Toren now? And when she finally found him…would Erin really have to do what she was thinking? Maybe Pisces could help. But he wasn’t here yet.
Awkwardly, Wesle patted Erin on the shoulder. She smiled at him.
“That’s too bad. Thanks for looking, though.”
“Are you sure you won’t sit? You seem less spirited than usual, Miss Erin.”
“Really? I’m sorta…tired, I guess. You seem tired too.”
The [Guardsman] hesitated, and then nodded with a grimace.
“It’s Esthelm, Miss. Or rather, after that all the [Guardsmen] in every city are working around the clock.”
“In case the Goblins attack?”
“That, and trying to find out when they’ll attack, or at least, where they are.”
Wesle gestured to a large map that had been pinned to a wall of the City Watch barracks. It had a lot of colored pins in it, most of them centered around a red cross over what had been Esthelm. Erin’s stomach twisted a bit just looking at the map.
What about Rags? Another friend she couldn’t do anything for. She let Wesle explain the problem, hoping Rags wasn’t with any of the Goblins he was talking about.
“It’s not like there are Goblins everywhere now, but there are certainly more of them. Just the other day a village near Esthelm – Verdun – reported seeing a group of a hundred or so armed Goblins.”
The man showed Erin a small pin on the map. She stared at it and looked at how close it was to Liscor and Celum. A hundred Goblins? How many did Rags have…?
“These ones aren’t like the normal groups of Goblins. They all have weapons and armor—and they move and fight like they’re actual [Soldiers]. If the village didn’t have walls, I think they’d have been attacked. But the Goblins were moving north, and luckily no one was killed.”
“Are they attacking something?”
“I think it’s a war between Goblin tribes, Miss. It happens. Or—it could be this Goblin Lord we’ve been hearing rumors about.”
Wesle’s face was grim. Erin remembered that Goblin Lords were supposed to be really bad.
“You guys are working hard. Um. Do you work like this every day?”
“Well, most days we just arrest petty criminals and patrol, Miss. Or stand watch at the gate and check travelers coming in, like we did with you. It’s not always this exciting.”
The [Guardsman] gave Erin a faint grin. She nodded.
“And what about fun?”
“Yeah. Do you do…anything for fun in your free time?”
Wesle looked uncomfortable. Suddenly encouraged, Erin grinned and nudged him.
“Come on. What do you do? Show me, please? I won’t tell.”
It took a bit of coaxing, but eventually Wesle led Erin behind the barracks and into the practice yard. It was for [Guardsmen] to swing a blade, but the bored men and women of the City Watch had installed an unauthorized addition to the place.
A horseshoe, rusted and battered from use, swung from Wesle’s hand. He tossed it across the snowy and muddy ground and landed it near, but not on the metal pole that had been hammered into the earth. He offered one to Erin, but she just stared at it. Erin looked at the horseshoe, and then at Wesle’s face.
“And this is what you do for fun?”
Erin stared at the horseshoes. She stared at Wesle. Then she reached out and patted him gently on the shoulder.
“I’m so sorry.”
He never got an answer. Erin just walked away, shaking her head sadly.
Such a boring world. It actually amazed Erin that she could think that. But at times, it was true. Even here, there was boredom. Perhaps more boredom than back home.
Or—maybe it wasn’t the world that was boring, but some of the people living in it. Erin had never felt bored in Liscor, but she’d always had something to do. Here, she was just an observer, watching people live lives that—weren’t that interesting, to be honest.
Wesle was a [Guardsman]. Agnes was an [Innkeeper]. Octavia was an [Alchemist]. That was all they were and would be, and they leveled up and worked and lived, and that was all.
It wasn’t enough for Erin. She needed something else. But she had no idea of where to find it, so Erin just started walking. She walked out of the City Watch’s guardhouse and into the city, looking for something she wasn’t sure existed.
Where should she go? Erin came to a crossroads and turned left for no particular reason. She’d gone walking through the city before of course, but that was always with Ryoka. Today Erin walked down streets Ryoka would never turn.
It wasn’t that her friend was a snob—even though she sort of was. But it was that Ryoka always went from A to Z, and never bothered talking to H or exploring any places in between.
When she was in the city, Ryoka would just go to the marketplace—that was to say, the marketplace where people traded for gold and valuable items. She wouldn’t ever visit the stalls that sold Miss Agnes food, or venture into the poorer parts of the city.
Unless she was on a delivery. But most of Ryoka’s clients were rich, so she never ran down the streets Erin now walked down. The girl saw the way the buildings changed from stone to wood, the way their architecture became simpler, and the rare glass windows disappeared altogether.
And then—Erin was in a different world. She stared around at the faces of people who weren’t rich, or even close to it. She saw thin bodies, clothes that were badly patched or simply holey, and felt something different in her chest besides apathy.
These were poor people. Of course, it shouldn’t surprise Erin. Every world had poor people—people who couldn’t afford to eat. But she’d somehow forgotten that they existed here. Forgotten, because she’d never looked.
A girl passing by Erin looked like she could have used a few more meals. Erin tried not to stare, but she felt a…a kinship with the people who passed her by. She’d been like that, once. She’d had nothing, living in an empty inn that was falling apart.
And of course, there was no fun to be had here. Erin looked around and only saw misery mixed with desperation. Here were people who couldn’t even think about having fun. They lived on the edge.
It made her feel bad about complaining. Erin wavered, turned to go. She couldn’t feed these people, but maybe if she had scraps left over from cooking? But Maran and Safry took those back to their families. No one had too much. But was there something…?
Then Erin saw it. There were shops down this street as well, and the girl she’d passed had gone to one of them, to buy something at the stalls. But while she was waiting in the queue, a small shape moved furtively behind her. Erin recognized the young boy’s face at once. She’d seen him calling out to her when she’d entered the city, all innocence and smiles.
And now…he was picking a pocket. Or rather, cutting a purse. Erin saw him reaching for the young woman’s money pouch hidden just under her tunic and shouted.
Every head turned, but the boy’s turned fastest. Grev’s eyes widened when he saw Erin, and then his face went dead white with recognition. The girl he’d been trying to rob turned and shrieked in horror when she saw the small knife in his hands, but it fell from nerveless fingers as Grev stared at Erin. Erin took one step towards him, and he ran.
“Oh no you don’t! Get back here!”
She ran after him, dashing past surprised people as Grev screamed and ran for his life. Erin didn’t know what she’d do when she caught him—hadn’t she threatened to shove a bee up his butt? She didn’t have any bees left, but she wasn’t too bothered by that. She was bored, and here was something to do.
Grev ran as if Carn Wolves were on his back, pushing past people, ignoring their curses. Erin ran a bit slower, dodging around people.
“Whoops! Sorry! Excuse me!”
She had Grev in her sights the entire time—until the boy turned down an alley! Erin skidded into it, wary for a second of an ambush, but she saw Grev turning around a corner. He was still running, so Erin gave chase.
Really, she had no idea why she was still running after him, but after five minutes of pursuit giving up was no longer an option. Erin had to catch Grev; it was a matter of pride.
Erin dashed down another poor street, practically unpaved and full of run down houses. Where was she? But there was Grev, trying to open a door!
Before the frantic boy could open the door and get away, Erin seized him by one hand. He shrieked in fear and to Erin’s surprise, raised his other arm as he shrunk to the ground. As if he was afraid she would…hit…him…
She’d just processed that thought when Erin heard a voice.
Someone grabbed her arm. The hand wasn’t big, but the touch was rough and whoever had grabbed her had claws. Erin jumped and let go of Grev. He ran behind his savior, a female Drake—
Erin blinked. She stared at the young Drake standing in front of her, holding a bundle of what looked like wet clothing in one claw while the other held Erin. The Drake let go of Erin and backed away instantly. She shielded Grev with her body as she spoke desperately to Erin.
“Please, Miss! Don’t hurt him! He’s just a child!”
Why was a Drake in Celum? Erin hadn’t even seen one, but here was a Drake, standing in front of her. The Drake paused as she realized Erin wasn’t going to start hitting her. For a moment she and Erin just stared at each other while Grev hid behind her, sniveling.
“You’re a Drake.”
That was the brilliant opening Erin came up with. The female Drake hesitated, and then nodded. She bit at her lip, glaring at Erin as if that statement was a challenge.
“That’s right. I’m a Drake. But I live here, and the Watch knows about me.”
“I’m sorry if Grev did anything—but he’s just a child! Please, whatever he did—”
“He was pickpocketing. I saw him.”
The Drake’s reaction was immediate, as was Grev’s. He immediately let go of her and piped up in denial.
She stared at him, clearly knowing he was lying. But instantly the Drake looked back at Erin, and now there was a genuine note of desperation in her voice.
“Please don’t report him, Miss. Please don’t. He’s only one crime away from being exiled from the city. And if that happens—it was just one mistake, Miss. It won’t happen again.”
Erin propped her hands on her hips and stared at Grev as he tried to turn invisible.
“I happen to have met Grev before. He helped a bunch of thugs ambush me when I first came into the city.”
The Drake turned. To Erin’s surprise, she dropped the clothing on the snowy cobblestones and grabbed Grev, lifting him up as he shouted.
“How dare you! I’ll spank you until you won’t sit for two weeks! And you’re not having dinner! I should drag you to the City Watch myself. Do you want to be kicked out of the city? Because if you do—”
“I’m sorry! I’msorryI’msorryI’m—”
The Drake kept shaking Grev as he apologized frantically, shouting. Erin saw other doors opening and closing once the occupants saw what was going on, but no one came to see. She cleared her throat and the two stopped and stared at her.
Grev’s face was somewhere beyond white and going into ghostly. The Drake’s face was—well, her dark red scales couldn’t really change color like skin, but they were definitely looking more pink than red around her face. Both clearly expected the worst.
And why not? Erin wasn’t a huge, angry [Warrior], true, but she was dressed a lot better than they were, and she could easily summon the Watch. But to their surprise, the young woman didn’t shout or get angry. She just smiled a bit, and held out a hand.
“I’m Erin. Who are you?”
The Drake stared at the hand, and then dropped Grev. She gingerly took the hand.
“Jasi. My name is Jasi, Miss.”
Jasi the Drake was one of perhaps two or three Drakes in Celum.
“I don’t know. There was a [Merchant], but he might have left. And there’s a [Baker] who married a Human woman. But it’s not common, especially in small cities like this.”
Jasi shifted in her seat. Erin was sitting in her home—hers and Grev’s. Apparently, they lived in a squalid hut—house was too grand a word for this place—next to the city walls. It had belong to their parents, both of whom were dead or had simply left. Erin hadn’t asked.
Now Erin sat on a rickety chair with a cup of boiled water in front of her. She hadn’t drunk from it. There were a few flecks in the water that she didn’t want in her stomach. Jasi sat across from her while Grev tried to listen to their conversation and hide in the other corner of the room.
Talking had happened. And spanking and apologizing and now explanations were currently occurring.
“You live pretty close to Liscor. I’d have thought more than one or two Drakes would live in cities, even Humans ones.”
“Well…people don’t like Drakes here. And I’ve heard that most Drakes don’t like Humans.”
Jasi looked uncomfortable as she spoke. She’d apologized a hundred times to Erin, but she was still clearly afraid Erin would go ballistic over Grev’s crimes, or, Erin realized, her being a Drake. She tried to reassure the young…woman.
“Don’t worry—I don’t mind Drakes. In fact, I live in Liscor where there are tons of them!”
Both Grev and Jasi exclaimed at the same time. Jasi looked at Erin with wide eyes.
“Really? But I heard Humans don’t live there. Unless—are you an adventurer, Miss?”
Grev called out from one corner of the room. He was standing—as sitting would be very hard with his sore backside. He flinched when Erin and Jasi looked at him. But he piped up with the determination to be proved right.
“I saw her! She beat three big men by herself! She punched one of them so hard she broke his nose!”
“And whose fault is it she had to fight you stupid—”
Jasi raised her voice and nearly got up before Erin stopped her. She was all for punishing Grev, but he’d had enough, at least in her opinion.
“I’m not an adventurer. I’m an [Innkeeper]. I have an inn in Liscor and I happen to have a few combat Skills.”
“Did you come from Liscor?”
Jasi suddenly turned red, the scales around her face actually turning a lighter pink rather than darkening.
“Who me? No—I’ve actually never been to Liscor. Or…or anywhere with other Drakes, really.”
“What? Then how…?”
“It’s a long story, Miss.”
It came out as the cup of water in front of Erin slowly stopped steaming and went cold. It was cold in Jasi’s house, and it was her house. Erin had figured out some of the story just seeing how Jasi and Grev interacted, but the rest fell into place quickly enough.
Jasi was adopted. Or more accurately, she was a child that had been abandoned and found and raised by a Human father and mother. She’d lived in Celum all her life, but that life hadn’t been kind to her. Her parents—who’d taken care of her and taught her to live among Humans and then had Grev—had split up unhappily. The mother found another man, the father just…disappeared one day.
It was a sad story, the kind Erin had heard many times in her world. But to hear it here—was disheartening. But what Erin could admire throughout it was Jasi. She’d kept going even when her parents had gone. She’d found work, as a [Washer] although she only had a handful of levels, and she’d earned enough coin for her and Grev to survive.
The catch was that she couldn’t look after Grev and earn money at the same time. The street had raised him, and what Grev had learned was how to steal, and how to lure innocent people into ambushes. Jasi had known about the first part and done her best to stop that, but she hadn’t known about the muggings.
When Erin gave her the full recounting of what Grev had done when she’d first met him—and after she’d stopped threatening to bite Grev’s hands off, Jasi got down on her hands and knees and begged Erin for mercy.
“I swear to you, I’ll never let it happen again. Please don’t report him. He’s the only family I have left.”
What could Erin do but agree? Jasi made Grev apologize a hundred times, and promised to keep a better watch over him, but all Erin could wonder was when he’d be caught next, and what would happen then.
And from the look in Jasi’s eyes, she was thinking the same thing. That was how Erin found herself sitting in their grubby home, poking a finger into the very cold cup of water and watching as Jasi got back to her work.
She washed clothing for bronze coins, day in, day out. And she did it by using a tub of quite dirty water in the cold home and using lye soap and her claws to scrub the dirty fabrics as clean as she could.
It was hard, backbreaking work, especially since Jasi didn’t exactly have any racks to dry the clothes on, let alone a washer and dryer. Instead, she hung bits of rope from stands—chairs, the ceiling, and so on, letting the clothing drip-dry as the small fire she kept going in the fireplace added smoke to the cold room.
Erin didn’t know if she liked Jasi. She certainly felt bad for her, but that wasn’t the same as liking her. But she felt she couldn’t just walk out of the home. Not when she looked at Jasi’s hands, or rather, her claws.
Her scales were paler and—damaged around her claws. Some were even missing, revealing pale white skin underneath. It was clearly painful from the way the Drake girl avoided brushing up against the exposed parts where she could. Erin could only guess that her work washing clothes had scraped away her scales one at a time.
It was like…seeing how her life could have gone. Maybe. Jasi was a stranger in a city full of people who weren’t like her, and didn’t like her. And what was more, she had to take care of Grev. It was a thankless, soul crushing task. And Erin…
Erin felt at her belt pouch. She had gold coins and silver coins in there, courtesy of her work as an [Innkeeper] at Miss Agnes’ inn. She had more bronze coins than Jasi and Grev had together. If she gave them just one gold coin, what would happen?
Happiness, perhaps for a day? Then it would be back to normal. Maybe Jasi could buy something to help her with washing, but the place they were in wouldn’t change that much.
What about all the coins? They’d probably get robbed. And even then, when it ran out they’d still be poor. Erin was no social worker, no expert in charity and relief management, but she knew this wasn’t a good option.
But what else could be done? She could…walk out and leave them alone. But Erin rejected that as well. And yet—how many people were like Jasi? If Erin went next door, she was sure she’d probably feel the exact same way about the people living there.
But she knew Jasi, and Grev. She knew their names. That made things different. Just knowing their names meant it was so hard to walk away.
“Grev! Help me lift this, will you? And don’t drop it or I’ll have to wash it again!”
Jasi snapped at Grev as she struggled to lift some wet shirts up. Erin sat back down as Grev ran over. She watched them work.
Yes. If she helped them half-heartedly, she wouldn’t change much, would she? But if she gave them everything, what would happen to her?
What would Ryoka do? Would she come up with a brilliant solution, or would she just shake her head and say this is how the world was and walk away? Erin didn’t know.
She saw the female Drake wince as the clothing wrapped around a patch of exposed skin where the scales had been torn away. But she made no sound.
Erin looked at the windows. The shutters were closed—obviously they had no glass windows, but even the shutters had gaps in them, letting in the winter air. And the floor was filthy. When had they last cleaned? And the water in the tub—Jasi must have hauled it here, and when would she be able to replace it? Only when it became impossible to wash with, Erin bet.
So hard. Hard, and—and small. This was all they had, and even that was uncertain. Erin’s heart ached as she looked at Grev, reluctantly helping Jasi hang up clothes to dry by the fire. She thought, and came to a decision, even though it might have been the wrong one.
“Miss Erin…what’s this?”
That was what Agnes said when Erin brought Jasi and Grev to the inn. They stared at the bustling place, wide-eyed and disbelieving, an expression that was mirrored on Agnes’s face when Erin told her what she intended.
“You want to hire her as a [Barmaid]? Well of course we could use the help but—does she have any levels in the class? And what about the boy?”
“Grev can stay here. He can’t work, but he can sleep here. I don’t know what he’ll do every day—I’ll think of something to keep him out of trouble.”
Jasi bobbed a nervous curtsy to Miss Agnes.
“I’ll work hard, Miss. If you need me to haul things or clean up—I can do that. Anything you need.”
Agnes looked helplessly at Erin. She gave the uncertain Jasi and Grev a big smile and had them sit at a table.
“We’ll—have Safry bring you some food. You two look like you could use some. Safry! And then we’ll put you to work, Miss Jasi.”
As the two sat and Safry came over, Agnes drew Erin aside and spoke to her in a troubled voice.
“I hate to question you, but—do you know what you’re doing, Erin? This seems…sudden. Have you thought all this through?”
“No. Not really.”
Miss Agnes looked somewhat dismayed by Erin’s honest response. But the truth of it was that Erin herself was uncertain. When she’d stood up and announced that Jasi could work at her inn, it had felt right. But now—
“I know you come from Liscor where Drakes are common—but here Drakes are—well, there’s history—”
“I know, Miss Agnes. But I had to do something.”
“You have a kind heart, Erin. I know that.”
But you made a mistake. Erin heard it unspoken in Agnes’ voice. She ignored it.
“For now just have Jasi wait tables. That’s easy. And Grev can eat and sit in a corner.”
So passed the first night. Erin kept an eye on Jasi, and especially Grev. But Grev was meek and even grateful for the food, eating a huge amount until Erin thought he would be sick. But he eventually just passed out in a minor food coma at his table.
As for Jasi, she still seemed stunned to work at such as busy inn. She was constantly serving tables, bringing the food Erin cooked out of the kitchen. And even if she got quite a few glances, Erin heard no audible comments, at least, not while she was in the common room.
She cooked, fried, and served food in her own world of anxiety. Then, when the last of the guests had eaten, Erin found a small room for Jasi and Grev to sleep in.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Miss Erin. Are you sure it’s alright for us to be sleeping here? We have a house—”
“I’m sure. And this way you can help in the morning.”
Erin smiled at Jasi and Grev, keeping her emotions inside of her until they’d closed the door. Then she went to her own room and sat on her bed and put her head in her hands.
“Was that a mistake?”
It felt like it. Erin hated to say it out loud, but she wasn’t sure. What had she just done? It had been so sudden, an impulse decision.
“But what was I thinking?”
Making Jasi a [Barmaid]? Offering her a job? It had seemed like the only option Erin could take. The obvious choice. But now that she was here—
It wasn’t a good fit. Jasi would work hard, but Erin had seen the looks the patrons of the inn gave her. She was a Drake, and unpopular. Plus, she would have to start at Level 1 and work her way up as a [Barmaid]. Agnes had expressed her doubts, and no wonder. Did Agnes even like Jasi? What about Maran and Safry? Would they be afraid Jasi would take their jobs or steal their wages since Erin had hired her? What about when Erin was gone? Would Agnes fire Jasi then and there?
And when Erin left…could she take Jasi with her? Would the Drake be willing to go back to Liscor? What about Grev? He wouldn’t be happy in that city, and the Liscorian City Watch was hard on crime, especially by Humans.
Especially after Lyonette.
Erin tossed and turned in her bed. She knew she’d made a bad choice. But could she just leave them there? But now—she’d taken then out of their home. What could she do? Jasi might have lost her job since Erin had taken her away! Could Erin just give her money and tell her to go back if things didn’t work out?
She didn’t know. Erin lay sleepless in her bed, trying to figure out what the right answer was. But she was only sure of one thing. One simple thing: of all the things she could have done, the worst thing would have been nothing.
She’d made her choice. Now she would help Jasi—and Grev—as much as she could. That was all she could do.
Exhausted, but knowing she had to sleep, Erin finally closed her eyes. She mumbled to herself as sleep finally overwhelmed her stressed brain.
“At the very least…I have something to do.”
She closed her eyes and slept.
[Innkeeper Level 27!]