“Tomorrow, then. Or sooner if I can get a hold of the Horns of Hammerad by mage spell.”
“Very well. Please confine your visiting hours between dawn and sunset.”
That seemed like a fairly easy request, so Ryoka nodded to Hedault as she and Reynold left his house. She supposed that without clocks, appointments were a little harder to keep.
The [Enchanter] stood in his living room and gestured to make the front door swing open. Ryoka saw Reynold stop to bow and thank him. She was almost out the door, having said her goodbyes. From the look on Hedault’s face as he stared at the [Butler], he preferred succinct conversations.
Ryoka paused as she stepped towards the door and turned back to Hedault.
“One last question. Are any of your other artifacts for sale?”
She nodded to a mace neatly hung on a wall plaque. Hedault nodded.
“These are…competent examples of my craft, or artifacts I have purchased for study. I have a small selection of items that I may be willing to sell.”
“Got it. See you later.”
The young woman walked out of the door, Reynold following with another polite farewell. Once she was outside, Ryoka took one look at the sun and cursed.
“How long was I in there?”
“Around an hour an a half by my count, Miss Ryoka.”
Reynold stepped smoothly over to her side as the door silently closed behind them. Ryoka sighed.
“Well shit. Okay, I guess I need to run. Thanks for bringing me here, Reynold.”
“My pleasure, Miss Ryoka.”
“I don’t have anything in particular to do.”
“…You can go now.”
Ryoka stared at Reynold. The [Butler] did not move. He stood politely at attention by her side, back perfectly straight. He seemed to be attracting approving glances from a lot of the passersby, and not just because he looked good in a suit. These upstanding citizens probably employed or wanted to employ a man like Reynold, or rather, a [Butler] like Reynold. Then again, Ryoka hadn’t ever seen a Gnoll [Butler] or a Drake [Manservant]. Perhaps they didn’t take to it as well?
She coughed as she began walking down the street. Reynold followed her.
“I don’t need your help, Reynold. How can I put this politely…? Piss off.”
“I’m afraid I cannot do that, Miss Griffin. My orders were to escort you around the city.”
“And I don’t need an escort anymore. Hold on—”
The young woman’s eyes narrowed as she put the pieces together.
“Magnolia told you to follow me everywhere, didn’t she?”
“That is correct, Miss. I am afraid my orders regarding you were quite specific. I must accompany you everywhere. On that note, shall we return to the plaza? I believe we are late for your meeting.”
The young woman and butler had been striding quickly down the street towards that very spot, where Ryoka had promised to meet Laken. But Ryoka stopped dead in her tracks and turned around.
The man’s expression didn’t change. He calmly met Ryoka’s eyes.
“I did not follow you, Miss Ryoka. But I am not the only person in Lady Reinhart’s employ who was given orders regarding you. Happily, the young man you met appears to be still sitting in the plaza, although he is growing restless. May I suggest we continue walking?”
Ryoka did, although now she was ready to do violence. Internally she was cursing. She should have realized Magnolia would set watchers on her!
“Why are you being obvious about spying on me? If you can set watchers so easily, why bother with an escort at all?”
Reynold’s eyebrows rose slightly.
“Lady Reinhart expected you to put the pieces together, Miss Ryoka. I believe this is her way of assisting you—again, in her own way. But she did tell me to be open about her orders if you asked.”
“So I don’t spook and run, is that it?”
“I would not dare to make such an assumption, Miss.”
For a second, just a second, Ryoka thought about killing Reynold and dumping his body in a ditch somewhere. But of course, Magnolia would know if Ryoka killed her butler. And where would Ryoka find a handy ditch anyways? What about digging a grave? That would be hell in the snow, and Ryoka would have to lure Reynold far out into the countryside to do that…
It was just a passing thought. But it was tempting. She was furious, but Ryoka was already worrying about Laken. She’d given him away, hadn’t she? But he might just be another person from her world, hardly important—the key would be making sure Magnolia’s servants saw it that way.
She turned her head as Reynold kept pace with her down the street.
“Out of curiosity…if I knock you out, how badly do you think Lady Magnolia would react?”
Again, the [Butler]’s face didn’t twitch. It must have been a Skill.
“If you wish to try, I am afraid you may well succeed. I must tell you however that I am under orders.”
“Yes. Miss Ressa gave me precise instructions as to what I should do if you offered me violence, Miss Ryoka.”
Ryoka looked over at Reynold. He just stared at her. Slowly, Ryoka unclenched the fist she’d made.
“I really hate your boss, Reynold.”
“I believe the feeling is mutual, Miss Ryoka. I see we have stopped again. Shall we proceed?”
“Sure. Remind me to kick your ass when I’m done here, Reynold?”
“I shall make a note of it.”
In general, I’d say I’m a pretty patient guy. Well, I do like to keep myself busy, but being blind means that sometimes you’ve just got to wait and think about what you’re going to do next.
For instance, if you’ve lost your walking cane, and you’re in an unfamiliar place, well, you’d better stop and think or you might walk straight into a car. I’ve done that only once before, but believe me, patience is a life saver.
I know better than to hurry things along. There’s a time for action, but if it’s not that time, you might as well take it slow.
Still, I don’t like waiting too long. I shift impatiently on the bench as Durene and Gamel sit next to me. Well, I say sit, but Durene is too big to really share the bench with so she’s sitting on the ground and Gamel seems determined to stand at attention like some kind of personal bodyguard.
Lunch is done. We’ve all had a snack—some very fine Gnollish cooking, which came in the form of a marinated mix of beef and vegetables drizzled in spicy sauce. I was tickled to learn that instead of disposable paper plates, vendors in this city use cheap ceramics. We pay more for the dishes of course, but we get it back if we return our bowls undamaged.
Gamel bought the food and returned the dishes once we were done. He insisted—I would have liked him to rest since he’s been on his feet all day, but he wants to be useful.
Now I turn to him and sense him snap to attention. I don’t have to hear it; I just know he’s standing straighter and turning to face me. It’s so odd. Gamel is only a few years younger than I am, but he thinks I have all the answers.
That’s a dangerous belief. I frown, but put that issue aside for far later. Right now I only have one question.
“Do you see Ryoka, Durene? Gamel?”
“I don’t see anyone, Laken. I mean, there are a lot of people, but—”
“I don’t see any Runner with dark skin, sire.”
“Darn. Where could she be?”
A thousand and one answers come to mind. The first of which is that this Ryoka girl is setting us up for a trap and by waiting, I’ve walked us all into it. I sigh and stand up.
“Well, we’ve waited long enough. Let’s go.”
I grab my walking cane and reach out for Durene, but feel her shift, turn as she touches my hand.
“I—wait, I see her, Laken! That’s her alright!”
I stiffen. I can’t see where Ryoka is coming from, but Durene faces me the right way. I hear Gamel draw in his breath.
“What is it?”
“She’s not alone, Laken.”
Immediately, the paranoid part of me starts freaking out. But I keep my voice calm. A leader can’t look nervous. That probably goes triple for an [Emperor], shoddy one though I may be.
“Who is with her?”
“A…I don’t know. What kind of man is that, Gamel? He looks odd.”
“Yes, Emper—Mister Laken. He has, well, fancy clothes on. They’re all black and white, and he has a bow tie at his neck. He looks like a rich man’s servant, sir.”
“A rich man’s servant…”
I frown. I almost imagine a man in a prison uniform when Gamel says black and white clothes. But they have stripes, don’t they? I don’t know. I think I read about that in a book somewhere, but I haven’t really read a description of prison uniforms in a long time. I always imagine people in that sort of clothing when I listen to news stories about escaped convicts and trials, though.
A servant, though…why would Ryoka have one of those?
“He’s with her?”
“Yes, and they’re—”
Durene breaks off as I hear someone walk towards me. There’s a moment of hesitation as I feel Durene let go of my hand and move. I can’t tell what’s happened, but then I hear the girl named Ryoka speak.
“Laken? I’m here.”
“Ah, Ryoka Griffin? Is that you?”
I don’t know what’s going on, but I opt for pleasant surprise. I listen very carefully to her as she replies.
“Yes. Sorry I’m late. Something came up. I—well, sorry.”
She sounds tense. And worried. Not at all like she did while talking to me before. That was a different sort of tense. This sounds like anxiety in her tone, which means that…
I think quickly and nod, putting a smile on my face.
“Of course. Thank you for coming back. Why don’t we chat over by the benches, assuming they’re not all taken?”
I turn and hear Ryoka cough.
“Your—friend is in the way.”
“Durene? Please let Ryoka past.”
Shuffling feet. Then—I hear a man’s voice.
“Ah, pardon me Miss Durene, is it? I would like to introduce myself, if you would permit it.”
“Who are you?”
“This is Reynold, Laken. He’s my escort. He’s a friend. A—hold on, let me look this up.”
Silence, shuffling. I hear Durene and Gamel murmur in surprise, but have no idea what Ryoka is doing. So I turn to the man named Reynold.
“Hello. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Are you Ryoka’s friend?”
“Not as of such, sir. I—I am a—pardon me, but please accept my most profuse apologies to greet you so rudely. Allow me to introduce myself as Reynold Ferusdam, a humble servant in the employ of Lady Magnolia Reinhart.”
I hear a gasp from Durene and a sound from Ryoka. It’s short, but it makes me think this Reynold fellow has done something. I hold still, but sense nothing.
“Please excuse my rudeness, sir.”
I don’t blink, because I keep my eyelids closed all the time, but I am taken aback. Lady who? What’s this Reynold fellow got to do with Ryoka and why is he acting so formal? Wait a minute. I think I know what’s going on.
There are a number of ways I could reply. I opt for more genuine interest. I smile and extend my hand.
“Oh? Pleased to meet you. May I assume you are a—a [Manservant] or [Butler] of some sort?”
“Indeed, milo—Mister Laken, that is correct. I am a [Butler] currently given the task of escorting Miss Ryoka around the city.”
I feel a light hand—gloved—shake mine and then withdraw. I can tell this man Reynold is wearing some kind of cologne. Well now, I think I understand his odd reaction. Is there a way to make use of it? Perhaps not, but I also fear it might be giving me away a bit.
Someone clears her throat next to me. I hear Ryoka draw closer.
“Goddamn stupid…okay, I think I have it. Laken, Reynold is a friend of a friend. I know Lady Magnolia Reinhart—she’s one of the Five Families in the continent as I’m sure you know, a very powerful [Lady]—and she’s sent Reynold to help me out because I know her. Reynold is a friend. He’s uh—damnit. Freund aber Spion. Achtung. Sag nichts. Verstehst du mich?”
This is why having my eyes closed all the time helps. They don’t narrow and I keep perfect control of my voice.
So that’s how it is? I smile at Ryoka.
“It’s good to meet someone else who speaks a different language.”
“Yes, it is. Around here everyone speaks English. Everyone. Weird, isn’t it?”
There’s a note of humor in her tone. I shrug lightly and turn towards Durene.
“I’m sorry, Durene, Gamel. I haven’t introduced you, have I? This is Ryoka—I met her today, but we, ah, come from the same place. I think of her as a friend, and I hope you will as well. I think she and Mister Reynold might be able to help us while we’re here.”
I hear people moving and murmuring greetings.
“Hello. My name is Durene. I’m Laken’s friend.”
Is it me, or is there not a lot of friendliness in Durene’s tone? I hear Ryoka mutter something and shift—were they shaking hands or something? But then Reynold walks over and I practically feel Durene flush. Listening to her stammer, it sounds like he bowed or kissed her hand.
Well now. Smiling a bit, I sit with Ryoka on the bench. Everyone else stands.
“So why are you here?”
Ryoka’s tone is warning, but I ignore it. Honesty. You can do a lot with honesty, especially when you pair it with omission.
“It’s a long story. Durene and Gamel and I are all from Riverfarm, a small village to the…east, I think. We’ve come here because an avalanche hit the village a few days ago. A good number of people died, and the rest are in trouble since the avalanche wiped out a lot of their provisions for the winter. Not to mention, there’s a danger of monsters, bandit attacks…”
I hear an indrawn breath. So, Ryoka really had no idea why I was here? She shifts on the bench next to me and sounds pained.
“That’s not good. But how are you going to get all those supplies? Buying all that in the winter would cost a small fortune, and that’s without hiring a [Guard] or two.”
“Indeed, sir. Would the other villages be able to assist you? A neighboring town or city, perhaps? Some provinces have local [Lords] or [Ladies] who take care of their subjects, but I’m afraid Riverfarm is not a claimed holding.”
I shake my head at the questions.
“Money isn’t an issue. It’s finding a good supplier of food and a trustworthy adventuring team I’m struggling a bit with. Reynold, you seem to know your way around this city—would you answer a few questions for me?”
“I should be delighted to, sir.”
I smile, and feel Ryoka shift on the bench again. But if she thinks I’ve said too much, she doesn’t do anything. I gather my thoughts. I really only need a few questions answered for the moment.
“Tell me, my good man—”
God, I sound like a pretentious idiot. It must be because I’m imagining a real [Butler] standing in front of me. I cough and adjust my tone.
“—I’m afraid I’m new to the city. To this area, really. I’d love to know more about this city. Is Invrisil an independent city-state? I’ve heard those are common around here, rather than nations. Who rules a place like this? A mayor?”
“Invrisil, sir Laken? This city does have an elected leader—Regisand Curle is the appointed [Mayor] for the moment. However, if I may say so, he is more of an administrator than one to set policy.”
“Fascinating. So if I were to ask who the real power behind the throne is…?”
“That would be Lady Reinhart, my employer, sir. Well, I should say Lady Magnolia Reinhart has the power to persuade the city to adopt new policies or to ah, see her point of view, but she rarely uses such authority. Day-to-day it’s usually just the Guilds and various nobles infighting, sir.”
“Really? The Guilds? No, wait—I see. I’ve heard of the Runner’s Guild, Adventurer’s Guild, the Merchant’s Guilds, and so on. How much power do they wield, politically and economically, I mean? Actually, do they have any standing forces of their own? And how would you compare that to the power of, oh, say, the average landed gentry, an average [Lord]?”
I hear Reynold gulp, but he replies quickly.
“The Guilds are a powerful force in any city, sir, although I would wager most [Lords] have just as much authority in their own way. Well, the average [Lord] doesn’t have the coin to match a large Guild, but he does have his own standing forces, and the Guilds usually don’t actively pick their battles. If it comes to blows they hire mercenaries or fight themselves if it’s the Adventurer or Runner’s Guild, but it’s rare for things to get that bad. Mostly, the worse that happens is someone gets assassinated, or finds themselves out of work or disgraced.”
“I see. Hm. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but a [Merchant] would have a bit of influence on their own, but only the most wealthy ones would be put on the same footing as one of the nobility. Is that right?”
“To an extent, sir. There’s an old saying in the north—‘even a [Shopkeeper] can sell a [Lord]’. The poorest [Trader] has friends, and they can boycott a [Lord] who’s wronged him, or lend money to a [Baroness] who needs it for a gala.”
Politics. I shake my head.
“Sounds like a mess. I had no idea it was this complicated around here.”
Ryoka comments sourly next to me. I’m in agreement with her.
“Is it like this everywhere, Reynold?”
“I do believe so. In Invrisil, First Landing—all the major cities have a hand in the politics of the continent, sir. [Lords] and [Ladies] of the Five Families maneuver with each other while [Shopkeepers] and [Merchants] play the same game on a smaller level. I’ve heard the Drakes in the south do much the same thing, although I’ve heard their version of things is far more direct and…material. But politics is the lifeblood of every continent.”
As in our world, so too in this. I incline my head in his direction.
“Well, thank you. That’s all I needed to know.”
So, if you’re a high-level person with a lot of coin—or you’re nobility, or you’re part of a big Guild you’re a mover and a shaker, but everyone else is subject to the power plays of the continent. I wonder what effect my actions might have, if any?
I stand up.
“If the Guilds have power, they’re the ones I need to go to. I was thinking of going to the Runner’s Guild—Ryoka, Durene tells me you look like a Runner. Do you know if they’d be able to get supplies out to Riverfarm? It’s a ways away, and I’d need a lot of supplies. I don’t think a few people can carry all that—how much would it cost to hire, say, fifty people? Or do the Runner’s Guild have wagons?”
“They’ve got bags of holding.”
I smile, delighted.
“No way. In that case, how fast could they travel, oh, thirty miles?”
“If you had the coin, you could have someone in Riverfarm within the hour I’ll bet. But…don’t go to the Runner’s Guild.”
Gamel sounds astounded. It takes Ryoka another minute to reply.
“They’ve got bags of holding and they’re a lot faster, yeah. But if you need to buy supplies as well as have them delivered, the Merchant Guild might be able to cut you a better deal. They’re rivals with the Runners—they’re slow, but if you’re hiring protection as well, it’ll be cheaper.”
Not something I’d expect to hear from a Runner, but I’m grateful for the advice. I smile around at everyone.
“I suppose that’s our destination, then. Durene, Gamel, we’re going to the Merchant’s Guild. I don’t suppose you’d like to join us, Ryoka, Reynold?”
“I am bound to escort Miss Ryoka wherever she travels. It would be my pleasure to accompany you if she so chooses.”
“…Yeah, I’ll go. I know where the Guild is—it’s a few blocks away from here.”
“I’ll help take Laken, Miss Ryoka.”
Durene’s voice comes from next to me. She sounds…a bit possessive. But Ryoka doesn’t budge.
“I’ve led blind people before.”
So saying, she takes my hand. I’m surprised, but I think quickly.
“It’s okay, Durene. I’ll walk with Ryoka for a bit. You can see the sights while we chat.”
I hear the hurt tone in Durene’s voice, but Ryoka pulls at my hand and then we’re off. It must be an odd sight as she leads me out of the plaza. I know Gamel, Reynold and Durene are keeping pace with us because I hear Reynold speaking to them, but then Ryoka begins talking.
“Is she your girlfriend or something?”
“The—Durene. She acts like you two are a couple.”
“We are a couple.”
I speak sharply.
“Is there something wrong with that?”
Hesitation. Ryoka sounds guilty.
“No. I—damn it, sorry. I’m just surprised.”
I say nothing in response. After a moment, Ryoka sighs.
“Sorry. She seems protective. She nearly broke my fingers when I shook her hand.”
“She thinks I’m a threat.”
“You did come out of nowhere. And even if you are from my world, that doesn’t mean much to Durene.”
Ryoka pauses, and I nearly run into her. I sense her turn.
“You told her you’re from another world?”
“Of course. I trust her.”
“—Okay. Fine. Sure. You told her. Does anyone else know you’re from another world? That Gamel guy, for instance?”
“No. Have you told anyone? Why is that Reynold fellow following you about?”
“He’s a servant of Lady Magnolia. And she knows. In fact, she knows everything. Her servants followed me—they were probably listening to us when we spoke the first time, and they’re probably listening now. Keep that in mind.”
“I will. But if they’re, ah, ‘friends but spies’, should I trust them or not?”
“…I don’t know. Magnolia’s not evil, but she’s not nice either. She might not care you’re from another world—she’s found other people like us.”
“Really? How many? Where were they?”
Ryoka gives my hand a squeeze.
“Just a few. Looks like a few other people got pulled to this continent. Maybe we all got hit by a rogue spell or something. There are five or six kids around our age—maybe a few years younger. But that’s all I know.”
Another squeeze. I gently tighten my fingers to let her know I understand. So Magnolia knows a lot, but not everything? How many of us are there? Why are we here?
I guess that’s a bad topic, so I go back to Magnolia.
“What’s she like? If she hires [Butlers], can I assume she’s rich?”
“Oh yeah. She’s one of the Five Families—they’re the richest nobles on the continent. She’s a [Lady] with an army of servants, tons of magical artifacts, a magical horseless carriage…”
“Are you serious? First bags of holding, now magical automobiles—are you going to tell me adventurers run around with flaming swords and shields of wonder?”
“Hah. Close. Try flaming daggers. But seriously—watch out for Magnolia. She might appear friendly and nice, but she’s devious. Imagine her as a—a—do you, I mean, did you watch Game of Thrones back home?”
I twitch a bit, but keep walking.
“I did. Watch is a bit strong, but I did a lot of listening to audiobooks and I listened to some episodes with visual description turned on.”
“Then imagine her as a Daenerys except older.”
“Sort of like Cersei Lannister?”
“Sort of. But…smarter. Less arrogant. Daenerys is a better analogy, especially given that she has one big thing in common with her. I mean, not as a mother, but a friend. And she’s twice as cunning as both Daenerys and Cersei put together—and she’s bold like Catelyn Stark, got it?”
“I get it. And she knows about you, or rather, us?”
“About everyone. She’s met people…like us, before. And she knows about one of my friends. Her name is Erin Solstice. She lives far south of here, in Liscor. She’s an [Innkeeper]…I’d like you to meet her sometime.”
“I’d be delighted. But I do have to help Riverfarm.”
“The village? Why? Because Durene lives there?”
“Yes. And because they’re good people. Well, fairly good. They’ll starve or die without help.”
“And you can do it?”
“I think so. I wasn’t expecting to meet someone from another world, though.”
“Neither was I. I just heard you speaking German and—look, I’m sorry I got you mixed up in this.”
I shrug fractionally.
“Politics. I’d get involved sooner or later, especially considering…well, let’s just say that having your friend here and learning a bit about the city might be helpful. If this Lady Magnolia really is a friend to the people, I think she’d approve of what we’re doing here.”
Ryoka’s quick pace falters. I hear her take a breath as people shout at a rude wagon driver ahead of us.
“About buying supplies. Do you need help with getting supplies for this village of yours? If you need coin I…damnit, I’ve got some, but—”
“I’ll be fine. Trust me.”
Silence. Then Ryoka stops.
I tap the ground experimentally with my walking stick, but feel no difference in the paving stone around me. Not that I really expected it.
“We’re in front of the Merchant’s Guild? How does it look?”
“Big. Fancy. They went all out on the architecture around here. Lots of gold paint.”
There’s a sneer in Ryoka’s voice. I hear the others catch up, and then Durene speaks.
“Laken! We’re in front of the Merchant’s Guild!”
Is it just me, or is she right between me and Ryoka? I smile up at her.
“I know. Ryoka, can you give us a second? I want to talk with Durene before we…”
“Got it. Hey Reynold, come over here.”
They retreat. I’m left alone with Durene and Gamel, although he’s standing further away. I whisper up to Durene.
“Do you not like Ryoka?”
“I—I don’t trust her, Laken. Are you sure she’s someone you know?”
“I think I can trust her. But tell me, is there anything I missed back in the plaza? When that man Reynold introduced himself, you and Gamel made a noise.”
“Yeah! When he was speaking he—he bowed to you, Laken! He bowed really low!”
“As one would to a…someone like me?”
“Someone like—oh, yeah!”
“Interesting. Don’t say anything about it for now, okay? It’s a secret. Tell Gamel that.”
“Okay Laken. But…”
I can practically see Durene’s face, upset with confusion and nerves.
“What’s going on? This is all so sudden! What are we going to do in the Merchant’s Guild, hire a bunch of wagons?”
“Close. I actually think we can get done most of what we need to while we’re in there. It’s going to be complex, Durene. But we can handle it. All you need to do is look impressive. I think you can do that.”
“But what should I do? I don’t know anything about—money or stuff like that. Are you sure I should come in with you?”
“What, and leave me alone? I need you, Durene. Will you come with me?”
It’s a response without a second of hesitation behind it. Just one word, but it blows away my self-doubt and my own fears. I smile as Durene squeezes my hand with the utmost care. She’s with me, and she’s all the help I’ll need. How could I ask for more?
And yet, I have more. Gamel is right beside us, faithfully going along with all of this although he clearly doesn’t understand what I’m thinking. He trusts me. He’s loyal.
What an odd thought. But he is my subject and I’ll do right by him.
So it’s not Laken the confused guy who stops in front of the Merchant’s Guild, it’s Laken the [Emperor]. He’s listened and heard all of what’s going on and he has a good idea of the situation he’s in. And he has a plan.
I gesture for Gamel to come over, and we huddle together in front of the Merchant’s Guild as I explain what I want to do. Politics. [Lords] and [Ladies] and Guilds and [Merchants]. Well, I’m an [Emperor] so I trump all of them. I smile as I speak to my two followers, my two subjects, my two friends.
“Okay you two, here’s what we’re going to do. Durene, I want you to open the doors like this when we go in…”
As the blind young man known as Laken stood with his two friends, Ryoka waited a few feet down the street with Reynold. She pulled something out of her pocket—an iPhone—and tapped on the screen.
Ryoka glanced down at her iPhone and closed the encyclopedia app she had been using. It had been a long, long time since she’d last used it but she was glad to know that it could still work offline.
“Guess it’s not a waste of gigabytes after all.”
She tucked it away in her pocket and sighed. What a mess. She had no idea what Laken was about to do, but from the way the villager and half-Troll girl were reacting, it was going to be surprising.
“I have no idea what the hell is going on.”
“Ye never do.”
Ivolethe poked her head out of Ryoka’s belt pouch, chewing on a walnut. She was actually eating the shell as well as the nut itself. Ryoka eyed the small blue faerie. She wondered if Laken could hear Ivolethe like Erin could. If so, that might be a better way of letting him know important details.
But what did he really need to know? Everything Ryoka knew about the other people scattered across the world, about Erin and the dangers of the Antinium and so on—that was for a much longer conversation, later. Right now she could only trust he wouldn’t blurt out anything important.
She didn’t think he would, honestly. She was surprised by how fast he’d caught on to everything.
“At least I got the message to him. Thank god for monoglottism in this world.”
Ryoka saw Ivolethe’s small head turn towards her and laugh.
“Hah! I heard thy terrible attempt at language. Deine Aussprache ist schrecklich.”
Ryoka scowled down at her belt.
“How the hell do you know what I—no, don’t tell me. I guess you lot were all over Europe back in the day, huh?”
“I travelled to many lands, and learned many tongues! You sound as if you were speaking with mud and worms in your mouth!”
Ryoka scowled and closed the belt pouch over Ivolethe, ignoring the tiny faerie’s shout. She turned her head slightly, and regarded Reynold.
She hadn’t had time to ask, but she was intensely curious to know why he’d bowed like he had when meeting Laken. The man was still pale and shaking a bit even after their short walk.
“Hey Reynold. What was that, back there?”
The [Butler] jumped as if Ryoka had shouted in his ear. He jerked his eyes away from Laken, and stared at Ryoka. Then he stepped over and hissed at her, completely forgetting about politeness or decorum.
“Who is that man?”
“Laken? I have no idea.”
“Don’t give me that! He is—I’ve never felt—”
Reynold’s cheeks were flushed. He kept staring at Laken.
“What did you feel?”
Ryoka eyed him closely. Reynold opened his mouth and shook his head.
“He was like—I suppose it was like standing before Lady Reinhart, or Lord Veltras. One of the high nobility, Ryoka. Only more intense. It’s a sense most [Servants] have—I felt as though I should have been prostrating myself at his feet.”
The young woman’s eyes narrowed. She stared at Laken and saw him step back from the huddle with Durene and Gamel. Durene carefully took his hand and they began moving towards the Merchant’s Guild.
“Hold on, here we go. Let’s see what he’s about to do.”
This was what Ryoka saw. She saw Durene march up to the doors and then let go of Laken. He grabbed hold of Gamel’s shirt instead, and waited as Durene stood in front of the two ornate double doors.
She attracted attention. For all the half-Troll girl was wearing rough clothing, Ryoka had to admit that she was impressive. Durene was the tallest person around, and when she stood tall and didn’t slouch she was a true giant. She grabbed hold of the door handles and flung the doors wide open.
“Now that’s an entrance.”
Ryoka commented as she followed Laken and the others inside. The dramatic opening had made the entire Merchant’s Guild go silent, or maybe it was seeing Durene come striding through the doorway. Either way, suddenly all eyes were on Laken and Durene and Gamel.
No, they were all on Laken. For all of Durene’s height, there was something about the blind man that drew the eye. Ryoka blinked and rubbed at her own eyes as she stared at his back. Was he…taller? No, but he seemed like it.
What was going on? She frowned hard as Laken walked forwards.
The Merchant’s Guild was as gaudy and plush on the inside as it was on the outside. It had [Receptionists] but other counters as well, places to exchange coin, sell goods, take out loans, and so on. Impressive brass scales were a fixture of the room, as well as other handy measuring tools and things like abacuses—all aids to calculating the worth of an item down to the last copper coin.
Ryoka expected Laken to march up right to one of the receptionist’s desks, but he didn’t do that. He took ten steps into the room and then stopped there. With all eyes on him and his companions Laken stopped and waited as Durene bent down to whisper in his ear.
“Of course. He can’t see.”
Ryoka murmured the words. It was necessary for Laken, but the effect it caused was impressive. There he was, standing in the center of a whirlpool of attention, waiting. The effect was also immediate.
It wasn’t a lowly [Receptionist] that came hurrying towards Laken across the floor, but a balding, portly man that Ryoka pegged as a [Merchant] or some higher Guild official. She saw him stop as Durene turned to block him, and then hurry forwards and seize Laken’s hand. After a few moments of discussion, they walked over to some chairs and a table set to one side of the room.
That was ordinary. But Laken was not. He sat politely across from the [Merchant], eyes closed, smiling as he talked. And Durene stood protectively next to him, a half-Troll bodyguard while Gamel stood on the other side, looking fiercely proud despite his simple clothing.
What was going on? Who was that man? Why did he catch the eye so? Ryoka heard the murmuring, and saw the people waiting in line or doing business sneaking glances over at Laken as the guild slowly began to get back to business. Some people took seats at tables next to Laken’s, others simply wandered over as they chatted quietly.
It was a Skill, or something about Laken. Ryoka watched, arms folded by the doors as Reynold scribbled in his notebook furiously. Laken sat and smiled as he talked to the [Merchant], radiating confidence like a beacon.
He did nothing dramatic, and his words were inaudible except to the people closest to him. And yet, he had a presence that weighed down on his surroundings and dragged every eye to where he sat. Slowly, the room began to revolve around him.
I sit with the [Merchant] named Merec in the center of his guild and thank god that they have padded seats in here. The bench in the park wasn’t bad, but after more than an hour of sitting on its hard surface, I could use some support for my backside.
Especially because I have the feeling I’ll be here for a while. I sit with my back straight in the chair, hearing quiet voices around me, people haggling, or buying goods in bulk, negotiating deliveries to other cities.
Doing business, in short. It’s not distracting to me, and I can tune it out, but it’s a reminder that we’re sitting in the open, in the center of the guild.
“Again, Mister Laken, I would be quite happy to seat you in a private room to discuss any business. I’m sure a man such as yourself might prefer the privacy.”
“I feel quite comfortable conducting my affairs out in the open, Mister Merec. I have nothing to hide, after all.”
The Merchant’s Guild has private rooms of course, although they might not be that private. I’d bet some of them have listening spells or peepholes…I smile in the general direction of the merchant. I hear him swallow, and then speak.
“Well then, I’m happy to get down to business. What ah, did you say the nature of your visit was about? Did I hear your—your helper correctly when she said you wanted to place a big order?”
“Indeed, Mister Merec. A large order. I would like to purchase food, supplies, livestock, tools, and so on for a village of around a hundred people. Of course, not just for one meal or two—I’d like to make a purchase that will last them the rest of the winter. To that end, I’d like to hire at least…twelve wagons, I suppose, and the appropriate guards to protect such a delivery. I was thinking at least two teams of adventurers might do.”
I don’t quite hear Merec inhale his tongue, but he comes close.
“S-supplies? For a village? May I ask what this is about, sir?”
“Riverfarm, my good man, Riverfarm.”
“Where…? I’m sorry, Mister Laken, but I’ve never heard of such a village.”
“Really? You haven’t? But their cabbage exports are a local keystone of the markets!”
I try to sound upset, but the truth is I’m laughing inside. I steeple my fingers and lean forwards over the table.
“I happen to be a great friend of the villagers there, Mister Merec. You may not have heard, but an avalanche hit the village and surrounding region not three days past. It was a tragedy, and many lives were lost.”
“I—I had heard something of the kind, sir. So these goods are for the village?”
“Yes indeed. I’m in rather a hurry, so if you could have the wagons loaded and sent out in, oh, an hour’s time that would be best.”
“I—well, hold on now.”
Merec tries to take back command of the situation. I hear saliva moving as he pauses, and then his tone becomes genial, professionally good-humored.
“We would love to fulfill your request, Mister Laken. But before we talk details, may I ask how you intend to pay for all of this? I hesitate to ask, but with such a huge transaction in mind—”
“Of course! Let’s not beat around the bushes, Merec!”
I raise my voice and feel the man wince. People around me go silent as I sit taller in my chair.
“Riverfarm needs aid, Mister Merec. Posthaste! Today, if it can be managed! I came to the Merchant’s Guild because I was told you could help me better than the Runner’s Guild.”
“Well, that’s certainly true, sir. We have the goods—those Runners would have to come to us for supplies. But about payment—”
I wave an impatient hand at him.
“Money is no object. Durene, would you please put the bag on the table so Mister Merec can see it?”
I hear Durene fiddle with her belt, and then a heavy thump. Merec’s chair screeches back, and then I hear him and voices around him gasp and exclaim.
“Are these gems, sir? And this—”
“I’m afraid I didn’t have time to convert it all into gold—but I believe exchanging gemstones is one of the functions of your guild, isn’t it? Well, I’ll leave sorting out the exact worth till later, but I assume this will be adequate?”
I think I broke the poor man. I tap a foot on the ground until Merec manages to speak again.
“Of course. Of course—you there! Bring over some chairs for Mister Laken’s escorts, now! And have drinks sent for—may I offer you some refreshments, Mister Laken?”’
“I wouldn’t say no, but I am in a hurry, Mister Merec.”
“Yes, sir. I completely—thank you. There’s just one matter I must attend to. I’m terribly sorry, but in cases like this—would you mind taking an oath on a truth spell? It’s just that in cases like this where we cannot be sure where this money has come from—”
“Are you accusing me of having stolen that money?”
I interject a note of frank incredulity into my tone. Durene makes an ominous noise.
“Laken didn’t steal that. All of this is his!”
Merec makes a very small sound, and I imagine him shrinking back as Durene towers over him.
“No, of course…it’s just a matter of protocol, see? I’d never question—please, Mister Laken—”
“It’s okay, Durene.”
I wave a hand at her and hear her step back. I smile brightly at Merec.
“I understand completely. Can I assume you have a stone of some sort I’d put my hand on?”
“Yes sir. It’s right here…if you just keep it close to your person, it will shine and uh, tell the truth.”
“Very well. In that case, allow me to go a step further so I may clarify matters.”
I reach out and find the stone on the table after a few seconds of searching. I pull it closer and speak carefully.
“This money is mine.”
I hear a murmur as the stone presumably lights up. I trust that I’m not being made out to be a liar and go on.
“I am a relative newcomer to this land, but I am deeply concerned with the wellbeing of the people of Riverfarm, who took me in and offered me hospitality during my time of need. My wealth comes from my, ah, class. It was not stolen from anyone to the best of my knowledge, and it is mine by right.”
More murmuring. I lift my hand away from the stone.
“I trust that satisfies your questions, Mister Merec?”
“It does indeed, sir. I apologize most sincerely for the inconvenience, but—ah—may I ask what your class is?”
“You may ask, but I may not answer.”
I smile at Merec. I hear him hesitate.
“You wouldn’t happen to be of the aristocracy, sir? Forgive my curiosity, but it’s very rare to have someone of your status in our guild. Most nobles send servants you see…”
I just smile. No reply. But I hear the small intake of breath, and know the crystal has probably changed color again. Tricky, that. But all to the better. An [Emperor] is the highest form of nobility, after all. I gently push the stone back across the table just to be sure I don’t trigger it again.
“Well then, now that the truth has been established, let us go back to business. Food, Mister Merec.”
“Of course! We can have a shipment prepared—at a very reasonable price, as well. Ah—however, I hate to mention this, but at this point in the year grain and meat and so on is very dear. I’m afraid you’ll be paying quite the steep rate for all of this…”
I raise a hand and the man falls silent.
“As I’ve said, money is no object. I know you would not cheat me or drive up the price unfairly, Mister Merec.”
“I would never—”
“I know. I don’t need a Skill, spell, or even eyes to see that. An honest price—and coin in your pockets for work well done—is all I need. I don’t fear being lied to, you see.”
“Of course not. You see, liars and cheats have a way of revealing themselves to me, Merec. Which is why I trust you. After all, being blind means that when people try to pull the wool over my eyes, it doesn’t do a thing.”
I laugh a bit at that. After a second, I hear a polite, rather forced chuckle from Merec. I smile as if I’ve told a good joke. It’s all in the face. I keep it as open and as normal as possible, acting as if I’m talking with a good friend. It helps that I don’t have to do anything with my eyes.
Telling lies? I’m not telling lies. And I’m not dancing about with the truth either. I really don’t have a way of telling if someone’s lying to me. But I can make him think I do.
I’m just letting Merec and all the others do all the thinking and plotting and analysis of every word and move I make. The key is to make them think I’ve got depths, when in fact I’m about as deep as a puddle.
Mind games. From what Reynold and Ryoka said, the important people in this world like to play games with each other and read into every move anyone of power makes. My hope is that in a world of backstabbing, duplicitous schemers, they’ll never expect an honest man.
Well, semi-honest. Sort of. At least I make an effort.
Ryoka rubbed at her eyes as the discussion went on. Laken sounded exactly like some kind of antagonist explaining his modus operandi on a television show to her. She’d felt like cringing when he made that joke. It was an over-the-top performance, but, and she had to admit this reluctantly, it was working.
It was the way he said it that sold the acting, and that incredible presence he had. You could believe that Laken was some reclusive, eccentric nobleman helping out a village he had taken a liking to. Every eye was on him and some people were openly listening to his discussion, not bothering to hide their interest.
They were all probably wondering which royal house Laken came from, which noble family. Ryoka was wondering much the same thing, although her main question was how. She knew he…but the stone had…Ryoka’s head was hurting already from all the suspicions bottled up in her chest.
And yet, it was all working in Laken’s favor. His entire presence was a tantalizing mystery. Who was the strange man with the bag of gold and a Troll bodyguard? Ryoka could see the gears whirring in people’s heads and decided to give Laken a hand.
She looked over and saw Reynold still writing furiously in the notebook, dipping his quill quickly into the small inkpot he held. She had to admire that—pens were so much easier than having to balance ink and quill and notepad with just two hands. She moved over and elbowed him, making the [Butler] jump.
“Hey. Get in there.”
He stared blankly at her.
She nodded toward Laken and Merec as they began to discuss prices and what exactly Laken wanted.
“Do something. Anything. Just enter the conversation, alright? It doesn’t matter what you say, only that you’re there, saying it.”
Reynold hesitated, and then shook his head slightly.
“Miss Ryoka, my job is to escort you.”
“And take notes.”
He flushed a bit and lowered his quill.
“Well I—I can’t just interfere in business like this. It’s not my place.”
Ryoka shrugged and walked away. After a few moments Reynold went back to writing down what was being said. He glanced over towards Ryoka and realized she was gone.
Reynold’s head turned frantically, but she wasn’t anywhere in front of him. Then he felt two hands on his back. He half turned—
And Ryoka shoved him.
She pushed Reynold forwards, sending the [Butler] stumbling closer to Laken and Merec. Reynold regained his footing and posture immediately and looked graceful while doing it, but now all eyes were on him. Ryoka looked the other way and twiddled her thumbs behind her back.
I break off when I hear the scuffle of feet on the floorboards.
“Is someone there?”
I hear a man clear his throat, and then hear a familiar voice.
“Reynold, sir Laken. May I offer you my services in this matter?”
I hesitate, but only for a second. Why is he helping? No, don’t question it—just roll with the cards that are being dealt.
“I would be most grateful, thank you. Do you by any chance know how much I should be paying for forty bags of barley?”
I hear Reynold sniff delicately.
“Given the way the Merchant’s Guild does business, I would question whether the goods being sold are of acceptable quality. Master Merec, I trust these prices all reflect the condition of the wares for sale? I have heard of weevils and Harvest Devils being found in warehouses in the city as of late.”
“Our goods are beyond repute, sir. I can have a sample brought over—”
“A sample might do, but a personal inspection of random bags at the site would not be objectionable, I trust?”
“Very well then. But I also trust you are not wasting Mister Laken’s time with trivialities such as individual item counts? The Merchant’s Guild surely has a list of the cheapest and most plentiful products on hand, does it not?”
“I—will have some sent for right away.”
Ryoka grinned as she watched Merec stand and hurry off to speak urgently with some harried employees.
“Not bad, huh?”
Ivolethe, munching down on another walnut, just shrugged in reply. Ryoka shook her head.
She didn’t know what Laken’s game was, not exactly, but she knew he needed to have the [Merchants] here thinking he was a big shot. And who better to help with that bit of fiction than Reynold the [Butler]? They might not know who he was on first sight, but Ryoka would bet every gold piece she owned that the people staring at him and talking behind their hands were trying to figure out which [Lord] or [Lady] he served. Once they found out he was Magnolia’s aide…
“Ooh, looks like they’ve put it together.”
She’d never seen a ruddy face go that pale that quickly. Merec made his way back to Laken with profuse apologies and offered him a frothy fruit drink. Ryoka could have used one herself, but only Laken, Durene, and Gamel were getting the deluxe treatment. The negotiations went on, and Ryoka shifted from leg to leg until she heard adventurers being brought up.
“We have several good teams, Mister Laken. There are Gold-rank teams I could hire if you—”
“I want those two teams, Mister Merec. The Celestial Trackers and the Windfrozen Riders.”
“As you say sir, but may I ask why those two…?”
Ryoka saw Laken lean back and smile mysteriously. She wondered if he’d practiced that smile or if he was just that good at acting. Or maybe that was just how he smiled?
“Here’s the thing, Merec. May I call you that? I need adventurers to protect Riverfarm, but I don’t want to hire people who just want coin or who will look down on the villagers. Why those two teams? Well, early today, I sent my…man out to all of the adventuring groups he could find earlier this day, begging for help. Of the ones he talked to, those two were the only ones who didn’t immediately send him off or laugh at him.”
Ryoka turned to stare at Gamel. Wait a second—she remembered seeing him doing that! He’d been approaching the teams in the plaza, begging for help!
Laken went on, explaining his reasoning to an enthralled Merec and the audience around him.
“When I was young, I heard a story about a [King] who did very much the same thing. Well, the story has many forms, but it’s always the same. The [King] would go out, disguising himself as a peasant or ordinary man and talk with people, ask for aid, or challenge them to ascertain their worth. Only after he had gotten the measure of them would he reveal himself. For you see, people aren’t genuine when they know you’re rich or powerful. I want those teams, Merec. They might not be famous, but they do care.”
“Of course, sir. I will have someone go over to the Adventurer’s Guild this instant—”
The young man held up a hand and Merec fell silent.
“I want to hire them not only to escort the wagons, but to guard the village for at least a month. If they won’t agree, then I will find another team. You may post more guards and adventurers if you want, but I need at least two groups to protect the village. Now, if you will tell me the price I’d be paying for that…”
Ryoka turned and moved out of the crowd of onlookers, shaking her head as she left the Merchant’s Guild.
“Amazing. How the hell did he get all that money, Ivolethe?”
The faerie just stared up at Ryoka, cheeks bulging. She swallowed and didn’t answer. Ryoka scowled.
“Whatever. But at least I’ve got Reynold off my back. Well, there are probably other spies around, but I hope they like running.”
She left the building and began to jog and then run down the street. Back inside the Merchant’s Guild, Reynold stood to attention next to Laken. He knew Ryoka had gone, had seen her leave, but he couldn’t make himself abandon the conversation. Laken kept asking him questions and Reynold found himself pressing Merec hard on the young man’s behalf. He was stuck, and Reynold realized this might have been Ryoka’s plan all along.
Ryoka had intended to go to the Mage’s Guild to send the Horns of Hammerad a message, but she found herself in the Runner’s Guild first. It was just a thought. She wondered if the [Receptionist] had heard about Valceif yet.
But when she approached the counter, the young man on duty immediately asked her to wait. Confused, Ryoka found herself ushered to the side while one of the staff on duty went to go get the [Receptionist] she’d talked to.
When the woman came walking down the stairs, Ryoka realized something was wrong. It was written all over the woman’s face. The young woman felt a lurch in her stomach, though she didn’t know what the problem was.
“Miss Ryoka? You were asking about the whereabouts of Valceif Godfrey?”
The [Receptionist] led Ryoka to an unused counter to talk. Ryoka nodded, keeping her voice deliberately casual.
“Yeah, I was wondering. Do you know where he is?”
“I do, Miss. I’m sorry to say that Valceif is dead. He was killed two weeks ago on a delivery.”
Ryoka blinked. She rubbed at one ear and stared into the other woman’s grave eyes. She opened her mouth and slowly closed it.
“How? I mean—I mean—how? How did it happen?”
“He was killed on a delivery, Miss Ryoka. A group of [Bandits] waylaid him. It wasn’t an assassination or someone trying to intercept his delivery. It was simply—bad luck.”
A hole had opened up in Ryoka’s chest. She felt herself lurching, felt all the positive emotions drain out through a pit in her stomach and the void rush in.
“Yes, Miss Ryoka.”
There was too much sympathy in the [Receptionist]’s eyes. She’d seen this before, told other Runners the same thing, Ryoka knew. She hated that. She hated…it couldn’t be true.
“Bandits did it. [Bandits]? How could they get him? Valceif was—he was a Courier. He could outrun a horse!”
“They used magic. When they were captured, the surviving bandits said that they’d used a [Sleep] spell on the road. Apparently they took him unawares, before he knew they were there. It’s rare that a Courier doesn’t have magical items to ward against such spells, but—”
Ryoka’s hand had gone over her mouth when the woman mentioned the [Sleep] spell. When the [Receptionist] got to the part about magical items Ryoka threw up.
Someone got Ryoka a towel and some water to wash her mouth out with. Ryoka stared at her hands as she sat at a table.
“It was my fault. I got him killed.”
There was a gasp. The [Receptionist]’s eyes flicked to the young man and other woman hovering around Ryoka. She glared at them.
“You didn’t hear that. Either of you. If I hear a word out of your mouths—”
They fled. Ryoka raised her head to stare at the [Receptionist].
“Why bother hiding it? It’s true. Valceif—he had—he had an amulet. A dreamcatcher that could shield him from spells. He gave it to me and I broke it. If I hadn’t—”
“I understand. But you must not say that openly.”
The woman stared at Ryoka.
“Because Valceif had friends. And family. And they might come here seeking vengeance if they hear the wrong things. Rumor would spin you as his murderer.”
“I might as well be. I killed him. I did it. I let him run off without protection—”
“Listen to me.”
The [Receptionist] tapped Ryoka’s arm, making the younger woman look up at her. There was kindness in the other woman’s gaze, but something made of steel as well.
“Valceif Godfrey was a Runner. He was a Courier—one of the best of us. He knew the risks of running without an artifact and he took it. His death was not your fault. He helped you because that is what we Runners do. The people who killed him are at fault, not you. Runners carry deliveries, but we do not bear grudges. We run and die and help each other. Valceif was a true Runner to the end.”
Ryoka stared at the [Receptionist].
“You were a Runner?”
The woman’s mouth turned up slightly.
“City Runner. Like you. I grew too old and slow for it. It’s too dangerous and I have a child. But I know what it’s like. I’ve lost friends too. Valceif probably thought he could outrun any mage before he bought another charm, but he made a mistake. That’s always how it happens. A small mistake or bad luck.”
She paused and shook her head.
“I know. I know I couldn’t have known. But if—”
“If you could have, you would. But it was just bad luck.”
The two sat in silence for longer than Ryoka knew. Time lost its meaning for a while, but no one came over to bother the [Receptionist] and she ignored the queue at the desks.
After a while, the [Receptionist] thought she heard a voice. She looked at Ryoka, but saw nothing. It was a faint sound, almost indistinct. Then the woman saw a blue creature, a being of frost and ice standing by her ear. She stared at the Frost Faerie, but Ivolethe just whispered into Ryoka’s ear, quietly.
Time passed. All three sat in silence, then, Ivolethe sitting on Ryoka’s shoulder stared dreamily upwards. She did not weep, but there was something deep in the faerie’s eyes. A hint of forever. At last, Ryoka stood up.
“I’ve got to go. Thank you.”
The faerie darted towards her pouch and the [Receptionist] stood. She didn’t comment about Ivolethe, just walked with Ryoka to the doors.
“Come back if you need to.”
Slowly, Ryoka left the Runner’s Guild. All the energy she’d had before, all the excitement, was gone. She felt numb and hollow, and she remembered the feeling. She’d known it before.
Too many times. But this time Ryoka didn’t give into the feeling or allow it to overtake her. That was a luxury for later. Right now she walked and then jogged down the street, feeling as though she were shot or stabbed while she moved.
The man at the desk in the Mage’s Guild was only too happy to show Ryoka the many messages left for her. In truth, they were all short slips of paper, [Message] spells being far too expensive for long missives, but there were a lot of them.
Ryoka stood at the counter, aware of the man’s eyes on her as she flipped through message after message. Quite a few were from Krshia, asking when she would come back.
There is unrest. You must return soon. Do you have what is needed?
Ryoka remembered the book full of spells in her bag of holding. Another promise, long delayed. She shook her head and read the next piece of parchment.
This one was from Ceria.
…hope you can reply soon. Let us know. We hope all is well.
They must have been worried without a response for days. Ryoka felt something else stab into her heart, but it was already bleeding so it hurt only a bit.
The next message was from Pisces and more direct.
What’s taking so long?
Just that. Ryoka sighed and took the next bit of parchment out. She read it and froze. It was from Lyonette.
Come back. Mrsha misses you.
The void in Ryoka’s heart didn’t shrink, but now she could feel it hurting. She thought of Mrsha. How long had it been since she’d seen her? She’d just run off, looking for Erin—but Erin had come back and Ryoka hadn’t.
“I have to go back.”
The bored man at the desk looked up, but Ryoka’s eyes were on the pieces of paper. She pulled a lengthy one out from Erin and almost smiled at it.
“Yes, Miss? How can I help you?”
The man covered a sigh as Ryoka pulled out a bag of coins.
“I need to send a message to all these people in Liscor. Can you post an open response or something?”
“Certainly. What would you like to send?”
The man had a silver-tipped quill ready. He paused over a piece of parchment as Ryoka closed her eyes.
“Tell them I’m sorry. And I’ll be home soon.”
The man paused, and coughed.
“Do you mean for me to write ‘tell them I’m sorry’ or—”
Ryoka glared at him.
“No. Write ‘I’m sorry. I will return home soon’. That’s the general response. Now—I have specific messages I want sent to Erin Solstice, Krshia Silverfang, Ceria Springwalker, and…one for Mrsha, to be delivered to any of the people I just mentioned.”
The Mage’s Guild hired only those who could write as fast as other people talked. The man neatly wrote down each of the recipients as Ryoka mentioned them. Ryoka stared at his quill blurring over the parchment.
“Oh, and I want the messages sent right now. Yes, I’ll pay extra.”
The man coughed as Ryoka slapped down coins on the counter.
“Very well. May I have the first message, please?”
“Right. This one’s for Ceria.”
Ryoka closed her eyes and thought. Then she began speaking.
“This is Ryoka. I have had the items analyzed. Contents are as follows: magical sword, strong enchantment. Second sword: damaged beyond repair. Useless. Dagger—flame enchantment. Useful. Buckler: damaged but can be repaired. May have to sell one item to repair the rest…”
Her voice was low, but clear and precise. Ryoka dictated her message for Ceria, and then Krshia, and then left a message for Mrsha before pondering how to reply to Erin’s question. She thought about what she needed to get done in the city before she left, what she could say to Laken, and what to do about the magical items that Hedault was keeping for her.
It was hard, very hard. Every two seconds Ryoka remembered a grinning face, and a man who ran past her. She remembered his back, and the burning air in her lungs as she tried to keep up.
Just for a moment. It had just been a few days, but she had liked him. Ryoka closed her eyes as her breath caught in her chest, and the man at the desk looked up expectantly. But Valceif was dead. She’d mourn him later. Right now, she had a job to do. She had people counting on her, and Ryoka couldn’t let them down as well.
Slowly, painfully, Ryoka got back to work.