I am dreaming. Dreaming of a small child following me with wide eyes. Her fur is forest brown and she sniffs as she pads along behind me. She makes no sounds, but she trusts me. As I descend into the crevasse and reach for her, she trusts me. As the Goblin takes my fingers, she clings to me. Even later, I think, she trusted me.
Me, the one who brought doom to her tribe. Who awakened the Necromancer’s wrath. If you trace my path, you can see the bodies of everyone I’ve ever met. The Horns of Hammerad. Periss and her soldiers. The Stone Spears tribe. Brunkr. Ulrien. Zel Shivertail. They meet me and die.
But Mrsha? I left her behind. I left behind.
I ran away. I left her and ran. I should have never met her.
I shouldn’t have ever taken Teriarch’s request.
I should never have come here.
I should never have been—
And then I wake up. I sit up in bed and clutch at the sheets. I smell sawdust. I can hear someone thumping around beneath me, hear a voice, a crash of wood. For a second I want to curl up. Or jump up and hit something.
Then I feel the wind on my face. I see a tiny figurine, carved of ice, sitting by my bed on the dresser. I reach for it and feel it. Cold and painful. And I remember.
I’ve felt this way before. So I take a deep breath. Once, twice. You’ve been here before. Calm down. In this moment I hate myself. I hate everything and everyone, except perhaps Mrsha. But I hate and I despair and I know I’m feeling this way.
It’s happened before. And because I can remember it, because I can learn, I won’t make the same mistakes again.
Or at least, I’ll try.
It took a few minutes for Ryoka Griffin to come back into her own head. A few minutes before the bleak, utter weight in her stomach evaporated enough for her to recede. Then she sighed, let go of the icy figurine she’d picked up, and looked around.
“It’s going to be a bad day.”
The young woman sat up in her bed, tossing some of the thick, itchy sheets off her. It was dark. Nighttime, in fact. Outside, the wind rattled the shutters, but Ryoka could tell that while the sky was lightening, it was still far from dawn.
That was all she said. But it wasn’t just a bad dream. She felt it on her, that heavy, apathetic and wretched feeling. It was already a bad day. Sometimes they came about. Days when she wanted to do nothing more than distract herself. Watch the most mind-numbing show. Steal a drink. Punch something.
Go for a run. And on these days, she would run like fire, until everything hurt. But you couldn’t outrun your own head. So today, Ryoka just sat up. She listened to the thumping and banging from below and realized those sounds weren’t in her head. So she got up, grabbed her belt and the pouches and trotted towards the door as she tied them around her waist.
Slowly, carefully, the Asian girl opened the door to her room, creaking it open bit by bit. Her hand was on one of the alchemist weapons at her belt. She was listening, but the crashing about seemed to still be coming from downstairs, so Ryoka put one foot out the door. The hallway’s doors were closed. Dark shadows filled the corridor. Ryoka glanced towards the steps leaning downstairs. She hesitated. Memory pricked her tired mind. And then someone spoke.
“Don’t go downstairs.”
Ryoka jerked back, heart pounding in her chest. There was someone in the hallway! The dark shape resolved itself—not into an [Assassin], but a very real, and very familiar shadow in the doorway opposite hers.
He nodded. The [Fist Fighter] was similarly undressed and his bare chest was pale in the moonlight. His pants were long, ragged. And he was lowered, as if ready for a fight. He glanced up at her, and then nodded to the stairwell. The young man’s voice was low.
“He’s at it again. Drunk.”
Ryoka took a second to process that. Then the pieces fit, along with the memory. She whispered back.
Alber nodded. Ryoka relaxed. But only a tiny bit. Alber held still as she tilted her head. Both of them listened to another crash and a slurred, raging voice. At last, Alber indicated the stairs with a tilt of the head.
“If he comes up the stairs, I’ll shout.”
The Runner girl hesitated, and then nodded.
She retreated back into her room and closed the door. But now Ryoka was tense. It wasn’t thieves or a fight. But it was dangerous. She imagined the huge man, Mad Madain, the adventurer-turned-innkeeper overturning tables. She could hear him swearing, and then a muffled shout. The words were indistinct, but they made Ryoka’s heart jump in alarm. She was tensed, imagining what would happen if she or Alber had to stop the man.
Time ticked by, agonizingly slow, and then flashing by in a blink. Eventually the violence below subsided. Ryoka lay in her bed, too awake to go back to sleep. She yawned as she relaxed a bit, but knew her sleep wouldn’t come back so easily. Ryoka lay back, staring at the ceiling and felt amiably miserable for a while.
Eventually she drifted off to sleep, but it was a half-sleep, a dozing, waking, not-at-all sleep that passed by the hours until morning, but left her feeling tired and groggy. Ryoka Griffin got up, dressed herself, and walked out her door, all the while feeling empty, tired, and quietly, desperately sad underneath it all. That was how she started her day.
It was a good thing she was used to it.
Alber got up after a few hours had passed since the last sounds from the inn’s common room had died out. He hadn’t slept since then. There was no point, since you couldn’t tell when the Madman’s tantrums would last. Or how dangerous they would get. He’d kept his word and stood sentry at the door until the worst had seemed to pass. But you never knew.
The [Fist Fighter] was a young man. His name was Alber. And that was more information than most people needed to know about him. He earned a living by taking fights. If people knocked him down, they earned money. If he stayed up or knocked them down, he earned money. Alber loved the simplicity of it.
Silver for normal folk, gold for adventurers and experts. That was how he did it. He could pull in good money beating passing travellers or the local toughs who thought they could win because they had a Skill or two, and the adventurers and other sorts kept him honest. They were the challenge. Sometimes Alber beat even Gold-rank adventurers who relied too much on their artifacts and walked away with a full purse. Other times he woke up on the ground with a broken nose, or ribs.
It hurt. Sometimes it was agonizing. But it was what he knew and he liked it. It was his life. That was why anything that intruded on that cycle was unwelcome, especially the Madman. Alber had faced the inn’s owner once. That was enough. The Madman, or Mad Madain, or just ‘Madain’ if you wanted his real name, deserved Alber’s nickname. He was crazy. But he was strong. Alber could have taken him down if the man were drunk enough. But it wasn’t a fight the young man would have relished.
Alber scowled as he opened the door. It was early, he was tired, cold, and hungry. But there would be no food after the Madman’s fits of rage so Alber would have to find food elsewhere. As for the cold, he’d pick somewhere in the sun to ply his trade. He exited his room, the leather gloves slung carefully over one shoulder and found that the Braggart was leaving her room at almost the exact same time. She turned and blinked at him as she locked her door.
The Braggart smiled. She looked as weary as Alber, but she was smiling. She’d begun greeting him every morning. Alber almost resented that, but he ducked his head.
She nodded and down the stairs they went. The Braggart was dressed unlike the times she’d come to her door, half-naked. She had a fit figure and was tall, unlike most of the girls Alber had ever met. More like an adventurer than a Runner, really, although she fit both bills. He remembered the sight of her half-naked form in the night and was glad she was walking in front. She did look strong. Maybe she could throw a punch.
But she was still the Braggart. Alber knew her real name was Ryoka Something, but he didn’t bother with names when nicknames served. He didn’t stay long enough anywhere to bother remembering, and for this girl, Braggart fitted. She was arrogant. He had thought of her as just the Drathian before, but he vividly recalled the one conversation they’d had in full a week ago when she’d claimed to know more of fist fighting than he did. Hence the name change.
Still, she was better company than the Madman, if only because she was usually quiet. Speaking of which…Alber paused as he descended the stairs with the Braggart and entered the common room.
It was destroyed. Alber had seen bar fights, tavern brawls, and participated in a few himself, although he didn’t drink that much. But he was still impressed; the Madman had smashed enough chairs, tables, and ceramics all by himself to leave only a fraction of the room intact. And—Alber’s stomach clenched—he was still there.
Unfortunately, the Madman hadn’t slumped off to his room to pass out there, or even fallen asleep in the kitchen. He was still awake. The huge, bear of a man was sitting at one of the good tables, staring blankly ahead. His eyes were bloodshot, his beard and tunic stained. He didn’t look like he was ready for more fighting, but you never knew. Alber watched him for a second, and then noticed that the Madman was sitting next to someone.
A slight, shorter girl. She had black hair, very pale skin, and was dressed in a number of layers in dark clothing. She even had a hat on, inside, and if she could have huddled more into her clothes, Alber thought she would have. Cougher was eating from a bowl of stew, the exact twin of the bowl Alber had eaten for dinner last night. Gristle and fat stew, heavy on the meat and spice and little else. The Madman’s specialty dish.
Braggart greeted the slight girl after a quick glance at the Madman. He jerked as Cougher put down her spoon. Her bowl was nearly empty. The Madman looked up.
“You two. Where’s my rent?”
Both Runner and [Fist Fighter] blinked. After a second, Alber grimaced and dug at his belt. So that was the score today, was it? The Madman had done so much damage he needed more coin. Or he wanted a drink.
He placed a silver coin and two bronze ones on the table in front of the Madman. The City Runner fumbled for her purse and did likewise. The Madman glared at Alber and the Braggart. He swiped the coins from the table.
The Braggart looked at the Madman, and Alber could have sworn her tone was sympathetic. Which was stupid; the Madman didn’t want or deserve sympathy. Sure enough, he spat as he glared at her.
“Mind your own business, Wind Runner.”
Ah, that was the other name for her. Alber felt the wind blow on his tunic from an open window. Wind Runner. It was true. He’d taken to closing the shutters each night because the wind did blow harder when she was around. The Braggart looked undeterred by the Madman’s comment.
“Just asking. Hey, is there breakfast…?”
The Madman twisted to stare at Cougher. She put down her bowl quietly. The little click of wood on wood made his eyes bulge and he snarled.
“No. Get out. All of you!”
They did. Quickly too; the Madman looked ready for more smashing. Alber left the inn, mentally calculating how many days he’d prepaid in advance. If the Madman asked again…was it really worth staying at his inn? Well, the rent was dirt-cheap, the food was free when it was available, and the Madman didn’t turn his nose up when Alber walked in beat up or bloody. He did laugh, but Alber could ignore that.
Just a waste of a man. The [Fist Fighter] sighed and began walking down the street. He’d get something hot, and then find a place to knock down a few hung over drunks in honor of the Madman keeping him up. And then? Hopefully there would be new faces coming into Reizmelt he could make money off of. Otherwise, it would be those who hadn’t tried themselves against him. Another week or two and he’d have to travel south to find more business.
And that was all Alber thought on his day. He walked out of the inn and saw the Braggart stop in the street. Her feet were, of course, bare, and the wind swirled around her as she brushed at her hair with her right hand. Alber noticed her two missing fingers and wondered how she’d lost them again. But it wasn’t his business so he’d never have asked. The one thing he liked about the inn, about the Madman’s domain was that no one bothered anyone here. Except for good mornings. And—
“Ryoka. How’d you sleep last night?”
“Pretty good. Except for the crashing about. After that, things took a turn for the worse. How’d you get your bowl of soup without Madain killing you?”
The Cougher smiled. Alber paused as he took his gloves off his shoulder and pretended to check them.
“I’ve known him for a while. You do look tired. Want to get something to eat? I know a spot that’s open.”
“Sounds good. Unless you need to be at work?”
“Not me. And I could use something else to eat.”
“Lead on, then. Hey, how often does he do that…?”
The two strolled off down the street. Alber turned his head to follow them for a second, frowning. That was the sixth day in a row they’d shared a meal together.
“When did they become friends?”
The [Fist Fighter] unconsciously flexed his hands, shaking his head. Girls. What could they possibly have in common? Then he trotted off to get some food. They had nothing to do with him, after all. He had a job to do.
He liked it.
Fierre the Vampire noticed Alber going as she led Ryoka down the street. The Human girl was yawning. Fierre was not. She’d gotten six hours of sleep and that was all she needed. By contrast, Ryoka looked as weary as Fierre had ever seen her.
Granted, she had only known Ryoka for a few weeks, and only seriously watched her this last one, but it was a noticeable difference. Normally Ryoka’s heart would be pounding faster as she warmed up for the morning. Now, her pulse was slow. Sedentary. Fierre could see the City Runner also had messy hair.
“You didn’t get any sleep at all, did you?”
“Some. Like I said, it was a bad night. Not just because of Madain.”
“Was that the first time you’ve seen that?”
“Hm? No. I saw it once before. He does that every other week, then?”
Fierre cast her gaze upwards towards the brim of her hat. She tugged it a bit lower with a cloth-wrapped hand. The sun’s rays were yet weak, but they still felt unpleasant on her skin.
“Nearabouts. Sometimes he has a dry spell, but he always has a fit like this at least once a month. He’ll go around smashing things, fighting with his friends—if they haven’t left already by that point—and cursing until he passes out.”
Ryoka frowned. She shifted her feet, stepping lightly on the cold paving stones in the morning. Fierre glanced about the street; she saw a woman fifteen feet away, rubbing her fingers together and blowing on them with the spring chill. Fierre could see a little embroidered flower on the gloves the woman took out as clear as if she were standing right next to the woman.
Ryoka groaned as someone threw open their shutters above them. Both Fierre and Ryoka stepped back fast; the chamber pot emptied over the side and Ryoka cursed up at the window.
“Use the toilet! That’s why you have sewers!”
The man in the window stared down. About to hurl down an insult, he paused when he recognized Ryoka.
“Up yours, Wind Runner!”
“Don’t make me blow that in your face!”
Ryoka glared. The man snorted, realized she was serious, and closed his windows hurriedly. Ryoka sighed. She skirted the splash on the road as Fierre hurried around her. The Vampire wished Ryoka had made good on her threat; she could smell blood in the piss and stool very clearly. Being hungry and disgusted wasn’t a fun feeling.
“And his neighbors don’t stop him?”
Fierre glanced at Ryoka and then remembered their conversation. The Vampire opened her mouth, realized her canines were showing, began to cover her mouth, and then relaxed. She gave Ryoka a toothy grin instead and saw the young woman’s eyes lock onto her teeth.
“How? They complain of course, but the City Watch isn’t interested in trying to stop him. Sometimes they slap a fine on Madain, but he’s generally ignored.”
“Poor neighbors. Well, I know how he feels.”
“Who? Madain? Turn left here. There’s a [Baker] down this street.”
“Good choice. Does she do anything with vegetables? I need something green after eating another meat stew. I know you’re fine, but I need plants.”
Fierre grinned again, then covered her mouth when she noticed a [Laborer] exiting his house, his jerkin twisted.
“She does a very nice spinach-and-cheese puffed pasty. And I eat plenty of green things, thanks.”
Ryoka grunted as Fierre leaned over and shoved her lightly. The push was light, but Fierre had used her full strength, so Ryoka skipped a few steps before she caught her balance. She looked over at Fierre with raised eyebrows. The Vampire smiled, a thrill rushing through her stomach.
“Don’t insult me. I told you once.”
“So noted. Sorry. I am in a bad mood. It’s one of those days, you know?”
Fierre eyed Ryoka. She didn’t know. Moreover, she’d expected Ryoka to bite back as it were. Embarrassed now, she pointed.
“This is the shop. Miss Helma?”
The [Baker] had an open front to her shop, a window and a counter from which delicious aromas wafted forth. Ryoka eyed a basket of breads and instantly dug for her purse. Helma, whom Fierre knew from her [Laborer] job, came to the window at once.
“Fierre? And who’s your friend?”
“This is Ryoka Griffin, Miss Helma. The Wind Runner. We’re both here because Madain’s had one of his nights.”
Fierre spoke more carefully to the [Baker], keeping her lips closed and not showing her teeth where possible. Helma, a woman with a surprisingly sultry voice given her age, propped her hands on her hips. Dusty; she was baking, Fierre could tell from the heat emanating from the inside.
“That man is trouble. I’ve told you again and again, Fierre. You should find somewhere else to sleep! I’d take you in myself if I didn’t have children running about and my husband wasn’t coming in at odd hours. And—the Wind Runner? So you’re the young lady my children can’t stop talking about!”
Ryoka ducked her head, smiling ruefully.
“Hello, Miss. I’m nothing special. I just have a way with the wind.”
Helma laughed pleasantly.
“Could you conjure me a breeze, then? It’s hot in here, never mind the spring day. I dread the summer. But what can I do for you two? I have some pies, tarts, fresh bread, and if you wait, I’ll fill one with some fruit paste. That’s a treat my children love.”
Ryoka looked longingly at the breads on display.
“I heard you had spinach and cheese pasties.”
“Of course! Fresh! How many would you like?”
The tarts were still hot, and pleasingly plump. Ryoka bought six and one meat pasty. Fierre was less hungry and bought some cheesy bread, which she liked. The two walked down the street, holding their hot food while Ryoka offered Fierre two of her vegetarian pasties for a bite of Fierre’s bread. The hot food filled their stomachs and before long, both were smiling.
“That’s better. Hey, Fierre. How bad does Madain get? Alber was suggesting he might come up the stairs and start taking swings at us. Should I be sleeping with one eye open?”
The City Runner let the wind pick up the crumbs she was dropping. A breeze was now blowing down the street, a nice cool one that passed right by Helma’s shop, Fierre noticed. The Vampire smiled and raised an eyebrow.
“Sometimes he does. But it never bothers me. Madain likes me, I think. And if you need help, I can handle him.”
It was a boast, but Ryoka didn’t give one of her snippy replies this time. She just smiled, bit into her meat pastry, and nodded.
“That would be welcome. Madain looks like he could snap Alber in half like a twig, barehanded or not. And I’ve seen him throw his axes. Myself, I think I’ll just jump out the window if he comes up the stairs. I think it’s not all his fault, though.”
Fierre paused. She looked at Ryoka quizzically.
“How do you mean? If you mean his friends—they’re not his friends. They only drink with him because he’s good for free alcohol. Once he starts talking about his team and the old days, they get lost fast.”
The young woman grimaced.
“I get that. What I mean is—I think he and I are a bit the same. I feel like we’re kindred spirits. We have good days and bad days, Fierre. Neither of us can help it. Some days it rains and pours, even if the sun’s shining. Sorry, I don’t know how to say it. It’s…a type of sickness. Only it’s all in the head.”
Now Fierre did pause in her tracks. She looked hard at Ryoka and sniffed. Sometimes you could smell if someone had been drinking, or—or anything. Her mother was really good; she could even tell if someone was using something like Smilingsand on an animal. Or other tricks to make them look better at fairs. But Ryoka smelled normal. Fierre’s eyes didn’t tell her the Runner looked any different. Disturbed, Fierre shrugged.
“Madain? He just drinks a lot. And you seem normal to me.”
The crooked smile Ryoka gave her was different. Not like the quick and brilliant grin she’d give at a comment that Fierre had learned to spot, or the relaxed grin of satisfaction. Or the not-a-smile she was so good at. This one was tired. But somehow, it also reminded Fierre of her father’s smile. Ryoka shook her head.
“I have a bad temper. And some days are tough. Don’t think too much into it, Fierre. I know my problems. I feel bad for Madain, that’s all. No one ever told him it’s not all his fault. But you’re right; the drinking probably does a lot of the work even on a good day.”
“Is that what this is? A bad day?”
“Oh yes. And I’m being careful today. So I’m warning you in advance, Fierre. If I’m snappish or lash out—”
“You’re anything but. Actually, you’re disturbingly calm.”
Again, Ryoka smiled and it was bitter.
“I’m trying to not do what I normally do. Believe me, if you gave me a gold coin, I’d go back there and try and kick Madain through his own privy door.”
Fierre thought about reaching for her belt, but the joke was childish. And suddenly, Ryoka felt a lot older. In truth, Fierre was the older one by a number of years. But…the Vampire cleared her throat and averted her gaze, embarrassed.
“I’m not bragging. I could actually take him down if I had to. Especially if he’s drunk. I think.”
“I know you can.”
Fierre felt her cheeks turn red. The heat wasn’t much, but given her cold body, it felt like a hot spot. She turned her head so Ryoka wouldn’t see.
She was so strange. Even more than Fierre’s normal friends had been growing up. Not only had she found Fierre out, she hadn’t flinched even when her mother had used her Gaze on her, and she had all those weird Skills that Fierre had never heard about. And she wasn’t afraid of Fierre for who she was. That was the strangest part of all. And the most welcome.
Sometimes she was combative, or challenging. But at other times, times like now, Fierre would say something that was a boast, and Ryoka would just nod. And when she looked at Fierre, the Vampire thought that Ryoka believed every word she was saying. And she still wasn’t afraid of Fierre, or filled with envy.
It made Fierre too much at ease around Ryoka. She had to remember the girl was a stranger. Her parents, Bamer, they’d all warned her to stay wary. Stay wary. Fierre bit her lip and changed the subject.
“About those people you wanted me to find…I haven’t gotten any leads. I told you it would take a while, especially with Magnolia Reinhart. And there are waves around her.”
“Politics. A lot of people want information, so I’m trying not to let them know I want different information than the stuff they’re after.”
“Ah. Well, you have time.”
“I’m still looking. Don’t worry. It just takes a while for information. Uh…will you be doing deliveries? I’m going to spend an hour or two at my brokering job, but then I’m helping lay down a foundation by midday. So…”
Fierre hesitated. More people on the streets. She could smell them; feel the blood pulsing through their veins. Normally it didn’t bother her, but she was feeling more Vampirish than usual. Probably because of all the nighttime exertions. She’d have to have more of the goat’s blood for a midday snack.
“Do you—do you want to go for a run tonight? I’m free. We could race north again. Or you could show me more of those fighting moves.”
Ryoka’s lips quirked up.
“And you can throw me through a tree?”
“That was an accident. Really.”
“You’re too strong. And it would be fun to run. But—”
Ryoka studied the sky, and then shook her head.
“Not today, sorry Fierre. I think I’ll have a short night of it.”
“Exactly. Tomorrow should be good, though. Hey, I’ll see you later, alright? I probably won’t stop by to have my letters opened, though. If I’m not there in thirty minutes, there’s your answer.”
“Alright. Uh—get better soon?”
The City Runner nodded. She took off, jogging down the street while Fierre turned to go to the place where she conducted her information brokering. She paused to stare at Ryoka as she left. Exactly what did she mean? Sickness in the head? Fierre shook her own head, but she watched Ryoka as she left.
She was an enigma. But she knew who Fierre was and she didn’t flinch, even when Fierre gave Ryoka her best smile. And to the Vampire girl, that was as attractive, as fascinating as the sweetest blood. Fierre licked her lips. And then she disappeared into the shadows. She was already getting a tan.
You’d never have guessed Ryoka was having a bad day. Well, this time. Before, Ryoka distinctly recalled telling Ceria to go to hell and picking fights with Minotaurs while trying to push Yvlon’s face in. Or just being unpleasant to be around. Had she punched Erin in the face?
Probably. So this time she watched herself as she entered the Runner’s Guild. Ryoka was bracing herself, because she knew she had more talking to do in this guild than in Celum’s guild, where Garia and Fals had been the only people to speak to her. But, strangely, the instant someone called out her name, Ryoka didn’t feel the instant surge of visceral resentment she normally did.
“Miss Ryoka! Good morning!”
Ryoka turned. A familiar face was at the counter. The [Receptionist] leaned over and smiled. Ryoka smiled back.
“Good morning, Alime. Anyone ask for me? Any emergency calls?”
It was the question she always asked. Alime shook her head.
“No, and no, sorry to say, Miss Ryoka. No one’s requested you by name, and no one’s in need of an emergency Runner. You’re first on my list, aside from the Couriers.”
“Well, that’s fine today.”
It wasn’t as if Ryoka wanted to be the first on call or she enjoyed those emergency runs. It happened more than you thought; someone needed an antidote from a high-level [Alchemist], there was a need for a lightning-fast delivery of gold, or perhaps a spice for a banquet, or…well, some emergencies weren’t really all that. But sometimes adventuring teams got into trouble. And Ryoka had cemented her reputation as the first person to call after the Pithfire Hounds had gotten into trouble.
It had changed a lot around the guild, actually. Some of the Runners waiting for their delivery turned in their seats. A few called out; Ryoka waved a hand. She was walking over to the requests board when another City Runner, dark skinned, short, perhaps even Dwarfish, caught her. He was chewing a lip nervously.
“Griffin. I’ve got a favor to ask. Let me take the delivery to Blaiseford. They’re asking for the fastest runner in the Guild, but I’m plenty fast and I need the coin. Call it a favor?”
He looked pleadingly at her. Ryoka blinked. Normally the rule was the fastest Runner usually got the contract. One of those rules she’d taken advantage of in Celum. Let’s see. What would she have said back then? ‘My contract, get lost?’ Sounded about right.
This time Ryoka forced a smile. And it wasn’t forced after a second.
“No problem. Todel, right?”
He nodded, relieved. Ryoka shook her head.
“I’m not looking for a big run just now. And Blaiseford? I did that a week ago. Miserable. Those damn swamps…”
That was all she had, but Todel grinned.
“They are disgusting. And those bugs—gah! But I know a quick route through that usually isn’t submerged even when it rains.”
“Really? Show me that and you can take all the big runs today.”
He trotted off, looking relieved. Ryoka walked over to the board, smiling a bit. She came back after a moment to the desk where Alime was working.
“No deliveries suit you?”
Alime looked surprised. Ryoka shook her head.
“I’m not in the mood for a long run, or a big one. Can you tell me what quiet deliveries you have? Ones that don’t take me into [Bandit] territory or near monsters.”
This time Alime blinked. Quiet requests were common; it meant Ryoka wanted a safe, quick run that wouldn’t put her in danger so long as she stayed on the main roads and nothing unexpected happened.
“Of course. I have a few. I just never thought I’d hear you ask for it.”
“I’m low-energy today. What’ve you got?”
“Hm…let me plot you a route. How long do you want to run?”
“Uh—six hours? I could do an eight-hour circuit, actually. So long as I can take a break or slow down.”
“I think I can fit you into…”
Alime’s eyes flickered as she ran down a list of entries on the parchment in front of her. Ryoka had no idea how [Receptionists] like Selys did their job, but Alime actually earned her pay. She was plotting a route of deliveries such that Ryoka could earn money and do a loop ending at Reizmelt.
It wasn’t always easy, but the [Receptionists] at the Runner’s Guilds were expected to do just that when asked, as well as memorize all the latest updates on the condition of roads, monsters, things to watch out for…Ryoka had known none of this before now, because she’d never talked to a [Receptionist] other than to collect her delivery or get paid.
“Ah. Okay, I have you doing a bulk-letter delivery to the village of Nonsfru, passing by a farm with a small package for the [Farmer] there, and then you’re heading down a main road, doing two deliveries in the town of Ingli, before you pass by a hut—here—and come back this way. They’ll have a bulk-letter delivery reserved for you as you pass through Enam. Given your speed, it should take you six hours or eight if you’re stopping for longer breaks.”
Alime nodded. Then she frowned.
“Although…the pay for all the deliveries is low, Ryoka. These are all safe and non-priority. So unless someone’s tipping well, which I doubt, you’ll probably earn…six silver coins and eight bronze for the lot.”
She hesitated. That wasn’t a lot. Especially compared to what Ryoka could earn for the faster, harder jobs. A few bronze coins could buy you a small snack, and ten of them, a silver coin, was a decent amount of money, but enough for a pretty good meal anywhere you went. But six silver coins was low, especially for Ryoka. Even Street Runners could earn more than that pretty easily.
To Alime’s surprise, Ryoka didn’t blink twice at the quoted price.
“Suits me. I just want to run. What am I carrying?”
“Well, here’s the letters we have. Hence the low pay to Nonsfru. And here is a little package. The [Farmer] you want lives at a farm down the road from the village. The farm’s name isn’t listed, but if you take the south road and run for three miles…”
Ryoka Griffin listened to the directions, memorizing them, asking a question about any dangers on the road—a [Highwayman] spotted three days back, bears, nothing dangerous—and then she left, with the deliveries tucked away in her bag of holding. Quick and efficient. She didn’t need to fumble with a pack like the Runners without bags of holding, and she didn’t need a map. Alime sighed as she leaned over to her coworker.
“She was so silent when she first came in. I believed all those tales about her getting other Runners injured and stealing jobs. Now? I’m glad she’s about.”
Her coworker, a teenager who was learning the ropes, looked up.
“Do you know why she left Celum, Alime? It’s far from there. And I never heard of a hotshot City Runner who controlled the wind. The kids only started calling her that after she came here.”
Alime nodded, frowning mildly.
“I wonder. She’s not a Courier, but I wouldn’t mind challenging some of the other Runner’s Guilds for better deliveries. She can handle them. And that means more coin and traffic flow through our guild.”
“Don’t we get all the same deliveries depending on who’s closest? We’re all Runner’s Guilds.”
The other [Receptionist] looked puzzled. Alime sighed.
“Not at all. Think about it. Each Guild needs to deliver everything it has, promptly and quickly. Things like bulk letter deliveries can wait a few days. Even a week! But quick deliveries, and priority ones need to be done when they’re promised. So what happens if a Guild doesn’t have enough good City Runners to meet the demand, especially high-priority deliveries? Emergencies?”
“Exactly. Bigger cities and bigger Guilds sometimes take contracts from further away because they always have enough Runners. Sometimes we lose contracts to Invrisil. Which means they get more funding and we don’t. So you’d better hope our Wind Runner sticks around.”
“Right. Good thing she’s not like the rumors.”
Alime nodded absently. She stared at the door Ryoka had left through, as another mud-splattered Runner walked in, carrying a chicken in a cage and looking very put out.
“Yes. But I did ask Celum’s Guild for a little dossier on her. And she’s different from what they said. She wasn’t when she first came here. But she is now.”
“Well—she hasn’t buried our guild in snow, for one.”
“…Do you mean, with a shovel or something?”
Nonsfru was a village notable only for the name. And even then, it wasn’t exactly the strangest of names. It was a place you could miss if you sneezed twice while on the run. And it looked ordinary.
Perhaps—perhaps it had an [Emperor] living in one of the houses. Or the small mine that sustained the village was in fact host to a legion of Crelers just waiting to be unleashed by a careless pickaxe. Or all the villagers were werewolves. All these things could be true, but they probably weren’t.
And the farm three miles south of the village was a farm. It had one main corn field and a smaller, secondary field for a number of crops. But the main thing was corn. Somehow, despite the spring, one harvest was already in bloom. It was definitely a Skill, although the effect was limited, because the field wasn’t that big.
A combine harvester could roll down the entire field in less than a minute. On the other hand, you could probably feed all of Nonsfru with the corn from the field for a good while. And the corn was already ready to be eaten!
And such corn. The corn stalks were sixteen feet high, giants of their kind, and the corn was thick and heavy and the kernels looked like how you imagined gold looked, not like what it actually was. The green husks were practically begging to be pulled off to expose the prize. Which was coincidentally what had attracted a flock of crows at the moment Ryoka Griffin rang the bell at the fence and waited.
No one came out of the farmhouse just past the field, but the bell had scared off the crows. Ryoka eyed them and the lush field of corn as she waited by the gate. It was a big flock, to feast on an equally ripe field. And the corn!
It was an optical illusion that made the corn seem smaller. The field was actually on a gradient, so the corn looked shorter until you got close. But from above it was a target and the one scarecrow perched on the small hillock overlooking the field wasn’t scaring the crows off. The straw figure stood on the ground in front of the pole as the birds circled lower, lower—
And then up again, cawing in alarm as Ryoka rang the bell again. She waited, but there was no response and the crows began circling down. They were very wary, and so was Ryoka. But she had to do a delivery, so she hopped over the gate and ran up to the farmhouse.
“Excuse the intrusion! City Runner! Anyone home? I have a delivery for [Farmer] Lupp!”
Ryoka called out loudly as she approached the farmhouse. She knocked on the front door, tried the back, tried the front again, and then decided the barn was worth a shot. A single cow gave her a long stare as Ryoka approached the open barn doors. She stared back.
“Well, he’s nearby. You don’t leave a door open, right?”
She eyed the cow, who seemed perfectly content to eat hay rather than the lush grass outside. It wasn’t even tethered. The farmer was definitely close by. Had he gone for a stroll?
No. And he was very close. But Ryoka hadn’t spotted him. The Runner ran past him twice as she checked the farmhouse, the barn, and then the road again. Only when she noticed the way the scarecrow wasn’t standing upright did the figure transform from an object into a person. And then she saw him, standing in the field, watching the crows.
Ryoka broke off, because the scarecrow imitator was giving her a glare as the crows circled lower and lower. He didn’t move so much as a muscle. And as Ryoka stopped, the crows decided there was no threat and finally descended for their corn field feast. And as the first one alighted on a corn stalk, the scarecrow lifted the shortbow he was holding.
Ryoka heard a flitting sound, then a squawk and a thump. One of the bodies dropped from the sky and the other birds took wing at once, cawing in panic. The archer waved his bow and hand and shouted at them, harrying the crows off his fields. They fled, so fast that Ryoka saw several feathers float down as they took wing. She approached slowly; the [Farmer] still had his bow and he was giving her a long look.
“City Runner, are you? Where’s your seal?”
Carefully, Ryoka dug at her belt and pulled out her seal of identification. The [Farmer] relaxed when she showed it to him. He nodded.
“Let me grab that bird and put this away. Be one second.”
He trotted off, bird in hand. Ryoka saw him disappear into the farmhouse and waited. Half a minute later, the [Farmer] came back.
“You’re Mister Lupp, am I right?”
“That’s me. Lupp. And here’s my farm. Sorry I didn’t call out to you earlier. Didn’t want to spook the birds. Took them long enough to come down.”
The [Farmer] trudged back towards his field. Ryoka walked after him, noting the man’s tanned skin, worn face—he had enough crow’s feet of his own, and he looked as weathered as his field. No overalls for him; he was dressed like a scarecrow, ragged, with bits of straw hanging out of his costume to complete the effect.
“Nice trick with the birds. Was it necessary, though?”
Lupp grunted. He stopped by his field and Ryoka saw him bend over. He dragged out the real scarecrow and propped it up; it was dressed exactly like Lupp, with a big hat to hide the head.
“Have to put the fear of death into them. Or else what’s the point of scarecrows? It doesn’t matter if I hit one anyways; just shooting will scare them off for a day. But they’ll be back. They always come back.”
He sighed. Ryoka reached out as he tried to hang it up. With a grunt, Lupp tossed the scarecrow onto the perch and secured it with some rope.
“Thanks. It’s first harvest what with my Skill and all. Plants started blooming before the frost had even melted off the ground. Hardy, my plants. And they grow fast. Have my work cut out taking them all in and replanting by the end of the week.”
“I see that.”
Ryoka eyed the massive corn stalks appreciatively. She had to crane her neck to stare up at the ones towering above her.
“This is an impressive field. But it’s your only one?”
“That’s right. I’m a one-man farm. I supply Nonsfru with corn, and some of the local [Traders]. You saw the village on the way here?”
He didn’t seem in a hurry for Ryoka’s package. And she wasn’t in a hurry to give it to him. She nodded.
“I passed by. But the village has several farms. I saw two, and they’ve got corn growing too. Not ripe, but—I’ve heard that a single farm can feed a city. If you don’t mind me asking, how can you make a living? I’m sure there’s stiff competition. Wouldn’t the big farms drive down prices everywhere?”
Lupp glanced at Ryoka in surprise. She shrugged.
“Sorry. Just a question I have. I’ll be on my way if you’re busy. I do have your delivery.”
She held it up. Lupp blinked at it.
“Ah, no, no. It’s no problem. I’m just surprised a young city girl like you’s asking. Not many folk your age think about how we survive. And to your question—sure, some of us have the Skills to feed a town, or even a city ourselves. But think of it. How many hands need to work on a farm as large as the ones you’re imagining? And aside from the effort of seeding, weeding, and watering say three dozen fields of different crops, fencing it off, plowing it, and so on, what happens when you put that many good plants together?”
Ryoka blinked. Then she cast her eyes towards the sky.
“Animals. Of course.”
The [Farmer] grinned, exposing a missing tooth, but very white teeth.
“And monsters. You think smart crows is bad? Try giant moles. Hungry Mossbears. Corusdeer herds that can burn down any wooden fence—and your house! Farming isn’t easy, even if you’re close to a city. Half of farming is being able to take care of the land you have. Protect it. Time was, a Level 20 [Farmhand] wasn’t worth half as much as a Level 12 [Warrior] willing to stay up with a sword at nights.”
“Oh, not my farm. Well, not often. But pass down a more populated road? Bah. I still have to watch out some nights for hungry travelers passing down my road. Good thing I have a Skill and sleep lightly. Still, idiots run when I shoot an arrow. Monsters don’t.”
“What eats corn?”
“What doesn’t eat corn?”
Ryoka thought for a second. Lupp nodded.
“And we’re growers. You think we have it bad? Try owning lots of livestock around areas with Griffins. You’ll watch the skies every day of your life. Everything likes a good steak. Trolls, [Bandits], damned Goblins…”
He waved a hand in disgust. Ryoka nodded without commenting on the Goblin thing. She didn’t know what she was doing. But she’d been chatty all day. And this was the first [Farmer] besides Wailant she’d talked to. And he seemed bored. She’d jogged all the way here. She was still tired.
“Me, I don’t do big fields. Small ones that grow and harvest multiple times a season, there’s the real beauty. Easy to guard, easy to plant. Best high-quality crops in the area. No magic dust in the soil, no spells. Just a Skill, fertile ground, and hard work. I have a bit of a name around here. People like my corn, and the [Traders]’d give me more coin if I didn’t sell just to the villagers. But I always keep some aside and they take what they can get. There’s always a want, even if the larders are full in the harvests. Say, where’re you from?”
“Isn’t that eighteen miles north of here? Bit of a run, even for a City Runner.”
She smiled. The wind blew and Lupp and Ryoka watched it rustle the field of corn. The swaying stalks were mesmerizing.
“I took it slow.”
“Still, it’s a long run. Here. Try my corn yourself and you can tell I’m not all talk and no stalk. Go on.”
Lupp reached up and plucked the nearest piece of corn from the stalk. Ryoka was about to refuse as politely as she could. And then she caught herself.
The corn was heavier than she was used to. A bigger yield, and when she pulled off the husk, she blinked down at the corn. It was huge. And it would have driven every genetic food scientist to tears if they saw it. This was a unit of corn. So, mindful of Lupp’s stare, Ryoka raised it to her mouth, and took a bite.
The field was very silent. The cow wandered out as Lupp and Ryoka stood on the edge of his field. Ryoka made very little sound as she chewed and Lupp just waited. After a few seconds, Ryoka turned the cob and worked her way down it. She chewed, swallowed, bit again, and repeated the cycle. Then she looked up.
“This is delicious.”
The [Farmer] laughed, and his voice crackled like footsteps rustling through hay.
“Good, right? Before I tasted the real thing, I imagined this was what gold tasted like. Well, they’re my golden fields. I may not have as much as the huge farmers, but I sell my crops to folk I know and they love it. What I keep from the animals, that is. Go on, finish it.”
Ryoka did just that. The corn wasn’t nearly as sweet as some of the stuff she’d had, but it was much more savory, and so good that she didn’t mind eating it raw. With that said, if you grilled it, added a bit of butter and salt? But she ate the entire cob there and then, never mind her breakfast already in her stomach.
“Go on and toss it. Helli’ll eat it.”
Lupp indicated his sole cow. Ryoka tossed it and the cow stared at her before turning her head and nibbling delicately on a piece of grass. Lupp laughed, and Ryoka smiled.
“Thank you. I appreciate that. Your corn’s the best I’ve ever had and that’s no lie.”
“Ah, thank you, Miss. That’s what a [Farmer] wants to hear after leveling up all his life.”
The man looked proud. Then he noticed the package Ryoka had set aside.
“That mine, is it?”
“Oh. Yes. It’s a delivery from Reizmelt. The sender is uh…”
“Kamine? She’s my daughter.”
Ryoka nodded. She handed the small, carefully wrapped little package to Lupp. The old man took it and Ryoka saw his wrinkles return. The laugh lines deepened, and his face sagged. For a moment.
“Ah. She’s good about sending packages on the regular. Every month at least.”
He looked happy to have it. But also sad. He hesitated, glanced at Ryoka, and opened it up. Ryoka blinked. The package had been small, hand-sized. It was, in fact, a whittler’s knife, a small knife with a short blade. It had a bit of cork protecting the head from cutting through the wrapping. Lupp looked at it.
“Nice bit of steel. I wrote to her that my old knife’d grown too dull. Hope she didn’t spend too much on it. This—looks good. Level 20 [Blacksmith], at least.”
He ran his hand down the whorled wood handle. Ryoka saw him stare at the handle, and then glance, just once, back at the farmhouse. She wondered what had happened to Kamine’s mother. And she knew she would never, ever ask.
Lupp cleared his throat after a second.
“I have a seal. Let me find it.”
He trudged back up to the farmhouse. And he held the whittler’s knife very carefully as he went in. Ryoka waited for a few minutes this time, before Lupp came back out.
“Sorry, sorry. I kept the place more organized when my wife was…around.”
He held out a dusty seal to Ryoka. One that identified his location as Nonsfru, the equivalent of a stamp. Only, Runners received them. Ryoka took the wooden token and tucked it into her belt.
“Thank you, sir.”
“I wish I could give you a tip. I would, but—”
For the first time in the conversation, anxiety stole over Lupp’s face. He flushed and Ryoka instantly held up a hand.
“No need for a tip, really. This isn’t a hard run. And the corn was good enough for any tip.”
“Still, you came all this way—”
“On a circuit. You weren’t the only delivery, believe me. And I’m not in a hurry. Today’s an off-day, for me.”
Lupp relaxed a bit as Ryoka gave him a reassuring smile.
“Eighteen miles is an off-day?”
“For me, it is. But I’m not working hard.”
“Oh. Injury? Or just tired?”
He peered at her bare feet and then stared for the first time.
“What’s happened to your shoes, girl?”
“I run barefoot.”
“You’ll step on a nail! Or have them torn up by rocks.”
“My feet are tough. And if you’ve got nails lying around, I’d watch your feet, boots or not.”
Lupp blinked, and then he conceded with another laugh. He shook his head.
“Eighteen miles. So what’s kept you from your real running, if you don’t mind me asking?”
He glanced at Ryoka. And she hesitated.
Here was the point where she could give him an easy reply, like she was tired, or resting, or even mention the Pithfire Hound’s rescue as an excuse. Anything would work; some answers would prolong the conversation. But only one was the wrong answer as she knew it. But that answer was the most honest. So she gave it, with a shrug. Something about Lupp made her want to be straight with him. And she so seldom was. So she was honest.
“It’s just a bad day. You know? I woke up on the wrong side of the bed. And I guess it’s following me around. My [Innkeeper] had the same moment. Last night he was tearing up the common room. Me? I just wanted to roll under my bed and stay there. You ever have days like that?”
She waited, her heart beating a touch faster. Fierre had just given her a blank look. But Lupp didn’t. The man blinked at her. And then he glanced around.
“Days when you wake up and the shadows are long? When there’s crows in the fields, but you can’t find the heart to chase them? I know those days.”
Something in Ryoka’s chest eased. And not just because Lupp didn’t look at her as if she was mad. Because, suddenly, they were looking at each other. With far more understanding than two strangers had any right to. All because of an honest moment. Lupp beckoned Ryoka over to a seat on his porch.
He gave her another smile.
“What do you mean, ‘me too’? I should be asking you that. You’re too young for days like that.”
“I don’t think it has anything to do with age.”
“It should. Old folk can have these days. But young ones? That isn’t right. You and the [Innkeeper], huh? Seems like the mood spreads. I wouldn’t know; I keep to myself. I can go a week without seeing more than a few people on the road.”
Ryoka glanced down his hill. The road that passed by his farm was empty. And it had been empty all the time they had been talking. She looked at Lupp. And she could have left. But instead, she continued the conversation she wasn’t supposed to have, the one she didn’t know you could have with a stranger.
“It’s not that bad today. I’ve had worse days. But—how do you do it? Deal with this kind of day?”
Lupp sat next to Ryoka. He stretched out his legs, groaning softly. Ryoka heard quiet clicks. And the [Farmer]’s voice was quiet as he looked across his land.
“Some nights are bad. Like when there’s rustling outside, and my [Dangersense] is screaming at me to make no noise. Those nights, and the day or days thereafter I bar the door and hold up with a knife in hand. Healing potion at the belt. If it’s real bad, I send a [Message] spell with a scroll. The worst time was when the team didn’t scare it off. And I found bits of them when I dared open my door.”
Ryoka shook her head. Lupp went on.
“Those are bad days. Terrifying. But the worst are the ones where I wake up like you. And sometimes the days become weeks. Sometimes I don’t know what to do. I think of Suzaine, or an old friend. And those moments are the worst.”
He looked at Ryoka. She nodded. She understood him far too well. Lupp glanced at her. Then down at his hands and up again.
“Used to be I’d drink too. Like that [Innkeeper] of yours. Drunk as a rat, was he? Thought so. I gave it up—well, I can’t say why exactly. Just grew too miserable. And it didn’t help. In the end, I came up with my own method. When I start staring at the shadows too much, when I stop talking to myself, I get out of the house. Leave the farm.”
He gestured to the gates, the wooden fence around his property.
“Sometimes I go to the road with a basket of corn. Or some bread I baked myself. Or I take a trip into Reizmelt. Other times, I get a letter from my girl, just like today. And I invite the Runner in if they’re the right sort. Never on a bad day. But sometimes I have to talk no matter what—I’m going to market. Or the times I do talk come back and hold it all at bay for a week.”
He smiled quietly.
“It’s all it takes. A friendly hand. Offering someone some corn and watching them smile. Even a good old cursing match with one of those damn [Wagon Drivers] who hit my fences when they’re drunk. It helps. Other times I just have to be alone.”
Ryoka nodded quietly. She watched Lupp’s face.
“I wish I’d done that. Or tried. I had people when I was younger. I just hated them. I wish I’d gone somewhere else. Tried something.”
“It’s easier when you’re out here. You can stay away when you have to. Not that hard. Worse in a city. Can’t imagine being an [Innkeeper]. Sounds like a shit job, so it does.”
“I can agree with that. Although, my best friend’s an [Innkeeper]. And she’s twice as nice as I’ll ever be.”
“The good ones are like that. Although, I knew a devil of an [Innkeeper]. Hated everyone’s guts, but the man brewed the best ale I’ve ever tasted. Hung himself in the center of his inn one day. Used a keg of his latest batch of ale as a stepstool. Took himself out right in the center of the room so you’d see him as you walked in, just like that.”
“We found him the next day. Big stink it was, people thinking he was murdered. Turns out he wasn’t. Big stink. But you know what we did in the end?”
Ryoka didn’t have to think. She looked at Lupp.
“You drank the ale.”
“Of course. Were we going to let it go to waste? Best ale I ever had, too.”
He laughed, and Ryoka laughed with him. It wasn’t funny. It was just…funny. The two just sat and talked, as if they had known each other for years. At last, Ryoka stood up, embarrassed.
“I have to get running or I won’t get back before nightfall. Thanks. I didn’t mean to keep you.”
“From what? The corn will keep. And I enjoyed that. Here. Before you go, take some corn with you.”
Ryoka blinked as Lupp walked with her down to the field. He plucked eight ears off and handed them to her. She piled them into her bag of holding.
“You’re sure? These are so good—”
“Go on. Have a few. And boil them or crisp them up when you eat them. Call it a gift from one kindred soul to another. Your tip.”
Abashed, Ryoka ducked her head.
“Thank you. Oh—do you have anything you’d like to send to your daughter? I’ll be going back to Reizmelt. I could bring her some corn.”
Lupp drew in her breath.
“I don’t usually send by way of the Runner’s Guild. How much would it cost? Money’s tight—”
“Free of charge.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Give me four more ears, then. That’s worth silver to me.”
The [Farmer] looked pleased, mock upset, and grateful all at once. He cleared his throat a few times.
“I’d—I’d like that. You can get it to Kamine? Really? Could—could you bring her some milk? It shouldn’t spoil too fast, but—”
Ryoka grinned. She turned to face Lupp.
“Sir [Farmer], I’m the Wind Runner. If you want to bake her a pie, I’ll get it to her before it’s cool. Free of charge. Just dare me.”
Lupp blinked at Ryoka. And then he laughed and slapped her on the shoulder. She waited while he milked his cow, found a jug to hold the milk in, and listened to his message. She left the farm as the wind blew. And it did blow, a mighty gust that made the corn bend and rustle in the field. Lupp watched her go.
He stood on his farm and watched the girl go. And whatever day he might have had before this moment, it was better now. For him. And for her.
Back she ran. Well, forwards and back. Ryoka completed the rest of her deliveries and ran faster than before. Not a sprint, but the wind was at her back. And each time she stopped or met someone on the road, she spoke for a little bit. If the client wanted it. If they weren’t busy.
Sometimes it was a remark on the weather. Other times it was a comment on the place, or just a greeting. And often, it was responded to with a curt reply, or a nonanswer that went nowhere. But sometimes, twice, her conversation turned into something longer.
The second time occurred on her way back to the city. Ryoka was running down a dirt road, fast. She was headed north, and she passed by a wagon, startling a group of children dozily riding with their parents. They laughed and clapped as Ryoka blew past.
“Wind Runner, Wind Runner! Make a tornado!”
Even twenty miles away from Reizmelt they knew her. Ryoka turned and the wind blew around her and the children laughed in delight as the mules pulling the wagon stopped in surprise. Ryoka raced past them. Then she heard an exclamation from behind and turned her head. Instead of the wagon, she saw a blur racing towards her.
Green and blue. A mounted shape. An armored warrior riding a horse, standing up in his stirrups. Fast as—Ryoka blinked. Then she turned, prepared to sprint off the road.
“[Knight] errant! No fear, Runner!”
The rider called. Ryoka relaxed slightly, but she kept a hand near her bag of holding. She kept running on the road, and the [Knight] caught up to her in seconds. Instead of passing, he slowed his horse. Ryoka, running at full-tilt, saw him glance down at her.
Was this a challenge? She gritted her teeth and sped up. She was nowhere near as fast as the [Knight], but the wind blew hard on her back. It did not do that for the knight, and Ryoka accelerated a half-step. She kept pace with the [Knight] for a hundred paces, then two hundred. At four hundred, Ryoka felt herself running out of steam, so she slowed rather than force herself to keep going. To her surprise, the [Knight] slowed with her.
Warily, Ryoka slowed further, panting. The [Knight] drew almost to a standstill with his horse in response. He held up a hand and Ryoka took him in for the first time.
He was certainly a [Knight], or at least, he looked like one. His chest plate was a gentle green, while his shoulders and legs were a sapphire blue. His insignia was emblazoned on his chest—some kind of wheat stalk of all things. His charger was similarly adorned, and Ryoka saw the man had a sword and spear. Neither one was near his hand as he held it up.
“My apologies, Miss Runner. I mean you no alarm. I was simply impressed with your pace. Not many can keep up that speed, City Runner or not. You might have kept even with a regular horse. I am a [Knight] in service of the order of Clairei Fields. We prize speed above all. I tender you my sincerest compliments for the display.”
“Oh. Uh, thanks. It’s well-taken. Although you’d outrun me in any race.”
The [Knight] tilted his visor up and Ryoka caught a glimpse of pale indigo eyes. She blinked, but the [Knight]’s voice was calm, conversational even. He didn’t remove his helmet, but it looked locked into place.
“On horseback, perhaps. But you kept pace at a good clip. And with bare feet, no less! Tell me, is it some feature of your class? It seems dangerous at speed.”
“What? This. It’s just a hobby.”
“Yes, well, I do have the uh, [Barefoot Runner] class. But barefoot running is just a choice I make. I think it feels better, and I can run faster. You see, bare feet help my form. And you don’t actually step on that many rocks. Er…”
Ryoka slowed to a jog as she ran alongside the [Knight]. She gave him a quick pitch for running barefoot, and he listened politely. He nodded after she was done.
“Truly admirable. I’m almost relieved you weren’t a Courier, Miss. Or I’d have had to explain to my order why I was left behind by a barefoot runner.”
The said barefoot runner grinned and she caught a smile behind the visor. The Clairei Knight rode onwards, and after a moment, tilted his head to Ryoka.
“Miss Runner. I notice the wind has been blowing behind us steadily for the last few minutes. Unusual, but dare I ask—are you the infamous Wind Runner of Reizmelt I’ve heard about?”
“None other. Are people talking about me from that far away?”
Ryoka blinked. The [Knight] dipped his head.
“The children are, if none other! And where children talk, surely their elders at least whisper? I’m honored, again. And perhaps our meeting is fortuitous. You see, I have a delivery tasked upon me by my order. I am to hire a Runner in Reizmelt to bear a gift. And it occurs to me that none other than the Wind Runner would best represent our interests.”
“A gift? I can definitely do that. Is it priority?”
The Clairei Knight halted his horse.
“Not priority. But the circumstances around the request are strict. It is to be delivered tomorrow, just past morning to a precise location. Not far; within the city’s confines, in fact. To a [Lady] of some renown. The delivery is one of ceremony, I understand. My order has sent a number of my brethren and uh, sisters of the order to carry these gifts from city to city.”
“Why not deliver it yourself?”
The [Knight] sighed.
“I asked my order’s grandmaster the same thing. It appears that this is some matter of politics. Regardless, the fee is quite handsome, and I understand it would fall under a direct request.”
Ryoka’s ears instantly perked up. A direct request? That meant it would be something registered as a personal delivery. Her reputation could only benefit from having one of those under her belt. And free gold?
“If you don’t mind having a barefoot runner do the delivery, I’d be honored, sir. And I can spare you a trip to the guild. I can take your details and log the request when I return to the guild…”
The Clairei Knight brightened up when he heard that.
“That would truly be helpful, Miss Wind Runner. Sparing the effort of selecting a Runner for the delivery and journeying to Reizmelt would mean I could rendezvous with the rest of my order at another city. You would do me a great personal service. On that note, I have been remiss. May I ask your name, fair lady?”
“Ryoka Griffin. And I’m not that fair or much of a lady.”
“A damsel who rescues a [Knight] from distress is as much a lady as one that requires rescuing.”
It was prettily said, so Ryoka smiled and fished out a quill and parchment from her belt pack. She noted the [Knight]’s request, then handed him one of her seals so he could ensure the package was delivered exactly as he wanted and hold her accountable if need be. Not that it was necessary; it was a straight forwards delivery at a certain time of day.
“I’ll have the paperwork done the instant I return to Reizmelt, Sir Molte.”
“And that’s it?”
Ryoka nodded. Sir Molte sighed in relief.
“Excellent! My order seldom makes use of City Runners. Since we all have speed Skills, our junior members are often tasked as [Messengers]. I’ve had enough of it, and this after I was denied the right to join Lord Veltras’ army—but I shouldn’t complain. Thanks to you twice over for taking my burden, Miss Griffin! I wish you all the speed the winds grant you!”
He saluted Ryoka and flipped his visor down. She nodded and her turned his horse. The stallion took off down another road as she watched him go. Ryoka saw the Clairei Knight accelerate until he was a blur, and then disappear. She blinked and stared down at the very slim parcel she’d received from him.
“Don’t open until right before delivery, huh? Wow. I guess this was a coincidence and a half. Good luck for me, though.”
She smiled and kept running. And soon, she returned to Reizmelt. And after delivering some milk and corn to a very surprised daughter, who was a [Shoemaker] of all things, Ryoka successfully avoided buying a pair of shoes and returned to the Huntress’ Haven. And there she stopped a while. And thought.
The Huntress’ Haven was closed. It had been closed all day and it continued to be closed, not least because there was no more sitting room. Madain had kicked some of the broken chairs and tables out of the way, but absolutely no attempt at actual cleaning had taken place.
Obviously dinner was cancelled. But Ryoka still stopped in the inn, and not for her room or to find Fierre. She walked to Madain’s room on the ground floor and knocked once.
“Madain. It’s me.”
The door stayed closed. Ryoka fidgeted. At last, the door opened a crack.
“There’s no dinner. Get lost or I will throw you out.”
A bloodshot eye stared at the City Runner. Ryoka tried to smile.
“I know. I thought you’d still be hungover. Here. I brought something to eat.”
She held up an ear of corn. Madain stared at it. Ryoka lifted the basket she was holding in the other arm. Some of Helma’s fresh bread was in the basket too, along with some tarts. Ryoka heard Madain’s stomach grumble.
“What the hell’s this?”
“Food. Look, we don’t have to eat together. It’s just something I thought you could use. I’ve—”
The door slammed shut. Ryoka stopped, mid-sentence. She stared at the door. At her basket.
She’d spent thirty minutes coming up with something to say and buying all the food. Thirty minutes, trying to figure out what she’d say to herself. And he just—
Hot fury swept through Ryoka. For a second the wind threatened to gale, and she raised a fist, ready to kick the door down and break the damn basket over that ungrateful bastard’s head. Then she caught herself.
Carefully, slowly, Ryoka looked around. She found a table, dragged it over, and even tried not to make the wood screech. She placed the basket on top, and turned. Ryoka glanced back once at the door and turned to go. She didn’t expect the door to open or Madain to say anything. And he did not.
“Fierre, you want to get something to eat?”
Somewhat grumpy, but oddly satisfied, Ryoka found Fierre as she finished her shift. The Vampire had been working as a [Builder] all day and she was covered in grit. She looked not the least bit tired, despite having hauled heavy bricks and stones about all day. She smiled at Ryoka.
“You can have them. Let’s find somewhere good to eat.”
And so they did. That was all there was to it. Ryoka sat with Fierre and they talked. Today’s conversation was about [Knight] orders. Fierre didn’t like them. Ryoka thought the Clairei Knight hadn’t been too bad, even if he had been slightly condescending. The Vampire girl didn’t agree.
“They’re all the sons and daughters of the rich. Usually nobility. Sometimes there are commoners, but you can’t trust all of them. It was [Knights] who hunted down my family. Dad hates them. Especially the old houses, like the Byres family. At least they’re just individual [Knights]. Orders are the worst.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Orders train their [Knights] in a system. You can get the class other ways, but an order has specific types of knight. Even special classes. They have…specialties. Clairei Field’s a larger order around here that specializes in speed. Not that they’re that much. Compared to Terandrian [Knights], most of Izril’s are lackluster.”
“How so? Are they under leveled?”
“No…but Terandria has ancient [Knight] orders. And they’re larger, better funded in general—they’re more depended upon. So the Clairei Knights aren’t much of anything compared to, say, the Order of Seasons. Speaking of which, did you see the Titan’s game in Daquin?”
“I heard about it. But I don’t have a scrying orb. Do you have video?”
“A what? And I do have access to a mirror. We can watch it—I hear it’s amazing. And you can see real [Knights], for what it’s worth. You see, they have actual specialized classes, like their [Summer Knights] or their [Knights of the Summer], I forget which one it is. They have unique abilities and…”
And Ryoka saw the game in Daquin. And she was suitably amazed, even caught with the scope of the battle. And worried. And by the time she tiptoed into the inn and fumbled her way upstairs into her bed, she was so tired she nearly forgot it had been a bad day. In fact, it even felt okay. Ryoka lay in her bed, staring up at the ceiling.
“I did it.”
She’d gotten through a day without ruining something. Wasn’t that a victory? Ryoka thought about it.
She still felt miserable. But she clung to that thought. She hadn’t made anyone else’s day worse. And that was enough. So Ryoka slept. And the next day, she felt better.
Ryoka looked up as she ate some runny eggs at her table. She glanced around the swept inn, at the few righted tables, Alber eating, Fierre eating bloody soup, and then at Madain. The [Innkeeper] still looked hung over, but he had made breakfast. And he was even speaking.
“Morning, Madain. Need anything?”
The big man hesitated. He glared at Ryoka, and slapped more eggs onto her plate. She eyed them.
“The damn corn was good. And the other things. Thanks. Don’t bother with it again.”
He turned and stomped off. Ryoka watched him head into the kitchen. And she smiled. It was a small victory. She looked up and saw Alber and Fierre staring at her. Ryoka waved and both went back to their food.
“What was that about? Corn?”
Fierre stared at Ryoka. The City Runner hummed as she left the inn. Alber was already outside, putting on his gloves. He’d come back with a black eye last night.
“Just something I got from a run. I think it worked. Hey, Fierre. I have a big delivery in about twenty minutes.”
“Really? I didn’t hear anything about that.”
The Vampire was instantly curious. Ryoka plucked the thin package out of her bag of holding. Fierre’s eyes locked on it.
“Who gave you that?”
“The Clairei Knight I told you about.”
The Vampire looked excited.
“Really? Then I can definitely open it. I won’t charge you more than—”
“Whoa. I’m not opening this one. I’m delivering it honestly.”
Ryoka forestalled Fierre. The girl looked disappointed.
“But if it’s an important gift—”
“He gave it to me, and apparently any City Runner would do. I think it’s ceremonial. And I want to prove I’m good for some deliveries. Especially ones with [Knights]. This is my first personally requested delivery. Ever. So I’m doing it right.”
Ryoka smiled. Fierre sighed.
“Oh, fine. I have enough work anyways. Have fun on your delivery. Where’s it to?”
“Inside the city, believe it or not. To a [Lady].”
Ryoka smiled, even as memory pricked her. Fierre frowned.
“A [Lady]? But Reizmelt doesn’t have a [Lady].”
“Well, she must be passing through.”
“But that might mean—”
Fierre glanced up sharply at Ryoka. Then she clicked her fingers.
“I have to go. I think I have clients.”
She hurried down the street. Ryoka frowned at her, and tucked the slim package into her bag of holding. She’d get to see what it was right before she delivered it, anyways. She hummed softly as she strode to the Runner’s Guild.
Todel strode towards Ryoka the moment she entered. Ryoka turned and gave him a very real and cheerful smile.
“Todel. How were the swamps?”
He clasped hands.
“As nasty as ever. But I earned my coin! I owe you one. And after this, I can buy you at least a round! Fancy a drink later today?”
“It’s not even morning.”
Ryoka glanced out the window. Todel chortled.
“A few drinks won’t kill you. Or a day off, Wind Runner! Listen, it’s all on me. I just got my first personal delivery and I’m ready to hit the city after I finish it!”
“What, really? Congratulations!”
“I got my first delivery as well. I met a [Knight] on the road and he offered me one.”
Todel looked delighted. He slapped Ryoka on the back.
“Now that’s luck. Me, I think I was the only City Runner around when whomever it was made the request. That, or my run to Blaiseford really impressed someone. Either way—when’s your delivery?”
“Very soon. You?”
“Soon. But I’m not worried. It’s simple. Let’s have a seat. I’m so nervous—but I got the package tested and it’s straightforward. Some kind of lover’s token, I think. It’s—”
Ryoka held up a cautioning hand as they took a seat.
“Steady. I don’t want to know and you need to keep it a secret.”
Todel looked abashed. He ran a hand through his hair.
“Right, right. Sorry. I’m just so—Melodie! Come over!”
Another City Runner that Ryoka had been introduced to recently had just jogged through the doors. She made beeline straight for Alime’ desk.
“In a moment, Todel! I need to get my delivery. Is it here, Alime?”
“Right here, Melodie. Congratulations.”
The girl trotted over towards Ryoka and Todel. She had wild green hair and olive skin. It was apparently all-natural and the girl was always leaping from spot to spot. She had a jumping Skill that could let her reach the roof of a house with the right run up. She beamed at Todel and Ryoka.
“The Wind Runner! And Todel.”
“You’ll have to come up with a name for me soon, Melodie. Fancy a drink?”
Todel rubbed his hands together as he grinned at both of them. Melodie smiled.
“A bit early, isn’t it? But I’m up for it! And I’ll buy you a round.”
“No, no, it’s on me. I’ve got great news!”
“So do I. Guess what just happened last—”
The doors burst open. A Street Runner that Ryoka knew, a Dullahan of all people, burst into the guild, fastening on his head.
“I’m here! I’m here! I’m not late, am I?”
Todel’s voice was drowned out by more Runners pouring into the guild. Six City Runners, eight Street Runners, and two other Runners that Ryoka didn’t recognize were hot on the heels of the Dullahan. They came in all at once and swarmed around Alime’s desk, shouting for their packages. Ryoka stared.
“One at a time! I have your packages! One at a time! Line up!”
The [Receptionist] had to shout until the Runners formed a rushed line. She began passing out packages. And Ryoka saw they were all the same size, more or less. The wrappings varied, and some looked…opened. But each Runner took theirs and checked it hurriedly. Some clearly knew what was inside.
“Todel. Miss Ryoka. Melodie. Good to see you all.”
Ghalim approached them, looking pleased as he tucked his package into his armor. Ryoka stared at it. The Dullahan looked smug as he glanced at the three City Runners. He was quick, but he’d been demoted to Street Runner twice for tardiness, Ryoka gathered. Normally he seemed troubled by it, but today he was positively bursting in his armor.
“You’re here early, Ghalim? Have a job already?”
“As a matter of fact, someone asked for me. Me. I’m about to do a personal delivery. How’s that for a morning, eh?”
The Dullahan puffed out his chest. Melodie and Todel looked astonished. Ryoka narrowed her eyes.
“A personal request? Congratulations, Ghalim! Ryoka and I just got ours. Is this some kind of luck or what?”
“Actually, I just got a personal delivery too, Todel. My second one.”
Melodie spoke up. Todel turned to her.
“What? But that’s—”
“Did someone say a personal request? I just got one!”
The other Runners looked around. Ryoka leaned back as they crowded around the table. And she started counting. More Runners were coming into the room. And they all wanted the same thing from Alime. No—three didn’t want anything from her, but they looked like they had their packages already.
“Hold on. Hold on. Does everyone here have a personal delivery they’re doing today?”
Todel had to shout. The Runner’s Guild went quiet. Nearly every Runner in the room raised their hands and nodded. The partly-Dwarvish runner looked astonished.
“Is there some kind of huge event we don’t know about?”
“No clue. But I’m being paid well to do my delivery. Speaking of which, it’s nearly time!”
Ghalim pointed at the position of the sun in the sky. A number of other Runners nodded. Ryoka got to her feet. It was indeed time. But suddenly she didn’t feel so good. She looked around.
“Anyone else going on their delivery? Want to run together?”
The other Runners looked at her and nodded. Ryoka glanced at Alime. The [Receptionist] had noticed what Ryoka had. She met the Runner’s gaze, but didn’t stop Ryoka as the young woman jogged outside. And the other Runners followed her.
“I’m not going with you far. It’s just a short trip for me. Good thing too, or I’d be holding you back, eh, Griffin?”
Todel joked as he ran alongside Ryoka. She didn’t immediately reply. She headed down the main street and the others followed her. City Runners. Street Runners. They laughed. Melodie ran faster, next to Ryoka, grinning as the wind blew her hair from behind.
“Thanks for the wind, Ryoka! But we’re going to split at—”
She faltered as Ryoka turned right, off the main street. The other Runners blinked, but some whooped. They poured down the street, surprising the early-morning pedestrians who stared at the cavalcade of Runners as they followed Ryoka. The girl ran straight. And then she turned left, off this street. The crowd turned with her. And, suddenly, there was a lot less laughter.
“I’m going down this street. You?”
Todel looked at Ryoka. She nodded tightly. The precious package the Clairei Knight had given her was in her hand now. And she saw some of the other Runners taking theirs out.
“Down this street. And then—”
The Runners turned as one. They looked at each other and their steps slowed. There was only one street they could all be going to now. Gladwell’s Walk, one of the richest districts in Reizmelt. They looked at each other.
Melodie looked around disbelievingly. Ryoka just nodded. She tugged off the wrapping of her package, pulled away the delicate paper that had been secured with string. Todel’s eyes widened.
Silently, Ryoka looked around. The other Runners of Reizmelt stared at her. She saw the copy of her item in their hands, held delicately to avoid injuring the runners. Ghalim, whose hands were armor, stared at Ryoka.
“Is—is this a joke? But I was paid well. They asked for me by name.”
“Me too. I have a message to deliver.”
“And I—what do we do?”
Todel looked at Ryoka. She glanced at him and the others. They stared at her, the Wind Runner, as if she had the answer. Calmly, belying the tremor in her heart, Ryoka pointed.
“We do our job. Follow me.”
So down the street they came. Over twenty Runners, running in a group. The pedestrians stared. And the Runners came to a stop in front of a large, suburban…it could have been a mansion. Inside of a city. But there was even a lawn.
Ryoka’s heart was beating too fast. Her skin was tingling and she was shivering. She rang the bell at the gate and saw the doors open. The [Butler] stared as he spotted the crowd of runners.
“What’s the meaning of this?”
“Runners. Here to call on the [Lady] of the mansion. We have a priority delivery.”
Ryoka spoke for all of them. The [Butler] hesitated as he slowly walked towards the gates. He counted and stared at all of their faces.
“Please wait. I will inform the mistress momentarily. Her company has just arrived. Please—”
He hurried back. Ryoka stared at him. She didn’t recognize him. But now the memory was washing over her.
A mansion in the city. A [Lady]’s request. A delivery to—
She saw the door close. Around her, the Runners shifted, looking uneasy. Todel was muttering something.
“…present to you…”
Ryoka stared at the mansion. A [Butler]. But she had [Maids], didn’t she? And she travelled a lot. And she was—
What had the [Knight] said? Politics. Ryoka waited. She had forgotten how to breathe. It couldn’t be. Did he know it was her? Was this all some chance? She waited. And then she heard a scuff. The door opened. The [Butler] reappeared, bowing, and someone stepped out of the apartment. Ryoka saw a flash of pink. Her mouth opened.
A pink [Knight] stepped out of the door. The word caught in Ryoka’s mouth. She stared. A pink…[Knight]?
Yes. The armored woman strode forwards and another one exited on the left, through the double doors. One was male, the other female. They marched as the sun shone off their brink, rose-pink armor, their helmets removed. Ryoka saw an older man, a young woman. And flanked between them, gracefully walking down the steps, a surprised look on her face was—
A stranger. Not Magnolia Reinhart. She was taller. Thinner. And beautiful. Not that Magnolia Reinhart hadn’t been beautiful, but this was a [Lady] among ladies. She wore a free, riding dress, slashed yellow and red, and her hair was short. She was younger than Magnolia, by a bit. And her voice was spirited, loud even. But captivating, too.
“What’s this? It’s a small army of Runners. Are they all here for me? Thomast? Thomast, come and look at this!”
Lady Bethal Walchaís clapped her hands together and laughed as the Runners stared at her. The [Butler] dabbed at his brow.
“I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, Lady Walchaís. I understand you’ve just arrived, but it seemed—”
“Nonsense! I’m delighted. Although I wonder who’s arranged this on my holiday of all things. Sir Kerrig, was this your idea?”
Playfully, the [Lady] turned towards the [Knight] on her left. The older man, who had a battleaxe strapped to his back bowed slightly.
“Not I, Lady Walchaís. May I suggest caution? This is unusual. Please allow me to inspect whatever is being delivered.”
“And ruin the fun? Oh, no. If no one’s [Dangersense] is going off, I want to be the first to see. Thomast! Come and look, dear!”
Bethal clapped her hands as she walked towards the Runners. Ryoka stared at her. She had never seen Lady Bethal before in her life. But she had something of Magnolia’s air. Todel bowed hurriedly as she approached.
“Lady Bethal of House Walchaís?”
He stepped forwards. Instantly, the female [Knight] reached for her sword. Todel stopped, his face pale. Bethal clicked her tongue, frowning.
“Lady Welca, please. These are Runners. Let the man speak.”
The [Knight]’s cheeks flamed and she bowed hurriedly.
“Apologies, Lady Walchaís.”
She stepped back, glaring at Todel. The City Runner gulped. He looked at the others and the words spilled out of him.
“Lady Bethal Walchaís, I have a small token for you. A—a mark of esteem from one of your colleagues. I beg to offer—”
He fumbled for the object he’d put behind his back and stumbled over his words. Ryoka stepped forwards. She felt Bethal’s eyes travel to her and felt a small shock. There was power behind that cheerful gaze.
“We beg to offer you this gift. A gift given to those who earn it. So bear witness to this lowly bloom, and let all who witness it know its significance. The smallest of things.”
So saying, she lifted the item in her hands. Slowly, as one, the Runners did likewise. Lady Bethal blinked as she saw the same small item held in each hand. Some of the Runners knelt, others offered it up like a gift from an admirer. And it was a lovely sight.
Dozens of black roses, the petals stained so darkly purple as to be black on first glance, rose in the spring air. Each one was delicate, freshly-plucked. Some were enchanted, so the dew still glimmered on the petals. Others were crushed by indelicate handling, Ghalim’s fist. More than one had drawn blood from the carrier. The thorns were razor sharp. But they rose, and the Runners knelt or bowed, holding the gifts aloft.
Sir Kerrig stared. He looked from flower to flower, and slowly relaxed his hand from the battleaxe on his back. He looked at Lady Bethal.
She had gone white. And she wasn’t the only one. Welca Vis gasped. She stared at the flowers in horror, then began to draw her sword. The [Butler] had also gone pale. He backed away, into the house. Ryoka stared at Lady Bethal’s face.
“We beg to accept—”
“Who gave you that?”
The female [Knight]’s hand closed over Ryoka’s wrist. The young woman jerked. Welca’s eyes were blazing.
“How dare you. How dare—”
“Lady Vis! Control yourself!”
Sir Kerrig snapped. His eyes darted from Lady Bethal’s face to the uncomprehending Runners. He pulled Welca back and she let go of Ryoka’s wrist.
Ryoka was afraid. She looked at Bethal’s face. The woman’s eyes were locked on the black rose Ryoka held. A thorn pressed into Ryoka’s skin, cutting into her flesh. She tried to shift her grip and cut herself. Red blood dripped down the stem.
“This is a gift? To me?”
Bethal looked from flower to flower. The Runners stared up at her. Sir Kerrig glanced at Welca.
“What does it mean?”
“It’s a message. A flower code. One of the symbols used by Izril’s nobility. But—”
Welca broke off. She was trembling. Melodie looked uneasily at her face.
“We—we don’t know what it means. Lady Walchaís, we were hired to give you this. We didn’t know it would be all of us. We swear—”
Bethal’s voice was quiet. She looked at Melodie. The young woman froze, her eyes wide. She’d stopped breathing.
“The Order of Clairei Fields sends this one.”
The gaze swept to Ryoka. The City Runner felt her heart freeze in her chest. Todel stuttered behind her.
“Lord Erill sends this one, Lady—”
He too froze. Lady Bethal looked from him to Ryoka.
“Lady Ieka’s. This comes from—”
She trailed off. But more Runners spoke up, their voices mingling together.
“Lady Danica and her husband, Lord Vite.”
“The House of Averin.”
“The Indivu Estates.”
“The Houses of Wekle, Kelid, and…”
On and on the names came. One by one. Each one with a flower. A rose, as black as could be. They were beautiful. But Lady Bethal stared at them with unblinking eyes.
At last the halting flow of voices came to a stop. The Runners stared at Bethal. She looked across them.
“I see. So this comes from my peers, does it? From orders of [Knights]. From noble houses. Do you—does anyone here know what this means?”
No. The Runners shook their head. Ryoka was staring at the flower. Now she saw it, she knew it had to mean something. A black flower. If you didn’t know flowers could be a language at court—no wonder Todel had thought it was a lover’s token. She looked up and met Bethal’s gaze. It was like staring at lighting. Ryoka looked down.
“The black rose. Perhaps only Izril talks with flowers.”
Bethal’s voice was the only sound on the street. The only sound in the world. She looked from flower to flower. And her voice was soft.
“In days past it meant something else. But that changed with the passing of decades. With the Goblin King. When he rode across Izril, these roses, rare and precious, were cut from their gardens. Did you know? They were sent to men and women. Across the north, after Velan had been slain. And half of those who received the flower died soon thereafter. Do you know why?”
No one replied. Welca Vis was shaking. She stared at her [Lady]. Bethal slowly reached out and plucked the black rose from Ryoka’s hand. She lifted it.
“They killed themselves. Because everyone knew their shame. Never mind if they burned the rose, or hid in their homes. Because of what it meant. The black rose was a symbol of cowardice, sent to all the peers of the realm who fled, or hid rather than face the Goblin King.”
Ryoka’s breath caught in her chest. Bethal looked up. And her eyes glittered. Her lips curved up into a smile. As graceful as the curve as a flower’s petals. As dangerous as the thorns.
“This is a token from my peers. With it they’ve named me a coward. For siding with Magnolia. For condemning Tyrion Veltras at Liscor. They sent the black roses to me. Me.”
Her hand slowly tightened around the rose, heedless of the thorns. Sir Kerrig made a sound. He started forwards and stopped. Lady Bethal was looking at him. The [Knight] froze in his tracks. Slowly, Bethal turned. And her voice was very, very quiet.
“I fought in the Second Antinium War.”
Blood ran down Lady Bethal’s wrist. The Runners were held still. Lady Bethal went on. And her eyes were glittering like gemstones.
“I stood against Velan the Kind during the Sacrifice of Roses. My family around me and I saw the Goblins burn against the gates of First Landing.”
Tears fell from her eyes. Blood was already running down her arm. Dripping onto the ground. And still, Lady Bethal looked at them. Her voice whispered and roared.
“I was there. I saw them break on our swords. I fought, when the Walchaís line ended. In a single hour. The Goblin Lords rode through our lines and the Goblin King himself assailed us. But we never ran. We held our ground. We walked through arrows and flames with nothing but pride and we never stopped. We never stepped back.”
Water and blood dripped and mixed on the ground. Lady Bethal’s hand trembled, and the rose snapped.
“Gone. And we were gone. We walked through the night. And when the dawn came, First Landing stood. The Goblin King broke his armies there. And the world knew that the flowers of Izril were deadly as they were beautiful. I was there. I saw it all.”
She turned. And Ryoka bowed. Slowly, the Runners knelt. And they were not alone. The Rose Knights fell to one knee. And the people on the streets, children, adults, young and old, bowed. They knelt. And Lady Bethal wept. The bloody flower fell from her hand and struck the ground. She lowered her bleeding hand and looked away.
“So they call me coward. How many never stood with me? Who among them did? We were there. How dare they?”
No one could speak. Ryoka was trembling. Bethal looked around. And no one dared meet her gaze. She stared at the blood on her hand and then she noticed the water on her cheeks. She touched her tears and her fingers left a streak of blood. Bethal looked at her hand, and then she laughed.
The sound made Ryoka look up. She saw Bethal throw her head back and laugh. Shaken, the others on the street looked up. Lady Bethal Walchaís laughed. Her voice rang down the street as she laughed, as if it was the funniest thing in the world. Laughter as the tears still ran down her face.
Madness. And when the [Lady] lowered her head and the laughter faded, Ryoka looked up and saw Lady Bethal’s eyes on her. And she shuddered, because she saw a kindred spirit. Despair and laughter. A good day turned bad. Lady Bethal scrubbed at her face with one sleeve. Then she turned and smiled brightly at the City and Street Runners before her.
“So it goes. Thank you ever so much for delivering your gifts, dear Runners. I would invite you in, but I’m terribly pressed for time at the moment. Would you please return a message to your clients?”
They raised their heads uncertainly. Lady Bethal’s eyes sparkled. She smiled and touched a finger to her lips.
“I am sure my fellow [Ladies] have received the same rose. A symbol of contempt. A provocation. It matters not. It may be a taunt. It may be a message. I do not care. I am Lady Bethal Walchaís and this rose means more than any word, any gesture they could imagine.”
So saying, Lady Bethal turned. She clapped her hands lightly, and her two [Knights] rose. She called into the house, to a man who stood silently behind her.
“Thomast, dear? Bring your good sword. And someone fetch me an axe. I am going to murder a good number of my peers. My Knights of the Petal? Arm yourselves for battle and mount up. Oh, and Runners? Here is the message I wish you to return to your clients.”
Lady Bethal turned. And her blood fell on the ground as the black roses fell and broke. Bethal’s voice never changed a beat as she met Ryoka’s eyes.
Madness and sadness.
“Tell them that this is war.”