War. Was it just her, or was there too much war? Both in her world and here. Not a day passed when Ryoka didn’t hear about the King of Destruction in Chandrar, or about some conflict in Baleros between companies. A spat in Terandria between kingdoms.
Battles at sea. Dead gods or living ones, wasn’t there enough with just monsters? But then again—
There she stood. Tears still ran down her cheeks. And she was still weeping. But she had promised war and death. With a smile, no less. She had commanded her [Knights] to war just like that. And she was like Ryoka. That was what the young woman felt.
Lady Bethal Walchaís. She stood in the middle of the street, the solo actor in a play where everyone was the audience. And Ryoka had a terrible, hideous urge to laugh at that moment, while Bethal’s words were still ringing in her ears.
Not because Ryoka didn’t believe Bethal was serious. Or because she couldn’t fathom what Lady Bethal was talking about. She had forced a street to kneel with her presence alone. As she had spoken about the Sacrifice of Roses, Ryoka had felt the pain and loss and as if it had happened to herself. A fragment of the agony Bethal was giving off.
It was like heat. Yes, like heat. If Bethal was the center, then the heat was radiating off her. But instead of heat it was pain. That was what her aura felt like to Ryoka. Pure, concentrated emotion. And still, Ryoka wanted to laugh.
Because it wasn’t funny. Not really. Not at all. The black roses lay on the ground, amid the blood dripping from Bethal’s hand. And the tears. And that wasn’t funny at all. But if Ryoka didn’t laugh, what else could she do? She had not been there.
Bethal turned, her face a mask of tragedy underneath that polite, eerily cheerful smile she’d adopted. Her [Knights] looked at each other. And Ryoka waited for blood and carnage, perhaps starting with the petrified runners standing in front of Lady Bethal. But at that moment a second actor strode onto the scene. Stage…center. He came out of the mansion behind Bethal.
“Thomast. There you are. Where were you?”
Bethal turned to him. Ryoka saw a man dressed in a light red coat and long, black breeches. His hair was yet unmarked by gray; it was a warm black, and he had decided a mustache would be his only nod to facial hair. His eyes were a mix of yellow and green and he walked with a long, unbroken stride. Cat-like, one might say, but Ryoka had seen cats wipe out spectacularly. This man walked as if he knew where each step would go exactly. And he carried a sword, a long and thin dueler’s blade, at his side.
“Bethal. My apologies. I was seeing to our luggage. What happened?”
His voice was quiet. Lady Bethal turned to him. Her smile trembled on her lips.
“Thomast. Did you hear me? I said, I need an axe. And I want to summon all my Knights of the Petal. We’ll ride on the nearest house. Which is it? Never mind. We’ll start with House Averin and work our way down. I want to kill at least six of my peers by midnight—”
The man looked at her. And then at her hand. He reached out and caught Bethal’s wrist.
“You’ve cut yourself. Lady Welca, a healing potion.”
The female [Knight] started and fumbled at her belt. Sir Kerrig, the older man, was faster and handed Thomast an opened vial. He poured some of the liquid on Bethal’s hand. Three drops, and the deep cuts left by the thorns were gone. Bethal stared up at Thomast.
“Did you hear me? I said—”
“Black roses. I heard your voice. So that’s why.”
Thomast studied the ground. His eyes passed over the Runners and they flinched, but Thomast had none of the fire coming off of Bethal. The [Lady] glared.
“Yes! They sent them to me. To me, Thomast. Do you see it? Do you see what they dared to do?”
“I see it.”
“Well? What are you going to do? I know what I shall do. You, [Butler]. An axe. This mansion has one, doesn’t it?”
Bethal clicked her free hand at the [Butler] hiding behind the door of the mansion. He jumped and stammered.
“I rented this mansion for the week. If it does not have an axe, I will burn it to the ground. I want one in front of me. Axe. Now.”
Bethal’s voice snapped as she lost the last veneer of patience. And this time the snap in her voice was like a whip. The [Butler] jumped, then ran into the house. Ryoka felt a prickle down her spine. So that was a [Lady]’s ability to command. It was eerily similar to Magnolia’s charm Skill, only more direct. For a second Ryoka had been about to run and find an axe herself. No, this wasn’t Magnolia’s charm in fact. It was closer to Teriarch.
“Good, good. Now, I want my Knights of the Petal armed. Sir Kerrig, grab that battleaxe. Lady Welca—”
Thomast captured Bethal’s other hand as she pointed at her [Knights]. The woman halted and glared up at him.
“Are you still catching up, Thomast? I said—”
“I heard you. And I’m afraid I must object.”
Now Ryoka felt a prickling sensation in the air. Bethal looked up at her husband and the air around her felt like thorns. It was so real that Ryoka and Todel, who were closest to her, shifted back. Thomast, who was right next to his wife, nodded.
“You’re not thinking straight, Bethal. You can’t repay this with blood.”
“I can and will. Don’t try to talk me out of it—”
“Give me one hour. At least to prove these were sent by everyone who named themselves.”
“You want to prove it? Why? No one else would dare appropriate so many names, not even Magnolia herself! And I will question my peers when I meet them face-to-face. Politely. And if they lie…let go of my hands, Thomast.”
The thorns were growing stronger. Thomast, however, was undeterred.
“Not until you promise to wait for one hour.”
“Why? So I can cool down? I won’t. Let go of me, Thomast. I won’t warn you twice.”
Bethal tugged at Thomast’s hands. He didn’t budge.
“No. I insist, Bethal. An hour’s all I ask. We’ll go for a…walk.”
She hissed at him. And suddenly, the thorns in the air around her become real. Ryoka shouted in pain and Todel howled. Both stumbled back. Ryoka stared at her legs and grabbed at the thorns that were buried there. She saw nothing—until blood started running from several holes in her legs. Long, deep cuts. Todel was clutching at his arm. The shoulder he’d turned towards Bethal was running with blood. From sharp cuts much like Ryoka’s own.
The other Runners stared at the two in horror. They drew back fast. Bethal turned to glare at them and Thomast, who hadn’t moved, sighed.
“You’re injuring them, Bethal. Pull back your aura.”
The woman glared. But the thorny feeling around her faded just a tad so the thorns were imaginary instead of simply invisible. Ryoka grabbed a potion and splashed it on Todel’s arm and then her legs. To her relief, the wounds healed at once.
“They deserve it. They sent the roses.”
Lady Bethal’s voice was still furious, but a slight tone of guilt was layered underneath. Ryoka saw Thomast’s eyes flicker as he glanced at her and Todel.
“I imagine they had no idea what they meant. Bethal, a walk.”
“You won’t let go of me until I agree?”
Bethal stared up at her husband. He nodded.
“Then I agree. Let me go.”
“Promise me on our wedding vows.”
Bethal’s cheeks flamed. She turned her head; the [Butler] was running back with a wood chopping axe. He came to a halt, panting madly.
“You don’t trust me?”
“I trust you implicitly. Your word, not one bit. Swear to me on our wedding vows, or on House Walchaís’ name.”
Bethal glared at her husband.
“And if I don’t want to swear? I can stand like this all day, you know.”
She kicked her husband, disproving her statement instantly. Thomast didn’t move. He bent his head.
“I won’t. Choose something else, Thomast.”
Another kick. He nodded slowly.
“Then swear it by the Sacrifice of Roses. By their honor, an hour’s time. Or you will do disgrace to their honor.”
Lady Bethal went white. Her hands trembled in Thomast’s grip. She spoke slowly, and so quietly and deliberately, Ryoka instantly looked up in alarm.
“I swear. Will that do?”
Thomast nodded silently. Ryoka opened her mouth to tell the man not to let go of Bethal for any reason, but it was too late. The fool let go of Bethal. Instantly, she raised a hand and slapped Thomast across the face.
Crack. The audience on the street winced and Thomast’s head turned slightly with the blow. He didn’t move, though. He looked down at Bethal.
“An hour, Bethal. And a walk. Or at least come inside. This isn’t the right spot.”
He gestured towards the mansion. The [Butler] backed off with the axe as Lady Bethal turned her head. She was breathing hard. She raised a hand again, glared at Thomast, and then whirled.
She strode into the house without a second word. Ryoka was impressed; Thomast didn’t even rub his cheek as he turned to the [Knight] on his right. The man bowed to him slightly.
“Sir Thomast, I regret my inaction.”
The man shrugged slightly. He touched the handprint on his cheek ruefully. So he had felt that.
“She is your [Lady]. And my wife. Nevertheless. I understand the black roses. I take it these Runners delivered them?”
He glanced at the Runners outside the gates. Sir Kerrig nodded slowly. The shorter, young woman also dressed in pink armor glared at Ryoka and the others. Her hand tightened on a longsword at her side.
“Sir Thomast, your orders?”
“I’ll attend to Bethal. In the meantime, Sir Kerrig, take Lady Welca and conduct an investigation of Reizmelt’s Runner’s Guild. Ensure that these flowers were indeed sent by those named. I’ll try to persuade Bethal to wait until—”
Ryoka heard a clatter of hooves and turned left just in time to see Lady Bethal riding around the side of the mansion. She was mounted on a speckled, pale grey and white mare, already saddled. Thomast looked up at her. Bethal stared down at him innocently.
“A walk, Bethal.”
“I only promised to wait an hour. And I’ll be having my walk on my own, Thomast. My [Knights] are free to accompany me.”
“Lady Walchaís, wait!”
Sir Kerrig and Welca instantly turned towards the stables. Bethal ignored them and began to trot off. Thomast made an exasperated sound for the first time. He turned to Sir Kerrig.
“The Runners. I’ll follow her.”
“You will not!”
Bethal glared. But Thomast had already disappeared. One, two, three—each step carried him twice as far as a normal man’s stride! He was around the side of a house in a second. Ryoka blinked. That was quick! And in a moment he was on horseback and riding at Bethal.
“I don’t want to hear it!”
Bethal turned and wheeled her mare around. She dug her heels into her horse’s sides and the mare took off. Bethal galloped past Ryoka and the Runners who sprang out of the way. Thomast was hot on her heels. Ryoka heard him call at Bethal to slow down. The [Lady] replied with a curse Ryoka had heard Relc shout once.
They were out of sight in a moment. The pink [Knights], the [Butler], still holding the axe, and the citizens of Reizmelt watched them go. Ryoka stared around, and then looked at Todel’s white face.
“Who was that?”
He grinned at her, the blood still drying on his arm. Sir Kerrig, the [Knight] in the pink armor turned back to Ryoka. His expression suggested chagrin. Welca’s suggested violence.
“That was Lady Bethal Walchaís, Miss. Last of her line. All of you remain here. I have some questions to ask you. And I believe I will need directions to your Runner’s Guild.”
He didn’t put a hand on the huge battleaxe strapped to his back. And the young woman didn’t actually draw her sword. But no one decided to run away. Ryoka stared at the place where Lady Bethal had been, and then at the blood and the black roses on the ground.
Lady Bethal. The last few minutes said it all, really.
Six people on the street weren’t part of the scene, the drama as it unfolded. Or rather, if they were, they weren’t members of the audience, but the supporting cast. They watched as participants, not as observers. And they spoke quickly in the moments after Lady Bethal had galloped away.
“Damn. How’d she get mounted that fast?”
“They just arrived. Why couldn’t they have timed it later?”
“Never mind that. I had a clear shot at her. Why did you block me? The order was to make it public.”
One of the six hissed at the other. A distinctly female voice replied to him, although all six were hooded. And it had to be said, six hooded figures were usually the opposite of invisible—unless they were standing at the back of the crowd that had watched Lady Bethal’s speech. They were getting a lot of looks. One of the six shifted, distinctly aware of how unprofessional all this was.
“I blocked you because it was a bad shot. She was moving. And even if you’d hit, her husband and those bodyguards would be on us in seconds. You think we could take them?”
“There are six of us.”
The angry one was now sulky. The female glared out of her hood.
“Against two [Knights]? Are you mad? Wait until they’re alone. We’re getting paid for the attempt, but the bounty on either one is a hundred times that.”
“Fine. Looks like the [Knights] want those Runners, anyways. Suits me.”
Four of the hoods nodded. One of them was less sure.
“There’s still the husband. He’s a known duelist, isn’t he? The [Chevalier] Thomast. I know he has an enchanted blade. And he’s probably got other equipment.”
“So? There are six of us. One of him. And he may be a [Fencer], but he has no bell. He’s just good for a [Lord]. We can do it.”
The other five nodded. They slipped backwards, again, attracting a number of looks. They weren’t very professional. They were in fact, rookies. But they were still [Assassins]. Which meant that they were somewhat good at their jobs. They followed the horses out of the city. After stopping to rent six of their own.
It really was unprofessional.
Lady Bethal rode south out of Reizmelt like an arrow. She didn’t stop at the gate, and she didn’t bother avoiding the people on the road. They avoided her. Bethal furiously urged her mare forwards, taking to the main road and sticking to it. And she was being pursued.
Thomast Veniral, [Chevalier] and husband to Lady Bethal rode his stallion after her with dogged determination. She had a few seconds on him, but both their horses were excellent. And while she was the better rider of the two, he was dogged and neither had riding Skills. So she failed to lose him in the first, frantic ten minutes.
Bethal rode furiously, but even in her fury, she couldn’t bring herself to harm her horse, so before the animal could tire or risk a fall or injury, she slowed the mad gallop. When she did, Thomast caught up. Breathing heavily, she glared at her husband.
“I can’t do that, Bethal. You’re unprotected by yourself.”
“Get Kerrig, then. And Welca.”
“They’re investigating the origin of the roses—”
“Leaving you with no choice to follow me, is that it?”
Thomast quietly slowed his panting stallion. He looked at Bethal and shook his head.
“There’s no place I’d rather be.”
She glared at him. The stare bounced off Thomast. After a second, Bethal lightly moved her reins. The mare trotted forwards, down the road.
“I’m not going back to Reizmelt. I’m going for a ride. An hour, you said? I’m going to ride for an hour. Unless you have a problem with that?”
The look in her eyes dared Thomast to say anything. He only nodded.
“A ride is as good as a walk.”
Bethal turned her head and made a disgusted sound. She rode on, and Thomast followed her.
South, down the road. There were too many people for Bethal’s taste, so at the first juncture, she took the road less travelled by. Further away from eyes. The first few minutes were just streaming fury on her side and Thomast quietly waiting. His stallion snorted and kept edging closer to the mare, who wanted to walk closer to the stallion. Bethal on the other hand kept moving their horses apart, but animal magnetism drew them together again and again.
After the umpteenth time she’d moved her mare back, Bethal spoke abruptly.
“I know they sent them. All of them. Sir Kerrig will find that out. It’s obvious they were the ones who sent the roses. It wasn’t a ruse.”
“You are most likely correct.”
Her eyes flashed at him.
“I am correct. And when I meet them, I will cut off their heads. Each and every one of them. How dare they, Thomast? How dare they?”
He didn’t reply. She glared at him.
“Don’t you think they deserve it? Don’t you? They called me a coward! When my family, my brother and father and mother all died there! Where were they, Thomast? Where were they?”
She screamed the words, scaring a passing traveller nearly off his horse. Thomast didn’t reply. Bethal cursed and turned down another road, going further away from a larger settlement.
“I’m going to kill them. And you won’t stop me. I won’t calm down. An hour? You can make me wait a year and I won’t forgive them. Ever. They’re going to die.”
“Of course, Bethal.”
She turned her head.
“You can’t trick me. I am going to pick up that axe and do it myself. Do you hear me?”
“Yes. I do.”
His calm reply only incensed Bethal even more. She screamed at him, her hands tight on the reins.
“Are you even listening?”
Her mare stopped, alarmed. Bethal glared at her mount and kicked it to make it move. Thomast patiently soothed his stallion as the horse rolled its eyes back at its master. When Bethal had gotten her mare to keep moving, Thomast cast a glance at the sky. Clear weather and gentle winds. It was at odds with Bethal’s screams. But there were less travellers. He cast a glance on the road behind him, frowning for a second. Then he turned to Bethal.
“I’m listening. Don’t forget the children.”
Bethal was breathing hard. Thomast fingered his mustache.
“When you cut off their heads with the axe yourself. Don’t forget the children.”
That brought her up short. Bethal turned to glare at Thomast. She opened her mouth, made a fist, and turned her head.
“Only the adults, then. Only their damned parents.”
“Of course. We can ensure the children find another home. They can grow up by themselves.”
Bethal flinched for a second. She bit her lip hard enough to draw blood. She spat it out after a moment.
“Don’t talk me out of it.”
Thomast nodded. He rode along in silence as Bethal healed her lip with a healing potion. Then she spoke up.
“Someone put them up to it. Who? I’m going to kill that person. I will.”
He waited. Bethal glanced at him. She was breathing less heavily now, and her cheeks were less flushed.
“I know what you’ll say! You’ll say this is a trap to make me attack them! Or—or to lose my temper! I am completely calm! But would you stand by while your family’s name was insulted? While you—you’re not a [Lord]. You have no idea what kind of an insult this was!”
“I do not.”
Thomast steadily met Bethal’s glare. She turned her head. Her mare accelerated as the [Lady] urged her to go faster. Thomast caught up after a second. Bethal was breathing hard once more.
“I didn’t mean that. I just meant—they died there! They died and these ungrateful leeches are accusing me of—of—”
Bethal made an inarticulate noise. She hit the saddle horn in front of her, shouting and crying. Her mare again stopped in alarm. Thomast reached over, but Bethal yanked away from him.
“I won’t forgive them! I won’t ever forgive them!”
He nodded. Bethal urged her mare forwards. He never lost her. After her outburst, she was furious. And then, a minute later, crying.
“I still dream about it, Thomast! They were there. And after that Goblin Lord—how dare they? How could they? Mother and father. I was right there. And then the Goblins were—”
She pointed a trembling finger, at spaces and at a time only she could see. Thomast waited. He listened as Bethal’s voice changed to horror. Pain. Fear. And then fury once more. He listened as she vowed fury and bloodshed.
After half an hour, she was crying again. In ten more minutes, she was raging. Furious. The horses continued down the winding trail, halting and stopping. And Thomast listened. Sometimes he spoke, but not to say much. He just waited, as Bethal’s swings between fury and grief grew less and less. He looked at his wife and saw both emotions taking their toll, tiring her.
Was it madness? Insanity, as some called it? The fragile female ego overloaded by grief and past trauma? Thomast had heard it all said, usually behind Bethal’s back. And even then, never to his face. Not anymore. Some were afraid of the last daughter of House Walchaís. But she had never been terrifying to Thomast.
She was, and had always been just Bethal. And she was weeping again, so he dismounted and offered her a hand. They had gone a long ways, and the road had become completely empty around them. They were in the proximity of a rural village, having passed around it twenty minutes back.
“Come on down. Let’s walk and give the horses a chance to rest.”
Bethal hesitated, but dismounted. She was crying now. And now Thomast let her slide down. He held her for a second.
“Thomast. Do you think they’re right?”
He looked down at her. Bethal blinked up at him, her face a mess of tears and snot. Thomast gripped her arms.
“They are wrong.”
She paused. Now she was looking at him. And now that she was, now that she was listening, Thomast hugged her. She buried her face in his tunic.
“They’re wrong, Bethal. You know that.”
She gripped him tightly, crying into his shoulder.
“I’m sorry I hit you. I’m sorry. But the flowers.”
“You have every right to be angry. You just can’t kill them. It’s a trap. You know that.”
“I know. But—”
That was all she said. But. Thomast squeezed her harder. And she clung to him as if they were the only people left in the world. If only that were true. The [Chevalier] looked around, speaking quietly to Bethal.
“They’re wrong. They weren’t there. And they will never know what it was like. I don’t. You don’t have to forgive them. Just don’t let them trap you.”
“Why the black rose? Why that, Thomast?”
Bethal’s voice broke. Thomast shifted, feeling his rapier moving at his side. He glanced around.
There was no one about. They’d come far, and a little farm was the only thing nearby. A field of crops, a scarecrow at rest…the air was still as Thomast turned to face Bethal. She stepped back a tiny bit and stared up at him. She’d wiped her face onto his damp shoulder. Now she looked even more beautiful. He felt his heart squeeze. He let go of her with one hand and put his hand at his side.
“Someone must have asked them to send it.”
Bethal nodded. She sniffed hard, and her voice took on a hint of normalcy. For the first time, she frowned as she thought. A few residual tears squeezed themselves out of her eyes, but she was done crying.
“Not Tyrion. But who? The Circle of Thorns? Damn them. And damn Magnolia for pulling us into it. She plays her games and she always gets what she wants. This is her fault.”
“You agreed to help her.”
“Because the alternative was war with the Drakes! You heard her!”
Thomast stepped back as Bethal glared. He put a hand on the hilt of his rapier.
“I think it was the correct decision. But you knew there would be consequences.”
Thomast turned his head as he spoke. He stared backwards, at a distant stand of trees, and then eyed the trail around them. Bethal sniffed again.
“But this? Am I supposed to lie down and take this? Really, Thomast?”
The man raised his voice. He looked around and then turned to his wife.
“Bethal Walchaís. I love you.”
She stopped. And stared at him. Thomast spoke only to her as he slowly drew the rapier on his right side. He stepped closer to her, and his voice was steady.
“I am not much of a man for words. I don’t know anything else but how to fence. And I am no master at that, just a student. But I do love you. If you go to war, I will be your sword. If you seek the stars, I will learn to fly. That is what I’ve always pledged.”
She looked at him, wide-eyed. She reached out, but Thomast held up a hand. He turned his head.
“Step back, Bethal. You six, come out.”
The [Lady] turned as he pointed with his rapier. The shadows on the road shifted. Six shapes appeared. One stood up, having crawled for a hundred feet in the grass. Another had slipped from shadow to shadow until he’d lain by the road’s side. Two more appeared, their enchantment broken. The last two were lying in the brushes, dozens of feet away. They rose as Thomast looked at them.
“Amateurs. Experts wouldn’t have revealed themselves. But they did wait until we were alone. It was my mistake. Stay behind me, Bethal.”
Thomast stepped in front of Bethal, facing the six [Assassins]. His rapier was held in one hand. The [Assassin] who’d crawled close spat. Two flint-colored eyes glared at Bethal and Thomast under a face wrapped by black cloth. He was dressed like an ordinary citizen, a traveller with worn clothes. But his face was wrapped. His identity concealed. The man’s voice was muffled as he glared at Thomast.
“Take him. He’s only a [Fencer] without a bell. He doesn’t—”
He gasped. The [Assassin] next to him leapt back with a shout. The first [Assassin] stumbled and stared down at the rapier that had run him through the chest. Thomast yanked the blade free and stepped back. He’d stepped six feet in a second, lunging forwards in a [Fencer]’s classic strike. He stepped backwards as the other five [Assassins] learned one of the cardinal rules of their craft: don’t make speeches.
Thomast flicked his blade and a flicker of wind blew along the enchanted metal. He calmly flicked the tip and the [Assassin] nearest him dodged the slash of air that cut towards her head with a curse. He nodded at the remaining five.
“The [Fencer]’s bell? You must have heard incorrectly. I don’t have one because it makes too much noise. My lady wife despises the sound. Now—”
He leapt again. But this time his thrust missed the second [Assassin], who screamed as she retreated.
Thomast broke off the lunge mid-strike and turned. Two arrows and three darts flickered at Bethal. She turned, lurching left, too slow. Thomast appeared in front of her. He slashed four times, so fast that she couldn’t see his blade move. But the wind and his sword cut down all five missiles mid-flight. Thomast slapped the mare’s flanks and then the stallion’s as the [Assassins] repositioned, shouting at each other.
“Deploy the spells!”
“Someone get in here! I can’t get close without—”
Bethal cried out. One of the [Assassins] was pointing a wand. Thomast flicked his rapier. Wind cut across the distance between them at the same time the [Assassin] fired the spell from her wand. Lightning shot across the air and exploded in the air as it struck the blade of wind Thomast had created. The [Assassin] cursed, reeling back—
This time, the blade spearing her through the chest withdrew in an instant. Thomast leapt backwards, rushing towards Bethal across the odd forty feet his Skill had taken him in a moment. The remaining four [Assassins] drew back silently. They looked at each other. One nodded slowly.
“We can do it. Stay back. Force him to use his Skills. Be ready to d—”
He ducked as a blade of wind passed over his head. The other three began throwing spells and weapons. Thomast whirled, cutting them down. And Lady Bethal watched.
This was the final scene. The drama in the middle of the road in the middle of nowhere. Four black killers, a [Chevalier], and a [Lady]. And while two had fallen, the rest refused to die as simply.
Four versus Thomast, and he had to guard Bethal at the same time. And these weren’t bandits, a horde of Goblins, or inexperienced enemies. They were [Assassins], fighting with poisoned darts, blowpipes, and magical items as well as their shortswords and daggers.
And they kept a distance. Thomast might have struck them down even so, or closed the distance in a moment, but they bombarded him with spells and weapons. He was a blur, cutting down arrows, slashing the air to make spells explode around Bethal. And he couldn’t reach them without abandoning her; the wind slashes he could make were all too easy to dodge.
And all Bethal could do was watch. Her hands were white-knuckled at her sides as she kept very still, at the center of the fighting, watching Thomast parry and pivot around her. She kept her aura up, but the [Aura of Thorns] only worked if someone struck at her. It penetrated flesh and blood. Not steel. Thomast struck down two more poisoned darts as he calmly stepped around her, guarding her from every side.
Bethal could see sweat running down the [Fencer]’s brow. He refused to slow, but she knew how hard it had to be. He was a [Fencer], trained to dueling, to solo battles, not to defend! And it was ten times harder to protect her and himself. Bethal wanted to tell him to break the stalemate, even if it meant risking her injury. But she dared not disturb his concentration.
Slowly, Bethal stared down at her right hand. She had a priceless ring, one of the treasures of House Walchaís on her index finger. It was far plainer than the wedding band on her ring finger, but it could deflect a number of attacks that came at her. But poison? Thomast had healing potions, and so did she. But some poisons could overwhelm even the best potion. So she hesitated. And then, within less than five minutes of the battle starting, it came to its finale.
Three of the [Assassins] stopped and shouted. Dozens of daggers filled the air as, from the other side, the [Assassin] with the bow shot one arrow. The third [Assassin] charged in, her shortsword flashing at Thomast’s chest. The [Chevalier] paused. And then he vanished.
Bethal heard a ringing sound. She saw the daggers flying at her, and then she saw Thomast. Striking down a dagger in front of her, parrying the charging [Assassin], running her through, knocking down a dagger to the side, slashing the arrow in half, turning with the force of the impact—in a dozen places at once! Teleporting from spot to spot, each time striking, in a moment—
[Flicker Onslaught]. A Skill for a Skill. The daggers crashed out of the sky. The [Assassin] screamed and died and the arrow meant for Bethal exploded in the air as time resumed. Thomast stopped, panting and whirled. Because he had been counting. So had Bethal. She saw the fourth [Assassin] appear in her shadow.
He was close. Too close. Thomast’s last step had carried him away. Now he lunged, but slow, too slow. The [Assassin] raised a dagger, mouth opened wide to scream a Skill—
And the scarecrow shot him through the head.
The man’s knees buckled. He collapsed as Thomast’s blade ran him through and the [Fencer] dove, blocking a blow meant for Bethal. But it never came. And as the [Assassin] collapsed, the two remaining [Assassins], Bethal, and Thomast looked around, trying to figure out what had happened. Then they saw the scarecrow.
There he was, standing in front of his field of corn. With a bow. The fake scarecrow raised his bow and put a second arrow into the air. The [Assassins] dodged out of reflex and Thomast got to his feet. The remaining two stared at the [Farmer]. One raised his hands, dropping his blade.
“No. Mercy. Please?”
He looked at the [Chevalier], turning to him with bloody blade in hand. Both he and his companion fled. They ran, one leaping from shadow to shadow, the other running as fast as any City Runner, his figure blurring.
Bethal shouted. Thomast leapt after both. She saw all three vanish for the second and heard a scream. Bethal stared at the two dead figures around her and stepped back. The one with an arrow in his head still held his poisoned dagger.
“Miss! Miss! Are you alright?”
Bethal turned. The scarecrow was waving at her. Bemused, she saw him run over. Then she saw how the [Farmer] had disguised herself and laughed. He wasn’t laughing. The man put an arrow in all four bodies on the ground as he checked the road. Only Bethal and Thomast’s horses were moving, trotting back and snorting, eyes wide. The scarecrow archer looked around.
“What—what were they? [Bandits]?”
“[Assassins]. Thank you for your help, sir.”
Bethal curtsied in her riding dress. The [Farmer] looked at her with wide eyes. Then he cursed and raised his bow. Someone was leaping towards them down the road. It was Thomast. His steps blurred him forwards, much like the [Flash Step] spell. The [Fencer] stopped, eying the [Farmer]. The scarecrow put down his bow.
“Thomast. Did you get them?”
The [Chevalier] shook his head.
“I caught one. The other one would have taken me too long. There might be more about.”
He reached for his side and wiped his blade on a handkerchief, then tossed it aside as he stared at the [Farmer]. The man stared at him, with awe as much as fear. Then at Bethal. The [Lady] was frowning, and in his opinion, far, far too composed after what had just happened.
“Do you think there might be more on the road back?”
“Or around us, waiting for me to lower my guard.”
Thomast nodded. He looked around warily. The [Farmer] hesitated, and then broke in, waving one hand.
“Not on my farm, sir. No one enters my fields, animal or person without my knowing it. Them six were the only ones about. And you two.”
Both Bethal and Thomast looked at him. Uncertainly, the [Farmer] waved at his farm.
“You’ll be safe there. At least, I’ll know when someone comes closer. Even a Level 40 [Thief] can’t hide on my lands. So long as we’re right on them. Come on. We can hide there and I can call for some help. Blow a horn, maybe—”
He was beckoning them towards his fields, eyes wide with fright. Bethal looked at Thomast. He raised his brows. Bethal looked the scarecrow archer, and then eyed his field of corn. She clapped her hands.
“Very well. What did you say your name was, sir [Farmer]?”
The man hesitated.
“Who? Me, Miss? Lupp.”
“So this is your farm? And you live here alone?”
Around fifteen minutes later, Lady Bethal was sitting on Lupp’s porch, eying his fields and home with interest. Thomast was silently staring at the one cow. Lupp was still shaking.
“That’s right, uh, uh, Lady Bethal. I live by myself. I’m a simple man, so forgive my rudeness.”
“You may call me Bethal. And I owe you a debt of gratitude, sir. Thomast might have been badly hurt, charms or not. You helped us and I will not forget that.”
The [Lady] gave Lupp a bright, beautiful smile. She was out of place in his normal, regular farm. But her presence was also soothing, so Lupp began to stop hyperventilating. He gestured at the black bodies lying on the road.
“You’re awfully calm, Lady—Miss Bethal. Is being attacked that normal to you?”
“More than you might think, sir. Assassins? Rare. But I’ve seen worse.”
The [Lady] turned her head to regard her husband. The [Farmer] licked his lips.
“I’ve seen worse too. But I’ve never actually seen an [Assassin] before. You hear stories—but sometimes I think they’re just stories. The Assassin’s Guild isn’t real, though, is it?”
“All too real. And all too mundane, I’m afraid. Thomast, stop bothering that cow. What do you think they were?”
Thomast turned his head. The two horses were calmly grazing nearby. The [Chevalier] sighed.
“They were amateurs. Good ones, but rookies. Probably the first tier or rank of recruits the Assassin’s Guild calls their own. They were well-armed, though, which means they were paid in advance. And quite a bit. They wouldn’t have been a problem if Sir Kerrig or Lady Welca were here.”
Bethal’s eyes narrowed.
“But I raced off. And if you hadn’t followed me, I would be dead. So someone planned this. The roses and [Assassins].”
Lupp stared from Bethal to Thomast with open mouth. This was all far, far too momentous for him. His head was spinning and he needed a lie down. He clutched his bow to his side as he stared at Thomast’s expensive rapier, which probably could have bought and sold his farm four times over.
“Begging your pardon, miss. But who are you? And who’s your uh, husband?”
He was rewarded for his guess with another smile from Bethal.
“I am Lady Bethal, Mister Lupp. As I said. And this is Thomast. Sir Thomast, if you like. But we’re just travellers. I regret disturbing your lovely farm. You said you manage it alone? And you grow corn?”
She pointed down at the field. Lupp nodded a few times.
“That’s right. Nonsfru’s best corn. Best corn for miles, really. Not that I’m biased, mind. I’ve never tasted better. But I’d say my field’s the finest. I have all these Skills, you see. But about those [Assassins]—”
“Really? The best around? Why don’t you sell to a city, then?”
Distracted, Lupp wrinkled his nose.
“And have to cart my corn in? Or hire someone to do the selling? When my wife was around, we’d do it sometimes. But it’s hard selling corn, even the best corn. These days I don’t bother. And the village loves my corn. Why not sell it to them?”
“Fair point. I want some. I’m hungry. Thomast, do you want corn?”
“I’m sending a signal to our [Knights], Bethal. They’re riding towards us as fast as they can, but they’ll be at least thirty minutes.”
The man replied calmly as he wrote on a little scroll he’d pulled out of his bag of holding. Lupp stared at the bag of holding. Bethal got to her feet.
“Well then. I’m having some.”
She walked down the hill from the house. Absently, as if he didn’t notice what he was doing, Thomast followed her, still writing. So Lupp did too. The cow and horses came along as well for solidarity.
“What huge plants!”
Bethal exclaimed as she stared up at the corn, which towered above her. Lupp decided to explain, because corn was the only thing in this world that made sense at the moment.
“Ah, that’s because of my Skill, Miss Bethal. I can control the quality of my plants. And I choose the best seeds. I don’t grow them any higher because the damn birds love them. But I’ve seen corn tall as sixty feet.”
Bethal turned to stare at Lupp.
“You must be joking, sir.”
He grinned, taking off his scarecrow’s hat.
“No, Miss. I’ve seen it myself. And corn can grow monstrously tall, even without a Skill helping it. To be fair, once they get any taller than these, they need scaffolding to hold them up. Or a bit of wind blows them right over. But that’s just for size. My corn’s got taste too!”
“So I see. Would you mind if I took this one?”
Bethal reached up. Lupp nodded and she plucked an ear off the stalk. She blinked at the weight and size of the corn, husked it, and sniffed.
“It smells good. Thomast, do you want a bite?”
He was still writing. Bethal sighed and took a bite. Her brows raised and she began chewing. Lupp stared at her.
“How good is it?”
He had confidence in his corn. But she was a [Lady]. Lupp waited. He got no response. Bethal slowly, methodically, and unapologetically cleaned the corn until there was not a single kernel left. Then she smiled.
“That was the finest corn I have ever eaten, I think! Thomast, you must try some. Mister Lupp wasn’t exaggerating!”
The [Farmer] looked delighted. Thomast looked up.
“Yes. Have some! Mister Lupp, how much for some corn?”
“Oh, oh, for free, of course. If it’s just an ear or two—”
Lupp found himself holding another ear of corn. And somehow, he found himself sitting back on his porch, chewing his favorite meal while Bethal and Thomast bit into theirs. The two sat together. Lupp kept staring at them, but Bethal was apparently ravenous, never mind that some corn got on her expensive riding dress. Thomast ate more slowly, but he left nothing behind either, save for the cob which he offered to his stallion. The horse gave him an affronted look, but ate it anyways.
Lady Bethal closed her eyes. Lupp still couldn’t take his eyes off the bodies in the road. He looked at Bethal and wondered what kind of a person could see death and not blink like that. And he saw her opened her eyes and give him much the same look.
“So you grow your corn here, Mister Lupp. Every day of the year you can. And you take this wonderful corn and you sell it to the local village. For what? A copper coin per ear of corn?”
“I couldn’t charge them that!”
The [Farmer] was horrified at the idea. He stared at the field and imagined what would happen if he charged that rate.
“That’s prices for the winter. It’s a copper for two, and a deal of one for three if they buy in bulk. That field’ll earn me…let’s see. Three or four per stalk. And I plant around six hundred. And I harvest twice a season. Sometimes three if I’m quick. So er, this field’ll earn me…”
He tried to do the math, his brow furrowing. Thomast’s lips moved. Bethal stared at the field.
“Six hundred crops of corn works out to six hundred pieces of copper if they all have three ears and you sell at your cheapest rate, Mister Lupp. At your best, if you assume half of your corn has three ears and half has four, seven hundred ears sold half at two per copper and half at three per copper earns you exactly eight hundred and seventy five copper coins.”
Lupp stared at Bethal. She went on, counting on her fingers.
“Let’s see. A silver coin is ten copper. And gold twenty silver. So this field is, in fact, worth around four gold coins, seven silver, and five copper. Does that sound right to you, Mister Lupp?”
The [Farmer] stared at Bethal. He frowned, bit his lip, and nodded.
“That’s…almost what I earned from last harvest. Of course, it goes up closer to winter. Down in the summer and fall with the other harvests…”
He flinched at the look in Bethal’s eye.
“You sell your corn for less than five gold coins, Mister Lupp?”
“I can live off five gold coins for months, Miss. Even with repairs and buying other things, it’s usually more than enough.”
The [Farmer] mumbled as he played with his hat. He was thinking of how much he actually spent. Arrows were expensive. A lot more expensive than corn, but it took work to make the shafts and tip them with iron. Bethal shook her head. She looked at her husband.
“Maybe it’s Reizmelt. The area is flatland and the soil is good. Farms were common. And Blaiseford has very rich soil thanks to the swamps. Even so. Mister Lupp, if you took your harvest into Reizmelt, you could and should charge two copper coins per ear of corn. For this quality, people might pay three. And if you put this before a [Lord] who had the appetite for corn—and many do enjoy it—you could sell an ear of corn for a silver coin apiece.”
Lupp choked on his own spit. Bethal patted him on the back. When the man had his voice back, he spluttered.
“I’d never have the—the stones to do that, Miss Bethal! Never. I don’t even go down to the village most weeks. Having to go to a city and charge prices like that—”
His stomach churned at the thought. Bethal nodded.
“Which is why the stomachs of the good folk of Nonsfru have profited immensely. As have any [Traders] who come by your farm. But you could be earning more, Mister Lupp.”
“I don’t need that much coin, Lady Bethal.”
“No. You don’t. But you might. If you fall sick. If you’d like to hire someone to help you harvest the crops. Or, perhaps, if you simply wanted to hire a [Hunter] to eradicate your crows.”
Bethal waved a hand at the fields. Sure enough, Lupp saw a flock circling. He cursed, but he was out of costume. Thomast glanced up and unsheathed his rapier. He thrust once, and after a second, a crow fell out of the sky in two pieces. The rest of the flock flew away. Lupp gaped at the man. Bethal smiled.
“Mister Lupp, you may not have much interest in a profit. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t avoid turning one. What if when you harvested this field, you agreed to sell your very delightful corn to me?”
“You, Lady Bethal? But would it be too much? Even supposing you fed your entire household…I suppose there might be hundreds in your service, come to think of it.”
Lupp eyed Bethal. She flashed him another smile.
“There are indeed. But I think I’d only keep some. The rest I’d put in storage and offer to a [Merchant] who caters to [Chefs] and other experts of cooking and good taste. I think I could get a silver piece for the corn. If not an entire piece, then certainly at least seven copper coins per ear or something equally pleasing. This is the best corn I have ever had. Would you let me take care of that?”
The [Farmer] stared at Bethal. He expected her to laugh, or tell him it was a joke, but she looked serious. Worse, she was holding a hand out.
“One harvest, Mister Lupp. And we can negotiate how much I take. But even if it I took half, which I would not, you would be ahead…”
She broke off as Thomast put a hand on her shoulder. The [Chevalier] glanced at Lupp and shook his head.
“You’re disturbing him, Bethal.”
Bethal blinked. Then she saw how pale Lupp had gotten. She stood up abruptly.
Lupp made a strangled sound.
“Why? Miss, no, [Lady]. It’s one thing for me to chase off a few [Assassins]. But you can walk into my farm and tell me I could earn twice, three times what I’ve ever earned? And you want me to sell to you? A [Lady]? Just like that?”
He stared up at Bethal. She looked uncomprehendingly at Thomast.
“Of course. Why would that be an issue?”
“Life isn’t that simple, Miss. Good fortune doesn’t just ride down like that.”
Lupp informed Bethal with all the authority he could muster. Bethal raised an eyebrow.
“In your experience, Mister Lupp?”
That silenced him. Thomast shook his head. He took Bethal’s shoulder.
“I think Mister Lupp needs a moment.”
He firmly pulled her back. Leaving Lupp together with his thoughts. He stared at Bethal and Thomast as they walked away. The [Lady] hissed at her husband.
“I nearly had talked him into it!”
“He was about to kick us both off his farm. Or run himself.”
Thomast gently chastised Bethal. She heard the tone in his voice and glared.
“Oh? And you think leaving him to sell his wonderful corn for a pittance is fair? Isn’t that the best corn you’ve had?”
“It is good. He must either be Level 30 or have a very specialized number of Skills. Probably both. And that’s probably why he has such a small field.”
Thomast picked some corn out from his teeth. Bethal tossed her head.
“Obviously. So why stop me?”
“Because you frightened him. This isn’t like the horses, Bethal. You can’t order him to give you all the corn he produces and make him rich.”
“Richer. Hardly rich.”
“Even so. It’s terrifying for him. And how could he trust you? He may have never seen a [Lady] before in his life. And you come into his life after leaving four people dead in front of his farm and make him the best offer of his life. Isn’t that frightening?”
Bethal thought about this. She hesitated and stared towards the road.
“I see your point. But his corn is delicious. And I’ve discovered him. Why shouldn’t I make him an offer that benefits both of us? That’s what the nobility does, Thomast.”
He didn’t reply. Bethal scowled.
“Oh, we fight. And send each other black roses. But our duty is to our lands. So we spend our gold and time and even our soldiers to benefit ourselves and our people. If a [Lady] is poor, she enriches only herself. But I don’t. And what I focus on prospers. Or is House Walchaís’ famous stock of horses not proof of that?”
“You told me you spent a fortune on horses on a whim when you were younger. It took you two decades to turn it into a profit.”
“Well, it worked, didn’t it?”
“Go slowly, Bethal.”
“I can be slow. I just think that—”
The couple turned. [Farmer] Lupp had approached them, hat in hands. Deferentially, he bowed. Bethal scowled.
“Stop that. Don’t bow. I told you, call me Bethal.”
He stared at her. Then he awkwardly ducked his head.
“I beg your pardon, Bethal. But if you were serious, I would take you up on your offer. It sounds like a dream, but…seven copper pieces for an ear of corn? I’d be a rich man. And even if I don’t use it, I do have my old age to think about. I’m nearly there myself. And my daughter’s a [Shoemaker]. Not high-level. But if she had the right materials and a bigger shop, she might make something big of herself. So if you’d be willing, I’d take any deal you’d offer me. I can have this corn all harvested in two days. One if need be.”
Bethal cast a triumphant glance at her husband. He looked resigned as she turned back to Lupp with a huge smile.
“No need to hurry, Mister Lupp. We have to return to Reizmelt, and then our estates, I fear. But I promise you I will send a Runner in…say, three days? And I will have a contract with the Merchant’s Guild at that time.”
“I would be greatly honored if you did that, Miss Bethal.”
Lupp ducked his head, looking relieved. Shocked, still; you could see it on his face. Bethal had happily overturned his life in a second. And both she and Thomast saw it.
A moment of regret passed between the two. Bethal’s smile faded. She looked around at the quiet farm and the bodies on the road. She stared at them, and shook her head. Then, quietly, she turned back to Lupp.
“I am sorry for disturbing your farm, Mister Lupp. But I keep my word. And if nothing else, your corn was the best I ever tasted. And my word is on that.”
She smiled. And Lupp managed one of his own.
“That’s all I wanted to hear, Bethal.”
She laughed in delight. And then she dug in her belt pouch.
“Fields of gold indeed. Well, let’s call this an advance. I expect to earn it back. So you can take this—”
Lupp glanced down. His eyes went round. He stared at the small pile of gold winking up at him. Actual gold, not corn. He looked at Bethal.
“—and you can use it to hire someone to help you if need be. Or at least hunt down those wretched crows. And if you were to expand your field, I could—Mister Lupp? Mister Lupp?”
The [Farmer] quietly, and without a word toppled over. Thomast caught him before he hit the ground. He checked Lupp’s breathing, and then stared at his wife. Bethal had the grace to blush.
The pair of [Knights] in pink armor who galloped into Lupp’s farm found Bethal offering the man a stamina potion as he sat weakly on his porch. They galloped up the incline, weapons drawn, scanning for enemies. Lupp stared at the two [Knights] in their pink, pink armor and nearly fainted again. Bethal scowled at Sir Kerrig and Lady Welca.
“Enough of that! Can’t you see you’re scaring [Farmer] Lupp? Have the decency to show some decorum. The [Assassins] are long gone regardless.”
Lupp stared as the two sheepish [Knights] dismounted. Sir Kerrig immediately knelt.
“Lady Walchaís, I regret not being here myself—”
“Thomast was. And Mister Lupp. They were quite enough and I raced off. You did your job. Stop apologizing and help Thomast get rid of the bodies.”
Bethal ushered the two [Knights] towards the road. Lupp stared at the pair as he sat back.
“I thought it was an underused color in [Knight] heraldry. Those are my Knights of the Petal. I have very few of them compared to some [Knight] orders, but I am pleased to say they fall behind few on Izril.”
Bethal informed the [Farmer] pleasantly. He stared at her. Then he went back to staring at his corn. He tried to focus on his field and ignore the [Knights] digging some shallow graves with the [Chevalier] across the road.
A quiet voice eventually made both Bethal and Mister Lupp look up. A somewhat dirty young woman in pink armor bowed to Lady Bethal. The [Lady] stood up.
“Welca. Did you find out who sent the roses?”
Welca Vis looked nervous and unhappy.
“Yes, milady. They all came from their senders. The Guild confirmed it. One of the Runners was even approached by a [Knight] on the road. All of them are genuine.”
Bethal’s smile faded a bit. Her eyes flashed as she recalled the very reason she’d come out this far.
“I see. In that case, I think some action is appropriate, don’t you?”
She caught the look in Welca’s eye and sighed.
“No beheadings. Thomast was very clear on that. And I have to agree. I splendidly walked into one trap.”
She indicated the road, now clear of bodies. Thomast and Sir Kerrig trotted up the slope and the impromptu war council was joined in front of Farmer Lupp’s porch. No one wanted more corn; the grave dirt somewhat cut down on Kerrig and Welca’s appetite.
“So, they are genuine. I knew it. And I told you, Thomast.”
“You did. But you needed to be calm to hear it, Bethal.”
Thomast calmly sat next to his wife. Bethal sighed, vexed.
“I suppose so. But it doesn’t change my feelings. They will pay. An insult must be repaid, whether to a [Lady] or [Farmer]. Don’t you agree, Mister Lupp?”
“The first thing we should do is inform Magnolia. The other [Ladies] of her circle might be in danger as well.”
Thomast smoothed his mustache. Bethal sighed.
“If they were attacked, it is far too late for that. Magnolia knows by now, I’m sure.”
Lupp leaned over to Sir Kerrig and whispered.
“Is that Lady Magnolia Reinhart that Miss Bethal’s talking about? The Magnolia?”
The [Knight] nodded, watching Bethal and Thomast. Lupp had to take a walk to calm down. Bethal frowned.
“I don’t care about Magnolia’s game. Let her sort it out. If one of us is dead, there will be blood, Thomast. I’m only concerned with what I am going to do. And my estates. They should be warned.”
The [Chevalier] nodded.
“True. A [Message] spell would be swiftest.”
“Not if I want to mobilize the Knights of the Petal. They won’t answer to [Messages]. And rightly so, if this is some kind of intrigue with [Assassins]. I suppose we must hurry to Invrisil or pray there’s a Courier capable of delivering my message. Reizmelt doesn’t have a Courier, do they?”
Bethal looked hopelessly at her [Knights], both of whom shook their head. Welca raised an armored hand.
“Lady Bethal, give me leave and I will deliver the [Message] to my peers myself. I can make the ride.”
“And leave Lady Walchaís undefended a second time?”
Sir Kerrig glanced at Welca. She flushed and lowered her hand. Bethal studied Welca thoughtfully.
“I only need one [Knight]. Plus Thomast. As long as one of you shields me, Thomast can kill anyone quite easily. We could send Welca. What do you think, Thomast? Thomast?”
The [Chevalier] was studying the skies. He looked down.
“I would rather send Sir Kerrig to fulfill a task, Bethal. We can ride back ourselves. It will take an hour or two, but we won’t lose much time either way.”
“Really? What do you want Sir Kerrig to do?”
Bethal frowned. Thomast raised an eyebrow.
“Send a message himself. I’ll tell you on the road. But we should be moving if we intend to return to Walchaís lands before dark.”
“Very well. So much for a vacation.”
Bethal stood up in disgust. The two Rose Knights were already on their feet and fetching the horses. Bethal and Thomast said goodbye to Lupp as he stood by his field of corn. The [Farmer] gripped Bethal’s hand lightly, sure that this was all some sort of dream. But her smile told him it was real.
“Goodbye, Mister Lupp. I’m afraid we must fly. Tell me, do you know if Reizmelt has a Courier? Otherwise we’ll be riding west as fast as we can.”
Thomast was talking to Sir Kerrig. The [Knight] nodded and mounted up. He galloped east as Welca held the reins of Bethal’s mare. Lupp blinked at Bethal.
“Reizmelt? No Couriers there, Miss. Some pass by of course, but unless you call for one, there won’t be any.”
“A pity. I won’t wait hours when we could be back quicker ourselves. We’ll be slower. Far slower if we need to avoid any more [Assassins] on the road. It might not matter.”
Bethal sighed exasperatedly. Lupp blinked at Bethal. Then his eyes widened.
“If it’s speed you need, Miss Bethal—I do know of one City Runner who might fit.”
“Really? Are they good?”
The [Lady] raised her brows. The [Farmer] ducked his head.
“I don’t know, Miss. I’ve never seen her, except for a few seconds as she left. But they do call her the Wind Runner…”
And thus the play came full circle.
Ryoka Griffin held still. Very still, to control the beating of her heart as she stood in front of Lady Bethal Walchaís. She was taller than the woman, but Lady Bethal somehow felt at equal or greater height. The woman peered at Ryoka and frowned.
“So this is Reizmelt’s best City Runner?”
She stared at Ryoka’s feet. The young woman was instantly embarrassed. She stared at the young woman in pink armor standing behind Bethal instead. Lady Welca Vis? So she was a [Lady] and a [Knight]? There was also the silent [Chevalier], Sir Thomast, who was giving Ryoka an inspection as well. But the older [Knight], Sir Kerrig, was gone.
Ryoka didn’t know what had happened, but she could piece together the clues. Sir Kerrig and Lady Welca had taken the Runners back to the guild and interrogated the [Receptionist] at length about the origin of the black roses. She had just confirmed that all of them were indeed sent by each group that had been represented—an arduous process that had taken nearly an hour in itself and left the Runners cooling their heels and talking anxiously—when news had come in like thunder.
From the [Mage]’s Guild. There had been multiple attacks by [Assassins] on a number of [Ladies]. All in public, and all affiliated with Lady Magnolia. That had been enough to make everyone in the Runner’s Guild wonder if there was a war starting between the nobility. But the two Rose Knights had taken off like bolts of lightning once Sir Kerrig got a [Message] spell on the little scroll he carried. No guesses why.
Neither Welca nor Sir Thomast looked like they’d just killed someone. Okay, maybe Welca did. But Ryoka couldn’t help but feel a prickle as she stared at Thomast’s blade. Why else would the [Knights] have rushed off? And where was Sir Kerrig?
And why had Lady Bethal immediately gone to the Runner’s Guild on returning to Reizmelt, nearly an hour later and demanded to see Ryoka of all people? It was a mystery. But Ryoka thought at least one piece was about to be unraveled now. If only Bethal would stop staring.
“You run with bare feet? Don’t you get thorns or rocks in your soles?”
The [Lady] wrinkled her nose as she pointed at Ryoka’s feet. The City Runner stared at her.
“I uh, have calluses. Lady Bethal.”
The [Lady] stared at her.
“And those help? What about nails?”
“I try to avoid those.”
“Ah. Tell me, Miss Ryoka Griffin. Are you fast? How many movement Skills do you have?”
“Uh—I have three. But none of them help me run faster. Just longer. My speed’s at a City Runner’s level.”
“I see. And how about your defenses? Could you outrun, say [Bandits] on horseback?”
Ryoka’s pulse picked up. She tried to answer carefully.
“No. But I could deter them. Or lose them. I have Tripvine Bags, potions, and these—”
She reached into her bag of holding. Welca tensed and Bethal held up a hand.
Ryoka pulled out a caltrop. Bethal eyed it.
“That is a nasty weapon. Do you throw it?”
“Sometimes. But I can drop them and they’ll slow horses. I’m banned from using them unless my life is in danger. And they are a hazard.”
“You could certainly inconvenience a road with them. And they’re fairly pointy. Ouch.”
Bethal poked her finger idly on the caltrop. She shook her head.
“What about [Mages]? High-level enemies?”
“I…have a wind Skill that I can use to blow a dust cloud, Lady Bethal. I’ve outrun [Bandits] before and survived an ambush on one occasion.”
“Hmm. Can you block lightning?”
“I…haven’t had to deal with that. There was a Lich that I managed to avoid one time.”
“I see. I see…Thomast?”
Bethal glanced up. The [Chevalier] was frowning. His arms were folded. He was glancing at Alime. The [Receptionist] was half-hiding behind her counter, staring at the noble guests with wide eyes; besides Ryoka, Lady Bethal’s entourage and Alime, the Runner’s Guild had been cleared out. Ryoka could see some of her fellow Runners furtively peeking in from outside.
“I don’t think she’s fit for the job, Bethal.”
Thomast answered at last. Ryoka’s stomach sank. The [Chevalier] eyed her.
“With respect of Miss Griffin—she’s no Courier. It would be dangerous to risk a City Runner. She could lose her life, and if she’s intercepted, the message could be disastrous for us.”
“That was my thought. Alas, we’ve wasted a few minutes. We’ll have to go back on horseback. Oh well. Mister Lupp can’t be full of good ideas all the times, it seems.”
Bethal clicked her fingers exasperatedly. Ryoka stared at her. Did she just say Lupp? No, that had to be a coincidence. The young woman saw Bethal turn, and realized her opportunity was slipping away. She raised her voice hurriedly.
“I can do it.”
Bethal turned back to Ryoka skeptically. The Asian girl took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry. I don’t know what the request is. But if you’re looking for a qualified City Runner—I might not have the speed of a Courier, but I have never failed a delivery. And I have outrun monsters. I’ve run the High Passes before.”
Thomast’s head turned back to Ryoka. Bethal blinked.
“You have? How far in?”
“Not far. But I completed my delivery. And I’ve done emergency deliveries for adventuring teams.”
“Silver. I’ve never been requested at Gold-rank or higher.”
Bethal exchanged a look with her husband. He frowned and gave her a covert shake of the head. Lady Walchaís sighed.
“If it were just your life, I might give you a chance Miss Griffin. But this message must be delivered without fail. I’d risk the consequences of it arriving too late, rather than having my words subverted. And if you are caught? You will most likely be killed and the damage will spread to my lands.”
She spread her hands. Ryoka’s heart sank. She nodded slowly.
“Very well. Welca? The horses. We’ll press onwards as Thomast sees fit.”
Bethal sighed and waved a hand. The female [Knight] tromped towards the doors. As she opened them, Ryoka heard some excited shouts. Which surprised her; the City Runners and people of Reizmelt were already backing up from the fearsome Lady Bethal. But someone was calling out with an excited voice.
“Miss [Knight]! Miss [Knight]!”
“Did you kill any [Assassins]? Is it true they have a Guild?”
“Is [Lady] Bethal a real lady? Is she really going to cut off the heads of other nobles?”
“Are you going to hire the Wind Runner?”
Welca stopped, looking affronted. Bethal’s head turned towards the door. And Ryoka recognized the voices as she saw the tiny bodies hopping up and down.
Children. They were as immune to the fear of Lady Bethal’s class as they were to Welca’s scowl. The [Knight] ushered them back from the horses. Lady Bethal walked outside. The children stared at her. They oohed as Thomast followed her. He blinked at them. One of the children pointed at his side.
“Did you kill them all with your rapier?”
He didn’t respond. Bethal smiled as she accepted the reins of her mare. Ryoka walked out of the guild, feeling sheepish. To her great chagrin, the children grew even more excited when they saw her than when Bethal had come out.
“Wind Runner! Wind Runner!”
“Are you going to deliver a message?”
“Blow us about! Conjure the wind, Miss Ryoka!”
They swarmed her. Ryoka turned red as Bethal glanced down from horseback. The [Lady] pursed her lips and called down to Ryoka.
“The Wind Runner? The [Farmer] said the same thing. What does that mean?”
“I can call the wind, Lady Bethal. It helps me out. It’s…just a nickname.”
Ryoka coughed and shuffled her feet. The children piped up.
“She can do more than that! She nearly blew me off my feet!”
“And she killed Wailer Frogs with the wind!”
Intrigued, Bethal looked down as Ryoka tried to hush the children. She glanced at her husband. Thomast sighed.
“If she can do that, maybe, Thomast. Miss Ryoka. Show me. Prove it.”
Bethal turned back to Ryoka. The young woman blinked up at her.
“Show you what? The wind?”
The [Lady] raised a delicate eyebrow.
“At the very least. Show me your Skill. Or magic, or whatever it may be. I won’t send a City Runner to her death. But if you can do something out of the ordinary…”
She glanced around the windless, empty street skeptically. Ryoka stared at her. And then she shrugged.
“What kind of wind would you like?”
“If you have to conjure it. Anything, Miss Griffin. I just want to see something, even if it only ruffles my hair—”
Bethal’s voice cut off. She frowned at her hair, blowing across her face. She stared at Ryoka.
“Well. I suppose that is possible. But can you make a larger breeze? Something—”
She blinked. Now her riding dress was ruffling. Bethal smoothed the dress as the children around her laughed and clapped their hands.
“And is that it?”
Ryoka wiped at her forehead.
“It’s something. That’s control, Miss Walchaís. If you want a gust, I can do something stronger. But I’d have to include more than just you.”
“More than just me? What do you—”
Bethal looked around. And then she saw it. The wind was blowing her hair. And her dress. Her horse’s mane blew in the wind. But Sir Thomast, standing next to her was unruffled. His clothes didn’t move an inch. And neither did Welca. The children on the street were running about, begging Ryoka for a breeze.
And on the street, the air was silent. The Runners and people of Reizmelt looked up. Lady Bethal sat in a small cyclone of wind. She looked through it at Ryoka. The City Runner’s eyebrow was raised. Ryoka grinned.
Uh oh. She’s going to kill me.
She waited for Bethal to explode in fury like before. But the [Lady] just blinked at the wind. And then she laughed. And her laughter was carried away on the breeze.
“Well! Can you show me a gust, then, Wind Runner?”
The air quieted. And then the wind blew harder. The children laughed and some sailed down the street with their cloth sails. The adults shielded their faces and the horses tossed their heads. Bethal blinked as a gust swept towards her. The wind blew past Bethal and Thomast, whipping at her hair. The [Chevalier] looked up and shifted, sheltering his wife from the breeze. And the wind blew harder still. Lady Bethal shielded her face. One of the Runners lost his balance and slipped, catching himself in the wind.
And Ryoka held still in the street. The air howled around her, but she called on it. She dared the wind to blow, to whip Bethal’s hair across her face. She dared because not daring would have been pathetic. She had one chance. And when she saw Bethal raise a palm, Ryoka asked the wind to stop.
And it was still. Reizmelt’s street was eerily silent in the sudden absence of the wind. Bethal looked at Thomast. He raised his brows. The [Lady] turned to Ryoka. And she nodded.
“Give it to her, Thomast.”
The woman gave Thomast a flat look.
“Today I met a [Farmer] and tasted the best corn of my life. Today I was called a coward by my peers. One more chance seems worthwhile. Do it, please. It’s not as if you don’t have another.”
Thomast sighed. But he dismounted and walked over to Ryoka. She stared up at him. He bent.
“Miss Griffin. This is your proof. Do not lose it. Your destination is the grandmaster of the Knights of the Petal. Sir Nathald. And here is your message.”
He bent his head to whisper. And the world went silent around Ryoka for a second. Sound returned as Thomast stepped back. Ryoka blinked, wide-eyed. Then she schooled her face.
“I have it word-for-word.”
Lady Bethal laughed.
“In that case, your destination is west. We’re heading there ourselves. But each hour you gain on us is another hour that may matter. So.”
She pointed towards Reizmelt’s western gates as Thomast mounted up. Lady Bethal pointed. And her voice rang across the street.
“Go! Show me what you can do, Wind Runner! Run and let no one stop you.”
She gestured. Ryoka bowed. She bent, and adopted a sprinter’s crouch. But she didn’t take off. As Lady Bethal frowned, the wind blew again. The [Lady] looked up and then down. Ryoka was reaching for her belt pouch. She drew something small and blue, a faint statue and grasped it in her right hand.
“Well. I’m no expert. But you said it just happens. So here I go, Ivolethe.”
The young woman looked up at the sky. The ice was cold in her hand. Ryoka took a deep breath, and then another. The wind picked up and blew harder as Bethal urged her mount back. She leaned against her husband, who drew a riding cloak around her. Ryoka held still, staring upwards.
She would never have another chance like this. Maybe there would be more important deliveries. Maybe riskier ones. But this was the first run of this kind she had done. One where people might stop her, where important decisions rested on her shoulders. She had run before, to save lives. And this was different from that.
But no less important. Ryoka looked at Bethal. The client wanted her to be as fast and as true as possible. So Ryoka clutched the ice until it felt like the cold was burning her skin. She stared up at the sky as the wind blew harder. Runners shaded their faces and the children shouted and clutched at pieces of cloth, blowing down the street.
The [Guards] on the gates of Reizmelt held their ground, swearing, and the citizens covered their faces and retreated to the shelter of stone as the wind whipped at them, sending grit and debris into the air. And still, Ryoka waited.
“Come on. Is that all? Blow, winds. Let’s show them what magic means.”
And the winds blew. They picked up, stronger and stronger. Bethal shielded her face, laughing with delight. And Ryoka stared up, as the wind grabbed at her, pushing at her back, urging her to run. But she held her ground. Waiting. Waiting until she could fly.
And then she felt it. And she took off. Racing past the startled horses as Lady Bethal’s mare reared. Past the children, sailing across the street and calling her name. Past Runners who took off, trying to race her and falling behind. Faster, faster—
They were waiting for her. A group of [Mercenaries]. And, a band of adventurers. And they were led by one very upset, very unprofessional [Assassin]. But they were still here, waiting to fall upon the City Runner when she emerged from the city.
No one was happy about it. Not the [Mercenaries], who swore up and down that they wouldn’t risk a confrontation with House Walchaís or her Knights of the Petal—just the City Runner. Not the [Assassin], whose only goal was vengeance and to strike a blow against Bethal Walchaís and her husband, however small. And least of all the adventurers.
One of them edged closer to her leader. Tally, the [Ranger], hissed at their Captain, a [Fire Mage] who’d been all too quick to take the black-clad stranger’s gold in her opinion. She’d done shady things as an adventurer, but this crossed a line. She soothed the team’s war hound by scratching the dog behind the ears while she hissed at him.
“Levi, this is insane. Are you completely mad? We’re going to sully our name, taking this contract. And what if it’s someone we know?”
The [Fire Mage] rubbed his hands, absently sending a few sparks falling to the ground. He was nervous. But Tally wouldn’t shut up.
“Have you seen our employer? This isn’t a contract, Levi. I’m not even sure if that shady fellow’s legitimate. His gold’s real, but is he really an [Assassin] from the Assassin’s Guild or a faker?”
She nodded at the shrouded figure arguing with the [Mercenary Captain] opposite them. Levi turned and sighed. Then he hissed at Tally.
“Would you shut up? I know what I’m doing! Just watch the gates, will you?”
“I won’t! We’re the Pithfire Hounds, not mercs or murderers! Either pull out of the deal or I’m walking and so’s the team! We’re not killing an innocent City Runner, no matter if it is Lady Bethal Walchaís or whatever who’s sending the message! That’s politics! We’re not for the Reinharts or against them or anything!”
Tally’s stomach twisted at the thought. They weren’t nearly high level enough to play at politics in Izril. Levi just glared at her.
“Are you deaf? Didn’t you hear what that [Assassin] said? Lady Bethal’s at the Runner’s Guild. So she wants to send a message fast. By Runner, since [Message] spells can be faked or intercepted.”
Tally gave Levi a blank look. The [Pyromancer] growled, and their war dog, Makki, growled as well.
“So she’s going to hire the best Runner in the city. And Reizmelt has no Couriers. Who’s the best City Runner in Reizmelt, then?”
The [Ranger]’s eyes widened.
“You don’t mean—oh. But why are we—”
“We’re aiming left. Wait for my signal. Why do you think everyone else isn’t giving me grief? They’ve figured it out!”
Levil hissed back. Tally turned bright red. She looked at her teammates. Keima rolled her eyes. Lamont, Bran, Ullica…they were checking their weapons. Levil met their eyes and nodded.
As one, the Pithfire Hounds looked left. The [Mercenary] band glanced up. One of them eyed the war dog uneasily from his mount.
“You lot ready? We need to hit whoever’s coming out fast.”
“Don’t worry about us. We’re fast. And we’re ready.”
Levil conjured an orb of fire. The [Mercenary] nodded shortly. He glanced up at the Pithfire Hounds as the adventurers casually glanced at the city. Now Tally was picking out a target. Levil nudged her.
“Stop being obvious.”
“I’m sorry, do you want me to help or not?”
“If you weren’t so bad at hiding things, I wouldn’t have to keep anything from you. Which is rich, because you’re our [Ranger]!”
“Bite him, Makki.”
The dog sniffed the air. Then she howled. The [Mercenaries], Pithfire Hounds, and lone [Assassin] looked. Up. Levil stared at Reizmelt. Then he glanced up.
“The wind’s gone flat.”
“What is that?”
The [Fire Mage]’s head snapped back down. His eyes widened. Someone was coming out of the gates of the city.
“That’s the City Runner! Get her!”
The [Assassin]’s voice cracked with fury. The [Mercenaries] mounted up in an instant. Three were on horseback, four on foot. Two [Mages]. Just like the Pithfire Hounds. Levi held up a hand as his team tensed.
“Wait for it—”
The three [Mercenaries] on horseback came down the slope with shouts. One had a bow. Levil began to swing his hand down. Then he saw the figure racing out of Reizmelt’s gates disappear. Something billowed up around her. Levil stared as the [Mercenaries] pulled up their horses uncertainly. Tally blinked.
It was sand. Dirt and sand, being picked up from the road. From Ryoka’s bag. It blew upwards. And Levil saw a familiar shape emerge.
A billowing dust cloud, a hundred paces high blew across the road. It raced across the earth, a vortex of sand and dust and debris. It whirled, a miniature twister. Just like the one that had saved his team. But as the [Fire Mage] watched, he noticed one key difference.
“She’s in it.”
The whirlwind blew down the road. But the City Runner did not emerge from it, or run behind it. She was in the vortex. And the [Mercenaries] on horseback drew up, reluctant to even go near the dust.
“It’s just sand! Get in there! Kill the Runner!”
The [Assassin] bellowed, losing his cool. The [Mercenary Captain] shook his head. he pointed a staff towards the whirlwind.
“We’ll never catch her with horses. They’ll go blind a hundred paces out. Net spells. I’ll throw a fireball straight down the tornado. You, adventurers, help us—”
Levil turned. He pointed a wand left and spoke a word.
The [Mercenary Captain]’s eyes widened in horror. He raised his staff, but it was too late. The bloom of fire blasted towards Levil and he felt the rush of heat. Makki raced forwards, barking, and the three [Mercenaries] on horseback turned.
“Pithfire Hounds, forwards! Take them out!”
Keima, Lamont, and Ullica charged. The [Assassin] leapt out of the ashes, cursing. He raised a trembling shortsword.
“You dirty adv—”
Tally’s arrow sprouted from his stomach. He grabbed the arrow and Levil blasted him with fire. The [Assassin] fell backwards and Levil turned. The dust cloud was racing west. He saluted it, then joined his team.
“Part favor repaid. But mostly profit. Good luck, Wind Runner.”
The Pithfire Hounds closed on the remaining [Mercenaries]. And the wind blew west. At her desk, Alime, the [Receptionist] stared at the cloud over the roofs of the city. She could see it, even through the window. Shakily, she looked around. Then she snapped at one of the other [Receptionists] on duty.
“Time it. Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner, left Reizmelt at half past noon. Tell the Adventurer’s Guild in Walta to time her arrival. This run’s going to define her. Tell them to expect her. And tell them—here comes Reizmelt’s Wind Runner.”
It wasn’t a simple run. And it wasn’t quick, either. And each step was blowing wind. As the dust picked up, Ryoka ran through a cloud of sand and grit. She could see ahead of her—barely ten feet. So she followed the road. She followed her instincts. And the whirling dust around her cleared and shifted as the first minute became an hour.
Her lungs burned. Her arms pumped. And Ryoka ran. She didn’t pace herself. She didn’t slow down. She just kept the same, furious pace she’d started with. As if she could keep it up forever. And for the first hour, she could. The blowing wind, the urgency of her task, Lady Bethal’s daring, it kept her going.
But then she faltered. Ryoka slowed, going from signpost to signpost. The dust dropped out of the air. She looked around wildly as the wind slowed. Pursuers? Ambushes?
She had no idea. She couldn’t slow. But an hour in and Ryoka had blown through her reserves. If this was a marathon or a race—and it was—she was overtaxed. In her world, she would have been a fool.
“In my world.”
Ryoka spat as she checked the signpost again. She grabbed a potion from her belt and downed it as she ran left, down the main road for Walta. The stamina potion burned its way down her throat. And suddenly, Ryoka felt more energy burning from her legs. She took a breath and ran.
The wind picked back up. A procession of wagons on the road halted and the drivers cursed. But the dust cloud had emerged once again and nothing could stop Ryoka. She ran. But her reinvigorated body could only go so far. After ten minutes, she began to flag.
Healing potion. This time her aching bare feet healed after a single mouthful. Her legs felt strong again. Ryoka picked up her pace. And time stretched on.
No pacing. No slowing from that mad run. Stamina potion again, the instant Ryoka felt her pace slow. And then another healing potion. The shots of energy and relief ran through her like the strongest energy drink. So much concentrated energy it felt like poison.
Which it was.
The second hour was no better than the first. The third hurt worst of all. By the fourth, Ryoka had stopped processing the trauma. Her body was healing, refilling itself with energy. Now she felt like more machine than person. She drank down the last drop of her stamina potion.
She was running as fast as she could, in the center of the vortex of sand. It had blown out twice, but the winds faithfully picked up the grit Ryoka poured out of her bag of holding. And Ryoka was still running.
Sprinting, racing across the ground. As fast as she had ever run.
The fourth empty bottle hit the ground as Ryoka dropped it, heedless of littering. She felt the rush of energy pour through her limbs and she picked up the pace again, as if she had just begun running. Not started four hours ago. And she was getting close.
Ryoka gasped. The sand cleared from the wind, allowing her to see ahead of herself. She knew where to go. The signs told her she was getting closer to Walta. But she still had far to go.
And she was flagging. The third stamina bottle shook in Ryoka’s grip. Her entire body was shaking. And when she finally forced the liquid down her throat, it burned and hurt. Ryoka felt sick. But she couldn’t stop. If she stopped, she’d collapse.
The potions hurt now. As bad as mana potion sickness. But she was closer. Ryoka could feel it. The winds were at her back, propelling her forwards. She didn’t have the strength for the dust cloud. Or—or was it that the winds sensed her weakening spirit? Either way, they had slackened.
But they still blew. And she still ran. Her feet were cut up. Ryoka took a mouthful of healing potion and threw up as she ran. Too many potions. She gulped down one last mouthful and ran. Fast—as fast as—
If you can’t run faster, even with magic, what’s the point?
A laughing, running demon was urging her onwards. He was a black shadow against the tunnel of Ryoka’s vision. She chased him across a field, across roads, around large wagons and shouting voices. Hands dragged at her. Horses raced past her. They wanted to drag her down. But the wind blew, and no one touched her.
Fast. Faster. So many potions. Ryoka threw one behind her. She didn’t know if she’d drunk it or not. Or if she’d even opened it. Had it been full? She staggered.
The ground was harder. Not dirt anymore. Ryoka looked around. Something—a bright blue shape beckoned her right. And ahead. Ryoka ran after it, as fast as she could.
The tunnel was getting longer. The darkness more profound. Ryoka paused to throw up on a rock. The rock moved, shouted, and kicked at her. She staggered.
“What the hell are you—what kind of trash Street Runner are you?”
The rock turned into a person. A staring Centaur. A Centaur. Ryoka focused on her as she wiped her mouth. The Centaur was standing and pointing at her filthy leg. Ryoka leaned on her.
“Sorry. Where am I?”
“Walta’s Runner’s Guild! You just came in here and—hey! HEY!”
Ryoka pushed past the Centaur Runner. Centaur Runner? The desk swam in front of her. She saw a woman rising behind it.
“That’s me. I haven’t run in a circle, have I? Alime?”
Ryoka glanced around. The guild looked so familiar. The [Receptionist] shook her head.
“I’m not Alime. You’ve been running for hours. You outran three ambush parties.”
“I did? I didn’t even notice them. I—I have a delivery. For the Grandmaster of the Petal Knights. Sir Nathald.”
“I know. He’s on his way. You’re sick. Miss Griffin. How many potions did you take?”
Ryoka heard a mutter. The woman turned to a patch of darkness on Ryoka’s left, and then to her.
“Healing and stamina?”
“Help her throw up.”
“I’m fine. I did—”
Ryoka felt an unfriendly finger in her throat. She gagged. And then she did throw up. The world hazed out, and then stopped being so dark. Someone was offering her something. Ryoka tasted water. The [Receptionist] was bending over her when Ryoka looked up.
“The [Knights] are here for you, Miss Griffin.”
The young woman just wanted to lie on the ground. But somehow, that got her up. She clutched her side, the bag of holding she’d refused to let anyone touch.
“Okay. I have it right here. I’m—”
She got up with someone’s help. The [Receptionist] pulled Ryoka to her feet with the angry Centaur. She pushed Ryoka to a group of pink people.
“One more thing. Miss Griffin. You just ran seventy nine miles in less than five and a half hours. And that’s as the bird flies. You’ve passed the qualifying speed for a Courier.”
Ryoka blinked at the woman. She turned and staggered past her.
“I had help. The wind’s with me.”
The arm holding her snorted. The half-horse girl dragged Ryoka forwards, her hooves clopping on the ground.
“Centaurs are faster. This one’s half-dead.”
“She outran three ambush parties. The first is wiped out. The other two never even caught her—”
“I never even saw…”
Ryoka blinked and stopped. Her vision swam clearer. A group of pink…[Knights] were assembled in front of her. Two dozen. A man with a grey beard and hair removed his helmet.
“Miss Ryoka Griffin?”
“That’s me. Who’re you?”
“Sir Nathald. We were told to expect you. You have a [Message] of utmost importance for us. Do you have proof of Lady Walchaís’ authority?”
Ryoka blinked. She shook her head and nearly fell over. Sir Nathald and the Centaur girl caught her. She stared hard at the [Knight].
“Do—do you have proof you’re all Rose Knights?”
The pink-armored [Knights] glanced at each other, bemused and amused. The Centaur snorted. Sir Nathald didn’t laugh. He reached out and offered Ryoka something.
“Here. Will this suffice?”
It was a seal. Custom-made. Ryoka studied it. It was a match of the seal that Bethal had shown her. The unique rose-quartz melded with the crimson wood would be very hard to forge. She nodded.
“Pretty good. Got more proof?”
“The Runner’s Guild vouches for them. Show them your proof, Miss Griffin.”
The [Receptionist] appeared in Ryoka’s view. The Runner gave up. She reached for her bag of holding and pulled something out. It was tiny and cold in her hand. It chimed softly as she held it out.
A silver bell. It was much worn, scratched on the side. The [Knight] peered at it close, noting two of the scratches. He nodded after a second.
“Sir Thomast’s. He would never give it up. And it’s genuine.”
“You’re sure, sir?”
“A [Fencer]’s bell. I’m sure. Pardon me, [Receptionist] Clavine. Please clear your Guild. What is your message, Miss Griffin?”
Ryoka felt people moving around her. She blinked up at Sir Nathald.
“Password. Thomast told me…Bethal says that Sir Tipel’s favorite steed is a warhorse. But a Griffin would be much more desirable if he had the courage to tame it. But Lady Walchaís has always wanted to ride—”
Sir Nathald’s voice was amused. Ryoka nodded.
“Double authentication complete. Here’s the message. Thomast sent it. Bethal’s been sent black roses. People tried to kill her.”
Amid the gasps of the Rose Knights, Ryoka leaned forwards. She tried very, very hard not to throw up into Sir Nathald’s ear as she whispered.
“And this is what he wants you to do…”
She looked up at him. Sir Nathald’s face didn’t change one bit.
“Of course. We’ll lock down the border at once. You five, secure the estate. Eighteen will ride to escort Lady Walchaís and Sir Thomast home. The rest of you—with me.”
“They’ve received Ryoka Griffin’s message and confirmed it. An escort is riding towards us now.”
Thomast announced as he checked the [Message] scroll. Bethal sighed, slightly relieved as she checked the forest road ahead of her.
“We need a more secure way of communicating, Bethal. Something that can’t be blocked. Or else next time the Order of the Petal might not be able to trust our communications.”
Thomast rolled up the magical scroll. Bethal smiled crookedly.
“That City Runner seemed to do the job. But I agree. In a world where we can watch what’s happening in Baleros, we still can’t trust [Message] spells. Couriers and Runners are still more reliable. I’ll ask if Magnolia has some artifact stashed away. Or else we’ll simply have more [Knights] do the delivering of messages.”
“Agreed. But for now, you and I will ride with at least an escort of six at all times.”
Thomast turned to Bethal. She sighed.
“Very well. Now will you tell me where Sir Kerrig went? If my safety is so important.”
“His task is just as important. It’s an affair of honor.”
Bethal rode next to Thomast and leaned against him. He smiled.
“I simply told them to act in a manner I felt befitting. No deaths. No war. So he’s going to find the Order of Clairei Fields. I understand their representatives were still close to the city. And he’ll…”
Thomast whispered into Bethal’s ear for a moment. She blinked.
“Thomast! Him and Sir Nathald? The entire order? Really?”
Bethal shot up in her saddle, looking delighted and shocked. Thomast reached out and stroked her hair.
“I never said I wasn’t angry. And I never said you had to let it all slide.”
She looked at him and laughed. Then she reached out. He held her hand.
“Thomast? I do love you.”
“I never doubted it.”
It was a proper inn. The best in the city. The [Innkeeper] was quite prosperous. His tables were polished to perfection, and he employed a [Chef] with [Advanced Cooking]. His drinks were famous, locally, at least. And his beds were as soft as could be.
And they were [Knights] so of course they found their way there. The six [Knights] of the Clairei Order were toasting each other after a long journey on the road.
“Six days from the Order’s headquarters. And six days back. Six deliveries, when a single junior [Knight] might have made it themselves.”
The [Knight] speaking, a young man with the beginnings of a mustache, grimaced. His companions did likewise as they toasted him. Six mugs clinked, and they all downed their drinks. The speaker wiped his mouth with a sigh. At least the alcohol took the edge off.
Sir Molte of the Clairei Knights, rumored to have the fastest [Knights] on the entire continent, was about think up another toast. It had been a long journey, and he was in the mood to drink. The proof lay in the three rounds of mugs that had already been taken away, and the satisfied smile on the [Innkeeper]’s face. The Clairei Knights were downing their fourth round when the door opened.
“Good evening, Sir Knight!”
The [Innkeeper]’s voice made Sir Molte glance up. For a second Molte wondered if a seventh member of their order had joined them by chance. But one look towards the open door instantly disproved that theory.
A man wearing polished, bright, pink armor stepped into the inn, looking around. He had a quite handsome face, but his armor? You couldn’t call it a pale red, or a light purple. There was no way getting around it. It was pink. And there was only one order on all of Izril, no, surely, the entire world who sported that unfortunate color.
Sir Molte eyed the man’s bright, pink armor and repressed his amusement. Some of the other Clairei Knights were less circumspect. Molte heard a chuckle and a snort. He waved them to silence and stood up as the [Knight] walked past the [Innkeeper].
“Sir Rose Knight! Come join us! It’s always welcome to have a fellow knight errant at the table!”
“Pink or yellow, it matters not!”
One of the other [Knights] called out. There was a chuckle from the Clairei Knights and a cautious chuckle from the other tables nearby. The [Innkeeper] hesitated. But the Rose Knight walked towards the six Clairei Knights as if that had been his intention all along. He removed his helmet and carefully put it into a bag of holding at his side.
Sir Molte eyed the bag of holding with envy, and then took a good look at the armor. Of course, the Knights of the Petal were renowned for their nigh-unbreakable armor. The quality of their arms—Molte nearly choked on his drink as he saw the battleaxe on the [Knight]’s back. Now there was a weapon no one in the Order of Clairei Fields would ever dream of using! He half-rose and beckoned for a chair.
“Come and sit, Ser. I am Sir Molte. Will you drink with us?”
The other [Knight] was clearly a good deal older than the young Clairei Knights. And that demanded respect, even if the armor did not. The Clairei Knights schooled their merriment. The Rose Knight looked at them. Then he shook his head.
“I’m afraid my business does not allow me to drink. But I do have business with you, sir. And your order.”
Sir Molte looked up. There was an aspect of the older [Knight]’s tone that Molte didn’t like. He reassured himself that his sword and shield were still on his person. And his comrades numbered five. The [Knight] was alone.
“Indeed, sir. I understand you were one of the [Knights] who delivered a gift. A parcel to six [Ladies] around these lands. As far south as Invrisil and as far north as First Landing.”
Sir Molte jumped. One of his fellows dropped her mug with an oath. Molte stared up at the Rose Knight. That was a secret mission from his order’s grandmaster!
“You seem to have come by way of precious information to our order, Ser Rose Knight. May I ask how you know what our task was?”
“By tomorrow, I imagine the world will know of what was sent. Already half of Izril does. Your task, Sir Molte and companions, was to deliver a flower. To Lady Bethal Walchaís, among others. Did you know that?”
The [Knights] shook their heads, puzzled. The Rose Knight gave them a mirthless smile.
“Well, perhaps it is as well. But your order’s grandmaster surely knew the flower and message that was sent. You only knew the item was to be sent as a token of the Order of Clairei Field’s will.”
One of the [Knights] next to Molte protested. The Rose Knight stared at him and the younger man went silent.
“If that is goodwill, then Rhir overflows with kindness, sir. The item sent to Lady Bethal was none other than a black rose. A mark of cowardice among Izril’s nobility as I understand it.”
The six [Knights] went silent. Sir Molte, who had been raised as a [Lord] and understood something of flowers, went suddenly pale. The Rose Knight nodded.
“You may imagine my [Lady]’s displeasure. And it was curious that the Order of Clairei Fields would impugn Lady Bethal Walchaís’ honor so. She fought during the Sacrifice of Roses. Or were you not aware?”
He leaned over the table. Sir Molte began sweating. He forced a smile.
“Ser Knight—I’ve not caught your name. My fellow [Knights] and I cannot speak for our order, much less our grandmaster, but I’m sure the reasons for whatever—discourtesy was afforded Lady Walchaís were known.”
“Such as her dishonorable conduct towards Lord Tyrion and the allies of the realm. Not to mention her sabotage at the siege of Liscor.”
One of the other Clairei Knights muttered. Sir Molte shot his friend a look. This was not the time for politics. The Rose Knight’s face didn’t change.
“I’m sure the Order of Clairei Fields has any number of reasons. But a discourtesy is a discourtesy. Which is why I’ve come here. At the behest of Sir Thomast, consort and husband to Lady Bethal Walchaís. I am Sir Kerrig Louis, by the way, Sir Molte.”
“Ah. Well met. And you are here to do what, exactly, Sir Kerrig?”
Molte held still. He wasn’t reaching for his sword. It would be inconceivable to draw steel on the man and moreover, he was alone. Wasn’t he? Molte glanced at the door and saw the [Innkeeper] hurrying over.
“Sir Knight! Why don’t you have a seat? I have a number of rooms—private and public! And a drink for the long road! The inn’s finest!”
He had a mug brimming with the sweetest of ales. The inn held its breath as the Rose Knight regarded the beverage. The Clairei Knights held still.
At last, Sir Kerrig accepted the mug. The world exhaled. Sir Kerrig lifted the mug to his lips and Molte raised his and cried out in relief.
“A toast, then! To good honor and the Knights of the Petal!”
Six mugs rose with his. The Clairei Knights. And Sir Kerrig. He lifted his mug. And then, slowly and deliberately, poured the contents over Sir Molte’s head.
The inn went silent. Molte stared at the liquid dribbling down his armor as the [Innkeeper] fled. The Clairei Knight shot to his feet with a roar of fury. Without missing a beat, Sir Kerrig swung the mug and smashed it into the man’s face.
The stout wood mug cracked. Sir Molte’s face did much the same. He staggered back and landed on the table. It collapsed under him with a crash. The other Clairei Knights cried out in shock and got to their feet. Sir Kerrig tossed the handle of his mug aside. He raised his voice until it echoed around the inn.
“I will not drink with cowards who send insults to smear my [Lady]’s name. Nor will I stand idly by to watch churls and base scum take the class of [Knight]. I am Sir Kerrig of the Knights of the Petal. The Clairei Knights are now the enemies of my order, until proper redress is made to our [Lady]. As such, I challenge all of you to a duel of fisticuffs.”
He raised a hand and made a fist. The Order of Clairei Fields stared at him. Then one of them drew a sword with an oath.
“You’ll answer that insult with steel, you bastard!”
She rose from her chair. Sir Kerrig slowly put one hand on the haft of the battleaxe on his back. He lifted it out of the harness. The Clairei Knights froze as the enchanted battleaxe sparked with lightning. Sir Kerrig looked at them.
“If you would like to make this a contest of arms, I would not object. If not, I would sheathe that sword, young lady. But arms or not, you will answer to me here.”
The [Knights] froze. They looked at each other. The female [Knight] eyed her plain, steel sword and sheathed it slowly. Sir Kerrig lowered his battleaxe. He nodded.
“Very well. In that case—”
A groggy Sir Molte’s first sign something was wrong was when he felt himself being picked up. Then Sir Molte flew. He crashed through one of the windows of the inn and landed on the ground. Sir Kerrig calmly throttled the second [Knight].
“The Order of Petals draws no blood unless necessary. We are all sons and daughters of Izril. This should not come to beheadings or violence. So Sir Thomast has proclaimed. With that said?”
He gripped the [Knight], ran him forwards, and smashed him into the wall. The [Knight] collapsed and the [Innkeeper] shrieked at the head-sized hole in the delicate wood paneling. Sir Kerrig turned and the remaining [Knights] backed up. The old [Knight] smiled coldly.
“This is war.”
And so the Order of the Petal rode to war. House Walchaís was locked down; the lands secured as all traffic in and out of its borders temporarily halted. The [Lady] of the land returned home with a fierce escort of her most loyal defenders without further incident.
It was one event among many taking place across Izril. Battle lines were being drawn, and the Rose Knights began to answer insult with injury. And this event happened because of a message sent by Lady Bethal Walchaís to her trusted Grandmaster of the Rose, Sir Nathald.
And few people cared to know more than the implications and direct outcomes of Lady Bethal’s decision. But for those who looked, history in this moment had a footnote.
On a Thursday, Lady Bethal Walchaís was the recipient of the black rose, a symbol of cowardice across Izril. She was also the victim of an unrelated, unknown assassination attempt by unknown clients. Subsequently, the Lady Walchaís returned home and sent immediate word requesting an escort and for her Order of the Petal to rise to assail the enemies of her realm as she saw them. The message she sent arrived by Runner, not spell.
And the Wind Runner of Reizmelt delivered it.