(Hey, I’ve got news! Volume 2 of The Wandering Inn might come out as an e-book soon! The Audiobook is scheduled for September 10th! Madness! Find out more details here!)
Day 54 – Ryoka
When the Wind Runner of Reizmelt woke up, she knew it would be another rainy day. Honestly, she was sick of them, but they were symptomatic of Izril in the spring. Wet.
And it was still better than Liscor, whose spring rain season was the thing of nightmares. Even so, as spring waned and became summer, the rains persisted. And yes, they were good for crops and all that. Ryoka was still tired of being wet.
She knew it would be a rainy day as soon as she woke to the drumming of rain on the roof above her room. But as Ryoka got up, she realized a few more things.
Firstly, she wasn’t in Reizmelt. She knew that because it was past dawn and Madain hadn’t been banging about, swearing and shouting for everyone to wake up!! Funny, but Ryoka almost missed that. And because her bed was freshly made, smelled of flowers, and the sheets had been washed by someone other than Ryoka.
She was in Walta, staying at the Rose’s Retreat, a very nice inn with a female [Innkeeper] who was accommodating and strict. Miss Iglesias Theroben had expressed a firm desire to Ryoka that her rooms not be sullied by impropriety, or any untoward advances towards her guests.
She obviously hadn’t been suspecting Ryoka of the latter, given how it seemed like most people in this world’s society didn’t acknowledge or even know about sexual orientations beyond male and female, but Ryoka was amused to know that the upstanding Miss Iglesias thought of Lady Bethal Walchaís as a paragon of virtue. She’d been too grateful for somewhere to sleep and for Miss Iglesias’ welcoming, if strictly proper inn, to shatter the woman’s beliefs.
That wasn’t her. And as Ryoka got up and dressed with the speed and efficiency that comes to people who live in a hurry, she realized one last thing: it was going to be a bad day to run. She could still do it, but it would be a bad day.
Not a bad bad day, to be clear. Ryoka felt good. A few days of rest had cleared the minor potion-sickness out of her veins and stomach and rejuvenated her after her now-famous run from Reizmelt to Walta, capital city of Lady Bethal’s lands. She felt good, today, in fact. Hungry. It was just that as soon as Ryoka had sensed, felt the wind outside howling in the rain, she’d known it was going to be a bad day.
Downstairs, the Rose’s Retreat was already bustling when the sleepy young woman exited her ground-floor room. Unlike other inns, the layout of this in more closely resembled one of the cheap motels Ryoka had ‘run away ’ to when she was sick of fighting with her father or trying to get her mother to agree to…anything. And like a good motel experience, breakfast was a buffet.
A very nice buffet. Ryoka saw the goat’s cheese being spread onto a bun first then she smelled some cooked sausage and saw a delicate spread of garden-grown vegetables, fresh from Miss Iglesias’ own soil. Her stomach rumbled but when she saw the somewhat portly, very gracious host, Ryoka stopped to greet her. There were such things as manners and Ryoka wanted to mind hers.
“Ah, Miss Ryoka Griffin. A fair morning to you! I trust you weren’t awoken unduly early? The blessed rain woke me up earlier than I would have liked, but you Runners do keep early hours.”
The woman sighed as she turned to greet Ryoka, goat-cheese and bun in hand. Ryoka eyed the bread and decided she was having that first, with some of the roasted meat. Miss Iglesias’ inn might not have had the random excitement that was an attraction or a deterrent in Erin’s inn, or the dirt-cheap prices and unique…personality that was Madain’s inn. But it was arguably better than both.
Ryoka knew that was an insult to Erin, but did she have a dedicated [Cook] with [Advanced Cooking] and a host of other Skills like [Rising Dough] or [Two Hour Warmth]. Maybe her inn had changed, but Ryoka saw a [Maid]—not a [Barmaid], just a [Maid]—delicately arranging a gentle-smelling bouquet next to the dishes of warm, delicious food. Still warm, thanks to that Skill and fresh as…
Ryoka’s mouth watered. Say what you will, and Erin did make a good pizza, but this was home-cooking and as much as you wanted of it.
Fresh and organic too, if that was your fancy. Ryoka would settle for delicious. She nodded politely to the smiling Miss Iglesias.
“Good morning to you too, Miss Iglesias. I’m not so sure it’ll be a fair one, though. The rain might clear up but you shouldn’t count on hanging anything out; the wind will be blowing hard all day.”
“Really? My [Gardener] friend swore her [Weathersense] told her it would be only rainy tomorrow, but perfect for gardening later on if I wore boots. But if anyone would know, it would be you, wouldn’t it?”
Miss Iglesias glanced out of one of her glass windows with a frown. Ryoka grimaced.
“I’m not an expert Miss Iglesias, so don’t quote me on it. If I’m wrong, I’d be delighted. But…uh, this breakfast looks lovely.”
“Oh! I’m terribly sorry. Go on and enjoy yourself by all means. I imagine you’ll want to be up and about. Will you be staying another day?”
The woman stepped aside so Ryoka could fill a plate and chat at the same time. Biting into her first cheese-and–sausage roll—Miss Iglesias stood on no customs aside from the bit about hanky and panky and horrifically graphic displays of sex—she swallowed and then replied
“I doubt it, Miss Iglesias. I have all my gear in my bag of holding here—I’m paid up, aren’t I?”
She patted the bag at her side. Miss Iglesias nodded.
“You’re free to leave, but I will keep your room open until tonight. If you wish to stay you need only return. You have been a good guest.”
Ryoka smiled gratefully. Miss Iglesias was used to travellers, being one of the more popular inns for travellers to stop by. She had any number of rooms available, but her keeping Ryoka’s open for a day was still generous.
Ryoka helped herself to a big breakfast—she might be eating rations on the road if she took the offer she’d gotten yesterday. She might have lingered to talk with Miss Iglesias, but a howl of wind against the windows made her, the innkeeper, and a few guests enjoying the early breakfast look up.
“What a storm. My garden will need no end of work after this.”
Exasperated, Miss Iglesias went to the window and peered outside. Ryoka grimaced, trying to imagine running in that but—her internal sense told her the wind was upset. But that didn’t correlate to the rain. Indeed, it was just a light sprinkle now. Ryoka brightened; she could handle that. And the noise made her realize something else.
“Ah, Miss Iglesias, I might be taking off now. I’m very grateful for your hospitality…
The woman turned and realized Ryoka was edging towards the door. She opened her mouth and then realized why Ryoka was in a hurry. So she smiled understandingly and reached out to shake Ryoka’s hand gently.
“Well, as I said, you’ve been very easy to look after. No messes, no blood or muck for my girls to tidy up—if you stop by Walta in the future, stay here by all means! I know you Runners, and I have no doubt I’ll see you again.”
Ryoka ducked her head, smiling.
“Thank you, Miss Iglesias. I’m normally around Reizmelt, but if I’m ever in the region for a delivery…”
She began to walk towards the door. But, too late, as Ryoka put one hand on the brass knob, she heard the sound she’d wanted to avoid. Clip-clop, clip-clop.
Ryoka cursed. Miss Iglesias sighed, as she turned to greet another guest. Ryoka opened the door; there was still time to get away before—
“Good morning, Miss Iglesias! Ryoka! Hey, Ryoka, wait!”
A Centauress walked into the room. That wasn’t a euphemism. She trotted in, her shod hooves clattering on the floorboards as she navigated her way through the cozy inn. A Centaur.
Perhaps, if you had never met one, the idea of the half-human, half-horse species would be exotic. Fascinating. And while that was certainly all true of the female Centaur, something else had to be pointed out. A Centaur was half-horse. And as such, the first consideration anyone in the nearby vicinity of a Centaur did was—
Both Ryoka and Miss Iglesias stepped hurriedly out of the way as the Centauress clattered forwards. Her hooves touched the floor lightly, but the Centauress was still over seven feet in height and she had to weigh…Ryoka thought about horses from her world. A ton?
At least. And this Centauress wasn’t even a big example of her species. Her horse parts didn’t resemble the huge draft horses, but rather a lighter riding horse. She had tan fur with a few large, brown spots, pale brown skin, and blonde-gray hair, cut short, but styled—the Centauress trotted closer and Ryoka leapt back again. She was bare foot and she had no intention of having her foot broken by a stray hoof!
“Charlay, watch the hooves!”
The Centauress caught herself and checked her hoof placement. She tossed her head dismissively.
“What? I’m nowhere near your feet. Stop being such a foal, Ryoka. Hey, good thing I woke up, right? I nearly missed you. But for the rain and I would have slept in!”
She gestured outside at the clouds, which had decided to dump one last time before giving up. Ryoka eyed the Centauress. She had a light shirt on her upper half, concealing the place where her waist met the horse parts. Her lower half was bare today, although Ryoka had seen Charlay wearing a half-skirt or full dress that covered her horse bits. She eyed the street, but it was too late. Charlay smiled at the [Innkeeper], who gave her a polite smile of her own.
“Fair day to you as well, Charlay. How was your sleep?”
“Good. Thanks for the extra pillows. My legs were hurting from the ground yesterday. Ooh! Food’s already out?”
She eagerly trotted over to the buffet and inspected it.
“Just what I wanted. Ryoka, stick around. I want to eat first.”
The Asian girl groaned. Charlay never woke up this early. Both times before she’d been up in the late morning. But after a second of staring out of the inn, she closed the door and walked back to the buffet. Miss Iglesias gave Ryoka a sympathetic smile.
“Hey, Charlay. Good to see you. I’m probably leaving today—”
“That’s fine. I’ll run with you to the Guild. Hey, you want this?”
The Centauress waved a bowl and Ryoka saw what she was eating for breakfast. It was a bowl of boiled, steaming…
Oats. As bland as licking wheat seasoned with white rice on top of unsalted porridge with a bit of whole-grain bread for that rare contrast in flavor. Ryoka and Miss Iglesias watched as Charley happily filled a bowl with the stuff and added some grains of brown sugar and bits of pepper flakes.
Ryoka resigned herself to another helping and took about four times what Charley had to add to a lovely browned sausage with some eggs. She liked the flavor and the pepper wasn’t so much hot as sweet to her palate. But Charlay blew out her cheeks halfway through her bowl.
“Hot! This is spicy stuff, Miss Iglesias! You should warn people or they might get indigestion!”
The Human woman raised her eyebrows, but only nodded and took Charlay’s suggestion ‘under advisement’. Ryoka waited as Charlay ate one bowl, then another, and coughed.
“I need to be going—”
“What’s the hurry? I’m done, I guess. Good food, Miss Iglesias. Thanks for putting it out for me.”
The Centauress craned her upper body to speak to the woman while her horse half shuffled around towards the door. Miss Iglesias pulled a chair out of the way; Ryoka just stood back. Charlay was bigger than Calruz, both in height and body. And in a building built for Humans, she was like an elephant. Or a horse.
“Not a problem my dear. Will you want supper? Or lunch?”
Charlay shook her head impatiently.
“I’m done. And I’ve paid my room; I don’t know if I’ll be back, but I’m packed up. Let’s go, Ryoka.”
She trotted towards the door without even saying goodbye. Ryoka went back to Miss Iglesias and shook her hand again.
“Thank you again, Miss Iglesias.”
“Best of luck, Ryoka dear. And you too, Charlay.”
“Oh. Yeah. Thanks!”
The Centauress turned her upper half, nearly out of the door. Ryoka sighed and followed her. She found the Centauress outside, stretching.
“Good food, right? I like staying at the Rose’s Retreat. It doesn’t have stairs and Miss Charlay gets oats just for me. You liked it?”
“Yup. It was great.”
“Awesome. Stay away from me. I don’t need you throwing up on me again.”
Ryoka paused as she stretched out her own legs. The Centauress smirked at her. She worked in the region around Walta as a well-known City Runner. And she was good at her job; so good that Ryoka had given up trying to lose her. Now the Centauress pointed in the direction of the Runner’s Guild.
“Come on, let’s run to the Guild. The streets aren’t that wet and the rain’s stopped. Last one there is a mule!”
So saying, she took off. Ryoka watched her go and kept stretching; after three dozen feet, the Centauress noticed Ryoka wasn’t following and galloped back. She scowled at the young woman.
“Slowpoke. Afraid to race me?”
“I’m stretching. And I’m not racing.”
“Afraid I’ll beat you again?”
“You’re a Centaur. I don’t race things with four legs.”
“That’s not what you said last time. Or the time before that. Come on, afraid I’ll beat you a third time?”
The young woman refused to rise to the bait. She took off running with a slow, contained pace, and after a moment, Charlay followed her. Then at least, Ryoka had some peace. She ran down the streets of Walta, still slick with rain and deserted for the moment. The rains had kept everyone indoors, and so the two female Runners proceeded down the street at a quick jog by Ryoka’s standards.
As they ran, Ryoka admired the city of Walta where she had been staying. She would be sorry to say goodbye to it. The streets were smoothed, and one in three buildings that Ryoka passed had glass instead of shutters. The city was lovely, like Amsterdam, but minus the canals and water. It was one of the most modern cities Ryoka had visited, aside from Invrisil, and the reason behind that was because Walta was about twice or three times as rich as Reizmelt.
“You’re so slow.”
Charlay complained as her hooves clattered across the stones. Ryoka sighed. She couldn’t even admire the city in peace. Not that she was one for admiration anyways; two more seconds and she’d have gotten bored. She looked at Charlay as her arms pumped at her sides; the Centauress was folding her arms and eying Ryoka as her legs easily kept pace.
That was another thing Ryoka had learned about Centaurs recently; because they could run and do things independently with their horse and human halves, they loved to chat while running. It was harder for Ryoka who was running with her entire body, but she could still respond.
“I just ate. You’re a horse.”
“Centauress. Don’t be rude.”
“Sorry, my mistake. You’re so different.”
Charlay bared her teeth, much like an angry horse would.
“We are! We’re intelligent, leveling creatures. Not like animals at all! Are you a monkey?”
“Fairly close. I’ll acknowledge the link and resemblance. You’re even closer. Half your body is horse. It’s pretty much the same thing.”
The Centauress turned scarlet. Ryoka grinned to herself—their relationship was already well established by this point too. Charlay was easy to annoy. The Centauress snorted angrily as she ran ahead of Ryoka.
“It is not the same thing. Do you think I’m like one of those things?”
She pointed down the street. Ryoka saw the rider and shifted left. Charlay made room and the rider rode down the right side of the street. He was riding a roan, a quite energetic one. It whickered as the two Runners ran past; Charlay flipped it off. The rider looked affronted, so Charlay cupped her hands and shouted back at him.
“Not you, the horse!”
“What was that about?”
Ryoka stared at Charlay. The Centauress folded her arms.
“He was checking me out. Damn animals.”
“You understood that horse? And you’re seriously saying you’re that different from them?”
Charlay looked blank.
“Obviously I can understand them. They’re animals. It’s not hard. You can’t understand monkeys? That’s your problem. I’m pretty sure they can understand me.”
“I—haven’t actually met that many monkeys.”
“Huh. I guess Izril doesn’t have that many. I saw them all the time in parts of Baleros. Hey! What’re you looking at?”
The female Centaur snapped at another rider’s horse passing by. Ryoka just shook her head. The streets were filling, and a good number of riders were filling it. More than average; Walta was a horse-city, catering towards treatment of the animals, saddles, stables, training, breeding, and more. The horses Walta produced were of a superior stock than most; if you wanted to get a proper warhorse or even a good riding horse, you’d look for a Walta horse or come to the city itself.
Horses. In a world where automobiles and mass-transport were wagons, they were incredibly valuable. They’d made Walta and Lady Bethal rich. These were her lands after all, and Ryoka had stayed in the city after making Bethal’s emergency delivery alerting her people of the rift between her and a number of factions in Izril. She was at war—in a political and to some degree, real sense—but the city was peaceful still.
“Charlay, you know I work around Reizmelt normally. I might be going back there today.”
Ryoka decided to broach the subject at last. The Centauress snorted.
“You might. Or, you might take that very lucrative delivery down south. Where was it again?”
“I thought personal deliveries were supposed to be personal. So what if I do? It’s none of your business. Why have you been dogging me for three days? Do you like me that much?”
“Hah! Don’t make me laugh. I’m just scoping out my competition. Everyone’s making a fuss about your little run from Reizmelt to Walta; I’m not impressed. You might have a few unique Skills, but let’s remember who the better Runner is here.”
“Me! Don’t get overconfident, Ryoka. I’m a well-known City Runner around here. I have a nickname! Dustrider Charlay. I earned it after running in this area for two years.”
“I have a nickname too—”
The Centauress glared at Ryoka as they turned left down a street.
“Shut up! See, that’s your problem, Ryoka. You’re infringing on my turf. And my theme.”
“That’s right. I was doing this first, so I have dibs on the dust theme. I don’t mind you being the Wind Runner, but if people call you Duststorm Ryoka—just because you can make a bigger cloud, doesn’t mean you get to take my nickname! I’m the Dustrider! Dustrider Charlay!”
For emphasis, Charlay slapped her chest. Ryoka just stared at her. She could have sworn Charlay was her age, maybe a bit younger. But the way she acted…Ryoka thought about being the adult, but it was too tempting.
“I hear they call you Dusty Charlie.”
The Centauress’ face went scarlet. Ryoka had to laugh. She saw Charlay stiffen, then gallop ahead. If she had a horse’s ears, Ryoka was sure they would have been flat. Charlay widened the gap between her and Ryoka until she was right in front of the girl and Ryoka wondered if she’d take off to the guild or just do that the entire rest of the way. Instead, the Centauress shouted.
“No, don’t you d—”
Ryoka shouted in outrage, but it was too late. One of Charlay’s hooves kicked backwards, striking a handy clump of exposed earth on the street where a cobblestone had been uprooted. Normally she’d kick up a cloud of dust, hence her name. This time though, the result was a huge splatter of mud and water.
“Gah! Damn it, Charlay!”
The young Human woman stopped as the mud splattered her front and face. She wiped at it and Charlay trotted back, looking smug.
“Don’t insult me, Pukey. You threw up on me, remember? As far as I’m concerned, this is the least you deserve.”
Ryoka gritted her teeth. Then her eyes widened. She pointed.
“Oh shit. Is that a snake on the ground?”
The Centauress jumped and ran screaming from what was, in fact, a line of horse crap. She turned to Ryoka, shaking.
“Don’t joke about that! Snakes aren’t funny!”
Ryoka chuckled as she wiped the worst of the muck off her face. Charlay glared and Ryoka stepped back in case she tried to bite. The two regarded each other in the damp street. Ryoka sighed.
“Now I’m dirty. Truce?”
“Fine. Truce. Here.”
Charlay tossed something at Ryoka. The young woman blinked.
“What is it?”
“Drying stone. Use it on the mud. It’ll probably get all of it. Don’t worry if it runs out; they’re cheap.”
Ryoka did just that. The stone didn’t break or disintegrate, and she handed it back. The two ran on. Charlay huffed as she ran next to Ryoka.
“I can’t believe you’re so mean to me. All the time! And I was nice to you even though you were so rude at the start.”
“I’m an awful person. You should know that by now.”
“Well, you’re better than a lot of other Humans. No one else’ll talk to me, much less talk back. Half of you lot are too scared to talk! The other half just act like I’m an idiot, or…weird.”
“I don’t think there are many Centaurs on Izril.”
“There aren’t. But it’s not like I’m rare. There are just too many Humans! We’re all over the place in Baleros, especially the middle. The south’s mostly Lizardfolk and Gazers in the jungles. And Humans. You lot get everywhere. And the north is too cold for anyone but Dullahans.”
“But not many on Izril, right?”
“Nope. And it’s a shame. Izril has these lovely flat places, especially in the north. If it wasn’t for the need to cross the ocean on boats, I think there would be tens of thousands of us here.”
The Centauress shuddered. Ryoka regarded her thoughtfully. Three days had taught Ryoka a lot about Charlay, if only because the Centauress had stuck to her like glue. She had a horse’s palate for bland foods; she couldn’t handle spices and she went absolutely nuts for salty, savory stuff. She was afraid of snakes, had a temper, got seasick just staring at a bathtub—
Oh, and she held grudges.
“You know, if you didn’t keep insulting how fast I ran and calling me the ‘Puke Runner’, or ‘Pukey’, or ‘Ryoka the Vomitter’, I’d be nicer to you.”
Charlay turned her head and glared.
“You threw up. On me. Where’s my apology?”
“Lying somewhere on the road with the last fourteen apologies I gave you. Will you give it a rest? Why are you really following me? It’s not for the fun. Don’t you have a job to do? You haven’t made one delivery since I got here.”
“I don’t have to take jobs all the time. I’m a successful City Runner. What, do you spend all your coin after each delivery in the taverns?”
“Then what’s the problem? Jeeze, why are you so rude? You’re the rudest Human I’ve met, you know. And that includes a lot of my clients!”
Ryoka sighed. Walta’s Runner’s Guild appeared on the edge of the city at last. It was sprawling, and had a stable attached—a lot of the local Runners used horses. It wasn’t economical for a lot of Runners, but the city was good for horses and there was a lot of flatland around. Charlay trotted in first, and didn’t hold the door open for Ryoka. To be fair, it would’ve been hard with her body shape, but she was at the [Receptionist]’s desk, pawing the floorboards when Ryoka walked over.
“We’re here! Hey Jilta! Ryoka’s here to take that personal request!”
Charlay called out loudly. Ryoka sighed as some of the Runners in the Guild looked up. She’d met a lot of them the last two days and some waved at her in a friendly way. She waved and smiled back and was grateful for Charlay’s presence for the first time; but for her and the others might have come over to talk to her.
It was true that Ryoka’s run had been noted, if not by the entire world than by the local Runners and those interested in such things. Her run hadn’t been the fastest, but it had been for a [Lady] of renown and Ryoka had beaten a number of groups aiming to intercept her. It hadn’t been easy; Ryoka had paid a price for using so many potions and calling on the wind. But she’d done it and the fruits of her rewards was the attention she gathered. And Charlay following her.
The [Receptionist] at the desk sighed as Ryoka stepped up. She gave Charlay a sharp look that the Centauress innocently returned.
“Charlay! You can’t announce things like that on Ryoka’s behalf, much less publicly! There are rules, you know!”
“I could do it in Baleros. They didn’t care there. Besides, everyone knows you can get information for free from the [Brokers].”
“Not in this Guild. If you’re not in line, step back. Runners get privacy.”
“What? But I—”
The [Receptionist] pointed. Grumbling, Charlay did retreat until she probably couldn’t hear what was being said at the desk. The [Receptionist] watched her sharply and the Centauress innocently turned her head. The woman at the counter had dealt with the Centauress before, that was clear from the long-suffering sigh she let out. She looked at Ryoka apologetically.
“I’m sorry, Miss Griffin. Is she still following you about?”
The [Receptionist], Jilta, the same woman who’d helped Ryoka on the first day by making her puke the potions that were poisoning her and getting the Knights of the Rose, gave Ryoka a rueful smile.
“She’ll get bored in time. She just…fixates on other City Runners, especially female ones around her age and level. She’s very competitive. Now, can I help you? Are you going to take the request from yesterday? The sender is ah, waiting on a reply.”
Jilta said it delicately, but Ryoka knew she was very interested. As interested as Charlay had been; the Centauress had bugged Ryoka all about it yesterday. A personal request? With money backed by two [Lords]? Asking Ryoka to deliver a handful of potions to Riverfarm?
It made no sense. But Ryoka, who knew who the real sender was, had thought it over hard last night. Laken Godart had asked her for help, and after thinking it over, there was only one real answer she could give. She slowly nodded.
“I…think I will.”
She had a lot to say to Laken and he had a lot to explain, but visiting Riverfarm was essential in either case. Jilta nodded sharply, and reached under the counter.
“Very well. It’s a priority delivery although there’s no time frame on it; I have er, six healing potions and three stamina potions here.”
She offered Ryoka a satchel. The Runner pulled out her bag of holding.
“I’ve got a bag.”
“Ah, well, place them inside—you’ll need to deliver them straight to Lady Rie Valerund. They’re…just generic potions we bought from the local [Alchemist]. The request did say to do that, but…”
Jilta looked at Ryoka, and only her professionalism kept her from asking the obvious. Who paid that much gold to get a bunch of potions you could get anywhere? The answer had to be that it was either something that had to be delivered personally—a message or secret item with the potions—or the Runner herself. Ryoka smiled and didn’t explain.
“I’ll get it there as fast as I can. Can I see a map?”
The [Receptionist] pulled one out. Ryoka studied the route to Riverfarm; it was south of Walta and Bethal’s lands, southwest of Invrisil, a bit of land in the shadow of a small mountain not claimed by any noble house. The Valerund family, whose [Lady] was apparently at Riverfarm, had a small area of influence, but they were a day’s journey away from Riverfarm.
“Looks straight enough. I’ll be going through this marsh—I hate marshes. But aside from that, it’s straight. Thanks, I’ll head out right away.”
Ryoka nodded at Jilta. The [Receptionist] smiled.
“Of course. If you want to come back this way, I can do the confirmation. But of course, any large Runner’s Guild can handle it. Even so, we’d be happy to see you here again, Miss Griffin. You’ve been the talk of the Guild since your dramatic delivery.”
Ryoka felt her face heat up. Jilta was in her late twenties, a former Runner herself. Ryoka didn’t recall much of what had happened when she’d staggered into the Guild—she recalled throwing up on Charlay, and the Centauress reminded her of that every few seconds—but she also remembered Jilta helping her puke onto the floor. Ryoka cleared her throat.
“I’m really grateful for all the help. I was an imposition, with the wind, the sand…”
Jilta waved that away.
“It was a request from Lady Walchaís. And this is my job. As I said, you’re welcome back here. And you’re easier to deal with than…”
She nodded at Charlay. Ryoka grinned and ducked her head.
She turned to go and jumped. Someone else was waiting in line with Charlay. Only, this woman wasn’t a Runner. A woman in bright pink armor with a shock of grey in her black hair nodded to Ryoka as she tucked her helmet under one arm. Ryoka stared at the Knight of the Petal as Charlay blinked and stepped out of the way. The Runners in the Guild and Jilta looked up. There was a flurry of bows as the [Knight] strode forwards. The woman halted in front of Ryoka and offered her a slight formal bow.
“Miss Griffin. Good morning to you.”
“Dame Truvia. Uh—how can I help you?”
Ryoka recognized one of the senior Knights of the Petal, one of the protectors of Walta. Dame Truvia was a Knight of the Petal, like the others that Ryoka had met. Lady Bethal’s personal order of [Knights]. They garnered a lot of respect from Walta’s citizens, but also in general; the Knights of the Petal were a fairly powerful order of [Knights] for their size, or so Ryoka gathered. Her presence certainly had an effect on the rest of the guild. Jilta bowed again.
“Dame Truvia! I’m terribly sorry to keep you waiting. We’re just opening—how can I help you?”
She was poised, ready to attend to any of the [Knight]’s needs at once. Truvia smiled, her stern face warming slightly.
“I have no need of your assistance, Miss Griffin. Nor do I need to place an order, Miss Receptionist. I am simply here to check up on Miss Ryoka’s condition.”
Ryoka blinked. Charlay was staring behind her. Truvia nodded.
“Lady Bethal was most impressed with your run, especially the…spectacle of it. She ordered me to check up on you before you left.”
“That’s kind of her. Er, Lady Bethal was very generous. If she has any other requests, I would be happy to take them.”
Ryoka bowed awkwardly. Sending a [Knight] just to see if she was well was strange. But Bethal Walchaís defined the word. Ryoka distinctly recalled the woman. Passionate and strange barely described her. Truvia nodded, looking Ryoka up and down.
“I’m sure Lady Bethal will remember you. It is just a formality. Forgive me for imposing.”
She bowed to Ryoka and Jilta. There was something so graceful about her humility. Impressive too; the woman was almost everything Ryoka wanted to be at her age of around…forty? Fifty? Except for the pink.
“Not at all, Dame Truvia. It’s an honor to have you in the Guild. Can I offer you refreshments? Anything else…?”
Jilta was fussing over the woman, looking star-struck as if Truvia were a minor celebrity. Which…she was. Ryoka stepped back, and Charlay trotted forwards. Breathless, the Centauress held out a hand.
“Dame Truvia? Dustrider Charley, at your service. I’m the best Runner in Walta, and if you have any needs, any at all—”
Truvia turned politely to Charlay, barely blinking over the Centauress. Ryoka saw Jilta’s face color and the [Receptionist] chased Charlay away. Charlay trotted back, looking hurt.
“I’m just making an impression. Sheesh! No one else in this Guild does it, but why not?”
“I think that’s another thing they do in Baleros but not here.”
“Hah. Baleros is more open. Here’s too much about etiquette. I could talk to a Named Adventurer or famous leader of a Company in Baleros. Okay, maybe not Marian if I saw her, but that’s different.”
Charlay huffed as she watched Truvia speaking with Jilta and a few Runners who’d decided to follow Charlay forwards. She stared at the Rose Knight’s armor, clearly impressed. Then she bumped Ryoka with her hindquarters.
“One of Lady Bethal’s personal [Knights], here just to make sure you didn’t sprain an ankle. And you got to do a delivery for her! You got lucky. If I was there, I’d have done the run in half the time and without half as much puke!”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re not that much faster.”
Ryoka glared at Charlay. She hated to admit it, but the Centauress really was faster than her. Charlay refused to be placated though. She tossed her head again and stamped a hoof.
“Not that much faster? I’m twice as fast as you. Just check the rankings! Any [Broker] could tell you how good you are, if you’re important. I am. I suppose you are now. But I’m still better. You barely qualify for Courier rank and you were out for two days recovering after that! I’m well faster.”
“I know the rankings.”
Ryoka folded her arms. She hadn’t known they’d existed until Fierre told her about them. And she’d seen the ones Jilta kept as a [Receptionist].
“It says your endurance needs work. And you have a lower combat ranking than me.”
The two were pleasantly bickering as Ryoka walked towards the door. Then the door opened and let another Runner in. At least, Ryoka assumed it was a Runner. A young woman with a shock of light blue hair walked into the Guild. That caught Ryoka’s eye first. The hair color. Then she took in the entire young woman and blinked.
The woman was in her late-twenties, had blue hair, a hat, and robes. Her hat was slightly pointed, but angled, swooping off to a point behind her. And both her robes and hat were that of a [Mage]. But her body, the way she walked, all spoke to Ryoka of someone who was athletic. Her corneas were a bright, pale pink.
She was striking. But there was one other reason Ryoka stared. She felt a strange tugging at her chest, almost like the sense that told her the wind wouldn’t obey any of her commands today unless Ryoka really pushed. It was odd, unfamiliar—
The young woman walked into the guild and noticed Ryoka and Charlay in her way. Rather than walk past them she stopped and stared. There was nothing apologetic or furtive about the way she did it, she just stopped and looked both up and down.
“So you’re the Wind Runner, huh? Interesting. And here’s Charlay, already following you about. Hi, horse-girl. Anything interesting about?”
The introduction caught Ryoka off-guard. She winced, expecting Charlay to have a snappy response, but the Centauress froze.
“A—Alevica! I—I wasn’t doing anything. I was just talking with Ryoka.”
The strange new Runner eyed Charlay as the Centauress backed up and tried to hide behind Ryoka. She had a piercing stare and when she smiled—Charlay grabbed Ryoka’s shoulder and Ryoka felt the Centauress’ hands shaking slightly.
“Fine. Hey, you are the Wind Runner, right? You feel like the wind.”
Surprised, Ryoka turned back to the stranger. She’d assumed her face was known, but perhaps not.
“The name’s Alevica. City Runner, like you. I hear you’re good. Slow, but you conjured a storm. I saw it. Let’s get along.”
The hand was slim, but strong when Ryoka grasped it. And Alevica’s smile seemed genuine. Although there was a reserve there…she wasn’t challenging or anything. Ryoka almost thought she’d like Alevica’s boldness and the clear way she gave no care to how others saw her. Charlay trembling behind Ryoka gave her pause.
“Of course. I’m on a job, but if I see you around, I’d love to talk.”
“Sure. Something like that.”
Alevica nodded. Then she looked at Charlay, grinned, tugged on her hat, and walked past the two.
“I’ll see both of you around. It’s a small continent.”
She strode up to the counter, past Truvia and the other Runners, all of whom drew back at the sight of her. Jilta looked up sharply and Ryoka noted her wary expression as well. She pointed at Alevica’s back.
“Who’s that, Charlay?”
“Alevica. Don’t point! And don’t say anything bad about her!”
“Why? Is she some hotshot Runner?”
Ryoka didn’t see it. Alevica looked fit, but her calves didn’t speak of a runner to her. But she did have good ears. She turned her head and grinned as Jilta fumbled with something at the desk. Charlay whispered as she tried to pull Ryoka further back.
“She’s really good. Really good.”
“Better than you, the best City Runner in Walta?”
At the desk, Alevica burst out laughing. It was loud and mocking. The other Runners looked uneasy. Charlay paled. She whispered in Ryoka’s ear.
“Don’t quote me! That was a boast! Are you stupid? She’s faster than you or me in short distance travel. And she has the levels and Skills to be a Courier. But there’s more to passing the Runner’s Guild tests than just speed. Obviously.”
Even scared, Charlay still managed to find a way to be insulting. Ryoka blinked. That good? And if Charlay said so—why was she so afraid? She whispered to the Centauress.
“What’s holding her back?”
Charlay stared at Ryoka.
“The fact that it’s Alevica? You really haven’t heard of her? She’s famous around all the local Guilds! Reizmelt has to know of her!”
“I don’t keep up on other Runners.”
“Well, remember her! Alevica’s one of the least-trusted Runners, even though she’s a good one. She opens mail, threatens other Runners—and she’ll throw away important packages rather than deliver them if the client insults her! She could be a low-tier Courier, but you have to be sponsored to become a Courier and no Courier or any of the local Guildmasters will vouch for her.”
Ryoka whistled. That was exactly the kind of Runner she didn’t want to be. The ones with the lowest-reputations almost never got personal requests, or if they did, they were shady and dangerous. On the other hand, you could make good money doing what Alevica apparently did—if you didn’t mind attracting the wrath of your clientele. But from the way Alevica turned and grinned at Charlay, she didn’t mind the rumors about her.
At the desk, Jilta was fumbling with a paper. She didn’t look happy, but she eventually nodded and pulled something out. Ryoka blinked as she recognized a metal box, sealed with a magical lock. Jilta looked at Alevica.
“We do have one Steel-box delivery. It’s worth eighteen gold coins and seven silver if you manage it. The penalty is double, but—”
“I’ll take it.”
Alevica interrupted Jilta and casually reached into a pouch. She pulled out gold coins and began counting them onto the counter, carelessly. Ryoka and Charlay stared.
“A Steel-box delivery?”
“I didn’t know we had one. I’m glad though; I’m not paying that price! It must be a dangerous request!”
Ryoka nodded slowly. Steel-box deliveries were a form of request she’d been introduced to in the north. Sometimes someone wanted something delivered, but the cost of it being intercepted was too high and they might be wary about Runners risking their wrath. So what any citizen could do was post a high price on a delivery, but require a Runner to put their own gold on the line by way of insurance. If Alevica failed this delivery, she’d have to pay double the fee for success.
Naturally, this was a high-stakes delivery and the Runner’s Guilds usually demanded to know what was worth the risk. Steel-box deliveries weren’t often picked up and usually only confident or desperate City Runners or Couriers would take them. Alevica was clearly the former; she grabbed the box and headed for the door before Jilta had explained more than the destination.
“Wait, Alevica! The danger’s—”
“Don’t know, don’t care. Just have my gold when I get back.”
The City Runner tipped her hat and flashed Jilta a mocking smile. The [Receptionist] stopped, frowning, but she let Alevica go. Ryoka was impressed. She didn’t like the risk aspect of Steel-box deliveries. You put not only your reputation, but your own money on the line. And any delivery from a Steel-box delivery was guaranteed to have some peril on it.
As if she could read Ryoka’s mind, Alevica stopped and looked at the City Runner. She tapped the metal box with one hand.
“If you’ve the guts, try taking on one of these. The pay’s good, and sometimes it’s worth more not to deliver. We’ll see with this, won’t we?”
“Runner Alevica! You’re obligated to obey the Runner’s Guild rules—”
Jilta’s voice fell on deaf ears. Alevica strode out the door with the box under one arm. Charlay stared from behind Ryoka until she was gone, and then exhaled slowly.
“Wow. She’s the one person I didn’t want to meet today. Let’s get going before she decides to come back and cast a spell on us all or something.”
“Cast a spell…? Hold on, I’m going on my delivery. Sorry, Charlay, but this is where we part. It’ll take me days to get to my destination, and if I’m back in the area, we can meet again…”
Ryoka blinked, and tried to walk towards the door. But the Centauress, suddenly bold and bothersome again, just snorted.
“What? No. I’m bored, so I’m coming with you. I’ll keep you company. Two Runners are better than one, right?”
She trotted towards the door to the Guild. Ryoka stared at her.
“You want to follow me?”
“Yup. I want to see you actually run. Come on, where’re we going? And for who? You can tell me when we’re on the way if Jilta—”
Charlay winced as the [Receptionist] strode around her desk. Jilta waved a finger as the Centauress danced backwards.
“Miss Charlay, you cannot follow another Runner on her request, especially not a personal delivery!”
“You’ve bothered Ryoka Griffin enough. Your behavior reflects on Walta’s Guild, and if you follow her, I’ll issue you a penalty—”
Ryoka’s voice made both Centaur and Human turn. Jilta blinked at Ryoka.
“Miss Griffin, you don’t have to accommodate Charlay. I don’t care how Baleros does things, but here—”
“No, it’s fine, Jilta. I don’t think my client will mind. And I’ll take some company for the road.”
Ryoka looked at Charlay. The Centauress looked delighted, and then instantly tilted her head up and looked superior.
“I’m only doing it because I want to see how good you are, Ryoka. And to prove that I can outrun you any day of the week.”
The tone needled Ryoka, but she’d caught the look on Charlay’s face. So had Jilta. The [Receptionist] pursed her lips, but slowly nodded.
“If you’re fine with it, Miss Ryoka. But I’m warning you, Charley. If Miss Ryoka complains or claims you interfered with her in any way—”
“I’m just running with her! It’ll be fine.”
The Centauress rolled her eyes. She trotted towards Ryoka and the Runner nodded. They were heading towards the doors at last when a last person stopped them. Dame Truvia. She approached the two and put her helmet on.
“You’re leaving on a delivery, Miss Griffin? Allow me to accompany you.”
Charlay’s jaw dropped. Ryoka blinked up at the pink [Knight].
“Me? But why?”
The older [Knight] smiled as she raised the visor to her helmet.
“Lady Bethal also bade me to ride with you. She would not wish you to suffer injury on her lands.”
Ryoka stared at Truvia, thought of Bethal, and then gave up. This was overkill, but Ryoka didn’t want to waste any more time. Charlay trotted out and the two saw that Truvia’s horse was already being led out of the stables. The horse had pink armor, like the rider. Charlay shook her head.
“You are so lucky. I’ve been trying to get a request from Lady Walchaís myself! Apparently she tips really well—and now you get an escort?”
“Will you be riding with us all the way, Dame Truvia?”
Ryoka called to the [Knight]. Dame Truvia mounted up in one motion and nodded down at Ryoka. Her voice was slightly muffled, but entirely distinct.
“As far as the outskirts of Walchaís lands, or if an incident takes me. I am on patrol. Don’t trouble yourself however; set whatever pace you please. I’ll keep up.”
The nonchalant air of the [Knight] as she sat on her horse in full armor made Ryoka raise her brows and Charlay snort. The Centaur and Human Runners looked at each other. A [Knight] was one thing, but this? This was their job. They grinned at each other.
“Nice and slow them, right Charlay?”
“Sure. Hey, can you use your wind-thing? You can conjure a breeze, right?”
Ryoka hesitated. She looked up. The wind was still blowing hard. The rain had stopped, but Ryoka still felt it. It was angry, wild—why? Ryoka reached for it, and finally understood.
Ah, that was it. Out there, somewhere, someone was trying to control the wind. And it was pissed.
“Nope. Feels like a [Weather Mage] or someone’s doing something to the wind. It’s out of my control today. Or rather, I wouldn’t risk it.”
She’d tried it once on a day like today. The wind had thrown her into a wagon. Charlay shrugged, her hair blowing in the strong gusts.
“Maybe it’s Alevica. She’s got a lot of weird abilities. Fine. Your legs still work without your wind?”
“All the time. We’re heading south. Dame Truvia, you can keep up?”
The [Knight] watched as Ryoka lowered herself into a Runner’s starting position. Charlay just tensed. The two took off like a shot, racing down the street, startling Truvia’s horse. She calmed it, and laughed as the two Runner’s raced out of the city. Then she dug her heels into her horse’s side and it raced after the two.
Ryoka ran out of Walta with Charlay by her side. She raced across the outskirts, the suburbs that had sprung out around the city, and across wide, flat land devoted to farmland, or pastures for the horses.
Walta, no, the lands of Lady Bethal Walchaís, were rich. It reminded Ryoka of a true medieval world, only with less poverty and more Arthurian romance. A world, a time that had never truly existed in her world as far as Ryoka knew. But it existed here.
[Farmers] tending fields as prosperous as, if not as scrumptious as the corn fields tended to by Farmer Lupp, looked up as Ryoka and Charlay raced down the road. They waved at the Runners, amused by the competition and Charlay heckling Ryoka as she maintained a horse’s length of lead on the Human girl. Then they bowed or cheered the Knight of the Petal, Dame Truvia as she calmly followed the two Runners.
She was fast! Dame Truvia had a Skill that allowed her to keep pace with Charlay and Ryoka despite the armor. Or her horse was magical. Or simply a superior breed. Ryoka was the slowest of the three, and she slowed the breakneck run as soon as it became clear that she wasn’t about to lose Truvia. Charlay slipped into an even run beside Ryoka and they just enjoyed running. It was what they did.
The lands of House Walchaís passed Ryoka by, green and verdant, growing from the spring rains. Ryoka saw people looking up and waving at her—not just at Charlay and Truvia. They recognized her.
“That’s the Wind Runner! Hey you! Don’t blow any more dirt into my fields! And do something about this wind, will you?”
A [Farmer] raised her hoe as Ryoka passed by. The young woman raised a hand, slightly embarrassed, and Charlay waved with both arms as well. Ryoka had passed down this same road on her way to Walta—through a few fields too. At the time, she’d been so tired she hadn’t noticed, but she’d dragged a dust storm through any number of farms and down roads—even through a village! Part of the last few days had been coming out here and apologizing for the destruction, even offering payment.
She’d expected the people to be furious, and they were. But one line saved Ryoka from a lynch mob. It was for Lady Bethal. Suddenly, the people were all too happy to take Ryoka’s coin, even congratulate her on the run. It was incredible, but the [Lady] was beloved. As one furious [Shepherd] had said whilst his dusty herd of sheep had to be bathed and their wool, combed, that changed things.
“If it’s Lady Walchaís, then it’s fine. House Walchaís has always been good to us folk. They paid for medicine with the Redvein Plague two decades back, fought for us during the Sacrifice of Roses—any bastards who’d smirch Lady Bethal’s name I’ll personally put an arrow through. Just let them try to attack her lands!”
And he’d meant it. The Knights of the Petal had gone to war for their [Lady]’s honor and the people of Lady Bethal’s lands had immediately refused to do business with anyone who’d sent Bethal a rose. It was incredible actually, for Ryoka to see that much loyalty. But Bethal was beloved, for her flights of fancy as much as how she treated her folk.
Speaking of which…Ryoka and Charlay paused as they ran towards a more populated stretch of road. They didn’t need to run on the road, but Dame Truvia was clearing a path for them. Pedestrians and travellers moved over to let the [Knight] race after the Runners, unimpeded.
Walchaís lands lay at one of the natural routes going north, towards First Landing. If Reizmelt was a local hub, one of the crossroads near Walta was a major one, and the wide road had hundreds of people and wagons moving up it. Ryoka stared at the huge flow of traffic, but Charlay just pointed.
“We’ll cut across there and run south. Just don’t block anyone. It’s easy, see?”
There were five City Runners running up the road that Ryoka could see, one of whom turned towards Walta at the crossroads. Ryoka nodded—and then spotted something else.
A [Knight] in a golden suit of armor painted with silver was slowly riding up the highway. He’d stopped once to address a family in a wagon, and he had a shield and mace strapped to his side. Ryoka blinked and pointed out the armored man to Charlay.
“Just a patrolling [Knight]. What, are there none around Reizmelt?”
“I’m from further south. Celum.”
“Oh, right. Well, you see them around here. They help get rid of [Thieves], patrol roads…they’re great if you get into trouble, unless the trouble gets them.”
Charlay shrugged. Ryoka hesitated. So they were like roaming police officers? This world’s version of a patrol car? She opened her mouth to ask another question and heard a voice from behind her.
Ryoka turned. Dame Truvia was frowning at the [Knight] in gold. She lowered her visor and her pink-clad horse pawed the ground. Truvia reached for a holstered lance and nodded to Ryoka.
“Ah. I fear this is as far as I take you, Runner Ryoka. I bid you a safe journey, but I cannot accompany you to the edge of Walchaís lands. That is a [Knight] in service to House Averin. I recognize the colors. I must address him.”
Ryoka stared blankly at Truvia, and then she remembered. One of the black flowers had come from—
Truvia rode past Ryoka, picking up speed. Charlay chortled and trotted back to watch; Truvia rode straight at the [Knight] and the traffic on the road parted to give her a wide space. People leaned out of their wagons, or stopped on the road, sensing what was about to happen.
“[Knight] of House Averin! Hold your ground!”
Dame Truvia roared across the highway. The gold-armored [Knight] looked up and raised a hand. He called back towards Truvia.
“What seems to be the matter, Lady Knight?”
His voice was conversational, friendly, even. Ryoka winced. Like the Clairei Knights, this one hadn’t gotten the message about the flowers, or he hadn’t understood the import. Truvia’s voice was loud enough for everyone in a hundred paces to hear clearly.
“Your order has insulted and cast false accusations against the name of House Walchaís and Lady Bethal, whom I serve! This insult cannot stand! The Knights of the Petal ride to their lady’s honor, and until our grievance is met, House Averin is our sworn enemy!”
She pointed her lance with one hand at the startled [Knight]’s chest.
“Sir, I challenge you! Put up your shield, or retreat!”
With that, she kicked her horse into a trot, and then a gallop, picking up steam and surging behind her shield. Ryoka could see the Averin [Knight] do a double-take. He swung his horse around, and raised a hand as he fumbled for his own equipment.
“Wait—what did you—wait, wait!”
Charlay danced in front of Ryoka and the Runner swore.
“Charlay, I can’t see!”
She shoved at the Centaur, but Charlay was, again, over a thousand pounds and all Ryoka managed to do was push herself back. She stepped around the Centaur and heard Truvia hit the Averin [Knight] along with a roar from the spectators.
Ryoka heard a crash, a horse’s scream, and finally got around Charlay, who was dancing with excitement. She saw the Averin [Knight] lying on the ground as Dame Truvia strode towards him.
“Dead gods, are you mad? We’re both [Knights]! I have no quarrel with you!”
He screamed up at her. Dame Truvia grabbed her weapon; she didn’t carry a sword or shield, but a spear to go with the lance.
“There is no excuse for dishonor! Draw your sword, ser!”
She charged, and the Averin [Knight] swore and grabbed his mace. Ryoka decided that was enough and started running, watching the battle as the two warriors, one dressed in gold and silver, the other pink, began dueling along the highway. Ryoka ran south, past the traffic jam and people calling out to ask what had happened up ahead. The clash echoing behind the two Runners made Ryoka wince. The Centauress just smiled.
“I like the people living around here. It reminds me of home.”
Ryoka had to smile as they ran ahead. The two Runners passed further down the road, calling out to the people shouting warily to know if there was danger ahead what was going down. The wagons couldn’t move off the road, but any number of people hopped down or walked or rode ahead to see. The fight between the [Knights] was certainly something Ryoka wanted to see, but she had a job to do.
And Riverfarm and Laken—Ryoka’s mood grew less exuberant. Yes, she had a debt to pay, but to whom and how, she had no idea. She just wanted to see the trouble Laken had hinted about. After that—
Ahead of her, Charlay suddenly drew up, nearly rearing in alarm. Ryoka halted at once, and her hand went to her bag of holding. Then she saw what Charlay had seen and blinked.
“Are you serious?”
A familiar face was poking out of a carriage rolling past them. The vehicle wasn’t going that fast due to the traffic, but the amused face that met Ryoka’s eyes was familiar. Ryoka had just seen her.
Alevica, the strange City Runner that scared Charlay, was sitting in the carriage. She had hired it, along with three other bored passengers. She was riding one of the travel-carriages that went from city to city. It was an expensive option, but quick and comfortable.
Ryoka stared. Charlay just froze. The young woman with the blue hair and hat nodded to Ryoka and to Charlay.
“You’re heading this way too. Fancy that.”
“I—yeah. Are you taking the carriage?”
“It’s safe, secure, and pretty quick. Why? Want a ride?”
She patted the seat next to her. Ryoka just shook her head. Alevica was a bad Runner. She wasn’t running, first of all. Ryoka supposed the payment for the carriage wasn’t much given how much she stood to earn, but she was putting everyone in that carriage at risk!
If someone wanted the Steel-box delivery she had, they’d attack the carriage. Ryoka opened her mouth to say so, and saw Alevica looking at her. Just…looking. As if she knew exactly what Ryoka was going to say, and just wanted to know if she’d say it.
Slowly, Ryoka closed her mouth. Alevica nodded to herself and her smile grew a bit deeper.
“It’s not a bad way to travel. I’ll go my own way if I need to. But it really does save energy. You’re running barefoot? It’s a long journey for me. You too, I suspect. Why not ride with me? It’ll be free.”
She offered carelessly, ignoring the looks the other passengers and the driver gave her. Ryoka hesitated and she looked at Charlay.
“Charlay won’t fit.”
“I didn’t offer her. If she wants, she can run alongside the carriage. She’s a Centaur. She could keep up.”
Alevica’s eyes didn’t change once as she turned to regard Charlay. The Centauress shuddered.
She looked at Ryoka. The Runner girl didn’t have to think twice.
“Thanks, but we like running, Alevica. Maybe some other time.”
The young woman shrugged.
“As you please. You’ll make better time than we will. Looks like that [Knight] duel is stopping us. See you around, Wind Runner, Charlay.”
She waved at the two and Ryoka slowly kept on running. Charlay gratefully followed her. The two were silent as they ran further, and then Ryoka turned to Charlay.
“Okay, what is Alevica? A [Mage] with a temper? Some kind of criminal class? What?”
The Centauress shook her head and warily cast a glance back down the road at the stopped carriage. As she ran she leaned down and whisper-shouted to Ryoka.
“She’s a [Witch]! We don’t have them on Baleros. Not really. We have different classes. But Ryoka—I’m glad you didn’t ride with her, but if she ever tells you to do something—do it. She’s powerful and dangerous.”
Ryoka nodded. Alevica gave her that impression. She was no Persua, who was a mean girl taken to the extreme of pushing someone into a wagon. Alevica looked like the kind of person you made enemies with and then tried to kill before she killed you. She gave Ryoka goose bumps. Then Ryoka latched onto what Charlay had said and her skin and that sense inside her tingled.
“A [Witch]? Are you serious?”
She turned her head. Alevica was out of sight, but that dress, the hat—yes! It wasn’t classic Harry Potter, but it all fit. Ryoka was just so used to [Mages] that she hadn’t noticed. Charlay nodded. She slowed to a trot, and Ryoka saw her breathing hard.
“What makes you so scared of her, Charlay?”
The Centauress hesitated. She looked back and Ryoka saw her shudder again. This time, when she spoke there was no bravado, only fear.
“I just heard rumors. And one time I…I was in the guild and she cut in line. So I said some things and later on the road, she passed me. I think she cast a spell because the next thing I know, my tail caught on fire.”
She gestured at her tail with a shaking hand. Ryoka stared at the pale hair. It looked alright to her, but there was something…she looked at the Centauress. There were tears in her eyes.
“I couldn’t put it out. I had to use four healing potions until the fire stopped and my fur…”
Ryoka looked closer. Charlay pulled away, but Ryoka had seen the faint imprint around Charlay’s hindquarters and tail. Traces of a burn scar. She looked back sharply at Alevica’s carriage.
“Maybe I’ll go back. I don’t feel like running anymore.”
Charlay slowly pawed at the ground with one hoof, her upper body drooping. She looked unhappy. And Ryoka, looking at her, was struck by a thought. Charlay had followed her for the last three days, bickering, insulting, but always waiting for Ryoka. Talking with her, running at her pace. It might be her personality, but she hadn’t been unpleasant all the time. And not once had Ryoka ever seen one of Charlay’s friends looking for the Centaur.
Slowly, the young woman looked at Charlay.
“If you want to go back to Walta, no one’s stopping you. But…hey, I could really use someone to run with. Want to check out Riverfarm? That’s where I’m headed. You could do some deliveries on the way. And I wouldn’t mind the company, really.”
Charlay paused. She looked at Ryoka, and her miserable expression vanished. She perked up, visibly. Then she hesitated. Ryoka saw the head toss coming, and recognized it as what it was. Bravado.
“Well, I suppose if you insist. I don’t like you, Ryoka. You’re rude, slow, and you took my theme. But I suppose I could keep you company.”
She hesitated, and peeked at Ryoka out of the corner of one eye. Ryoka folded her arms.
“Is that how you really think?”
“Yes. No. Okay, fine! I would like to come, happy?”
The Centauress stamped one hoof. She glared at Ryoka.
“Don’t take it personally! I know I made fun of you a bit. But I do that all the time with my Centaur friends. In…Baleros. I guess it’s different here.”
She hesitated. And Ryoka realized that Centaurs really were different. Like any other culture, really. She wondered if anyone else had realized that. Slowly, Ryoka smiled and shook her head, pretending not to notice Charlay’s anxious look.
“Hey, I don’t mind. Just don’t do it all the time. You know how thin-skinned we Humans are.”
“Yeah, and touchy. But insulting each other is what friends do. We are friends, aren’t we?”
Charlay’s question took Ryoka off guard. But then Ryoka nodded. And Charlay’s smile provoked one of Ryoka’s as well. Without a word, the Centauress trotted forwards and then into a run.
“Well, that was obvious. Why did you need to spell it out? Come on, Ryoka! Let’s go!”
She beckoned and Ryoka followed. The young woman stared at Charlay’s back as the Centaur laughed, running with all four legs and shook her head, mystified, happy—she looked up towards the sky.
“It’s so easy, Erin. Why didn’t you tell me that? Why didn’t I listen?”
And then she ran off, south. With a new friend. And as they ran towards Riverfarm, Charlay’s voice echoed back towards her.
“…Hey! Do you know if we’re going the right way?”