The Ruins of Albez sits at the heart of what had once been a magical kingdom. Or perhaps a community of mages. Or an ancient citadel of—you know what? It doesn’t matter.
The entire area is saturated in magic, and as such, attracts two kinds of visitors. Monsters, seeking to make their lairs among the ruined buildings and endless underground tunnels in the area, and adventurers, seeking lost treasure in the same spots. Naturally, conflicts ensue.
The adventuring group currently occupying the ruins is known as the Horns of Hammerad, notable for their relatively high average level – most members are above level 20 – and their leader, a minotaur [Fighter]* who wields an enormous battleaxe in combat.
*I still don’t get classes. Apparently, [Fighter] is a general class, although some call it [Warrior] depending on the culture. Does that mean they have the same skills? Either way, it’s the first class most warriors take, but if this minotaur guy were higher-level he’d be an [Axemaster] or [Knight]. Huh.
They general consensus is that they’re quite competent in combat, and they’d received official permission to search the ruins for the duration of the week. That means that while the Horns are in the ruins, other adventuring groups can’t interfere or look for treasure. It was an arrangement that allowed the nearby cities to reap a profit for charging access and prevented conflicts between their adventurers.
All well and good, and normally the Horns would have expected a moderate payout at the very least. They were well equipped, and prepared for anything.
Which was why the sight of their disorganized party fighting and retreating across the ruins is even more alarming. Their leader was down by a large building, a huge spike of ice piercing his midsection. The other warriors and mages – the Horns of Hammerad was a large party twelve members strong – were either hunkered down or exchanging shots with the monster that had cornered them.
Even as I watch, an armored warrior deflects a sword strike from one of the skeletons attacking their group and smashes it with a mace. The skeleton falls to the ground, lifeless. But that’s attracted the attention of the leader of the undead, and a huge blast of fire engulfs the area.
I wince as the armored warrior runs out of the blaze screaming in agony. He rolls on the ground as a mage with a staff shoots a few magic bolts of rippling light to attract attention away from him. Two other adventurers rush forth and drag the burnt warrior into cover as a hail of ice spikes nearly pincushions all three.
Well, crap. That’s the fifth member of the Horns down. I was hoping they’d sway the battle, but at this rate they’ll be wiped out. No help for it.
I take two deep breaths, and then stretch my legs out. Right leg? Check. Left leg? Stretching…check. Okay.
I peek over the piece of rubble I’m hiding behind. Clear. Okay. Here we go—
I vault the rubble and dash down the slope. From where I am, there’s a moderate incline down into the heart of the ruins, where fallen buildings and rubble make for treacherous ground. But what’s worse is the danger of being killed by the monster fifty feet in front of me.
I charge down the hill towards it. The robed figure notices me as I’m halfway there and turns. Two glowing blue points of light in its eyes shift towards me as I sprint directly at it. It’s a Lich*, an undead skeletal mage.
*I personally have problems with calling it a Lich. Apparently, unlike in games and stories, Liches are rather common. They’re more like an undead type rather than unique and rare examples of mages living forever. They’re not even that deadly. Well, they’re very deadly, but even scarier types of undead exist apparently.
For a second I don’t think it even knows what it’s seeing. A lone human running straight at it without a weapon? It hesitates, but then raises a finger. This would be the part where I die in its theory. In mine? I think I survive.
If it seems stupid to charge at a monster capable of blasting me to bits with a single spell, well, it probably was. But I had a good reason for doing it. Over the last thirty minutes I’d scoped out the Lich’s battle against the group of adventurers and picked out a few important details about how it acted. I had three good reasons for my plan of action.
Reason A: I’d noticed that the Lich could cast several spells, from a miniaturized lightning bolt, a fireball, and those nasty showers of ice spikes. Of the three, I really only had to worry about the fireball and the ice spikes. The lightning looked dangerous, but it grounded itself too easily. Since I’m not wearing any metal, it was far harder for the Lich to hit me.
As for the fireballs and ice spikes, well, they were slower and the Lich had to point first. Its aim also wasn’t the greatest in the world. It was a risk, but so long as I didn’t get cooked when the fireball exploded I had a shot.
Also, Reason B: was that I’d noticed the Lich tended to defend itself with a barrier of bones it summoned from the ground whenever anything got close. That stopped it from casting spells for a few seconds.
And Reason C: I was bored.
The Lich pointed at me and cackled something that made my ears hurt. I dove and rolled and felt my right side go slightly numb. It felt like the worst static electricity shock I’d ever felt times a hundred, but that meant the lightning had missed me. And I was still alive.
Hit the ground, roll onto my feet and run. I closed on the Lich and it raised a protective hand. As I expected, a wall of bones erupted from the ground in front of me, a grotesque puzzle of interlocked bones and skulls solid as rock*.
*Seriously. How the hell does it do that? Are there that many bones in the ground? Or is it just magic?
Now’s my chance. I immediately veer left and accelerate towards where the adventurers are. The Lich makes a crackling noise as it realizes its been duped. It tries to lower the bone barrier, but it’s too late.
Run. Run faster. Dodge behind the pillar. Pause. Go left. Move right. Fireball! Close. Now—sprint left as fast as possible.
In one of my many safety seminars my dad made me attend after every mass shooting, they taught us what to do if a gunman ever opened fire and we had to escape. Some of it was common sense stuff like don’t scream or do something stupid and think before moving. But I did remember one important tip.
When someone’s firing at you, don’t run in a straight line to get away. Zig zag, make it hard for them to get a bead on you. And in my case, duck behind rubble and place as many obstacles between me and the Lich as possible.
I run, and I run as fast as I can. The instant I slow, I’m dead. The air around me is static; fire explodes around me and flying ice threatens to pierce my skin.
You can’t tell, and I don’t have a mirror. But I’m pretty sure I’m grinning.
Calruz, leader of the Horns of Hammerad, grunted at the other warrior as the two hid behind one of the fallen walls in the ruins. The human, his second-in-command glanced down at him and shakes his head grimly.
“I think Terr got hit by a fireball. Coblat and Grimsore dragged him away, but he’s down for the count as well.”
The minotaur hit his thigh and winced. The huge spear of ice protruding out of his midriff oozed more dark blood and he sat back against the wall and breathed out. The tendons on his neck strained and sweat stood out on his brow despite the freezing cold.
“What about our mages? Why the hell aren’t they taking this thing out?”
“They’re trying, but whenever they fire at that monster it just raises a shield. It’s got more mana than all of our casters combined. We need to get in close if we want a chance.”
“Fat chance of that happening with all those skeletons and zombies guarding it.”
“I think Terr got rid of the last of them, but we still can’t get close. It’s too flaming quick.”
The vice-captain of the Horns of Hammerad chanced a peek around the wall he was hiding behind. There didn’t seem to be any more fireballs coming his way at the moment, which was good and also worrying. Had the Lich turned its attention elsewhere? Doubtful. But then why—
His jaw dropped.
“Who is that?”
Calruz grunted and tried to twist his head, but felt back weakly.
“Who? What’s happening?”
“It’s a Runner! She just charged down the hill at the Lich! She’s coming this way!”
“You’re kidding. She’ll never make it.”
“She’s doing it.”
The vice-captain watched as the long-legged runner dashed across the broken landscape. She was leaping over pieces of rubble and running in a serpentine motion while fireballs and shards of ice rained down around her. From this distance, all he could see was her raven-black hair and tanned skin, but the vice-captain was sure he’d never seen this particular runner before.
She had odd features, which would have told him she was part-Japanese, or at least Asian if those words had meant anything to him. But it didn’t, and the vice-captain watched with tense anxiety as she dashed closer. Any second he expected her to be blown away by an on-target fireball or be seared by a lightning blast. But she didn’t. And then she was right on top of him.
Ryoka nearly tumbled into the large warrior with a sword and shield. She knocked into him and felt cool metal before she stumbled back. He pulled her into cover as icicle shards crashed against the rubble.
It took her two deep breaths of air before she could speak. Ryoka unslung her pack and nodded at the gaping vice-captain.
The vice-captain stared at Ryoka. He gestured to her, the ruins, and then waves his gauntleted hands a bit.
“That was the most amazing sight I’ve ever—you just ran right past that Lich! Are you insane? Or crazy?”
“I’m a Runner. I’ve got a delivery for the leader of the Horns of Hammerad. That you?”
Ryoka glanced down at the minotaur. He nodded to her as more sweat dripped from his brow.
“I really hope you’ve got our delivery, girl.”
She paused at the word girl, but nodded. She opened her pack and placed heavily-wrapped bottles down on the ground in front of the Minotaur.
“Fifteen healing potions, five mana potions. All unbroken. Delivery to Horns of Hammerad. Your seal?”
“Seal? Oh, of course!”
The vice-captain fumbled at his belt pouch and pulled out a silver and copper token. It was a unique seal with a hammer standing on a mountain embossed on one side.
Ryoka stowed the seal securely in her waist pouch and then peeked around the wall. The Lich was exchanging fireballs with another mage wearing a red wizard’s hat. She nodded to herself and lowered into a sprinter’s crouch.
“Wait—are you going?”
Ryoka didn’t glance at the vice-captain as she tried to judge when would be the best moment.
“You can’t! I mean, that’s even crazier!”
The vice-captain stared at Ryoka in consternation, and then looked at his leader for support. Calruz was trying to open one of the bottles. He grunted as he pulled the cork out of one of the bottles and downed the thick, syrupy green liquid.
“Let her go if she wants. Runner—thanks for the assistance. Not many of your lot would do this.”
He nodded to her. She nodded back.
“At least let us reassemble and give you a diversion. Once we get these potions to all our members we can finally bring this guy down.”
Ryoka thought about it.
“That’ll take too long. You want an opening? I’ll give you one. I’ve got more deliveries to make.”
The vice-captain tore at what hair he could reach underneath his helmet.
“He’ll blast you the instant you leave cover!”
She grinned at the vice-captain, breaking her expressionless mask.
“He can try.”
The adventuring party, Horns of Hammerad, watched the Runner break out of the ruins and sprint away even as the Lich fired a final parting bolt of lightning in her direction. He missed.
“She did it. She actually did it.”
“She told you.”
Calruz grinned, and grimaced as the icicle in his chest shifted. He took a deep breath and cracked the ice with one massive forearm to let the rest of it slide out of his stomach. Even as he did, the magical powers of the healing potion he’d downed began to knit the flesh of his stomach closed.
“Is that a new Runner? She must be. I haven’t ever seen her before, and I think I would have remembered hearing about one as crazy as that.”
“She looks different, for a human. Although you lot all look alike to me.”
“She is different. From another continent, maybe?”
“Maybe. Did everyone get the potions?”
“I tossed them over while she was drawing the Lich’s attention. They should be good. You need another?”
“I’m fine. Better than fine, actually, thanks to that Runner.”
Calruz grinned and shattered the potion bottle in his gauntleted fist. He stood up, the flow of blood already slowing. He hefted his battleaxe.
“I’d like to buy her a drink. But right now we’ve got a contract to fulfill. Everyone ready?”
The magic linking him to the rest of his adventuring party let him hear their acknowledgement. The Minotaur grinned.
“Alright, then. Let’s see how this Lich likes fighting us when we’re at full strength. Charge!”
As one, the Horns of Hammerad abandoned their position in the ruins and began a full-scale assault on the Lich and the remaining undead.
After she’d run ten miles away from the Ruins, Ryoka finally stops to catch her breath. Her lungs are burning, and her legs feel like jelly. The adrenaline is finally draining out of her, and she feels exhausted, despite only having run for a few minutes.
She can still feel tingling in her legs from the lightning bolts missing her skin. Her left arm is singed, and she feels blisters already forming on her skin.
She nearly died. Ryoka knows this, and her legs tremble. She still feels cold as she remembers gazing into the hollow eyes of the Lich. He was a monster capable of wiping her out with a single spell.
She nearly died. Had she been a second slower or dodged a foot to the left, she would have died. Ryoka knows this.
Her lips twitch. She smiles briefly.
“You completed the supply request for the Horns of Hammerad?”
The receptionist stares at me. I shrug. What does she want me to say?
It’s later. Or rather, it’s only thirty minutes later, but I feel like I’m in a different world. The worn-down room of the Runner’s Guild is a far cry from the grassy plains, or the rubble and destruction of the Ruins of Albez.
“That’s incredible. Are they already finished fighting? The mage communication we got said they were fighting a Lich and a horde of the undead.”
“They’re still fighting. The Lich is still around. Not sure about the other undead. Looked like they were mostly dead.”
The receptionist doesn’t smile. Didn’t she get the joke? Darn. She’s still giving me that ‘I-don’t-believe-you’ look. I hand her the Seal.
“Here’s the Seal from the Horns of Hammerad.”
She checks it over, and then double-checks. Her eyebrows rise.
“It’s real. So you’re telling me you delivered the supplies in the middle of the battle?”
Why is she making a big fuss? I thought that’s what all Runners did on this kind of mission.
I’m silent. I mean, what am I supposed to say to that? ‘Oh, yeah, I’m really amazing, now give me my money?’
After a few moments the receptionist finally shakes herself.
“Well, this is all in order. Would you like the payment now or…?”
I can collect my pay whenever, but most Runners do it in one lump sum at the end of the week. It’s more convenient that way, since we have to sign to confirm we’ve been paid and the receptionist has to validate it.
“Well, I think you’ve earned your break. Unless—do you think you could do another delivery? I wouldn’t ask, but you’re the only City Runner here right now.”
I’m tired, but that’s only because of my adrenaline low. I know my legs have got at least another good run in them, so I nod.
“Celum. It’s another request from Lady Magnolia. Another Runner just brought it from Remendia, but he’s too tired to keep going. It’s been passed from six Runners so far, and we need to get it to Magnolia within the hour if possible.”
Okay. Now that’s tricky. I hesitate.
It’s not that I don’t think I can do it in time. I can get to Celum in less than an hour even with something heavy on my back. But I’d done another run for Magnolia – delivering a big fancy vase – a few days ago. By the ‘unwritten rules’ that meant I should wait for at least another week before I took the request.
Damn. Damnation. Drat. What should I do? This is the exact kind of situation I hate.
“There aren’t any other City Runners around?”
The receptionist shakes her head.
“They’re all out on deliveries, and I don’t want to wait longer than I have to. I was about to ask one of the Street Runners to do the delivery, but that would have been a problem too.”
Well, in that case…why not? The Magnolia rule can go to hell for all I care.
“I’ll do it.”
The receptionist smiles in relief.
The receptionist’s head turns. My head doesn’t. I’m taking this moment to say a few choice words in my head*.
*Oh, please no. Not that stupid, inbred rodent girl. No one in the world has a voice more high-pitched and annoying that her and her moronic cronies. I’d rather go back and dance naked in front of the Lich than deal with this.
I turn and see a familiar face.
“There’s no need to give Magnolia’s request to her. I’ve just arrived, and I can take care of it myself.”
The young woman—no, the annoying teenager who strides towards me brushes past to stand at the counter. She keeps her back very straight, probably because I’m taller than her by a head. I catch the overpowering smell of perfume masking her sweat, and step back so her brown hair doesn’t smack me in the face every time she tosses her head. Which she does quite often.
I know her. Or rather, I know her face. She’d probably introduced herself to me, but I don’t remember her name. She has a sallow* face, though. She always looks like she’s pursing her lips at everyone, and she annoys me every time I look at her.
*Is sallow the right word here? I think it means pinched, and narrow, but I could be wrong. That’s the problem with not having the internet. Anyways, her face is shrewish, although I forget what a shrew looks like too. I’m going with sallow either way.
“Oh, Miss Persua. I didn’t know you were still in the city.”
Persua. Right. That’s her name.
Persua tosses her head impetuously and nods.
“Well, I was doing that delivery to Remendia, but once one of my friends let me know Magnolia’s request was sitting in the Runner’s guild, of course I came back to fulfill it.”
The receptionist looks uncomfortable.
“You—haven’t finished the other delivery? Well, I was going to give the request to Ryoka. She’s free, and she’s—”
“She’s already done a request for Magnolia this week. By rights, that means I should have a turn.”
The receptionist frowns at Persua.
“There’s no rule that explicitly give precedence to other Runners. Besides which, I need this delivery done as quickly as possible.”
Another head toss. I notice some of Persua’s ‘friends’, the other Runners—mainly Street Runners who are new or lower on the totem pole—watching me. I stare at them until they look away. I hate their guts. Too bad Persua doesn’t back down as easily. Doubly too bad is her annoying voice.
“I can easily do Magnlolia’s request. Ryoka can just switch with me.”
“It doesn’t work like that. Unless Ryoka agrees, I can’t just give this to you. Besides, as I’ve said, this is a speedy delivery. I can’t give it to—”
Persua looks at the receptionist coldly. But I fill in the gap silently in my mind, probably with everyone else in the Runner’s Guild.
To a slower runner. One of the slowest, in fact. Persua might be a City Runner, but she’s slow. Or lazy. Actually, she’s both. She’s also an idiot, but that’s just my observation. She doesn’t take as many long-distance contracts, and she only delivers light-weight stuff like flowers or letters.
“I just meant that Ryoka is the fastest City Runner. Even Fals can’t beat her time.”
“Yes, but I’m sure she’ll switch with me, won’t you Ryoka?”
Persua glances at me, and then away. Passive aggressive bitch*.
*What language! I’m ashamed of myself. Mainly because I don’t have a wider vocabulary to describe someone like her. I could get vulgar, but I’d rather just slap her on the back of the head. Must resist temptation.
I hesitate. I should give the request to Persua. Even if she fails it, there’s no skin off my back. In fact, if she gets in trouble for failing the request even better. Although she’ll probably wriggle out of it somehow.
Yeah, I hate her guts. And I don’t feel like giving in to her bullying, especially because I know the only reason she wants to do the delivery is for the easy money and the opportunity to sponge off of Magnolia. So you know what? Let’s escalate things.
That’s not what Persua wants to hear. She glances at me in irritation.
“So? I can make it.”
The receptionist glanced around uncertainty.
“If we can’t get it to Magnolia within the hour, the delivery won’t be any good. Can you make the run in time?”
“So can I.”
Both the receptionist and I glance at Persua. She’s already sweating, probably from running back to the city to take the request.
She glares at me. But I know bodies, and I know running. Sallow girl is sweaty, tired, and she has terrible running form. I’d done a run too, but unlike her I know how to conserve energy. I turn to the receptionist.
“Give me the request.”
Persua’s sallow face grew even more pinched, if that were possible. She glared daggers at me.
“That’s not fair. You’ve already done the request. I deserve it!”
The receptionist is already wrestling with something under the counter. She lifts it up to me and gives me a smile of relief. I guess she really didn’t think Persua could do it either.
“Here’s the delivery. It’s packed in ice, so try not to get it too warm if possible. You know where Magnolia’s house is. They’ll be expecting you.”
Persua stomped her foot angrily as I put the large metal canister in my backpack. Cold. And it is wrapped with melting ice, so I’ll have a wet backpack after my run. But it’s worth it to see her get mad.
“I don’t think this is a good idea.”
“Good for you.”
If looks could kill…but Pershua’s looks only annoy. She stomped towards me until my nose burned with her stupid perfume. She hissed at me.
“You’ll regret this.”
Some people. I turn away from Persua and hear her make a sound like an angry hamster. I look around and see her cronies, the other Street Runners, glaring at me.
Whatever. I really don’t care about their opinions or whatever Runner’s Code they claim. I’m here to do my job.
I nod to the receptionist.
I’m out the door before Persua can make another comment. You can’t tell, and I don’t have a mirror.
But I’m grinning again.
This time it’s the head maid who opens the door. She sniffs down at me.
I nod at her. I’m out of breath, tired, and my back is really, really cold. But I feel great, because I made it here in just forty minutes. That’s almost a record, and it’s at least twice as fast as Persua’s best time.
“Delivery for Magnolia.”
“That’s Lady Magnolia.”
Now here’s someone whose looks can really kill. I shrug and take off my pack.
The head maid closes the door on me as I wrestle with my damp delivery. Well, looks like I won’t be talking to Magnolia today. That’s actually a relief. I don’t mind the bubbly, excitable noblewoman, but I actually prefer the maids. They might be abrupt and rude, but that means less talking.
Okay, icy package is in my hands. I wait as patiently as I can outside the door, and then hear a muffled conversation. It sounds like someone arguing, and then I hear a familiar energetic voice.
“Nonsense! Ressa, how could you—of course I insist you let her in! Dirty feet or not!”
The door opens and a familiar woman greets me. How can one woman’s hair stay that curly? I’m fairly certain they don’t have hair curlers in this day and age, but Magnolia’s blonde locks look as stylized as any I’ve seen from my world.
“Please, allow me to apologize for my servant’s rudeness. Come in, please!”
I hesitate, and the maid—Ressa—standing behind Magnolia looks unhappy.
“I can just deliver the package if you have the seal—”
“Oh, I won’t hear of it! Come in!”
Ressa makes a face, and I try not to. Reluctantly, I walk into the foyer of Lady Magnolia’s mansion and wish there was a rug to wipe my feet on. Magnolia beams at me while Ressa perfects her death-glare behind her back. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want my dirty feet walking all over the marble floor. I’d prefer not to be here too, but the delivery isn’t done until I get the seal.
“This way, please. You can put it in the drawing room. No, not the secondary one, Ressa. The main one!”
She leads me into a carpeted room. Again, I hesitate, but there’s no helping it. The rug is very soft, and my feet are very dirty, but Magnolia doesn’t care. She peers excitedly at the metal container burning my hands with frost and dripping onto the carpet and beams at me.
“Oh my, that was quick! I was told this would be travelling the entire way from the port city of Hazenbrad! Did you bring it here yourself?”
“No. Other runners brought it most of the way.”
“Well, you and your people have certainly done me quite a service! Thank you!”
Magnolia presents me with her silver-sapphire seal.
“It’s Ryoko, isn’t it? It’s rare that I see the same Runner in so many days.”
Ryoka. But I’m used to people mispronouncing the name. I take the seal and slip it into my pouch. Right, now how to get out of this place tactfully?
“I’ve got to go. More deliveries.”
Actually, I don’t have any more, and I’m tired. But I’d rather go to sleep now, and deal with annoying jealous Runners tomorrow.
Magnolia’s face falls.
“Oh, but won’t you stay? I’d love to share this delightful treat with you—and you’ve run so far and so quickly too! When I heard a runner was setting out from Wales* I was sure it would take at least an hour for you to get here!”
*Yeah, that’s the city I left. Wales. It’s odd that it has the same name as a country from my world, but then again…it’s not. There’s only so many words in the English language, after all.
Again, what do you say to something like that? ‘Yeah, I’m awesome, now give me more money?’ This is why I hate talking to people.
“Besides which, I was never able to talk properly with you both times before now. I truly would love to converse with you—and ask about your peculiar choice of footwear, or should I say, its lack! Won’t you stay for a while?”
Magnolia entreats me with her eyes, and Ressa the maid gives me a look that says I should do whatever she wants and stop sweating and getting the carpets dirty while I’m at it.
I hesitate. But—I’m tired and I don’t feel like talking. Like always. True, Magnolia is better than Persua any day of the week, but her enthusiasm makes me feel tired. So I edge towards the door.
“I’m sorry, but I really should go. I’m very busy.”
Magnolia smiles at me.
“Are you that eager to be away? You may simply tell me if you don’t wish to converse.”
I jump* and stare at her. Magnolia smiles.
*Well, not literally.
“Really my dear. It’s written all over your face. But besides that, I am a [Lady], and most of us learn [Sense Intentions] quite early. And I am quite high-level at that. So, therefore, sit.”
I sit. I don’t even think about it. She spoke, and I—okay, that was something else.
“I would like to talk with you. It is rare that I meet a young lady as interesting as yourself.”
Try to stand up. No? Okay legs, I’m your boss. Stand. Stand.
Magnolia gestures to the chair I’m trapped in.
“Please sit here. I would like to share this delivery you’ve worked so hard to bring me.”
I’m still struggling with my unresponsive body. Magnolia gives me another smile and addresses her hovering maid.
“Ressa? Please be so kind as to open up the delivery? And I believe we will need two bowls and silverware. I would like the blue porcelain today.”
“Very good, milady.”
Ressa gives me a silent, warning look. Probably to tell me to behave, and disappears out the door. She’s probably going for reinforcement maids. And that leaves me with Magnolia.
The larger woman gives me another charming smile. For the first time I eye her, and not just as a rich, silly lady. Sure, she looks like something of a stereotype with her bright clothing and expensive jewelry and unambiguously good-natured personality, but what the hell did she do to me? Is that a skill?
“I do hope you like sweet things, Miss Ryoka. Forgive my rudeness, but I simply find that sometimes it’s best to pin people down and get to know them, don’t you?”
“I’m so glad you agree!”
Now, that. That sounded a bit like sarcasm. Well, well. Looks like Magnolia has layers. Or her petticoat does. Looks like I’ve underestimated her.
“Well, continue sitting there for a moment. I simply must try this delight, although I fear it’s rather ruining the carpet. Ah, well, it was due for a change.”
Magnolia bustles out of the room. I try to run for it, but my legs are still unresponsive. Well, damn. She’s got some power. It might be worth talking with her after all.
Magnolia. What an aggressive, pushy lady.
I think I like her.
Lady Magnolia fussed around the drawing room, and her maids fussed after her. She was busy overseeing the opening of a large metal cask, the contents of which had been surrounded in ice.
Ryoka sat in front of one ornately wrought table, conscious of her dirty feet on the rug. It might not have been Persian, but that was only because Persia didn’t exist in this world. It was certainly expensive, and it was certainly getting dirty the longer her feet were on it.
Occasionally, Ryoka’s legs would tense, but she remained sitting, much to her vexation.
“And here we are!”
Magnolia clapped her hands together in delight. Ryoka glanced up as the two latches on the metal canister were undone and icy vapor escaped. She had no idea what she’d brought, and so it was with interest that she saw a maid carefully scoop something out of the canister.
It was…white, wet-looking, with a few dark flecks mixed in the creamy color. Magnolia’s eye sparkled as another scoop was transferred to a blue and white porcelain bowl. Even the maids looked covetously at the soft cream.
To be specific, the soft ice cream.
Magnolia gestured towards her guest, and the maid hesitated before setting the bowl down in front of Ryoka. The young woman stared silently at the gold filigree on the spoon she was handed. She stared down at the ice cream.
“Now, this is quite a treat.”
One of the maids pulled a chair out for Lady Magnolia and the noblewoman sat across from Ryoka. She accepted another bowl and smiled at Ryoka.
“Don’t be afraid. This is in fact a very rare delicacy I had imported. It’s quite, quite expensive, but once you try it, I think you’ll agree it’s worth the cost.”
Ryoka hesitated. She wasn’t sure if she should eat first, but Magnolia waved one hand at her.
“Oh, go on. What kind of host would I be if I did not allow you the first bite? I must warn you though—it’s quite cold!”
Ryoka hesitated, but Lady Magnolia was staring at her with earnest expectation. That was in sharp contrast to the maids behind her, who were all giving Ryoka the glare of death. She had the distinct impression refusing would not end well for her.
Prompted by the all the eyes on her, Ryoka slowly took a bite. Her expression didn’t change one iota. Lady Magnolia blinked. The maids would have muttered, but their training kept their faces carefully neutral.
“Huh. Ice cream.”
Ryoka paused and cursed inwardly. She hadn’t meant to say that out loud. Again, Magnolia blinked at her and her mouth fell open delicately.
“My. You know what this is?”
“My dear, remember what I said about my skills? I know you’re lying. But how can that be? I would swear that this delight hasn’t been invented but for a week! I just heard it had been created by a master [Chef] in the northern continent. But you’ve had some before, haven’t you?”
She could tell the truth, or she could lie and reveal the truth. Ryoka shrugged.
The maids murmured. Magnolia sighed, and tasted the ice cream herself.
“Delicious. Oh, but pardon me. I couldn’t help myself. Well, this is one surprise that quite trumps my surprise! I must say, I’m rather put out and delighted that you know this treat. What did you call it? ‘Ice cream’?”
“Is it called something else around here?”
“I believe it was referred to as ‘gelato’, or some such. But I rather like your name! It certainly is quite reminiscent of cream, isn’t it? But the coldness—and of course the sweetness is incomparable!”
“Well, now you simply must tell me how you know of this treat.”
“Uh, it’s common in my home country.”
Magnolia raised her delicate eyebrows.
“Common? Sure you—but you are telling the truth. How curious.”
Ryoka shifted in her seat. This was bad. She felt like her mind was being read. Well, even if it were just her intentions and whether or not she was telling the truth, there were enough landmines in the conversation to fill a battlefield. She had to shift the conversation.
Gingerly, she took another bite. The ice cream wasn’t actually as sweet as the one from her world, but it was hauntingly familiar. She pointed to the melting canister.
“Uh, how much did this cost?”
That wasn’t an appropriate question, to judge by the glares she got from the maids. But Magnolia seemed to take the question in stride.
“Well, I hate to bring up such issues in polite conversation, but this little treat cost seventy gold coins, not including the cost of shipping it across the sea and rushing it all the way here.”
Ryoka choked on her bite of ice cream and nearly bit the spoon in half. Magnolia waved a hand at her.
“Oh, please. I know it’s a lot, but for a treat like this? Very worthwhile.”
Silently, Ryoka stared at the canister of ice cream. It was probably, when all was said and done, the size of a tub of ice cream she could have bought for three dollars in any supermarket in her world.
Oblivious to her inner thoughts, Magnolia smiled again at Ryoka as she delicately spooned more ice cream into her mouth.
“I fear we must eat quickly before our ‘ice cream’ melts. But I’m sure we could chat over tea as well. And then you can tell me about how you know of this ice cream, and where you come from. I must say, your features are quite striking.”
Ryoka’s expression didn’t change, but Magnolia’s eyes flickered.
“Well, if you don’t prefer to say I quite understand. But I would like to chat.”
This was hard. Ryoka frowned at her mostly melted ice cream and thought carefully. Then she looked up. Magnolia’s smile grew even wider.
“Oh? I know it’s terribly rude to point out what you’re thinking, but that was quite the inspiration you just had.”
“Yeah. I was just thinking about the ice cream.”
“Would you like another scoop?”
“No. But I do know a lot about it.”
Magnolia leaned forwards in excitement. Ryoka looked down her bosom and felt like she understood part of the attraction of visiting Magnolia. At least, the attraction for the male City Runners.
“Really? I’m afraid I wasn’t able to learn anything about what creature produces such a delightful treat. Do you know where it comes from?”
“Better. I know how to make it.”