“You’re spending more money?” Gennady asked me, frowning.
“Yes,” I said, turning back to face him. I raised an eyebrow. “Is something wrong with that?”
“No.” He shook his head and sighed. “But you barely spent any gold since I met you other than the time you paid me, and now you’re throwing it all around. I was just curious why the sudden change.”
“I told you didn’t I? Money is supposed to be spent, not hoarded.” I raised a hand up, cutting the Dwarf off from pointing out the obvious. “And,” I added, wagging a finger, “this is all for my safety and protection.”
After all, what was the point of money if you were dead? That was simple logic— at least, to me. Gennady didn’t argue, and he simply followed me as I entered the Alchemist shop.
It wasn’t the biggest shop in the world; there weren’t a vast array of potions available for me to pick out, nor were there anything truly high quality being sold here. I had seen powerful alchemical potions back when I was with the Dark Crusaders and back when I briefly met Felix: the potions here were relatively unimpressive.
I glanced past a glowing green vial of acid that seemed incredibly dangerous. I’m not getting close to that, I told myself, fearing that I might accidentally drop it due to some clumsy mistake.
I took a look through the selection of healing potions they had available; I remembered being informed of how their potency was determined by the brilliance of their glow. I narrowed my eyes as I carefully inspected one, finding there to be nothing more than a weak dim coming off of one of the more expensive vials on the shelf.
Seven and a half gold. I shook my head. That was expensive, but I needed some reassurance that if anything happened to me, I could at least try to undo the damage. This healing potion probably wouldn’t regrow a lost arm or anything of the like, but it could at least stop the bleeding. And that was better than cauterizing whatever wounds I could possibly suffer from.
I grabbed a few more potions of the shelves— I took mostly healing potions, but I found the concept of a stamina potion interesting and snatched one as well— before heading to the counter and paying it for it all. When I asked Gennady if he wanted to get any, he gestured at a pouch around his waist.
“Already got some,” he said. “Always gotta be prepared in case something bad happens. I’m surprised you didn’t already own a few given how paranoid you can sometimes get.”
“I’m not paranoid.” I rolled my eyes. “And I did buy some back when I was still in the Free Lands. I only ever got to use one vial after… an incident there. I have another packed away in my bag which I always have with me on dangerous outings.”
The Dwarf snorted. “She says she’s not paranoid as she walks out of an Alchemist shop with four healing potions.”
I shrugged. “I’m just being cautious.”
“And I’m just your any, old Tinkerer, ain’t I?”
I gave him a mock glare, but did not comment further. We headed our way back to the inn to finish our preparation for tomorrow night; we were finally leaving Laxis. Personally, I did not have much to pack, but Gennady was a different story.
“So,” I started, staring at the bike. “How are we going to sneak that into the docks?”
“Good question,” he said, scratching his beard. “I could drive it to the docks now and stow it away somewhere nearby our meeting location ahead of time, that way we can just push it along the rest of the way on the night itself.”
“Sounds good to me.” I nodded.
“I’ll do that now, actually. Here,”— I stumbled back as Gennady placed his large backpack on my arms and got on his bike— “take care of that for a bit, will ya?”
The Dwarf started up the bike, turning on its engine; white gas puffed out sounding like quick, short breaths and filling the air with noise and fumes.
“Sorry, can’t hear you!” he called out to me as he drove off.
I stared at his figure as it disappeared down the street, still holding his mountainous bag on my arms.
“…did he really just do that to me?” I paused, then corrected myself. “Did I just allow him to do that to me?”
After packing all our belongings, we were gone; we paid the innkeeper what we owed them— Gennady and I split the cost, of course— and headed out of the inn. It was barely sundown and people were starting to retire for the day.
The two of us kept close to the edge of the main roads, although we made sure not to stray too far into the alleyways and side streets riddled with potential crimes just waiting to happen. We finally reached the small warehouse Gennady stashed away his bike after paying off the owner; the Dwarf hefted his bag onto the vehicle, and he began rolling it alongside him as we finally reached our destination.
Darkness had taken over at this point, and apart from the glow of the nearby torchlight, there was no more light to illuminate the night; the clouds covered the glittering star light of the sky, while obscuring most of the crescent moon.
A lone person, however, waited for us in the darkness. Gennady stepped forward to approach them, but I held an arm out. “Wait,” I said. “Where’s Lisa?”
The person was clearly Jack, with his broad frame and tall figure— and that was not even mentioning the way he was dressed. Gennady raised his shoulders in a shrug.
“Don’t know. Maybe she’s getting the boat?”
“We should make sure.” I felt my lips purse into a thin line. “That man didn’t like you and obviously didn’t want to do the job. He could’ve very easily changed his mind after he sobered up.”
“Then that means he’s just here to tell us that he won’t be doing the job,” Gennady said, taking a step forward anyways. He walked past me and called out to the man. “Oi, lad, where’s Lisa? What happened to our deal?”
The smuggler glanced up and glared at Gennady. “Shut it, Dwarf. You’re making too much noise. This is supposed to be a covert meeting, and you’re over here screaming my ears out.”
“Aren’t you going to answer my question?”
I quickly walked past Gennady and holding up a bag of coins, I spoke over the two before they could begin arguing again. “Jack,” I said, trying not to speak too loudly. “Where’s Lisa? Why are you the only one here?”
Jack eyed the pouch and bit back his tongue; he relaxed his posture, and gestured further down the docks. “She’s bringing the boat over. We’ll be taking it to a merchant vessel anchored just outside of port.”
“And are you sure we’ll be fine?” I asked, raising an eyebrow; I was not sure why I bothered doing that since my face was obscured by my mask, but I did it anyways. “If we’re just taking an ordinary ship, won’t we still be under threat of pirates?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Our ship is special. It’s used to bring a lot of illegal goods into the city from sea— most pirates will recognize it and leave it alone. That doesn’t mean we’re safe from danger, however, but we’ll be far less of a target than any old ship leaving the harbor.”
“That’s one of the safest routes, lass.” Gennady placed a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
I turned to meet the Dwarf’s eyes, and stared into it for a moment; I held my friend’s gaze for just a moment, and nodded. “Stop assuming I’m paranoid,” I said. “I was just curious.”
He grinned, and smacked me across the back. I braced for it, and didn’t double over for once.
Jack snorted. “Don’t agree with me, Dwarf. You’ll make me puke before we even get to sea.”
Gennady opened his mouth to snap back, but I stopped him. “I think she’s here.” I pointed at a shadow moving in the rough waves; a small boat— one that could probably only fit a dozen people— was making its way towards the docks.
“Is that her?” I asked Jack as I stepped forward to him; the man did not seem like he particularly disliked me despite his clear animosity towards Gennady whom I was affiliated with, and he nodded.
“Yes. It’s time for us to go.” He stalked down the wooden platform we were standing on, down towards the small beach just below the pier. The boat had two men pushing it onto shore, as I saw the vague outline of Lisa walking ahead of them.
“Aria,” the young woman greeted me. She quickly nodded at Gennady to the side, before directing her full attention on me. “You’re early; quite the punctual girl, aren’t you?”
“We just had to make sure there were no surprises, that’s all,” I said truthfully. “So you guys didn’t change your mind? You’ll still be doing the job?”
“Of course.” She cocked her head. “Why? Did something happen?”
“No, just curious.”
“Well,” Lisa said, clasping her hands together. “Unless you’ve decided to renegotiate the fee you’ll be paying us, we’ll be doing the job without any issue— even if Jack decides to remain dour about it.”
“We’re not renegotiating unless you two are open to renegotiate.”
“Then it’s settled. Just place your things in the boat, and we’ll be off.” The young woman merrily patted my backpack but I quickly knocked her hand aside. “Oh—”
“Sorry,” I quickly said, cautiously protecting my backpack. “But I’d rather you not touch my stuff.”
“Of course, I do apologize.” She placatingly backed away, and lowered her head. “I’m sure you have your reasons, but do not worry, we won’t ask any questions.”
Gennady and I soon found ourselves in the small boat riding the waves into the sea; he had to tie his bike down so it did not fall off into the rough waters. The two men began rowing as Lisa and Jack simply settled into the seat across from us.
It took a while, but we eventually saw the ship awaiting us in the distance. We got closer and closer until we finally arrived, and we climbed aboard the transportation vessel. I steadied myself as I stepped foot on deck, while Gennady, Lisa, and Jack trotted along as if the ship wasn’t rocking with every passing second.
“Think you’ll get sick?” Gennady asked, cocking a brow.
“No,” I said, grabbing hold onto his arm. “I just have to get used to this. It’s… less stable than what I’m used to.”
And by that, I meant it wasn’t like the one time I went on a cruise ship ride back on Earth. It was a completely different experience— but the constant swaying feeling while standing was something I could bear given enough time.
“If you will follow me, I can show you to your rooms.” Lisa approached us from the side, smiling. “Apologies if it’s not suited to your liking, but we aren’t a business that ensures the quality of the traveling experience— we’re still rather new to this kind of ‘people transportation’, you see.”
“And how about that?” I asked, gesturing at Gennady’s bike which was just brought onto the deck by some sailors.
“We’ll keep it in cargo.”
I turned back to Gennady and he seemed fine with it, so we let them take his bike down below deck. We followed Lisa as she led us to our rooms— the ship was not exactly the biggest one in the first place, and it was built to have more space for transporting goods rather than people. It probably prioritized speed rather than bulk deliveries, which was all the better for me since I would prefer it if we reached Taw sooner rather than later.
I had expected Lisa to bring us to some shared sleeping quarters, and was surprised to find myself standing in my own private room.
“We… don’t have to pay for our own separate rooms, right?” I asked, resisting the urge to count how many gold coins I had left after spending it on potions and other traveling necessities.
“Of course not,” the young woman said, waving a hand dismissively. “I just find it rather… improper for a young girl such as you to be sleeping in the same room with an older man like him. No offense.”
Gennady shrugged. “None taken.”
Lisa turned back to me and cocked her head. “Unless you prefer to sleep—”
“I prefer to sleep alone,” I cut her off. “Thanks.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” She smiled and nodded at Gennady. “I’ll bring you to your room next, and I’ll leave you be, ok?”
I waved farewell to my companion and the young woman as they headed off further down the hallway. I closed the door behind me, making sure to bolt it shut so that no one could just enter without me letting them. I hear their footsteps slowly fade into the distance and sighed.
“I might be a little seasick,” I murmured under my breath.
It was nothing unbearable, but it was an unusual feeling to have after so long staying grounded on land. I glanced out the window of my room, and saw the distant lights of the city of Luke as nothing more than a blur.
Won’t be missing that city, I thought, remembering how I was pretty much locked in a room for the entirety of the time I spent there. At least the beach was nice, apart from that weird encounter with the Half Elf and the possible panic attack I spontaneously suffered from.
In other words, it wasn’t exactly a pleasant stay, yet compared to my time in the Free Lands, I had rather enjoyed myself; I placed my backpack down and quickly rummaged through it. I had everything important— nothing was left behind, which was good.
If I somehow left a grimoire or tome which contained anything that could possibly be traced back to me or ‘Aria’, I might be forced to throw away my Hunter’s license and get a new fake identity. I would not have liked that, considering that was my mom’s name which I cherished very much.
It was one way I remembered her, another being the purple pointed hat that was neatly folded in my bag; I stared down at it, and almost instinctively reached out to it. I paused, and shook my head.
It did not belong to my mother; I had bought it from a milliner and had them design it to be as similar as mom’s was, but it was not the same. I slowly closed my bag and sighed.
My mask was stuffy; wearing it for so long was not exactly comfortable and I wanted to take it off. I considered this for a moment, tapping on the hard shell worn on my face with my gloved fingertips, before deciding against it. If someone barges in—
Someone barged in.
I jumped up in a panic, reaching for my dagger down at my waist. Lisa blinked as she stepped into the room, looking down at the now broken bolt rolling on the floor.
“Huh,” she said, picking it up. “We’ll need to get that replaced.”
“What are you doing?” I asked, lowering my guard for just a little bit.
“Sorry, are you busy? I had no idea,” Lisa apologized as she backed out of the room. “I can come back later— and maybe get someone to take a look at the lock. I didn’t know it would break so easily. Probably because of old age.”
“Come back,” I sighed, sitting back down. “I’m not busy. And you probably wanted to talk about your payment, right?”
Lisa’s face immediately brightened at that, and she hurriedly entered back into the room. “Yes. Actually, I was hoping to discuss exactly that.”
“We promised half when we left, and the other half when we arrived, didn’t we?”
She nodded her head in agreement. “We did.”
“But we haven’t left yet, have we?” I raised an eyebrow, and she paused.
“W-well, we’ll be going at dawn. There isn’t really a difference if you pay me now and pay me later, right?”
“No,” I said, “there is a difference.” I gestured vaguely out the window and began to explain. “Say I pay you now, what’s going to stop you from making up some sort of excuse tomorrow morning that we can’t leave and that you misplaced the money? You’d force us to go back empty handed, and we can’t do anything about it.”
Lisa’s smile wavered, and she put out a hand. “We aren’t planning to do anything like that!” she protested, trying to keep her cool. “I promise. I was just a bit overeager to get paid, that’s all! I wasn’t going to betray you— our reputation is on the line here!”
“And how exactly are two strangers with no connections in Luke going to harm your reputation?”
“I…” she trailed off. The young woman shuffled uncomfortably on her feet, playing with her hair using her fingers. “I wasn’t going to do that.”
I just stared blankly at her; I was not sure whether I believed her, and I didn’t even mean to accuse her in the first place. I was simply explaining the logic behind why I thought it wasn’t a good idea to pay her at the current moment.
“Look,” I said, standing up. “If I didn’t trust you at least a little bit, I wouldn’t have even gotten on this ship. But the way you’re acting now just screams all kinds of suspicious to me. Explain yourself.”
Lisa froze, and she slowly lowered her hand down to her sides. She took a deep breath, whispering. “We need the gold.”
She spoke louder. “I said, we need the gold.”
I stood there, completely bewildered. “Aren’t you guys the best smugglers in all of Luke?”
“We are,” Lisa said, exhaling a frustrated breath. “Or we should be. But Jack’s stubbornness is costing us so many jobs. We used to get a new job every single month, but in the last year, we haven’t gotten anywhere near as many.”
“Why’s that?” I asked, looking at the dejected girl.
“Because there’s this new group that took control over the underground recently. They’re called the Elise, and in a single year, they managed to form connections with all the various criminal groups, gangs, and pirates around Luke. They’re trying to expand further into the rest of Laxis now, and they wanted to hire us to do a job for them two months ago, and they offered to pay us more money than we’ve ever been paid. But Jack refused. So now we’re blacklisted by every major group in the surrounding area. We’re still the best smugglers in Luke, but no one will be hiring our services until we acquiesce.”
I frowned. “And why doesn’t Jack want to work with them?”
“You’ve seen how he is around you Dwarf friend, haven’t you?” She waited for me to respond, and when I nodded she continued. “Well, there are rumors that the leader of the Elise is a Half Elf by the name of Bahr.”
I felt my ears perk up at that. “A Half Elf?”
“Yes,” she said, rubbing at her temples. “And I think that might be why Jack is so adamant against working with them. It’s just so…”
“Foolish?” I helpfully piped up.
“That’s a nice way of putting it.”
“And so now you’re doing this job with us— complete strangers, since we aren’t aware of any of this politics going on in the underground world of Luke?”
“It’s not exactly a well kept secret.” She walked past me, and sat down on my bed without my permission. “But it’s not something you’d hear about just by poking around the city for a few days or even weeks. We still have an offer on the table open for us by the Elise, so we aren’t completely hated just yet.”
I nodded my head, slowly processing all the information she had given me. “And you want to get out of the city before things get worse?”
“Yes.” Lisa smiled at me. “You’re so clever, Aria. I didn’t expect a girl as young as you to be so keen and sharp.”
I ignored the flattery as she continued.
“That’s why when you two came and offered us the opportunity to not only leave Luke but pay us to do so, I made sure Jack took it. That’s why I pushed for you to speak, since I knew he would never accept whatever terms your Dwarf friend laid out.”
I recalled specifically how Lisa kept asking me questions whenever it seemed like Jack was about to storm off from the conversation. “That makes sense, I guess;” I said.
“Exactly.” The young woman nodded eagerly at me. She smiled as she placed a hand on my shoulder. “That’s why you can trust us. Trust me.”
I glanced up at her and met her gaze. I held it for just a second, before replying.
“Nice try, but I’m not paying you until tomorrow.”
“Oh well, it was worth a shot.” Lisa stood back up and shrugged.
I watched her as she began to make her way out of the room, before calling out to her.
“So was that all a lie?” I narrowed my eyes.
“No,” she said. “I didn’t make any of that up. It’s all the truth, but I would feel better if I knew I had some of my payment with me right now instead of tomorrow. I guess I’ll just have to wait.”
Slowly, I lowered my hand to the coin pouch at my side; Lisa paused, noticing the subtle movement. Then I let my hands droop to my sides.
“Sorry. You’ll indeed have to wait.”
She sighed. “Oh well. As long as I’m paid by morning.”
“That’s only if we leave in the morning,” I stated.
Lisa just nodded nonchalantly. “Right, right. Well, I’ll have to head off to bed. Goodnight, Aria.”
With that, she closed the door behind her and I was left alone once again. The door slowly creaked back open due to the broken lock and I just watched with narrowed eyes as her shadow disappeared in the hallway.
I had almost wanted to pay her; it only made sense for me to give her what she wanted to ensure she did not betray us. But gold only bought so much loyalty: if I were too liberal in my spending, it could be taken as a form of naivete. I had to ensure that these smugglers were both disincentivized from betraying me as well as discouraged from exploiting me— plus, I did not fully trust her. The way she barged in… was suspicious, to say the least.
So I put my foot down instead of giving her what she wanted.
I was not sure if that was the best thing to do here, but I had to do it. It might backfire or it might not. All that was left was for me to sleep and see how things went tomorrow.
Hopefully, it would be smooth sailing from here.
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