Shortly after Lisa left, I had someone direct me to where Gennady was staying; he slept in one of the communal dormitories, just like Lisa and Jack did, but he was kept in a separate building from Jack to keep the two bickering. The Dwarf still seemed down, but he immediately brightened when I handed him back his gold.
“Here,” I said. “Since we’re obviously not in Jahar’taw right now, I got our money back. This is yours.”
“Oh.” He blinked. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, before he snatched the gold off my hand. “Glad ya upped and did it for me. I probably would’ve ended up getting into a fight with that Jack if I tried to get it back from him.”
I paused, scrutinizing his face; indecision kept me from saying anything for a moment, but I finally managed to muster up the courage to speak. “Do you think that’s enough?” I asked.
“For the parts to make you a new bike.” I waited to see if he would visibly react, and when he did not, I continued. “You didn’t lose anything else that was important, right? You’ve got your bag with you, and that’s got all your personal items… right?” I felt stupid for repeating myself like that, but I wanted to tread lightly considering the way he was the night before.
Gennady paused to stare at me, then sighed. “I’m fine, Melas— and I’m sorry for revealing your name the other day. But there’s no need to be concerned. I don’t have any sentimental attachments to that bike, and this is probably more than enough to buy everything I need to make a new one.”
I found myself nodding along as he spoke, then glanced heavenward at the rock ceiling above, before looking back down and facing him. “Why were you so…” I trailed off, leaving the words unsaid but the implication hanging in the air.
“So depressed?” He cocked a brow.
He took a deep breath, leaning his back on the cold, stone surface of the cave wall. “I was just upset. It’s something I spent a lot of time designing. And while I do have the blueprints necessary to build a new bike from scratch, I had planned to simply show the finished product to a friend back in Taw.”
“Why’s that?” I looked at the Dwarf inquisitively. “What were you planning to do?”
“Revolutionize transportation, of course,” he snorted. He wagged a finger in the air as he explained. “Right now, the mana cars, bikes, and ships you see all rely on expensive, large mana crystals to function. If not those, they typically require dozens of smaller ones, which doesn’t make it any more efficient or cheaper. And what happens when a mana crystal of a car is tapped out?”
“You have to buy another one.”
He pushed himself off the wall and straightened; he took on a lecturing tone almost reminiscent to the professors I had met when I attended summer college classes back on Earth.
“What I did was reconcile mana tech with steam technology to make this hybrid form of technology that would be a cheaper and better alternative to what is available right now. People still ride horses and carts because they can’t afford mana crystals, but what about liquid mana? Or as I’m calling it— mana fuel.”
“Won’t the cost of liquid mana just go up then?” I asked, frowning. “Since more people want to buy it?”
“Yes,” Gennady agreed, stroking his beard. “But so would the supply of liquid mana since people would then capitalize on all the untouched mana wells. Maybe it’d become more expensive than it is now, but it’ll never reach the prices of mana crystals. They just don’t have as much utility as those.
“My friend owns many large factories throughout the country. He’d be able to mass produce these vehicles of mine at such a scale, it’d be used in all of Taw within a decade. Us Dwarves, unlike you Humans— no offense— aren’t as close minded to new ideas. That’s why we’re known as inventors and innovators. When the Mana Revolution came about, we didn’t just give up on every industry we had before. We understood we could combine both to reach peak efficiency!”
“That’s a very Dwarf thing for you to say.” I grinned, forgetting for a second that I still had my mask on.
“Oh shut it,” he said, waving a hand dismissively. “It would’ve been easier to simply show how superior my mana bike is to the regular ones out there, since many of the Engineer-Tinkerers there wouldn’t be able to graph my design. But I’m confident I wouldn’t run into any problems selling it otherwise.”
I smiled as he finally seemed to return to his usual self; placing a hand on his shoulder, I nodded reassuringly. “Of course you won’t. You’re probably the smartest Dwarf I know.”
“I’m the only Dwarf you know,” Gennady snorted.
I shrugged over exaggeratedly. “It’s true.”
He laughed, raising a hand to smack me in the back. I braced myself for it, but was caught off guard when he lightly patted me instead.
“So,” he started, changing the subject, “is that all you wanted to see me for?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve known ya for a bit, lass. I know how you operate. You like to do as many things at once whenever you can. I highly doubt you came here just to check on me and cheer me up with gold— which, I appreciate by the way.”
I folded my arms and faked a pout. “Hey! Are you saying I don’t have empathy! Because I do have lots of it!”
Gennady rolled his eyes. “Coming from the girl who tried to kill me when we first met.”
“That’s… fair.” I exhaled deeply, then glanced about— making sure nobody was nearby. When I was certain that we had our privacy, I spoke up. “It’s about Lisa,” I said.
“Jack’s partner?” I watched as the Dwarf’s brows furrowed in his forehead. “What about her?”
“I don’t trust her.” It was an empty statement; I was suspicious of her ever since she barged into my room without a sound. However, after catching her in her lie, I didn’t feel the least bit reassured since I had no idea what to do now. “She lied to me. It wasn’t a terrible lie, but she definitely isn’t who she seems to be.”
“Quit skirting around the subject! I don’t quite get what you’re saying, lass.”
I sighed; I was not sure how to explain it. The way she acted— she seemed both honest and fake at the same time. Her interest in me did not seem fabricated, but her demeanour certainly was.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But unlike Ginah’s Crew and Jack, I don’t think she has any reason to dislike the Elise. She could betray us for any number of reasons.”
Gennady didn’t immediately respond. Instead, he looked at me for a few seconds, and I blinked.
“Don’t ya think you’re being paranoid again?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“I’m not paranoid,” I said simply. “I’m just—”
“—erring on the side of caution, right,” Gennady finished for me. “You’ve said that before. But I think this is a little too extreme. Just because someone doesn’t have any reason to hate your enemies doesn’t mean they will betray you.”
“I don’t think she’ll betray us,” I corrected him, “I just don’t trust her entirely.”
“You know what I mean.” The Dwarf squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Melas, I don’t want to pry information out of you, but why are you so afraid of trusting people?”
“I have my reasons,” I stated flatly.
“I know you do. Everyone does. However, that doesn’t mean you should automatically assume the worst in people.”
I shook my head. “Not just regular people. Criminals.”
“And so are you for being a heretic,” he pointed out the obvious.
I knew that; I was aware that I could very well apply the same kind of prejudice against myself that way. I wouldn’t blame anyone if they found my secrets and my nature to be suspicious— not trusting me only seemed to be the smart thing to do. So I said it.
“I wouldn’t trust me either.”
Gennady just stared at me for a moment, almost disbelieving. Then he gave me a resigned look. “So what then?” he asked. “You don’t think the person we hired is trustworthy, but we aren’t working with her anymore. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know,” I said, earning me a facepalm from the Dwarf. “Listen— and don’t stare at me like that! I wanted to speak with you specifically to discuss this. I… am not sure what to do.”
His gaze bore into me for a moment longer, then he lowered his arms. “You don’t know what to do because there isn’t anything to do.”
He gestured away from us— in the direction of the pirates.
“If you tell them Lisa might betray us to the Elise, they’ll ask you for proof. If that proof just amounts to her lying in your face, they’ll laugh at you and treat you like a child— which, now that I think about it, isn’t exactly the best metaphor to use with you. But you get what I’m sayin’, aintcha?”
“I understand the gist of it.” I raised a hand, stopping him from continuing. I felt my lips draw into a thin line. “But I can’t just do nothing can I?”
“‘Course not,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Just keep an eye out. Maybe gather more evidence if there’s something leading you to really believe she’ll betray us. Other than that, there’s nothing for you to do.”
“Shouldn’t I at least tell Ginah?” I asked, cocking my head. “Or Jack.”
“No. You barely even know them, while they’ve known Lisa for who knows how long. Disclosing it with me is fine, but otherwise, you should keep it to yourself. Telling it to them now will only alienate them from you.”
I brought a hand up to my chin, considering this. “I… understand.”
“Good,” he said, this time slapping me across the back; I was not prepared for it, and nearly doubled over. “Now if that’s all you wanted to talk about, I’ve gotta run. There’s this kid who wants to take a look at some of my equipment. Seems like he’s a self taught Tinkerer— perhaps you might find yourself with a rival apprentice.”
“As long as you don’t replace me, I can deal with not being your only pupil.”
“Hah, maybe I will,” Gennady chortled. I gave him a mock glare as he headed off, leaving me alone.
I stood there, at the corner of the cave, gathering my thoughts: Gennady was right. I would be behaving foolishly if I called out Lisa with no evidence— simple lies and deceit to someone she just met did not count. Furthermore, I barely knew them. They probably trusted me as much as I trusted them.
I had to show that I was an asset to them first— not to prove myself so I would feel accepted, but to be accepted so I had some influence within the group; whether Lisa would betray us was a worry for another time, and was something I should just keep in mind when talking to her. But if I wanted to spend my time working with Ginah’s Crew to disrupt the Elise’s functions, I needed to be able to work well with these people at least on some level.
If Lisa truly could be bribed to betray these pirates, it would allow the Elise to run unimpeded in growing their enuim trade. I did not want to let that happen, although I acknowledged that I would not stay around if it looked like an unwinnable fight. Therefore, I had to ensure these pirates had a modicum of a chance to put a halt to their supply of drugs, and had to be on the lookout for potential hurdles to this such as Lisa currently was.
Perhaps I was being paranoid as Gennady said, but I could not be certain; I was just being wary. After all, I wanted to leave for the Taw Kingdom with a clear conscience, and both those outcomes were predicated on Ginah’s Crew’s success.
For the next few days, I took Gennady’s advice and focused on socializing while practicing my magic; I had pushed aside learning how to create mana tech for now as I wouldn’t be able to do anything useful with it anytime soon. That was not to say I completely ignored it— I simply spent less time on it than I had previously been spending.
I felt out of place amongst the boisterous pirates which made gaining their trust more difficult than it should be. The way they treated me almost seemed as if they held no apprehension with my presence, but I knew they weren’t willing to divulge anything truly important to me just as I wasn’t willing to do so with them. My mask served as both a physical and metaphorical barrier between me and most of Ginah’s Crew, barring Braz.
The man was about as open as anyone could get: he treated me as if I was just another person, and wasn’t trying to constantly guess whether I was a Goblin, Half Goblin, Half Dwarf, or Hobbit— the last one which I did not understand since they were extinct, but a kid put the idea out anyways.
Ever since I confronted Lisa about her lie, there had been kind of a rift between us. It was not obvious at first, and we did speak to each other whenever we saw one another, but it wasn’t as often nor as long as before. I never got to know her personally in the first place. so I didn’t really see it as a loss, yet it also made observing her difficult since we never really interacted now.
I never spoke to Jack before, and I did not plan on starting now. I did not like the way he treated Gennady.
I did, however, get to know the young man Gennady had taken as his pseudo apprentice; his name was Sevin and he was the same one who gave me his mana crystal the other night. He seemed nice— friendly, but not as open as Braz. A rather normal person, in fact.
That was actually the most significant piece of information I learned about Ginah’s Crew— most of their members came from pretty average backgrounds before becoming pirates. Just as Lisa told me, these people found themselves in economic hardship due to some reason or another, and found themselves turning towards crime to survive. Most of their stories ended with Ginah swooping in at their lowest points, offering them a chance to escape from that life without principles.
It was an attractive offer, one which many of them accepted before finding themselves here. When I asked Sevin whether he regretted doing so, since he now found himself embroiled in a territorial war with another criminal organization, he simply shrugged.
“Not really,” the young man said, lowering the pistol he was building from scratch. He had been inscribing some runes onto the weapon’s surface before connecting it to the mana crystal— a technique Gennady told me was not often used by Dwarves. “I don’t like the Elise. They don’t do things fair. We’re different from them— better than them. It is our duty to drive them and their supply of enuim out of Luke, before it becomes an issue throughout the country.”
“Why does that matter?” I asked, cocking my head.
“The enuim? It’s a incredibly destructive—”
“No,” I cut him off. “Not doing things fair,” I clarified, “why does that matter?”
Leaning back on his chair, Sevin scratched his cheek as he took a moment to gather his thoughts. “Because then you ruin things for everybody. Being unfair hurts people. It stops them from benefiting as much as you, just so you get an advantage. And I think that’s wrong.”
“But aren’t you guys being unfair by being pirates?” I pointed out the obvious. I carefully watched the young man for his reaction— seeing if he would get angry at what I said. “You guys commit many crimes. Illegal things like stealing and robbing, which would hurt someone somewhere, no? That’s unfair, is it not?”
He paused for a moment, turning to face me. He slowly said, “It is unfair if things were fair in the first place. But after everything that has happened to our country, we have no choice but to escape the unfair playing field of doing things legally and never succeeding no matter what we do, to the fairer playing field of crime. As long as we stick to our morals— never betraying what makes us people in the first place— I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with breaking the law.”
That sentiment was not one I disagreed with, even if I felt that it could be articulated better; I thought what he said made sense. And yet, I still asked the question.
I was not interested in his answer— it was almost expected that he would say that. I did not care for the philosophical discussion which might come from my questions; I was simply prying for information.
And the prevailing conclusion I had from that information was this: Lisa was not lying.
Ginah’s Crew was definitely close to the imagined idea of noble criminals. Whether this served to increase my opinion of Ginah, Lisa, or both even, was something that remained to be seen.
Regardless, knowing this compelled me to finally act. Ginah had so far accommodated my requests since I had offered them my help. And it was time for me to fulfill my end of the bargain.
I stepped into a small wooden hut, entering what appeared to be a makeshift meeting room; there was a large rectangular table in the center, with the city map of Luke laid out on it. Ginah was in conference with a man I recognized as Kai, the Quartermaster who managed all the administrative duties Ginah could not attend to.
“Did you need something, Melas?” The pirate Captain asked, glancing up at me; other than when she got annoyed at me the first two times we spoke, we hadn’t really clashed heads again. So she held no venom in her tone, and addressed me almost casually.
“No,” I said, walking up to the two. I nodded at Kai whom I briefly interacted with twice now, and turned my attention to Ginah. “I was just wondering how I can help.”
“Help?” She exchanged a look with Kai. The Quartermaster just shrugged, opting to stay out of this conversation.
“Yes.” I gestured with a thumb at the map. “You guys have been busy, right? I highly doubt you have been wasting time doing nothing while the Elise continues its operations smoothly.”
“Of course not,” Ginah snorted, folding her arms. “We’ve been sending some informants in and out of Luke. Our last one came back two days ago.”
“Did he have anything useful to say?” I asked, raising an eyebrow underneath my mask.
She frowned. “Why do you want to know that?”
“Because,” I started, “I want to help. I can’t help you if I don’t know what you guys are planning, nor can I help you if you guys don’t let me.”
Ginah raised an eyebrow. “We’ve been open to accepting your help all this time, Melas.”
“Then let me in on this,” I said simply. “How can I help you?”
I looked between the Quartermaster and the Captain, as they appeared undecided for a moment; they probably were going to reject my offer— tell me that it was important information for an important mission that was not suitable for a newcomer like me or whatever.
I was prepared for that. I had made a pitch— I had planned a whole speech to convince them to allow me to show that I was trustworthy— but was pleasantly surprised when it did not need to come to that.
“Sure,” Ginah finally said.
“Sure— wait, what?” I asked, still caught slightly off guard by her response.
Kai took over, clarifying for his leader. “She said we wouldn’t mind divulging you with the information, if you assisted us in this mission.”
“Oh, uh—” I caught myself stumbling over my words. “I knew what that meant. I was just… not expecting that answer.”
“What were you expecting?” The pirate Captain looked inquisitively at me, hands on her hip.
“It’s— nevermind.” I shook my head, focusing on what was important. “So, what did your informants tell you?” I asked.
“There’s going to be some sort of meeting held over the weekend. We think it’s important, and there might be members of the Dark Crusaders there as well. You know what that means, right?”
“Yes,” I said, meeting Ginah’s eyes.“There’ll be spellcasters.”
She nodded as Kai took over the explanation. “And that’s why we think you’ll be a good addition for this mission. We were actually just discussing whether we should ask for your help when you came in. It was fortuitous timing, to say the least.”
“And you guys aren’t worried that I might be one of them— the Dark Crusaders?”
“If we had been worried about that, we wouldn’t have brought you here to our hideout in the first place,” Ginah retorted.
“I’m just asking a question.” I crossed my arms over my chest.
“Don’t ask stupid questions. The answer is obvious— you’re here and we’re asking for your help. Obviously we trust you enough to do that, right?”
I opened my mouth to defend myself, but Kai quickly interrupted me.
“Anyway,” he said, stepping forward to the table and pointing at something marked on the map. “This is where they’ll be meeting at. It’s a warehouse that appears to belong to a large whiskey company, but actually is one of the largest drug storage areas they own. By interrupting this meeting, we can kill two birds with one stone.”
“I see.” I followed the man’s fingers as he tapped it on the location— I had to tip toe slightly just to see it clearly. “And their leader… that Half Elf—”
“Bahr,” Ginah added for me.
“Yes, him. Will he be there?” I asked.
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “He won’t be. At least, we don’t think so. He’s the one in charge of everything as well as the only connection between the Dark Crusaders and the Elise. He wouldn’t put himself in such danger.”
“Danger? What do you mean by that?”
Ginah paused for a moment, blinking. “Right, I forgot to tell you. Why didn’t you bring it up, Kai?”
The man just sighed. “Because you didn’t give me the chance.”
“Whatever.” She raised her shoulders in a half shrug, before continuing. “We think the Elise is planning on stealing from the King’s palace. They probably want to raid his vault, considering he’s not even there right now.”
That was right: the King of Laxis would usually be located in the Capital city, of course. That was how it normally worked. However, due to the significant rise in crime and the deterioration of the city of Luke, the King had taken a momentary vacation to his holiday home far down south.
He left six years ago.
“The vault still holds some riches, although it’s not as much as before. But they couldn’t possibly have transferred everything valuable out of the palace, let alone the city. And since the Elise has been stretching itself too thin as of late, they probably need the gold to both continue funding themselves, as well as send some back to the Dark Crusaders. And that’s why the Dark Crusaders will be helping them with this job.”
“And you guys want to stop them from even starting this plan of theirs, since it would deal a significant blow to the Elise by cutting off their funding, right?” I asked, confirming my suspicions.
“That’s pretty much the gist of it,” Ginah said, taking a step back away from the table. She craned her neck to the side, as she stared at me. “So, what? You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”
“Of course not.” I rolled my eyes.
I was slightly concerned knowing that I was going up against the Dark Crusaders… again. But I knew that they were a mostly decentralized group outside of the Infernalis. Whatever cell this was had no relation to Gerritt or Karna.
And while I could rationalize away stealing and robbing— even killing if it was necessary. I could never justify permanently ruining the lives of others just for profit; it was as wrong as what Victor did.
So with a grin behind my mask, I met the hazel eyes of the pirate Captain and gave her my answer without any hesitation.
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