“So you’ve made up your mind, then?” surprisingly, Weigner accepted the news of my relocation casually. “Some place you’ve chosen, I tell you.”
I shrugged. “You could say that. You know very well I can’t help it.”
“You can’t. It may sound self-contradictory but this isn’t all fun and games. We all have our own problems — and objectives.”
“I can’t tell you how I hate to go.”
I’d told him the truth. I hated changes. For the previous nine days I’d been enjoying some semblance of big city life. I’d met some decent people. Admittedly, I’d also struck up some useful relationships with city NPCs. But as Weigner had rightly said, this wasn’t all fun and games. I might appear to be playing but this was my life, however virtual.
“I’ve only just met you but I think I’ll be missing you,” his voice rang with regret. “Doryl, too... We’ve just been gossiping about you, hehe."
I smiled. “Likewise.”
“There aren’t so many people here you can just sit and talk with. Everybody’s in a hurry! Sure it’s a game, they’ve paid a fortune for their accounts. Never mind. No good getting too emotional. Let’s move on to the business.”
I was grateful to him for not asking any unwanted questions. I was sure he could guess the true reason behind mу relocation. Players of my caliber didn’t just rent a place in Mellenville only to move to one of Mirror World’s most dangerous locations. He knew that better than anybody else.
“So,” Weigner went on. “You think you’re gonna keep busting your backside for Lady Mel?”
“Exactly. I’m perfectly happy with her. You know it.”
He chuckled. “I’m only asking for the record. Obliged to. We have several scenarios to offer in case of such a development: for instance, when a player has leveled up so much that we have no suitable mines to offer him anymore.”
It took all of my composure not to betray myself. The thing was, I’d made a decision to keep my Master level under wraps. Emeralds offered decent earnings and a semblance of stability — if you disregarded the need to relocate, of course. What was the point in switching to a new resource? It might pay more but it wasn’t going to solve my problem. I had a funny feeling it might even make my situation worse.
My current priority was to get a loan. Then again, if you think about it... I might gain quite a bit by revealing my identity. I could sign up with a powerful clan like these Steel Shirts. Their locations were well protected. They offered raids to resource-rich instances. But how sure was I that I could profit from their riches, if at all? No, I wasn’t greedy or anything, I just didn’t trust anyone anymore. How sure was I they’d want to hear about my problem, let alone see it the way I did? Most likely, they’d simply want to cash in on my weak position. First they’d lure me in and then I could kiss my freedom goodbye. Oh no, thank you very much.
“I understand this isn’t your case yet,” Weigner continued, unaware of my inner struggle. “But listen to my advice. You need to start weighing up all your potential options. With your perseverance, I wouldn’t be surprised if you made Master in the next six or seven months. And this, as you can well imagine, is a totally different ball game,” he raised an authoritative finger.
I smiled, struggling to look normal. “Thanks for the tip. The trick is not to bust a gut in the process.”
He grinned. “Don’t chicken out! If you play your cards well, you’ll outlive us all. What was I talking about... yes, so there’re several potential scenarios. The best one for you, I think, would be a regular transfer. You signed the trial contract, didn’t you? The two-week trial period hasn’t elapsed yet. Now listen up. Seeing as Lady Mel has some emerald fields in the vicinity of the Maragar Citadel, what if we simply transfer you there? In theory, you won’t even have to report to their bosses. Just go straight to the mine and pull stones to your heart’s content. Still, it would be a good idea to pop in at the office and say hello.”
This was another proof of the validity of my suspicions and fears. Even this man who was almost a friend was trying to capitalize on me.
If the truth were known, I couldn’t blame him. He didn’t want to lose an Experienced Digger. He must be receiving some bonuses for having hired me. On the other hand, why not? I too could gain from our cooperation. We were on friendly terms. He could make sure that my two-week trial contract would naturally evolve into a permanent one. What was the point in severing our relationship? Who knew how this relocation could backfire?
“Excellent,” I said. “This is even better than I hoped. Every time I think about it, you know... A new place... New people...”
He beamed. “Exactly! You’re thinking in the right direction!”
An hour later I left his office and headed for the portal. All the formalities had been settled. We’d signed the transfer agreement. Now I only had to wrap up a few things and I could set off for my new destination. Especially because, according to the quest conditions, I wasn’t going to pay rent!
I suspected that the barracks of the Maragar Citadel weren’t exactly the most comfortable place in Mirror World. Heh! I was pretty sure I’d be remembering Ronald’s pajamas and bathrobes with nostalgia coming back home every night! Actually, I’d already bidden my farewells to him in the Footworn Traveler Inn. Now all I had to do was drop in at Mila’s and ask after little Tommy’s health. Sure they were NPCs but still I had a soft spot for the boy. He reminded me of my own little girl, my Christina. That’s that, then. I was going to pop by and see them, but first I needed to check on my other employer.
The office of Nikanor the Lawyer met me with a familiar stuffy silence. Cobwebs enveloping the chandelier, dust choking the paintings, the lack of fresh air... Nikanor hated opening windows when he worked. His servant had to air his office in secret.
No idea how the game developers had managed to convey the entire range of nasty effluvia filling the place. It always reeked of old age, moldy papers and — don’t ask why — of rotten apples. It must have been my imagination playing up, of course. This place reminded me of something... something from my past... I must have associated Nikanor’s room with something I’d seen earlier in real life.
The old lawyer sat at his desk, his quill scratching at a yellowing sheet of paper to the accompaniment of screeching sounds and occasional coughing. His withered lips moved silently, mouthing the same words that appeared on the paper. He was clad in a greasy old dressing gown of an unidentifiable dark hue. The image was completed by a three-day stubble covering his saggy cheeks and the unwashed strands of hair adorning his balding head.
“You know, Olgerd,” he said without raising his head from his work, “it’s a very good thing you’re going. And it’s a doubly good thing you’re going to the Citadel. I have a small job for you.”
I’ll be damned! How had he found out? Weigner was the only person who knew about my quest, and he didn’t have access to Mellenville quite yet. And in any case, what would he want with this old brief? Not good. Even Doryl the dwarf didn’t know yet. Not that he minded: Doryl understood there were certain things I had to keep to myself.
A moment later Nikanor answered my unasked question. “When I received notification from the town hall saying that you’d been enlisted into the Maragar Citadel, I knew immediately this was a sign from above!”
Squinting dreamily, he tapped his scrawny ink-covered fingers on the desk. He was anxious, I could see that. His faked indifference had flown out the window. A weak color tinged his pale-gray cheeks.
I’d had a good reason to come and see him. By agreeing to become a “defender of the Maragar Citadel”, I had to cancel my monthly Reputation quest — not to mention all the other Reputation mini-quests. Part of me was celebrating the fact that I was seeing this miserable old man for the last time: grumpy, petulant and constantly unhappy with his boring virtual life. Still, I regretted the loss of almost 800 Reputation to say the least. Especially because I’d already done so much running around on all sorts of pointless and time-consuming errands.
It would have been so much easier to just forget this quest entirely. Still, something made me show up at his office one last time. Of course he was only a lifeless piece of program code... but my entire Mirror World experience had already taught me that everything here happened for a reason.
Okay. Now I needed to find out what this Scrooge wanted from me.
“I want you to listen closely,” the old man began in a hushed voice, pointing his gaunt shaking hand at me. “Can’t you sit down? My neck has gotten stiff looking at you.”
This was my boss. Grumpy and irritable as usual. I perched on the chair he’d motioned me to and leaned forward, obeying the commanding gesture of his bony hand. What kind of Machiavellian scenario was this? “I’m all ears, sir.”
Never in my life had I ever called Nikanor “sir” yet. Admittedly, I’d done it on purpose in the vain hope of scrounging a couple of extra Reputation points. By now, I already knew that NPCs expected you to play your role by the book. Courtesy of the game developers.
The old lawyer seemed to have appreciated my gesture. He even puffed out his lower lip in pride. “I need to tell you something, Olgerd. I’ve had a lot of messengers in my lifetime. Really a lot. Most of them were stupid, lazy and dumb. I’ve also seen a lot of rude ones. I hang them from a different tree, if you know what I mean...” he coughed. “But I’ve never had anyone like you. Somebody who’s efficient, discreet and, most importantly, trustworthy.”
I couldn’t help glancing at my sleeve decorated with a colored ribbon. It looked as if it worked. Could be a coincidence, though. “You’re very kind, sir.”
“Very well. As I’ve said, I have some business in that part of the world. Think you can do it?”
A system message popped up in my view,
You’ve received a quest: Old Nikanor’s Interest
You will collect and daily report all legal and court news in the location known as The Maragar Citadel and Its Environments.
As I was skimming the message, the old man went on,
“You won’t have much to do. I just need a pair of eyes and ears over there. I’m thinking of expanding. If everything works out, there might be a place for you in it too. So what do you think?”
“I don’t know, really. I’m going there to serve in the army. I don’t think I’ll have the time,” I shamelessly upped the ante.
The old lawyer curved his toothless mouth in a knowing smile. He might have been an NPC but he hadn’t been born yesterday. “Don’t worry about your reward. I can be grateful.”
As if in confirmation, a new system message appeared,
By agreeing to help Nikanor, you automatically keep your reward for doing your monthly Reputation quest.
So that’s how it was then, was it? It was worth having come here, after all! Well worth it!
“What I’m asking you to do isn’t that difficult,” he continued in a whisper. “Seeing as you can’t come here and report to me, all you can do is check the news and make notes in this little journal,” he pushed a battered old notebook toward me. “I’m especially interested in inheritance and divorce cases. But you know that already.”
I glanced at the notebook.
Name: Nikanor’s Old Journal
Type: Quest item
Nothing special, really. Most likely, all his “secret” quests weren’t worth a damn. I could only imagine how many players had been forced to listen to the old lawyer’s revelations. Unique quest my ass! According to Dmitry, all such quests were cyclical. They didn’t repeat very often, but repeat they did. Nikanor must have issued them to lots of people before me. But as for the game developers, their agendas were pretty clear. Firstly, they strove for authenticity — and from my own experience, these “Mirror souls” did deliver! This world was as authentic as they came.
Secondly, Reputation quests fell into the category of so-called social quests. And when it came down to it, I really didn’t want to second-guess the developers’ secret agendas.
Thirdly... yes, it was probably worth it. Not for me, of course. How was I supposed to understand his phrase about “reporting all the news to him”? On the surface, that sounded easy enough. I’d have to spend some time every day checking a few local rags, than entering the results into Nikanor’s logbook. Easy peasy. Still, the task wasn’t without its hidden dangers. Not too big nor too many, but still. I’d probably have to buy at least a dozen newspapers every day which was going to cost me a few gold. Next, writing materials. In Mirror World, everything was interconnected. Someone had to play an Alchemist to make the ink; the quills were delivered to the stationery shop by some local farmer like my old friend Zachary. He’d had all sorts of goods for sale on that cart of his when we’d met on market day. That was how it worked here.
“Agreed,” I proffered my hand to the old man.
Having accepted all the tasks and bidden my goodbyes, I finally hurried out into the fresh air. All I had left to do was visit Mila; then I was free to proceed to my new deployment.
I dropped into a bakery on my way and bought some treats for Tommy. Hopefully, he was much better by now.
Ronald’s wife Rita answered the door. She beamed and asked me to come in.
“Here,” I handed her the pink paper bag containing cream cakes. “They’re very fresh.”
Tommy shot out of the lounge like a ginger-topped rocket and began pestering his auntie for his share.
“You eat your dinner first,” Rita said didactically, “then you can have your sweet.”
“They always do this,” the kid sighed, following the pink bag with his longing stare as his auntie took it to the kitchen.
“Master Olgerd!” the familiar voice made me swing round.
Smiling cheerfully, Mila was coming down the stairs. Same ginger curls, same funny freckles on her cute snub nose. She was wearing a blue summer dress with a small translucent turquoise scarf. “I’m so pleased to see you!”
“Hi,” I smiled. “I decided to check on your invalid — only he’s no invalid anymore!”
The woman beamed. “Please come in! Come into the lounge! Would you like some coffee?”
“I wouldn’t say no. I’ve been rushing around like a headless chicken all day. Too many things to do.”
The two women lay the table in no time. A few minutes later we were already sipping our coffees. No idea what they could smell — if they could smell anything at all. It’s not that important, anyway. I took another swig and finally remembered this aroma — or rather, I remembered the place where I’d smelled it first.
It had been in early May, when Sveta and I had just gotten married and gone on a Mediterranean break. We used to sit on the terrace of some local coffee shop, drinking coffee and watching the local kids fool around on the beach...
I was so engrossed in my reverie I didn’t at first hear Rita addressing me,
“Master Olgerd! Sir! Are you okay?”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “I’m fine,” I muttered. “Sorry. I was just reminiscing. Did you say something?”
She nodded. “I said we were expecting you.”
“Were you really?” I asked in surprise, then slapped my forehead as I realized. “Did Ronald tell you I was leaving?”
“He did,” Mila said. “That’s why we were waiting for you. We were sure you wouldn’t leave without saying goodbye.”
I could read in her face that she wanted to ask me about something. Something very important.
“Let me guess,” I began. “There’s something you want me to do, right?”
A blush flushed Mila’s face.
“The thing is,” Rita spoke for her, “she thinks you’re already fed up with her constant requests over these last few days.”
“Not at all,” I waved my hands at her. “That’s nothing. What’s more: I might owe you just as much. Without your recommendation, I might have spent ages looking for a reputable place to stay. I suppose I could say that you and Tommy were the first friends I made in this city.”
“Exactly!” Rita said. “That’s what I told her myself. Nothing’s too inconvenient for good friends, is it?”
A message flashed before my eyes. I very nearly jumped. Good job the other two didn’t notice.
Congratulations! Two or more locals consider you their friend.
Reward: +300 to your Reputation with Mellenville.
I did a quick check of my characteristics. Almost fifteen hundred, excellent!
“You’re absolutely right,” I replied with a smile. “You can count on me. I’m all ears.”
Rita laid an encouraging hand on the other woman’s shoulder.
“You see,” Mila struggled to find the right words. “What I’m about to ask you is sort of... risky. Dangerous even.”
I tensed up. We had developed a friendly relationship, that was true, but I didn’t need any unnecessary risks, either. Especially as I already had too much on my plate as it was.
“Before I tell you what it’s about, please promise me you’ll decline if you consider it to be too dangerous. Your refusal will not affect your relationship with our family, I assure you. We understand perfectly well that you aren’t a warrior nor a combat wizard. You are a regular peaceful citizen of Mellenville.”
I nodded. What could I say? She was perfectly right.
Mila smiled. “Thank you for being honest with me. I can speak freely now. The thing is, Ronald did tell us where you were about to go.”
“He did indeed,” Rita agreed. “The Maragar Citadel is not the best place for the likes of you, dear Olgerd.”
I only shrugged. As in, Ours is not to reason why, etc.
“And we admire you for that! You make a worthy example for all Mellenville citizens!”
I almost expected a new system message but no, it looked as if there was a limit to their freebies.
So I preserved a modest silence. Had you known, my dears, how I’d have loved to decline your quest.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush,” Mila said. “You must be in a hurry. The thing is... I’d like you to pass this letter to my husband.”
I glanced at the object she was offering me and very nearly choked, seeing the recipient’s name on the envelope.
Name: Letter from Mila
Type: Quest item
Deliver to: the Maragar Citadel
Recipient: Captain Gard
Preorder alert! The Citadel, the second book of the Mirror World series by the bestselling Russian fantasy author Alexey Osadchuk, has just gone live on Amazon! https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01FKC7JTW Release date: August 10 2016 Read the opening chapters is in my blog.