Entin stood near one of the many bridges that divided up the market. People buzzed with their afternoon’s shopping, bargaining over the rising food prices.
He rubbed the spherical emerald with his thumb and swallowed dryly. Eizel was in her normal spot, surrounded by her friends. They were laughing and chatting and showing off their latest styles.
He wanted to approach her when she was alone, though she was never alone. She was the brightest star, a point of light that could always be found in the night sky despite the countless others vying for attention.
Entin stepped off the bridge and walked, feeling sweat cool at the sides of his face. His heart raced, drumming as if he had gained the Exhaustion trait, but it wasn’t the game screaming for him to stop, it was his own insecurity.
That was a weakness he’d cut away. He was now a Dungeon Runner. He braved the Wilds and fought monsters in the dark below. And yet . . . he wanted to retch behind a bush. . . .
He stood behind the outer layer of girls. There had to be a good dozen of them with cute outfits that matched from their tops down to their shoes. They even matched their game screen colors.
Eizel wore a white top with red tracing the edges of her collar and short sleeves. A matching thin ribbon wrapped her neck, trailing little black beads. Something sparkled in her hair.
These girls really put a lot of effort into their appearance. For him, food had always been the priority, that and helping the orphanage.
How different would his life be if he had any semblance of wealth? Would he be at the local tailor demanding adjustments to his suit? Yes, silver trim on the lapels. And take a quarter-inch off the width. I want to look slim!
Ugh, such a life seemed dull and incomparable to the mysteries of a dungeon. But riches might be in his future. He had earned 10 scyl in just a few hours of the early morning. Would wealth change him, make him self-absorbed and pompous?
Eizel wasn’t like that, she was perfect.
Entin cleared his throat. That was the polite thing to do, right? A girl gave him a sidelong glare, then flicked her head, letting her hair swoosh like a broom attempting to clean dirt from the floor.
He wasn’t about to give up. Girls hated timid guys. They wanted someone with confidence, someone they could lean on and . . . be protected by? Something like that. How would he know, he wasn’t a girl.
Maybe he should have asked Bailey. She’d be sleeping on a vendor’s pillows somewhere. It was silly, as it had only been a day, but he missed that. Was she still mad at him?
Focus. . . .
Entin sucked in a breath to quiet the thudding in his ears. He gently nudged a girl to the side by her shoulder and pushed through the layers, ignoring the glares. When he broke through to the inner circle, he gave Eizel his utmost charming smile.
He opened his mouth and said, “Hello.”
That was step one—what was step two?
Eizel scrunched her forehead with an uncertain smile. “Hi. . .?”
And . . . his mind went blank.
All the other girls had gone quiet. Some watched with big eyes and timid smiles, some attempted to mirror Eizel’s disparaging glare. All of them staring.
He cleared his throat again, more as a way to give his slug of a brain time to catch up than anything else. “I . . . wanted to see if you’d like to go out sometime?”
Relief. A flood of relief burst through him for the simple act of getting the words out. Why was this so hard?
Eizel laughed a too-high pitch of a sound and crinkled her nose. “With you?” she said, as if a mutt covered in mud had asked her for a hug. Ridiculous, dogs don’t talk.
But of course, her reaction was only because she didn’t know him yet. She saw the guy before, the poor market Runner, not the adventurer. Right!
“I got something for you,” he said with more confidence and held up the spherical emerald.
This got her attention. All the girls perked up to see, their eyes glued to the stone that caught the sunlight and refracted with green sparkles.
“I got it in my last dungeon.”
Eizel’s eyebrows rose, and she smiled. This time, it was a genuine smile like she was seeing him for the first time. She reached out delicate fingers, nails painted ruby red.
Something hit his hand.
The stone was . . . gone.
“Hey!” Entin yelled, twisting around. The bobbing blonde hair of Bailey Dashed out from the girls, all a blur. She turned her head, laughed, and kept running.
What the hell was she doing!
Entin triggered Dash and flashed through the cropping of girls. They cried out in surprise, holding their skirts. “Bailey! Wait!”
Bailey turned down an alleyway and was gone for just three seconds before he turned the corner. The alleyway was full of servants and people passing each other. That bobbing blonde hair bounced through the crowd.
Entin didn’t stop. He triggered Sprint, then jumped and kicked off the wall to pass a group of young boys holding a ball, their eyes wide.
Bailey was only a few paces ahead now. She turned down another short alleyway, one that was definitely a dead end. Ha!
He turned the corner and as soon as his Dash’s cooldown had reset, he Dashed again, right up behind her.
She spun and smacked her back against the wall. A little red -27 lifted above her and dissolved into the air.
“Give it to me,” he said.
She held the emerald high over her head against the wall.
Entin grabbed for it, his body against her’s. She panted a hot breath against his neck, and the sweet fragrance of a red flower filled his nose.
“I’ll give to you,” she said, her smile fading. “But you can’t give it to her.”
Entin let out a breath and stepped back.
“You just can’t, Entin. She don’t care about you or anyone. She’ll use you. Sell the darn thing. Or if you’re so determined to give it to someone, give it to someone who already likes you.”
“Someone who likes me? Like who?”
“Me! Ya dummy,” she said, the words seemingly escaping on accident by how she tensed. But then, as if desperate to fill the stunning silence, she grabbed him and pressed her lips to his.