The tavern's wooden door slowly opened.
A dashing man walked in with his hands in the pockets of his white trousers; his waist-length lavender braid swayed as he moved. He was tall; if he had been a little taller, he would have bumped his head against the upper frame of the door. He had left his white duster – the only piece of clothing he was wearing on his torso – unbuttoned down to his flat yet well-built abdomen, exposing his broad and toned chest.
Silently, he sauntered up to the pub's counter, oblivious to the stench of beer and the sounds of clinking glasses and screeching chairs in the bar. His face – which had a golden domino mask covering the upper half of it – remained stern as he walked.
Chapter 1: Strapped for Cash
One would consider hanging out in a bar was a daily routine for me. Sure, I was always in this bustling beehive for a drink or sometimes, a meal.
That was if you barely knew me. Drinking was just part of my attempt to earn money.
One might be thinking that drinking wasted some gold coins. Yes, but that would make me look like just a regular guest. I could secretly listen to one's conversation this way. Sometimes I might come across something interesting, which would lead to an adventure or some earnings. I was looking for the latter right now.
But why did I need money? I needed them to travel to Zenan, so that I could find Master Janus, the closest friend I had in my childhood. I was hoping to reunite with him and present him good news about his sister.
Today, one could say my eavesdropping job as something fruitful. A discussion in the bar caught my interest.
However, I would never join the talk because I was afraid that people would find out what I had in my mind. But this would never stop me from being an eavesdropper.
Leaning against the brick wall of the bar, I crossed my arms and closed my eyes. People would see me as a dozing figure right now, but this was what I wanted.
"Hey, you hear? The Radical Dreamers are getting more aggressive recently."
"That fierce band of raiders? Oh my!"
"Maybe they won't attack the poor anyway."
"Yeah, their first prey may be the rich man who lives near the smithy here."
"But we'd better be careful too. Who knows that they'll attack indiscriminately? Rich or poor, as long as there's gold, it's fine for them."
"I'm afraid that they go by that way."
"Rumor says that they are hiding around the forest nearby. Maybe they're just waiting for the right time to strike."
I was now hoping that people would someday nail a wanted poster of these rogues in the bar. I was wondering how much bounty they would offer… Perhaps one thousand gold coins for each raider I caught? Just catching one would be enough to fund my travel then. And I might even have the chance to buy an executive class seat for myself!
Oh, nope. I did not like wanted posters. They would only attract rivals and make everything more complicated.
Now I was thinking if I could offer the said rich man my service at a reasonable price. I would not overcharge him, but most importantly, the payment had to be enough for me to buy a ferry ticket to Medina.
I opened my eyes and turned. Slowly and silently, I walked towards the exit door and went out of the bar.
Outside, sunlight greeted me with a blinding flash into my eyes. It dazzled me temporarily, turning everything on my sight into nothing but flickering objects. Well, it was just too abrupt to walk from a darker place to an extremely bright area.
As soon as I regained my vision, I turned left and walked ahead with my hands in the pockets of my trousers, oblivious to the people who were wandering around with bulky plastic bags in their hands.
Strolling along the street in the afternoon was no fun. Believe me; I had drenched myself in my own sweat just by walking. My white duster – the only upper garment I wore, was now sticking to my skin thanks to my wet body. At some point I considered taking off my coat, but since I was in the shopping district of a town, I might look strange. Besides, I wanted to have a talk with a rich man, and what would be his first impression when he saw me approaching him without a shirt? He might lose faith on me.
But I had to admit that sunlight was far better than rainy weather. It was awful to have myself washed down by a downpour. If I only ended up with momentary discomfort because of the water, I should consider myself lucky.
Spending three minutes of walking straightforward and enduring the heat of the sun, I finally found myself on a stone bridge with a Y junction. It was not as crowded as the shopping district. I could only see a man here; a hawker standing on the path to my left side with a few stacks of flattened dough atop his cart.
Quickly, I took the path to my left side and walked past the hawker. I tried to be fast, but unfortunately, the fragrance of butter and bouillon teased my nose. I ended up stopping dead in my tracks and sniffing the air just to savor the delicate scent.
Oh, great. Now my stomach was growling as well. I might soon spend fifty gold coins to satisfy my hunger, despite being cash-strapped.
Cash-strapped, yes. I was fortunate enough to remember that. I probably had only about thirty gold coins with me. How could I buy something that cost fifty? Besides, I had to save money for a ferry ticket.
With that in mind, I ignored the tempting aroma and walked on.
A minute of walking had brought me to a solid land with a straightforward asphalt path. To my left side, a wooden hut stood beside a stone building with a huge red plank above its entrance door. A huge, yet slim word 'Smithy' was there, written in white paint to make it clear for passerby that it was a blacksmith's workshop.
Blacksmith… Hmm, buying a new rod should be good if I wished to be a reliable bodyguard to this rich man…
No, I had to remember that I was strapped for cash. I only had my clothes, my golden domino mask, my trusty bronze rod, and a small sack of gold in my possession, nothing else. Home? I had none. I would rather sleep somewhere around the outskirts of Termina instead of staying in the inn, unless it rained. I was thrifty, was I not? Well, I was just trying to save some money for my journey.
I carried on walking, ignoring the blacksmith and the hut.
Another minute of strolling had brought me to my goal. A towering mansion stood before me, providing me a shelter from the sunlight with its shadow.
Slowly, I walked towards the mahogany double door and knocked its flat side lightly.
With a click and a creak, the door opened inwards.
A brown-haired lady in a red dress and a white apron stood at the entrance of the mansion. She greeted me with a bow; just as expected from a classy person. "Good afternoon, sir. Who are you, and what kind of business do you have here?"
"I am Guile the magician. I wish to see the owner of this mansion because I have grave news."
"It is about a fierce band of raiders called 'Radical Dreamers'."
The lady leant back in shock with her eyes widened. "They're here?"
"Not exactly here, but they are lurking within the forest nearby."
"I see. So, those rumors are true," the lady muttered. "Thank you for the information. But why do you wish to see Master Gogh?"
"I am willing to offer my service as a bodyguard."
"Bodyguard?" The lady blinked. "Perhaps you can speak to Master Gogh about it." She turned around. "Come in."
I followed the lady into the building, and gently shut the door as I had landed a step on the mansion's floor.
The environment inside – the hall – was a mesmerizing sight to behold. A sparkling golden chandelier was hanging on the ceiling above me. The marble tiles I trod were very clean to the point I could see the reflection of myself on them. Further on my right side, a set of glistening steel armor stood with a halberd in its grip. In front of me, beside a marmoreal winding staircase, a large painting of a meadow rested on the wall.
The owner of this house, Master Gogh, should be very rich! I had a feeling – which should be 100% sure – that this mansion would be the Radical Dreamers' first prey.
That lady's calling snapped me out of my thoughts. I returned my attention to her, who was standing in front of me. "Yes?"
"Follow me. Master Gogh is inside the meeting room."
The lady turned left, leading me to a mahogany door. I waited behind while she knocked on it.
All of a sudden, a gruff voice came from behind the door. "Come in."
The lady turned the doorknob and pushed the door open. She walked into the room, and I followed her from behind.
Now, this place was just as impressive as the hall, although it was not as large. A large fur carpet was on the floor, covering almost the entirety of the chamber. In the middle of the room, three leather sofas were surrounding a granite oval table with a golden candleholder on top of it.
In front of the lady who had been leading me from earlier, a short, plump blue-haired man was standing with a glass of champagne in his hand.
This was Master Gogh? His overweight build surprised me!
No, I should be more careful in observing someone. He was wearing a leather beret and a fur mantle. But that was not all. I noticed that he had a sparkling diamond ring on his right fourth finger. His wealth was no joke.
He walked past the lady and stopped in front of me. "Who are you?"
Before I could speak, the lady chimed in, "Master, this man's name is Guile. He told me about the Radical Dreamers. The rumors about them lurking around El Nido are true."
"Hmm…" Master Gogh looked into my eyes. "So, why are you here?"
"I wish to be your bodyguard."
"Bodyguard, huh?" He sighed, wagging a limp hand. "You don't look like a competent fighter. I don't think you can even swing a sword."
Honestly, I did not like his disdainful remark. But I had better swallow it up; otherwise I would lose my chance to earn money.
"Master, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover," I said calmly in a convincing tone. "I am a magician. I can fend off enemies with my magic."
"Magic?" Master Gogh took a sip of his champagne. Suddenly, he heaved again. "Magic takes some time to cast, while those rogues are fast. They'll get you before you can do a thing."
His statement began grating my nerves. Yes, magic was not too efficient in terms of speed, but it was devastating. Nobody would like to know how lightning bolts and fireballs tasted like.
"And magicians are always squishy," Master Gogh continued, shaking his head. "They're useless in close combat because they're physically weak. You're a magician, right? Then you're just the same."
At this, rage enveloped my mind. I clenched my hands into fists and grunted. Just who the hell did he think I was?
The desire of breaking his nose with a fist tempted me.
However, I still had to bear in mind that I was in this only for the money. If I did not show a good attitude to him, I might not earn anything.
Master Gogh suddenly began, "But something is better than nothing."
His remark delighted me.
"I want you to prove that you're worthy to be my bodyguard. Bring one of the Radical Dreamers to me, dead or alive," he continued. "I give you twenty-four hours to do this…from now!"
I nodded. "I shall do it."
"Good. You'd better not be late," he added. "If you can show the proof that you can take out a thief, I'll consider hiring you as my bodyguard. We can talk about the payment later." He looked at the lady beside me. "Lead this man out."
The lady nodded and walked past me. "Follow me, sir."
I did what she told me to do. I followed her out of the meeting room and into the hall.
As I was walking towards the mahogany double door on my right side, a gentle voice of a woman stopped me in my tracks.
It was that lady, who was bowing.
"I'm sorry that Master Gogh is being harsh on you, sir."
Well, to be honest, this lady was more respectable than that haughty Master Gogh. I felt sorry for her though; having to be a servant to this arrogant man.
However, I had better not speak anything about Master Gogh; else my chance of earning some money from him would be nil.
With a smile, I told the lady, "It's nothing at all, miss."
With that, I pulled the mahogany door open and walked out of the mansion.
I had a mission to accomplish.