Britta took a closer look, just to make sure. The words were in very small print to fit onto the same button that had only a moment ago simply said No.
Offend the captain? What did that mean? Why would refusing to join his band of merry idiots cause him offence? And how would he make his displeasure known?
“Sorry, I have things to do,” said Britta. She thrust the piece of paper back at him.
He leaned away. The height of his horse, and the somewhat less imposing stature of Britta’s goat, made it impossible for her to shove the piece of paper into his hands. She could throw it at him, but that was the sort of thing that might cause offence.
He was grinning at her, like he was waiting for her to make her move, and he was ready for her.
“You can always say no, of course,” he said, “but I expect you to give me at least one good reason why.”
His smugness annoyed her. Even if it was meant to be some kind of battle of wits, it broke the first rule of any game, which was asking the other person if they wanted to play. Trying to force her to partake in whatever this was supposed to be was just obnoxious.
But she was already in a game, so it was probably taken for granted she was up for any challenge they chose to throw at her. She was supposed to find a way out of this minor difficulty, or pay some toll. Even death was only a temporary inconvenience here.
Britta looked at the piece of paper, then at the screen which was taking up most of her field of view. She could sort of see through it, but she was reluctant to dismiss it completely in case that triggered something else.
Even if she was obliged to play along, it would have been nice if she’d been made aware of the rules of this particular contest.
She looked down at the bandits. They weren’t going to be of any help. They were heavily outnumbered, and more than likely they’d try to pin any blame on her.
“This won’t work,” she said, once again holding out the piece of paper.
“What do you mean?” asked Gooley. “What won’t work?”
“This. The job. The payment isn’t enough. If you think I can do the job, pay me a decent amount.”
Captain Gooley sat up in his saddle. “Young lady, are you suggesting the army of the Royal Empire is trying to underpay for services rendered?”
“This service, yes. You agree, don’t you?” she said to the men behind him.
The men all went to great lengths to not answer, or make any noises that might be misconstrued as agreeing with the impudent gnome. They looked quite keen to hear their captain’s response to such scurrilous accusations.
“This is nonsense. There isn’t another army in the kingdom that values its soldiers more than this one.”
“Isn’t this the only army in the kingdom?” asked Britta.
“Of course,” said Gooley, side-stepping the point Britta was making. “Because we have vanquished all others. We’re number one.”
“Then you must have vaults full of money. You should try spending some of it. Get back to me when the wages go up. About double.”
There was some light murmuring among the men. They weren’t necessarily agreeing with her, they were just doing a few calculations out loud.
“Yes, well, it’s a merit-based payment plan,” said Captain Gooley. Britta doubted that was a phrase he’d had much cause to use. “If you excel at the work, you will be compensated accordingly.”
“I don’t work on commission,” said Britta. “Not if you’re going to tie me down with all these regulations.” She flapped the piece of paper at him. “And if you are going to tie my hands, at least fill my pockets. These maybe cowards you want me to track down, but they’re cowards trained by you, the best army in the kingdom. That’s dangerous work, but I don’t see any danger money mentioned. Desperate men won’t just lie down and give up.” She glanced down at the bandits. The cat was napping, the lizardman was eating the petals off a flower, and the human was on his back watching the clouds float past. “I expect an upfront bonus if you want me to sign on. How high are you willing to go? I only take cash.”
Captain Gooley scowled at the mention of cash. He leaned down and snatched the paper out of her hand and tucked it back in his shirt.
The quest screen closed.
“Let’s see if you bring in any actionable intelligence first, then we can discuss any bonuses.”
“I expect fair terms and no favouritism,” said Britta, warming to the role of agitator. “I don’t want to find out you pay him a bigger bonus than me.” She pointed at the big man on the end of the troop.
Everyone turned to look at him. He put his hands up. “I don’t get nothing.”
“What about the extra big portions you get at dinner?” said Britta.
“What? No I don’t.”
There was grumbling among the men. They seemed to recall him asking for seconds.
“Enough of that,” said Captain Gooley. “We don’t have time to dawdle. We have fugitives to run down. Forward.”
He set off with a final sour look in Britta’s direction before galloping away. His men chased to catch up. Britta suppressed the smile trying to climb onto her face.
It hadn’t felt like a real conversation, it lacked the free-flow of words crashing into each other you would normally get in an argument. She hadn’t felt like he had been impatiently trying to force his viewpoint on her, regardless of what she said, which was how a real conversation usually went. It was how the old NPCs had spoken, which was what made them feel so real. They had come across more emotional than logical.
Gooley had been much more systematic. She had navigated their exchange like running a maze that required sharp turns to avoid slamming into a wall. It had been a little nerve-racking, but also fun. More fun because she had managed to slip out of the trap without choosing either of two bad options.
And now they were riding away, not even leaving her with 2 XP to rub together. It was strange how you could gain nothing, and still feel like you had won.