Bitter 444

Lunch was half lasagne, half chicken tikka masala. Mum had discovered a lost drawer of frozen leftovers in the freezer and had shared them between the three of them. It was an unusual menu, but they were all foods Britta liked. She just had to eat them one at a time and mentally refresh her palate in between.

“Not bad,” said Dad. “You wouldn’t think food would keep this well after nine months.”

“It isn’t that long,” said Mum.

Dad took out his phone and tapped the screen a few times. “Last time we had your lasagne.” He held up the screen to show her. Mum’s eyes widened.

“Oh, right. I didn’t realise it had been that long since I did the cooking.”

It was a testament to their relationship that Mum didn’t question her husband keeping a record of whenever she cooked. Or perhaps he liked to keep a journal of every meal he’d ever eaten. Britta wouldn’t put it past him to have an app that recorded that kind of information. He may well have written it himself.

“Britta seems to be enjoying it,” said Dad.

Britta was eating quickly so she could go back to the game. She considered the village she was approaching to be the first proper indication that she had left the starter town. She would officially be a citizen of the world, not just a townie who had never been anywhere. She was looking forward to seeing if things were different outside of Quosada.

“Don’t eat so fast,” said Mum. “I’m not sure it’s cooked all the way through. It was frozen a long time.”

“It’s fine,” said Britta. “Piping hot.” She shovelled in another mouthful of what turned out to be Indian-style chicken with pasta and cheese. They worked surprisingly well together.

“Are you rushing to get back into the game?” said Dad. “What’s going on? Have you found something interesting?”

“Magic shop,” said Britta through the food. “Only mage’s can access it. You can swap one magic item for anything in the shop.”

“What? Any item?”

“Mm hmm.”

“So, what, the shop only has low-level junk?”

“No, it’s all pretty useful stuff. I didn’t have time to go through the whole inventory — too much stuff — but you can get all sorts. Rings of resistance, skill books, wands that shoot fireballs. I didn’t know what to choose, even tried to message you for advice, but it wouldn’t let me.”

“I wasn’t in-game,” said Dad. “I was helping your mum sort out the food. Once it’s frozen, it makes the sell-by date useless.”

“Magic has a sell-by date, too,” said Britta. “That’s what the gnome wizard told me.”

“Gnome wizard? Where is this magic shop?”

Britta spent the next ten minutes telling him about the Gnome Village and how she had ended up at the magic shop, with occasional interruptions from Mum about not talking with your mouth full and chewing before swallowing.

“He accepts any magic item for anything in his shop? Any item?” Dad was having a hard time accepting what Britta had told him. His food was still on his plate, slowly reverting to its frozen form.

“He has to think it’s interesting, not something you bought from a vendor. But he didn’t seem to care about what level it was or how powerful. You can’t access the shop unless the game lets you, though. I’m not sure you’d be able to get there.”

“We’ll see about that.” Dad bristled, like he always did when faced with a challenge. He wasn’t about to let some gnome-restricted magical warehouse stand in the way of him and his free loot upgrade.

“Don’t you have the mines to deal with?” asked Britta. That had been his main focus for the last week, although not much appeared to be happening. “I thought you were going to start a training camp for adventurers.”

“I suggested it to the kobolds,” said Dad. “They didn’t even need persuading.”

The Imperial Army had been insisting no one was qualified to go down into the lower-depths of the mine, and that they should go in first to make sure it wasn’t too dangerous. What they were really after were any powerful artefacts that might be down there. They had set up camp in the central room of the mine where the stairs were, and prevented players from going down. For their own safety.

“The kobolds are charging a small fee to induct players into the Way of the Dungeon.” He said it in an ominous tone. “The whole top floor is a training facility now, with simulated attacks and lessons on disarming traps. Empire won’t be able to stop a player once they get their diploma in dungeoneering.”

“They charge players? Do you get a cut?”

“I get a small commission. It was my idea, after all.”

Technically, it was Britta’s idea, but she didn’t say that. “You must be the richest player in the game.”

“Me? No, not even close. You remember Roger, the map guy? The one who wanted us to help him fill out the floor plan for each level? You should see him now. Swimming in gold, he is.”

Everyone played the game their own way without having to worry about doing what was expected. It was pretty cool.

Britta finished eating and stood up. She put her plate in the sink and rubbed her belly. It had tasted fine going down, but she hoped the different sauces wouldn’t react badly sitting in her stomach.

“This underground gnome dwelling,” said Dad, “it’s just off the main road to the capital?”

“Yes, but I only know about the hole entrance, and I’m not even sure you’d be able to fit into it. There’s probably a proper entrance if you look around. There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to find a way into the magic shop, though.”

“No guarantee other than my decades of experience beating games no one thought it was possible to beat.” His chest was so puffed up it was a wonder he didn’t float out of his chair.

“Oh, you should go to the abandoned ranch first. It’s just off the main road, you can’t miss it. There’s a saving point there, an old well. Probably be easier if you use it as a base if you’re going to look for the Gnome Village.”

“Right. Good idea. Thanks.”

Britta left before he got suspicious of the grin she was finding it hard to suppress.

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