The eight or ten men were dressed like OwnedbyOwen and MrKappa, which meant they were soldiers of the empire. Imperial troopers, although that sounded a little grand.
Britta kept Donald moving forward, but at a slower, more cautious pace. There was no obvious reason for concern, but that didn’t mean there weren’t unobvious ones. Donald didn’t seem that bothered and he was usually a good barometer for trouble, but Britta was also aware that the game sometimes liked to throw in little encounters that started off as benign only to rapidly escalate into troublesome territory.
The soldiers had set up a barrier, a dead tree trunk dragged across the road to prevent passage. It wasn’t a huge tree, just big enough to get people to stop.
The city was about a kilometre away, according to Britta’s map, but was hidden behind the wooded area up ahead. The forest would be where she expected to find trouble, maybe bandits or wild beasts. It seemed unlikely that there wouldn’t be some kind of obstacle to test adventurers before they arrived in the big city.
No one reacted to her approach. They were standing around looking a bit bored, chatting. One was picking his nose enthusiastically. She couldn’t see any name tags over their heads, which meant they were NPCs. Would that make things a bit easier? It was hard to know.
Britta brought Donald to a halt a few metres from the barrier and considered how she should present herself. Aggressive adventurer? Lost traveller? Questing mage in a hurry?
One of the soldiers wandered closer. His helmet was tilted at a jaunty angle to give him an air of casual disinterest.
“I take it you don’t have enough,” he said. He had a round pudgy face that was unshaven. He reminded Britta of the boys at school who tried to grow beards but only managed patchy fluff on their cheeks.
“Enough what?” Britta asked.
“Money. For the toll.”
A toll didn’t seem so bad. She was happy to part with her pretend money, the only problem was that she didn’t have very much. She’d spent all her available cash on mana potions.
“How much is it?” Perhaps it was a very nominal amount.
The soldier seemed surprised she didn’t know. He straightened his helmet and pulled up his sword belt. “Not from around here? Two silver. No haggling, it’s the Empire standard.”
Britta nodded. It was useful information to have — she should probably keep two silvers in a pocket somewhere for tolls in the future — but she didn’t have anywhere close to that amount at the moment.
“I’m on important business,” she said, hating how pompous she sounded. “I have to deliver a letter to the Dean of the Institute for Magic.” The gnome wizard had given her the letter, perhaps it could serve some use here.
The soldier shrugged. “We only work here, we don’t make the rules. Unless you have a waiver, signed by an Empire official, can’t let you pass.”
Nope, not use at all.
Was the NPC sticking to his script? He sounded casual and like a regular person, but they all did. If she could get a real response from him, maybe there was another way to deal with this. First, she had to get him into territory he wasn’t prepared for.
“What about a trade?” she said.
“What kind of trade?” He hadn’t rejected her offer out of hand, so that was promising.
“I don’t know.” She was thinking on her feet, not really sure what she could give him that would be worth two silver coins. Her bag was mostly full of worthless crap.
She wanted to ask him what he would take, but that was wrong, she could feel it. Leaving it up to the other person to suggest how to proceed was not going to get her what she wanted. If the point was to control your own life, you had to lead the conversation, not wait and hope for someone to make you a generous offer. A woman like Lin certainly wouldn’t give up the chance to define the framework for any negotiations. What would a savvy businesswoman like Lin do?
“How about I give you a dress?”
The soldier cocked an eyebrow. Not what he’d been expecting. Good. “Something that would go with my eyes?”
Britta smiled. Not often an NPC made a joke. “You must have a wife or daughter or something? I can give you something nice for them.” Britta didn’t know much about bribing men other than the ones who would do whatever you asked for a Mr Spock doll, but she knew they swelled up when they managed to give a woman a fancy present the woman actually liked.
Britta was trying to think in a logical, rational manner, like a smart businesswoman. Or Mr Spock.
The soldier shrugged. “See Micky over there?” He pointed at one of the men by the fallen tree. “It’s his daughter’s birthday tomorrow. Wanted to get her a dress, you know, something pretty. She’s about the same size as you.”
“One minute, let me check.” Britta opened her status screen and went to the cash shop. It was definitely not an ethical way to play the game, but it wasn’t like she was doing anything outlandish. Efficiency just improved when you ignored ethics.
There were lots of fancy outfits she could buy. None of them were meant for little NPC girls, but that didn’t really matter. It was simply a means to an end, a way to move things along. Although, she did waste a little time picking out a cute outfit. No reason to not give the girl a nice present on her birthday.
A few minutes later, a large shadow passed over them and a box landed on the road in a cloud of dust. A side panel fell open and a young man came running out carrying something on a hanger. It was covered in white paper so the dress wasn’t visible.
“Hey, Sergeant Jojo,” said the smiley young man as he handed the dress to Britta.
“Hey, Robbie,” said the soldier. “How’s it going?”
“Good, good. Rushed off my feet. Later.” He ran towards the barrier which the soldiers rolled to one side for him. Robbie gave them a wave as he sprinted past. “Boys.”
The soldiers responded with various greetings.
“He doesn’t have to pay the toll?” asked Britta.
“Government employee. We’re all exempted.”
Did that mean players who were in the Empire didn’t have to pay? Another good reason to join up.
Britta tore off the paper cover to reveal a sparkly dress with fairy wings attached to the back. Her plan was working out very nicely. “What about this? Do you think his daughter would like it?” She held it out to him.
“Oh, yes. It’s lovely.” He took it from her. Then he handed it back. “I can’t accept this.”
“No, it’s fine, really.” Britta certainly had no use for it. She handed it back to him.
“Great, it’s perfect.” He took it. Then he gave it back. “I can’t accept this.”
When she offered it, he seemed delighted, but as soon as he held it, he refused it. NPCs couldn’t accept cash shop item, which made sense. It would be too easy to abuse, otherwise. So much for her brilliantly practical immoral plan.