7-2 Onward into Trouble
“I don’t like him,” Champ declared from his seat in the rover’s bed. No one even needed to follow his gaze to know he was referring to the man seated on the small, four-wheeled vehicle driving beside them. “I like a nice, stoic guy as much as anyone else, but he’s too taciturn. He didn’t even say five words to us.”
“You. Are. The. Team. Come. This. Way. Seven,” Cauliflower corrected, counting them out on her fingers before returning her gaze to the sky.
“And he’s too pale,” Champ continued, ignoring Cauliflower’s words. “I don’t like guys who’re that pale.”
“Just on principle, or…?” Knot looked back to ask before letting his voice trail off.
“Both,” Champ answered resolutely. “Who can trust a person who’s never seen the sun before? Even the people in the cities spend some time outside.”
“Rangers spend plenty of time outside,” Lotus spoke up, finally looking over to the subject of their conversation. He was of moderate height, with short, black hair and a slim build. The thinness, plus his pallor, did give him a strangely sickly feeling. “They just do it all in shadows or covered up by those big cloaks.”
“Can’t fault them on that,” Edge spoke up from beside Lotus. He’d lifted his face to enter the conversation, but it was clear he was even more drained than usual. Negotiating with the forestry guild must have taken a lot out of him. Lotus could remember from… times she didn’t want to recall, taciturn was a professional trait for the rangers. Talking to them was like squeezing blood from a stone.
“I’ve always wanted one of those. I once a ranger smear mud all over his for camouflage or whatever. Then, ten hours later, he just swabbed it through a stream and hung it up. Five minutes later, it was clean and dry.” Edge declared enviously as Lotus continued to observed his condition.
“Green wouldn’t look good on you,” Cauliflower nonchalantly shot him down, not turning her gaze from the clear sky.
Edge gave a proud look and opened his mouth, but before he could, Champ held up a hand and interrupted, “Don’t say you’d wear muddy clothes all the time. I don’t care how easy it is to clean, that’s not okay.”
Edge simply frowned and turned his gaze back to his shoes.
“The rangers provide a necessary service,” the Captain finally entered the discussion as Edge exited. “No reason to get on their bad side.”
“And I appreciate that,” Champ responded with a deep nod. “I’d just appreciate it more if they were serviceable from a distance.”
“Ummm…” The Newbie looked like he’d finally given up on trying to figure things out through context clues and slowly raised his hand. “I don’t know if I… appreciate… things.” The Newbie stopped and scowled at himself, as if confused by his own words before finishing, “I don’t understand this.”
“That guy over there,” Champ explained slowly and carefully as he pointed over to their client beside them. “He’s a ranger. We’re supposed to protect him, but we don’t like rangers.”
“Don’t tell him that,” Edge raised his head to glare at Champ reproachfully. “I mean, it’s true, but you’re not supposed to tell him. Let him figure it out on his own.”
Lotus shook her head disapprovingly at the peanut gallery before waving her hand to catch the Newbie’s attention. “Rangers are an important group with very few members, all of which have very specialized skills. They’re contracted with the merchant’s alliance to perform maintenance on the pylons and they provide countries and large guilds with monster population surveys. All very important.”
“Then why don’t we like them?” The Newbie asked, turning an earnestly confused look back towards Champ and Edge.
“Mercenaries don’t like rangers because they tend to be mysterious and hard to deal with,” Lotus answered slowly. Then she paused for a second as she tried to come up with how best to broach the next topic. “…And there have been a few high profile cases where famous teams have died while on protection missions for rangers.”
“…Like what we’re doing right now?” The Newbie asked, his earnestly curious eyes taking on a shade of worry.
“Basically,” Champ answered with a mischievous grin before Lotus could come up with the right spin to put on it.
“We have more concerns than our client this time,” the Captain quickly dismissed their entire discussion as he turned back to give the assembled team a serious look. “We’re going to be meeting up with the knights and soldiers of San Ranto in a few days. Then we’ll be staying with them for a few weeks, at least. What are we going to be doing during that time?”
“Keeping our heads down and hands to ourselves,” Champ gave the programed response with more than a minor hint of weary irritation.
“And how are the knights going to be?” The Captain continued with another question Lotus wasn’t hearing for the first time.
“Pricks,” Champ answered bitterly, not meeting the Captain’s gaze.
“They’re going to look down on us and distrust us,” Edge cut in as the Captain turned a cold Glare towards Champ. “Because we aren’t a part of the chain of command, but we won’t hold that against them.”
“Right, so we aren’t going to pick any fights, are we?” The Captain continued, turning his attention back away from Champ and to the car as a whole. “We’re going to stay out of their way, do our job, and get paid, yes?”
“Yes,” Lotus answered, turning her head away so she could roll her eyes.
“Yes,” Champ, Knot, and Edge all sighed out the word.
“Y-yes,” the Newbie hurriedly added, looking around the rover, confused as to the ritual he was suddenly taking part in.
“We aren’t going to start anything, are we?” The Captain asked again, as everyone’s gaze focused on their one, silent member.
“We aren’t going to stab anyone, right?” Edge asked, narrowing his eyes at Cauliflower as she pretended to be intensely engrossed in a passing cloud. “Right?”
“Not if they aren’t asking for it…” Cauliflower finally answered in a diffident mumble.
“How about, if we don’t like someone, we don’t give them what they ask us for?” The Captain asked, pinching the bridge of his nose.
Cauliflower said nothing and turned her head to the left, away from the Captain.
“I have a new rule,” Edge declared with a loud clap of his hands. “Let’s not do anything that gets me shot.”
“…I already apologized for that…” Cauliflower responded, turning her gaze down to her feet.
“And look how remorseful you are now,” Edge observed darkly.
In the wake of his words, a heavy silence fell over the car, only to be broken by Knot’s voice. “I’ll look after the girl… her and the kid. Make sure they don’t get into trouble.”
The Captain turned a raised eyebrow towards Knot while the Newbie pointed at himself with a questioning look on his face and Cauliflower said nothing.
“If you keep coddling her, she won’t ever be able to take care of herself,” Edge declared with a rueful shake of his head.
Before anyone could respond to that, the crackling of the radio broke into their discussion.
“There’s some reflection from the foliage ahead,” Their employer’s voice declared from the speaker, not bothering with any formalities. “Could be an ambush.”
The Captain turned his attention to the front and narrowed his eyes towards the clump of trees and bushes. He spent a few seconds in thought before he picked up the receiver and responded, “You’re in charge here, but I’d rather avoid any potential misunderstandings.”
“You take point, then,” was all the man on the ATV said in response before slowing down to move directly behind the rover.
After watching the vehicle settle into its new position, Lotus turned her attention back to the small copse in front of them. She bit her lip gently as she thought about what was to come. That was the third reason people didn’t like working with rangers. This part was never pleasant.