Naffur Suite pulled at the cuffs of his long-sleeved shirt so the crimson color could be seen just a bit at the edges of his sports coat sleeves. He smiled at himself in the mirror.
Congratulations! You Skill “Charming Exterior” has increased to Level 32!
It was a welcome notification after a week of inactivity, and his smile turned softer and more genuine as he considered himself. The suit was expensive but well made. Although he couldn’t normally afford it, Naffur was already gambling everything on tomorrow night. Spending a few hundred more dollars wouldn’t make much of a difference to the amount he was standing to gain from the operation.
And in the Orchard, people like him don’t live long if they don’t succeed.
“Wonderful, wonderful,” Mama Potter said, rolling calmly over to stand next to Naffur as he considered himself. She squeezed his shoulder. “Are you truly the same Class-less pipsqueak that I took in 6 months ago? Look at you! I bet you could join the army if you wanted to.”
Naffur made an exaggeratedly pained face. “And miss your meals? Mama, I don’t care about how high a mess officer’s levels are. Your cooking is the best.”
Congratulations! Your Skill “Flattery” has increased to Level 19!
With the notification improving Naffur’s mood even further, his gaze wandered over to Mama Potter. She was extremely obese, but Naffur believed that half of her weight was heart and naivety. Apparently, she was here at the very founding of the Orchard, which was why she had such prominent location in the Old District. She even had one of the Ghosthound’s marks in her building.
For all that he was one of the most powerful people in the world, he had worked tirelessly to help erect most of the buildings in the old district by hand, and in each one he would hide a scratched signature on the underside of beams. Mama Potter’s was in the bathroom, on top of the doorframe.
When Naffur had arrived, released from the wilderness and thrown into the dangerous borderlands, he used to climb up on the toilet and just stare at it. Somehow, looking at the messy scrawl calmed Naffur down. And it made him remember a tingling hope that he had lost a long time ago.
Maybe there really was such a thing as a hero.
At the time Naffur arrived, refugees were pouring into the Orchard. There were so many that people slept in piles for safety. Because while the Ghosthound was constantly active in the area, he couldn’t be everywhere. And the Senator’s men meant well, but they didn’t want to get involved in the gang disputes that quickly took shape.
Mama Potter took Naffur in to save him from that. He remembered sitting in a puddle of mud and wondering whether he would eventually get thirsty enough to drink this when someone cast a shadow over him. When he looked up, she asked him what his name was. He replied, and then she laughed aloud.
“Sweet? What a wonderful name! And an auspicious one. Would you like to help me bake some cupcakes?”
A path to a clean and stable life was opened to him at that moment.
But it would only take him a month to fuck it up.
“Shush, you won’t miss my cooking, you’ll just miss Mareen.” Mama Potter said with a wink. Naffur flushed but didn’t say anything. He knew that she would only tease him more relentlessly if he tried to deny it.
Naffur was 16, he thought, or maybe 17 now. Mareen was the 19-year-old clerk that worked busy shift after 6 pm when the builders and guards switched shifts and spent some of their coin in the shops. She wasn’t exactly perfect looking, but she had a voice that drew clients into the business like a trail of honey.
Naffur wasn’t sure what Level her singing was at, but it seemed to be damn high. Maybe even close to 70, or something ridiculous. So much so that he had a secret worry in his heart that one day, the Ghosthound or the Senator or someone important like Thaddeus Hatch would show up, hear her singing, and take her away. Not like kidnap, just… offer her something better than this.
Naffur’s expression was rather morose was he regarded himself once more. The crimson of the shirt seemed positively maroon. After all, why wouldn’t she go with them? She deserved-
Mama Potter pinched him so powerfully that he yelped.
Congratulations! Your Skill “Feign Injury” has reached Level 49!
“Don’t go looking like that, not in a new suit,” Mama Potter said balefully, squinting at him. “Whatcha need this for anyway? Have you finally landed a job?”
“Not yet Mama,” Naffur said, forcing a wooden smile onto his face.
Congratulations! Your Skill “Deceitful Words” has reached Level 33!
Mama Potter made to pinch him again, and he sidestepped around it easily. Frowning at him, she opened her mouth, then went pale. “You… do you have a lottery ticket?”
This time, Naffur’s smile was genuine. For whatever was going to happen, Naffur was still going to get the chance to pretend to be someone else for a day. For a while… he wouldn’t be a poor NCC. He could be…
“Yea Mama. Exciting right? Now don’t try and convince me to give it up! A man like me just needs one chance to impress those bigwigs. By this time next week-”
Mama Potter enveloped him in a hug. “What part of you is a man, my Sweet? But I’m so happy… I’m so, so, so happy…”
Naffur felt a twinge in his chest, so much so that his Deceitful Words wouldn’t come. Because tomorrow night, Naffur would be playing a role that he had never played before. For one night, he would be a supervillain.
After he left, Naffur climbed up onto the roof and peered around the Old District of the Orchard. The buildings were all connected with a series of trellises and metal pathways that had been added after the fact, as the money in the Orchard moved elsewhere. What was left looked something like a steampunk beehive, with people crawling along the outsides of the buildings about as much as they moved inside of them.
Walking quickly, he soon reached the small shack built on top of a covered walkway between two buildings. It was high enough off the ground that a fall would probably injure someone who hadn’t put a lot of points into Physical Defense stats so no families wanted the space. And the covered pathway was skinny enough that no one with any clout would fight him for it. It was the spot only for the desperate.
Ever since Naffur had found it two months ago, he had really started to love his little lean-to.
Once inside, he removed the clothes with great care and put them into a pile in the clean corner of the shed. The clean corner was the corner that wasn’t the door, the bed, or the chamber pot. It still made Naffur somewhat leery, so he wrapped the clothes in plastic for extra protection. Then he sighed and left for a meeting.
He was late, due to his enjoyment at Mana Potter’s, and being late only meant one thing.
“Jesus, fuck me,” Naffur gasped as a fist struck his abdomen.
Congratulations! Your Skill “Feign Injury” has reached Level 50! Congratulations, the Path of Cowardice I is open to you!
The notification stopped Naffur’s fake moans in their tracks. It felt… it felt like the System was criticizing him, and that pissed him off so much. The two men beating him seemed almost relieved and continued to smack him around in silence.
‘I didn’t want this,’ Naffur thought, curled up into a ball with tears in his eyes. ‘Do you think I picked this Path? This is all there is…’
But still, that spark of fury didn’t die. And as one of the two men threw a careless overhand blow, Naffur lashed out with his foot and caught the man in the groin. He went down like a house of cards blown over.
Congratulations! Your Skill “Cheap Shot” has reached Level 40!
This extended his beating for several minutes but was ultimately worth it. At the end of it, he was hauled up and made to stand before a rather unfamiliar man with a thinning hairline. One of the thugs, the one he had kicked, twisted Naffur’s arm painfully behind his back and pushed him forward.
“Say hello to the big boss, he came in special from the West for this job. So scum like you don’t fuck it up.”
Wincing, Naffur stepped forward and considered the man before him. The gang he owed money to was the Haveheights, who mostly just ran the brothels and casinos on the outskirts of the Orchard. They were rough men and women who cared about coins and fists. But the man in front of him seemed… different. And not in a good way.
The man seemed equally nonplussed at Naffur. “This… this is the best we can get? Well, it ain’t your fault kid, but that just means you are gonna need to work that much harder.”
The man extended his hand. “The name is Ricky Stain. A pleasure to be working with you.”