The Measure of a Hero by Joel Fagin

Author's note: This was just a bolt-out-of-the-blue random inspiration that struck whilst I was re-playing Phantasy Star 4. I immediately closed the game and booted up Word, writing this in one sitting (with breaks) and posting on the Phantasy Star Discussion Board that evening.

The Information Monger looked evenly at the supplicant.

"Hmph!" he said. "That's prime information, that is. I'll be needing something in return."

"I can pay-" the supplicant started to say, but the Monger waved him silent.

"Money is not the issue. We have little use for it and more than we can spend anyway. I am, you will remember, an information monger. I need... reciprocation." He rolled the R's as if savouring them

The supplicant brightened. He thought this was the easy way out, the Monger thought. The fool.

"What do you want to know?" the supplicant asked. The Information Monger told him.

"I don't know that!" the supplicant exclaimed. "No one could know that! That's ridiculous."

"And not my concern," the Monger said dismissively. "If you do not know now, I can only suggest you find out."

"I can't... You know I can't. No one could."

"My price stands," the Monger said impassively. "Whether you accept or not is" – he shrugged – "up to you."

"I'll try, then."

"Good. You do that, friend."

"You're not drinking," a voice said, and the man who went with it sat in the chair opposite. "Have a drink. On me." He signalled a waitress and ordered two ales.

"Who are you?" the student asked suspiciously. "I haven't seen you around before."

"I'm new in town, that's right," the man admitted. "I don't expect to be staying longer than the end of the holidays. They start soon, don't they?"

The student nodded as he took his mug from the waitress. She smiled at him.

"A week now," the student said. The other man took his drink from the waitress and gave her a few meseta.

"Thank you," he said to her and then turned back to the student.

"I'm actually looking for someone to do a job for me over the holidays. Up in Aiedo." He took a long draught of his ale.

"You're asking me?" said the student.

"Offering," the man said. "A student sitting in a bar not drinking is in dire need of funds, I'm thinking."

The student was. He was in his second last year at the Academy and the money his parents had saved to keep him going for the five years was finished, wasted on, well, more drinks.

"I don't really mind who I get," the man continued, "but the money may as well go somewhere useful."

"How long will it take?" the student asked. "And how much?"

"Well, now, the rewards come to three hundred meseta and a free trip to Aiedo. As for how long, well, you can stay there as little as a day and get the job done. A week there, a week back – and that's if the way is troubled. I don't see there'll be a problem."

"You coming?"

"No." And the man took in a mouthful of ale.

"What's the job then?" the student asked.

The man told him.

The student burst out laughing and then stopped suddenly with a choked off noise.

"You're serious?" he gasped.

"I'm afraid so. I need the information as a trade. It was quite... specifically asked for. Believe me, I'd just as soon not bother."

"It's bloody dangerous!" the student said. "You're crazy!"

"It's not dangerous at all," the man said with a knowing smile. "You're a student. Now, if I were to do it and get caught, it would be dangerous, but you?" He took another drink and then put his mug on the table.

"In your hands," he said, "it reeks of a student prank, a dare, an initiation, whatever. There's risk of course, but little punishment if you're caught. Anyway," – the man shrugged and picked his drink up again – "it's your decision."

"I want the money now," the student said.

"Half, at most," the man said. The student thought about that.

"Half, then," he agreed. Their mugs clinked together.

The child was around ten and bouncing a ball against the outer wall of Aiedo. He noticed the shadow coming up from behind him and turned around, thinking it was his dad come to get him for a chore. It wasn't. It was a stranger, one the boy didn't remember ever seeing around this area. A young man, as his mum called them, like his brother was.

"I thought you were my dad," he said. "Who're you?"

"Hello little boy," the stranger said. "I need a little help."

"You look like my brother," the boy said. "'Cept he's stronger than you. He works in the guild."

"A hunter?" the stranger asked, suddenly looking worried.

The boy shook his head. "Nah. Does odd-jobs."

"Do you want to earn some pocket money?"

The boy shrugged.

"Sure, okay. What'dya want?"

The stranger told him.

"No way, mister!" the boy said loudly. "My mum would skin me for that and if I get found out... You even know who lives there? You're nuts."

"Twenty meseta," the stranger said. "Come on, kid. You go in there and you get told off. If I go in there I might go to jail. Please?"

"No way! You're nuts!" the boy repeated.

"Scared then?" The stranger shrugged, looking vaguely disappointed. "Oh well. I'll go see if any of your friends have any courage."

"You can't tell them!" the boy burst out. "That's not fair! They'll tease me! And I am too brave!"

"Prove it!" the stranger challenged. "Think what your friends would say if you make it, huh? Think of that!"



"Okay then, but I'm telling on you if I get caught."

The stranger grinned. "Thanks, kid."

It was the middle of the day when the boy did it.

The stranger had told him how. First he knocked on the front door to see if there was anyone home. He was so scared that there might be that the knock barely touched the wood. He looked around nervously in case anyone was looking. Man, what if his mum found out? Oh man, what if he was caught? Was that a noise? Someone was home, someone was home.

Nerves jerked him into a run and he didn't stop until he was around the next corner. He peered out, breathing quickly. Oh man, oh man, oh man. If he got caught...

The door didn't open. No one was home. He crept forward, his heart wound up tight.

The house had walls at its back and sides, but they were city walls and not built by the builder of the house. The house had no walls at all, but the garden was just a sort of U-shaped alley. The boy snuck around the back, his head craning around behind him, trying to see if anyone was watching him.

Someone walked past on the street out the front, and the boy froze, his heart thundering. The man walked by without a look.

The boy ran for it, nearly diving behind the house. Sweet heroine! Too close!

But he was here. Man, if he was caught...

There was a thin rope line stretched between the back wall of the house and a hook driven into the city wall. On it was some washing, hung out to dry. The boy crept up to it and reached out with shaking fingers.

Oh, man...

The boy was panting when he got back to the stranger. He thrust the three items of clothing to the man.

"Here! Take 'em!"

"Were you spotted?" the stranger asked craning his neck to see if there was anyone chasing.

"No!" the boy panted. "Now gimme the money!"

The stranger counted out three ten meseta gems.

"Thanks, kid."

A week later the student and the man met back in the bar.

"You have them?"

The student nodded. "Yes."

"All three items?"

"Yes," the student said impatiently. "Where's my money?"

The man pulled out a bag and put it on the table.

"One hundred fifty," he said.

"Here, then," the student said, handing over a cloth bag.

The man went straight to the Piata clothier and gave him the bag of stolen clothes.

"I need to know some things about the person who wore these," he said. "It's worth fifty meseta if you can tell me."

The clothier pulled out the black shirt first, and the bra tumbled away from that when he did so. He cocked a curious eyebrow at the man and then looked back in the bag. He reached in and pulled out a pair of panties.

He whistled between his teeth.

"I'm sure I don't wanna know what's this about," he said. "What info' d'ya need?"

The man told him and the clothier laughed.

"No," he said. "I really don't wanna know."

Another week saw the man as supplicant once again, before the Information Monger.

"You have the information?" the Monger asked, sounding surprised.

"I do," the supplicant said.

The Monger's bushy eyebrows rose considerably. "Well, then," he huffed. "Well, let's have it!"

"Certainly Grandfather Dorin," agreed the man. "Starting from the top, thirty-six, twenty..."