Erin woke up slowly. She woke up to the sight of a bag full of money on her table. For a moment, she thought the Goblin had left it.
It wasn’t the Goblin. In fact, the mysterious bag full of silver coins was courtesy of Klbkch. Erin peered down at the note he’d written and squinted to make out the words. To her amazement, it was legible, if slightly smudgy English! Even cursive?
For the destruction of a Hobgoblin Chieftain within the area of Liscor, you are hereby awarded 12 gold and 14 coins of silver, or equivalent in lesser denominations. Signed and witnessed by Senior Guardsman Klbkch.
—Senior Guardsman Klbkch
Post Script: Please excuse my poor handwriting, but I am not fluent in the script used by most Humans on this continent.
Erin peered down at the bag. She opened it and blinked at the sight of all the gleaming silver and gold. Gold. For a while, she stared at the shiny metal and watched as the sunlight made it glow. Then she closed the bag.
She gazed at the table. The money seemed like it was right out of a dream. But it didn’t actually matter much to her at the moment.
She looked back at the table. Had she dreamed that too? But no, she saw where the Goblin had spilled the blue fruit juice when she’d smiled at it. A large glowing fly was hovering over the table.
Erin sighed. But then she smiled. And suddenly, she knew what she was going to do.
First, she smacked the Acid Fly and ran around screaming until she washed the acid off. Then she ate breakfast, which were cold noodles mixed with sausage and onion. It was delicious. Then she walked down to the city.
A thought struck Erin as she walked. She’d have to go back to the market. The market where she’d lost all of her money. Her footsteps slowed and then picked up. Suddenly, Erin had two things to do today. She was looking forward to both.
The second time the Human female entered the market, every head turned. This time, it wasn’t just because of her smell. The looks were amused and hostile, a mix of both. But this time, they faltered a bit because the first time she had been pierced by all the stares.
This time, she returned the gazes until people looked away, but they watched her out of the corners of their eyes.
Erin marched right up to the stall where she’d been ripped off. She glared at the Drake and then squinted. They had purple scales, but it was more of a lilac-purple. And they looked a bit—smoother-scaled? There was a different curve to their face. Erin hesitated.
“Wait a second. Have we met?”
The Drake shook her head. A distinctly female voice emerged from the toothy mouth.
“Do you wish to buy a necklace, Human?”
Erin eyed the pendants and other jewelry on display.
“Later, maybe. Right now, I want to talk to the Drake guy who ripped me off the other day. You know; the one that took all my money. The ugly one.”
The other customers and shopkeepers nearby who heard that laughed loudly. The female Drake grinned and covered her smile. She pointed, and Erin turned to see a scowling Drake four stalls down.
Erin marched over to the Drake. He glared at her, but now, Erin reflected the glower and added more to it. He shifted his gaze pointedly over Erin’s head. She cleared her throat. When he still ignored her, she kicked the bottom of his stall.
The Drake looked down and snapped at her.
“What do you want?”
Erin gave him a polite smile without any of the sincerity.
“Why, I’d like to do business. Jerk.”
The Drake hissed under his breath. He shook his head at her and flicked his tail in her direction.
“My store’s closed to you, Human. I won’t sell to those without a hint of respect for others.”
“Respect? I have tons of respect. Just for anyone who’s not you.”
Several of the other shopkeepers laughed at that. Erin noticed she and the Drake were drawing a crowd. She didn’t particularly care.
The shopkeeper Drake glared harder at Erin.
“You’re obstructing my business. Leave before I summon the Watch.”
He turned his back on Erin, but she rapped on his counter.
“My business with you isn’t done yet. I want my money back. You ripped me off the other day.”
The Drake looked over his shoulder.
“So? I offered you my goods, and you paid my price. That is a basic rule of buying and selling. I have done nothing wrong.”
There was a general murmur of agreement from some of the shop owners and a discontented rumble among the shoppers. A Gnoll woman leaned over her stall, opening her mouth, but he shot her such a ferocious look she fell silent. She was watching Erin, anyway. There was an expression she liked on the Human’s face this time, and she stood closer to the shop counter, not huddling like she had on the first day.
Erin Solstice leaned over the counter and fixed the Drake with a glare.
“Oh yeah? What if I’m not happy about what you sold me? I think for two and a half gold coins you should be selling me enough onions to fill the bottom floor of my inn. So how about I return to you what I’ve purchased and you give me a complete refund?”
The Drake sneered at her.
“Do you take me for a slow-witted hatchling or a Human fool? I won’t accept food that’s days old! Besides, this store does not give out refunds!”
“Really? Where does it say that?”
The Drake pointed to a sign. Erin stared at it and up at him with narrowed eyes amidst the laughter. She heard a low growl from the Gnoll woman and hesitated. Then she grinned mirthlessly.
“Oh, right. It does say that, doesn’t it? Too bad I can’t read. But I do remember you had your prices listed as well, didn’t you?”
She looked around at the other pieces of paper pinned to the wooden stall. The Drake shopkeeper lunged, but Erin was quicker. She pulled the familiar piece of paper away and waved it in front of his face.
“Well. Why don’t we call the Watch after all? Buying and selling is all very well, but what about sticking to prices you write down?”
The Drake shopkeeper hissed again, long and slow this time. His eyes flicked to the paper and back to Erin’s face. He wasn’t sweating, but Erin was pretty sure lizards didn’t sweat. Or maybe he just didn’t think he was in trouble yet.
“Even—even if you have that bit of paper, what of it? I sell to many customers. And you—I barely remember what I sold to my last customer, let alone you.”
“A bag of flour, one pot of oil, a small bag of salt, sugar, yeast, four sausages, and two onions.”
Erin said it instantly. She paused for a second.
“And one crappy bag.”
The Drake stared at her with an open mouth. She smiled sweetly at him.
“I’ve got a good memory. A really good one, actually. Perfect for numbers and lists.”
He didn’t have much to say to that. But the look on the shopkeeper’s face told Erin he wasn’t about to start tossing gold coins around. She leaned over the counter and stared at him. She wished she wasn’t so close. His breath smelled of rotten meat.
“I want my money back. I’ll give you a few silver coins for what I paid, but I’m not leaving here until you give me my money. Now, we can do this the hard way and call a bunch of people over and you can lose all your business for the day, or you can give my money back and I’ll—hey, is that a chess board?”
Erin pointed at one of the Drake shopkeeper’s displays. Everyone turned and looked. Amid the cluster of items he was selling, the Drake had a few chessboards complete with little pieces fashioned into Drakes and Gnolls!
Erin saw a knight piece in armor, a Drake with a sword and a shield, and her eyes locked on what was, instead of a bishop, someone with robes and a staff. A mage? But everything was the same; it was even set up, and he had a little sign attached to it that she couldn’t read. It had something like exclamation marks, though, so she guessed it was a hot product?
Suddenly, Erin’s fury about being ripped off was replaced by pure fascination and excitement.
“Oh hey, it is! It’s just like—I mean, the pieces are different, but it’s chess, it is!”
The Drake snarled and batted Erin’s hands away.
“Get your hands off that! This is a valuable item! These are custom-carved and based on the Titan of Baleros’ standardized rules! The best [Tactician] in Liscor plays on these very boards I sell! I bet you don’t even know how the game is played!”
Erin glared back. Her hands were suddenly itching to hold a chess piece.
“It’s a chess board made out of wood. Unless it’s made out of gold—which it’s not—it’s about as expensive as that food you sold me. So I guess you’re selling this for three gold coins, too?”
That got another laugh from the crowd who had gathered to watch Erin’s showdown with the shopkeeper. The Drake, on the other hand, just grabbed the chess board and pieces and went to shove them below his counter. Then he stopped and turned to her with a gleam in his eye.
“Are you a player of chess, Human? If so, why don’t we bet on a game?”
Erin raised one eyebrow.
“You mean, we play a game of chess for my money? Why should I do that?”
The Drake spread his arms innocently. Erin noticed his tail was wagging on the floor, but she pretended not to notice.
“Human, you and I have a dispute. I refuse to pay for goods sold, and you refuse to leave. So long as you’re stinking up my storefront, I won’t have any business, so I offer a wager in good faith. Win against the player of my choice and I will pay you back the money you paid me, though it will cost me my goods that I have earned honestly. Lose and you agree in front of witnesses not to bother me again. That is my best offer.”
Once again, the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] growled warningly, and even the glare he shot her didn’t keep her from opening her mouth. Even one of the other Drakes looked concerned.
“Lism, that’s a bit much…”
Erin narrowed her eyes at ‘Lism,’ and the [Shopkeeper] shot glares at the others to keep them silent while he gave her an innocent look. She knew something was up, but Erin just thought for a moment and then nodded. Her lips twitched once, but she managed to suppress them.
“Fine. Let’s play.”
The shopkeeper smiled down at her. It was a smile full of teeth.
“Give me ten minutes to call over my player. Then I will teach you why it is unwise to bet against your betters.”
Erin gave him a big, happy smile.
Twenty minutes later, Erin sat at a table in the middle of the street and played with a pawn. She set up the board and checked that it was right.
“All the pieces are in the right spots? And these move like this?”
She turned to one of the onlookers, the super-tall Gnoll woman whom she’d met on the first day. The Gnoll squatted next to the board and frowned, conferring with a few others.
“Hrr. Yes. That’s exactly how they move. You should call the Watch, Miss Human. You won’t win this game.”
Erin blinked at her. The woman sounded concerned and kindly. She nodded to the purple-scaled Drake, Lism, who was marching back with Erin’s opponent in tow.
“Your opponent is very good, and Lism, that slimy bastard, will refuse to pay you if you lose.”
“I know. How good is my opponent?”
“The best in Liscor.”
The young woman’s fingers stopped moving as she picked up a little piece and admired it. Erin glanced into the Gnoll woman’s face and exhaled.
“That good, huh? Got it.”
She didn’t get up or stop arranging the chess pieces. The Gnoll woman gave Erin an exasperated look and stood up, shaking her head. She joined the watchers as Erin got up to inspect whomever Lism had brought.
This Drake was interesting. He was shorter than Lism, clearly younger, and his scales were sky-blue, not a grungy purple. He had a light tunic on with the same insignia as Relc’s badge, and he had a few ink stains on his claws.
He also looked fascinated by Erin and actually held out a claw to shake before Lism brushed forwards.
“Here he is, my nephew. Olesm, meet, er, this Human.”
“What a delight. A Human? A [Trader]? What’s this about, Uncle? I’m supposed to be at work, you know—”
The Drake had a pleasant voice, and he looked around nervously, but Lism hushed him.
“The Council will spare you a few moments, Olesm. Just sit down and win a game or two.”
He smiled innocuously at Erin, and the young woman saw the younger Drake try to hold out his clawed hand again and once more Lism stopped him.
Olesm was his name? He was thinner than the shopkeeper, but the Drake was still taller than she was. He sighed, glanced at his uncle, and finished setting up the pieces on his side with clear familiarity. Olesm seated himself and smiled at Erin across the table.
“I apologize, Miss Human. I rarely get a chance to play any games within the city these days. May I know whom I am playing against?”
“Of course. My name’s Erin. Erin Solstice.”
He nodded to her.
“I am Olesm. I believe you know my uncle, who asked me to play in this match.”
Erin gave her opponent a friendly, genuine smile and then looked over his shoulder.
“Is that your uncle? My, you two don’t look alike.”
The Drake hovering over his nephew’s shoulder hissed at her. Olesm raised what would have been his eyebrows if he had any.
“I understand this is a game with a wager. I would urge you not to bet against me. I am quite a good player.”
The shopkeeper interjected quickly.
“We have already agreed to the terms. The Human cannot back out now.”
Olesm glanced at his uncle, irritated, and opened his mouth to reply, but Erin shook her head.
“I’m not backing down. Let’s play. Besides, I wouldn’t want to disappoint the crowd.”
She gestured at the crowd of watching people. They were definitely people, but Erin wasn’t sure what else to call them. Drakes, Gnolls, and even one of Klbkch’s kind, the Antinium, were all gathered in a circle to watch the game. The Gnolls and Drakes stood close by, and Erin noted the Antinium was sweeping the street.
But every now and then, quite often, it would glance at the board, and it seemed really keen on getting the dust out from behind some stalls. None of the Gnolls or Drakes paid any attention to the Antinium save to keep their distance, and the crowd was quite distracted, anyways.
Some of them seemed to be betting as well, and though Erin couldn’t hear what they were saying, they didn’t seem to be betting on her victory.
“Are you sure, Miss? I really am quite good. I will be playing at my best.”
The blue-scaled Drake looked anxious, but Erin gave him a bland smile.
“I don’t intend to lose either.”
Olesm sighed, but made no further objection. Instead, he peered at the board and made sure his pieces were all aligned within the squares. He struck Erin as a very meticulous and careful type, which made him unique among the Drakes she’d met so far.
“I’m surprised you know about this game. It was invented just a few years ago. By the Titan of Baleros himself. I’ve been playing it nearly since it came out, but it’s not caught hold yet in a lot of cities.”
“You don’t say.”
Erin was busy examining the board, but she found that fascinating. She had already gone over the rules, but…she lifted one eye and then put a confused look on her face. Erin tapped one of the pieces, a Drake with a scepter and crown.
“I’m not sure if the rules I know are the same in that case. This piece here. You can move a king together with a rook like this, right?”
The Drake blinked.
“That’s right. I’m surprised you know that move.”
“Oh, I’ve seen a few players use it. Knights move like this, right?”
“And pawns can move two spaces on their first move, right? And if a piece is here, they can take it diagonally?”
Lism was trying to hide a gloating smile as the Gnoll woman groaned and the onlookers hastily tried to amend their bets one way. However, Olesm looked quite pleased by Erin’s questions.
“You seem to know this game. Well, well. This might be a good challenge after all.”
Erin smiled blandly at the Drake.
“I’m no expert. But there’s a wager on this one, so I’ll play my best. The white side moves first.”
“Indeed it does.”
The shopkeeper smirked, and the other watchers crowded around closer as Olesm pushed a pawn forwards. Erin smiled at him.
“Not many players lead with a pawn from the side. Most like going down the center.”
She pushed a pawn forward quickly. Olesm shrugged as he contemplated his next move.
“I have found this strategy to work in some of my games. It is fascinating to play such a new game of strategy, and so I always test new theories out on the board.”
A game that had only been out two years? So he probably didn’t even have a name for that opening move. The shopkeeper anxiously hovered over Olesm’s shoulder. He hissed in the younger Drake’s earhole.
“So long as you win. You must win no matter what.”
Olesm narrowed his eyes but didn’t take his eyes from the board. Eventually, he pushed forwards a pawn to counter Erin’s pawn. He was chatting conversationally as Erin moved a piece too-quickly. Olesm was clearly thinking over each move, but Erin seemed not to be thinking at all.
“So you’re really good at chess in Liscor, huh? Have you played a lot of games?”
Erin pushed another piece forwards instantly and shrugged. Olesm blinked, and the onlookers muttered.
“A few. But should you not spend more time thinking?”
She waved a hand at him.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. I’m having a blast. I just think fast about my next move, that’s all.”
Olesm frowned at her, looking irritated by her attitude. He pushed forwards a rook in reply, a bit hastily, and retorted, though she doubted he was the snappish type. He was more…peeved.
“You should think harder. I have played over a hundred games so far and won over two-thirds of them. If you truly are betting something important, it would not do to lose this game so easily.”
Erin smiled back at him.
“A hundred? Wow. But like I said, don’t worry. I like to play chess too. And I’ve played a…few games too. I’m not worried.”
Erin smiled wider.
“Because I’m going to win.”
By the time Relc got to the market street Erin was on, the game had gone on for twenty minutes. A few customers were at the stands haggling, but most were still watching the game. One smart Gnoll was selling them food as they watched, and the shopkeepers seemed content to put their business on hold to watch the fun.
Relc was not having fun. He shoved his way to the front of the crowd and grabbed Erin. The crowd protested angrily. So did Erin.
“Hey, what are you doing?”
“What are you doing?”
Relc snapped back at her. He pointed angrily to the game of chess where Olesm was taking his time considering his next move.
“This? I’m getting my money back. Let go of my shirt. You’ll poke holes in it.”
She tried to peel off Relc’s claws from her shirt. Relc let go, but pulled her away from the game. He leaned forwards and hissed at her.
“Stop playing. This isn’t a fair game.”
Erin looked at the board and back at Relc.
“You can’t cheat in chess. It’s fair.”
“No, it’s not.”
Relc raised his voice and pointed to the shopkeeper.
“Hey, you! Yeah, you. I know you. Stop the game. This isn’t fair. The bet’s off.”
The crowd rumbled in discontent at Relc’s words. The Drake shopkeeper spread his claws out innocently.
“It is a fair game. She let me name my player, and we agreed to the wager. There are many witnesses. It would be wrong to cancel the game now, Senior Guardsman.”
Relc eyed the Drake shopkeeper balefully. Erin noticed the shopkeeper’s tail was wagging a bit. He also had a gleeful look if she was reading his face right.
“I hate to agree with that jerk, but he’s right, Relc. I agreed to the wager, and I want to play. I’m going to win my money back and play some chess while I’m at it.”
“Are you crazy? You’re going to lose this game.”
Relc hissed at Erin. She blinked up at him.
“Am I? Why’s that?”
Relc growled under his breath. He jerked a thumb over at the seated Drake who was studying the board with a frown.
“That guy you’re playing? He’s a [Tactician]. The highest-leveled one in the city!”
Erin blinked again.
“So? Does that mean he’s good at chess?”
“Well, so am I. It’s still a fair game, isn’t it?”
“No! Are you stupid?”
Relc seemed close to tearing out the spines on his head.
“All [Tacticians] can tell when they’re being led into a trap! They’re good at playing these games—they have Skills! Tactics are a [Tactician] thing—it’s in the name! How do you not know this? If you play one in a game, they’ll win almost every time! Plus, that idiot loves to play that stupid game!”
The Olesm looked up and glared at Relc.
“I’m not using any Skills. I am simply matching Miss Solstice in a game of wits, Relc. Practice makes the player.”
Erin glared too, much to Relc’s chagrin. She jabbed him in the leg with a finger, looking more annoyed by his comments about chess than her odds.
“It’s not a stupid game. And so what if he likes to play? Like I said, so do I. And I’m a good player.”
“You still can’t win.”
“Oh, hi Klbkch.”
Erin turned away from Relc and waved at the silent ant man who had come up behind Relc. Klbkch nodded at her politely.
“Miss Solstice. Please forgive my companion’s interruption. We are on duty, and it is improper of us to disturb a member of the public without cause. But Relc insisted we speak with you once we heard of the bet that had been made.”
“Really? You heard about the bet?”
“Indeed. It is all over the city.”
“Yeah, everyone was talking about the stupid Human who was dumb enough to wager on a game of chess against that idiot.”
Relc jerked his thumb at Olesm. The other Drake continued pondering the board, but Erin could see him grinding his teeth in his seat.
Klbkch nodded and leaned forwards to confer with Erin. Lism looked worried as two [Guards] glanced his way, but he clearly didn’t like Relc or Klbkch. Especially Klbkch from how he glowered.
“I understand this is a bet made to recover your lost coin. However, I fear I must issue the same warning as Relc. The odds of you winning a game against Olesm are quite slim.”
At this point, Erin was getting exasperated by everyone telling her the same thing, but she glanced at her opponent, and a mischievous smile crossed her face.
“Olesm. Oh yeah, that’s what his name is.”
Erin covered a smile as Olesm’s eye twitched. She turned to Klbkch and Relc.
“Look, I’m glad you two care. But I’ve got this. It’s fine. You’ll see.”
The two guardsmen stared at her, unconvinced. Relc turned to Klbkch and whispered. Unfortunately, his voice was still quite loud, and Erin and those around them could hear him quite plainly.
“I don’t think she gets it. Humans are kinda slow. You explain the [Tactician] bit to her.”
“I believe you have given her adequate information. If she will not listen to you, she will not listen to me.”
“Exactly. So stop calling me stupid or I’ll hit you.”
Erin glared at Relc, who shuffled his feet and looked away. She glared at Klbkch, who raised all four of his hands and bowed his head, and then shifted her glare back to Relc.
“Let me play. You two can watch, but I’m going to play and win.”
Erin raised a finger.
“No. Go away and let me play.”
Relc opened his mouth, closed it, and then hissed long and loud. He threw up his hands and stomped back into the crowd.
Erin slid back into her seat and smiled at Olesm.
“Sorry about that.”
Olesm glanced over Erin’s shoulder and sniffed at Relc and Klbkch.
“Think nothing of it. But if we’re done with the interruptions, it’s your move.”
“So it is.”
Erin pondered the board. Then she slid another piece forwards.
“Oi, Klbkch. What’s she doing? Was that a good move? It looked like a bad move.”
“I am uncertain at this point. Allow me a few moments to assess the board before I give you my opinion. And please, lower your voice.”
Erin covered a smile as Olesm’s eye twitched. She waited for him to play another piece. As she did, she studied the board.
Chess. The pieces were different, and she was playing in a street in a city full of walking lizards and talking ants. But it was still chess.
It was wonderful to play again.
Olesm frowned as he toyed with a bishop Erin had cornered with one of her knights. He had no idea what a ‘bishop’ was; the [Carvers] had styled it after a [Mage] instead, but the Titan had referred to it thusly and that was how it was called in the game’s rules.
Naturally, Olesm used the word because anything the Titan did, he did. The Drake moved the piece diagonally one way and then frowned. Then he moved it another way and frowned again. He glanced up at Erin.
She stared back at him innocently. The Human waited as the Drake moved his piece back and forth around a rook she’d used to attack his queen and then took one of her pawns with it. His frown didn’t go away, but he seemed content with the move. For about three seconds.
Erin moved another of her pieces forwards instantly. Her knight—a scaly Drake with a buckler in one hand and a scimitar in the other—took one of his pawns.
A susurration went through the audience around the two players. That was, except for Relc, who had gone to one of the stalls to buy something to eat. Olesm leaned back in his chair and gave Erin an admiring look.
“Well done, I hadn’t anticipated that.”
“It was just a lucky move. Well, not lucky, but it was quite nice, wasn’t it?”
Olesm moved his king sideways.
Erin pointed at the board.
“Oh, that’s check too. Sorry.”
Erin tapped her queen and pointed down the board. The Drake player grimaced and moved his king the other way.
“That’s check as well. See the rook?”
Olesm paused and blinked at the table. The crowd murmured more loudly, and Relc came back to look at the table.
After a minute, Olesm made a move that wasn’t check, and the game went on. But now, he took longer and longer between each move, and his frown, which had started about five minutes ago, didn’t go away.
Meanwhile, his uncle, the shopkeeper, watched the board with clear anxiety. He glared at Erin, who smiled serenely back at him. Whenever Olesm made a move, she would instantly move a piece and take one of his own or threaten his king. Eventually, she stopped staring at the board and stared at the shopkeeper with a smile on her face as Olesm frantically searched the board for a comeback.
Something was wrong. At first, he’d thought she was careless. But as the game had progressed, Olesm had noticed he was losing more pieces. Yet he didn’t process his vague sense of unease until this moment. He began moving his pieces, taking few of hers, and watched as his began to fly off the board.
Like someone creeping up on him. Like a Rock Crab, the young woman closed her trap. And the ‘even game’ he’d thought he’d been playing began turning into—the young woman smiled at Olesm and Lism.
Her voice was quite even, but she kept speaking each time she moved a piece. Not every turn, but she said it to the crowd’s growing amazement. It was just part of the game. Although, the way she said it might be a bit rude.
Nevertheless, Erin calmly looked Olesm in the eyes as she placed a piece near his king.
“Ooh, no check this turn. But watch out for your rook. It’s that or your queen.”
“Check. And it’s check if you do that too. And that…”
Erin Solstice by ArtsyNada