At last, Erin slid her last rook into position. Olesm stared at the board and then tipped over his king with a trembling claw.
A sigh ran through the audience surrounding the chessboard. It sounded like disbelief. The choking noise coming from Lism’s mouth was like a lawnmower engine failing to rev up. But the rest of the crowd exhaled in pure amazement.
The tall Gnoll woman’s arms were slightly uncrossed, and she was eying Erin with a look of amazement. Relc—pure incredulity as he peered at the board. Klbkch was counting how many pieces Erin had left. Then, his head rose, and he looked at Erin, surprised. Nodding to himself, as if he’d suddenly seen something obvious that had been hidden by the clouds.
Erin cracked her fingers and grinned. It wasn’t her best game, but she’d gone for drama over efficiency. Her opponent had a single king left in the middle of her pieces, and she had a small army surrounding him. She smiled up at Olesm, who’d turned pale. Her audience was gaping at her and the chess board.
Two rooks, one knight, a bishop, her queen, and a few pawns. Olesm had one king. Technically, he’d been in check for a long time, but Erin had hunted down the last pawns before putting him into a final checkmate.
She would have been ashamed of herself, doing this to any other rookie player. It was rude, bullying, and any chess tourney in the world would have probably had some things to say to her in private or called her out on the spot.
But she wasn’t home, on Earth, and she had never taken a game as personally as this one. Erin stared up at unfamiliar skies and the open ramps and sprawling architecture of a city unknown to her. Drakes and Gnolls, gazing at her with faces full of scales and fur.
She couldn’t even read the signs. But the game? Erin Solstice’s eyes tingled slightly. The game had never left her. Chess. Her game. The pieces looked different, but it played the exact same way, and she knew that board more than she knew the back of her hand or her own room. She had sat on both ends of the board ever since she was five years old.
The blue Drake, Olesm, was still in a state of shock. He was staring at his lone king, tipped over, like he didn’t know what had hit him. And to be fair—Erin had to admit she didn’t look like a chess expert. Who did, though?
She was no grandmaster, anyways. She’d quit, come back—it was a long story. But it was enough to say that if chess was a few years old in this world, Olesm, who might have…four years? She had forgotten how long the game was out.
Call it a four-year-old chess player going up against someone with at least four times his career. She’d played grandmasters—and sometimes won. And that had been when she was a girl.
“Good game. Let’s play again sometime, okay?”
Erin reached over and patted Olesm on the shoulder. The Drake looked slightly shell-shocked and made no reply. Erin waited, then shrugged and stood.
Klbkch and Relc made their way through the crowd to her. Relc was still pointing at the board and gobbling.
“You won. But how did—but he’s—you won!”
“Congratulations on your victory, Miss Solstice.”
“Why thank you, Klbkch.”
Erin grinned at Klbkch. The ant man nodded back.
“May I ask how you managed such an incredible display? I would not have thought it possible, nor deemed it prudent to bet against Olesm in a game of chess until this moment.”
Erin shrugged. There was no harm in telling. Besides, both the shopkeeper and his nephew were still staring at the board.
“You said he’s played for a few years, right?”
“And he is a Level 22 [Tactician]. There are few higher-level [Tacticians] even within the Liscorian army. Although that is largely because most consolidate to [Strategist].”
Erin had no idea what that meant, but she nodded as if she understood.
“Good for him. But I’ve been playing chess for…at least fifteen years, now. I stopped playing for a while until recently, but I used to play at least three games before I went to sleep each night. He might have a fancy Skill, but a rookie’s still a rookie.”
This time, it was Klbkch’s turn to do the staring with Relc. Erin smiled at both of them and then tapped the shopkeeper on the shoulder.
“I want my money back. All of it, thank you. And while you’re at it, I’ll buy the chess board and pieces too.”
The Drake gaped at her. Then the color returned to the scales in his face, and he backed away.
“I—that game was—”
Erin interrupted him.
“If you’re about to say it was rigged, don’t bother. And if you want a rematch, I’ll gladly play again if you double how much you owe me. Which is a bad idea because I’ll win. I want my money.”
The Drake blanched, and his scales turned pale. Erin smiled at him. His tail was twitching hard in agitation.
“My mind is…slightly hazy. I’m afraid I have no recollection of how much you spent. Unless of course you could tell me?”
Erin gave him a winning smile.
“Two gold pieces, seven silver, and four copper exactly. I don’t have a receipt, but I’m sure Klbkch and Relc could help you find out.”
Lism stared at Erin as if doubting her memory, but it was just numbers. Like chess moves—Erin couldn’t remember the Pythagorean Theorem to save her life, but she could remember entire chess games. At her words, Klbkch nodded seriously and bowed in his direction.
“As Senior Guardsmen, we would be happy to provide assistance in assessing all financial income for your business, as well as any unpaid taxes that may be extant. For now, we will have to order your shop closed while we begin a thorough investigation of your wares and inventory.”
Relc grinned evilly.
“Right. Let’s start flipping over tables until we find a receipt.”
The Drake shopkeeper made a strangled shrieking sound. He tried to block Relc, but the Drake [Guardsman] was already happily trashing his store. Erin hid a grin.
Only now did Lism’s nephew seem to come out of his stupor. He jerked, looked at the chess board, then stood slowly. Olesm walked up to her, his tail dragging low on the ground. But he did hold out a clawed hand to shake.
“I must congratulate you, Miss Solstice. I have been truly humbled by your skill. Please, accept my sincerest apologies for questioning your ability.”
Erin fidgeted awkwardly. She hated this bit. At least he was taking it better than some. There was no shame in losing. Sometimes you got frustrated, but when pride was on the line or you refused to admit you’d lost to a girl—she took his hand and shook it gently, looking into his eyes.
“Oh no, you were a good player too. I really shouldn’t have played like that as well against a rooki—another player.”
“You are too kind. But I know when I’m outclassed. I have to ask—are you a [Tactician] by any chance?”
“Me? No. I’m not. Sorry?”
Olesm drooped further. Erin could practically feel him kicking himself. She tried to cheer him up.
“Don’t feel bad. I’m not a professional player, but I’ve won a chess tournament or two in my time. I’ve even played a grandmaster and won. One of the few female ones, which was really cool. But I was so nervous at the time I totally forgot to castle, and I lost my rook to—”
Erin broke off and cleared her throat, blushing. It was a bad memory, but at least Olesm stopped looking like a kicked puppy-lizard. Indeed, he was staring at her with vivid interest.
“Is this ‘grandmaster’ you speak of a class? Is it possible—could I take such a class myself?”
An alarm bell went off in Erin’s head. She tried to think fast and failed.
“Um. Maybe? It’s more like a title where I come from. Besides, grandmasters only play chess. I’m not sure if that’s a class.”
Olesm nodded. Erin could practically see him taking notes in his head.
“Perhaps it’s a class only obtainable at high levels in the [Strategist] class line. If ever I have the opportunity, I shall take that class at once.”
“You can do that?”
Erin blurted it out. Olesm nodded again.
“Of course. I am merely a lowly [Tactician], the first of the [Strategist] class line. But should I advance in level and learn more skills, I might qualify for the [Strategist] class. And perhaps after that I might one day become a [Grandmaster]…? It makes my scales shiver to imagine such a class.”
Olesm stared dreamily off into the air. Erin edged away from him a bit.
“Right, well good luck with that.”
She wanted to go back and get her money, which the Drake shopkeeper was practically begging Relc to take as the other Drake frolicked in the destruction of his shop. But Olesm had her cornered, and now Klbkch was on her tail.
“Miss Solstice. I believe this is your wager.”
He offered her the exact lost sum she’d quoted. Erin took the coins gratefully.
“Thank you, Klbkch.”
He raised his mandibles and opened them in a…smile? Olesm edged back from Klbkch at once, but not far. The Antinium nodded politely.
“I am merely fulfilling my duty as a member of the Watch. And once again, may I congratulate you on your victory? I would greatly enjoy playing a game against you once I am off-duty.”
Olesm nodded in fervent agreement. Erin smiled and wondered whether they’d follow her back to the inn.
“Another game? Sure, sure. After I finish my shopping—well, one or two more games won’t hurt, but I don’t have time today.”
Klbkch nodded while Olesm visibly drooped. Erin felt bad, but she also knew his type. As in the type of player who would challenge her to another game day and night unless she said no.
“Tell you what, next time, we can play a bunch of games. Not just chess—if you guys have got other strategy games, I’d love to play them too.”
Olesm’s face lit up.
“Do you like these kinds of games, Miss Solstice? Gnollstones? Magical cards? I’m sure you must be quite good at any game you play.”
Erin grinned and waved a hand self-deprecatingly, but her ears perked up at the fascinating names. She noticed Klbkch glancing at Olesm silently, but then the ant man returned his attention to her.
“Oh, I love all kinds of strategy games. I always surfed YouTube for—uh, what I mean is, I used to watch and play tons of chess games. And not just chess; I learned how to play Shogi, Go, and even a few card games. But I couldn’t gamble, so there was that.”
Erin shrugged. Olesm stared at her blankly.
“Excuse me, but I am unfamiliar with these games. Is ‘shogi’ another game of strategy as chess is?”
“No, no. Shogi is a game that originated in Japan. And, uh, Japan is…and…um…”
Erin trailed off. Klbkch and Olesm stared at her intently. She could practically see the Drake’s eyes lighting up in eager interest.
It occurred to Erin that trying to explain a game that originated in a country in a world that no one had heard of that used a language based off of a culture which also didn’t exist would probably be a bad idea. But they were both staring at her. It was Klbkch who saved her.
“—Of course, these games are quite rare outside of your home nation, Miss Solstice. I doubt they would have permeated to Izril yet. I have heard of and observed Shogi before.”
Olesm glanced at him and hurriedly nodded before shaking his head.
“Oh! Yes! Sorry, it’s my mistake for not recognizing—hah, I suppose there are a lot of games I should look into. Forgive me.”
“Not at all. Um—maybe we should save that guy’s shop?”
Erin relaxed and pointed at Relc. Olesm turned, distracted, and Erin mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ at Klbkch. She could have sworn he twitched one antenna at her, like a wink.
Liscor had several markets that were open at any given time during the day. It also had many streets. So it had more than one Market Street too. But only one had a Human walking down the street and admiring the displays.
Erin’s feet hurt. She felt that was ridiculous. After all, she’d been playing chess while sitting down for nearly an hour. Yet, she hadn’t stopped smiling as she played first Olesm, then Klbkch in a series of quick games.
Which she’d won. All of them. A rare thing among chess players, but while they were good…Erin had enjoyed herself so much she’d been on fire, metaphorically speaking, and played her best.
Not only that, she had her money back!
Erin jingled the money pouch at her belt. Klbkch had helped her buy one to carry all the money she now had. It was wonderfully heavy and made lovely chinking sounds as Erin walked, but she was also worried someone would steal it.
That was why she had to spend all of it fast. Erin hesitated and then walked a few stores down from where the Drake shopkeeper was screaming over his destroyed shop and cursing Relc and Humans in general. She approached another stall, filled to bursting with all kinds of goods. It looked nice.
Each wooden stall was, simultaneously, identical and unique if that made sense. Identical because they were carbon-copy frames of wood, a counter and semi-enclosed space that each [Shopkeeper] could place their goods in and sell from. Erin had seen similar things at farmers’ markets back home.
What made them unique was that the canvas roofs were all hand-stitched and of different colors. So a blue tarpaulin covering might have tiny little golden Dragons on the edges, or another stall would just have a plain white cloth covering. And the goods were obviously different for each.
A Drake was selling what looked like…armor? Made out of eerily black chitin. In fact, he even had a sword sheath shaped like a giant…leg. An insect’s leg. Erin wondered if Klbkch found it offensive, but she was reminded less of the Antinium’s beetle-ish forms and more of a spider.
A big spider if that was the leg. She shuddered and hurried on, but the Drake was still calling out.
“Shield Spider gear! Cheaper than Pallassian steel and almost as good! Anyone fancy some adventurer’s equipment? No? Please?”
Not many people wanted to wear spider-based armor, it seemed. Another Gnoll was just selling pots and making a killing, from the looks of it. He had cheap cooking pots, cups, storage vessels—anything you could want. Erin was curious, but what she needed was food.
While there were a number of produce-selling shops, only a few had a myriad of goods, which Erin guessed were [Shopkeepers] like the terrible Lism, who had a bunch of items on display. One caught her eye, and it was a stall with a rich violet covering. Violet—with a silver-threaded fang in the center. Striking, attractive, and simple.
Erin had been too harried the other day to appreciate the shop, but she recognized the owner. And this time, she slowed down and really looked at the owner.
It was that tall Gnoll woman who’d warned her about Olesm! She, like many of her people, wasn’t wearing a full-body dress, but a kind of decorated breastband and waistcloth. It worked because, well, she was covered in fur.
A light mahogany color. Or…walnut? Erin wasn’t sure how many colors of brown she actually knew, but the fur covered the Gnoll from head-to-toe. Like the other Gnolls, she had a vaguely…hyena-shaped head? A mane of darker hair running down her neck, like Drakes had neck-spines, and her ‘fingers’ and ‘toes’ that Erin could see in her sandals were furry paws, although fully flexible.
She seemed well-known by a lot of the shoppers here and called out greetings to a few who passed. When she caught sight of Erin, the Gnoll woman sniffed.
Unlike the first time they’d met, the Gnoll [Shopkeeper] did not greet Erin or wave her over. She folded her arms and waited.
Erin winced inside, but there was nothing for it. She stepped closer and waved at the tall Gnoll.
“Um. Hi. Are you open for business?”
The Gnoll looked down at Erin. She wasn’t smiling.
“I am, and I see you’ve wrestled some coin out of Lism’s claws, that greedy hoarder. Good for you, Human. But if you are here to look down your nose again at my goods, I would prefer not to waste my time, no?”
She seemed offended, and Erin recalled that she’d run off straight to Lism and snubbed the Gnoll’s friendly greetings. Erin blushed and ducked her head.
“What? No, no. I’m actually here to, uh, apologize.”
Erin tried to gauge the Gnoll shopkeeper’s reaction. It was hard to read her face. Like Relc and Klbkch, a Gnoll’s face didn’t display the same expressions as a Human one. But Erin didn’t detect the same amount of hostility in her features.
“Oh? What do you have to say then?”
The Gnoll raised one eyebrow, and her ears twitched back. That was a Human reaction, so Erin went on quickly.
“It’s just that I was having a bad day, and I met this other Gnoll who really didn’t like me. So, uh, I was kinda afraid you would get growly at me too. But I’m sorry about that. I shouldn’t judge by, uh, species.”
The Gnoll looked at her. Erin still couldn’t read her face. But—weren’t Gnolls kind of like hyenas? They looked like them. And hyenas were cats. Or maybe they were dogs. Either way, Erin peeked at the Gnoll’s ears.
They were twitching. And once Erin saw that, she saw the Gnoll’s lips were twitching the merest fraction. Erin tried out a smile. To her surprise, the Gnoll smiled back. And laughed. She had a lot of sharp teeth, but the laugh was so boisterous Erin wasn’t as afraid.
“Hah! This is the first time I have heard a Human apologize in…months? A good day, yes? It is good you come to make amends. I will forgive you and forgive the smell you stink of as well.”
Erin frowned. Was this good or bad?
“Sorry, I don’t want to make you mad again. But—do I really smell that bad? I just had a bath.”
The Gnoll shopkeeper laughed again. She—and now that Erin looked, she was definitely a she— clapped one hand on Erin’s shoulder. Erin’s knees buckled.
“I do not mock you, Human. But I laugh because I forget others do not have our nose. Forgive, please. You stepped in something on your way to the city.”
Erin rubbed at her shoulder surreptitiously. Then she looked down at her feet, made a face, and began dragging her foot around on the street.
“Eugh! What was—that’s so gross! I’m so sorry! I had that on my foot the entire time? You’re totally forgiven. Your nose is amazing! Do I, uh, smell at all beyond that?”
The Gnoll shopkeeper nodded, turning serious.
“You smell of burned ash and trash. No; not just that foul smell. Even burning trash smells better. I know not what it was, but I can still smell it on you. You could also use some soap, a shampoo for your hair.”
“Really? You can smell all that?”
Erin sniffed at her arm experimentally, but she smelled like she always did. Better, actually, since she had found the stream to wash up in.
The Gnoll wrinkled her nose.
“Oh yes. It’s not too bad now though. All that blood and oil covers it up.”
Erin froze. The Gnoll laughed at her expression. Then she sombered and gave Erin a long, appraising look.
“I smell that too. Blood and death. Yet you don’t stink of fear anymore. You smell like a [Warrior] from my tribe after their first battle or hunt. I am relieved for that, yes? You have a bravery in you, to win a fight to the death alone.”
“It’s nothing to be proud of.”
Erin replied automatically. Her stomach was dropping out of her legs, but the Gnoll shopkeeper didn’t seem to notice.
“Isn’t it? You stormed back here, trounced both Lism in words and his nephew in chess—although Olesm is the better of the two by far—and in front of all to see! Warrior and tactician, both! A fine day for a young woman to have—”
Erin cut the shopkeeper off flatly.
“It’s not anything to be proud of. At all.”
The Gnoll stared down at her. Erin met her gaze. At last, the Gnoll shrugged.
“Hrm. If you insist. I apologize if I’ve erred. Humans can be difficult to understand.”
That last remark stung. Erin gritted her teeth.
“Why do all of you say that? I’m Human. So what?”
The Gnoll grinned at her with all her teeth.
“Because you are Human. Few of us have ever seen your kind here, let alone talked to one.”
Erin smiled sourly.
“Well, you’re the first Gnoll I’ve talked to. The first one that wasn’t angry at me, at least.”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] laughed and slapped Erin on the shoulder again, but gently. Two huge brown eyes met Erin’s, and she growled in approval.
“Hah! You are a spirited one! I like you. So I will introduce myself. I am Krshia, [Shopkeeper] and seller of goods. And you are the Human who slew the Goblin Chieftain! What is your name, brave little one?”
So she knew, already, who Erin had killed. The young woman bit her tongue.
“I’m Erin. Erin Solstice.”
Erin stuck out her hand but found herself grabbed and squeezed tightly by the Gnoll shopkeeper. It was a bear hug by a creature that looked sort of like a bear. She was strong enough for a bear too, and Erin felt oxygen quickly leaving her body.
The Gnoll must have heard Erin squeak or felt her dying because she eased up on the pressure. She sniffed at Erin, only wrinkling her nose slightly. For Erin’s part, she smelled spices, sweat, a strong doggish smell, and that earthy smell that came from a day or two of not bathing. Then she was on the ground blinking up at the Gnoll.
“There. We have met, and we are now friends. Come into my shop, Erin Solstice, and tell me what you need. For the pleasure of seeing Lism humiliated, I will give you a discount. And I will not steal your coins. That is a promise from a Gnoll of the Silverfang tribe.”
Erin blinked at her, but stepped inside the stall and looked around. Her first impression of Krshia’s full stall was of a dazzling panorama of goods. Sacks of food, neatly labelled as ‘wheat’, ‘rye’, ‘ashwheat’, and so on, occupied the lower part of the stall. In English, along with labels in that foreign script! Higher up were some books with interesting labels. Erin saw only a few on display, and they were pricey—gold instead of silver! But Krshia had a bunch of knives sharing space with some earrings made out of what might have been pure silver and bits of gemstone.
At first, it looked like everything, but Erin noted gaps in the stock. It appeared everything Krshia sold was in popular demand. She blinked as she took in the huge supply.
“Wow. Okay. That’s a lot of stuff. But that’s good, because I need a lot of stuff. Like food, clothing, um, soap. Toothpaste—do you have—?”
“Aha. I see why Lism got exasperated. Let us take a moment to breathe, Miss Erin.”
Krshia cut Erin off with a friendly smile and a raised finger. She gestured Erin onto a stool.
“I am not gifted with perfect memory via Skill or otherwise. Let us make a proper list, and I will be able to see what you want, yes? It will take time, but we shall be more organized than me fetching this or that.”
Erin nodded, impressed by the decision-making. It made her feel a bit silly for not having a list herself, not that she had any paper. But her mom would have had a grocery list.
Her mom. Erin’s mind caught at the idea, but she pushed it down and focused on the Gnoll. Krshia bared her teeth at her again, but Erin was pretty sure it was a smile. A toothy smile, but the Gnoll was inviting.
“I will give you a fair price. Just as I said. I hail from the Silverfang Tribe, far to the south. The Great Plains of Izril. Have you heard of us?”
“Um. No. A tribe, huh? What does Silverfang do?”
“Oh, we are fine [Traders], but we also mine silver and do much with it. I have not been home in nearly a decade, but you may find many Gnolls in Liscor are Silverfangs. Sit, sit! Ah, here is some parchment. Now, tell me what you need. And then I will have your goods delivered rather than make you pay for a bag.”
She growled derisively, and Erin realized this was another way she might have been ripped off by Lism. The young woman blinked.
“Delivered? You do deliveries?”
“Of course. Did you think many would carry off bags of flour as you did? It is too hard. No; the stupid shopkeeper Lism, fur sheddings that he is, didn’t tell you and gave you the bag on purpose. But then again—have you never had a Street Runner deliver anything? It may be a bit more for somewhere outside Liscor, but I know a few Street Runners who will do it.”
Erin glanced over at Lism’s distant shop. He was still screaming at his store and his nephew. It looked like Olesm was recreating the game they’d played on another chess board. Erin had already bought the board she’d won on.
“I feel bad about that, actually.”
Krshia stared at Erin in surprise and then laughed again.
“Humans are strange. He would not give you the same if he were in your place; he surely would not.”
“Still, it’s not nice. And the law should be equal for everyone.”
Again, Krshia stared at Erin. Erin shifted uncomfortably.
“Well, that’s what I was always taught. Plus, I bullied Olesm a bit.”
The Gnoll shook her head, but not in confusion so much as…a kind of amused gratification.
“That is a viewpoint I have not often heard since coming to Liscor. So, you truly knew what you were doing, but you pretended to be humble and baited him into that game. Cleverer still!”
Erin ducked her head.
“I didn’t know he was going to challenge me to chess! That was a lucky coincidence. I just—happen to be really good at it.”
“Hm. How good is ‘really good?’ Olesm may be young, but he is considered the best player in Liscor sheerly by how much he plays. From how you speak—it sounds like you made a choice to ‘bully’ him. If he were a Level 20 [Warrior], say, what would you be?”
The question caught Erin off-guard as Krshia produced a tub of what might have been toothpaste—and a brush. She offered Erin a choice between mint and lemon, and Erin pointed at the lemon.
“I, uh—well, I dunno. If he’s Level 20…I’d be Level 60?”
Krshia nearly tripped and caught herself and turned to stare at Erin. Instantly, Erin felt like she’d made a mistake.
“Is that off?”
“If you say it’s so—so you could beat him one-handed, eh? Blindfolded, even? What did you want? Soap? I have a few from the [Alchemist]. But to wash the body…no, this is hair conditioner for Gnolls. I don’t think you need quite this much. Scale cream…I will have someone find it.”
Erin saw Krshia glancing her way as she produced a bar of soap. The [Innkeeper] fidgeted. She knew it sounded like bragging, but—she coughed into her hand.
“Er…I might be able to beat him blindfolded.”
At this, Krshia actually stopped and gave Erin a look that said she didn’t believe her. Erin raised her hands.
“Sorry! I know it sounds like I’m blowing smoke, but you can play chess blindfolded if you know the pieces. He’s a talented…rookie. But he doesn’t know any chess openings, and I’ve played since I was a kid.”
“Since you were a child. Hrr. Now that’s…”
Krshia’s eyes sharpened, and Erin fidgeted, but the Gnoll smiled in an incomprehensible way. She walked over and tapped one of the earrings she had. Erin noticed it was set with a beautiful bit of quartz which was glowing a bright blue. Wait…hadn’t it been clear just now?
“Fascinating. This truth-stone earring says you are telling the truth. So I believe you.”
“Wh—truth stones? That’s what that thing is? I’ve never seen something like that! Is it magic?”
Krshia looked amused. Then she frowned as the blue glow grew brighter.
“Really? Not once? I…have never seen a truth stone before either.”
At that, the stone turned a murky red color, and the Gnoll poked it a few times, looking mystified.
“So it is working. Tribes! Well, I suppose…they’re not the most common, and it is an expensive item. More gold than you have, Miss Erin. Not that I won’t sell it to you if you have, er, forty-eight more pieces.”
As she did not, Erin changed the subject, but she noticed Krshia glancing at the earring in confusion more than once.
“So. These deliveries…how do they work?”
Krshia smiled. She pointed to a small wooden bowl filled with brightly painted wooden tokens. Circular, with little markings on them in the unknown script. Erin looked at them and saw each had an intricate little design of red and gold that made up a pattern around the edge. The center was filled with some words and a symbol. It looked a bit like…a foot? A stylized, clawed foot like Relc’s.
“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a Runner’s Guild Seal before? Hah—maybe not Drake ones? You haven’t? Well then…they are for Runners. When I give you one, I will keep its twin, yes? Then, when a Runner delivers your goods, you will give him the Seal you have, and then I will know my goods have been delivered. It is simple.”
Erin picked up one of the pieces of wood.
“Runner’s Guild? So you’re saying it’s like a postal service?”
“Um. A delivery service?”
“That is what I have said, Erin Solstice.”
Erin blushed while Krshia grinned toothily at her and laughed.
“Right, sorry. I just haven’t ever heard of these Runners before. What do they do, besides make deliveries?”
Krshia gave her a long look and snuck another quick look at the blue earring. She seemed to be checking whether Erin was making fun of her.
“Runners run. They are quick ones, those who can run long distances to earn money. Sometimes they deliver letters, other times valuable things. Goods, yes? Magical items, messages that must only be spoken to one person. Such are expensive requests though. Only the best carry such things. Most just deliver goods very cheaply. I can call one and have all that you buy delivered to your inn for a good price.”
Erin thought she knew what Krshia was talking about. In the bustling city, hadn’t she seen a few Gnolls and Drakes racing about faster than everyone else? Krshia nodded when she mentioned seeing them.
“That would be a Street Runner. If you were living far away, I would call for a City Runner. For a long journey, perhaps to another continent, or in a dangerous spot, or if I needed the fastest in the world, I would pay for a Courier—and spend a fortune on the delivery!”
That sounded good, but Erin had learned skepticism here.
“What’s a good price?”
“It is the broken inn a few miles east of here, yes?”
Erin nodded. Krshia scratched her chin.
“…Four silver coins. Not a small price. If it were the city, it would be one, or maybe coppers for a small delivery. But it is far, yes? And if it is heavy and monsters lurk about, the price goes up. You are lucky the Goblins are scarce and the Hollowstone Deceivers do not travel this late in the season. So I advise you to buy a lot and have the delivery done once, yes?”
Erin thought about that. It sounded really good. Better than carrying anything herself.
“I like it.”
Krshia grinned at her again. This time, Erin grinned back using all of her teeth.
“I knew I liked you for a reason. Then tell me what you want, and let us not waste the light, eh?”
“Sounds good to me.”
Later that evening, Erin sat in her inn and felt at her money pouch. It was much lighter now, but she felt a lot better about it. She felt a lot better about life, actually.
She had fresh clothes on, and she no longer smelled of…well, she no longer smelled. Instead, her skin had been bathed in an orange-y scent from the soap she’d used. And lemon toothpaste made her mouth feel fresh. And she hadn’t had to dodge fish in the stream while bathing either.
The day had been full of busy things, and none of them had been entirely bad. After she’d bought all of the goods she needed from Krshia, and even haggled a bit over the price, the Gnoll had shown her to the bath house to have a proper wash. Then Erin had gone back to her inn, eaten the rest of the pasta, and she was now enjoying a minor food coma as she sat in a chair in her inn.
Erin played with one of the chess pieces on the table. She’d carried the chess board and a few essential items like soap with her back to the inn. She hadn’t wanted to let the chess board go. It was incredible, really. Chess? In a world like this? Actually, it made sense, but Erin was still amazed. She had to keep touching the pieces to make sure they were real.
But she had to focus. Erin dragged her mind back on track. Krshia told her the Runner would deliver her stuff tomorrow at some point. Until then, she could clean up the inn a bit. Or maybe play a game against herself. That was fun too. It was just—
Erin stared down at the chess board. She murmured to herself.
“Knight to D4. Pawn to E3.”
Suddenly, her good feeling vanished. Erin felt cold. The food in her stomach was dead weight instead of comfort, and she felt sick. Her hands shook as she put the pieces back on the table. Everything was better. It really was. But…
—If she closed her eyes, Erin could still see a Goblin lying on the ground next to her. If she opened her hands, she could still feel the dead weight between her palms.
Erin moved a pawn up and took the knight. She stared at the pieces on the board.
“It’s kill or be killed in this world, after all.”
She put her head in her hands and rubbed at her eyes. Yes. That was what she’d learned. And she hated it. All of the good that had come to her seemed like it had been built on the bad.
The bad. The dead. A game of chess on a pile of corpses. Erin stared at the chess board.
She was good at chess. She liked chess. She’d grown up playing chess and other games like that, despite the fact that girls weren’t common in chess tournaments. Chess had been fun to her until she’d grown up and realized she’d never become a Grandmaster herself. She was good, but not great. But chess had still been her hobby. Chess was fun. It was about outwitting the opponent, about using strategy—
It wasn’t at all like killing someone.
Erin stared at her hands. They were quivering. She could still feel them burning. It was all a game, though, wasn’t it? A game with levels and classes. A game like chess.
“It’s just a game. Just a game?”
Erin stared at the board. Pieces. If she thought about it like that, then death seemed to matter less. She’d done the right thing. She’d defended herself, killed the monster.
Killed the monster.
She stared down at the two dead Goblins. They were so small. Like children. And they had family. Friends. Those who loved them.
The ragged Goblin. The ones hiding outside her inn, scrawny and afraid. They were the enemy too, if she played the game like chess. The right thing to do would be to hunt them down and kill them. That was how all games worked.
That was how you played chess.
Erin sat up. She remembered the Goblin’s hand in hers, the feeling of his skin. She remembered his smile. She remembered laughing.
And then she understood. Erin put her hand underneath the chess board and flipped it off the table. Both white and black pieces soared into the air and clattered against the floor.
Erin stood up.
“I remember why I got bored of chess. There’s only one winner and one loser. The best game for both players is a draw.”
She walked over to the door and yanked it open. Then she stopped and turned. She raised her middle finger and flipped off the chess board a second time.
“I’ll make my own rules. And anyone that doesn’t like it can go to hell.”
The door slammed shut as Erin walked out. A few minutes later, she rushed back into the inn and carefully put all the pieces back onto the chess board.
“Still a great game, though. Don’t take it personally. Let me just get a quick snack for the road. And I need some soap. Proper hygiene and all that. Where did I put the soap? Soap, soap, soap…I should really organize all this stuff. Maybe tomorrow.”
Then she was gone, running down to the city. There was still plenty of daylight left in the sky. And she had one more thing left to do. The most important thing of all.
The sun was setting over the grassland when the young woman returned to the inn. She stopped, again, and saw a streak of purple grass blowing as the cool winds came down across the rolling hills and valleys. Shadows crept and lengthened across the old inn. They should have exposed cracks, but as she looked up, the darkness seemed to hide the age of the building, all the little imperfections and signs of age.
Like this—it looked like what it had been in its heyday, a lone building set against the fading crimson sky, visible for miles away if it were lit up from the inside.
Erin Solstice slowly put down her burden. Her arms hurt, and she regretted not adding this to the delivery, but she had been too excited to wait. Krshia had humored her and even helped Erin buy what she wanted.
She was carrying a bucket filled with nails, a brush, and even a few slats of straight wood planks. And a hammer. It was quite heavy, and the young woman muttered and rubbed at her aching shoulders.
However, she eventually reached the inn’s door and set down her burden. Then she gazed up.
The shadowy sign was long-since faded. The little one that said ‘open’ and ‘closed’ hung below some façade, some…signboard above the doorway that had once been this inn’s name.
Even if she had been able to pick out the letters, Erin felt it was in that other language. She did feel guilty, but she got to work as she set her tools down. Then she pulled something out of her pocket and grimaced.
“Aw. The water.”
She had a packet of what looked, at first, to be plain white dust. And some black charcoal or other powder. But when Erin found some water and filled another bucket with it, the dust turned the water white, and the second turned another black.
Powdered paint. Very handy, and it beat hauling a bucket of paint back all this way. Erin mixed up both, then dipped her brush into the first bucket. She gave the inn’s signboard a coating and hoped it dried as fast as Krshia claimed.
The inn lost its name quickly as Erin stood on a chair she propped on top of a table she’d dragged outside. She felt a pang, but it had lost that name long ago, with its customers and owner. It needed a new one, especially if she were to stay here.
It felt…reverential, almost. The girl picked up the bucket of black paint and the brush and thought a second. She dipped the brush in the black paint and painted a broad stroke on the wide plaque above the entranceway. She wrote the beginning of a letter, frowned at it, and then cursed and shouted obscenities and had to cover it all up with white paint again.
It was hard to write properly, and it took her several tries as the daylight escaped the world to finish her sign. Numerous coats of paint to cover her mistakes. Multiple tools. A paint-scraping knife to get rid of the paint when it became too thick. A hammer to hit things while she vented her frustrations.
But eventually, the sign was done. The young woman sighed in relief and then picked up the pieces of wood she brought with her. This was easier, so she only took the paintbrush and wrote on it briefly. Then, she planted the pieces of wood in the ground and drove the sign down with the hammer a few times.
By now, it was dark. So dark that Erin was yawning, hungry, and covered with paint. In defiance of any good painter or craftswomanship at all, she left the tools on the ground where they lay. Even the paint brush in the bucket.
“Food. I hate painting.”
The paint was already drying, and the sign and plaque were done. The lettering was crisp and clear, and if any travellers had been present, the words would have caught the eye.
But there weren’t any travellers. The inn was long-deserted, and no visitors had come here for a long time.
Yet—it didn’t matter. The inn’s shuttered windows began to glow with a bit of light. As they did, a few people stopped outside the inn. Not guests. Not yet.
Just…a young [Necromancer], rubbing at his rumbling stomach and glancing up at the new sign. He raised his brows and inspected the smaller sign. He recoiled—shook his head, and gave the inn a strange look.
Almost as strange as the smallest Goblin, peeking at the inn in the darkness. Her night vision was good, but even so, she had to hurry forwards when he left and puzzle out each word in the Human’s language one by one. She too stared and hurried away, just as confused.
It didn’t matter. The lack of guests didn’t matter. The sign was what mattered. The new name of the inn and the message mattered. They were written, now there to stay. As was the young woman.
So, as Erin Solstice slept, the twin moons rose, and the night sky began to brighten. The moonlight from the two moons, a pale blue and a faint green, caught the inn’s sign. The letters spelled out the new name:
The Wandering Inn
Next to the inn, a large sign was hammered into the earth by the door. It read:
“No Killing Goblins.”
Thus began the story of The Wandering Inn.