Erin walked down the street, and she felt like sighing. No—she felt like her entire existence was a long, slow sigh.
She was tired. Tired and weary in her very bones. But more than that, she was just disappointed. And that was the worst feeling of all.
She’d missed them. Really, she had. She’d missed her friends and being back in her home. She even missed the way people said hello as you walked into the supermarket. And she’d been missing all of that so hard that she’d forgotten how nasty people could be.
They didn’t like Drakes or Gnolls. Humans. And now that Erin knew that and heard the way Cervial and Goeln talked about Drakes and Gnolls—or at least Goeln—she understood why the feeling was mutual.
It was pretty rude to insult an entire species in their own city. Erin wasn’t too sure about much when it came to talking about race, but she was sure of that.
Erin scuffed along Market Street. She wasn’t sure she wanted to buy anything, but she didn’t want to leave the city just yet. Not because she had anything to do here—it was just that the trek back to her inn was too much for her at the moment.
Politeness. It was only right to be polite. And that went double for judging an entire species just because you didn’t like their smell. Sure, Gnolls could be prickly, but they could also be really nice. The same went for Drakes.
“There she is! There’s the [Thief]!”
Then again, there were jerks in every species.
Erin turned around at the voice. It was a familiar voice that set her teeth on edge and made her check her money pouch. Not just because of the thief comment.
Approaching at a high-speed strut down the street was a Drake shopkeeper. Erin’s eyes narrowed as he barged up to her and began shouting.
“I know it was you! You couldn’t resist attacking an honest merchant, and you decide to have a bit of revenge, eh?”
Erin blinked at the Drake. He was visibly red with rage. He jabbed at her with a finger, and she stepped back.
Another Drake pushed his way through the crowd. This one was a Guardsman, and he was visibly harried. He interposed himself between the shopkeeper and Erin.
“Lism, I’ve told you before. You can’t just start accusing Humans at random!”
“Ah, but this one is different!”
Lism the shopkeeper pointed at Erin around the guard and raised his voice so more people could hear.
“This is the Human who robbed me of my merchandise! She also cheated at the chess game with my nephew, I’ve no doubt! She’s been nothing but trouble since she entered the city, and now she’s stealing from honest folk trying to make a living!”
What was it about Erin and trouble? It seemed it followed her wherever she went. Erin gritted her teeth.
“I didn’t steal anything. I haven’t even been in the city—”
The guardsman cut her off. He gently moved Lism back.
“I’ll look into your claims, sir, but I can’t make any arrests. Unless you have proof—”
“Hey, I said I didn’t steal anything!”
“Hah! Another Human lie!”
Lism jabbed a claw at Erin again, despite the guard’s best attempts to move them apart. Now, Erin was getting mad. She opened her mouth and clenched her fists.
“I was out of the city all day! I have proof!”
The shopkeeper hesitated, but now he was too far in to back down.
“It could have been her. You know how Humans get! They’re always sneaking around, going where they’re not wanted.”
“We’ll investigate your claims. Just please move back—”
“You can’t trust her word! Get a truth stone! All of these Humans have caused nothing but trouble since they got here! First, they start stealing, and then what? They’ll take our jobs, attack us on the streets—”
“Please! Move back!”
The guard finally managed to pull the enraged shopkeeper away from Erin. He struggled and hollered, but eventually, he let himself be led away. He still shot venomous glances over his shoulder at Erin, which she returned in kind.
That was unpleasant. Erin was just about to leave before the jerk came back and shouted some more when the [Guard] returned.
“Oh, hi. Thanks for getting rid of him for me. Was he mad about someone stealing his stuff?”
The Drake nodded. He looked out of sorts and tired.
“There have been a number of petty thefts across the city. Shopkeeper Lism was the latest one to be stolen from.”
“Well…I’m sorry about that. Good luck finding the criminal.”
Erin tried to excuse herself, but the guardsman shook his head.
“I’m sorry, Miss, but I’m afraid I’ll have to investigate his claims. If you’ll follow me, I’ll take a statement from you. Just with a truth spell. I’ll also need proof that you were out of the city this morning.”
“It’s standard procedure—”
“But I—he—he’s just mad because I beat him at a game of chess! Or—I beat his nephew and—look, I didn’t do anything.”
The guardsman sighed wearily and raised his hands.
“I understand, Miss, but I have to investigate all leads. Please, this won’t take too long…”
Erin looked around helplessly. This wasn’t fair. But who could help her? The other Drakes and Gnolls, well, some of them looked indifferent, others even sympathetic. But some of them were eying her. And none of them would help. What could they do?
A lot, if one of the people in the crowd was a certain female Gnoll who pushed her way through the throng and marched up to the guardsman. He visibly wilted as Krshia, shopkeeper, Gnoll, and currently Erin’s number one hero folded her arms.
“What are you doing, if I may ask, guardsman? I hear you are taking an innocent Human away on the word of a petty shopkeeper. But that would be wrong, yes?”
The guardsman backed up two steps from the angry Gnoll. He wasn’t a small Drake, but Krshia was big even for a Gnoll, and a few more Gnolls in the crowd were drifting her way.
“Look, Mistress Krshia, I’m just investigating—”
Krshia sniffed and glanced down the street. Lism, the shopkeeper, ducked back into his stall as she glared in his direction.
“Lism, the sheddings that he is, talks too much and lies when he knows nothing. Someone broke into his stall, but he saw nothing, heard nothing. But he claims it was a girl who bested him out of spite. And you would bother her without evidence?”
“That’s not—I’m just doing my job. It’s just a truth spell to make sure she’s innocent. In fact, she can rely on that as proof.”
That made sense, and Erin felt it was sorta reasonable, but Krshia’s eyes narrowed.
“This does make sense—if you had any reason to suspect Miss Solstice. But all you have is Lism’s unfounded claims. She was outside the city most of the day—your colleagues can surely attest to her being at the gates, yes? Why waste truth spells on her? This seems close to harassing her for being a Human…much like one might question a Gnoll who was anywhere near a crime being committed in another city. But Liscor is not like other Drake cities, no?”
The guardsman was torn between duty and not wanting to deal with anything remotely approaching the trouble written on Krshia’s face. He hesitated and then decided as several Gnolls casually walked out of the crowd and joined Krshia. They stood behind her and Erin, not looming but certainly projecting an aura.
“I believe I’ll continue my investigations into the break-in separately. And confirm with the Watch at the gates before I take up Miss Solstice’s valuable time.”
Krshia smiled coldly.
“Yes, that is wise.”
The guardsman backed off fast. Erin blinked, still confused by what had just happened. The entire moment—well she was grateful for Krshia obviously—but it struck her as slightly wrong that the local law enforcement would back down to a bunch of civilians.
Then again, when the civilians in question were Gnolls, Erin could see why. Even at their best, they did give off a much more…bestial feel than the Drakes. It wasn’t that Erin expected them to lose their tempers, but she also wouldn’t be too surprised if they did. That kind of feeling.
Krshia smiled down at Erin as the other Gnolls around her muttered or barked to her. She growled something back to them, and they walked back into the flow of the crowd.
“Erin Solstice. I have been looking for you. And it is good that I found you just now, yes?”
“Yes. Thanks for that, Krshia. I didn’t know what to do, and that shopkeeper guy—”
Krshia narrowed her eyes and snorted.
“Lism. He causes trouble, yes? Even though you bested him fairly and his nephew is most admiring of you. But enough—I will make sure he causes no trouble. I wish to speak with you.”
“Um, okay? About what? The thief?”
Krshia flicked her fingers.
“Pshaw. It is a cowardly thing that hides and steals from us on Market Street and elsewhere. No one knows if it is Human or another, but the thefts are small. Low-level. No, I do not worry about such a [Thief]. I wish to speak with you privately. I invite you to my home for food and drink.”
Again, Erin hesitated. She was grateful but—
“Um, does it have to be now? I’m really beat, Krshia. I could use a nap—”
“I have a bed in my home too. You may use it and rest if you wish. Come.”
Gnolls were pushy. Or maybe it was just Krshia. But Erin found herself being dragged down the street before she quite knew what was happening.
“Look, I’m grateful, really, but this isn’t a good time. I just had to deal with some evil spiders and—”
Krshia ignored Erin and the person calling her name. She marched through the crowd at speed.
“If we wait for a good time, we will never have time. Come, my home is not far.”
“Erin! Erin Solstice!”
Krshia visibly sighed, and her ears twitched as the mysterious name-caller drew closer. She halted in the street, and Erin finally managed to extract her hand from the Gnoll’s huge paw. She turned and saw another Drake heading her way.
The smaller, younger Drake stopped in front of Erin and Krshia, panting. He was clutching a piece of parchment and a quill and inkpot of all things. For a second, Erin was struck by the sheer inconvenience of not having pens in this world, but then Olesm shoved the paper into her face.
“Take a look at this, Erin! I just received this, and it’s the most fascinating thing ever! A new way to play chess!”
Erin blinked, but then the paper disappeared as Krshia gently but firmly pulled Olesm away.
“Most interesting, but Erin Solstice is busy. I will talk with her, and you will find her later, yes?”
She wanted to pull Erin away, but to the Gnoll’s dismay, Erin was already standing next to Olesm.
“What was that about a new way to play chess?”
This time, Krshia groaned, but Erin was already staring at the piece of paper Olesm was eagerly waving about. She tried one last attempt.
“There is time to play such games later, yes? Erin—”
But by that point, Erin and Olesm were already engrossed. Krshia’s ears twitched again, but there was nothing she could do.
“Just look at this, Erin!”
“I will if you stop moving. What is it?”
Erin snatched the paper from Olesm’s claw and stared at it. Well, it was a piece of paper. And on that paper was an inked…illustration? Erin frowned, but then she got it. It was chess. Someone had drawn a chess board on the piece of paper.
She stared down at a picture—or rather, a drawing of a chess board. Someone had taken the time to draw out the grid and then illustrate—in quite fine detail—each piece on the imaginary board. She stared down at a white king piece, a queen piece in the corner, a knight and a pawn caught in the middle of a game against two black pawn pieces, two rooks, and naturally, a king piece hiding in behind the pawns in the upper left-hand corner.
Olesm hovered over Erin’s shoulder, chattering into her ear.
“I just received a long-distance delivery that went out to all the known [Tacticians] and chess players on the continent! From the Titan of Baleros! Okay, his Great Company, the Forgotten Wing. On Baleros? He can definitely afford it. It was this paper—and it’s a challenge, see? You have to—”
“Solve it in five moves?”
“How’d you know?”
Olesm stared at Erin. She pointed.
“It’s written right here. And white moves first.”
“Yes, isn’t it amazing? I would never have thought of that—but someone’s come up with a way to play chess across long distances without a spell! But this isn’t a game at all—”
“Oh, I know. It’s a chess puzzle.”
Olesm visibly deflated.
“You know what it is? But of course—how silly of me.”
Krshia walked over to stare at the chess boards. She squinted down at the paper and frowned at the pieces.
“I fail to understand this—puzzle. Why has someone sent it to you, Olesm?”
“It’s more like a challenge to anyone.”
Erin explained absently as she stared at the chess pieces.
“It’s a challenge or a problem for players. You have to find a way to win the game in a certain number of moves. It helps people learn to play chess, and this way, you can write it down.”
Olesm nodded eagerly. He pointed to the paper.
“In this case, the solution is to checkmate the black king, but I haven’t been able to figure it out yet. I imagine most of the players across the continent are trying to figure it out. It might take some time, but I hope to be one of the first to figure—”
Erin was still staring at the paper. She blinked, frowned, and then snapped her fingers. Both Krshia and Olesm jumped.
“Hm~! Got it!”
Erin smiled and flicked the chess puzzle with one hand.
“Done and done!”
Olesm froze and stared at Erin. She grinned at him.
“You—you finished it? Just like that?”
“Yep. It wasn’t too bad a problem. But I’ve seen several like it, so…”
Krshia glanced sympathetically at Olesm. The poor Drake stared at Erin and then down at the chess puzzle.
“—I would deeply love to know how you solved it so quickly. But I should—yes, I should solve it on my own. Shouldn’t I?”
He looked longingly at the piece of parchment Erin was holding. She grinned and folded it up.
“You should. It will help you in the long run. Don’t feel bad—I just happened to know how that particular problem goes. But it was quite fun.”
Olesm repeated the word. He looked down at the paper.
“I’ve been wrestling with this problem for an hour. But—of course with someone of your level I shouldn’t expect this to faze you. Of course.”
“Do you have any more?”
Olesm shook his head. He accepted the piece of parchment back from Erin.
“This was the first—I mean, I suppose we might expect more of the same in the future, wouldn’t we? This puzzle was sent to countless cities. From the Titan. To find good opponents, I bet, and promote his game. I wouldn’t be surprised if more appear soon.”
“Oh, you mean sort of like a magazine, right? Or a newspaper?”
Both Krshia and Olesm looked at Erin blankly. She tried to explain. Olesm nodded his head uncertainly.
“Yes—yes, that sounds about right.”
“I’m just surprised. I thought sending stuff was supposed to be costly.”
Olesm shook his head.
“It’s not that expensive, especially if you send it with the slower deliveries.”
The Drake nodded. He gestured to the parchment in his hand.
“This was sent via magic. The Mage’s Guild can print images as well as text—but it’s extremely expensive. If it was a letter…again, the Titan can definitely afford magic, but a letter’s a fraction of the cost. And slower. Heck, you don’t even need the Runner’s Guild. You see, Runners deliver things quickly, but merchants and caravans and even ship captains will pass on long-distance deliveries for a very small fee.”
Erin frowned. She sort of got it. It was like snail mail by boat versus sending stuff by plane. And [Message] spells? That sounded like emails! But part of the process still confused her.
“How does that work if you trade the letter more than once? Do you pay the first guy a lot and have him give the money to the next person? That sounds risky.”
Olesm scratched at his scales as he tried to explain.
“It’s more like—well, I suppose you could call the letters a form of currency. Travellers will buy them for a few coins and complete the delivery in hopes of earning more when they sell them later or deliver them to their owner. Really, the Runner’s Guild is far more reliable but expensive.”
“Oh. So it’s sort of a gamble.”
“Exactly, but it’s fairly certain that the letter will get to your destination in the end. Of course, sending something private is a bad idea, but you can send a message to another continent for only a copper coin or two. It might take a month or two, but it will get there.”
Erin nodded. It all made sense. And it reminded her of—well, it reminded her of the post office in a way. Just without stamps. It was useful, it really was.
It was just that she was dreaming of email, the internet, and being able to call her family in two seconds at that moment. So she wasn’t that impressed, even though she was really trying to be.
“I wonder—do you think I could send the answer to the person who sent you the puzzle?”
“I don’t see why not. I mean, I won’t get in touch with the Titan, just his company. And it costs a bit, but it’s only a few silver for a [Message] spell…I bet he’ll check for answers soon, but not within an hour of sending the puzzle!”
It seemed pricier than he wanted, but Erin was getting excited. And so was Olesm at the thought of contacting and impressing this Titan. Was he actually that big?
“I can write down the answer. Do you have any paper…?”
“Write it down here. I won’t look.”
Olesm handed Erin another piece of parchment and averted his eyes as she scribbled on it. She handed it back to him folded up.
“Okay, so you send it to this person. And then this person will send me something harder?”
“Perhaps. Or perhaps they might wait until others have sent in their reply. It could take a few weeks or up to a month for a new puzzle.”
“Aw. That’s a long time.”
“But it’s so fascinating to play games across such a long distance, isn’t it?”
Erin tried to find the enthusiasm Olesm was giving off, but the truth was this revolutionary idea was small potatoes in her world. She sighed, but then she had a thought.
“I’ve got a better idea. Here, give me the paper back.”
She took the pen and dipped it in the ink pot Olesm held out.
“They sent me a puzzle, so I can send one back. Let’s see how they like this.”
Erin drew out a chess board with every piece in the starting position. She wasn’t an artist, but she did the best she could. Then she wrote in the upper left hand corner:
‘Black side will mirror white side’s every move. Force checkmate in 4 moves.’
“It’s a bit elementary, but it should be a good challenge for a beginner. You can send this via letter, if not a [Message] spell thingy?”
She showed it to Olesm and Krshia. Olesm frowned at the paper while Krshia shook her head in confusion, but then he smiled.
“I’m definitely not paying for [Messaging] an image. But I could probably send a letter via one of the bulk deliveries! What a fun puzzle! Wait…ah. I actually know this one.”
Olesm perked right back up and puffed his chest out proudly. Erin’s smile turned upside-down.
“Several new players like to challenge me this way. So I grew quite adept at beating them. It is quite a simple solution as I’m sure you know. If you move the queen like so—”
Erin scowled and snatched the parchment back.
“Give me that.”
She flipped it over and began writing furiously on the backside. Olesm blinked, and Krshia grinned in amusement. When Erin showed Olesm the new problem, he blinked.
“That’s a—a lot of pieces.”
“Checkmate in four moves. Black moves first.”
Erin grinned evilly at Olesm.
He goggled at the paper. Erin had heard of goggling, but she’d never seen someone actually do it.
“No. That’s impossible. But—no, it shouldn’t be—”
He frowned, his tail lashing the ground.
“I can’t even begin to—how did you come up with this so quickly?”
“It was one of the puzzles that gave me a headache back when I was playing a lot. It took me nearly a week to figure it out.”
“I can’t—may I copy this? Please?”
“Go ahead. And if you’ll send this back to the person who sent the other puzzle—I’ll pay for delivery.”
“Oh, of course. Certainly. Um, you can give me a few silver coins and it will get there, but more money means a faster delivery. Sorry, but it is overseas. Maybe I could get someone to pay for an image-[Message]? But that’s gold. How about two silver and I’ll copy this to Baleros for a slow Runner letter—and to Pallass? Maybe someone will send it back to the Titan. They’re all rich in the Walled City. Tons of famous [Strategists]. Heck, the Cyclops of Pallass lives there. Uh, the Grand Strategist of the Drakes.”
“I get it. Well, not anything of what you just said, but it’s pricey. Okay…”
Erin thought about that and dug in her money pouch. She was feeling generous, so she handed Olesm two silver coins. From what Selys had told her, she’d be rolling in bits of shiny metal soon enough.
The Drake blinked down at the coins, but accepted them and promised to send the letter as soon as he copied down Erin’s puzzle. He hurried off, leaving Krshia and Erin behind.
She smiled, wondered a bit maliciously how long it would take the mysterious chess puzzler to solve her problem, and then completely forgot about it a minute later.
Krshia was still trying to get Erin to have a meal with her, but Erin was tired, still sore, and for that matter, hungry. And despite her best wishes towards Gnolls, their food was more than a little raw by Human standards.
“Look, I’d really love to visit. And I will—how about tomorrow?”
“But today is quicker, yes?”
Erin wavered. Krshia enticed her with promises of baked food and meat. And it would be nice, even if she had the feeling the Gnoll wanted to talk to her about something important. Maybe she could relax?
But just as she was about to leave with Krshia, someone else called out Erin’s name. This time, Krshia’s ears laid flat on her head, and she turned with a glare. But the Gnoll stopped.
Gazi Pathseeker stood behind Erin in a vortex of attention. She smiled up at Krshia, and the Gnoll stared at her. Erin blinked and sighed as the half-Gazer greeted her.
“Erin. Is now a good time?”
“I guess. Did you meet all the important people you were supposed to?”
“I have met with various individuals. But I am sure others will introduce themselves when they realize I am in the city. However, I wonder if I might take you up on your offer.”
“Offer? What offer?”
Erin blinked at Gazi. The adventurer smiled and waved her hand.
“You mentioned you had an inn. If you wouldn’t mind, I would very much like to see it and have a meal, if I may.”
“Oh. Of course.”
Erin glanced at Krshia.
“Sorry, Krshia. It’s just that I promised Gazi—she helped me out earlier today. You don’t mind…?”
Krshia stood stock still and waved a hand silently at Erin. Gazi smiled in the Gnoll’s direction.
“Thank you, Shopkeeper Krshia. I apologize for my rudeness.”
The Gnoll murmured something, but Erin was already leading Gazi away. Krshia stared at the adventurer’s back and then shook her head. She turned, grabbed the nearest Gnoll, and began speaking quickly with him. She kept casting glances at Gazi’s back the entire time the adventurer was walking away. She hadn’t dared meet the half-Gazer’s eyes, and even now, Krshia’s hair was puffed out.
She watched Gazi, but Krshia had no idea—or perhaps she did—that she was being watched right back.
Erin stared in horrified fascination as one of Gazi’s eyeballs slowly rotated to face forwards in her head as the two walked down the street. Apparently, Gazers had 360° vision, which was awesome and incredibly disturbing.
She talked to Gazi while the female adventurer’s eyes roamed. She kept her big eye focused on Erin as she walked—out of politeness, Erin guessed, but her other four eyes were all moving in other directions. In fact, it was quite disturbing how Gazi’s big eye didn’t move away from Erin the entire time. Since she had other eyes, she could focus entirely on Erin even while avoiding other pedestrians.
Not that there were any to get in her or Erin’s way. The other people on the street either knew Gazi or didn’t want to walk in front of the adventurer. She was still dressed like a warrior, and even if her armor looked rusty, she seemed like serious business.
All in all—no, Erin wasn’t going to think it. But she couldn’t help it. It really felt like she was talking to a female version of Mad Eye Moody, as wrong as that sounded. A lot less grumpy and with more than one crazy eyeball, but the thought was in her head, and she couldn’t shake it.
And like the Harry Potter characters, Gazi seemed to be a sinkhole for attention. So much so that Erin felt uncomfortable as the two walked down the street towards the gates. She was used to scrutiny, but this time, the Drakes and Gnolls weren’t even bothering to hide their stares. And sure, most were staring at Gazi, but a lot of them were also staring at the weird Human talking to her.
“You’re really that famous, huh?”
Gazi shrugged, and the armor on her shoulders rolled back.
“Some might say so. I apologize if the attention bothers you. Do you dislike such things?”
“Dunno. I’ve never been famous—or popular.”
“I believe I am more infamous than famous.”
“I’ve never been that either.”
“I believe the difference between the two is quite minute in some senses. In others however—well, suffice it to say I appreciate staring as opposed to other reactions. Some cities would not let me past the gates—or even in range of the walls. Nor will I blame them for that.”
“Right, right. I get you. I think.”
Erin and Gazi stopped at a crowded intersection. Today seemed like a weekend—not that Erin had a good grasp of the week days in this world. She spotted several families out and about, which meant that they’d entered a residential district. She seldom went there, so the sight of children was—
They were so small. And cute! Well, the Gnoll kids reminded Erin of vicious puppies, but the small Drakes were terrifyingly cute. They ran about like normal kids, dragging their shorter tails about as they scuffled, played…did all the things normal kids did, really.
As they caught sight of Erin and Gazi, some of the adults stared. But a gang of Drakes and a few Gnolls pointed at Erin instead. One of the children ran up to the two and then away. It was a boy Drake—at least, she thought it was.
That was charming, especially the way the group of kids was clearly fascinated with her. Erin was smiling—until she saw the parents.
Two Drakes, both with lighter blue scales, watched their offspring run about with his friends with affectionate interest. He ran up to her, and his parents called out, not wanting him to bother Erin. She was caught by the moment and the thought struck her before she could banish it.
Mother, father, and child.
Her smile flickered and vanished. But then Erin put it back on her face. She bent down towards the young Drake, not looking towards either of the parents.
Erin smiled at the Drake child. He immediately took a step back, but the other children pushed him forward.
“Can I ask you something?”
The boy Drake’s parents waved at him, telling him not to bother the Human. But Erin smiled. She forced the smile, but it was a smile.
“Go on, I don’t mind. Ask me any question you want.”
The Drake grinned up at her. He had very sharp teeth. But it was still an innocent smile. A mischievous smile, too.
“Can you really shoot blood out of your—”
Pisces was sitting at a table in The Wandering Inn, sipping from a mug at his leisure as he put his feet up on one table. At his side, he’d dragged over another table and organized a smorgasbord of cheese, meats, bread, and some sweet pastries Erin had bought for herself last time she’d been in the city.
He jumped as the door to the inn smashed open, and Erin stormed in. She was wearing a terrific frown on her face, which contrasted sharply with the amusement on the face of the half-Gazer who followed her in.
She didn’t even have to say anything. One look and Pisces’ feet came off the table, and he began industriously polishing the wood with his considerably dirtier robe.
“Greetings, Mistress Solstice. Ah, are you well?”
Erin stood in the center of the room and glared at everything and nothing.
“I hate kids. I hate Drakes, and I hate people who don’t understand anything about female anatomy.”
That last comment was accompanied by a glare for Pisces. He opened his mouth to protest and then wisely shut up.
“In case anyone’s wondering, I cannot shoot blood out of my crotch.”
“I did not wonder. But it was quite amusing to see your reaction when the child asked you the question.”
Erin glared over her shoulder at the adventurer. Pisces eyed her. There was something familiar—well, unfamiliar, really. He had never seen a Gazer of Baleros. Obviously, he knew the species, but there was only one famous member of them he knew by name.
…It wasn’t her. Obviously. Erin hadn’t mentioned a name when she wandered into the inn with her guest, but it wasn’t her. That would be unbelievable. Pisces was keeping his ear out for a name as Erin ranted. Just because it couldn’t be her.
“Who asks that? Honestly!”
The adventurer shrugged. She was looking around the inn—with more than one eye? Pisces’ brows snapped together as he stared at her.
“Is it strange that other species do not know much about Human reproduction?”
“Yes! No! I just—”
Erin threw up her hands.
“Forget it. This is my inn. I’ll get you some food. You can take a seat. Watch out for Pisces, the jerk over there. He steals stuff. Like my food.”
She glared at the half-eaten pastries on Pisces’ table, and the mage flinched. Then she stomped into the kitchen, leaving him alone with…with…
As the adventurer took a table near him, Pisces’ eyes widened as he noticed her armor and sword. Her armor didn’t look magical to him—which had made him certain it wasn’t her and she was some other Gazer. But that sword…
A claymore. And she was sitting there and staring at him…and now Pisces began to sweat. There was no way. There was no way one of the King’s Seven was in this inn.
Staring at him.
If Pisces had been eating food, he would have choked on it. If he’d been drinking, he probably would have sprayed it out his mouth and nose. Since he wasn’t doing either, he just stared, wide-eyed, at Gazi.
She smiled at him. And as the last voices of denial tried to obfuscate the truth from his panicking mind, the Named-rank adventurer looked him in the eyes and said the most robe-wetting thing Pisces could imagine.
Erin rattled around in her kitchen, searching for something to serve up. She put a pot of pasta on the stove, poured out some blue juice—which Pisces had also helped himself to—and sliced up some bread with cheese and sausage. She realized she had no idea what Gazi or her kind ate, but she took it out anyways.
Pisces was sitting in his seat, looking meeker than Erin had ever seen him as he chatted with Gazi. Well, it was more like her asking questions and him replying quickly and nervously. Every few seconds, he would duck his head as if bowing.
Another person who recognized the famed adventurer.
“Here you go.”
Erin put the appetizers in front of Gazi.
“Let me know if there’s anything you want or can’t eat. Also, this is blue juice. It’s…it’s blue. But it tastes sweet.”
“This looks delightful. Thank you for allowing me to impose.”
“No problem. I rarely get visitors—”
Erin stopped as the door opened.
“I rarely get visitors.”
She was expecting the Goblins to enter or perhaps Olesm or even Pawn and some Workers. But instead the last person she expected walked in.
He grinned at her and sauntered into the inn, spear over one shoulder. And he wasn’t alone. Four more Drakes—all guardsmen by the look of them—entered the inn, looking around warily.
Erin wasn’t sure what to say. She stared at Relc. The Drake met her eyes and then looked away.
“Miss Erin. How’re you doing?”
“Good. Um. You brought friends?”
“For a meal. Mind putting something on for us? I’m hungry.”
Flustered, Erin retreated into the kitchen to double up on her dinner preparations. She reemerged to find Relc and his friends sitting close to Gazi. Since she’d chosen to sit next to Pisces, there was an odd triangle in the center of her inn.
There was also dead silence. Awkwardly, Erin put out drinks and appetizers for the guardsmen and Relc. The other Drakes accepted her drinks and stared at the blue juice warily, but they were polite. Relc, on the other hand, was boisterous and noisy, thanking her and gulping down the juice quickly. He looked everywhere—except at her and Gazi, that was.
That was Erin’s first clue, but she was so busy running around the inn that she didn’t pick up on it. But as she began draining boiled noodles and mixing it with sautéed onions, she heard Relc get up and walk over to Gazi.
“So. You’re the famous adventurer entering our small city. Nice to meet you.”
Erin peeked her head out of the kitchen just in time to see Relc leaning over the table. He stuck out one massive hand.
“I’m Relc. A Senior Guardsman here in Liscor.”
Was it just her or was Relc…bigger than before? But Gazi just smiled up at him and shook his hand with her gauntleted one. She saw the muscles in his arm tense, but Gazi didn’t even blink as she shook his hand.
“I am Gazi Pathseeker, a travelling adventurer.”
Half the [Guards] looked at Relc, but the Drake pretended not to have any idea who Gazi was. Then he picked at his teeth with a claw.
“Oh, right. I think I’ve heard the name before. An adventurer? That’s nice. I thought about being one, but it sounded like too much hassle.”
“The life of an adventurer is not for everyone.”
“No, there’s all the dirt and mud and monsters trying to kill you.”
“It becomes occasionally unpleasant.”
Erin didn’t need any special skills to sense the underlying tension in the air. She saw the four guardsmen Relc had brought surreptitiously eying Gazi. Meanwhile, Pisces had scooted around the edge of the table to get away from the two.
Relc paused. Then he cleared his throat and eyed Gazi.
“So…mind telling me what you’re doing in my city? And, uh, how long you’re going to be staying around here? Not going to start a war, are you?”
Relc put a heavy emphasis on my. And he was leaning over Gazi in a not-so-subtle way. She didn’t seem to be bothered by his looming, though.
“I am merely exploring this continent. Rest assured, I mean to cause no disruptions while I am here. Reim is far from here, and my liege sleeps. I am…peaceful.”
She said that last part with an edge that made the entire inn go silent. Everyone looked ready to change the subject, especially because Relc’s last comment had gotten on Gazi’s nerves. Her large eye had narrowed ever-so-slightly. However, the big Drake nodded agreeably, or in a way that suggested agreeability while the tone of his voice was anything but.
“That’s good. I’d hate for any of that. It seems like every other day I have to deal with uppity adventurers causing trouble. It’s because I’m the highest-level member of the Watch, you know. All the guys always call on me for help.”
“It sounds like you have quite a tough job. I am impressed.”
Gazi’s voice was getting less and less friendly, and the notes of sarcasm…well, let’s just say that Erin was sensing a lot of it in the air. Relc flexed one arm and checked his bicep.
“Yeah, well, I’m just that good. [Spearmaster], you know? One of Izril’s few.”
“Indeed? A fascinating class. I myself have killed only a few.”
The room became quieter. Relc’s gaze snapped up, and he opened his mouth—but didn’t have a ready retort. Gazi seemed content with that. Relc scratched at his scales. His tail twitched a few times on the floor.
“Funny person. Anyways. So. What I’m saying is, I’d hate for your visit to get unpleasant, understand? This isn’t a good place for you to cause any trouble like the kind you get up to on your continent. You get—”
He was leaning forwards, and Gazi’s main pupil was narrowing to a fine point of annoyance as the [Guards] looked like they were bracing for the worst—which they had come here to avoid. Pisces was opening a window and peering outside. The air was turning bad—
And then Erin tapped Relc on the back of the head with a plate full of food. Hard.
He turned and glared at her. She glared back.
“Oi. Stop harassing my guest.”
Gazi blinked. Pisces turned back, incredulous, and the Senior Guardsman looked at Erin. He glared—then ducked a second tap of the plate.
“Stop harassing. My guest. And sit back down. The food’s ready.”
Relc glared, but then he looked at Gazi—and the tense air was lost. He opened his mouth, closed it—stared at Erin, and growled. The Drake stomped back to his table as everyone sighed in relief. Gazi smiled at Erin, amused.
“Ah. Pasta? It looks quite delicious. Thank you, Erin.”
“Yeah, looks good! Have a bite and let me know if that’s an illusion.”
Relc began digging into his food the instant Erin left it at his table. After some hesitation, the other guardsmen did as well. Their wary expressions changed, and they soon began slurping down the noodles with good humor.
Pisces glanced around. Everyone else was eating—and Erin had even brought out some food for herself. But he was notably bereft of a plate and food.
“Ah, I believe you missed someone.”
Erin eyed him balefully. She quite pointedly stared at the remains of her pastries on his table.
“Too bad. I guess I only have food for paying customers.”
He smirked at her.
“As a matter of fact, I believe today is the day I will pay off my tab. I have come into quite a bit of money as of late.”
Erin raised a skeptical eyebrow. Pisces pulled out a bulging pouch and showed her the contents.
“If you would observe.”
“That’s a lot of gold. Hey! Did you steal that?”
Relc’s head rose, but Pisces looked insulted.
“Not at all. I merely performed a complex bit of magic and received remuneration. But I believe this is more than enough to pay off my tab many times over. Allow me to repay my debts in full and tip you for your time.”
He reached a hand into the pouch, but before he could take any gold out, the bag disappeared from underneath his hand. Relc pulled it away and deposited the bag on his table.
Pisces shot to his feet. He grabbed for the money, but Relc raised the bag out of arm’s reach.
“Give that back! It is my property!”
“Nope! Confiscated by the City Watch!”
Erin shouted at the Drake as Pisces grew redder and redder. The mage pointed a trembling finger at Relc.
“This is an abuse of authority! You have no right to steal my property—”
Relc grinned and waggled a claw at Pisces.
“I have every right. Or did you forget—you’re still wanted for all those thefts you did earlier. Scaring people—robbing graves—all of that should be nicely covered by this donation to the city, shouldn’t it?”
Pisces turned white and then red again with outrage. He spluttered, but didn’t really have anything to respond with except unrighteous indignation. Relc laughed at the mage—until Erin punched him in the shoulder.
“Ow. Have you gotten stronger?”
“It’s a Skill. Stop bothering my customers.”
“Fine. But I’m keeping this. Necromancer Pisces will be allowed back in the city, and we won’t stab him with all his fines paid off—but I’ll be watching him.”
“This is unjust—not right—”
Pisces clenched his fists, but Erin managed to get him back to his seat. He sat there in a huff, so she got him his own plate and food to calm him down.
“Honestly. I have a new guest here. Can’t you two behave for one night?”
“I am quite enjoying the spectacle. Do not mind me.”
Relc glanced sideways at Gazi. But then he ignored her and grinned at Erin.
“Sorry, Erin. I just wanted to say hi—after so long.”
She eyed him doubtfully.
“Really. I saw you just this morning and thought—well, it would be nice to see a friendly Human again. I had to deal with so many rude adventuring types and annoying mages each day.”
Pisces muttered something darkly. Erin shot him a look, and he shut up.
“I saw that. You were pretty impressive out there. I didn’t know you were that good.”
Relc grinned and put his hands behind his head as he leaned back in his chair.
“I try, I try. I’m not the greatest guardsman in the city for no reason.”
The four guardsmen stopped their meal and looked up at Relc. One of them snorted.
“Greatest guardsman? Sure, one who can’t even catch a Human Runner.”
The other three chuckled. Relc thumped back down on his chair and glared at them.
“I was wearing armor, and I had my spear, alright? She got lucky!”
Erin blinked at Relc as the other guardsmen made more jokes at his expense.
“You got outrun by a Runner?”
“She was really fast! I’ve never seen anything like it! Any other Runner I’d leave in the dust. But her—”
“Sure you didn’t lose while you were admiring her? Relc, the Gecko, lost to a mere Human. The mighty have fallen.”
“Too busy panting and not enough breathing while you were running?”
“Shut up! Don’t call me that stupid name!”
Relc glared at the two guards and threw a bit of food at them. That earned him another buffet from Erin. He glared at her, but then switched tone.
“—By the way, Miss Erin. You…wouldn’t happen to know any female Runners, would you?”
Erin blinked at him. Relc nodded.
“Sure, I mean, maybe, right? She was about your age.”
“What did she look like?”
This question came from Pisces. The mage was staring with some interest at Relc. The Drake frowned and shrugged awkwardly.
“She had…black hair. And she was—tall? Taller than Erin. And, uh, she was fast. Ring any bells?”
Pisces and Erin exchanged a look. Erin planted her hands on her hips.
“How am I supposed to know someone by all that?”
“Hey, I’m doing the best I can! All you Humans—you’re sort of similar. Anyways, I just thought you’d know her.”
“Because I’m Human? And all Humans know other Humans?”
Relc scratched at the side of his head.
Erin began banging together empty dishes as she glared at Relc, and the Drake spread his claws out innocently.
“Hey, I just wondered—that isn’t the only reason I’m here! I was going to tell you about the thief in the city.”
“I already know about the thief in the city! And before you cause more trouble, it wasn’t Pisces. If he were the thief, you’d have caught him already.”
“Oh, we know that. The [Guards] would have spotted him entering the city, his stupid invisible trick or not. No, it’s probably just some Human. But I wanted to tell you to hire some protection around here. You got lucky with those Shield Spiders, but you’re not going to be lucky forever. Hire an adventurer already.”
“And pay them with what? Adventurers are expensive!”
One of the guards nodded.
“They are. Unless you know one personally, the rates they charge are far too high.”
Relc glared at the guardsman.
“Way to help, thick-tail.”
“I don’t have money for that. Unless—”
Erin reappeared in the common room. She smiled at Gazi, who was observing the argument with urbane amusement.
“Hey, Gazi, want a job? I can’t pay much, but I’ll feed you if you stay. I haven’t fixed up the rooms upstairs, but I could work on that.”
Relc, Pisces, and all four guardsmen started choking on their food. Gazi smiled and shook her head.
“As tempting as your offer is, I must refuse. But I believe you would be wise to invest in some form of defense as you are no warrior.”
“Once I have the money from the Shield Spiders I’ll see. But I’m not made of coins. I don’t have much gold.”
Pisces had been following the conversation while eating a huge helping of pasta. Now, a calculating look appeared on his face as he glanced at Erin.
“I might be able to help in that regard. Miss Erin, seeing as how my funds have been confiscated…would you accept—alternate forms of payment?”
She glared at him.
“At this point, as long as you pay me something I’ll be happy.”
Erin paused and hastily amended that sentence.
“But nothing icky. Or gross. Or—anything I won’t like.”
Pisces was still glaring daggers at Relc, but his eyes had lit up at Erin’s request, and he developed a knowing smile as he tapped two fingers together thoughtfully.
“I believe I have something in mind that may benefit us both.”
For some reason, that struck her as ominous—and she hoped Pisces wouldn’t cause much trouble. It was practically a given he’d cause some. Erin shook her head.
“If we’re done with talking about stuff I can’t afford—anyone hungry for something else? I have Acid Flies if you guardsmen want to try them. I know Relc eats them.”
The guardsmen exchanged a glance while Relc patted his stomach and tried to decide whether he was still hungry. Pisces hurriedly waved away the bowl Erin was offering.
Gazi raised her single eyebrow.
As Erin served food into the night, another girl pondered money and food. Unlike Erin, however, she was not immediately in possession of either.
She skulked in an alleyway, not trying to keep out of sight, but refusing to go out into the street. She wouldn’t be bothered even if she did. Some guardsmen were looking out for thieves, but they would never suspect her. Her attire, and more importantly, her bearing would immediately allay any suspicions to her guilt.
It was a shame and a disgrace, then, that she was forced to stoop to such demeaning lengths to survive. Theft was not befitting of her station, but the greedy merchants and shopkeepers were practically inviting her to take their goods. Besides, she had no coin to pay—not that she would in any case.
What was hers was hers. What was theirs was hers too, for that matter.
She’d made a mistake in travelling south. The city she wanted to travel to was Celum—not this—wherever here was. But the foolish caravanner had erred in giving her directions—she certainly hadn’t made a mistake! Now she was stranded and forced to even further depths to survive.
The girl’s stomach grumbled. She’d snatched some fruit earlier today, but the shopkeepers were on more of a lookout after a few days of her pilfering. She’d have to wait until late that night before she would be able to eat.
Soon. The girl licked her fingers and eyed the streets packed with hideous dog creatures and evil lizards. She just had to obtain enough coin, and then she would be away from this city filled with monsters. She just had to find Magnolia Reinhart, and then she would be welcomed with dignity befitting her rank and station.
The girl’s stomach growled.