She didn’t want to walk up the hill to her inn. No—it wasn’t that. Erin didn’t want to walk up the hill to her inn and go inside. Or…no, it was more like she didn’t want to walk up the hill to her inn, go inside, and then have to feed and deal with another crowd of people right this instant.
Maybe in five minutes Erin would feel good about that, but right now she could only sigh as she stomped through the cold snow, up the steep and unreasonably treacherous hill, towards her inn.
It wasn’t that she was tired. Well, she was tired, but it wasn’t a physical thing. Erin was used to being on her feet all day long and working hard. She could fight off Goblins and cook pasta while picking blue fruit in the snow. But she’d been working hard of late. Very hard. And Erin felt just a bit…
Here was the problem. Erin wasn’t just tired. That was a simple thing to fix. Tired was immediate, and solvable with sleep. It was a drain on the mind, a heavy little rock tied to the eyelids that made them close far too often.
Tired was simple. But Erin was exhausted. She just felt like—like—
“Like I need a holiday.”
Erin sighed as she trudged up the hill towards her inn. Everyone else had already disappeared inside; part of her was already thinking about what she could make for lunch. She hadn’t had time for that because she’d had to go to Brunkr. Erin didn’t regret that, but she knew the others would be hungry.
She was ready to apologize and get to work, but found to her great joy that Lyonette had already made something to eat!
“It’s well, it’s a fry-up with mushrooms and other greens. You can have it with fresh bread and I’ve got fried beef if anyone wants meat. It’s got a Gnoll sauce on it, so it’s a bit spicy…”
Erin sidled over as she saw the travel-hungry people lining up to fill their plates. Lyonette had put out a big dish of the fried veggies and meat for people to serve themselves buffet-style.
“You did all this?”
Lyonette nodded, smiling as she passed out plates. Erin resisted the urge to kiss Lyonette and instead hugged with one arm.
“You’re so cool. Best [Barmaid] ever!”
There was a plate, a fork provided by Mrsha, although it was covered with a few hairs, and hot food. For a few seconds Erin just chewed on crispy, crunchy green tubes and relaxed. The warmth went down into her stomach and made her feel alive again.
Then she looked around and took stock of her inn. It was a full room today. Not only had some of the [Wagon Drivers] stopped here to eat, but Pawn, Belgrade, and Bird and a small group of Soldiers and Workers were in line as well. Klbkch was conspicuous in his absence, as was the strange group of Antinium who’d followed him.
Erin went over to Pawn, thanking Lyonette in her heart—the girl must have figured out the Antinium might show up, hence the non-gluten meal she’d made. She smiled at Pawn and took time to welcome both Belgrade and Bird—she hadn’t seen them in what felt like forever!
The two other workers were almost shy as they bowed to Erin. Pawn was more relaxed, and showed the other Workers how to hold the plates properly—they had to do it for their Soldier counterparts, since the giant warrior Antinium couldn’t properly grasp the plates.
“I apologize, but I fear they will have to use their hands to eat, Erin. We will clean up any mess we cause.”
“Totally fine. Totally—don’t worry about messes. I’ve got a Skill! But if your uh, Soldiers have problems eating we can give them bowls.”
“That would help greatly. Thank you.”
A trip into the kitchen and the Soldiers had bowls to hold instead of plates. Erin smiled as she stood with the Antinium in line, watching the queue pass the buffet line. Everyone was hungry, but they’d stood aside to let the adventurers go first. And Zel. All the Drakes practically ushered him to the front, despite his reluctance.
“Klbkch sends his regards. He wished to meet you at the inn, but he has pressing business in the Hive. I believe he will attempt to visit you tonight, if his duties allow.”
“Of course he will.”
Erin sighed, but smiled at Belgrade. She watched as ahead of her, the Horns of Hammerad reached the table and began filling their plates.
“Silver and steel you two, eat something that isn’t meat or bread!”
Yvlon snapped exasperatedly at Ceria and Pisces. Both had gone for the sliced beef, completely skipping the vegetables. Ksmvr and Yvlon had a more balanced plate, but the two mages looked completely unapologetic.
“I’m a half-Elf. I used to eat leaves for breakfast. I’ve had enough of them for one lifetime, thank you.”
He hesitated, eyed the slices of beef and added two more to his full plate. Then he turned and walked away. Yvlon rolled her eyes and made a disgusted face, but she followed her friends to the table.
“My body is dead, so uh, I can eat unhealthy.”
Jelaqua grinned as she emulated Ceria’s style. Erin saw Lyonette hurry into the kitchen—probably to cook what meat they had left. Erin resolved to order a lot more from Krshia when she went to the city again. Her feet were already aching.
“If you’re dead, why would it matter what you eat? Surely you can’t taste anything.”
That came from Typhenous. Jelaqua turned, pretending to be offended.
“I’ll have you know that I keep my body’s tongue in perfect condition see? Now, some other organs are a bit the worse for wear, but taste is something everyone likes.”
“True. Now move, you’re holding up the line.”
Seborn edged past Jelaqua. He and Moore had balanced plates, Moore with more vegetable and bread than meat.
Griffon Hunt came next. Ulrien, Halrac and Typhenous got their food without objection, but when Revi reached the head of the table she took one look at the spread and made a face.
“I don’t like mushrooms.”
Halrac growled at her.
“Then get the beef.”
“I don’t want to eat just meat for lunch.”
Erin hurried out of line, already slapping her I’m-sorry-you-suck smile onto her face.
“What’s the problem, Revi?”
“Nothing here really appeals to me.”
The Stitch-girl turned her nose up at the food. Erin kept smiling.
“Okay, why don’t I make you a sandwich? Toasted bread, cheese, some sliced ham and greens?”
“I suppose that will do.”
Revi sighed and nodded. Erin hurried into the kitchen, but not before she’d passed Zel and heard him mutter.
It was the work of a minute to put together a lovely sandwich. No problem at all, really. But Erin had had to do it, which was what sucked. Lyonette was apologetic.
“I should have made something for Revi.”
“No, you shouldn’t. She’s just picky.”
Erin made a face as she used a pair of tongs to toast the sandwich to perfection by the kitchen fire. She pulled the sandwich away as her Skill told her it was done—it was like an egg timer going off in Erin’s head—and tossed it onto a plate.
“You know, I’ve heard that when [Chefs] and [Waiters] don’t like the people they’re serving, they spit in the food.”
“Ew! Do you think—do they really do that?”
Erin didn’t see why Lyonette was so upset, but the girl was staring off into the horrific abyss of recollection.
“They didn’t do that to my food—I’m sure of—but if I—”
She turned green. Erin waved a hand in front of her face and Lyonette came out of her trance.
“Well? I’m not saying you should, but…”
Both girls stared at the innocent sandwich. They shook their heads at roughly the same time.
“It’s not worth it. Besides, that’s disgusting.”
“Yeah. It’s not the sandwich’s fault.”
Lyonette nodded. She frowned, and then went over to the cutting board where some of the ingredients were left over. She took an unused mushroom and diced it up into very fine pieces, hiding them in the melted cheese. Erin smiled as Lyonette closed the sandwich.
“Hey Revi, you aren’t allergic to mushrooms or anything, right? If it touches your skin, you won’t break out in hives or swell up, because if you are—”
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
Revi took the plate from Erin without a glance and began eating it with a knife and fork. Erin winked as Lyonette came out of the kitchen with more food for the buffet table. That was a small victory in her books.
“Oh, you don’t need to eat the food here! I’m sorry, I forgot!”
She stopped Pawn as he was about to fill his plate. Lyonette hurried into the kitchen and came out with—
The Drakes and Humans behind the Antinium took a step back. But all the Antinium perked up.
“I fried these in oil and then melted some cheese over them. Ksmvr says it’s good.”
Lyonette explained as she sat the Antinium at another table. With Erin’s help all of them had a few bees to eat, and Ksmvr came over as well to get his bugs. Erin sat next to Pawn and Bird, trying not to watch them eat as she slurped down her food.
Pawn was already pulling the legs off of his bee and crunching them down, but Belgrade and Bird stared at their food as if entranced.
“Well? Are you hungry? Or do you not like bees?”
“It is not that, Miss Erin. I have been waiting a long time for this moment. I wish to savor it.”
Belgrade stared at the bee dripping oil onto his plate. Bird stared at his bee and then picked it up. He spoke dreamily.
“They look like tiny birds. Bee birds.”
Erin glanced over, and saw Pawn and Belgrade shrug. She shrugged too, and began to eat. This was lunch. And since she hadn’t made it, Erin was a very happy [Innkeeper] indeed.
Work interrupted her before she’d finished eating, though. The door opened and a familiar blue-scaled Drake walked in.
His face fell when he saw all of her visitors.
“If you’re busy, I can go. I’d hate to interrupt—”
“Olesm! No, I’m just finishing my lunch and Lyonette can serve everyone food and drinks. Uh, you can do that, right Lyonette? If you need a hand—”
“I’ve got two!”
Lyonette waved at Erin and smiled as she went past. Mrsha, trotting beside Lyonette, sat on her bum and waggled all four paws. Erin grinned and turned to Olesm.
“Want to sit? How about next to Pawn? You can eat mushroom stir-fry and tell me what’s happened, and then I’ll teach you all how to play Go!”
Olesm perked up and sat happily with Erin. He took one look at what the Antinium were eating and declined to have lunch.
“So, tell me everything that’s happened to you!”
“Only if you’ll tell me what happened! I heard a bit from Klbkch, but where did you go, Erin? That skeleton, Toren, did something, didn’t he?”
“You don’t know?”
A sea of Antinium and one Drake all shook their heads. Erin blinked.
“Okay. Then in that case, it all started when I was going to get more honey. I was in the sled with Toren pulling it and I took a tiny, teensy nap…”
Catching up with Olesm took half an hour of talk. Erin was aware of time passing and cut her story short, but she just had to pause when she’d heard what Olesm had done.
“A chess newsletter? That’s so amazing, Olesm! Can I subscribe? Oh—and what’s the latest puzzle? You do chess puzzles, right?”
Olesm’s light blue scales turned bright as he blushed. He traced on the table with a claw as Erin exclaimed over the letters he’d sent to other cities.
It was a simple collection of parchments, not anything like a magazine or newspaper. One was an annotated game—one of the ones she’d played, if Erin wasn’t mistaken!—and another was an explanation of how to read chess notation. Another paper held a chess puzzle someone had made.
“Ooh. Not bad.”
Erin solved the puzzle in three moves and handed it back to Olesm. His jaw dropped.
“You can’t have just—”
“I solved one like that ages ago. It’s good, though!”
“I got that one from the best [Strategist] in…oh, never mind.”
Olesm handed Erin another piece of parchment.
“Please, look at this.”
It was another annotated game, but not one Erin had played. To her eye, it was a fairly interesting back-and-forth between two decently skilled players. But what was really interesting was the attached commentary. Three full pages filled with comments from both players and two other [Tacticians] provided a decent analysis of every move made.
“Olesm, this is so cool. I’m so glad you’re doing this!”
“Well, I got the idea from watching you play. I sent some letters out and got a great response, so I’ve been sending more out each week! I’ve got over twenty readers so far, and I’m told my letters get passed around to lots more people! And it’s very profitable!”
Olesm puffed out his chest. Erin smiled. Internally, she was remorseful. She never had time to play chess anymore, or so it seemed! All that time in Celum and she hadn’t picked up a pawn once. Chess was her thing!
“Can you give me all your old letters? I’d love to solve a chess puzzle or two.”
“Erin, your puzzles are the ones I’ve been using!”
“Aw. No. Really? You’ve got to get more! And twenty people is great, but why not send this to [Tacticians] all over the world?”
“Don’t stop there. Is the inventor of chess not Niers Astoragon? He and the [Strategists] in Baleros might find your work very useful.”
Pawn put down the parchment he was holding and looked at Olesm. The Drake fidgeted in his chair. His tail lashed the legs of the table in his agitation.
“I wouldn’t dream of sending my small work to him, but perhaps if someone were to mention it to Master Astoragon—well, I’d need for a lot more people to read my work before I’d be confident sending it to Baleros.”
“Why? Because it’s expensive?”
“Well…[Tacticians] are held in such high regard there, I would hate to embarrass myself. Not that I think your games are anything but perfect, Erin! But it’s just…”
“You should do it.”
Belgrade stared at Pawn. Bird looked up from his bee.
“Yes. I agree with what Belgrade is saying. You should do this thing I know nothing of.”
Pressured on all sides, Olesm could only stammer about ‘improving the quality of his publication’. Erin laughed, and decided not to push him further. He, at least, seemed like he was doing well on his own.
“Maybe you can add this to your next newsletter. I’ll teach you all how to play Go while you’re here!”
Olesm, Pawn, and Belgrade all sat up. Erin nodded.
“All we need are some stones and a board. I figure we can make one—uh—”
The Antinium stood up, Workers and Soldiers. They immediately filed out of the door. Erin blinked, and then saw them digging in the snow outside through one of the windows.
“Um—okay! Let’s do this!”
“So, we have white and black stones. Two sides, like chess, see? And you’re capturing territory. You place the stones on the intersections, where the lines join like right here. Each stone can have up to four liberties—that means open spaces where a stone could go—in each direction like this. If you take away all the liberties, you capture the stone. Now, the goal is to get as much territory—as much of the board as possible—and as many captured stones as possible.”
Erin demonstrated, surrounding a black stone with white ones. She took it off the board and put it to one side.
“We call captured stones prisoners. And ooh, here’s something cool. You see these connected stones? Well, if they’re all touching each other we call that a string. And you can capture an entire string at once, but only if you take over all of their liberties. So that’s definitely something to watch for…”
Fifteen minutes later, Erin stood over a table where a bunch of white and black stones were sitting. They were freshly painted, and a bit tacky to the touch still, although a flame spell had baked the paint nicely.
The board for the game was carved into the table. It was just a huge block of equally-sized squares, nineteen squares long by nineteen squares wide. Erin didn’t mind sacrificing the table; you could still eat on it and she had a feeling a lot of games would be played in the future.
She was lecturing a crowd of people, not just Olesm and the Antinium. The Drakes and Gnolls were interested in this new game, and a few of the adventurers had come over to listen. Typhenous and Pisces looked particularly interested; Moore was jotting what Erin was saying down on a slip of parchment, and Ulrien and Halrac were listening while drinking.
The game of Go was simple, yet complex. It was all about capturing territory, which, when you got down to it, was at the heart of chess as well.
“Although chess is about completely eradicating the opponent’s pieces, I see many similarities in this game.”
“Yup. Most strategy games revolve around stealing an opponent’s territory. It’s pretty hard to lose all your pieces in a game of Go, but it can happen. If you suck. A lot.”
Erin smiled at Pawn as she demonstrated how the game was played to her audience.
“The thing about Go is that—and I hate to say this, but it’s true—it’s far more complex than chess.”
“Oh yes. It’s very complex, but easy to understand. All you do is surround your opponent, but the game can take infinite forms. See, you can place a stone anywhere unless it means you’d lose it. So unlike chess…”
“There’s so much you can do.”
Olesm stared down at the empty board, seemingly daunted by its size. Erin smiled.
“I’m not as good at Go as I am at Chess, but I’m not bad. I used to study it and play games back home.”
“You did? I’ve never heard of it.”
Erin shrugged. She remembered staying up late at night, playing games online. She smiled sadly as she picked up a rough stone one of the Soldiers had smashed to make smaller and put it on the board.
“I used to play all the time. I was close to the professional level—not that I played half as much as I did chess. But I loved playing. Chess, Shogi, Go…it’s too bad I couldn’t gamble, because I can play a mean round of Mahjong as well. Anyways. Does anyone want to play a game?”
There were no shortages of volunteers. Erin soon found herself having Halrac carve a second and third board into the tables for people to play as the Soldiers went out to search for more stones.
“We really need round stones to play properly. But this is fine, I guess.”
“May I request your assistance in teaching me this game, Erin? I hope to learn as much as I can before Anand returns.”
Belgrade intercepted Erin before Pawn or Olesm could. Erin smiled at the Worker.
“Sure. Is that a bit of rivalry I hear?”
She was just teasing him, but the Antinium nodded to her great surprise. Erin blinked.
“I wish to beat Anand at this game. He is a better player than I, so I must practice more than he does.”
“Really? But I thought you two were closely matched. You were when I played you last time. Has something changed?”
“Perhaps it is the difference of personality. Anand is far more decisive and bold than I. That is why he was chosen to remain behind at Esthelm. His ability to react to new situations is deemed invaluable. I can only memorize patterns and repeat them.”
He looked downcast. Erin reached out and patted him on the shoulder. Then she gave up and gave him a quick hug. As she did, she saw Zel standing by a far wall. He was watching the Antinium. Not with overt hostility like he did with Klbkch, but very intently. He was staring at Belgrade and Erin was sure he’d heard what the Antinium had said. Zel looked away the instant Erin saw him.
“Well, if Anand is so good at improvising, all you’ve got to do is study every chess move until you’re used to every possible outcome. Following your style isn’t bad, Belgrade. You’ve just got to be able to adapt.”
She led Belgrade over to a board and began to explain strategy. He shook his head dejectedly as Erin tried to get him to experiment while playing her.
“I fear making mistakes in experimentation. I prefer known strategy. I fear I will be poor at this game.”
“No you won’t!”
“But known tactics fail in the face of innovation. Anand is spontaneous, I am not. How can I ever defeat him?”
Erin had a reply ready, but to her intense surprise Zel came over and answered the question for her.
“Just because someone can adapt, doesn’t mean their strategy is better than a set formation. It’s a longstanding argument between [Planners] and [Leaders]. One kind—[Strategists] for instance—likes to plan for every eventuality. They see patterns in troop movements and in battle and react accordingly. But [Generals] like me just see opportunities. We act according to instinct.”
He nodded to Pawn as he walked over and stood over the board. He didn’t look happy, but there was something in the way Pawn turned to look at Zel that made Erin think they had talked before. Zel studied the board, frowning at the intersecting lines on which stones had been placed.
“There’s some overlap of course; most leaders learn basic formations and strategy, but there are few who can lead from the front and fight a war in their heads. But specialization isn’t all bad—you get weird freaks with classes like [Shadow General] or [Lightningstrike Commander] who can use one type of tactic very well.”
“Then I may succeed by using my set methods?”
“If you can adapt them for every situation, yes. Who’s to say one method can’t be used in most situations? So long as you have others who can support you—or you know when to retreat—I don’t see why not.”
That was what Belgrade needed to hear. He sat straighter and began to play a far more competitive game. Erin still beat him, but she felt good doing it.
“May I try?”
Zel took Erin’s place, and Pawn took Belgrade’s. This time the game was short. Zel bowed out as it became clear Pawn was the far better player. He shook his head as he let Pisces slip into the seat.
“It’s just black and white stones to me. I’m used to battles where no one takes turns and everyone’s slipping on blood and guts. But if it makes you level, I’m sure every [Tactician] south of Liscor will be begging for a copy of young Olesm’s next newsletter.”
Olesm beamed with pride. He looked at Zel like a hero, Erin recognized. And the [General] was, wasn’t he? Erin had a hard time imagining it, but Zel was a big hero. One of the biggest, according to what Pisces had told her.
“You should send this with your next newsletter, Olesm. And what about sending it north?”
“North? Well…I sent a few letters to Invrisil and some [Tacticians] I’d heard of, but I’ve really been reaching out to friends I regularly correspond with. They’ve been spreading the word in the Drake cities. You really think I should expand so soon…?”
“Yes! Send it to us Humans…and Gnolls too, for that matter! Why not? You should send some letters to a bunch of Gnolls—I’m sure Krshia could tell you who might be interested. Yeah, send like a dozen letters out for free. If they like it, they’ll reply back. If not…”
Erin shrugged. She sat Olesm down at a table as lunchtime turned into board-game time. Lyonette was already hurrying out with drinks and a snack, and Erin saw those not interested in the game heading out for the city. It was only a little bit past midday. She had time. So Erin sat across from Olesm.
“Now, you’ve got a lot of good stuff, but have you considered having your parchment all stitched together?”
“Like a book? That’s costly.”
“No, not a book. It can be cheap. But you see, if you have a bit of color and maybe a little gossip, well, back home we call stuff like that magazines. I’m sure Krshia could find you someone who does a bit of artwork. You should have a little logo—ooh, and maybe a [Tactician] of the week! It’s good to reach out to your readers and get them involved. And while I’m on the subject, why not print a lot of issues of your newsletter and have them for sale in the Runner’s Guilds? If you do, then anyone can walk in and buy it. And if they don’t sell that well, it’s fine because you’re getting the word out. Now, my favorite part of newspapers back home is this thing called a ‘crossword’. It’s not chess, but…”
Things from home. Things she remembered. When you got down to it, that was what Erin truly had to offer to this world. She was just an average girl, but she’d brought part of the place she came from with her. That was what she could give, and that was what made Erin special, she felt.
Her memories of home.
Some of it was stupid. Some of it wouldn’t help. The people of this world took what they wanted, what was useful, and only that. No one had liked the idea of crossword puzzles, not even Pisces. The consensus was that you were going to be silly about words, you probably had better things you could be doing with your time.
But not all of what Erin had said was pointless. She saw the value in it already, as Olesm strode out of the door, bursting with ideas for his newsletter. And she saw it in Pawn and the Antinium as they left for the Hive, already planning to introduce the game to the Workers there. A new board game had come to the city. It was a small thing, but it mattered.
Everything mattered. Small things became big things, like how a clean inn was wonderful. So Erin helped Lyonette clean up for half an hour after her guests had finished, and then told Lyonette she was heading out. Again.
Only this time, Erin didn’t take the door leading to the outside world. She took the door to Octavia’s shop.
“Hey Octavia! I’m—”
Erin stopped and stared. Octavia was standing at her counter and she had a customer.
The man at the counter gave Erin an odd look, mainly because she was staring at him like he was some new, undocumented species never seen before. He accepted a potion that bubbled brightly pink in a stoppered vial and hurried away.
“Who was that? Why was he here?”
“That was a customer, and he was buying a potion. What the potion was isn’t your business.”
Octavia scowled at Erin as the girl approached the counter. The [Alchemist] seemed irked today for some reason.
“Aw. You can’t tell me? Why not?”
“Confidentiality. [Alchemists] don’t reveal what they’ve sold on principle. You could be an adventurer or a [Barber], but some of what I sell—”
“Was it a love potion? Or…is it like a healing potion for something icky?”
Octavia ignored the questions. She glared at Erin.
“Do you need something? Or are you just using my shop as a rest stop?”
“I’ve got business! For you!”
Erin smiled at Octavia, but for once even the word ‘business’ didn’t make the Stitch-girl jolly. Octavia folded her arms. Erin’s smile slipped.
“What? Did I do something?”
“Oh, nothing. I’m just waiting for you to figure it out.”
It took Erin a few seconds. She knew Octavia’s shop had been the delivery point for all of Celum’s goods and the people sent through, but it was for a good cause! So why—
Erin’s head turned and she saw the problem. The front wall of Octavia’s shop that led out into the street…was gone. Someone had knocked the entire wall down, and it was now patched up by a collection of plywood planks. It wasn’t a good seal. Wind was blowing into the shop through the cracks.
“Oh. Uh, is that—”
“They knocked it in. To fit a wagon into my shop.”
Octavia’s tone could have frozen boiling water. She pointed at the front of her store.
“I was reimbursed for that, but hardly enough. You may note how I haven’t had it fixed yet? That’s because the cost of wood is very high in the winter. And guess who gets to pay for that? Not the city. Me.”
Erin took a deep breath. She felt guilty, and changed what she’d planned on doing. She put her hands on Octavia’s counter.
“I’ll pay you back for that. But can we talk business?”
The [Alchemist] wavered. An epic battle between mercantilism and personal irritation lasted for all of fifteen seconds, before she grudgingly nodded.
“What do you want?”
“I need all my magical soups. You know, the ones you were holding for me for a ‘storage fee’?”
“I have them. I may have sold one or two—but I have your cut right here and I would be happy to reimburse you for the cost of—”
Erin didn’t blink. Octavia looked at her, surprised, and decided not to question it. She went into the back of her shop and came out with a bunch of bottles full of soupy liquids.
“That will be—”
“Hold on, you can combine that with my next order.”
“I want you to do some research! I think you can make this one thing I want right away—it’s called a ‘match’, and I need you to make it for me. Ryoka says it’s simple, but this other thing is really hard. It’s called ‘penicillin’, right, and—”
Octavia glared at Erin.
“I said no. I’m not doing any more research for you. You’re trouble. Every time I do something for you, I end up with a melted cauldron, or a hole in my shop, or a hole in my wall. I’m not helping you.”
“What? But—I can pay.”
“Too bad. It’s not worth the cost.”
“I think it is. Here—”
Erin reached for her money pouch, but Octavia snapped at her.
“Erin, no. I have several orders I need to fill, not to mention a gaping hole in the front of my shop! I won’t just let you—”
She broke off as Erin produced a fistful of coins. She slapped them on the table. They were heavy, thick coins. All gold.
Octavia swallowed. Hard. But she held her ground, though the luster of the softly glowing gold had fixed her eyes on them.
“A few gold coins won’t—”
Erin reached into her pouch and pulled more out. Octavia’s mouth stopped working for a few seconds.
“Look, I have a job to do and—”
Erin kept placing gold coins on the counter. She had to pile them up; she was counting. It wasn’t like she was made of money, but she had to make this right for Octavia.
In the end, thirty six gold coins sat in neat stacks of six in front of Octavia. The [Alchemist] gaped at them, and then looked up at Erin.
“That’s for your door, and hiring you. You can sell what I’m going to have you make, but I want to hire you. Is that okay?”
Octavia stared at the coins, and then looked at Erin. She glanced over Erin’s shoulder at the hole in her wall, and went back to the coins. Coins, Erin, broken wall. And then she threw her arms wide.
“Always a pleasure, always a pleasure to help my best customer! Hole in the wall? What hole? I was thinking I needed a new front for the shop anyways!”
Erin smiled. She looked Octavia in the eye.
“I’m really sorry, Octavia. I haven’t been a good friend to you.”
Octavia paused, and grew a bit more genuine as she raked the gold coins into a drawer.
“Well, it’s not like it wasn’t for a good cause. And the publicity! I suppose I can let it go. Especially if you’re paying me like this. Actually, for this rate, knock another wall down whenever you want! Now, what’s this about some experimentation?”
Erin smiled. She opened her mouth and then stared hard at Octavia. The [Alchemist] paused.
“You haven’t eaten yet! Don’t pretend! I can tell when you haven’t—Lyonette!”
Erin opened the door to her inn and yelled into it.
“Get me some leftovers for Octavia, stat!”
Five minutes later, Octavia was eating from a plate as if she hadn’t eaten all week while Erin explained what she wanted.
“So what I want is a match stick, see? The thing you strike and the match box. Now, Ryoka says that the thing to make the side of the box is phosphorus. Um, red phosphorus.”
“I have no idea. It’s red, and uh, a rock, I think. It’s good for…igniting things?”
Erin raised her hands as Octavia’s face clearly showed what she thought of Erin’s description.
“I’m sorry! I don’t know! Ryoka could tell you more—ask her if you need details! But the match head is simple. It’s sulfur and other stuff. It just…lights up when you rub it on something. Like this.”
Octavia watched with interest as Erin demonstrated. She already had a sketch of the matches and matchbox, and she was tapping her fingers thoughtfully as she turned to look around her shop. At last she nodded.
“I can do some research and see what might work like this ‘phosphorus’. But look, Erin. Anyone can make fire with a flint and steel. Or a spell. And fire starters do exist. Ever seen a blaze bomb? Nasty. It’s made with the scales of a Ignition Salamander and Corusdeer horns you see, and when it explodes it—”
“I know it’s possible. But I bet it’s not cheap, right?”
“This would be cheap. Really cheap. And easy! Okay, maybe people can use magic, but how many people use magic? And flint and steel is a pain to carry. Matches are useful—and sort of fun! I mean, I liked matches when I was a kid. Just try it, okay?”
“You’re paying me.”
Octavia shrugged and reached for her cup. Erin smiled.
“Now, the second thing I need is for you to experiment with mold.”
“Okay. Which kind?”
Erin paused. Octavia stared at her expectantly.
“I’ve got several growing in the back if you want any one particular kind.”
“Of course you do. Well, this one’s green and sort of blueish, and it grows on oranges and bread…”
“How much do you want? I don’t grow that, but I think I’ve got a loaf of bread in one of my cupboards that probably has that kind of mold.”
“Just…wait a second, okay? I need something specific. You see, I need penicillin, which is a special type of mold. It works like this…”
Octavia frowned as she listened to Erin’s description. When Erin was done, Octavia was willing to admit that penicillin might be very useful, but she had no idea how to figure out which mold would work like that.
“I guess I can experiment on myself? No? Well, perhaps a test subject. I guess I can get a pig or sheep or something and…no? Aw, come on. How about a rat? Aw, Erin—okay, I’ll do all I can. But I still have to run my shop. And brew potions. Honestly, the brewing is easier than the shop keeping—I need to stay behind the counter at all hours. But that’s going to cut into the amount of time I can keep researching, just so you know.”
Erin blinked at Octavia and a little candle lit up in her head.
“I can help with that. Come to the inn tonight for dinner and we can talk details.”
Octavia eyed Erin and then raised a hand.
“No way. Sorry, Erin, but no. Honestly, I appreciate the thought, but you’re no expert saleswoman, and I can’t just turn my merchandise over—wait, where are you going? I didn’t finish! I’ll let you try to sell my stuff if you’re willing to give me a cut of—”
Erin waved at Octavia as she exited the shop. The [Alchemist] frowned as the door—or rather, hinged piece of plywood—swung almost shut. She went over to it and pushed it closed, muttering under her breath.
“Gotta improve the pitch, Octavia. You have to get them hooked faster. Fifty percent? Hah! Eighty percent cut, and then you start laying on the little extras. Market value purchase plus city taxation, labor costs, regional import fees, cauldron taxes…”
A minute after Erin had left Octavia’s shop she stopped and slapped a hand to her forehead. A passing horse and rider looked at her weirdly, but that was alright.
“Healing potion slimes! That’s right!”
Erin snapped her fingers and fished around for the piece of parchment to write that down. Then she went on her way.
There wasn’t enough time in the day for everything she needed to do. From Octavia’s, Erin made a beeline to the Frenzied Hare in Celum. She was a bit leery of inviting Agnes to the Christmas party, but happily the woman was out.
Unhappily, everyone was out of the Frenzied Hare. The doors were locked, and Erin had left her key to the building back in her inn. When she asked why it was closed, she learned that Miss Agnes had taken a holiday with her sick husband. That essentially meant spending all the coin Erin had helped her earn by staying at someone else’s inn and eating lavish food.
Erin just shook her head when she heard that and asked where she could find Wesle, Jasi, and the other actors. She was pointed to a building that had been bought out by the troupe of [Actors]—a freshly painted sign advertised nightly performances.
Jasi blinked at Erin as she turned from their rehearsal of My Fair [Lady] to talk. Grev, hovering backstage with water and the scripts for the actors, looked up sharply.
Erin smiled at the younger Drake as she explained about Christmas for the umpteenth time. By the time she was done, Grev was a new convert to the dream of getting presents for free, and Jasi and some of the other [Actors] including Wesle were happy enough to join in Erin’s present-giving program.
“So you’ll tell us who we’re getting presents for, right? Can you tell us now? If it’s in two days, I’d like to get started shopping right away.”
“Uh—I’ll have a list by tonight!”
Erin promised the troupe as she tried to figure out how best to do that. She’d probably need a list. Or a diagram. She should have bought more parchment and ink!
Jasi caught Erin as the girl was getting ready to get back to her inn—this time to get ready for dinner.
“If you’re making everyone give gifts for each other in secret, do you mind if I ask that you let me buy a gift for Grev?”
Erin smiled at Jasi.
“You’ve gotta get one for him, and I’ll make him get one for you! Anyone else you want to put on the list? Maybe Wesle?”
Jasi blushed and fiddled with her claws as she looked the other way. Erin had a thought.
“Or maybe Olesm! He’s a Drake, like you! Not that it matters, but it could be a good way to introduce yourself to him. I know you don’t know many Drakes since you live in Celum…”
“Maybe not, Erin. I mean, I don’t know other Drakes. I wouldn’t know what to buy. But maybe instead of Wesle, you could put down that Pisces guy? He’s handsome.”
Jasi smiled. The smile faltered as Erin gave her a look flatter than paper. Without a word Erin backed towards the door and then shut it. Then she opened it again to smile.
“I’ll do my best!”
“But seriously, no. Pisces? No.”
She shut the door again.
That night, the Wandering Inn saw a record-breaking number of guests. Again. Word had spread about the game of Go, and Erin had more than a few visitors who came just to sit at the tables and play with the now vaguely-round stones.
There was a lot of competition, and Erin was touched to see the Antinium playing against Drakes and Gnolls with scarcely a second glance. Pawn and Belgrade were among the better players in the room, and that was including the mages and Olesm. Pisces seemed to have a knack for the game, but those who practiced strategy for a living still had an advantage over everyone else in the room.
Except for Erin. She was delighted beyond belief to have actually lost a game—an event which made Olesm race outside and dance about the inn for ten minutes straight—but she was still a better player than everyone else by sheer virtue of practice. But she was happy. Happy, though she was having trouble standing up. Her legs were aching and her arms hurt from hauling a bunch of frozen meat back to her inn.
Klbkch didn’t come that night, but Relc did. He slipped into the inn, hesitating a bit when he saw Erin. But she pretended not to see him at first, and instead helped Belgrade as he played a very close game against Olesm.
“Ooh, an apple!”
Relc spotted a plate with apple slices sitting on a table. After a surreptitious look around, he happily crunched down the slices, still as fresh and as crisp as when they’d been cut, which was yesterday.
Erin stared at Relc, and then smiled.
“Everything going well?”
He jumped guiltily and then turned to her.
“Oh. Hey Erin.”
They stood in silence for a few seconds. Then Erin gestured to the table.
“Want some food? Today’s dish is beef broth, mashed potatoes, roast beef, gravy, mushroom-and-meat skewers, boiled greens—those tube greens, you know—and honey-drizzled steamed carrots. What would you like?”
Relc gave Erin a pleading look.
“Can I have…everything?”
She smiled. Some things didn’t change. In this at least, she was glad.
“Sure. Coming right up!”
When he was eating happily, Erin sat with Relc and—talked. Just for a little bit.
“So you’ve really been good?”
He paused, licking the spoonful of potatoes with a long tongue.
“Can’t complain. That damn dungeon’s spitting out monsters now and then, but Captain Z’s got us guarding in shifts and we’ve built some fortifications. Really, the most annoying part is all the adventurers coming in and out.”
“Why, are they rude to you?”
“Yeah! They look down their noses on the way in, and on the way out they run to us with their tails tucked between their legs, begging us to stop the icky monsters.”
Relc laughed and Erin smiled.
“Sounds like a lot of work. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
“Well…you know me. I’m tough!”
Relc thumped his chest and looked sideways at Erin.
“You got rid of that skeleton thing, right?”
“Yeah. I had to.”
“Good. I mean, it was going to go bad. You can’t trust the undead.”
“I guess not.”
“And the uh, Goblins are gone. I didn’t do anything!”
Silence. For once, Erin didn’t have much to say. Relc was a friend. He had been a friend. But after a while, she stood up.
“If you want anything else, just yell. Lyonette and I can handle it.”
Relc turned awkwardly to his food. Then he looked at Erin.
“That Gnoll kid you’ve got there—I heard some of the guys talking in the barracks about her. White fur’s bad, right?”
“I think so. To Gnolls.”
“Yeah. But they’re stupid. It’s good that you took her in. Real good.”
Relc and Erin paused, full of words unspoken. Then Erin nodded and walked away. Someone was calling her name.
She chanced upon the Horns of Hammerad after she’d helped serve more alcohol. They were sitting at their own table, talking amongst themselves. The topic happened to be the items Ryoka had analyzed.
“We couldn’t get a reply from her, but what she said sounded good. Really good.”
Ceria told Erin as she slid into a seat. The half-Elf sounded like she was half-trying to convince herself. Yvlon nodded, as did Ksmvr, but Pisces looked less sanguine. Ceria began listing off the items, keeping her voice low as she whispered to Erin.
“A magical sword with the weight enchantment—a good one. That’s powerful. A buckler with a spelled defense? That’s Gold-rank gear right there, for Yvlon probably. And that dagger? Valuable. Pisces, you or I could use it, or Ksmvr could wield it in his off-hand…”
“And that’s all.”
Pisces took a deep draft from his tankard.
“That’s all, Springwalker. We don’t know more, so we don’t know if that’s it, or if Ryoka found something truly of worth.”
“She didn’t tell you anything else?”
Yvlon shook her head.
“She promised us that there’s more, but she was only willing to list those three weapons in case someone was reading our messages. I’d worry someone might try to steal the artifacts, but if she’s travelling in Magnolia Reinhart’s coach…”
“It might be that she was trying to spare our feelings.”
Pisces slumped in his chair. He seemed morose. Ceria shook her head.
“I don’t believe that.”
“Why not? Those are all of the weapons we recovered. Save for the sword blade—broken. What else could be of worth?”
“Plenty. There was that bag of holding—and the enchantments on the weapons are powerful.”
“I suppose they are.”
Pisces sighed as Ceria began listing the things that might be hidden inside the bag of holding they’d found, or the adventurer’s pack. Yvlon listened, occasionally adding a suggestion, and Ksmvr sat, looking from Pisces to Ceria.
The Horns of Hammerad were more nervous than happy about the items Ryoka had identified. Erin wondered if there really were more artifacts than the three weapons. It didn’t matter. Either way, her goal was to raise their spirits, so Erin interrupted Ceria and began explaining Christmasian theory. Again.
“Presents? I guess we could go out shopping. Only…”
“I’ll lend you some money. You can pay me back. I know you’re good for it.”
“Some adventuring group we are.”
Yvlon shook her head, but she was smiling at the thought of Christmas.
“You know, we did something similar. It wasn’t something as large as a present, but we’d get sweets during the winter solstice. I used to look forwards to that every year.”
“Sweets is a good present! Uh, especially since I didn’t make the list yet.”
Erin winced as she realized she’d have to run around and tell everyone who their secret two people were tomorrow. She left the Horns of Hammerad as she spotted someone else in the crowd.
“Erin! Where have you been? I haven’t seen you for ages!”
The two laughed and sat down at another table. Selys was just about to tell Erin all about her troubles managing the guild with so many new adventurers when Erin remembered her magical soups and hurried into the kitchen to get them. She called over Halrac and some of the other adventurers as she explained how they worked.
“What do you think? Can I interest you in any of it?”
Ulrien, Halrac, Seborn, and Selys all stared dubiously down into the jar of blue, thick soup Erin had opened. It did not look appetizing, but after a second Halrac picked up the jar. He sniffed it once, and then gulped a mouthful down. Selys shuddered. Halrac’s face didn’t change as he handed it to Ulrien.
“Not bad. We don’t need it, but I can mention it to some [Scouts] I know.”
“You think they’d want it?”
Halrac raised his eyebrows.
“This? Oh yes. If they can move around with less clothing on, it’s less to carry and less noise. They’ll buy it.”
“Adventurers too. Anyone wearing armor in the snow will want this.”
Ulrien made a face as he swallowed. He pushed the jar over to Selys. The Drake raised her hands.
“I can get grandma—uh, the Guild to sell this. But I’m not drinking it.”
“Aw. Come on Selys, it’s not that bad. And it works! Just try it!”
“Well, okay. But wait until you see this potion! It makes your skin tough! Do you want to try it, Seborn?”
Sitting across the room, drinking some hot beef broth and wondering if she could get in on Erin’s business transaction, Octavia was just about to get up when a shadow blocked the light. She looked up and saw a Gnoll.
That wasn’t surprising around Liscor, Gnolls being a good percentage of the city’s population. But Octavia had met few Gnolls in Celum. She gulped as this one loomed over her. It—she—spoke in a deep, growling voice.
“Hrm. You are Octavia, yes?”
Octavia squeaked. Krshia smiled, baring all of her teeth.
“I am Krshia. A [Shopkeeper]. I am told you may wish to let me sell your potions, yes? Let us talk business.”
“You? But I—did Erin—”
Octavia glanced helplessly towards Erin, but Krshia had already pulled out a seat. Octavia did her best to pull herself together. A customer was a customer, and she was a master at selling.
“Well, Miss, uh, Krshia, I’m one of the three best [Alchemists] in Celum. I don’t like to brag, but I’ve sold potions to Gold-rank adventurers and I get commissioned regularly to do research creating new potions. Now, my brews might not be the most standard, but I can assure you that my percentage is quite reasonable. A fifty percent cut of all profits is a good place to start, but I could—”
“Mm. What is your level?”
The [Alchemist] broke off nervously. Krshia was just staring at her, unblinkingly.
“My—my level? Well, I think that’s a personal issue, and as we all know, levels don’t always correspond to Skills of c—”
“I will sell your potions, but if they are lower quality, I must price them as such, yes? And then…well, we shall see. I have many levels in my class, and that must be weighed, yes? If I, a high-level [Shopkeeper], were to sell your potions, I should get a better cut, yes?”
“Well, yes, but no, but—let’s talk effort here. I’m brewing the potions—”
“But I sell them, yes? I must sell your potions. If I do not sell, no one will buy, yes? So which is more important?”
“Hold on—if I didn’t make potions—”
Octavia’s mouth was dry, but she didn’t dare take a sip from her cup. She was fighting for something far more important than her life. The battle for the bigger bottom line was fought quietly in one corner of the inn. Tears were shed, and a little bit of blood. But on the whole, Erin thought she’d done a good job, especially when she saw the look on Octavia’s face afterwards.
“It’s a pain in the ass.”
Halrac was talking to Erin at a table late at night. She was trying to look as attentive as possible. She hadn’t gotten a chance to speak with him since she’d come back, and she knew the man wanted to talk with her, even if he wouldn’t say it.
That was how the night was going. Sit at a table and chat. But don’t sit too long, because someone else would want to speak with her. Erin’s eyes hurt. She wanted to close them, but her friends were more important.
“How’s it a pain? I mean, this is a dungeon so I know there’s lots of monsters…”
“Monsters we could handle. If it were a nest we’d deplete their numbers and destroy their home. But this is a magical dungeon, one where the rooms keep changing. A trap room we disarm one day might be gone the next, and in its place an entirely new trap, or a room full of monsters.”
“And the traps are really bad, right? I’ve heard stories from Relc.”
“They’re some of the worse I’ve seen.”
Halrac shook his head, looking grimmer than usual.
“I’ve seen deadlier—the one that got your friends is probably worse than most of the ones in this dungeon. But there are so many that we can’t make any headway. And when we come back the next day…”
Erin whistled quietly and Halrac nodded. He took a sip of the drink Erin had made especially for him. There was just a drop of the faerie flower nectar in it, enough to take the edge of the day off.
“So far, a lot of kids have gotten killed and the others are making no headway. We’re the only group that’s gone in, and we have nothing to show for it.”
“Is there any hope? Or do you just…have to get lucky?”
“Right now we’re trying to identify all the rooms on rotation. If we can figure out the trick behind most of them, we might be able to break through to the next area. Then it’s just a matter of anchoring ourselves at that point. There are ways to stop a magical dungeon from changing. But it’s the crevasse the Mrsha child found that interests me. It goes straight down into another part of the dungeon.”
“And that’s good, right?”
The [Scout] seemed incapable of optimism. For good reason, as he explained to Erin.
“The problem with that is if we go down there, we’re walking into an attack on all sides. Multiple traps with wide ranges might come at us, and there are plenty of strong monsters down there. The dungeon is infested. When we went down to save the child, we ran into eight different species, some of which were fighting each other. If we hadn’t all been high-level, we wouldn’t have made it out.”
“Thank you for doing that, Halrac.”
“It was nothing. You should thank Zel Shivertail instead. He was the one who killed the most monsters.”
“Do you think he’d like to go into the dungeon with you guys?”
Erin saw Halrac smile, just once. She smiled too; her mission was partly accomplished.
“Him? He’s no adventurer. I wouldn’t have ever expected to fight beside him, but it was…good to see. But he wouldn’t risk his neck down there. It’ll be us.”
“And it’s worth doing?”
Halrac raised his eyebrows.
“There could be nothing down there, or an artifact beyond our wildest imagination. But we’re going to look anyways, because that’s what adventurers do.”
“Well, you can stay as long as you like. And I’ll have good food and a warm bed for you—and I want to see if Pisces really can rig up some kind of emergency teleport stone. If he does…I want you to all have one.”
“You’re an odd [Innkeeper], Miss Solstice.”
“Thank you. It’s…pleasant being here.”
Erin smiled at him, and felt her eyes threatening to close.
“That’s all I want to hear. Would you like a refill?”
And then it was night time. Somehow, everyone had vanished, leaving Erin alone in her inn. She sat at a table, head resting against the wall. It was dark. Snow was falling. Everyone had gone.
And Erin was beyond tired. She was so tired she had passed into that special realm where she was too tired to sleep. She stared out the window as the snow fell and made to bury the world. One last hurrah, before the weather turned and the world slowly began to warm.
“It’s going to be very, very deep tomorrow…I’ll have to shovel it…can’t open the door I bet…”
Erin murmured dreamily to herself, slurring the words. They were just fragments of thought, things she had to do. She had so much to do.
“I forgot to get a Christmas tree. Oh well. I guess I can try tomorrow…”
One day to get everyone to buy presents. She had to figure out who would get what first—probably before she talked to anyone. So now or before dawn. And Erin had to get presents herself, get ready for the party—buy more food, figure out traditional Christmasy foods, decorate the inn…
If she pushed the date back she’d have more time. But Christmas came before the New Year’s, didn’t it? And the winter solstice was…well, as close to a New Year as this world had. The Frost Faeries probably only cared about the solstice, anyways.
Erin stared out the window. She breathed and the glass fogged up. Erin wiped away the condensation and stared into the snowy landscape.
So tired. But she’d done good, hadn’t she? She’d brought a game to this world, talked with everyone, helped Krshia, Octavia…but she was tired.
So tired. She’d wake up in a few hours. Before dawn. She had a lot to do. So Erin should sleep. She knew that. But she was too tired for that. She just wanted—well, she wanted so many things. But right now she just wanted to sleep.
Was today a bad day? No, it was good. Then why did Erin feel hollow inside? Miserable? Why would she feel like that?
If you’re sad, just smile. Had someone told Erin that once? Or was it just something she’d grown up knowing?
Her lips twitched. Erin smiled, and then let it fade. She stared out of the window, resting her head against the wall. Not crying. Not smiling. Just staring.
She felt just a little bit tired.
At some point, Erin fell asleep. But she wasn’t quite asleep. She hovered between waking and slumber, so that reality became a dream, but she was still thinking.
Smiles. She’d seen them today. That was what she’d set out to collect, like Santa getting his presents or the tooth faerie flying from bed to bed. They were such brief things, smiles. But they were so valuable. And Erin had collected so many…
A smile from Krshia. Brunkr’s bared teeth, determined, hopeful. Mrsha’s big smile as she licked honey off a paw. Lyonette’s mischievous grin as she fed Revi mushrooms. Relc happily eating the apple. Octavia and her gold. Jasi, performing. Bird, eating bees…
Fragments. In her dream, Erin reached out and gathered the glowing shards to her. They were the one light in a dark world filled with snow. But when she touched them, they melted and dripped from her hand. They fell down into the blackness and became stars. Erin looked down and found herself staring up into the sky. The clouds were gone, and the stars shone down. She smiled then, and she was smiling when Lyonette found her asleep the next day.
And the word that spread through the city, through two cities, was simple. It was a word never heard in this world before, a word that would not topple kings from their thrones or start revolutions. But it was a special word, nonetheless. It was something new, something that might be important, or might not. It was as important as people thought it was. But it was special to the girl who lay sleeping in her inn, too tired to lie down. It meant happiness. It was a word for joy, a word for the season. A word of power. A word from home.