“I’m going to quit.”
Niers Astoragon spoke to himself as he stood on his dressing table, inspecting himself in a foot-high mirror. He adjusted the cuffs of the fancy, somber black-and-silver doublet he’d been supplied and wondered if he could strangle himself on the lace.
“Lace. Who uses lace? The fashions of Terandria are not Balerosian fashions. Following those idiotic trendsetters is pointless, but why listen to me? Let’s all decide to hang ourselves with string. Lace on the frocks, collars, arms…leggings for some reason! In the time it takes to dress up like this I could be playing two games of chess. Three.”
He glanced over to a small, wooden board sitting on the table a few feet away from him. It too occupied the dressing room table, which also held Niers’ bed, most of his possessions, and his entire wardrobe. The rest of Niers’ room was given over to a large amount of papers, most stacked with some degree of neatness, but giving the entire place a distinct impression that a tiny person had decided to camp out in the middle of a filing room.
It was, Niers thought to himself, entirely appropriate. Not that the clutter mattered outside of the table; for a Fraerling, the dressing table itself was a gigantic bedroom, complete with treacherous drops several times his height he could throw himself off if he got bored of life.
“Not that I’d die from the fall, even if I landed on my neck. And then I’d have to show up and teach those little leeches wearing a neck brace. Hah! And this week of all weeks? It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
He glanced again at the magical chessboard and shook his head. The pieces hadn’t moved. Thus, there was no real reason for him to delay. Niers sighed.
“How many have I taught? A hundred? A thousand? And how many survive to become great [Strategists] and [Generals]? I don’t need to keep doing this. I could keep playing. I could—could find out—”
He trailed off for a second and looked for a third time at the chess board. Then he looked towards the glass windows in his room, saw the sun rising, and cursed.
He finished tying the lace together like a noose and hurried towards the door. Not the main door to the room though; oh no. The door handle was far too high up for Niers to bother climbing and ruin his wonderf—his perfectly serviceable—his mockery of fashion that was a doublet. No, instead, he took a small ramp upwards towards a door set near the ceiling. Niers opened it, and began to march down the small stone tunnels illuminated by tiny mage lights.
He was using the Fraer-ways. And in doing so, he passed through stone crossroads, walkways along the outside of the palace that had been converted into the academy he lived in. These walkways were naturally enclosed on all sides to protect Fraerlings from birds, rodents, and other dangers, but such was the wealth of Niers’ company, the Forgotten Wing, that the [Architects] had installed glass windows to allow Fraerlings an unparalleled view of the city the academy was based in.
Elvallian, one of the foremost trading hubs in Baleros. Once an obscure city marooned in the jungle, now, the headquarter of the Forgotten Wing Company, home to one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros when they were not on campaign. Also, and just as prominently, the place where aspiring [Strategists] might receive the chance to learn from the legendary Titan himself, the [Strategist] claimed by many to be the highest-level in the world, Niers Astoragon.
At the moment, said Titan, [Grandmaster Strategist], feared foe to his enemies and so on and so forth was cursing. He’d just stepped in rat droppings and it had gotten all over his dress boots, which of course, had lace.
“So that’s why you’re late. Because of rat poo.”
Breakfast. Niers had it every day in an open part of the castle. Not open to the elements; no one wanted to sit in the hot, humid air, rather open in the sense of huge sheets of glass providing the illusion of openness while cooling spells made the room pleasant to sit in.
Niers at on a table with white cloth, eating from a tiny bowl and scowling at his companion sitting across from him. He was having a civilized breakfast of bananas, a filling porridge, and fruits, all seasoned with some fresh cinnamon.
His partner was having muffins. Not muffins with a side of eggs, or muffins and a glass of milk, or muffins with butter. Just muffins. There were three of them. As Niers watched, the eater of muffins picked one up in her furry paws and stared at it.
“Because of poo.”
“Would you stop calling it that? I stepped in rat droppings and needed to change my boots.”
“You know why. We’re supposed to be putting on a show!”
“Hm. So that’s why you have all the string.”
Niers glared. The person sitting across from him blinked at him. She had odd eyes. Three-Color Stalker was her title. She was a Squirrel Tribe Beastkin. Also, she was the leader of the Forgotten Wing Company, Niers’ boss, oldest friend, and right now, ponderer of muffins.
“I didn’t choose to dress up like this. Apparently, this is the current fashion from Terandria and all of Baleros considers this the height of fashion.”
“Drab clothing and lots of lace.”
The tiny Fraerling gritted his teeth as the Squirrel-woman held her muffin up to the light, studying it.
“The point, as I understand it, is to emphasize muted colors. Note the silver lining?”
“Why have lace if it’s not colored?”
“That would be asking too much of fashion, I suppose.”
The Squirrel Beastkin glanced at Niers and smiled for a second. He wasn’t sure if that was because she felt like it, or because she’d gotten the joke. Her name was Foliana and he’d known her for decades, but she was still unpredictable to him. Both of Foliana’s eyes sparkled in the light as they met his.
Three colors made up her eyes. Bright red-pink, deep and dreamy yellow and clear green. They created an orb of three equal parts in the center of her eye. The brown sclera that surrounded the eyes was practically black compared to the brilliance of her pupils.
Her eyes were a wonder. The rest of the Squirrel Beastkin was practically unnoticeable. She faded into her chair, and when sitting seemed to grow transparent and inconspicuous. Niers cleared his throat.
“I note you aren’t wearing any lace.”
“Don’t want to. Lace is hard to sneak around in.”
“You’re not being called on to stab a [Commander] to death in a rainforest. You’re greeting dignitaries, prospective clients, allies. Guests.”
“That means no stabbing.”
Silence. Niers chewed down his breakfast, hurrying because if he didn’t, he’d be late for class. He made sure not to get a spot on his clothing. Foliana slowly nibbled at her muffin, getting about half of it into her mouth and the rest on the tablecloth.
“I’m thinking about quitting.”
She stopped nibbling and looked at Niers. Not a trace of emotion crossed Foliana’s face.
Niers stared at her. She stared at him.
“This is where you remind me of the good old days.”
“Mm. Right. What good old days?”
The Fraerling thought. Then he cursed.
“I’m feeling old, Foliana. You have grey in your fur—”
“I’m distinguished. You’re old and wrinkly. I’m not.”
“You have fur. That hides your wrinkles.”
“Mm. I’d like blueberries.”
Niers stared at Foliana. She stared back. Sometimes they did this for minutes over breakfast. She looked at her muffins first.
“Blueberries are called that because they look blue. What do you call orange berries?”
“…Oranges? Tiwali Magma Bloomers?”
“Mm. Nope. If you want to go, we’ll probably be attacked. Mm. Not good. Should probably rethink.”
“Our company is fine. So long as you don’t engage directly with one of the other three Great Companies—I have my reasons.”
“Going to find your mystery chess partner?”
Niers grimaced. Half of Baleros knew by now that he was playing an opponent. Most knew exactly how many games he’d won and lost. (Two wins this week, three losses. Four draws.)
“Don’t talk me out of it. I’m done with this pomp and teaching those idiots.”
“You have a class in five minutes.”
“Really? Damn. Big feet squash it all!”
Niers leapt up. He pointed at Foliana as he ran for the Fraer-ways.
“This isn’t over!”
She waved at him with one furred paw as he left. The tiny door slammed shut behind him. Foliana nibbled at a muffin, and then glanced towards the main door to the dining room.
It opened suddenly. Foliana disappeared. One of her subordinates, Peclir Im, edged into the room. He was a [Chamberlain], since [Stewards] were rare and required royalty to appoint them. But he was experienced, high-level, and knew Foliana and Niers well enough to look closely at the table. He coughed.
“Miss Foliana, if you’re here, I would like to know rather than die of a heart attack like my predecessor.”
Grudgingly, she appeared, still sitting at her table. Peclir nodded and approached her.
“He’s teaching class.”
“Ah. I could have summoned a helper to carry him had I been aware.”
“No. He likes running. He feels old if he’s carried. And there’s rat poo in the Fraer-ways.”
“I do apologize. I shall have someone clean the area immediately and put down poison.”
Foliana nibbled as Peclir tidied Niers’ tiny dishes and half-eaten breakfast from the table. She stared at him without blinking. Peclir for his part—the man was Human, not that it mattered—was used to the scrutiny and kept working undeterred. Cleaning was a job for a lesser class like [Maid] or [Manservant], but Foliana had a habit of disappearing around anyone she didn’t trust, which was nearly everyone. More than one servant had tried to clean a chair with her on it.
People still talked about the previous [Majordomo].
“When are the fancy people arriving?”
Peclir paused and glanced towards the rising sun.
“In an hour, I believe.”
“I have to greet them. They’ll watch Niers teach the first day.”
“Yes, Miss Foliana. And there will be the banquet in two days as all of the guests will have arrived then. Lord Astoragon has requested me to tell you that attendance is mandatory.”
Silence. That was natural. Three-Color Stalker was a legend few had ever seen. She was a [Rogue] of the highest order, but her talents made most [Assassins] green with envy, especially when she stabbed them from behind.
“Yes, Miss Foliana?”
“You’ve been working for four years now. Almost exact.”
“My anniversary is this month. I’m pleased you recall.”
“Mm. Yes, good. Loyalty is good.”
“Yes, Miss Foliana. Would you like a napkin?”
“No. Orange berries. Can’t remember the names.”
“I shall have an assortment prepared directly. Do you believe Lord Astoragon would like a snack, Miss?”
Foliana paused. She looked out the window and spoke distantly.
“No. He’s teaching. No time for food. Too busy shouting, I think.”
Niers bellowed the word. It shouldn’t have been possible for a person of his size to project as loudly as he did, but the word rang through the lecture hall.
The student he was yelling at, a young Human man who looked like he was still growing, turned dead white and might have fainted as Niers pointed at him. The tiny Fraerling shouted loud enough so all his students—and the visitors standing at the back of the hall—could hear him.
“A pike square and archers to fight an Antinium army? You’d be lucky to hold your ground for an hour, much less win the battle!”
He roared at the young [Tactician] who’d voiced his incorrect opinion to one of Niers’ questions. It was class time and in the large lecture hall, the Titan, or the Professor as he was known to his students, was angry. He was always angry, of late. He felt cooped up, especially because he had to show all these visitors how wonderful and important his classes were.
“The Antinium are not a foe to be underestimated! If the last two Antinium Wars have taught the world anything, it is that they are a powerful and unpredictable foe that, yes, uses a stock variety of soldiers with little variation, but makes up for that with unbreakable morale, armored and numberless infantry, and the ability to tunnel! If a third Antinium War breaks out and a Balerosian company is contracted to battle the Antinium, I will see you using better formations against them than that.”
He glared around the room, making students shrink down in their seats or stare at their inky notes rather than meet his eyes. No one wanted to catch the Titan’s wrath and be called out for their ill thought-out tactics like the trembling young man in his seat.
Of the lot, a group near the front consisting of eight or so individuals didn’t flinch from Niers’ gaze. They were his advanced students, the ones who he considered able enough to lead his soldiers in an actual battle. Niers studied the group for a moment as his students consulted his notes.
Yes, his best. Some were bright and truly talented, like Umina, a Lizardgirl who was studiously checking her notes despite already knowing the answer. However, she was hesitant and afraid to be bold. Others, like the Dullahan named Cameral were gifted but lacking the creative talent Niers tried to inspire.
Some, like Marian the Centaur and Venaz the Minotaur, were supremely confident in their abilities. Venaz was leaning back in his seat, lounging with a smirk on his face as he watched the others, waiting to be called on. As for Wil and Yeranolla…Niers passed over the Human and Selphid. They would field any question he shot at them.
“Countering the Antinium is no simple matter of lining up a bunch of experienced [Pikemen] and having [Archers] whittle them down. Anyone studying the way the Drakes fought the Antinium during the first war would see that static defenses are aggressively overrun by Antinium. They won’t hesitate for a second to run onto a pike and tear the [Pikemen] to bits while their Workers tunnel right underneath the feet of your archers!”
Niers had a huge board on one side of the room which he would write on with the use of a magic quill. The levitating quill shot across the white parchment tacked to the board and sketched out the rough plan of a battle as he spoke. Later on he’d have the parchment replaced, and students could study the lesson at their leisure in another room.
“No, a far more effective tactic is to destabilize their lines with elite shock units while mages bombard concentrations. Aggression to match the Antinium offensive. That is the lesson General Sserys and General Shivertail taught us in both wars. Now, let’s assume the worst. Assume you, as a [Strategist] are left with only pikes and archers as young Nenor has suggested. What is the best strategy in that case? Anyone?”
He looked around, this time eying Venaz and wondering if the Minotaur had any better suggestions than ‘use Minotaurs’ as his arguments. He was about to call on him when a tap on one of the windows by his head interrupted him.
Heads turned, and Niers saw a radiant bird with brilliant red and gold plumage, glittering in the morning light, perched on a branch outside of the classroom. He recognized the huge beak and glittering wings of the beautiful bird and scowled at it.
The Sparklewing Bird ruffled its feathers in the morning air and cocked its head winsomely at Niers as he spoke. It pecked at the glass. He grunted and waved a hand at one of his students.
“Marian. Get a bow and shoot that damn bird. It’s a hazard if there are any Fraerlings about.”
“At once, professor.”
He resumed speaking as Marian got up and trotted out of the room. A few seconds later he heard a squawk and the birdsong ceased. Some of the students winced. Niers nodded at Marian as the Centaur trotted back into the room.
“Now, an Antinium army has assaulted your very odd army of pikes and archers. You’ve a few high-level individuals among them, but no one noteworthy. Your terrain is a canyon, with ground porous enough that the Antinium can dig through it. How will you survive their assault? Venaz, speak. And so help me, if you claim your entire army is filled with Minotaurs I’ll send to you to Izril so you can see how well your tactics hold up against the Antinium in person!”
As it happened, Venaz had a far more intelligent plan of staggering his lines of pikes and archers, creating a hostile terrain for any burrowing Antinium and pointed out the use of charging pikes as opposed to a static defense. For that, Niers grudgingly awarded him full marks and set the rest of the class to fielding questions about how to handle the Antinium specialist types which the world was aware of.
Then he set them the day’s homework—researching the Antinium Wars and discussing whether a third one would result in the defeat of the Drake cities or northern Human settlements, and what role Baleros might play in the conflict as potential mercenaries for any side. Niers privately planned to award double points to anyone who considered whether a Baleros company might be hired by the Antinium and discussed the ramifications of such a decision.
Classes were usually like that. Niers had been teaching for a long time and in the lecture-hall sections of his classes, he would give students complex questions and test their knowledge of different species and historical conflicts, not to mention political decisions they might be subjected to. A [Strategist] had to decide the fate of their company outside of the battlefield, after all.
However, today was different in that instead of continuing the lesson with more practical examples as usual, Niers was instead called away to greet some of the visitors who’d observed his class. He bowed over a scaled hand and kissed the tip of a fingernail now.
“Lady Messimar, greetings to you. I hope you find the city of Elvallian hospitable in your sojourn here.”
“You are too kind, Lord Astoragon. I was most struck by your lessons—I should hardly like to be the one shouted at by the Titan himself. That poor Human looked like he was about to faint!”
“The students grow used to it with time, Lady Messimar. I assure you, my shouting at them is the least of the challenges any [Strategist] will have to face over their career.”
“So very true. And you should know, of course! On a different and far more pleasant note, may I compliment you on your marvelous attire, Lord Astoragon? You’ve seen the latest designs from Terandria, I take it?”
Niers grimaced as he was reminded of his lace outfit, but he covered it with a courtier’s smile.
“Oh yes. I found them…inspiring to my heart, to say the least. May I compliment you on the pairings of your dress, Lady Messimar? Rose and green become you.”
The Lizardwoman blushed and swept herself back a step, flourishing the gown of lace and muted colors that was for some reason stylish. Niers made a show of looking her up and down—as was polite for Lizardfolk, and the Lady Messimar departed after exchanging a few more pleasantries.
“One down, a few hundred to go.”
Niers sighed as he stood on the pedestal that had been placed for him to speak with his guests at eye-level. He felt a presence by his side and nearly spilled the chilled drink he was holding. Foliana appeared out of thin air, munching on a muffin. It was the same one Niers had seen at breakfast, he was sure.
“Don’t point Foliana, it’s rude. And mingle, remember?”
Niers hissed at the Squirrel tribe Beastkin. Foliana nibbled at her muffin. She was not wearing lace and neither was she smiling. She looked around at the parade of lace and stiff, polite expressions with clear distaste.
“We have a [General], two [Mages], our best [Sharpshooter], eight [Captains] and a bunch of other people I don’t remember. Why do I have to be here?”
“Because you’re the leader of one of the Four Great Companies. Ours!”
Niers sighed. They were holding this greeting session in a ballroom, a place they’d kept from the palace when they converted it into an academy and paid far too much for. They’d paid gold to have sapphires melted and drawn into the marble flooring, and the curtains! Silk and enchanted, just like the damn windows.
But it was all important. The guests, the meeting, even the polite nothings and wearing the latest fashion trends. Niers and Foliana both knew it. They raised funding for their company during this time, made valuable alliances and deals. They could receive thousands, tens of thousands of gold pieces in donations from a single one of these guests. Fundraisers were vital. Every big company had one yearly and the biggest had to show they were willing to spend to earn.
“I’m being polite and waiting for people to seek me out. Why aren’t you saying hello to anyone?”
“I said hello to Morn.”
“She’s our [Captain]!”
Niers and Foliana spoke as their guests waited for an opportunity to swoop in and engage one or the other in conversation. Not both; that was intimidating. And in truth, Niers was the desired person to meet. The infamous Three Color Stalker was hard to recognize for many, and her reputation as both a silent killer and oddball preceded her. How Niers envied Foliana for that.
However, there were some for whom the dual personages only added allure. Niers heard a voice, shouting joyfully.
“Lord Astoragon! Lady Foliana!”
A voice called out to the two as they talked quietly. Niers turned, putting on a forced smile and Foliana turned transparent. She reluctantly faded back into view as a Centaur trotted towards them.
The fact that he was a Centaur didn’t matter at all, and was a superfluous detail that everyone didn’t pay attention to except to watch out for his hooves. Niers greeted him and then the Centaur broke into their conversation. He’d probably been listening in.
“Might I compliment you on your outfit, Lord Astoragon? Quite the latest style.”
“Yes, it is, isn’t it?”
By his side, the Fraerling [Strategist] could see Foliana making a face and not bothering to hide it. He smiled so pleasantly his face hurt. Two down, a hundred more to go.
There was no chess game waiting for him when Niers finally got done with the greeting of guests and socializing. He dragged himself back into his room and brightened the instant he saw a piece had moved. But when he hopefully moved a piece—of course, after a great deal of deliberation and restudying the board, although he’d already done so that morning—his opponent didn’t move a piece in response.
That often happened. He or she was probably asleep. Niers rubbed at his face and blinked in the candlelight.
“Who set that out? Peclir? Good man. Damnit. I should quit.”
He sat in his bed for a second, undoing the lace and growing annoyed at the time it took. Today had been irksome. Tomorrow would be…dead gods, the banquet was the day after tomorrow, wasn’t it? Niers groaned as he lay down and went to sleep.
Umina the Lizardgirl shouted as a wave of her soldiers collided with the enemy. Her cavalry circled around and struck Cameral’s forces from the rear. The Dullahan struggled to keep up with her rapid attacks as the two other spears of cavalry kept circling and hitting his troops in odd places. And while they did, her archers and heavy infantry kept circling, forcing him to keep adjusting his rows of soldiers, stretching, stretching until something broke—
It ended with a shower of arrows hitting Umina’s command. It was a stray shot aimed at her in sheer desperation, but one of the arrows filled with dry paint powders struck Umina squarely on the chest and she was knocked out. Reluctantly, she watched as her leaderless army struggled to repel Cameral as he regained control of the battlefield. In the end her forces routed, although Cameral had lost nearly a half of his army in the process.
“It wasn’t fair!”
Marian was strident in the after-battle review, as ‘dead’ soldiers came off the side of the field and healing potions were passed around for those with bruises or more rarely, broken bones.
“She had him right where she wanted. If it wasn’t for that stray arrow, she would have won! How is that fair?”
The Centaur paced back and forth as Niers stood in the shade, marking the positions of Umina’s strategy with figurines. It wasn’t a game, or rather, these practice sessions were meant to simulate actual battles. The hired [Soldiers] and [Actors] could form any number of armies and do battle as two of Niers’ students attempted to defeat each other.
There were low-level [Mages] who could use ‘spells’ which were designed only to mark which soldiers had been killed. And as for charges and actual melee combat—they used padded weapons, but swung them hard and fast. Soldiers would retreat after being killed, but in the thick of things people could still be hurt, sometimes badly.
But Niers paid well. And it was one of the reasons why his academy was so famous. The strategist glanced to one side and saw a lot of his guests watching from the shade of a canvas tent, talking excitedly about the battle.
Almost as excitedly as Marian. Niers halted her in her tracks.
“Cameral, would you like to answer?”
The sweaty Dullahan had his head under one arm. He raised it now, looking slightly ashamed but defensive.
“I was aware I was losing, so I ordered my archers to target Umina. On purpose. I would have done the same in any real battle.”
“Just so. Cameral’s tactics were valid, Marian. However, on that note Cameral, I would have begun aiming for Umina to begin with. If there is a fault in how the battle played out, it was that you entrusted that attack to luck, rather than factored it into your plans.”
The Dullahan nodded, looking thoughtful. Umina, still covered in yellow paint, also nodded, but Marian protested again. She trampled her hooves in a mini Centaur tantrum as she spoke anxiously to Niers.
“It’s—it’s unfair! If we have to duck and cower away from every archer—”
“Hah! Speak for yourself.”
Venaz folded his arms. The Minotaur tossed his head as he gestured at the trampled ground and spoke to Marian.
“If I’m on the battlefield, I expect to be shot at. Give me a shield and I’ll command from the front!”
“Oh yeah? I’d like to see you dodge a rain of arrows. Give me a bow and—”
Niers raised his voice before his two most hot-tempered students could get into it. He tapped his foot on the wooden platform he stood on thoughtfully.
“Attacking the enemy [General] or [Strategist] is a valid tactic, Marian. We saw a similar move occur in the recent battle around the King of Destruction. Or don’t you recall how his steward, Orthenon, allegedly targeted the enemy army’s [Strategists] in order to cripple it and bait them into following him into a trap?”
His students fell silent. News about the King of Destruction’s return was hot on everyone’s lips, but news from Chandrar was sparse. Marian bit her lip.
“But professor, how do we protect ourselves from something like that?”
“Well, let me phrase it to you as a question. This is a class. How would you do it, Marian? Anyone?”
The group of [Tacticians] and [Strategist] students fell silent. Then Unima raised her hand. Niers nodded at her.
“I can’t speak for running up against the King of Destruction’s [Steward], professor, but I’d keep my command a lot further back next time even if it meant seeing less of the battlefield. Or wear plate armor.”
There was a bit of tittering at that comment. Niers looked around and shook his head.
“You all think plate armor’s such a bad idea? If Umina had been wearing it, she’d have won that last battle.”
Everyone fell silent. Niers sighed.
“Practicality. I keep telling you—in that case, if you’re all willing to stand the heat, I’ll grant any one of you willing to stand around in plate armor an exemption from the first three arrows that strike you at range in a match. One spell too—so long as it isn’t a directly targeted attack on you specifically.”
That produced some murmurs. Each ‘battle’ was an important event. It attracted a lot of attention from the city people who liked watching people beat each other with swords and seeing the latest talent, and it was also the subject of intense betting by students and other groups. More than that, it was how Niers evaluated his students, so any edge or tactic was immediately put to use.
“Just remember that plate armor’s restrictive. You’ll move slower, see less—and a [Strategist] needs to see the battlefield. Like everything else, it’s a calculated risk. Now, Venaz, Marian, you two seem to disagree on how a [Strategist] should behave when in danger. Show me which one of you is more correct. Form up an army—I want an equal match so calculate accordingly. You have twenty minutes!”
Baleros was warm in the winter. Not hot, true, but Niers felt like his doublet was trying to strangle him. He gladly accepted a glass of squeezed fruit juice from Peclir, a tiny thimble in his case—and downed it quickly. Peclir had a small teacup’s worth of juice—a huge tank in Niers’ world—ready, and the [Strategist] filled up his cup again with a grunt.
“Thank you, Peclir. Let me know when Venaz wakes up. I imagine being trampled by Marian hurt his pride more than anything, but I’d like to know he’s alright.”
“Of course, Lord Astoragon.”
Peclir departed, circulating among the other guests who were speaking with the students. It was another game, the prospective investors speaking to prospective company leaders. Now that he was alone, Niers waited until he saw the teacup move.
“That’s mine, Foliana. Get your own.”
“Then get your own.”
Reluctantly, the teacup dipped and Foliana appeared. It wasn’t magic—it was a Skill and her own incredible talent mixing together. A [Mage] would have triggered some of the warning devices Niers carried. Foliana was deadly because she was all-natural.
“Snappy. Why so angry? More rat crap?”
“Peclir sent someone to clean it up and put down traps, but I found some more this morning.”
“It’s a danger, especially with our guests, some of whom are Fraerlings! Anyone who’s not a [Warrior] is at risk if giant rats attack them.”
Niers grimaced. That would be a disaster. Especially because his company was beloved by the Fraerlings. They had only one hero whose name was known across the world, and it was Niers. Poor repayment to have one of them killed by a rodent.
“They looked good out there.”
“Did they? I thought you didn’t care for these games.”
Foliana shrugged. She had a quarter of a muffin in her paws. Niers stared at it pointedly. It looked stale. Foliana nibbled.
“Mm. Don’t care. Said it to be nice.”
Niers filled his glass a third time. He sipped. Foliana sprinkled crumbs into his cup. After a while she spoke.
“Still shouldn’t do it.”
“Do what? Quit?”
“Mm. Should stay here. Besides, you’re cursed.”
“I am not cursed. That’s a myth, and the company’s official stance is that it’s just gossip. I am not cursed—”
“Yes you are. You’re cursed. You think you’re an old man and you act like it. I’m distinguished and young. You’re crotchety.”
He scowled and splashed his glass at her. She dodged the small shower of juice in an instant and reappeared on his other side. Niers frowned and wiped sweat from his forehead. He sighed, pulled at the lace around his neck.
“I’m not old. Or rather, I’m as old as you, Foliana.”
“Yes. But you look older. I’m having fun. You’re not.”
“What makes you say that?”
Foliana poked Niers gently.
“You’re not smiling. Duh. Mm.”
There was nothing he could say to that. Niers stared at the battlefield where the [Actors] were cleaning up and felt like he’d done nothing to warrant the cold drink in his hand. He hated to admit it. But he did feel old.
That night Niers went drinking just to spite Foliana. He crashed a party at one of the academy’s drinking spots for students. It was filled with the older ones and after a moment where their hearts stopped for fear he was springing an impromptu exercise on them or a pop quiz—he had done it before—he was welcomed to drink by all.
It was rare Niers let his hair down, not that he had any hair to let down. But he was private, and socializing with him was a rare opportunity for his students to ask him questions about current events they might have not dared to in class.
“The King of Destruction?”
Niers snorted. He had a tiny cup of a potent whiskey in his hand as he leaned against Cameral’s mug. The Dullahan nodded his head with his hands.
“We’ve all heard the rumors, professor. He’s taken down three kingdoms in the blink of an eye. Speculation is rife that he’ll repeat himself last time, despite other nations being forewarned and prepared for him. Do you think it’s possible?”
“I’d hardly like to speculate and make a fool out of myself, would I?”
There was a roar of protest from the students at the table. Venaz put his fist down so hard Niers felt his feet leave the table for a second. Everything bounced. He glared at Venaz and the Minotaur subsided a bit. He snorted and glanced at Marian, who was sipping from a drink and smiling coolly.
“You’ve clashed with his men before, professor. Don’t tell us you have no idea how strong the King of Destruction is!”
“He’s clashed with Flos’ women before, Venaz. Females. There’s more females than males in his Seven. In fact, now there’s only four, only one of them is male.”
Venaz grunted as Marian spoke. He kept his eyes on Niers. The Fraerling sighed.
“You want to know if Flos can do it? Honestly, Marian hit on the sole point right there. His Seven. They launched his campaign last time—we studied this in class—and now he has only four. I believe his success in a new campaign will depend on that one factor…”
He drained his mug and his students leaned forwards.
“—On whether the King of Destruction finds a replacement for his Seven, or possibly, an entirely new Seven to command. If he does, then he may truly be unstoppable.”
“Surely he’s more than halfway there already. From everything I’ve heard of him, the king of Destruction could crush a nation by himself, Seven or not.”
That came from the pale Naga holding a wine glass filled with bubbling black liquid. The dead body lifted the cup and drank. Yerranola the Selphid looked concerned.
The Naga was male, but the person within identified herself as female, which was rare for a Selphid. They usually took whichever gender of body they inhabited.
Niers shook his head, sighing. Yerranola was a good student, and she was one of his oldest still at the academy, but she had the same problem they all did. He explained, feeling weary.
“Legends tend to retell themselves until fact and fiction mix together too finely to separate. Relying on hearsay and rumor is a quick way to overestimate your opponents. They call me the Titan, but you’ll note that I don’t crush my enemies underfoot. Nor do I drink from the skulls of my foes or bathe in their blood as the rumors indicate.”
His students chuckled at the dry joke. Niers smiled for a moment.
“Flos is a man. A [King] of a man, and perhaps one of the most dangerous men in the world for that, but a man nonetheless. He can err. He can fall. But I won’t speculate as to what will happen next. If he continues, Baleros will be part of the future, I have no doubt. Where there is war, companies from Baleros follow.”
It was an old saying and it made the students nod as if Niers had said something profound. He sighed. Then Umina did something unexpected.
“Professor, sir. I was wondering. We’ve never seen you drink. Not with us. So while you’re here, would you like to play a game?”
“Chess? I play enough with you lot in lessons.”
It was known that chess helped [Strategists] level. And because Niers had invented the game—a lie only he and Foliana knew to be one—it was part of his classes. But Umina shook her head and pulled something from under the table. It rattled and Niers saw four dies in a cup.
The table went silent. Niers looked around and had to smile. So now his students were setting traps.
“I wonder who put you up to this, Umina. I suspect Wil or Yerranova.”
The Human and Selphid blushed. Umina hesitated.
“No, it was just me, sir. I thought a game—”
“Oh, gambling? Well, I don’t usually.”
“Please? Just a toss?”
“I’ve got a cup! We could bet some gold on it—”
Wil, the Human , brought out another cup and the other students fished in their pouches for coins. Niers smiled crookedly. To do or not? Well, he was in it now. Refusing would just create rumors. While agreeing…
The students around the table cheered. Niers held up a hand.
“One. Put the other dies together with Umina’s, Wil. Eight dice…you toss and I’ll toss.”
“And the bet?”
Niers smiled mysteriously.
The crowd of students fell silent. The older Fraerling could see the looks of speculation. He didn’t care. He remembered, and felt old when he saw the look of anticipation on their faces. It was a legend to them. He had lived it.
The toss was a decent one. Wil had three sixes, a five, two threes, and pair of twos. He put the dice into the cup and realized that the cup was taller than Niers was.
“I can find some Fraerling dice, professor—”
“No need. Put it right next to me.”
Niers watched as the cup was set down. He saw the looks on his students’ faces, the stomach-churning anticipation. There was no such feeling in his heart. Niers put down his mug, and stepped up to the dice.
He kicked over the cup holding all eight dice. They clattered out onto the table, bouncing together, stopping. The students looked down and the room went quiet.
Niers looked up at Cameral’s suddenly waxy face. The Dullahan shifted his head in his hands and coughed a few times before speaking.
“All—all one’s, professor.”
All eight dice showed only a single pip. In the silence, Niers laughed. Tiredly.
“Well, I lose. A shame, but a good thing I didn’t bet anything, eh? Now, where were we?”
“What? You can’t just let us—”
“Another game, please professor!”
They begged him. Niers shook his head, and then held up a hand.
“No dice. A coin toss. Heads or tails. Wil?”
Gold coins were usually embossed with whichever city or nation had minted them. Wil fumbled for one and came up with a copper coin. Niers nodded his approval. Wil flipped it, caught it, turned it over.
Wil raised his hand. The room exploded.
Umina laughed as if Niers had pulled a great trick. The Fraerling rolled his eyes, and then raised a hand. Silence.
“Another one, then. Wil?”
The young man flipped the coin. It rotated into the air and landed. He turned it over and looked at Niers. Now the silence was expectant.
Again the palm rose. Again the cheer. Niers raised a hand.
Wil looked at him. The other students looked at him. Now they noticed Niers wasn’t smiling. Wil flipped the coin. This time he caught it, hesitated, and didn’t turn it over.
Niers stared at Wil. The young man hesitated, opened his hand. The head of some [King] stared up at Niers.
“Do it again.”
Niers was the only voice in the room. Wil tossed the coin up, caught it clumsily. He flipped it onto his arm. Then, without speaking, he cupped it with his palm and lifted it up, changing the face again without seeing it. When he opened his palm, it was heads.
Every eye turned to Niers. He shrugged. Then he looked at Wil.
The young man hesitated. Niers stared into his eyes.
“Flip it again, Wil.”
He did. The result was heads. Niers nodded.
“And now, three times in quick succession, if you please.”
Niers heard the coin being flipped. The second time, it slipped out of sweaty fingers and landed on the ground. He heard a curse, and then as Wil bent to pick it up, a sharp, indrawn breath.
No one spoke as the young man shakily put the coin on the table. They certainly didn’t laugh. One person breathed out. Marian, with wide eyes.
The word went around the table like a breath of air. Niers shook his head and raised his voice.
“You may have heard rumors of a curse. You may have seen evidence tonight—I am telling you that your eyes are mistaken. Your ears as well, for that matter. There is no curse. I simply do not like to gamble.”
“That is all. Now, let’s get back to the business at hand. I’m feeling inclined to get drunk. How about the rest of you?”
They certainly did. Niers had them break out a cask of very expensive, very potent liquor that was bordering on poison.
“Firebreath Whiskey. Imported from Izril. Is there anyone who’ll compete with me?”
Niers spoke as the first cup was filled. The table goggled, and then shouted with approval. Venaz raised a brimming cup.
“I’ll drink a cup for every one of yours, professor! One thimble to my glass, how about it?”
There was a challenge in his eyes. Niers grinned, and felt a tiny stirring in his chest.
“That sounds like condescension, Venaz.”
“I’ll drink a cup to your cup. Even up.”
The table went silent again. Niers grinned widely and felt a tiny bit alive. Venaz stared down at Niers and then roared.
“Hah! So be it! Clear a space you lot!”
Two tumblers of the whiskey were poured, and Niers could see the liquid, a red mixture that made the eyes water if you smelled it. Venaz took his and tossed it down. He coughed, and then Niers watched the Minotaur’s face flush.
“Even Minotaurs blink at the stuff Drakes come up with. Well done, Venaz. I’ll take mine slower. My mouth isn’t so large.”
There was a laugh, but every eye followed Niers. He had to put his thimble of a mug into the tumbler to fill it. Niers put the mug to his lips and drank down the first mouthful. His students cheered. Then without missing a beat Niers did it to the second, the third—
Venaz’s eyes bulged out of his head. The other students were cheering wildly. They watched as Niers slowly drained the tumbler, sip by sip. Niers finished his tumbler and tossed his mug over his shoulder to wild applause. He cocked an eyebrow at Venaz, who stared at the Fraerling, still steady on his feet, with sudden unease.
A little past midnight, Niers looked around and realized he was the last person standing. His students were all passed out on the floor, courtesy of a now-empty keg of Firebreath Whiskey.
He was drunk. He couldn’t help it; the fumes were enough to do that, even if he hadn’t drunk a drop. And the tumblers sitting around him were proof that Niers had drunk a lot.
Or seemed to. His students had actually stopped him after the second tumbler, for fear he might kill himself. Fraerlings could hold more than their body weight in drink and food; they actually got a bit taller as their bodies stretched to support the extra mass, but alcohol could still kill them.
Venaz had gone down after four cups, Marian, three. The others had fallen in short order as well. Leaving only Niers.
In the silence, Niers lost the smile he’d had for a few moments. He fished around in his mouth and pulled something out. He’d hidden it behind a molar. It was a tiny, tiny little cloth bag with a drawstring.
A small bag of holding. Fraerling mages did good work. Niers emptied it over the side of the table and sighed as he listened to it splash on one of his student’s legs.
“It was fun the first time I did it. Years ago. Now? Foliana’s right. I do feel old.”
He sighed as he made his way somewhat unsteadily through the Fraer-ways, back to his room. He looked hopefully at the chessboard the instant he returned for all that he was drunk. No good. Not a piece had moved. Niers sat down and lit a candle, using a wand to flick fire at the wick.
He sat by the burning candle, watching beads of wax drip down next to his head. Niers sighed, and in the silence, he waited for the chess pieces to move. But they never did. And in the morning he woke and found more rat droppings in the Fraer-ways. Peclir still couldn’t find where they were coming from.
The next day Niers started his class loud, engaged, and without a hint of a hangover. His older students, the ones who hadn’t bought hangover cures from an [Alchemist], groaned and tried to pay attention. Niers delivered a sermon on the virtues of preparation before battle with the example of the bag of holding completely straight-faced. Venaz overturned his table amid the laughter.
It was a lesson he’d taught countless times. Niers smiled a bit at his student’s reactions, but he’d seen the same reactions too many times to count. It was all…so similar.
Lace. Rat crap. Niers was letting his students play chess and wishing he really had quit when one of his students rushed into the room, waving a letter. Wil, looking bleary and not at all apologetic for sleeping through the first portion of class, hurried over to the table where Niers was desultorily playing by himself.
“Sir, professor! You’ll want to see this!”
The excitement in his tone was palpable. Annoying. Niers tried not to snap.
The young Human man showed Niers a letter, a very fat one marked with salt flecks and other travel stains.
“I regularly correspond with a [Strategist] I’m acquainted with in Izril. He lives in one of the Walled Cities and apparently he’s recently received some very interesting letters himself. He sent me a copy! Please, professor, read it! It’s about chess!”
Despite himself, Niers took the letter and with some difficulty, unfolded it on the table. His students gathered around. Niers frowned at the title.
It was…a chess newsletter. A magazine. A letter to any [Strategists] interested in chess—this one was addressed ‘to the [Strategists] of Zeres’. It was from Liscor.
“‘I, the humble [Tactician] and student of chess have four games to offer you this week, dear readers. In each, I am sure we will uncover a multitude of lessons to be learnt. Most importantly, we see various strategies matching against each other and I am sure my addition to this letter, a new game of which I have been informed, will also please and delight’. Huh, this Drake likes to write, doesn’t he?”
Umina frowned over the letter. Her eye caught the first page of chess notations and she blinked as she read through them.
“Hold on. This is—this is good. Great, even! Professor, have you seen—professor?”
She got no reply. Niers was staring at one of the games. Staring and not saying a word. He could read it. Pawn to D4. Pawn to D5. Knight to F3, Knight to F6. And then…Niers didn’t have to read it to know. Bishop to F4.
He whispered it at the parchment. He knew. It was his game. The one he’d played after so long—it was the same game, written down for all to see! His students were exclaiming over it, but Niers was overcome by a different emotion.
“This Olesm. Is he the—the author of these games? Did he play them?”
“No, professor. He says he witnessed a game.”
The word was bittersweet on Niers’ tongue. He knew. Olesm Swifttail. From Liscor. The same place…the same place—
“Professor, have you seen this? Look! There’s instructions for another game here! It’s says it’s called…‘Go’. Go? What an odd name for a game!”
Niers pounced on the second piece of parchment. He tore it away and stared at the drawing of a Go board, the instructions on how to play the game. He turned. His students were staring.
“Well? Don’t just stand there! Get me a quill and ink! And parchment! And stones! Black and white!”
He roared at them and they fled in excitement. In minutes, Niers was drawing out the go board, placing stones, reading the game.
“Capturing stones…I see. Strings, liberties, I see!”
Niers played a game against Umina, and his hands shook as he placed Go stones on the board. He won the game, crudely, but he won it. The second game started as Marian shouted for someone to find more stones so they could play the game.
A new game. A new game.
Niers stared at the piece of parchment. It couldn’t be a coincidence. This Olesm just happened to see a game he’d played with his opponent, and then…found a new game? It couldn’t be coincidence. It was them. They had shown the Drake this game.
They had shown Niers this game.
Something opened up in Niers as he played against Umina, as Cameral took his place, as Niers lost a game and his students tackled the Dullahan in a mad rush. He sat back and felt the world blurring in front of his eyes.
A new game. A new world, opened up at his fingertips. They were out there. They knew of new games. They were in Liscor.
His heart! Niers clutched at his chest, which alarmed his students. But it wasn’t pain or age that was making his chest ache so. It was joy. Pure joy.
This was new. This was brilliant. Niers couldn’t see through this game. It wasn’t simple. It was fresh. He felt like a novice dipping his toes in an ocean of mystery. He felt young again.
“Someone find me the address of that Swifttail. Olesm. I’ll send him gold—and an enchanted ring myself! Anyone with the creativity to come up with this kind of idea deserves a reward. Class is dismissed. Enjoy this new game.”
“Won’t you play with us, professor?”
Niers was smiling. He felt like the years were dropping off. In Liscor. They really were. It was confirmed. And they knew of more than chess. More…he felt like he was ten years younger.
He had to know. This instant. Niers walked through the Fraer-ways until he came to Peclir’s working area. He summoned the [Chamberlain] and ordered him to bring him a mage specializing in divination magic.
“I want you to find the cousin of this board. They’re magically linked so it shouldn’t be difficult.”
He gave the [Diviner] his chessboard. The [Mage] bent over it, nodding and carefully touching the small, precious, thing.
“Of course, Lord Astoragon. Do you wish me to set up remote surveillance if possible?”
“No. Just show me where it is right now. It’s probably indoors—give me a view of the entire room.”
The [Diviner] nodded and traced a square in the air. Within the lines of shimmering light, an image appeared, as clear as day. Niers found himself looking down at the chessboard. His heart squeezed in his chest.
It was the other chessboard. Shimmering with ghostly pieces—sitting on…was it a table of some kind? He looked around, frowning. It was in some kind of inn. Was his mysterious opponent travelling? Did they live there?
There was no one in the room at the moment. But the [Diviner] had added sound to the spell. The [Mage]’s eyes were shut with concentration as he tried to maintain focus. Niers heard footsteps, muted voices. Someone was in the inn.
Was it them? Niers’ heart began to beat wildly. He stared at the image. Stared at the board. The footsteps were drawing nearer. In a moment he would know. It might not be them. What if it was? How would he know?
Someone stepped into the picture and Niers’ head jerked. He looked away.
“No. Cancel the spell!”
The [Diviner] did so at once. Niers looked back as the image vanished, panting, sweating, gasping for air as if he’d seen a ghost.
The [Diviner] was clearly worn out from casting the spell, even for a few moments. As he should be, since it had gone around the world. Niers thanked him and went back to his room, holding the chess board in his hands.
“No. No. Not yet.”
He sat on his table, clutching the board, shaking. The Fraerling felt hot and cold, trembling with what he’d almost done. For so long he’d wanted to know. And he’d always known he could find out. In that moment as joy had filled his chest, he’d had to know. Only to realize…just now, the terrible truth.
He was afraid.
And sometime that night, as Niers sat with the chessboard in his hands, trembling, he processed the fact that he was afraid. He stared at his shaking hands, felt the fear churning in his stomach, and shot to his feet.
“I’m afraid? I’m afraid!”
He laughed like a madman. Fear! Actual fear! He felt adrenaline running through his veins, and in the next moment, ran over to the mirror. He stared at himself, a greying Fraerling wearing a doublet with—lace? He sneered at the reflection. His hair was one thing. It was just hair. But lace? That was old. And pathetic.
“Damn the lace. Damn insipid Human fashions!”
He tore it off his chest, shredded the clothing, burnt it in a candle. The rest of the mess he kicked off the table. Now half-naked, Niers looked around. His eyes narrowed as he saw the Fraer-ways.
It was dark, and all the rats in the academy were in their burrow they’d hollowed out in a wooden part of the structure. There were a lot of them. They were big, fat from a life spent stealing from students and living off of pilfered goods. And they were smart too, smart enough to avoid Peclir’s cleaners and not eat the poisoned bait.
They were a breed of intelligent rats indigenous to any place with magic. Some kinds could talk. This lot were smart enough to have hollowed out a huge den in the woodwork, and had harvested wax candles. One was lit near the entrance, a sure sign of rodent cunning. Not that the lighting of it indicated they were that intelligent; some of the magical breeds of rodents could breathe fire.
A shadow passed by the candle in the dead of night, making it flicker and dance. The rats, feasting on some dried meat they’d stolen from a larder, paid no attention. And then the lone figure moved.
Niers kicked over the candle. The rats all looked up as one. He drew his sword and grinned.
“Hello. They call me the Titan.”
The next day, Niers’ students sat in class, eagerly expecting their professor. They’d played games of Go all night and were hoping to challenge him. At the very least, they expected him to be in a good mood. And he was.
The visitors to The Forgotten Wing Company were also lined up against one wall, eager to listen to the famous Titan give another lecture. Thus, the hall was packed. They waited for Niers to arrive. And waited. And waited.
He was late. He was never late. A [Servant] went out to find him, and after a few minutes of low conversation, there was a shout. The entire room saw the door to the lecture hall swing open and Niers walked in.
He was naked down to his waist and covered from head to toe in blood. He had a sword in his hands, covered in blood and gore. It dripped onto the ground as Niers walked further into the room.
Someone screamed. Niers had his sword in one hand, and a severed rat’s head in the other. He dragged the head along the ground in the complete silence, walking towards the head of the lecture hall.
Every eye followed the tiny Fraerling as he left a trail of blood behind him on the way to his lectern. His students gaped at Niers. He climbed his lectern and looked around.
“Apologies for the delay. I was attending to a pest problem and was distracted.”
Marian nervously trotted forwards. Niers grinned at her and she froze in place.
“Marian, good! Take care of this for me, will you?”
He tossed the severed rat’s head at her. She nearly dropped it.
“Have someone remove the flesh, but save the bones. I have a mind to turn it into a drinking cup.”
So saying, Niers turned to his class.
“My lessons have always emphasized the same things. Caution. Prudence. Adaptability. In that third vein, I would like to state the topic for today’s class.”
He rested his bloody sword on the lectern.
“Sometimes a [Strategist] must throw caution to the winds. There are times when you, and only you, can deal with a matter yourself. Exercise judgment in those cases. A [Strategist] is cautious, but caution is not the same as cowardice. Good? Class dismissed!”
He addressed the rows of shocked faces at the back of his lecture hall.
“Esteemed guests, I will meet you in the banquet hall shortly. Allow me a few minutes to freshen myself up.”
He hopped off of the lectern and found Peclir and Foliana waiting for him. Peclir looked horrified. Foliana grinned. So did Niers.
“Get me our tailor.”
The Forgotten Wing Company employed all kinds of specialists. A [Tailor] was a must, especially given how many high-profile events Niers had to attend. In this case, the tailor in question was actually of a higher class, and she hurried into Niers’ rooms after he’d finished washing all the rat blood off his clothing.
She was a [Stitchmistress], and predictably, one of the String People. Niers knew she was high-level and usually delighted in dressing people up. Today she looked crushed by the weight of the tyrannical lace, which she’d incorporated into her own dress. The effect made her look like she was half-sewn, which worked for her. Nevertheless, the Stitch-woman looked miserable as she laid out a selection of replacement fabrics for Niers to peruse.
“I can have you in a replacement lace suit in time for the mock battles and banquet—”
“No. No lace.”
The [Stitchmistress] brightened up at those words. Niers stood with a towel in front of the mirror, looking at the drab fabrics and shaking his head.
“I want something flashy. Get me bright colors. Red. And trim it with whatever colors you want, but make it bold and bright and eye-catching.”
“Even better. I’ll have a hat as well. Something reminiscent of a pirate. With a—an ornament of some kind.”
“What would you like?”
Niers cast around and he grinned as he saw a bird flit past the window.
“The feather of a Sparklewing bird.”
“I can get you a fledgeling’s—”
“No. I want a full feather.”
The [Stitchmistress] sucked in her cheeks.
“A feather that long would be as tall as you are.”
Niers grinned wildly.
“So? Counterbalance it with the hat. Use weights if you have to!”
The [Stitchmistress] looked positively giddy, but then she frowned.
“I have to warn you, this does fly in the face of the current trend.”
“Fashion? I’m a former Named Adventurer and the second-in-command to one of the Great Companies of Baleros. They can have their fashion. I’ll have my dignity.”
She grinned as he winked at her and got to work.
When Niers entered the ballroom of the academy, carried by Peclir on a silver pedestal, every eye turned. Most of the jaws dropped. The [Grandmaster Strategist] was wearing an eye-catching, eye-searing red overcoat lined with silver thread, over a comfortable, decidedly lace-less shirt and pants which he could move around in without tripping.
His shirt under the coat was brilliant white, and his pants were a dark black, making the coat stand out more. His shoes could have been used as a mirror, but pride of place was the hat on Niers’ head, a sweeping grandiose affair that somehow supported a huge yellow feather that shimmered and somehow stayed stuck in the hat and didn’t drag Niers over backwards as he stood there.
“Nice clothes. Mine are more comfy.”
Foliana appeared as Peclir put the pedestal down in the center of the room. Niers grinned as he felt every eye lock onto his. Suddenly, the rows of lace-covered dresses in their subtle colors seemed downright silly. He looked at Foliana and noticed that she hadn’t changed out of her clothing. Her work clothing.
“The feather’s not practical.”
“I’ll take it off if we have to kill someone. But this? I rather like the coat, don’t you?”
Umina approached, wearing a concoction of laces and trying not to laugh at his feather. Niers smiled at her.
The Lizardgirl hesitated. She looked like she wanted to laugh, but contained it to ask her question.
“Didn’t you tell us that caution and prudence were important, sir? A red coat and a feather—isn’t that—that sort of obvious?”
He exchanged a look with Foliana. Niers adjusted the hat on his head and spoke for everyone to hear.
“Practicality and caution have their importance, Umina. However, speaking for myself, if I can’t win a battle in fashion, I’d rather be dead!”
He looked out one window and saw his students facing off with both armies. It was Venaz against Wil this time, and both were wearing plate armor in the heat. He saw Umina depart and rush out to speak with Venaz. The Minotaur turned, looked back towards Niers, and then took off his helmet and hurled it to the ground.
Niers laughed. As the wary guests circulated around him, he saw Foliana moving towards a dais near the front of the room. Niers shook hands and then pulled a piece of parchment from his coat that he’d prepared as Foliana appeared at the dais.
It was hard to notice her at first. Peclir had to clear his throat and ring a small bell a few times before people noticed Foliana. When they did, there was silence.
The Squirrel Beastkin stood at the dais, and when she spoke, her quiet voice was magnified by a spell so it was projected into everyone’s ears.
“Mm. A decade ago, the King of Destruction launched an invasion from Chandrar. He sent his armies sailing to each continent in the world, conquering, claiming lands and overthrowing kingdoms. He sought to conquer the world.”
Everyone stared at her. Foliana stared ahead, not at anyone or anything, speaking to the air. To herself. To Niers.
“His Seven were legendary. Each one could defeat an army, and his great [Strategist], the Gambler of Fates, Queravia, he sent to Baleros. Here. He sent his other vassals across the seas, to Izril, establishing footholds, battling his foes. But the world was turned against him and the seas themselves sought to stop his advance.”
Niers could remember the sound of drums. He closed his eyes as Foliana continued.
“Only one of his fleets reached Baleros. The others were stranded at sea. But it was Queravia who first set foot here. She crushed the port city of Zaland in a day, and established a foothold, though her King’s armies had yet to reach here. But she would not retreat. There she planted the King of Destruction’s banner and challenged all the companies of Baleros. By herself! With only a single army, an advance force! And she held that ground.”
Foliana’s eyes grew brighter, or maybe the world grew dimmer. Niers could still see the smoke, rising in the distance. It seemed like the skies themselves were black during those days.
“No one could defeat her. No one could kill her or rout her army. Not assassins nor legions of her foes. She defeated Three-Color Stalker, flushed them out of hiding and sent them fleeing, nearly dead of their wounds. She slew the leader of the Armored Legion Company, Grandmarshal Sorolat, and broke both his company and the Flowing Wind Company with her forces.”
The people started as Foliana spoke and they stared at her. She went on.
“The King of Destruction’s fleets neared and it seemed as though Queravia would receive aid. Baleros prepared itself for a war like it had never seen. However, one last force gathered to defeat her.”
Standing, shouting at the [Captains] and commanders gathered before him. The rain fell and Niers raised a banner. They followed him.
“A Fraerling, the second-in-command of the Forgotten Wing, brought together every company from the marshy cities to the eastern ports and launched an assault on her position. On that day the two greatest [Strategists] in the world clashed.”
A woman’s laughter. She lay on the ground and laughed at him, laughed as the dice fell one last time. Niers remembered what she’d said. Every word.
Foliana’s gaze focused on him in the silence. Her words were a whisper.
No one in the room spoke. Not one of the richly dressed guests, not the students who’d come in from the mock battle fields, not Niers. Foliana waited for three beats of the heart, and then went on.
“The result changed history, broke the spine of the King of Destruction’s invasion. His advance faltered. An army from Rhir broke the Lord of the Skies and his tribes. His people fell like flies against the monster slayers. A Minotaur fleet humbled his forces at sea, and Amerys, his champion [Mage], finally found a city whose walls she could not break in Izril. But it was one Fraerling who stopped him, one hero of Baleros.”
She raised a hand and pointed. Niers stood tall, the weight of memories on his shoulders. Foliana nodded as every head turned to Niers.
“Guests and friends, I present to you: Niers Astoragon.”
She waited a second more, and then she was gone.
After the applause and having shaken every hand in the room—twice, Niers found Foliana. She was making the hors d’oeuvres disappear at once of the banquet tables. He coughed as Peclir put him down and checked his notes. Foliana looked at him expectantly.
“Word for word the exact same speech you gave last year. And the year before that.”
Unashamed, the Squirrel woman scratched at her ears.
“The same people keep coming back. I think they like the story. And he’s back this year. Mm. He probably eats muffins too. Don’t you think?”
“On campaign? I doubt he would. From what I know of the man, he doesn’t feast himself and eats like his soldiers.”
Niers had a hard time imagining Flos eating muffins in any circumstance. Foliana shrugged.
“Mm. But when does the King of Destruction eat muffins, then? In bed? It’s important to know these things.”
“Why? Are you planning on killing him?”
“Very hard. But I could do it if he ate muffins. No one’s on their guard when eating muffins.”
One of his students was trying to get Niers’ attention. He nodded at Marian as she trotted around a visiting dignitary.
“Marian. Can I help you?”
She smiled nervously.
“We were wondering, professor, whether you’d care to have a mock battle with us yourself on this day. You’ve never had a match, and today…well, we were wondering—”
For a second Niers thought about refusing. But then he grinned.
“Why not? Form an army, Marian. I’ll take you on—”
“You and every one of my students who wants to participate. Go on, get things ready. I’ll be out shortly.”
He saw Marian’s eyes widen, and then she galloped from the room. People who’d casually been eavesdropping instantly headed for the doors and the rumors began to fly. The Titan was about to have a match! He wondered what the odds were.
Foliana looked at him.
“The old you would have said no.”
“Good thing I don’t feel old.”
Niers grinned and swept the hat off his head. He plucked the feather and offered it to Foliana. She took it, looking at it with bemusement.
“It’ll get in the way of a real battle. You can eat it if you want.”
He left her with that. On the mock battlefield both armies were forming up. All of the [Strategists] and [Tacticians], his students, were lined up in front of their command unit. Over half had armor on. The other half were shouting orders as their army formed up around them.
One of the [Soldiers] in charge of a battalion of pikemen armed with padded spears jogged up to Niers. He nodded at the man.
“You’ve never had a Fraerling command, have you, young man?”
The young man, who was probably in his forties, grinned at Niers.
“No, sir. But we’ve never had the Titan commanding! I reckon we’ll get on. Where did you want us deployed?”
“Oh, I have a simple strategy in mind. I’ll need two people to carry my pedestal—I don’t fancy being trampled. As for the rest, my orders are simple. Here’s the formation you’ll take at the start of the battle…”
In her nice, cool banquet hall which was now mostly empty, Foliana stood at one of the class windows and stared out at the mock battlefield. It was swollen with people, over half of whom were onlookers fighting for room.
Someone coughed behind her. Peclir came forward and Foliana turned. She had a muffin in her hands. It was several days old and stale as a rock. The [Chamberlain] eyed it but made no comment.
“Do you believe Lord Astoragon will be victorious, Miss Foliana? I imagine quite a lot of potential investors will be interested in the outcome of this little event. It could prove unfortunate if he were to lose.”
Foliana nodded. She watched with her curious eyes as someone blew a horn and both sides moved into action. Niers’ students immediately sent cavalry charging at Niers’ flanks, rains of arrows and spells flying at his army, all boosted by their assorted Skills. She watched as Niers’ army spread out, ignoring the attacks and ‘dead’ soldiers began to depart the field.
“What’s he doing?”
Peclir was stunned by the display. Niers was advancing, heedless of being overwhelmed. He was being encircled, and still he hadn’t made any moves.
The enemy heavy infantry was about to smash into his own when Foliana saw a tiny red figure in the center of the mass of his army raise a tinier sword. But his voice was not tiny. He shouted.
“[Vanguard of Terror]! [Covering Fire]! [Rapid Advance]! [Formation: Dodge]!”
He waved his sword and his army shot across the field, taking the first wave of soldiers by surprise. His army moved as one mass, as his designated archers, mages, and so on joined with the common infantry. They hit the group of armored soldiers like a wall. Peclir winced as he saw the group of soldiers that had been sent against Niers’ army go flying. Foliana put her paws over her ears.
“Form up! Form up and charge!”
Niers’ voice was a howl above the shouting. His empowered army pushed back the soldiers trying to encircle them. Peclir stared.
“He’s using his Skills?”
“Why not? It’s a battle.”
“One hardly thinks that would be fair.”
“Mm. Nope. That’s the point.”
The students were scrambling to withdraw and form a wall between them and Niers. Foliana saw Niers’ army running across the ground. She waited.
“Big skill. Mm. Come on. Can’t win with [Vanguard of Terror]. Which one?”
She peered at Niers. He was being carried by his command, rushing towards the enemy, fearless. Like always. It didn’t matter that he was in a mock battle. She heard his voice.
“[Charge of the Strategist]!”
There it was. Behind Niers, his army accelerated. Foliana heard a roar, and this time covered her ears and eyes. When she opened them, after the tremendous clash, she saw the other army running for their lives. [Actors] weren’t paid enough to fight that. She watched as Niers’ army joyfully beat the [Strategist] and [Tactician] students with their padded weapons.
After a while, Foliana found the muffin she’d kept from breakfast a while back. She carefully chewed the very, very stale muffin.
Niers was standing on his pedestal, red coat ablaze in the sun. Peclir stared at him.
“When I see him so, I can see him there, Miss Foliana. Right there in your story. And before that. He has been a legend.”
“Mm. He’ll quit when he’s old.”
Foliana nodded. Niers was laughing, she could tell. She couldn’t see him or hear his voice, but she knew he was laughing. Peclir turned and stared at her.
“Do you mean he plans on retiring, Miss?”
“Mm. He forgets sometimes. I have to remind him.”
“Remind him of what?”
She smiled. Niers laughed, and Foliana turned. Her eyes shone as she looked at Peclir and grinned.
“We’re not old yet.”