The Floodplains of Liscor. So named because of the valley that had been formed between the High Passes, one of the two routes between northern Izril and southern Izril. At least, for most of the year. For two months out of the twelve, the floodplains would fill up with water as the spring rains poured down. All but the highest hills would be engulfed in water until the rains stopped and the water drained. It was an annual process, a well-known feature of Liscor.
“I had no idea. I mean, I know they’re called the Floodplains, but I guess I just assumed it was a weird name. I didn’t know that this happened, you know?”
Erin was still in a state of shock. She stared hopefully at the young woman across the counter. Octavia looked up as she painstakingly made a bunch of matches. She was leaning over a bowl filled with red liquid, dipping wooden sticks into the bowl and attaching the wet matches to a small device she was rotating with her other hand.
“I knew that. Even I know what happens in Liscor.”
Erin stared in shock at Octavia. The dark-skinned Stitch-Girl shrugged.
“Yeah, it’s common knowledge. It rains in Liscor and trade ceases for two months out of the year. Big deal. So what?”
Erin was speechless. It seemed like a big deal to her, but then, Octavia had lived here her entire life.
“You don’t think that’s cool or weird or—I dunno, special?”
“Eh, it’s water, Erin. I never planned on going to Liscor in my life. Maybe past it, but—look, would you move back? This mixture is flammable and I don’t feel safe with you hovering about.”
The [Alchemist] shooed Erin back a step or two as she continued dipping the set of match sticks into the bowl. Erin watched, keeping a respectful distance although she resented the implication that she could make the matches catch fire by breathing on them. For a few minutes she just watched Octavia make matches.
It was a fascinating process. Octavia had created a red liquid she was dipping a series of uniform sticks into. This was the liquid form of the match heads and the [Alchemist] had to rotate the matches to prevent the matches from dripping. She’d managed to create a turnable ‘wheel’ of sorts she used to dry the match heads but as she’d explained to Erin, it was an involved process.
“I’m trying to figure out how to air-dry them without the match heads dripping. That way I’ll be able to triple my output if I don’t have to manage them. I can get up to fifty boxes done each day if I work at it with my other projects, but I’d like to be able to do up to three hundred without any effort eventually.”
“Wow. That’s a lot of work.”
Erin stared at the neat little wooden boxes that Octavia had filled with the matches. She’d wrapped each bundle of matches in wax paper to avoid the heads rubbing against each other or the box and igniting. Octavia nodded proudly, showing Erin a line of boxes ready to be sold.
“I’m making money hand over stitch thanks to these things! True, anyone with a fire spell can light something, but how many people don’t know fire magic? And this is so much easier to carry about than a flint and steel—and a lot more fun, too! I’ve got [Traders] and [Merchants] asking how many I can make.”
She paused and pursed her lips.
“A lot of [Alchemists] want to know my recipe as well. I’ve tried to make sure they can’t get their hands on my formula, but it’s only a matter of time before someone figures out my secrets! I want to flood the market before that. And of course I have a lot of potions I’m making with all the gold! Take a look at this!”
She showed Erin a crate of bottles, each one labeled and filled to the brim with glowing, or sparkling liquids. Erin whistled.
“Ooh. That’s so cool.”
“And don’t touch! Some of those are dangerous!”
Octavia slapped Erin’s hand away. She protectively edged in front of Erin, guarding her precious wares. It wasn’t often that Erin hung out in Octavia’s shop these days, but the [Alchemist] clearly didn’t trust her any more than she had when Erin was experimenting with her magical cooking.
“I have to deliver this to that scary Gnoll [Shopkeeper] of yours and I don’t want my first delivery to be delayed! Thanks for telling me about the rain, though. I’ll have to cover my matches so they don’t get wet.”
Erin blinked at the crate and the bag that Octavia was busy stuffing her wares into.
“Wait, are you going to Liscor? You never leave your shop!”
The Stitch-Girl snorted.
“I leave sometimes. For food and ingredients and…stuff. And I’m not going into Liscor, what, do you think I’m crazy? I’m not ducking those giant Crab Rocks or whatever you call them. No, I’ll leave my potions and matches in your inn. That Gnoll lady said she’ll send a Street Runner to pick them up. Just show them where it is, okay? And no touching!”
She waved a match stick at Erin. The [Innkeeper] frowned as she studied Octavia.
“Wait, so you’re going to bring your goods to Liscor through my inn.”
Octavia didn’t look up as she dipped more matches.
“And you’re going to sell them through Krshia, who I introduced you to.”
“Yep. She gets a cut and I get a cut. Apparently Liscor imports most of its potions from Pallass. Hah! I can beat the [Alchemists] with my prices since I don’t have to ship them a few hundred miles! Plus, my matches haven’t been seen in Liscor yet. Even with that damned Gnoll’s cut I bet I’ll turn more of a profit this week!”
“Uh huh. And the matches were my idea. Mine and Ryoka’s since she told you how they were made.”
“Well yeah, but I had to figure out the exact formula. Phosphorous? Heh, that’s not nearly as combustive as powdered Corusdeer Horns and some Fire Beetle shells…”
Octavia smiled to herself as she plucked a dried match from her drying wheel and poked at the head. Satisfied, she transferred it to a box of completed matches. Erin nodded, watching the [Alchemist] work. Then she dropped her bomb.
“Shouldn’t I get paid for all this then?”
The Stich-Girl dropped one of the matches into her bowl. Cursing, she grabbed at it, tossed it into a bin at her feet, and then gave Erin a fish-eye. Erin smiled sweetly as she leaned over Octavia’s counter. The [Alchemist] stared at her and then gave her a big and not-entirely-genuine smile.
“Erin, Erin, we’re friends, aren’t we?”
The [Alchemist] sidled up to Erin, putting her arm around Erin’s shoulder. She squeezed tightly, smiling like a used car salesman selling her most corroded piece of junk.
“Of course we are! You and me, we go way back. We’re practically sisters! Well, I think of you that way. You’re an [Innkeeper], I’m an [Alchemist]—but we do the same things! Remember when you made all those magical dishes in my shop? Great times! And remember how I was encouraging you the entire time?”
“Erin, it’s all in the past now. I know we had our differences, but I am so grateful—did I mention how grateful I am?—so grateful that you are helping me grow my business. And I know it’s a small imposition that you let me work through your magical door—which I’ve installed in my shop by the way, just because you asked. I still haven’t fixed my front wall, you know. It gets drafty at night…”
“I paid for that.”
“And so you did! But Erin, business is one thing and I’m a small-time [Alchemist]—I hardly have my head above water most days. Hah, water, it’s a heck of a thing isn’t it? Imagine Liscor flooding all the time? Well, I’m sure you see my predicament, but I want you to know that I care, and so I can give you uh, these potions as a sign of friendship.”
Octavia eyed her shelves and grabbed a few bottles. She pushed them into Erin’s hands.
“I insist, a token of our friendship!”
She was smiling desperately and a slight sheen of sweat covered her forehead. Erin, smiling as well, looked at the bottles.
“As much as I’d like a stamina potion, hair-regrowth tonic and…ooh, one of Ryoka’s stink potions, I think I want an actual deal, Octavia.”
“Okay? Okay…we can deal.”
Octavia looked wary, but she immediately grabbed a seat and dusted it off for Erin. She gave the young woman another big smile.
“What were you thinking? A monthly convenience fee? How about we talk about it over dinner? My treat? We could go for a, uh, a deal where I give you six—no, twelve match boxes each week? And a potion?”
Erin declined to sit. Instead she loomed—just a tiny bit—and gave Octavia one of the scary grins she’d seen Ryoka give other people.
“That’s one idea. But how about this? A non-negotiable surcharge on every match box made and a copyright fee as well as a fee for using my door and a finder’s charge for introducing you to Krshia and storing your goods in my inn, which also adds a protection fee, a delivery fee, a storage fee, and city taxes, since Liscor is importing the goods from Celum.”
Erin was no businessperson and she had no idea what she’d actually said, just that it sounded complicated and expensive. Anyways, it didn’t matter. Erin could say something entirely stupid so long as she delivered her lines with the right attitude. And the result was impressive—Octavia went dead white. She gaped at Erin for a moment and began speaking rapidly.
“Look, Erin, let’s not be hasty! I mean, you’re a businesswoman and I—we don’t have to do this! We’re friends! Why, I’m sure we can strike a deal that’s not this harsh! Did I insult you with the potions? Let me take them back! Forgotten! Let’s try again, and why don’t I buy you a drink and dinner? Five drinks? Come on Erin, don’t throw me under the wagon, have a heart—”
She looked so desperate that Erin couldn’t help but laugh. She spread her arms as Octavia stared at her.
“Kidding! I’m not that much of a jerk.”
The [Alchemist] sagged against her counter, weak-kneed with relief.
“Dead gods, Erin, don’t do that! Do you know how worried I was?”
“Well, now you know how I feel every time you try to con me. Besides, I have a point which is why you got nervous.”
Erin smiled triumphantly. Octavia grumbled and kicked at an empty bottle lying on the floor. It sailed across the shop and shattered loudly. The [Alchemist] winced.
“Okay, point. I guess I owe you something. But Erin, this is my livelihood!”
“Which is doing better thanks to me. I’m not asking for much, Octavia. And remember, I’ve got all kinds of cool ideas. But my inn needs money since I have Goblins in it and apparently that’s a bad thing. We can deal, but equally, okay?”
“Goblins. I forgot about them. No wonder no one’s asked to go to your inn for a week now. I did wonder, but they must have slipped my mind. Fine, we can talk gold.”
“I don’t need much. And I won’t charge you for doing business, but some money for my ideas each week would be nice. Say two coppers for every gold coin?”
Erin saw Octavia brighten and waggled a finger.
“But I do want some matches for myself! For free, Octavia. I’ll give you new ideas, too. That’s worth all the gold you can bargain for. When you finally figure out that penicillin stuff you’ll be really rich, trust me!”
“That will take a while. Those molds are hard to figure out. And Erin, some of your ideas are good, but there is no way I can make an anti-gravity potion because you thought it would be ‘cool’. I need ideas that are real, not imaginary.”
Octavia grumbled as she went behind her counter. For all she moaned about coin, she was surprisingly good-natured and Erin pocketed a handful of gold and silver coins and came away with several matchboxes and two potions. She let the [Alchemist] complain about unfair business practices as she lugged her crate of potions and matches into her inn and then opened the door to Octavia’s shop.
“I’m going into the city, Octavia! Don’t be scared if you see Goblins and tell Lyonette to keep Mrsha away from your stuff!”
“Wait, they’re wandering about? Where are—aaah!”
The Stitch-Girl spotted one of the Redfang Goblins heading down the stairs and ran screaming for the doorway. Erin shook her head as Rabbiteater stared at Octavia brandishing a potion at him. It would be fine—Lyonette could sort it out, Erin was sure. Probably.
She turned and strode out the doorway, confident that Octavia would either bargain for her life or start selling matches to Goblins. Octavia was all very well, but a deal with her was small potatoes compared to what Erin had in mind. The [Innkeeper] walked through Celum, staring at the Humans walking past her.
“It’s not raining! Huh, I guess the storm’s only around Liscor.”
It really was amazing. If Erin turned her head she could see dark clouds in the horizon to the south, right where Liscor was. But she’d come a hundred miles north to Celum in a single bound. And she could go to Pallass, which was five hundred miles south of here from her inn! The possibilities of her door were endless. As were the dangers. But that wasn’t what mattered now. What mattered was…
Erin sighed as she walked down the street. Several of the people around her gave her strange looks. Celum had heard about Erin’s Hobgoblin population and they had likewise boycotted her inn. Erin hadn’t cared about that as much as Liscor, but now she did. Her Goblins were a problem? Well, they’d be an even bigger problem after this! She was nearly at the Runner’s Guild when she heard a voice shouting angrily behind her.
“Turn, hellhound, turn!”
The voice was male, authoritative, and echoed down the street. Erin whirled around, grinning. She saw a man dressed in bright clothing pointing at her as all the pedestrians on the street turned to see who had shouted.
The man lowered his hand and strode down the street towards her, a broad smile set on his face. Wesle had changed markedly since Erin had first met him. Where he had once been a competent if slightly resigned low-level [Guardsman] in service to Celum he was now a confident [Actor]. He now led the troupe of actors in Celum the first of their kind with his leading co-star, Jasi.
“Wesle! Just the guy I was looking for!”
Erin walked over and hugged Wesle. He smiled down at her, and his voice was deeper and more resonant than she remembered when he replied.
“It seems I have impeccable timing, then! I was just walking down the street for a bite to eat when I saw you leaving Miss Octavia’s shop! What brings you into Celum? And do you have time to talk with a humble [Actor] such as myself?”
“Of course! You’re one of the reasons why I’m here! I want your help and I have a cool offer for you and Jasi and all the other [Actors]—I was going to the Runner’s Guild first, but now that I think of it, you’re better. Let’s get to one side and chat, okay?”
They were in the middle of the street and Erin was wary of rogue wagons, especially after what had happened to Ryoka on these same streets months ago. Wesle stroked at his clean-shaved lips and chin.
“We can certainly do that, but it ah, might be better to step inside somewhere. I think we’ll attract a crowd if we linger outside.”
“Oh? Why’s that?”
Erin turned and saw to her amazement that a crowd of onlookers had already gathered around Wesle. She saw a young woman push forwards, a [Baker] or a baker’s apprentice by the looks of her. She had eyes only for Wesle.
“Mister Salkis, I’m such a huge fan. I know you must be busy, but could you possibly spare the time to…?”
She blushed and pushed back her sleeve. Wesle gave Erin an apologetic glance and then gave her and the crowd a huge smile.
“Of course! What is your name, mistress?”
The young woman blushed. Wesle pulled something out of his pocket with a flourish and Erin blinked as she saw a piece of black chalk or—was it charcoal? The tip looked almost wet as Wesle unwrapped it from some waxy paper. He gently pressed it to the young [Baker]’s arm and to Erin’s astonishment, began to sign his name!
“Well then Miss Colina, I am delighted to meet you. What play do you enjoy the most, pray tell?”
“Oh, Hamlet, sir! When I saw you on stage, calling your uncle a false [King], well, I—it was incredible. And that line you delivered just now! I know Sir Macduff always performs it and it’s Mister Pralcem who plays the part, but I would so love to see you play his role as well!”
“An intriguing idea! Perhaps we’ll mix up the roles next time. Thank you for your support, Miss Colina.”
Wesle smiled and the young woman nearly fainted with embarrassment and pleasure. He turned, the charcoal in his hands.
There was a chorus of voice. Erin saw the people line up and Wesle went from person to person, signing arms, hands, and a cheek! The people beamed as he spoke with them. When it was done Wesle walked towards Erin, looking pleased and slightly apologetic.
“Let’s hurry inside somewhere before another group finds us. It’s not always I get stopped, but once someone asks…the Runner’s Guild will keep them away.”
He hurried with Erin towards the Runner’s Guild. There too Wesle’s face instantly drew attention. A [Receptionist] hurried forwards, beaming at him, and when Wesle requested a private room he immediately got it—despite not being a Runner and much faster than Ryoka had when she’d asked.
There was even the cheese platter. Erin sat across from Wesle as he signed the [Receptionist]’s palm. He smiled at her, embarrassed, and she shook her head when they were alone.
“Wesle, you’re a star! When did this happen?”
Wesle flushed and stroked his lips where his mustache used to be.
“I don’t know about a star, Miss Erin. I feel like I’m a [King] in his court sometimes, but it’s all flash and show, it really is. As for when it started happening, well, it began about a month ago. We’d been putting on plays each night when we started getting requests to go to other cities and put on a performance for the [Mayor] and well, people started coming up to us on the streets after that and saying how moving they thought our acting was.”
He looked happy, red-faced, and excited all at the same time. Erin just grinned at him.
“Wow. Look at you! I knew the plays were cool, but—just wow!”
“We owe it all to you.”
Wesle bowed his head slightly. Erin waved it away, feeling embarrassed herself. She had been the one to come up with the idea and then teach Wesle and the others a play, but she could never have dreamed it would turn into something like this! He was an actual celebrity, and somehow, without her involvement he had already begun signing autographs and having groupies follow him around.
Some things were the same across worlds. Erin sat forwards in her seat and talked around a piece of gooey brie cheese on a cracker.
“Okay, tell me. What’s with the charcoal? You sign your name with that? On people’s bodies, not paper?”
“Paper? Most folk can’t afford paper. Although I have signed parchment for some of them. They keep it as mementoes. And we can’t walk around with a quill and inkpot, so one of the [Alchemists] in the city made this up for us. It’s sticky and makes a mess, but it shows up well.”
Wesle offered the bit of charcoal to Erin. She touched it and found it was more like an oil-based marker than actual charcoal. She drew a smiley face on her arm and Wesle raised his eyebrows.
“A smiley. You should draw one on the next person! I bet it’s easier than a signature. And you could have your own special symbol, you know?”
Erin showed Wesle a few more symbols from her world and he was stunned.
“Once again you have new ideas Miss Erin that…well, it’s always something wondrous with you. We—the Players of Celum we’re calling ourselves for now—owe you a huge debt. Jasi and Grev talk of you all the time and if you could spare the time we’d love to have you meet our troupe. We’ve taken on a lot of new [Actors] since we started and we now have our own warehouse to practice in. Hah, we’ve had to hire [Guards] and [Mercenaries] to keep people from watching us practice! It would mean the world if you visited.”
It was amazing to hear that the [Actors] had already become this successful. Erin shook her head again.
“Of course I’ll come! But I’m just a humble [Innkeeper]—”
Wesle’s ringing denial was far grander than the acoustics of the room should have allowed. His pose was equally impressive—his body radiated a fierce refutation of Erin’s modesty. Was it one of his new Skills? He leaned over, giving Erin a look that was both genuine and serious.
“You, Miss Erin, are our patron and muse! We would never have started this without you and as I say, we owe you a great debt. We’ve put on plays in Ocre, Remendia, and Wales because of you and we’re thinking of travelling further abroad once we have enough [Actors] for two groups to perform at once. Not to mention, we’d love to know if you have more plays you could teach us.”
He coughed and winked at Erin. It was such a theatrical move that she burst out laughing.
“Not that there’s any shortage of [Writers] clamoring to have us perform plays they’ve come up with. Not just [Writers]—we’ve gotten submissions from countless members of the public already! None of it holds a candle to the stuff you’ve given us, mind, but we’ve been paid good coin to put on some performances other people want to see.”
“Amazing. And you’ll probably get more. I bet [Lords] and [Ladies] will want you to perform. Oh, Wesle, I’m so glad this is working out for you!”
Erin rose and hugged the man. He smiled at her.
“And to think it all started with a [Washer] and a [Guardsman] in an inn. That’s a play in itself and we may have to perform it sometime. But I talk too much now, don’t I? Why did you want to see me, Miss Erin? Anything we can do, anything at all…”
“Well, I was actually hoping you’d say that! I’m in a bit of a pickle you see. I haven’t been in Celum for a long time because I’ve had so much to do. Have you heard about it?”
Wesle grew serious and once again reached for his shaved mustache. That habit hadn’t changed at least.
“I did, Miss Erin. I saw some of it, or pieces at least. That business with the false Named Adventurer, the tragic death of that Gold-rank adventurer and Gnoll…Zel Shivertail himself coming north and falling in battle…and now I hear your inn is hosting Goblins.”
Erin shook her head, her joy fading as she recalled all the trials of the last few months.
“It’s always hosted Goblins, Wesle. Only now people are scared and my inn’s suffering. I’m actually in a bad spot financially. So I was going to ask—this is really difficult, but—”
“Say no more.”
A finger raised towards Erin’s lips. Wesle shook his head as he leaned across the table.
“We’d be the most wretched of ingrates if we didn’t offer you what we’ve earned, Miss Erin. You never asked for a cut of our profits and you deserve it for teaching us the plays, let alone giving us our classes! We can offer you quite a lot of gold—I’d have to ask Jasi how much we earn per week, but we could give you at least—”
“Wesle, I don’t need donations!”
Erin cut him off, laughing with relief. Wesle blinked.
“You don’t? But see here, Miss Erin—”
“If you want to give me some money that’s great and I’ll accept. I’m not going to say I can’t use it. But I don’t need you to give me money for nothing. Actually, I wanted something a bit more from you that I really hope you’ll agree to. Listen—”
The young woman sat forwards on the edge of her seat and Wesle did likewise. His eyes widened as Erin explained her idea and he frowned, but within minutes he was nodding and pacing around the room excitedly.
“That can work! Of course it can! Just the other day Kilkran—he’s one of our new [Actors], a man you haven’t met. A former [Blacksmith], but a voice that could shake the rafters of a barn, I’ll swear! He was saying that we needed to think about the long-term. And this idea is perfect!”
“You don’t think it’ll drive away business? It’s a risk, Wesle.”
Erin warned the man, wanting him to be clear on what he was agreeing to. Wesle dismissed her concerns with one shake of the head.
“Business? We could divide our troupe and still earn enough for all of us to live on. Besides, this is better. This is right. And if you think this will stop people from watching us—hah! The power of the stage will draw them in, Miss Erin. Just you wait! I don’t want to speak for everyone of course, but I can’t think that any of the original cast will say no, and the new [Actors] will come round once they know all you’ve done for us!”
“Well, I’m relieved. If you want to tell them, I can settle things in the Runner’s Guild. Or maybe you can help me? I think they’d believe it if you said it.”
“Of course. And we must have a drink at your inn as well, Erin. That is to say Miss—”
She laughed and Wesle laughed too.
“You kept telling me that before as well. All this business about your magical door and the Goblins sound incredibly difficult. I wish you’d come to us months ago, or that we’d known you needed help!”
Erin shook her head.
“You guys had to do your own thing! You’re stars; and I didn’t have as much trouble until Zel and…well, and Pallass. Those jerks are making stuff difficult but I’ll win in the end! And think of this, Wesle! With my door you guys don’t have to just go to Human cities! You could put on a show in Liscor and even Pallass!”
She looked at Wesle. His eyes widened.
“A Walled City? But that would be—dead gods, could we do it?”
“First Liscor, then the world! I bet the Drakes and Gnolls would love you! But let’s do this first. Okay?”
Erin headed down the stairs with Wesle and the [Receptionists] and Runners in the Guild looked up.
One of the [Receptionists] hurried forwards and Erin smiled. Wesle’s last name was Salkis apparently, and it seemed like everyone was too shy to call him by his first name. Wesle greeted the woman and explained Erin’s idea. The [Receptionist]’s eyes went wide and she took a step back.
“But—well, of course we can spread the word, Mister Salkis. But you’re sure? You’re going to—I mean, there are rumors—”
She stared at Erin who folded her arms.
“Hey! I’m standing right here, you know!”
The older woman blushed and Wesle bowed slightly. His voice could be heard at the back of the room as he replied.
“Miss Bellia, I can assure you we will be perfectly safe. Safer, in fact, which is the point of this little announcement. Now, I have to get to my troupe, but please send the bill to us. And if Miss Erin has anything else she needs done…”
He looked at Erin expectantly. She hesitated.
“Is Fals here? Or Garia? Has anyone seen Ryoka?”
The [Receptionist] shook her head, her brow creasing when Erin mentioned Ryoka’s name. The Runner’s Guild in Celum still hadn’t forgotten the incident with the Frost Faeries.
“They’re all out on deliveries in other cities, Miss Solstice. Well, I can’t speak for Miss Griffin. Shall I ask them to call on you when they arrive in Celum next?”
“Please. I haven’t seen them in a while.”
The woman nodded and Erin strolled out of the front door with Wesle. He was smiling at her. She peered at him suspiciously?
“Oh, nothing. It’s just that life is never dull when you’re around, Erin. I think I’ve had enough excitement and then you turn up.”
“Well, I do like interesting stuff. I’ll go back to the inn, Wesle. Meet you later?”
His eyes twinkled. Wesle took a step back in the street and swept Erin a dramatic bow that drew all eyes to him once again.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. We’ll be there.”
He strode off. Erin watched him go, shaking her head and smiling.
“What a showoff.”
She thought it suited him perfectly. Humming, Erin walked back to Octavia’s shop, a spring in her step. Everything was going according to plan! Now, there was just one last step.
Erin breathed the words that night. She stared around her inn, stared at the Humans crowding around one side of it where the tables had been shoved aside, stared at the Redfang Goblins, and stared at the bit of cloth she’d been writing on all day. Lyonette peered at Headscratcher.
“It’s insane, Erin. Even for you, this idea is crazy. It’ll never work!”
“It’ll totally work! It has to work! It’s already working! It’s the most amazing idea I’ve come up with yet! Lyonette, this is going to blow people’s minds!”
Erin waved her hands over her head excitedly. Lyonette shook her head, but she couldn’t help smiling in amazement.
“It’s something alright. But do you really think Watch Captain Zevara and that guy from Pallass will like it?”
The [Innkeeper] didn’t hear her. Erin looked around her inn and strode over to the group of Humans at the far wall. The Players of Celum turned to greet her. They were all dressed up, some wearing face paint or other cosmetics, others dressed as [Guards], the nobility, wearing swords at their hilts or practicing fencing with dulled blades. Two, a Drake and a young boy, turned as Erin approached and exclaimed.
Erin hugged first the young Drake woman and then the boy. Jasi and Grev had both changed as well. Gone was the young timid Drake that Erin had met in Liscor. Jasi had been bit by the acting bug and if she wasn’t as flamboyant as Wesle, she had an inner poise of her own. She dominated space despite her small frame.
Grev looked better too. His thin frame had filled out and he was wearing good, new clothes. He was also helping set up props at the far wall.
“Erin, it’s been so long! I’m so glad to see you again! When Wesle ran in and told us you want us to perform here, I was overjoyed!”
Jasi gushed as she held up her arms to let one of the other actors attach shimmering crystal bracelets around her. They were magical and radiated a chill, but Jasi seemed used to the cold. Erin smiled at her.
“Thanks for doing this, really.”
“We should be thanking you! This is the least we can do. And we’ll be happy to perform here as many nights as you want! It’s so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t think of it—here we are trying to find the best place to perform and you have your own inn! After we left Miss Agnes’ inn on bad terms we kept bouncing from place to place without remembering you!”
Jasi gestured around The Wandering Inn, her bracelets catching the light and glittering. Erin laughed.
“I didn’t either! But isn’t this a good idea?”
Wesle strode up to them, dressed in a woodcutter’s outfit. He looked entirely like a rustic outdoorsman, sinking in to his role with ease. He gestured around Erin’s inn, at the tables she’d pushed to one side to give the actors room.
“This is a big inn as well. We need all the space we can get—I wager we’ll fill this inn every night after this first one. My word on it!”
Erin nodded, hoping that would be the case. She looked at the other actors as they bustled about. This was her big plan. Her inn was starved for coin and company, so why not bring the most successful and popular show in Celum here? She hadn’t known if Wesle and the others would agree despite his promises, but they had shown up enthusiastic and early. Now the stage manager, a heavy, short woman, bustled up.
“Miss Solstice? We’d like to attach some [Light] spells to the rafters. They’ll fade away soon, but for the snow it’s all about lighting you see.”
“Oh, go ahead! Just watch out when you cast the spells—my inn’s charged with mana so things will get really bright! Other spells too—they get bigger, apparently.”
The woman brightened. She turned and shouted at a [Mage] and two [Actors] fussing in one corner of the room. As she hurried to them waving her arms and explaining, Wesle leaned over.
“That’s Emme, our stage manager. She loves the stage though there’s fewer parts for someone of her height. She’s often the lower half of an animal or a moving prop—she likes this play because she can have a leading role. She’s got a bit of Dwarf blood in her.”
Erin watched Emme gesturing at the ceiling and saw a bright ball of light appear. It shone, illuminating the entire stage and the [Actors] cried out in surprise. Grev shook his head as he popped up next to her.
“Magic inn, good food, and you know more plays. If Wesle wasn’t in makeup he’d kiss you, Miss Erin.”
Wesle turned red and Erin laughed as the man raised a mock-threatening fist and Grev skipped around Jasi. He turned back to Erin.
“We’ll bring you coin, have no fear, Erin! But that’s only half of your plan, isn’t it?”
Erin smiled slyly and looked back to where Headscratcher was standing awkwardly with Lyonette. Business and coin for her inn was one thing, but the real masterstroke of Erin’s plan was actually in the Redfang Warriors, or rather, the fact that they were standing in her inn with Humans about.
The Players of Celum walked warily around the five Hobs, but were too consumed by their tasks to stare. Much. They looked nervous, but Wesle, Erin, and Jasi had reassured them again and again that the Hobgoblins were no threat. But perhaps it was the special addition Erin had given each of the Hobgoblins that helped.
Each Hob was wearing an armband, nothing more than a white bit of cloth tied around their arm. It was nothing special, save for the single word emblazoned on each one. ‘Security’ had been written on each amband in big black letters. The Redfang Goblins poked at their armbands and stood around trying to look menacing, which wasn’t very hard given their natural aptitude in the field.
“Goblin bouncers. Or rather, Goblin guards for an inn. Break my legs, I never thought I’d see the like.”
Wesle shook his head as he saw Badarrow standing next to the door. The Hob looked grumpy, but also interested as he followed the Humans around with his eyes. He was clearly trying not to show it. Erin smiled.
“I offered them the job and you know what? They took it! I think they’re bored and I need more protection. And this way no one can say the Goblins are a threat because they’ll deal with any threats!”
It was the perfect plan. Erin had hit on it when Venim had suggested paying the Halfseekers to guard her inn. The Redfang Warriors would be out in the open, allowed to walk around as proud employees of her inn! And if people didn’t like it they could sit on five pins, because Erin was doing this. She turned back to Wesle.
“Are you sure you want to perform every night over here?”
“Absolutely. We had an ongoing contract with the inns in Celum to perform in each one night to night, but having a permanent place to perform is just as good. Better. We can store some of our props in the basement and this way half of our members won’t walk to the wrong inn on the other side of the city!”
“Not to mention, you have [Advanced Cooking]. Your inn serves better food than most of the ones in Celum and we do like good food after we perform.”
Jasi interjected. Grev was nodding as well.
“You have a big enough inn for us to perform in, and no one’s gonna interrupt the stage with them scary Goblins hanging out.”
He pointed to the Hobgoblins, clearly more at ease with them than the adults. Grev turned as a small white shape moved in the corner of his eye. He saw Mrsha staring at him until the Gnoll fled upstairs.
“And even if people don’t come right away, I have an audience for you. That way you’ll earn money, guaranteed.”
Erin was speaking to Wesle and Jasi. She’d actually made tonight’s show private, despite the news going up around Celum and Liscor at the moment. Despite this, the inn was packed. Erin pointed to the quiet audience of black and brown bodies. The Painted Soldiers and Workers sat quietly around their tables, eating from bowls and eying the popcorn in the middle of the tables. The Antinium had readily agreed to send enough guests to fill Erin’s inn. All the pieces had lined up as Erin had gone about her day.
Her only fear had been the Players of Celum balking from either the Hobs or the Antinium. It had seemed like they might at first, but Wesle had reassured them. However, they were eying the mass of silent watchers nervously. An older man or rather, an [Actor] dressed up as an older man wearing a [Lord]’s costume sidled up to Wesle and Jasi.
“We’re nearly ready to go, Wesle. But are you sure—?”
His eyes flicked to the Antinium silently. Wesle didn’t glance at Erin. He put his arm around the other [Actor] and gestured dismissively at the Antinium watching them. Erin resolved to buy some curtains tomorrow as soon as she could. For now they were using bed sheets for the scene changes.
“Relax, Esbell. They’re an audience, same as any other! They might not clap or gasp, but Erin tells me that’s normal. We do our show—our best performance! If you don’t have the guts to stand on stage in front of the Antinium, what will you do when you have a crowd of folk booing you and demanding their coin back?”
“Exactly. We’ll give them a show, and we’ll all level. There’s nothing like a new audience for that. Cheer up Esbell, you might get that [Loud Voice] Skill you wanted tonight!”
Jasi stepped forwards, her dress radiant. The [Actor] nodded and squared his shoulders. Erin saw the Players of Celum congregating around the backstage they’d set up, and then the bright [Light] spell dimmed overhead.
The play was beginning. Erin rubbed her hands, looking at the Antinium, the [Actors], at Lyonette and Ishkr serving tables, at Mrsha, stealing popcorn from a bowl, at the Redfang Warriors keeping an eye out but watching with interest, and at Octavia, sitting at a table at the front of the room and looking very confused.
It was all so wonderful Erin wanted to cry. This was it! This was it. She muttered to herself as she watched Wesle stride out on stage.
“You can stay away from the inn if you want, but if you want to see an amazing play every night you’d better get over yourselves and come here! And I have the best security! Hobgoblins! You make trouble and they’ll toss you out, even if you’re a Silver-rank team! I uh, think I’ll let Gold-rank teams cause trouble.”
She saw Wesle raise his hands and went silent. The man looked around the room, pausing a second for dramatic effect. Then he spoke.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! Antinium! Gnolls and Drakes, please, allow me to introduce the performance for tonight. We are the Players of Celum, here to bring you all a performance of the tale of Frozen. What follows is a tale of family and loss, magic and secrets, love and betrayal. We ask that you remain seated and do not speak during the performance. All that passes on this stage is an act—please do not attempt to interfere with the play. At this time, please put away any wands or magical artifacts that may interrupt the viewing experience for other watchers—”
Wesle stood on stage, his voice ringing, the lights shining on him, larger than life. Erin smiled as she saw Emme the part-Dwarf woman waddling around in what was meant to be an Olaf costume. Only in this world, the people’s idea of a Snow Golem was a lot less friendly looking!
It would be a great play. And the first of many. Erin turned her head and saw Bird peeking down the stairs.
“Bird, you don’t want to watch?”
“I will watch. But I like high places so I will sit here, Miss Erin.”
Bird perched on a higher step as the curtains drew back and a young girl appeared on stage. Not all of the Players of Celum were old, and the children took to acting with as much, if not more passion than the adults. Erin took a seat next to Bird.
“You’re not mad at me for hiring more guards?”
“Should I be? They are guards. That is important. They can guard the ground. I will guard us against birds and other threats from above.”
Bird replied calmly. Erin smiled at him. Jealousy didn’t seem to be an Antinium trait. She looked around, got up, and came back with a bowl of popcorn. She offered it to Bird.
“Ah, bird bait. Yes, I will have some.”
The Antinium took a handful and crunched it down. Erin laughed as the play began and a model of a ship appeared on a blue background meant to be the sea. She wondered if Jasi’s magical bracelets actually shot snow or would just do magic tricks. And she wondered if her inn’s magical supply would make the effects more spectacular. Bird looked appreciatively at the play.
“I quite enjoy this. Is it over now that everyone has died at sea?”
“Oh, Bird. You’re so sweet. No, you haven’t seen anything yet. This is just the opening act. There’s more to come, I promise you. Lots more.”
Bird paused. He turned and looked at Erin. Then he smiled.
“She did what?”
There wasn’t any surprise left in Zevara’s voice. She stared at the report Olesm had given her on Celum and then the more formal report from Klbkch. Olesm couldn’t help but smile as he showed Zevara the written details.
“She’s apparently hired the Hobgoblins as guards for her inn. And—get this, she’s invited a group of [Actors] from Celum to perform in her inn. Apparently they put on these wonderful, uh—”
“Plays. And she’s gotten the Antinium to watch them, and—oh yes, told everyone about it. Loudly.”
That was in the Olesm’s report. Celum’s Runner’s Guild had spread the word to Liscor and other local cities as well as told Runners to pass on this latest news: the Players of Celum would now perform exclusively at The Wandering Inn where they would be guarded by Hobgoblins and an Antinium no less. The inn was open to all species and prohibited violence against all guests. Admission was free but there was already talk of obtaining tickets to prevent overcrowding the limited space…Zevara paged through the report and shook her head.
“She’s insane, Olesm. Completely insane.”
“Well if she is, it’s a good kind of insane. If Erin gets support from Celum and Liscor, then even Pallass will have to acknowledge those Hobs aren’t a threat.”
The Drake pointed that out. Zevara shook her head.
“If only I believed that. But that’s not the only thing she’s done.”
Olesm looked surprised. He hadn’t heard about the second point of news, which had been imparted to Zevara just minutes ago. She stared glumly at a second report. It was short, barely half a page, but it had a lot of underlined words.
“You’ll never guess what she did in the Adventurer’s Guild.”
There were some things Selys would do for friends, and then, there were things she’d only do for Erin, and only because she’d been talked into it. She stood on the second floor of the Adventurer’s Guild, holding a piece of parchment between her trembling claws. She whispered a few words before she knocked on the door.
“Selys? Come in.”
Selys walked into the office of the Guildmaster of the Adventurer’s Guild. Or rather, Guildmistress. Tekshia Shivertail, Selys’ grandmother, looked up from her desk. She and Selys were the only two people left in the guild at this hour.
“Hi Grandma, I just wanted to give this to you before I went home.”
The young Drake [Receptionist] nervously approached the desk. Tekshia sighed.
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
“Well, I just got done writing it up so…here. I’ll see you tomorrow, grandma! Love you!”
The Drake put the piece of parchment on the desk. Tekshia frowned up at her, sensing Selys’ odd behavior.
“What’s this about, you scamp?”
Selys grinned and ran for it. Tekshia Shivertail stared at the application on her desk. It was a simple one, a standard request to form an authorized Bronze-rank team. The only curious thing was the name of the group and the five members applying for it.
“The Redfang Goblins. Members are Headscratcher, Badarrow, Rabbiteater, Numbtongue and Shorthilt. Exact levels unknown. Classes unknown. Four [Warriors] and an [Archer]. Species: Hobgoblin.”
The old Drake stared at the form. She stared at the doorway and listened to the sound of Selys’ running feet. Then she took a deep breath.
And then it was night. The [Actors] left in good spirits. The Antinium, who had given them a standing ovation for five minutes straight had gone, happily, if somewhat bloated on the popcorn they couldn’t quite digest. Erin understood it was a special snack given the Hive’s recent lack of conflict.
Lyonette was asleep. Mrsha was already passed out. Bird was upstairs…probably not asleep but happily sitting in the rain. The Redfang Goblins were in their rooms, pondering their new state of existence.
And Erin was happy. She knew she had caused a lot of trouble, not least for Zevara, but she felt it was worth it. Her inn had been filled tonight, and the Goblins were walking about in the open. It was a first step. An important step. It was what she could do so she lay in her mess of blankets and pillows in the corner of the kitchen and smiled to herself.
“I don’t need you to protect me, Zevara. The Goblins will do that.”
Her eyes closed. Erin listened to the drumming of the rain overhead. It was still raining, pouring, rather. She wondered if the Floodplains would fill up tomorrow or the day after. Or maybe…?
Her breathing slowed. Erin’s mind drifted off. She felt darkness, warm and soothing engulf her—
[Magical Innkeeper Level 34!]
[Skill – Inn: Grand Theatre obtained!]
Erin shot out of bed. She banged her head on the kitchen counter, stumbled out of the kitchen, swearing loudly and stopped. The common room of her inn was in front of her, empty, deserted as it should be. But it was not as it had been.
The common room. It had been large before, capable of holding a crowd. Now it stretched out in front of Erin, impossibly large for the dimensions of the inn. It was twice—no, perhaps three times as large as it had been? Erin couldn’t tell in the darkness. But it was vast, and at one end she could see the stage that the Players of Celum had set up. Erin stared around the common room, at the theatre hall ready for crowds. She blinked, raised her hands into the air and screamed.
She danced about, shouting, until she heard a thump from overhead. Jelaqua shouted through the floorboards.
“Hey, we’re trying to sleep!”
It was the first time Erin had ever heard the Selphid in a bad mood. Erin lay down in the middle of her common room, feeling small in the vast chamber. She grinned at the ceiling and listened to the rain fall for a while before she fell asleep.
There was one last thing. The rain fell across Liscor in unending droves, but it did not patter down in all places. In some locations there was simply no space for the rain to fall, and so it trickled down as water from above, landing on an invisible barrier overhead.
The sound was loud. The water fell, splashing down and filling the underground chambers with sound. It was not nearly as loud as the screams or shrieks or sounds or combat that sometimes filled this place, but it had its own insistent, persistent ability to get in the head.
It was just noise, and it should have bothered very few people in this hour when almost all were asleep. And yet, it did bother one person. One being sat up, unable to ignore the sound. He could not sleep. And as the sound repeated itself, two purple flames brightened with annoyance in the empty chambers of his skull.
Toren the skeleton looked up as he sat below the chasm leading up and out of Liscor’s dungeon. He stared at the invisible barrier keeping the water from crashing down over his head and gnashed his jaw furiously. He was getting really tired of hearing that sound. Yet the rain continued to fall and the skeleton moved.
Drip, drip, drip.
He reached down and picked up a mask lying next to him, regarded it once. Toren hesitated and then put it over his face. As she lowered her hand, Toren turned and drew her sword. The water dripped but didn’t bother her any longer. She grinned behind her mask.
It was her turn now.