She dreamed of thrones, of bickering voices and tall, frail men and women perched like harpies on towering seats built of tarnished, stained gold. Lyonette saw a court full of people whose faces were masks and whose smiles were as sweet as poison, mingling around the thrones. She walked among them and found herself standing in a town where everyone bowed and never met her eye.
And in her dream, Lyonette thought it all made sense. She saw the masked nobles look at her and curtseyed before the watchers on their squalid thrones. She stepped among the nobility, putting a mask on her face and smiling artificially alongside the rest. She smiled as she saw a golden throne fall, and cheered with the others as another one was built from blocks of the old one. She saw nobles fade as they sprouted daggers from their chests, spat froth and blood from poisoned lips, took terrible wounds by sword or claw or just grew old and passed.
The others mingled and talked and there was something there almost like affection as they slid daggers under their skirts and clothing, waiting for the best moment. She laughed at the common folk and nodded at the few who managed to look up, allowing them to stumble into the room full of watching, predatory masked faces. The monarchs watched, waiting, old and ancient and their thrones grew taller. Lyonette dreamed of all this. It was no nightmare. For a while she was happy. Then someone stuck a wet nose in her ear and she woke up.
It wasn’t, Lyonette thought, a mystical prophecy of any kind. It was just a dream. It might have been caused by stress. But it hadn’t been a bad dream. It hadn’t.
“I used to like it, Mrsha.”
The Gnoll looked up as she ate her breakfast of porridge. She had some of the food caught on the fur around her face. She licked it up with her tongue and looked at Lyonette questioningly.
“Being a [Princess]. It wasn’t a bad life.”
Mrsha nodded agreeably. That made sense. She went back to her porridge. Lyonette sighed.
“But I was frustrated. I never leveled. I never did anything and I felt like I was a failure. I was…sad.”
She looked down at her bowl until she felt a wet nose on her hand. Mrsha looked up at her with expectant eyes. Lyonette smiled and spooned some porridge into her mouth.
“I’m not sad now. It was just a dream.”
Mrsha nodded and pointed at her empty bowl. Lyonette eyed it; it had been licked clean. She thought about scolding Mrsha, but then she recalled that licking your plate was perfectly acceptable, indeed, expected in Gnoll society. So she nodded and smiled.
“Take your bowl into the kitchen and you can play. But remember—”
She held up a warning finger as Mrsha grabbed her bowl. The Gnoll paused and looked back. Lyonette made sure Mrsha met her eyes.
“You can’t leave the inn without telling me or Erin. Remember?”
Mrsha sighed and her ears drooped slightly. But she nodded and scampered into the kitchen. Lyonette heard Erin’s voice for a second before Mrsha scampered out. The Gnoll raced upstairs and Lyonette guessed she was heading straight to her room. She had a ball up there.
Sure enough, no sooner had Lyonette heard the scuffling-scratching sound of Mrsha racing upstairs than she heard energetic thumping coming down the stairs. Mrsha raced down with a soft ball made of corded leather in her mouth. She ran into the center of the common room and looked around.
Normally, there wouldn’t be much space for an energetic child of any species to play in a normal inn. Especially one with guests. But happily, Erin’s inn now featured her [Grand Theatre] Skill at almost all times. The giant room felt slightly unnerving to Lyonette and she often kept her back turned to the extra space. But Mrsha loved it. The dim room was plenty of space for her to toss her ball and race after it, diving beneath chairs and leaping over the tops of tables.
Lyonette couldn’t help calling out another warning as she watched Mrsha leap over a chair as she chased after her prized ball. Mrsha was going fast! But she didn’t tell the Gnoll cub to stop either. Mrsha needed to play. And given the current circumstances, letting her play anywhere but the common room of the inn would be dangerous.
The young [Princess] glanced towards the windows. Half of them were still boarded up, but two had been renovated by the industrious Antinium Workers. She saw through a glass pane dark skies and pouring rain. Again. It felt like it had been a month already, but barely a week had passed and the spring rains were still drowning Liscor. The waters had now engulfed the Floodplains and only a few of the tallest hills and the city itself stood above the waterline.
It was wet. Unpleasant to be out and about in. Not that Mrsha would care, but the waters presented dangers of their own. Quillfish, octopus-fish with teeth, Rock Crabs creeping along underwater, to name but a few of the dangers. Of course, most of the fish that had entered the waters were by and large harmless, but Lyonette wasn’t about to risk Mrsha at all. She’d had enough close encounters, thank you. So the Gnoll had been confined to the inn unless Lyonette went into the city. Normally that would be fine, but the rain meant that Liscor was less than engaging for a small child.
Rain. Rain and more rain, pouring down at every second. It was enough to dampen the brightest spirits. Or at least, make one think twice about venturing outside unless you had business. Lyonette sighed as she watched Mrsha playing. Then she turned her head.
“Stay out of my drink, Apista.”
The Ashfire Bee creeping up the side of her mug fanned its wings. Undeterred by the gigantic bee, Lyonette plucked her off and tossed her into the air. Apista fanned her wings and flew around Lyonette; the [Barmaid] could feel the bee’s annoyance. But not much; it was a mild thing, like the faintest of itches and Lyonette had learned enough to know that meant Apista was only vaguely upset. And she wasn’t about to let the bee drink her milk.
Lyonette sipped from her mug, savoring the warm, rich goat’s milk. It had a different flavor than cow’s milk but it wasn’t bad. Actually, it might have been a bit sweeter. Lyonette had known worse goat milk before, but Erin got hers fresh from one of Liscor’s few villages and it stayed fresh thanks to her Skills.
Something to savor. Lyonette closed her eyes and sipped again. Without looking she batted Apista away from her mostly empty bowl of porridge. The Ashfire Bee buzzed again, but Lyonette was unmoved.
“I just fed you breakfast! You ate your honey—shoo!”
Disgruntled, the Ashfire Bee flew backwards and Lyonette knew she was going to her favorite spot—the baskets of faerie flowers that were blooming despite the horrible weather right by Erin’s windows. Lyonette knew the bee loved sipping the nectar from the flowers.
“Strange that it doesn’t do anything to you. Everyone else gets dizzy and I knock out bees when I burn the flowers. So why can you drink the nectar and be fine?”
Apista didn’t reply. Lyonette sipped from her mug as Mrsha raced around the tables, throwing her ball off the walls, jumping onto the stage and racing around the props the Players of Celum had left, panting happily. Enticing smells drifted from the kitchen as Lyonette heard Erin banging around, opening cupboards, swearing as she dropped something, and humming.
This was her morning. It was peaceful, enjoyable in its own way. Lyonette savored it until she heard dull footsteps from above. She looked up. The inn’s other residents were waking up. The Halfseekers, the Horns of Hammerad—the Goblins would probably come down now. Lyonette was sure they were already awake. She’d spotted them beating each other in training before dawn through her window. She sighed and reached for her spoon. Time to finish eating. Her day was going to be busy. As always.
Breakfast this morning was porridge, but Lyonette served fried eggs, bacon—even a steak to her guests, which were all three Gold-rank teams and the Horns of Hammerad. And the Goblins. While it was true that Erin made a specific breakfast for each morning, and that she’d made porridge as a healthier and lighter breakfast for Mrsha and Lyonette, her guests were guests and could order anything they pleased. And they did. Lyonette put the steak down in front of Ceria and the half-Elf licked her lips. As she began cutting into the bloody meat, Jelaqua raised her head and spoke around a mouth full of egg.
“Alright, I talked to Hawk yesterday.”
The other adventurers instantly looked at her, as did the Redfang Warriors who were demolishing a pot of porridge by themselves. Jelaqua glanced at them and then looked at the others. She shook her head.
“No go. He told me flat out that he’s not running anywhere near the Goblin Lord’s army. And…yeah. I couldn’t talk him around it. Plus, he’s not keen to wait around while an [Enchanter] appraises the artifacts so I’m afraid it’s City Runners or nothing.”
Lyonette heard a groan as she went around with a pitcher of cool goat’s milk. The last they had in stock, actually. She made a note to ask Krshia about getting more. It was hard to get supplies from the villages—they had to be transported by boat. Maybe she could see about food from Celum? She listened with half an ear as she refilled Ylawes’ cup, nodding and smiling as he thanked her quietly.
“So what? We’d have to rely on City Runners? That’ll take a week to get there—and I’m not sure I trust them with magical artifacts.”
Ceria groaned as she sat back in her chair. Halrac grunted. Everyone looked at him. The [Scout] folded his arms.
“Don’t trust them. Not for Gold-rank artifacts.”
“I agree. It’s too risky. Some City Runners are good, but this would be a multi-part delivery. You couldn’t request one to take it specifically. And having one appraise the items at an [Enchanter]…I’m sure most would be tempted to sell that information or run off with an artifact worth thousands of gold pieces.”
Ylawes sighed as he speared a poached egg with a fork. He looked around and all of the older adventurers nodded. Erin looked around, confused. She wasn’t waiting tables but sitting with the adventurers as they discussed the issue of the artifacts.
The artifacts the Redfang Goblins had recovered. Lyonette glanced at the five Goblins. They were sitting apart from the conversation, but they were listening intently. The adventurers glanced at them now and then before looking away. It was a strange situation. The artifacts were the Goblins’ and Lyonette knew they were hidden somewhere by the five Redfang Warriors. However, the adventurers had insisted the artifacts be identified. The Goblins hadn’t protested—they hadn’t said anything, true to form—and so the debate for the last day had been on how to get the artifacts appraised in a timely manner.
“Hold on, why aren’t City Runners a good idea? They’re not trustworthy?”
“Some are, some aren’t. I don’t know any in the area I’d trust with that much gold. And like Ylawes said, it’s different if multiple Runners are carrying an item. Times like these would be when you request a Runner you know is trustworthy—and can defend themselves. If we were up north we’d have a list of contacts. But around here, Hawk is the only good Runner I’d trust.”
Jelaqua sighed. Erin nodded as she thought that over.
“I get it. It’s like getting the best mailman. And Ryoka’s…”
She trailed off. Lyonette looked at her and saw the Horns of Hammerad exchange glances. After a moment, Ceria cleared her throat.
“I know a Runner. Fals. He’s good, and I think he’d be trustworthy. But the distance to Invrisil…no. Is there another [Enchanter] nearby we could use? Someone near Celum, perhaps?”
“Someone who can identify dungeon artifacts? I don’t think so. That’s not something you want to leave to a low-level [Mage]. Anyone know another name?”
Jelaqua looked around and got headshakes from the other adventurers. The Selphid grimaced and twitched her tail. It was still unsettling to see her in her new Drake body, but she’d adapted Drake mannerisms already. She scratched at the scales of her neck with one claw.
“Pallass is an option.”
“I don’t know any [Enchanters] there. And I don’t know the city. It’s not as straightforward there. We might run into obstacles.”
Ylawes frowned, looking mildly concerned. Seborn nodded.
“A Drake city won’t necessarily recognize Gold-rank adventurers from the north. Especially not a Human team. However, the Halfseekers have worked in the south in the past.”
Revi nodded as she tapped her lips.
“That works. I wouldn’t put it past a Drake [Enchanter] to avoid working with stinking Humans, but your group used to have Drakes in it, didn’t you? Think we could trade on your reputation?”
All eyes turned to the three Halfseekers. Jelaqua looked up at Moore. The half-Giant had a huge bowl of porridge and spiced apple. He put down his spoon thoughtfully and wiped his mouth.
“We could always ask. It’s not as if it matters if the [Enchanter] talks about what the artifacts do, does it?”
Moore cut Revi off.
“Not if the artifacts are going to their rightful owners.”
He looked pointedly at the Redfang Goblins. The adventurers turned as one. The five Goblins returned the gazes, watchful. There was a pause and someone coughed. At last, Ylawes nodded.
“They retrieved the artifacts. If there is room for negotiation…it should be after the appraisal. Let’s assume we’ll go to Pallass. What about the cost for the appraisal?”
“The Gold-rank teams could all pay a portion of the cost. The question is, how would that be repaid? In the form of one of the three artifacts? To which group? And ah…if not that, how else?”
Typhenous murmured as he inspected his fork’s tines. He glanced up and Lyonette saw the Goblins shift. Erin frowned.
“I can pay! I’ll just take it out of their wages.”
Everyone looked at her. Ceria sighed.
“Erin, I don’t think you understand how much a good [Enchanter] charges—especially for a rush job.”
“Let’s see. Eighty gold coins for an appraisal?”
Erin choked as she took a sip from her mug. Lyonette saw the Goblins turn to each other and jabber worriedly. Revi smiled wickedly.
“Eighty? Maybe for a normal artifact. But dungeon artifacts? Try ten times that. More, if the [Enchanter] thinks they might get hit by a curse spell. You could pay as much as two thousand gold coins per artifact.”
“Two th—who’s got that kind of money lying around?”
The Halfseekers exchanged glances and shrugged, but Typhenous smiled as he stroked his beard and Revi smirked. Dawil, Falene, and Ylawes all raised a hand.
“Our groups could pay the cost. As could Griffon Hunt. The question is—would we receive an artifact in exchange?”
“That’s hardly a fair exchange, especially if one’s worth more.”
Yvlon frowned as she pointed that out. By her side, Ksmvr and Pisces nodded, being more engrossed in listening than anything else. Ylawes frowned at his sister.
“We could repay the cost. But we want to be clear about what we might get in exchange. What do the…Goblins think of this?”
All eyes turned to the Redfang Warriors. They exchanged looks. Lyonette went around the tables, waiting for a response. After a long while in which four of the Goblins began kicking the fifth, Numbtongue finally replied.
“Don’t need artifact appraisal.”
All the adventures looked incredulous. Numbtongue shrugged and refused to say anything else. Revi leaned over her table, chewing her bacon furiously.
“See here, I don’t care if you lot die in a dungeon, but I’m not having you walk around with artifacts that might do anything! The curse might not affect only you—I once saw a cursed artifact melt everything in a fifty foot radius!”
“It’s their choice, Revi. If they don’t want to—”
“Oh come on! They’re Goblins! We’re adventurers! We saved them! Don’t we get a say?”
“We saved them at Miss Erin’s request. In point of fact, the artifacts were already recovered.”
“Shut it, Typhenous!”
The argument went on as Lyonette went into the kitchen for cow’s milk instead. She could have served a weak ale for the morning, but milk was generally received well. The adventurers were arguing amongst themselves and the Goblins complicating matters with their silence when she returned. Lyonette listened to the argument, feeling…lost.
She just felt a little left out, that was all. Seeing the adventurers anxiously trying to confer with each other and Erin while the Goblins listened reminded Lyonette that all of this was Erin’s doing. She’d set everything in motion so a group of five Hobgoblins, Hobgoblins, could enter a dungeon and come back with treasure.
True, Lyonette had been the one to get the Halfseekers to enter her inn. And Griffon Hunt. But it had been Erin’s inn and the [Innkeeper] was the one who’d charmed them, made them allies and friends rather than guests. That was her talent, the thing that separated her from Lyonette. She’d made this world, where adventurers would negotiate with Goblins rather than just attack them and where Gold-rank adventurers were regulars at her inn. In fact, it was a testament to the way Lyonette had gotten used to it all that she barely blinked an eye when the Halfseekers announced they couldn’t keep debating the issue any longer.
“We’ve got to test the Heartflame Breastplate that Selys is leasing us. We’ll head to the dungeon if we can, Halrac. But we’re going to see exactly what the armor can do!”
Jelaqua grinned, looking like a child stuck in a dead Drake’s body. She rubbed her claws together.
“It’s going to be amazing.”
The other Gold-rank adventurers looked enviously at Jelaqua. If the Goblin’s artifacts were the news of the day, the revelation of Selys lending the Halfseekers the Heartflame Breastplate was the talk of the year. Last night Jelaqua had been so happy she’d bought drinks for the entire inn—thrice! Typhenous leaned forwards, his eyes shining as Jelaqua grinned wildly.
“Can we watch?”
“Sorry. Selys says part of the armor’s secrets can’t be shared. You can watch Moore chuck spells at the armor if you want, though. Or join in yourself.”
“We might have to. Halrac, Revi, I know the dungeon awaits, but this—”
The older [Mage] looked at his companions. Halrac nodded after a moment’s thought.
“We’d like to watch as well. Obviously finding a way into the dungeon matters. I don’t trust entering and exiting via the rift, so the dungeon entrance must be cleared. But for today…I’d love to see what an artifact like that could do.”
Ylawes looked at his team and they nodded in agreement. Dawil sat up as he finished stuffing another sausage into his mouth.
“Always worth seeing what a good artifact does! And it beats arguing about artifacts that we didn’t get anyways. Let the Goblins have their artifacts if they want.”
“Unless we can appraise them ourselves. That’s one last option. Anyone fancy looking at the enchantments and seeing what they might do? Falene, could you look at the enchantments?”
Ylawes paused and looked at his companion. Falene raised her head and gave him a severe glance.
“I am a [Battlemage], not an [Enchanter].”
“I know. I just thought—”
The [Knight] broke off as the half-Elf woman raised one delicate hand.
“However, as the sole [Mage] present who has been fully trained by Wistram, I will inspect the artifacts and make a preliminary assessment. Free of change. If we are all in agreement?”
She glanced at the Goblins and then away. The other adventurers nodded, more interested in the armor now, but it was Pisces who sat up. The [Necromancer] sniffed loudly, drawing attention to him.
“Miss Skystrall, it seems you are implying that your understanding of enchantments is superior to anyone else in this room.”
Falene smiled archly at him.
“Oh? I didn’t think I was implying so much as stating a fact. You disagree?”
“Immensely, as a matter of fact. I believe my understanding of enchantments would provide just as much illumination.”
“Then both of you check out the artifacts. Typhenous too, if he wants. Look, if we’re not hiring an [Enchanter], stare as much as you want. Just don’t touch it.”
Exasperated, Jelaqua got up. She looked around.
“This has been fun. But I’m getting new armor and as for this Goblin thing—look, Erin. You want to let them go into the dungeon, fine. They’re adventurers now. I don’t know why. And they have magical artifacts. Unappraised magical artifacts. That’s fine too, I guess. Just make sure they understand what the risks are.”
She looked at the Redfang Goblins, nodded to Seborn and Moore, and then the Halfseekers went to the door. Jelaqua opened it, stared through, and closed it.
“Hey, how do you open this thing to Liscor?”
“I’ve got it.”
Erin hurried over to the door and Lyonette saw the other adventurers rise. They followed the Halfseekers, all but the Horns of Hammerad.
“You’re not going to watch?”
“We’d love to. But I think we’ll get a chance later. And we have something Ksmvr’s insisted on doing.”
Ceria looked at Erin as Ksmvr rose. The Antinium was shaking, but he nodded to his team as the Gold-rank adventurers walked through the doorway into the rainy streets of Liscor. Ksmvr looked at Yvlon and Ceria. Yvlon looked worried.
“Ksmvr, are you sure this is what you want?”
“I insist. If I die, know it was in the service of my team.”
Erin looked confused. Lyonette stared at Ksmvr, a stack of dirty plates in her hand. She wondered what Ksmvr was talking about. She found out as she was washing dishes in the kitchen. It was hard to ignore the screaming.
Lyonette nearly dropped the plate she was washing the first time she heard Ksmvr screaming. It was coming from outside. She ran out of the kitchen and saw Mrsha staring out a window. Lyonette ran to the door and stared outside. The wet, rainy landscape and churning waters surrounded the inn. She heard the screaming cut off suddenly and looked around.
Where had it come from? She stared down to the water’s edge, where three shapes were standing as the rain pelted them. She saw them heave, and then she heard Ksmvr screaming again.
“Aaaaaaaa—put me back, put me back!”
He was flailing with his three good arms at the water’s edge. Lyonette saw Yvlon and Pisces look at each other, and then the two adventures slowly lowered Ksmvr’s head into the water. Instantly the Antinium began flailing. After a few second they pulled him out.
“Aaaargh! Aaaah! Water! Water everywhere!”
He screamed as water ran out of his mandibles. Lyonette saw Ceria shouting at him as she held his legs.
“Dead gods, Ksmvr! Just stop!”
“No! Put me back! I must conquer my fear!”
The other three Horns of Hammerad exchanged glances. Pisces shrugged and Yvlon nodded. They slowly lowered Ksmvr’s head towards the water. He began screaming before they even submerged him. His wild thrashing nearly made the three let go—they hauled him out.
“Put me back!”
“You’re struggling too hard! Ksmvr, this isn’t working! You panic if your head goes into the water, Ring of Water Breathing or not! We can’t hold you steady.”
“I see. Then drop me in!”
“What? You can’t swim!”
The Antinium jerked as water sprayed off his carapace.
“I must learn to enter the water. I disgraced myself by not joining the other adventurers in fighting underwater. I abandoned my duties!”
“You gave the ring to Erin. She used it!”
“I should have used it myself! I must learn to tolerate the water! Put me in!”
“Okay, but if you start screaming and thrashing, we’ll stop.”
“I will not scream. I may excrete all my bodily waste, however. Is that acceptable?”
The Antinium was arguing with his companions as he continued his water tolerance training. Lyonette watched, trying not to laugh. She did feel some admiration for Ksmvr, she really did. But the sight of the Antinium screaming and panicking just looking at the water was funny. She understood why he was afraid, though. That put something of a dampener on her humor and Lyonette decided to get out of the rain—until she saw the white shape sneaking down towards the Horns of Hammerad. Mrsha stealthily snuck up behind Ksmvr as he was arguing with Yvlon and put her paws into the water. She splashed the Antinium from behind and Ksmvr screamed.
“The water is attacking!”
He tore himself loose and ran up the hill as Mrsha chased him, spraying him with water she was holding in her mouth. Lyonette laughed and then shouted.
“Mrsha, stop that! Stop tormenting Ksmvr!”
Mrsha ignored Lyonette as Ksmvr slipped and rolled down the hill, screaming for the others to catch him. She was trying to push him closer to the water as Ksmvr flailed. Lyonette decided this had turned from a prank into cruelty. She snapped.
The Gnoll cub whined and looked up at Lyonette. The young woman felt bad, but she pointed and Mrsha reluctantly abandoned the screaming Ksmvr. She padded up the hill, tail and ears lowered.
“You know you can’t go outside without asking! What did I say this morning?”
Mrsha made a grumbling sound in her throat. Lyonette understood, she really did. But she had to be firm.
“Inside, young Miss. You need a bath now. Let Ksmvr be.”
Ignoring Mrsha’s protests, Lyonette forced her back inside. She could still hear Ksmvr arguing with Yvlon.
“I will conquer my fear! What if you froze my arms and legs so I could not move? Then put my head underwater?”
Lyonette shook her head. Mrsha was still complaining, and now she was sulking. By the time Lyonette made her take a bath, the Gnoll cub was throwing a tantrum and howling. Something had to be done. And as the morning became midday and the rain poured on, Lyonette knew it was time.
Erin paused in talking with the [Actor] in front of her long enough to frown at Lyonette. The [Barmaid] nodded and held her breath. Behind Erin she could see a score of [Actors] and helpers setting up the stage for today’s plays. The Players of Celum were putting on multiple performances today and the inn was already bustling, despite the plays not being scheduled for another two hours. However, that hadn’t stopped curious Gnolls, Drakes, and Humans from entering the inn from both Celum and Liscor.
Word about the new play, The Triumph of Liscor as it was tentatively being called, was already spreading to Liscor and Celum. That, combined with the popularity of the plays in general meant that Erin’s giant theatre actually felt somewhat full already. Erin had been rushing about, coordinating details with the Players of Celum in between cooking, but Lyonette had managed to get her attention at last.
“I think Mrsha’s really unhappy at being cooped up. Normally I’d ask Krshia to take care of her or ask Selys to take her to the playground, but Selys is very busy and so is Krshia. I’m the only one who can supervise Mrsha, so I’d like a small vacation. Nothing too much! Just around…let’s say lunchtime for three hours?”
Lyonette held her breath. Erin blinked at her.
“Mrsha’s cooped up? I totally get that! This rain is getting me down sometimes. And if she needs to run and play—don’t worry about it! Take the whole morning and afternoon off if you need to! Mrsha comes first. I can handle things—Drassi and Ishkr are both slated to be in tomorrow as well, so we’ll be fine.”
“You’re sure? I know you’re so busy—”
“Mrsha comes first. We’ll manage! Besides, the Players just need food and drinks and someone to shout at people to be quiet. I can handle that if I have help!”
Erin smiled. Lyonette smiled too, gratefully. She saw the [Actor] standing behind Erin cough and flushed.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“It’s fine. What were you saying, Kilkran?”
Erin flashed a smile at the [Actor] and he straightened.
“I was going to ask about your interpretation of Othello, Miss Erin. You see, it’s become something of an argument among my peers, and I was hoping you might take my side. Tonight’s play will feature one rendition of the play, and I was hoping you could have a word with the actor playing the part before we began. You see, I regard him as…”
Lyonette saw Erin sigh slightly, but the [Innkeeper] listened as the [Actor] went on and Lyonette went back to serving drinks to the people rushing about. That was Erin Solstice. She stood in her inn, but the inn revolved around her. Yes, there were other people in it, but the one who bound everyone together was Erin. And that was great! Wonderful. It wasn’t as if Lyonette was bitter about that fact.
It was just that she wanted to matter too. Erin was like Jasi or Wesle, one of the stars of the acting troupe. She dominated the stage. And Lyonette didn’t mind that. She’d watched Erin, from the proverbial backstage. She knew Erin now, possibly better than anyone else. The thing about Erin was that she had her good sides and her bad sides. She was good at connecting with people. She was bad at—
A harassed-looking Drake approached the [Barmaid]. Lyonette smiled at Drassi. The Drake [Barmaid] and [Gossip] didn’t return the smile.
“Drassi, what’s the matter?”
“My feet are what’s the matter! Lyonette, Erin told me I need to work tomorrow from morning till night!”
“That’s right. Is something wrong with that?”
“Yes! That’s my day off! Only Erin told me how much business we had and she really needs me to work! I love to earn money Lyonette, I really do. But I need time to spend the money I get!”
Drassi’s tail lashed and she spoke faster and faster as she grew more upset. Lyonette tried to soothe her.
“I understand. I know Ishkr’s been busy too. Look, I’ll talk it over with Erin and see if I can get you your day off sometime this week.”
“Would you? I know we have so much business. But it’s too much for three people! Erin should really hire some [Barmaids].”
“I’ll talk to her about it. Don’t worry.”
“Thanks Lyonette. You’re a lifesaver.”
Relieved, the Drake went back to waiting tables. Lyonette looked for Erin, but now she was talking with Wesle. That was the thing about Erin. She was good at people. But when it came to organization—well, she still slept on the floor of her kitchen next to her cooking ingredients. She could leave things hanging. She was good at focusing on one thing. But multiple things—
“Lyonette. Some of our visitors want to leave to Liscor.”
Ishkr called across the inn to Lyonette. He was carrying lunch and was clearly swamped. Lyonette nodded and hurried over to the door. A group of impatient Drakes was waiting there.
They nodded. Lyon found the corresponding mana stone—a bright green one—and placed it on the door. She swung it open and immediately the Drakes poured out and more poured in.
“Finally! We’ve been waiting here for ten minutes! Why did it take so long?”
One of the Drakes demanded angrily as she shook water off her scales. Lyon tried to apologize as she winced and wondered if they could put the door somewhere else. They had to clean the floor six times a day with everyone tromping in and out. She seated the Drakes, turned around, and saw Erin striding towards her.
“Lyonette! Drassi says we have a problem with schedules?”
Surprised, Lyonette glanced towards Drassi. The Drake winced and flicked her tail—a Drake way of apologizing. She must have mentioned the issue to Erin and the [Innkeeper] had abandoned the arguing [Actors] to immediately talk to Lyonette. The [Princess] nodded.
“We don’t have enough staff, Erin. I know we talked about hiring more. I think we need to, otherwise Drassi and Ishkr will be overworked.”
Erin chewed her lip.
“I know, I know. It was on my list but after Maran and Safry, I didn’t want to. You know?”
Lyonette nodded sympathetically. She paused.
“But we do need more.”
“I get it. Um…”
Erin looked around distractedly, as if new helpers would appear out of nowhere.
“I could ask Krshia for more helpers? And Selys? Or get some people from Celum…only I think I’m being boycotted by the [Innkeepers] there. I can ask around. But doing it today is sort of hard because we’re doing so many plays and I have to be here.”
The young woman looked around the inn.
“I know Drassi and Ishkr are tired, but I’ll pay them double if I have to, Lyonette. So…can we handle it for the next few days? I really, really need to have enough people serving the tables for our plays. I just don’t have time to find good people to hire—but you still take your break tomorrow with Mrsha! Kids first! But—”
“How about I find us some help?”
Erin stopped fretting and looked at Lyonette.
“You think you can?”
Lyon nodded. Why not? It wasn’t as if there was a lack of [Barmaids] and [Waiters] to hire. She gave Erin a confident grin.
“Leave it to me! You focus on the plays and I’ll figure something out.”
“I am. And while I have you, can we do something about the door?”
Erin looked blank until Lyonette explained about having to switch the door between Celum and Liscor constantly. And that was without factoring Pallass into the equation. She groaned.
“I didn’t realize it would be such a problem! Pallass barely gets used, but Liscor and Celum—look, I’ll try talking to Pisces, but he says I can’t make it move like Howl’s Moving Castle.”
“I can’t make it automatic! Or rather, he can’t. It’s too hard and has something to do with enchantment bindings and limited spell matrix capacity and so on. It would be so much easier if we didn’t have to use Liscor’s door, but what can you do? It’s not like I can get people to swim here, right? Right?”
Erin grinned sheepishly. Lyonette wondered if she’d actually be able to do just that. Knowing Erin…
“Maybe there’s another way.”
“Maybe? If you think of it, let me know.”
Erin sighed. Lyonette heard someone call her name and Erin groaned.
“Gotta go. Tell me if the lack of employment thing gets worse, okay?”
The two separated. Lyonette made a beeline for Drassi. Ironically, there was no bee in sight; Apista was up in Lyonette’s room with Mrsha, preferring to stay out of the way of so many people.
“Sorry about that, Lyonette. I just mentioned that I talked to you, and Erin was like ‘I’m going to sort this out right now!’ I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.”
“It’s fine, Drassi. Erin’s asked me to sort this out. Tell me, do you know anyone who might be free to work here?”
The Drake paused as she wiped sweat from her forehead.
“Me? Yeah, I’ve got tons of friends! So does Ishkr! Hey, Ishkr!”
The Gnoll paused as he headed towards the kitchen. He strode over and quickly convened with the two [Barmaids] as the diners waited for service. He nodded the instant Lyonette asked about other potential workers.
“I have a handful of friends. And acquaintances, yes? I could ask them.”
“They’re trustworthy? Hardworking?”
Both Drassi and Ishkr gave Lyonette an insulted look. Lyonette returned it.
“I have to ask.”
Drassi twitched her tail.
“Some of my friends slack off a bit. Okay, half of them. But I can ask the good half.”
“And I would not betray Miss Erin’s trust. I could ask a handful of the Gnolls I know to work hard.”
“Do you think they’d leave their jobs to work here?”
“Depends on how much you offer them. A lot of them work part-time. You know, during the spring rains? They could be persuaded to quit—especially if they get to watch plays.”
Drassi gave Lyonette a toothy smile. Lyonette smiled back and did some quick math.
“Tell them that Erin will pay them one silver and two copper per hour for the next three days. After that, if they want to stay on they’ll be paid a regular wage. Less.”
“Whoa! That’s a lot of money!”
Drassi and Ishkr looked shocked. That was nearly as much as Erin had offered Maran and Safry, and that had been an exorbitant amount for their levels and Skills. But the inn could definitely afford it. Lyonette nodded.
“I want them working tomorrow. They can come in with you and learn how to work in the inn. Of course, Erin will pay you and Ishkr the same amount. And for all the times you’ve had to work overtime!”
“Really? That’s great!”
Both Drake and Gnoll looked delighted. Lyonette smiled at them. She was promising a lot, but both workers had been pulling long hours for the inn. She should have brought this up with Erin a week ago! But that was also the thing with Erin. She reacted to problems rather than think ahead most of the time. Lyonette got back to work with Drassi and Ishkr; the patrons were getting unhappy with dry throats. Like a flash, it was already evening and Lyonette was tending to a fussy Mrsha.
“I know you want to run, but you can’t go running about under the tables. You can sit and watch the plays or run about upstairs, okay?”
Mrsha buried her head in her pillow and made a whining noise. Lyonette sighed, but she didn’t have time to argue. She hurried downstairs just in time to see Erin greeting a familiar face.
“Hey Ilvriss, what’s up?”
Wall Lord Ilvriss, arguably the most important Drake in Liscor, glared at Erin but silently took a seat at a table. Lyonette winced as she rushed past Erin. She waved at Drassi who poured her a mug of Firebreath Whiskey and shoved it into Lyonette’s hands.
“You do it? Please? He scares my tail off!”
Lyonette nodded. She took the mug to Wall Lord Ilvriss and smiled.
“Your drink, Wall Lord.”
“Ah. Thank you.”
Ilvriss looked surprised at the prompt service. He looked around at his table.
“I assume more plays will be put on tonight?”
“Absolutely, Wall Lord. We have another performance of The Triumph of Liscor, and the Players of Celum will be putting on other plays throughout the night. I can ask for a list if you would like to hear it?”
“Hmm. Yes, do that. But first, orders. I will have your finest steak—well done, spiced as hot as your kitchen allows.”
He nodded at his table and the Drakes who’d come with him chimed in with their orders. Lyonette fixed all of the details in place in her mind and bowed again before hurrying off. Ilvriss looked slightly pleased when she brought him his food within five minutes of ordering—the steak was done, and Ishkr had only had to heat it up, fry it until it was further done, and dump as many spices as he could onto the meat. Of course, the other orders were also premade and ready, but Lyonette deliberately chose to hold off sending them to the table until Ilvriss’ plate was done.
It was just etiquette, plain and simple. You didn’t serve anyone but the Wall Lord first. And you most certainly did not call him by his name in front of his followers. Lyonette wished Erin knew that. But in a way, that was something Erin couldn’t do. She couldn’t be humble.
Or maybe she could be. But she was bad at doing things she hated. She didn’t treat Wall Lord Ilvriss with the respect he required because she didn’t believe in the superiority of the noble titles. That was all very well and good and Lyonette understood the sentiment—here she was, a [Princess] waiting tables—but it was also a fault. Ilvriss had mellowed out considerably, but there was a difference between pushing him to being more tolerant and insulting him to his face.
What she could do wasn’t what Erin could do. Lyonette served tables as the Players of Celum finally began their play. The Triumph of Liscor was just as overdone as the first time she’d seen it, but the speeches had been refined and more parts had been added. It was as far from the truth as could be and when the play had finished, the applause was thunderous. The [Actors] rotated and another group came on to play Othello. All the while Lyonette was hurrying over to the magic door to let people in and out to Celum and Liscor. She had to change the door every five minutes—or less.
“This is ridiculous! There has to be a better way!”
Exasperated, Drassi slapped a yellow mana stone onto the door and yanked it open. Octavia’s voice could be heard in her shop.
“Come on, buy a pack of matches while you’re waiting! Or how about a stamina potion for the night? You’ll be wide awake until dawn—unless you take one of my drowsiness tonics! A two-for-one offer! Why not throw in a healing potion while you’re at it? You can never be too careful!”
“If we could just leave the door open to Celum, we wouldn’t have to keep opening it to Liscor. Maybe just once every thirty minutes so people know when we open it.”
Lyonette frowned at the door. Drassi nodded.
“But how would we tell them? A sign? Sundial? It’s raining so that’s not going to work. Ancestors, it would be so much easier if Erin just bought a bridge! I have a friend who could sell her one.”
Bemused, Lyonette glanced at Drassi. The Drake nodded.
“Why not? It’s not far from Liscor to the inn! It would cost a good bit of gold, yeah, but it would be so much easier.”
“To buy a bridge.”
“Of course! Wait—I forget, you don’t know about bridges! Hasn’t anyone told you?”
Drassi slapped her forehead. She tried to explain as she pointed Lyonette to a window.
“It’s not like we have that many, but if there’s a nearby place we need to get to—I think we connected one from the city to the dungeon. It’s not hard! You just pay a few Drakes or Gnolls to build a bridge over the water! If you’ve got the gold, you can hire one and have it done tomorrow.”
“And it’s safe?”
“Well, it’s not that safe if a monster attacks. But most of them don’t go above the water and if it’s near the city the most you normally get is hit by a Quillfish. And you have Bird on the rooftop, right? He and the City Watch can shoot anything that attacks.”
“That could work!”
Lyonette imagined a bridge connecting Liscor and The Wandering Inn. It wouldn’t eliminate the need for the door, but it would cut down on the traffic. She found Erin in the kitchen and explained the bridge idea. Erin nearly dropped the hot pan in surprise.
“Wait. Are you serious? Relc told me he had a bridge to sell me and I told him he was crazy! That’s actually a thing?”
“That’s right! Drassi says she knows someone who can get to work tomorrow. Do you think you’d be willing to pay for it?”
Erin thought about that for a moment. Then she reached for her money jar.
Five minutes later, Drassi hunted through the crowd of watching Drakes. She’d spotted the very Drake she wanted to talk to and pulled him out of his seat as the next play started. Lyonette heard her whispering to him.
“Hey Meniss! Are you still selling bridges? Because I have a big one for you! But you have to give me a discount. And no building it with bad ropes or wood, got it?”
Soon enough Drassi came back with the news that a team of Drakes and Gnolls would work on a bridge tomorrow and both Lyonette and Erin exchanged a celebratory high-five. They got back to work. Lyonette got into the rhythm of serving, watching familiar and unfamiliar faces come and go until someone special walked through the door to Liscor.
The Worker looked up in surprise.
“I haven’t seen you in over a week! Where have you been?”
A genuine smile sprang to Lyonette’s lips as she ushered the wet Worker into the room. Pawn nodded, looking tired.
“I have been exceedingly busy. After the attack there was much work to be done. Not only in flood proofing the Hive…I have expanded my unit to include many more Workers and Soldiers and organizing them is a troublesome task. That is why I came here, actually.”
“Really? Tell me about it. Let me get you a seat. I know it’s noisy—we just finished a play. Another one will start soon. Can I get you anything to eat? To drink?”
Pawn wavered as Lyonette ushered him to a seat at the back of the room.
“That is very kind, Lyonette. But I was hoping to speak to Erin. I need her advice.”
Lyonette’s excitement went out like a candle. She paused.
“Sure. I’ll get her. She’s um, busy, but I’m sure she has time for you.”
She backed away and found Erin in a second. True enough, Erin was more than willing to stop socializing with Selys and pestering her about how her new armor worked. She made a beeline for Pawn.
“Pawn! I haven’t seen you in forever! What’s been happening?”
Again, Lyon watched Pawn raise his mandibles in a smile and turn to Erin. She knew Erin was important to him, but it hurt a bit. She and Pawn had truly gotten to know each other before. She listened unobtrusively as Pawn explained his dilemma.
“…so many of them, you see? And with the rainfall we cannot patrol. I wish to give them some form of entertainment, but books only go so far. What can we give my people without exposure to the above world? Your inn is often occupied and the Antinium cannot indefinitely fund meals at your inn. I was hoping you had suggestions.”
Lyonette opened her mouth and then bit her tongue. Erin patted Pawn on the shoulder, smiling at him.
“Pawn, I’ve got you. Just give me a day or two and I’ll think of all kinds of things your Soldiers and Workers can do! I know tons of games. Not just board games—we could introduce your people to fun activities!”
“Like…tag! Or musical chairs! Wait, no. That’s a terrible idea. But I’m sure there are fun things to do indoors for everyone. Painting? Well, you already do that. Um. Yoga? No wait, your body parts don’t bend. Tomorrow I’ll have a list. Tonight you relax and have fun! I’ll make you a food basket to take back too, okay?”
“You are most kind, Erin.”
“Nah, nah. But hey look, they’re putting on the next play! I think we’re doing Pygmalion now. I want to do Romeo and Juliet—I mean, Juliet and Romeo soon. That’s gonna be a huge hit. Hey, tell me about what happened in the Hive when the moths attacked! I was so worried when I heard there was fighting! Where were you?”
“Well, I was summoned to the front as soon as the alarm was raised…”
Lyonette saw Pawn gesturing awkwardly as Erin sat with him. She turned her head and saw Drassi and Ishkr struggling to keep up with all the hungry visitors silently waving mugs or empty plates. Guiltily, Lyonette lingered for a minute longer and then hurried off. She had a job to do. And so she did it.
But suddenly, unaccountably, Lyonette felt worse. Okay, fine. Pawn needed Erin’s help. That made sense. Erin had brilliant ideas. From her world. And she had helped turn Pawn into an individual. Lyonette understood how important that made her in his eyes.
It was just—she was a bit jealous, that was all. She watched as Erin bent her head towards Pawn, ushering him towards her chess table where they could sit and talk. Lyonette went to get Pawn a warm drink and some hot food. Not so she could hover around the table. She was just curious.
And a bit jealous. That was all.
Nighttime. Just before midnight the last guests left. Not so much because they were done drinking or too tired to stay up, but because Lyonette had firmly established that there had to be a closing time with Erin. Drassi and Ishkr were practically asleep on their feet when they’d left, and Lyonette was sore and exhausted. Nevertheless, she stayed up as Erin yawned her way into the kitchen.
The adventurers were back. The Goblins were upstairs. Everything was quiet. Lyonette snuck into her room where Apista and Mrsha were sleeping and rummaged around under her bed. She pulled out a sheathed sword that Mrsha was forbidden from touching. Then she crept downstairs.
It was still raining. Lyonette stared out at the rain-slicked grass and shook her head. So she cleared some tables and chairs in the common room instead and took a stance. She held her sword upright, trying to recall how she should grip the hilt.
Here and…here. And her footwork? Her feet moved automatically to the right places, courtesy of her [Basic Footwork] Skill. Good. Lyonette took a few slow breaths, trying to breathe right. She imagined someone standing right in front of her and slowly lifted her sword.
“Strike fast and true. Strike without hesitation, yes?”
The words burned Lyonette’s lips. The memory made her heart hurt. But she forced the feelings back and tried to remember. She awkwardly tried to cut like Brunkr had shown her once before. Her sword whooshed through the air pleasantly, but Lyonette felt like her stance was wrong.
“Like this? No. Like this.”
She tried to stab forwards, to parry. It was an unfamiliar sensation, but the sword was light in her hands. Not at all heavy compared to a tray full of food. And it was balanced well. Lyonette used to think of swords as heavy things, but a well-made sword was easy to use. Still, Brunkr had told her that a good [Warrior] trained not just for speed and strength, but so they could remember how to act, how to strike just so in a moment’s notice.
Strike. She’d learned how to perform a few basic strikes from him, how to parry an oncoming blow. That was all. Lyonette performed the moves again and again until her already tired arms protested. She practiced until she was sweaty and then lowered her sword.
Meaningless. Sometimes it felt like that. Lyonette clumsily sheathed the sword, feeling as though she was unworthy of it. But she deliberately carried it back upstairs, deliberately hid it under the bed and told herself she would do the same tomorrow. Because it mattered. Because Brunkr had taught her how to do that. Because…
She fell asleep without finishing that thought. Her bed was warm even though Mrsha hogged the blankets and Lyonette was very, very tired. She closed her eyes and knew tomorrow would be here too soon.
She didn’t level as a [Warrior] that night, but it was enough. Lyonette was already Level 3, and she hadn’t ever actually fought anything. She wanted to learn, though. She wanted to level. All classes, all levels were worth having. It was better than nothing.
And it was better than being useless.
“Ugh. I am so tired. Does it feel like everything’s harder today? Because it feels like that to me! I hate spring. All the rain and mud and water—does anyone else feel like they could use a nice, hot, dry summer? Anyone? Ishkr, what about you?”
The next day Drassi’s chatter was something Lyonette had to endure for the first few hours around breakfast. She knew the Drake didn’t mean anything by it, but she was tired. So were Drassi and Ishkr. They were pulling full-day shifts in the inn and Lyonette would have been right there with them any other day. But she had another commitment, so as she finished serving and eating breakfast, she found Mrsha.
The young Gnoll was sitting in her chair, eating her food with less than her normal vigor. She looked antsy, and her ears were flatter than usual. She looked up as Lyonette approached. The [Princess] smiled and knelt as Mrsha shifted restlessly.
“Come on, Mrsha. We’re going to Celum.”
Instantly, Mrsha’s ears perked up and her tail began to wag. She followed Lyonette to the door and Lyon bade farewell to Erin.
“You sure you don’t need me to return earlier?”
“We’re good! And Drassi and Ishkr’s friends are arriving soon, so we’re getting reinforcements! I’ve got more plays happening and we’re building a bridge! Go have fun! You too, Mrsha!”
Erin laughed. That was one of her good qualities. She had meant it when she told Lyonette that Mrsha came first. Lyonette grabbed a basket she’d made in the morning for this very moment and she pushed the door open to Celum.
“Hey Lyonette! Hey furry little match-seller! Something you need?”
Octavia beamed at the two of them. Lyonette smiled politely.
“We’re just headed into the city. We’ll be back soon.”
“Sure, sure. Hey, do you think Erin would mind keeping her door closed longer tonight? I sell more stuff if people have to wait in my shop before I get to her! I’m thinking of selling food, actually. You know, for the wait. If she could wait for thirty minutes each time…”
Octavia’s voice trailed off as Lyonette walked outside. She had to shake her head at the [Alchemist]’s avarice.
“Don’t you listen to her. Octavia is a good person. Who does mean things.”
Mrsha nodded as she happily walked along Celum’s streets. It was dry here. The sun was shining, there were few clouds in the sky, and Lyonette felt a cool wind on her clothes. She blinked around the bright Human city.
Celum was a hundred miles north of Liscor. From the city Lyonette could see the High Passes and darker skies, but the weather that affected Liscor did not reach all the way to Celum. She walked down the street, urging Mrsha to stay close as Humans walked past her and wagons rolled down the street. Mrsha sniffed the air, her tail wagging and Lyonette smiled.
“This is much better than the inn, isn’t it?”
Mrsha smiled happily. Soon, Lyonette was at Celum’s gates and a [Guardswoman] standing there checking people coming in stopped her.
“Is that Gnoll child with you, Miss?”
“Yes. She’s my…ward.”
The Human woman looked curiously at Mrsha, who waved a paw. The [Guardswoman] might never have seen a Gnoll before, or one with white fur. She eyed Lyonette who was adjusting the bag at her side and telling it to ‘stop moving, we’re nearly there’. She made no comment however.
“May I ask where you’re going? It’s not wise to venture too far outside the city. Especially with children.”
“We won’t go far. Just outside the walls. I hear there are open fields near the city?”
The [Guardswoman] pointed a finger.
“If you’re looking for a walk within sight of the walls, try that way, Miss. Just don’t stray too far.”
Lyonette smiled and got a smile in return. She stepped out of the gates and Mrsha looked up. The sunlight warmed her skin and the cool air invigorated her. Both young woman and Gnoll looked around. There was no rain. There was no water. There was hard, firm earth, blooming grass, and flowers. Lyonette felt Apista trying to crawl out of her rucksack. She saw Mrsha squirming, practically vibrating.
“Mrsha, if you stay within eyeshot you can run. Okay?”
The Gnoll looked at her. Lyonette gave her a nod. Mrsha’s eyes went round and wide and then she shot across the open ground, prompting a surprised laugh from the [Guardswoman]. Lyonette laughed too in delight. Mrsha was quick, but out here in the open with nothing to get in her way she was like lightning! She might have outrun a hare and she was grinning in delight as she ran on all fours.
“Wait for me!”
Lyonette ran after her. As she did, the hand that had been holding the rucksack at her side fell open. Something crawled out and then took wing. Apista flew into the air, finally free of Lyonette’s prison, happily flying through the air as Mrsha bounded along. Lyonette ran after both, laughing.
The sun! It shone down on all three as they ran towards a small field of flowers right where the [Guardswoman] had said. It was indeed within a good distance of the walls and here Lyonette told Mrsha she had to stay. The Gnoll took this restriction with nothing but good humor—she was delighted to run about at last and was busy sniffing everything in sight, peering at flowers, chasing after a cricket, and smiling.
The smile was everything. Lyonette had fretted to see Mrsha so depressed. Sometimes she wondered if she was the right person to care for her. But who else was there? Erin? Ryoka? Krshia? Selys? Each one couldn’t look after Mrsha as much as Lyonette could. None of them had been there when Mrsha needed someone. Lyonette had. She was a poor mother though. A poor substitute for the real thing. But she did try. Lyonette sat in the grass and began unpacking her bag.
“Blanket, food—shoo, Mrsha! You just ate! Here. Catch this!”
Lyonette pulled something out of her bag. Mrsha jumped up joyously and one of her paws grazed the ball that Lyonette threw. Her ball. Happily, Mrsha chased after it and threw the ball high, high into the air. She ran for it and Apista buzzed after her. Like the Gnoll, the Ashfire Bee was happy to be outdoors. Lyonette could sense it through the bond they shared. Apista went from flower to flower, delicately avoiding crushing the bright blooms as she inspected each one for nectar. She and Mrsha ran about as Lyonette finished setting up her small picnic. Then Lyonette got up.
The Gnoll bounded over. Lyonette reached down.
“Do you want to play a game?”
Mrsha thought about that and then spat out the ball in her mouth. She wiped it on the grass and then tossed it at Lyonette. The young woman smiled, caught the ball, and threw it back. Mrsha leapt from all fours to catch the ball with her two paws. She tumbled onto the ground, stood up clumsily, and threw the ball back. Lyonette laughed, chased the ball and threw it.
The Gnoll needed more people to play with. Other Gnolls maybe. More games. Next time, Lyonette would see if Krshia could come. Or Ishkr. Or Erin. And there would be a next time. That Lyonette was certain of. Because what Erin had said was right. Mrsha came first. More than the inn, more than her job, Lyonette had a duty to the small, voiceless Gnoll who rolled about in the grass, happy to be out of the rain.
Trouble with Goblins, Pawn’s dilemmas, her inferiority to Erin—it all melted away as Lyonette laughed and twirled Mrsha around. The sun shone and for a while Lyonette danced with Mrsha in the small field of flowers. And Lyonette smiled and laughed—
Until she heard the shrieking.
It came from above, a scream of rage. Not a Human voice, or a person’s. A bright red bird no bigger than Lyonette’s hand hurtled out of the sky, shrieking in fury. It was joined by another bird of equal size, its mate perhaps. And it was chasing something.
Apista. Lyonette cried out in horror as she saw the duo of birds diving at Apista, pecking the Ashfire Bee as Apista fanned her wings and jabbed threateningly with her stinger. But for all her size the two birds were faster and more mobile in the air. They tried to rake her with their claws, pecking, as Apista buzzed in fury.
Mrsha stopped playing and looked up in alarm. The two red robins dove around Apista, outraged. Had Apista flown by their nest? Or were they just attacking the Ashfire Bee for fear she might bring more of her kind? Lyonette heard the outraged voices of the bird grow louder and then multiply. To her horror she saw robins, starlings, and then a crow fly out of the air. They dove at Apista, acting in unison. And now Lyonette grew truly afraid.
Robins were one thing. But a crow? She saw the large bird strike Apista with a claw and felt the flash of pain through her bond. Apista tried to sting the crow, but the bird was too quick. It flew backwards, squawking, as Apista beat her wings furiously. The other birds besieged her from all angles.
“Apista! Come here!”
Lyonette waved her arms, shouting loudly, trying to drive off the birds. It didn’t work. Mrsha threw something—her precious ball—but the birds easily avoided the missile and kept attacking Apista. The Ashfire Bee was beating its wings, buzzing loudly, refusing to flee.
Apista was buzzing louder than Lyonette had ever heard her. Her wings fanned faster as the birds flew around her, darting at her sides and wings. Lyonette was about to shout at the bee to fly to her so she could shield her from the angry birds when Apista’s buzzing reached a peak. Her wings beat so fast they nearly turned invisible and then the bee burst into flames!
Lyonette’s shriek of horror was echoed by the birds around it. One of them had been diving at Apista the moment before the flames began. One of the red robins peeled away, its feathers smoking. It fled, twittering in alarm and the other birds hesitated. They took one look at the flaming bee, circling, wary of striking. Then Apista moved. She flew straight at the crow and the startled bird cawed and nearly lost its wings to the fiery attack. It flew with Apista in hot pursuit. Below, Lyonette and Mrsha watched, gaping with astonishment.
The fire didn’t hurt Apista! Lyonette could sense the bee wasn’t hurt, only extremely angry. Apista flew at the other birds, chasing them off. Within moments she was the only thing in the air and the distressed birdcalls were a distant memory. Now Apista flew downwards, like a flaming ember.
Lyonette called up at her. The bee flew towards her and the fire engulfing her body winked out as she few towards Lyonette. The young woman hesitated, but she held out her hands. She winced as Apista landed, but the bee was only warm to the touch. Gently, Lyonette held her to her chest.
“You silly little bee! Don’t pick fights with birds!”
Apista wiggled her antennae, trying to climb up Lyonette’s hands. She perched on Lyonette’s shoulder, fanning her wings gently. Lyonette sensed exhaustion from the Ashfire Bee, as if it had used up all its energy setting itself aflame.
“Was that magic? Or could you always do that?”
Predictably, Apista didn’t respond. Lyonette looked around. Mrsha appeared with her ball in her mouth. She approached Apista, sniffing anxiously and the bee crawled onto her face. Mrsha carefully lifted her onto her head. Lyonette regarded her two charges and exhaled slowly.
“That was too much excitement. Here.”
She dug around in her pack and pulled something out. A small jar of honey. Instantly, Apista flew over to it. Lyonette uncorked the bottle and let Apista crawl onto it. The bee immediately began devouring the honey and Lyonette saw Mrsha approach the bag. The Gnoll rooted around in the bag and found lunch. She pulled out a toasted sandwich and looked triumphantly at Lyonette.
“Alright, we can have an early lunch.”
Lyonette smiled. She sat with Apista and Mrsha and found her own sandwich. The Gnoll slowly ate her lunch as Lyonette chewed on her food.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised. Ashfire Bees are known to be immune to fire. And they’re dangerous. Why shouldn’t they be able to set themselves on fire?”
Mrsha nodded. Lyonette looked at Apista.
‘I’ve heard they survived forest fires. Only now I wonder if they start them. Is it something only a few bees can do? I still don’t know if Apista’s a queen bee. All I do know is that she eats too much and she picks fights with birds. And moths.”
Apista wiggled her antennae. Lyonette yawned. That fright and playing with Mrsha had exhausted her!
“I’m sleepy. And it’s quite warm. Mrsha, are you…?”
She looked over and saw Mrsha was lying on the blanket, already snoozing. Lyonette laughed. The sun was warm. And while it was cool, compared to the rainy weather, this was just too pleasant. Slowly, Lyonette lay back on the blanket.
“We really shouldn’t sleep here. Especially if more birds will attack.”
That was very true. But the blanket made a counterargument. If Lyonette just lay back and closed her eyes she could think about the dangers in more comfort. Slowly, Lyonette did. She closed her eyes and felt welcome sleep tugging at her mind. She was still tired. She was always so busy at Erin’s inn. But here…
Mrsha was curled up next to her. Her small back rose and fell rapidly as she slept. Lyonette looked at her. There lay Mrsha. Her fur was beautifully white. She could be a handful. Cranky, prone to disobedience, pranks. She’d gone through so much. Too much. And yet, there was no one else in this world that Lyonette cared more for. She’d been a [Princess]. She’d lost her possessions, become an outcast. She’d become an unwilling [Barmaid]. But it had been the need to care for Mrsha that made her truly change. And now she was Mrsha’s guardian. Her protector. Because Mrsha was her…
Her what? Her subject? Her ward? Her…child? Nothing quite fit. Lyonette reached out and felt Mrsha’s warm back beneath her palm. What she was to Mrsha and Mrsha was to her defied proper words. But it mattered. Oh, it mattered.
“I don’t have a kingdom anymore. I don’t have subjects. But I do have you.”
Lyonette whispered and felt the hint of tears spring to her eyes. She brushed them away and put her head back. The warm blanket drew her in and the sun warmed her. Lyonette closed her eyes as Apista buzzed quietly around her head. She felt so sleepy and closed her eyes for a moment.
[Carer Level 8!]
[Beast Tamer Level 5!]
[Skill – Apista: Basic Training obtained!]
Lyonette sat up. The sun was still shining. The blanket was still soft. But the familiar presence at her side was gone. She looked around wildly and saw Mrsha.
The Gnoll jumped guiltily. She immediately tried to hide what she was holding behind her back. Lyonette got up, her head bleary and saw Mrsha had gathered a pile of moldy pinecones.
“That’s not…how long have I been asleep?”
Mrsha looked innocently at her. Lyonette looked around and saw Apista was resting in a bed of flowers. She stared at the sun and jumped.
“It’s already evening! We’ve been out here for hours!”
Mrsha nodded in agreement. Lyonette looked around.
“That’s long. Too long, maybe. We should get back to the inn. I told Erin I’d come back at some point.”
She looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll was pouting.
“Mrsha, do you want to go back? Have you had enough fun?”
The small Gnoll cub considered this. She nodded reluctantly. Lyonette felt incredibly guilty about falling asleep when Mrsha could have wandered off. She tried to make up for it by packing swiftly. She stuffed her blanket and Apista into the rucksack and made tracks back towards Celum.
“The next time I fall asleep, wake me up! I should be the adult here!”
Lyonette moaned. She saw Mrsha nod happily and felt something rustle in her bag. An outraged Apista tried to climb out.
Lyonette blocked her with a hand. Apista tried to crawl past her.
“No, Apista. You have to stay. Otherwise someone will swat you in Celum. Stay in the bag.”
Belatedly, Lyonette remembered she’d just obtained a Skill to train Apista. She pointed at the Ashfire Bee and spoke in a firm tone, just like she’d heard the [Houndmaster] in the kennels speaking.
Apista fanned her wings defiantly. Lyonette pointed.
“Stop that. Stay! Stay.”
Apista flew out of her bag and defiantly flew rings around Lyonette’s head. Lyonette groaned. Mrsha laughed silently as Lyonette chased after her Ashfire Bee. The smile on the Gnoll’s face lasted even when they returned to the city, with a suspiciously buzzing bag firmly shut at Lyonette’s side.
This was her small accomplishment. Lyonette took pride in that. She and Mrsha took a moment’s reprieve just long enough to buy Mrsha a little spinning top at a local shop and then they returned through Octavia’s shop to The Wandering Inn. Just in time for chaos.
“Lyonette! Thank goodness you’re back! It’s a disaster over here!”
The first person to greet Lyonette was Drassi. Lyonette blinked as the Drake waved a claw about frantically.
“It’s chaos over here! No one knows what to do! All of the Gnolls Ishkr brought are milling about and Erin’s busy with the building team with the bridge! They’re arguing and I can’t get my friends to pay attention!”
She pointed and Lyonette saw that Erin was at the center of a crowd of people vying for her attention. Some looked like laborers, while others were clearly [Barmaids] dressed for their job. Some were [Actors] and one was a stuffy-looking Drake waving a clipboard and shouting about Pallass.
“Hold on! Hold on! I’m trying to—stop trying to get my attention! First people first!”
Erin was trying to shout over the voices of everyone, sounding harried. There were too many people though and she kept getting distracted with each new problem that emerged. Lyonette heard angry shouting and saw that some of the customers were demanding food or drink. Others were just shouting for Erin to keep it down. Ishkr was trying to let people in from Celum and Liscor, Drassi was trying to wait tables and explain how everything worked to the female Drakes following her…it was a mess.
And for some reason, Lyonette felt good about that. Was that a good feeling to have? Probably not. But the sight of Erin turning to her in relief and shouting her name—it did feel nice. Because it meant that Lyonette was important. It meant that she was needed. And perhaps most importantly, it meant that Erin wasn’t perfect.
She was an [Innkeeper], someone who could connect to other people’s hearts, turn even the most taciturn of loners into a friend. She read people like books and created miracles and that made her a [Magical Innkeeper]. But if she had a weakness, just one, it was that she was no leader. Just a friend. And that was fine. Lyonette savored this precious knowledge for all of five second and then took a breath.
Heads turned. Lyonette pointed.
“Miss Erin Solstice is extremely busy! Please form a line—I don’t care what order—and wait for your turn. No arguments. I said, form a line. Now!”
She didn’t scream. She didn’t wave her hands or stomp her foot. That was how a fool acted. Lyonette just gave orders and behaved as if they would be carried out. She promptly ignored the people who objected and headed straight for Erin. Half the people around the [Innkeeper] ducked as Apista buzzed over their heads. That helped too, of course.
“What’s the problem? Drassi first.”
“All my friends are here, all the ones who wanted to work, but they don’t know what to do! I’ve been trying to teach them, but—”
Ishkr walked over. Lyonette nodded. That was simple. She pointed towards the kitchen.
“Drassi, show your friends where we keep the food and have them start passing around the popcorn in bowls to each table. Ishkr, can you show these Gnolls where our drinks are? Have them start filling mugs. We can help each other out once we’re sorted.”
Relieved, the Drake and Gnoll hurried off, calling to their friends. At once half the shouting patrons stopped, realizing they’d finally get what they wanted. In the newfound silence, Lyonette turned to Erin.
“What else is wrong?”
“I’ve been telling these guys that I’m not hiring a team of adventurers just to watch them build my bridge! I didn’t know that was a cost!”
Erin looked exasperated as she argued with a [Foreman] or perhaps a [Fore Drake] who was supposed to be building the bridge. He growled.
“And how are we supposed to work without protection? Those waters aren’t safe to work in and we’ll be in the water some of the time! Just get the Gold-rank team that’s living here to watch us!”
“They’re busy! And I’m not hiring a Silver-rank team for two days straight! That would cost me too much gold! I told you, I have Hobgoblins—”
“We don’t trust Goblins to watch us!”
All the Drakes and Gnolls instantly burst out into angry protests. Erin folded her arms.
“They’re as good as any team of adventurers!”
That was another fault of hers. Erin was stubborn. She was relaxed about a lot of things, but issues like this—Lyonette listened to them argue for five minutes before offering her compromise.
“What about Hobgoblins and a Silver-rank team of adventurers?”
The Drake looked confused. Lyonette pointed to the Horns of Hammerad, who were waiting in line for an unrelated reason that required Erin’s attention.
“If the Hobgoblins stand outside with you and the Horns of Hammerad remain in the inn, will that do? At the first sign of trouble they’ll come out. And we have an Antinium watching from above.”
“Oh yeah. We do!”
Erin grinned as Lyonette went to go grab Bird, who had been sitting in his watch tower and singing his rain song. The Drakes and Gnolls looked somewhat reassured by the Antinium. Ironic, but apparently an Antinium was better than a Goblin, especially to Liscor’s residents. Lyonette turned to Bird.
“Bird, if you see anything attacking the workers, tell us at once. Understand?”
“Yes, Miss Lyonette.”
“Is that fair?”
The [Builders] conferred, but eventually nodded and trooped outside. Lyonette beckoned the next person in line forwards and Erin sighed in relief.
“Lyonette, you’re a lifesaver.”
“I’m just doing my job.”
“I know, but it’s a good job! I don’t know what I would have done without you. Never go on vacation again, okay? Kidding! But not really.”
She smiled at Lyonette. The [Barmaid] smiled back. She turned back to work, pleased. This was her job. She was a helper at Erin’s inn. This was what she could do. She was no [Princess]. She had no servants or subjects. Just an inn, and a friend. She helped Erin sort out the rest of her problems, let the new workers take over for Drassi and Ishkr, and picked out the two best Drakes and Gnolls out of the bunch. With Erin’s instant agreement she decided to hire them as long-term help.
Another of Erin’s faults—no, another thing about Erin that defined her was her unwillingness to commit to huge changes so easily. She saw hiring someone as a huge transition, whereas Lyonette saw it as a simpler thing. You could fire them if you had to. For Erin that was a tremendously stressful activity. But Lyonette felt like she could easily do that. She couldn’t cook, Erin could. Erin could manage the [Actors], and Lyonette could assemble the [Barmaids]. They had their strengths, their weaknesses. But they were a team. Lyonette didn’t know why she’d ever thought it had been just Erin.
That night she practiced with her sword and went to bed, tired, but happy. Lyonette closed her eyes and heard the voice again.
[Barmaid Level 15!]
[Skill – Balanced Posture obtained!]
[Warrior Level 4!]
[Class Conditions: Princess failed]
[Class – Princess lost.]
[Skill – Detect Poison lost.]
[Skill – Royal Tax lost.]
In the silence of the night, Lyonette sat up for a second. She looked around. She listened. But the voice said nothing more. Slowly, she lay back.
No one responded. By her side, Mrsha’s chest rose and fell. Apista slept near the window. Lyonette stared up at the ceiling.
It had just been an ordinary day. Just an ordinary day with ups and down and—she’s leveled four times. That was a lot. Was it because she reached Level 15 in [Barmaid]? Was it because she hadn’t been a [Princess] for so long? Because she’d given up?
No one answered. Lyonette stared up at the wooden ceiling over her head.
“It didn’t matter anyways. I never needed that Skill. I never leveled up. I never…”
She trailed off. Outside the rain fell. It pattered on the roof overhead. Lyonette listened to it, blankly. She didn’t feel bad. She didn’t feel sad. If anything, she just felt surprised.
“I lost my class. I didn’t know that could happen.”
She reached inside, searching for pain. For horror. For sadness. But she didn’t find it. She lost her [Princess] class. She was no longer a [Princess]. In name she might be, but in a real way, no, in the realest way she was no longer royalty. It didn’t hurt. Perhaps because she’d lost it long ago.
Lyonette stared up at the ceiling. She couldn’t sleep. But neither could she find it in her to mourn. And eventually she fell asleep.
The next day, Erin found Lyonette had gotten up before her. The [Barmaid] was cheerfully cleaning up the plates from last night’s play. She smiled as Erin blinked at her.
“Good morning, Erin!”
She kept her voice low as Erin waved blearily at her. A slumbering little ball of fur was lying on a table.
“Mrsha followed me downstairs. I couldn’t sleep.”
“Really? I could use like five more hours.”
Lyonette laughed a bit as she piled up plates.
“Well, I took a nap yesterday when I went out with Mrsha. And I leveled up last night so I stayed up.”
“What, you did? That’s great news! What did you level in?”
Erin brightened up. Lyonette smiled.
“I reached Level 15 in [Barmaid]. And uh, Level 4 in [Warrior]. And I got a Skill. [Balanced Posture]. I know that’s not much but considering that I haven’t been working for more than half a year at most, I thought—”
“No, that’s amazing! What’s your Skill do?”
The [Barmaid] shrugged, smiling, clearly pleased at Erin’s reaction.
“I think it gives me a better posture. I already had [Basic Footwork], but now I feel like I can’t trip.”
“Go on, push me.”
Lyonette invited Erin to push her. Tentatively, Erin did. Lyonette just shifted backwards. She let Erin push her, try to shove her onto one leg, and then let Erin give her a shove. Each time Lyonette had to take a step backwards or adjust her posture, but she was never in any danger of falling. Erin eventually managed to get her to windmill her arms—only by grabbing one leg and yanking it up. Even then, Lyonette felt incredibly steady.
“That’s so great! I mean, okay, it’s probably best for waiting tables, but I bet you won’t drop a bunch of plates.”
“That’s probably the best use I’ll get out of it.”
The young woman laughed as she agreed. By this time Mrsha had woken up. Not to be dissuaded, she had tried to upend Lyonette in her own way by tripping up the girl. It hadn’t worked. Now Mrsha raised her arms. Lyonette dutifully bent and picked her up.
“That’s really cool, Lyonette. Hey, we should celebrate! Nothing fancy—I bet you you’ll get more levels soon, but how’s a little party for Mrsha sound? We can go picnicking out in Celum! I can close up the inn for a while—maybe invite the others? We could all use some sunshine.”
“That sounds great, Erin.”
Lyonette smiled. She picked up the stack of dirty plates and Erin tried to stop her.
“Aw, come on. You don’t have to do that so early.”
“Someone’s got to. Besides, we need to clean the tables. Don’t worry Erin, I feel refreshed.”
“You sure? I feel like all this work is killing me. I’m so glad we got more help! Good work on getting Drassi and Ishkr to call their friends.”
“It wasn’t hard. And we can try out the new workers and give the others a break. I’m just glad business is picking up. Look Erin, don’t worry about it. I’m really glad I leveled. Really. I’ve finally got a class with enough levels that I can be useful.”
Erin sighed, but she let Lyonette take the dishes into the kitchen.
“You were always useful! Now you’re just good at what you do.”
Lyonette laughed. She paused as Mrsha curled back up on her table.
“Come on, Mrsha. You can’t sleep on tables. You know that. If you want to sleep, go back upstairs. I’ll be here when you wake up. I have a job to do.”
Mrsha made a sound of protest. Lyonette nudged her. Erin smiled as the young woman bent over the Gnoll, trying to pick her up.
“Yes, my job. Come on, Mrsha. You get to eat and sleep, but some of us have to work. Some of us have a class. And my class means I have to clean tables. Come on Mrsha. I have a job. Mrsha?”
The Gnoll reluctantly uncurled. She looked up and blinked at Lyonette. Slowly she let herself be picked up by the young woman. Lyonette smiled and saw Mrsha crane her neck up. She felt a rough tongue lick at her cheeks.
“Mrsha! Stop that!”
She tried to stop the Gnoll, but Mrsha licked her other cheek. Lyonette tried to get her to quit, but the Gnoll kept doing it. She turned, laughing.
“Erin! Look at what Mrsha’s doing.”
“Mrsha? What are you up to n—”
Erin poked her head out of the kitchen with a grin. Her wide smile stopped dead on her face. She stared at Lyonette and the smile turned into a look of confusion.
“Is everything okay?”
“Aside from Mrsha licking me? I think so. She must be hungry!”
Lyonette laughed. She expected Erin to grin and make a joke or announce what was for breakfast. But Erin just stood there. She stared at Lyonette.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
Lyonette frowned. She tried to put down Mrsha, but the Gnoll held on tight. She licked Lyonette’s cheek again. This time the girl tried to brush her away.
“Mrsha, honey, stop that. You’ll get my face wet.”
She scrubbed distractedly at her cheeks with her sleeve. Saliva was everywhere! She looked up, wondering if it was bad enough for Erin to stare. But the look on the [Innkeeper]’s face wasn’t that. Lyonette paused.
“Erin, what’s wrong?”
Erin pointed at Lyonette. The [Barmaid] half-turned and then grinned.
“What? No I’m not.”
She looked at Erin, smiling broadly. Erin just stared. Lyonette felt Mrsha shift in her arms and looked down. The Gnoll looked up at her. Slowly, Mrsha raised her paw. She touched Lyonette’s cheek and then showed Lyonette her paw.
It was wet. Lyonette stared at the wet paw. She stared at Mrsha, and then slowly put the Gnoll down. She reached up and touched her cheeks. They were wet.
“That’s just saliva. Here—”
She wiped her cheeks dry with the hem of her shirt. She smiled at Erin. And then she touched her eyes. She felt the tears trickling down and froze.
Slowly, Lyonette felt at her face. Her cheeks were wet again. Her eyes were…crying. Weeping tears that rolled down her cheeks. Lyonette looked at Erin, bewildered. The young woman stared at her. Lyonette looked down at Mrsha. The Gnoll looked up, confused. Frightened.
“It—I don’t know what’s going on. It must be something with my body. Or a mistake. Or—”
Lyonette looked around, smiling, realizing her vision was blurry. Erin moved towards her.
“Lyon? Did anything else happen last night?”
“No! Nothing important.”
Lyonette lied. She knew she was lying. Erin drew closer to her. She put a hand on Lyonette’s shoulder.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Nothing happened. Nothing important.”
The young [Barmaid] whispered the words and felt her throat close. She wasn’t sad. She wasn’t sad. But the tears kept falling. Mrsha grabbed Lyonette’s legs and looked up. She was crying. She had no idea why Lyonette was crying, but the Gnoll cub wept.
“Oh Mrsha. Don’t cry! It’s not bad. It’s just—”
Lyonette reached for her. She picked Mrsha up and looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked into her eyes. Lyonette saw a blurry face in her vision.
“Lyonette? What happened?”
She said the words angrily. Lyonette raised her voice. She felt the world blurring. She was unsteady. So she sat, holding Mrsha. She felt Erin’s hand on her shoulder.
“It was nothing. Nothing. Really. It was nothing. It was—”
A hiccup. Lyonette tried to suppress it, but it grew worse. She felt the hiccup come again, and then turn into shaking. Mrsha clung to her, and Lyonette felt her tears stain her shirt. She began sobbing as Erin held her.
And then Lyonette wept. She shook and cried as the rain kept falling. It was a bright, sunny day somewhere else. But here the rain fell and Lyonette du Marquin sobbed as the other guests of the inn came down the stairs, searching for the noise. The tears kept falling, again and again. On and on.
It was the beginning of another day.