“I can’t believe it. I can’t. Is it a message? A code? Were they just bored? Or—something else?”
“Mm. I don’t know.”
“It has to be something. It can’t just be nothing. I have to know what it means.”
“You agree it means something, don’t you? Foliana? Foliana?”
The Squirrel-tribe Beastkin looked up. Foliana, leader of the Forgotten Wing Company, head of one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros, and world-famous assassin known as Three-Color Stalker, looked up. She was eating a plate of spaghetti. In a hot tub.
Foliana was a squirrel. Or rather, a squirrel with decidedly humanoid features but still evidently a squirrel. Just larger. She was of the Beastkin, the furred people of Baleros who resembled animals. Naturally, Foliana was of the Squirrel tribe. Her eyes were remarkable; the pupils were a mix of three distinct colors, bright red-pink, dreamy yellow, and clear green.
The rest of Foliana’s body was bland. In fact, so bland that she was often overlooked when people were standing right next to her. And if Foliana so chose, she could literally turn invisible. She wasn’t invisible now. She was sitting in a hot tub, her fur damp, as steam rose about her. And floating across from her in the water, staring at a miniature chess board upon which spectral chess pieces sat was Niers Astoragon. The Titan.
He was a Fraerling, a race of tiny people. He was also the second-in-command of the Forgotten Wing Company and considered to be one of, if not the greatest [Strategists] living. He floated in the hot tub, staring at the chess pieces that until recently had been moving and playing a game of chess all without his involvement.
“They played for over half a day and then just stopped. Dozens of chess games, all against themselves. At least, I think against themselves. The quality of their play was phenomenal. I can’t imagine they had an opponent of that level.”
Foliana slurped spaghetti off her plate. It was floating in a wooden bowl and she had a fork. The spaghetti had an ink-sauce that the Lizardfolk liked on top of it and there was a meatball.
If it seemed extraordinary that Foliana was eating spaghetti despite not having known of Italy or Earth for that matter, it shouldn’t have been. After all, there were only so many ways to make pasta and meatballs were meat…balls. It wasn’t exactly rocket science.
Now, if Foliana had called the dish spaghetti, that would have been a lot of coincidences. But both she and Niers knew the dish as a Dullahan favorite called Damcli Noodles. With meatballs. It was just that anyone from Earth would recognize the dish as spaghetti if they were in the room. Which they weren’t.
It was Foliana’s second bowl of spaghetti too. She slurped up more noodles as Niers stared at the chess board, waiting for his mysterious opponent to make another move. He didn’t seem to mind that Foliana was dripping ink sauce into the hot tub and the occasional noodle. Neither did she. She was eating spaghetti. Muffins were dead. Spaghetti was all.
“I just don’t understand. What do you think?”
Niers looked up hopefully. It was his and Foliana’s custom to have a hot bath after a campaign. They’d just finished a dirty series of skirmishes in one of the swampier regions of Baleros, which made the bath doubly important. Although Baleros was hot and humid, people preferred hot baths. It was a luxury and it provided several useful benefits if you had a bath Balerosian-style.
That meant the water was hot enough to scald, which meant it was hot enough to kill leeches and other parasites. And Baleros had plenty of bugs and objectionable things that liked to infest the body. So Niers and Foliana were bathing, as many did. Naked.
In Foliana’s case there wasn’t much to see due to the fur. There wasn’t much to see in Niers’ case, but that was only because he was tiny. Neither Niers nor Foliana was embarrassed or even conscious of their nudity, but it had been remarked upon. Foliana began to eat her meatball as she replied to Niers.
“I think it’s weird that none of your students want to bathe with us. Mm.”
Niers sighed. But Foliana had answered his question in her own particular way. He shrugged, letting his body sink down a bit more into the water. Fraerlings were natural floaters, given that there really wasn’t much weight for them to sink with.
“They’re nervous. Even my oldest students don’t want to share a hot tub. And I think you scare them.”
“Mm. Not all of them. Some didn’t want to join us because of the naked thing. Why?”
The tiny man shrugged.
“Other continents don’t practice mixed bathing. Or nude bathing. Or bathing at all, for that matter. It depends on the culture, but I don’t think that bathing together is a custom in Izril, Chandrar, or Terandria.”
“Only to us. I’ve heard of foreigners insisting on wearing clothing into the water.”
Niers grinned, forgetting about the chess board for one moment.
“I think they’re afraid to see each other’s genitals. Especially Terandrians. I met a group of noblemen once who nearly fainted at the idea of seeing each other naked.”
“Why? Are they afraid of seeing something scary?”
“Or being seen, I suspect. The noblewomen were far more relaxed about the idea. They even invited me to join them.”
“I suspect I was less threatening due to my size. Not that their husbands seemed to think so. Anyways, you won’t get my students to join me. Half are too afraid I’ll ask them a question they can’t answer or you’ll stab them—”
“—And the other half is too embarrassed. A shame; I thought Venaz would join us at least, but Minotaurs are surprisingly prudish. Not about seeing each other nude, but he refused to get in the tub with anyone of the opposite sex.”
Foliana nodded and slurped from her bowl of noodles. She knew who Venaz was of course. She’d met Niers’ students who attended his [Strategist] academy. And she had a very clear image of the Minotaur in her head. But the fact that he was big, muscular, and had a deep voice hadn’t helped her that much. He could have been a flat-chested female Minotaur. You never knew.
Niers realized he’d gotten sidetracked. He scowled and paddled over to his chessboard, which had floated away from him in the hot water.
“Enough about bathing. Back to the game. What do you think? About that.”
“I think it’s weird that your chessboard floats in the water. Mhm.”
The Fraerling glared up at his old friend, but with resignation. Foliana had an odd way of thinking. It was circular and she bounced from idea to idea and was surprisingly stubborn about changing lines of thought.
“Why? It’s a practical thing, to have a floating chessboard. Especially if I want to play while bathing. Like now.”
“But everything you have floats.”
That was true. Almost all of Niers’ possessions that were in any way valuable floated. His map case, his bag of holding, even his sword’s handle was made of highly buoyant wood that would allow it to float in the water. Niers grimaced.
“I’ve told you this before. Fraerlings like to make things that float. It rains in Baleros, if you hadn’t noticed. And if you’ve lost your sword or something valuable, the last thing you want to do is dive into a freshwater sea eight feet deep and try to retrieve it while fish and frogs try to swallow you whole.”
“Mm. So you don’t like ponds.”
“I’m six inches tall. Of course I don’t like ponds! Now will you tell me what you think about the game?”
Niers splashed water at Foliana. She lifted her spaghetti bowl and kept eating, undeterred. After a few seconds, Niers began talking half to himself and half to Foliana.
“You don’t understand it. But you don’t play chess. I do. Dead gods, people think I invented the game. But this? Look at this!”
He waved a trembling hand at the chess board. Foliana looked into her bowl. It was empty. And the water was cooling. She decided she was done with her bath. She got out as Niers talked.
“My opponent—he—she—it—played twenty six games. All master-class games! At speed! Against themselves! Are they trying to tell me I’m not on their level? Or—was this a demonstration? Are there two players of that quality in this world? Selphid’s tits, tell me there are.”
Foliana paused in toweling herself off.
“Selphids have tits?”
Niers sighed. He rubbed at his face. He had grey and black hair and a sharp beard. And an irked expression. He looked up and glared.
“Selphids don’t have tits, Foliana. You know that. You’ve heard the expression before.”
“Mm. Yes. But how do you know that?”
Foliana waited, but she only heard a sigh.
“Pass me a towel, would you?”
The Squirrel-woman delicately picked up a tiny piece of fabric and passed it to Niers as he climbed out of the tub. She lifted his chess board up and set it on a table before doing the same to Niers. He industriously dried himself—his towel was spelled to absorb moisture and made of the highest-quality cotton grown on Baleros.
Foliana was using a much cheaper towel. She’d probably acquired it from someone else’s bathroom in the citadel. The former palace turned into living quarters for the Forgotten Wing company was their home when not on campaign.
“Selphids look like blobs. You know that. They don’t have tits. And yes, I’ve seen that first-hand.”
“Lewd. Mm. What would the children say?”
“They’re the ones that taught me that expression.”
Niers looked around for some clothes and walked across his table towards them. He walked past his bed, personal belongings, and a small library of books which had all been arranged on the table Foliana was sitting at. Eating a third bowl of spaghetti. This one was flavored with pieces of seaweed and a pink, sweet glaze sauce to cut the saltiness.
“So your mysterious opponent played a lot of games.”
Foliana saw Niers glance at his chess board as he came back, throwing on a pair of leggings and hose.
“And now someone else has a hold of it. An idiot, by the looks of things.”
Someone was moving the magical chess pieces. Only, they weren’t playing a game with them. Many pairs of hands were piling up the chess pieces on top of each other. Niers sighed.
“Someone else has the chess board. Damn! But who?”
They were making a tower out of the magical chess pieces. It had to be children. Niers stared glumly at the board as the tower fell over and then was quickly reassembled. He shook his head. Foliana looked interested for the first time.
“Looks like fun. Can I help?”
The Squirrel Beastkin didn’t look too disappointed. Because she already had a normal-sized chessboard and was piling up the chess pieces to make her own tower. Niers eyed it balefully but let it go. For now.
“I just don’t know what they were doing. They had to know I’d see what was happening. Right? Or they’d do this with another chess board. Unless they’re too poor to—no, they’d have sold the magical chessboard. This is a message. It must be. But what? It could be a code, but it was too fast for me to decipher. Or just a display of abilities? Maybe…”
Foliana paused in piling up a rook on top of her very tall tower of chess pieces.
“Mm. You should stop.”
“Stop? Stop what?”
“Pacing. And acting lovesick.”
She looked at Niers. He was indeed pacing around the magical chessboard, which was tiny compared to the duplicate he’d had made and sent across the world to his mysterious opponent. Niers stopped pacing.
“I’m not lovesick.”
“Yes you are. This is bad. Worse than the time you travelled to Terandria. Remember?”
Niers gritted his teeth and colored.
“I’d rather not.”
“It was when you thought there was a [Lady]. Mm. Who was a strategic genius. Remember?”
“Yes. Please stop talking.”
“And it turned out it was the Lord of the Dance instead?”
The Titan turned beet red and shouted.
“How was I supposed to know it was him? He never mentioned his name! And the stationary he sent me was perfumed!”
“Mhm. You were lovesick then too. You had flowers.”
Niers Astoragon had made his enemies weep. He’d broken armies with nothing more than a quill and ink and a bit of bark to write on. He’d defeated one of the King of Destruction’s Seven and fought other Great Companies. But only Foliana could make him cover his eyes in sheer embarrassment.
“It was a mistake. And this isn’t the same.”
For a second Niers contemplated going over to kick Foliana’s bowl of spaghetti into her lap. He looked up sharply and saw Foliana’s tri-color stare looking right back. That was the last thing many people saw. And Niers’ anger slowly subsided. Because Foliana didn’t look like she was making a joke.
The Squirrel-woman nodded. She slurped down a noodle and balanced a pawn at the top of her tower, which was several times Niers’ height. The magical chessboard’s tower kept falling over due to poor structural design.
“You used to play chess with your mysterious mage friend from Wistram. You were lovesick. Or obsessed. Mm. Close enough.”
Niers scowled darkly.
“I stopped that.”
“Yes. After you found out it was half the mages in Wistram working together to play you.”
“It was fairly obvious after all the gossip started. Mages can’t keep their mouths shut. What’s your point?”
“You could have kept going. But you stopped. Because it wasn’t one person.”
“No. It wasn’t. I thought it was Archmage Feor. He played the first few games, but he’s not at my level. Not without using predictive magics and boosting his mind, I think. It could have been another of the Archmages…so what?”
Foliana’s words made Niers pause. Then he shook his head.
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are.”
“I’m not, Foliana. I live in a citadel filled with people. I meet people all the time.”
“Subordinates. Other people. Not [Strategists]. Doesn’t matter. You’re lonely. No one you meet is as good as you.”
“At chess? That’s not—”
“At anything you do.”
Niers fell silent. He stroked his beard silently, and Foliana went on. Her eyes were focused as she stared at Niers around the chess tower.
“You’re lonely. You want to meet someone like you. But you never have. And you’re afraid to meet this person or find out who they are. In case you’re disappointed.”
The Titan scowled. That was the problem with Foliana. She was vague one second, and then focused the next. Rather like how she operated in everything, actually.
“What are you, my personal [Healer]?”
Niers sighed. He paced away from the chessboard and came back after a moment. He spread his arms, looking up at Foliana seriously.
“I’m fine. I have students. I have a career. We built this company—I don’t want for excitement.”
“But you’re lonely.”
“Yes, damn it! Will you stop saying that? What does it matter? You don’t seem lonely and I know you don’t have anyone in your life!”
Foliana blinked at Niers.
“It matters because you’re you. You like people. You need people. I don’t. Someday I’ll retire. Go somewhere else.”
“Don’t know. Cottage in the jungle perhaps. Be alone. I don’t need people. You do.”
Niers grumbled. He flushed, kicked the chess board and upset a lot of Cave Goblins across the world, and then gave in.
“Fine. So what if I’m lonely? I have my opponent. I can find out who they are. I just choose not to. I don’t want to be spoiled. I want to have this and not have it ruined. Is that too much?”
He pointed to the chess board. The chess pieces were righting themselves on the board, which had flipped back over. Foliana shrugged.
“Not too much. But stop complaining.”
She began eating again and Niers realized he’d been talking to her all throughout their bath, and before that. And he’d brought up his mysterious chess opponent…well, a lot of times. He’d probably talked for at least three hours this time.
“Very well. I’m sorry.”
“And I will be able to play more games soon, you know. I had a new board and pieces commissioned. It took a while, but this new ‘Go’ game should be delivered to them soon.”
Foliana scratched her head. The game of ‘Go’ was sweeping across Baleros, in no small part thanks to Niers, whose love of the game had put a spotlight on it. It had even received attention from those who followed such things in other continents, although Olesm’s name had not been connected to the game. Niers had been inaccurately credited with creating the game. Again. And this time it wasn’t even his fault.
“It’ll take a while for it to arrive. But I’d bet half my fortune that it was my opponent who taught the game to this Olesm Swifttail to begin with. It’s too much of a coincidence. I know they’re in Liscor, or thereabouts.”
Foliana tilted her head.
“Why will it take a while to arrive? You hired a Courier.”
“Yes. But I had to prepare several fake boards, send a bunch of duplicate messages, you know how it goes.”
“Not at all. I am being watched and this would attract a lot of attention. It’s a sensible precaution.”
The Fraerling smiled.
“Immensely. I enjoy watching all the [Spies] and [Informants] scurry about and reveal themselves. And spreading gossip. I have a mind to send one of the Go boards to the King of Destruction. Although that might be too politically dangerous.”
“Mm. Send it to the woman with flowers.”
“Reinhart? She’d make it a talking point or use it against me somehow. Some people are too dangerous to play games around. Maybe I’ll send it to the Wistram mages. With itching powder.”
“Okay. And you’re not going to find out what the chess games mean? Or who your opponent is in Liscor?”
Niers hesitated. He visibly struggled with himself, and then scowled at the magical chess board.
“No. Not yet. But Liscor is on my watch list for other reasons. Here. Stop eating those noodles and look at this.”
Niers gestured to Foliana. Then he eyed the tower of chess pieces she’d built. He walked over and kicked the support rook out of place. The entire tower of chess pieces crashed down around him. Niers leapt out of the way as a pawn narrowly missed his head. The Fraerling breathed out shakily.
“That wasn’t very smart. You’re supposed to be smart.”
“Are you coming or not?”
Niers stomped over to his collection of maps. They were quite large and not Fraerling-sized, which was to say Foliana-sized. That was because [Cartographers] willing to illustrate a tiny piece of parchment with a needle were rare and because Niers didn’t mind the larger maps. He could walk over them and inspect them from every angle. The three-dimensional ones that were magical were even more fun.
A map of Izril was laid out on the table. Niers walked onto it and began pointing out details to Foliana. He had a number of pieces on the map. Pins and little flags with notes written on them. Small notes for Foliana, which meant big lists of details all in Niers’ neat handwriting.
“You know they have a Goblin Lord over there. And that there was that attack on Liscor from the dungeon. Well, I have news about the Goblin Lord and the dungeon.”
“Dungeon first. What’s new? Another attack?”
The Titan nodded.
“Something like that. I haven’t received another letter from that [Tactician] in Liscor. Olesm Swifttail, I think. Neither have my students. And reports are spotty—the Walled Cities are keeping a tight grip on things—but it sounds like something’s happening over there.”
Niers nodded. He walked across the mountain range that was the High Passes and stared down at Liscor.
“I’d bet my hats on it. A Gold-rank dungeon next to a city’s a recipe for disaster. And this one’s a vengeance dungeon by all accounts. I wish I could see it—”
“Go find your opponent while you’re at it.”
Niers ignored that. He studied the map and shook his head.
“It can’t be good. Especially since I heard a group of Gold-rank adventurers travelled from Pallass to Liscor via that door we saw. Amazing thing. That’s a useful treasure.”
“We have teleporter mages.”
“And that’s a powerful artifact that can do far more than just teleport, Foliana. I’d pay—no, never mind. I’d never get it back here without it being stolen, Couriers or no. That poor [Innkeeper] will lose it soon, if not to Wistram then to someone else raiding her inn for it. Where was I? The dungeon. Something’s going on. It could be like the one we found, you know.”
He looked up meaningfully at Foliana. She paused for the first time.
“If it is, they’re dead.”
“Probably. I just wonder how my opponent—no, forget it. Don’t poke me with that fork. The second bit of news that I can speculate on is this: the Goblin Lord’s been defeated.”
“Really? I didn’t hear that.”
Foliana didn’t pay attention to worldwide news. She relied on Niers to tell her everything, which was a wise move because Niers had a network of information that spanned the world. The Fraerling nodded.
“The reports are that Lord Tyrion Veltras—he’s one of the foremost [Lords] of Izril, one of the Five Families—assembled a massive army of Humans and assaulted them at a mountain. Here. And apparently he hired the Kingslayer’s team to help him defeat the Goblins. They chased the Great Chieftain and Goblin Lord out of the mountain and are pursuing them.”
“Oh. I did hear about that. One of your students was telling the others something like that.”
Niers smiled, for a moment becoming a proud teacher.
“Really? What did they say? I’d be interested in knowing who—and how good their analysis is.”
“Mm. It was the Lizardgirl. Nervous.”
“Good child. What did she say?”
Foliana tilted her head side to side as she thought.
“Goblin Lord’s on the run. Lost a big battle. Apparently the Human [Lord] is very good. At…fighting? Leading? Strategy?”
The Fraerling snorted. Trust Foliana not to remember nuance. He’d go ask Umina about her thoughts later. Make her paranoid about what he knew that she knew.
“With Elia Arcsinger demoralizing the Goblins and an army larger than theirs at his back? He’d better win every battle. That’s not skill, Foliana. That’s just good preparation. Mind you, he hasn’t engaged them yet. He’s running them away from their fortress. And that’s curious because I know the man.”
“During the Second Antinium War?”
“Yes. I met him briefly—he was younger—but I’ve been to a few gatherings. Always on Izril. He never travels. And I know reports of the man.”
“Does he like Damcli Noodles?”
Niers looked up.
“No. And I don’t think he has a favorite food. I didn’t care for him. He’s everything I don’t like about Humans. Well, about every species that has men like that, really. But he is a good leader. He can choose when to fight and he hasn’t engaged yet. There are a few reasons why that could be.”
Niers studied the map. He traced the speculative arrows he’d drawn leading away from the mountain and eyed the nearby cities. Invrisil, a section of the map he’d planted a big flag next to and written ‘Emperor?’ on in huge letters. Then he snapped his fingers and grinned.
“Ah. I see what he might be doing.”
Foliana spoke around a mouthful of noodles. Niers nodded.
“It’s a good strategy. If it’s what I think he’s doing. I’d say it’s clever, too. It might work. And if it does…well, we might get some work in Izril if things go really poorly. Or well. Otherwise, we won’t be bothered. I doubt his enemies will notice it before it’s too late.”
“But you did. In seventeen seconds. Why?”
The Titan sighed.
“Because everyone’s an idiot? Or because I’ve seen this before. A variation, anyways. I keep telling my students that part of good strategy is just experience. Everyone tries the same little tricks without realizing they’re doing the exact same things over and over again. Depressing, really. And people wonder why I drink.”
“Because you’re an alcoholic?”
The Fraerling raised a finger.
“If the world was filled with an unlimited supply of any alcohol you wanted for a few silver coins, what would you do? There’s a reason why most Fraerlings who visit the city develop bad habits. You big people make things far too cheap for us.”
“Okay. What’s Veltras’s plan?”
Niers hesitated. He stroked his chin and wavered.
“I have a theory. But I’d rather not share it. Hold on. Let me write this down.”
He searched around and came back with a quill and ink. Foliana watched him scribble on a piece of paper, writing large so she could see it. Then Niers bent down and folded the paper. He handed it up to Foliana.
“You can open that in, oh, ten day’s time or so. And if I’m right…hey, stop that!”
Foliana was already opening the paper. She ignored Niers throwing his ink pot at her and read. She nodded, her tail moving a bit with interest.
“Hmm. Oh, makes sense. Hmm. Obvious when you think about it. This is good.”
“It was supposed to be a secret! I could be wrong, you know!”
Niers fumed. Foliana shrugged.
“Don’t think so. Sounds right.”
“Well, give it back. It’s no use now. I shouldn’t have written it down without warding it anyways. You could be scryed.”
“Even you could be. Come on.”
Niers held up his hands, but Foliana hesitated. She looked at the paper and then smiled slightly.
“Won’t. I’m going to show all your students so they’ll be really impressed. They’ll keep the secret, mhm. But be impressed.”
“What? Absolutely not! Give that back Foliana, right now!”
The Fraerling leapt surprisingly high, but Foliana stepped back from the table and that was that. She retreated to Niers’ door.
“Going to show them now. Bye.”
She faded from view. But Niers knew she was there and he saw his door open. He roared in fury.
“Dead gods damn it, Foliana! Give that back!”
She made no reply. She was moving and Niers had known Foliana for so long that he could vaguely guess where she was. And where she was going. He leapt from his table, landing lightly on the ground and raced after Foliana. For a small person his voice was very loud.
“Get back here! I could be wrong! This is my reputation on the line! Foliana! [Rapid Advance]!”
He charged after Foliana. She ran through the citadel, and Niers’ students and his subordinates and staff were treated to the Titan running after his commander through the hallways, furiously shouting at her. But Foliana didn’t slow. She ran on, smiling. And despite Niers’ escalating threats, he was smiling too. They were, after all, friends. So Foliana ran and Niers chased.
She was still naked.