Erin Solstice was sleeping, and then she woke up. That was generally how her life worked. She squirmed about comfortably in the blankets that were her bed in one corner of the kitchen, and then opened her eyes. Sleepily, she changed clothes beneath the sheets, grabbing freshly laundered clothes from the neat pile lying next to her bed. Ishkr was good at washing things.
Next, Erin got up. She looked around, yawned, and then opened a cupboard for breakfast. Normally, in her world, she would have pulled out a box of cereal. Or a sugary pop tart. Or, if she was really energetic, she’d go to the fridge for some eggs or find some bread to toast. But in this world, Erin reached into the cupboard and pulled out a steak, seared to perfection and glazed with a bit of butter and sauce. She stared at it and shook her head.
She put the plate back in the cupboard and peered inside. After a second, Erin came out with a ham and cheese roll. She licked her lips, and went over to her oven.
It took Erin seconds to light the fire and find some tongs to warm the roll up over the fire. Soon it was steaming hot and she juggled it as she bit into the warm sandwich. She looked around, opened another cupboard that she’d labeled ‘drinks’, and pulled out a pitcher filled with milk. She filled a cup as she chewed, and had herself a breakfast on a stool in the kitchen.
Life was good. Erin hummed as she got out more food for breakfast. She’d been thinking of introducing the wonders of muesli and fruit into the lives of her guests. It was certainly healthy, but she feared she’d have a riot on her hands from Ceria, Jelaqua, and Mrsha, who all loved meat. And since Erin had had a roll, she decided she’d postpone her tyranny via oats for another day and got out more premade sandwiches and began to toast them one by one.
The trick to using her [Field of Preservation] Skill was to know if the food she was making needed to be rewarmed or if it was going to be okay cold. Because if it needed to be warmed up, it wasn’t a good idea to toast it ahead of time. Then you’d just burn the bread. Without a microwave and with only a fire, Erin had learned a lot about which foods could be reheated without drying out or catching on fire.
The cold sandwiches quickly became hot, delicious meals on a big plate. Erin carried it out to the living room and heard rustling above her head. Lyonette and Mrsha were probably getting up about now. Erin smiled and hummed louder to herself, ready to face the day.
Which reminded her. Erin went over to her magical door and checked the little wooden bowl filled with mana stones. Green, red, yellow…they shone different colors as she picked up the red mana stone, ready to open the door to the Redfang’s cave. It wasn’t hard to figure out which mana stone led to which location; they were color coordinated after all. But Erin did wish she could make the magic of her door automatic.
“I guess that’s the difference between a movie and real life. Yep, yep. The only difference.”
Erin nodded to herself and then grinned. She was about to open the door to the Redfang’s cave when she remembered that she did occasionally get the early-morning visitor from Liscor and Celum. And they tended to get stroppy when she left them waiting at the door in Octavia’s shop or in the rain for a few minutes…or hours. She wasn’t sure which was worse, standing in Liscor’s ever-present rains, or having Octavia try to sell you something as the fumes from her potion shop seared your sinuses.
Erin sighed and found the green stone for Liscor. She slapped it on the door, opened the door, and stared into the wet and dark streets of Liscor just before dawn. No one there. She shrugged, closed the door, plucked the green mana stone off and found the blue stone for Celum. She placed it on the door and then opened it.
A Dragon stared at her through the doorway. His eyes were bright yellow and his head was taller than she was. His nose was inches from Erin’s face. She froze.
He was standing in a massive cave. Where was Octavia’s shop? The question fled Erin’s mind as the Dragon opened his mouth. Red and orange flames licked around his teeth as he spoke.
“Human girl, do not be afraid. I am—”
Erin screamed and punched the Dragon straight in the nose. Instead of connecting with his scales, her fist passed through the Dragon’s face. Erin felt her fist connect with something else, though. Something that went crack. She heard a yelp and a crash.
The Dragon vanished. Erin blinked as Octavia’s shop, cluttered but familiar, appeared. And lying on the hardwood floor was a man with bright green hair. He was dressed in colorful blue robes decorated with magical symbols and mystical monsters like the dragon in gold, and he looked like he was in his mid-thirties. He was also lying on the ground, clutching a bleeding nose.
“What the heck?”
Erin stared at the man, and then looked around. Octavia’s shop was right there, as it always was. And sitting behind her counter as Octavia, frozen in the middle of eating her breakfast—a stale piece of bread with mold growing on one corner.
“Octavia? What’s going on?”
“You punched the magician.”
The Stich-Girl stared at Erin and then slowly bit into her piece of bread. Erin stared at her, and then heard a moan from the ground. She looked down. The [Mage] was getting up.
“E-Eltistiman Verdue, Miss. At your service. I do apologize for the scare. Ooh…”
He covered his bleeding nose. Erin stared at him.
“You were a Dragon. Why’d you do that?”
“I rather hoped it would have impressed you. Scared—but impressed. I had an entire lineup ready to go, but I didn’t expect you to punch a Dragon in the nose. I’m terribly sorry. Just let me—”
With one hand covering his bleeding nose he fished in his robes and came out with a handkerchief. He covered his nose with that and then bowed slightly to Erin.
“As I said, my name is Eltistiman Verdue. I am a [Magician]. Do I have the honor of speaking to Miss Erin Solstice, proprietress of The Wandering Inn?”
“That’s right? You’re a [Magician]? Are you some kind of illusionist? A performer?”
Erin was starting to regret punching the man in the face. Sort of. What kind of a person sprang a Dragon on someone in the morning? Well…someone like Eltistiman, apparently. He nodded, trying to tilt his head back, pose, and speak all at the same time.
“I do tricks and wonderful illusions for all to see. I heard your inn was a gathering place for a wonderful new show—by the Players of Celum? I had hoped to audition to join them as part of the attraction, but I fear my first attempt was somewhat off-putting. I beg your forgiveness.”
“No, I’m really sorry. I uh, just have a thing about Dragons. Actually, I’m really sorry I punched you.”
Erin looked around frantically, then called out to Octavia.
“Um, Octavia? Can I buy a healing potion?”
The [Alchemist] brightened. So did Eltistiman. Erin beckoned him into the inn, flustered, embarrassed, and slightly amused all at once.
“Sorry. Have a seat and a healing potion, on me.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t—”
“No, really. You said you do illusions? I’m sure the Players would love to meet you, especially because Pisces has a job. You come over too, Octavia. And stop eating that bread! Is that the penicillin mold I wanted you to cultivate?”
“Nah, this one’s a bad batch.”
“Well, stop eating it! Have some breakfast in my inn. I have hot rolls. Come on—uh, Eltistiman you said? You can eat here. Do you like rolls? And what kind of illusions can you do?”
Erin beckoned the bemused [Magician] into her inn as Lyonette and Mrsha appeared at the top of the stairs, the [Princess] holding a sword. They were soon followed by Jelaqua with a flail, who relaxed as soon as she saw there was no danger.
Erin sat Eltistiman down as her guests filed down the stairs, a bit early to breakfast and carrying weapons. The [Magician] apologized as he sat down for breakfast, and Erin found herself going into the kitchen for more rolls and some coins for Octavia, who wanted payment in advance.
That was how she started her day. And apart from that, it was fairly ordinary. For her, that was. For other people, the day began as ordinary but quickly became quite interesting indeed…
There was a lot Olesm could say about the culture around Drake [Tacticians] and [Strategists], and the way that Drakes made decisions, both militarily and politically. If pressed, he might even be able to say something complimentary. However, for all the chaos and infighting that went on between the Drake cities, it had to be said that they weren’t all idiots.
When the news of the Goblin Lord’s rout at Dwarfhalls Rest had reached the south (practically within minutes of it occurring thanks to the wonders of magic and paid informants), the Drakes had taken note and begun waiting for news of a pitched battle. But it never came.
Then they heard the Goblins were on the march with the Humans pursuing. A few suspicions had been raised, but there were countless reasons why Lord Tyrion’s force might not have chosen to engage just yet and so the Drakes had kept an earhole open while tending to their business. So a day had passed, then four days. And then eight.
By the ninth day, it was clear that the Humans were up to something. The Human army mustered by Tyrion Veltras had been pushing the Goblins at a breakneck pace, but they had yet to engage in any major clashes. The [Strategists] took a serious interest and came to a series of rapid conclusions.
“They’re trying to push the Goblins into our lands.”
Olesm handed out a sheaf of transcribed reports to Zevara, Embria, and Ilvriss as they sat around a meeting table. All three Drakes sat up at once and Zevara stopped yawning. She snatched the scroll from Olesm. The analysis from Zeres’ top [Strategist] had been supported by five other Drake [Strategists], hence the mass of notes and addendums to the report itself. Her eyes flicked back and forth rapidly as Embria and Ilvriss read their reports as well.
The newly minted [Strategist] of Liscor hovered nervously until he realized he should take a seat. He’d read the contents of the report already and he’d come to the same conclusion. Tyrion Veltras wasn’t going to fight the Goblin Lord. He was going to push the entire army straight through the High Passes or around Liscor so they could cause more havoc in Drake lands.
“That scaleless, fleshy bastard!”
Embria was the first to react. She hurled the report onto the table and stood up. She began striding about the conference room, her claws opening and closing as if she wished she were holding her spear. Ilvriss looked up and glowered.
“Swifttail, do you concur with this analysis?”
“I do, sir.”
Olesm gulped and sat up straight. He felt comfortable around the other Drakes normally—okay, he’d avoided sitting in the same room as Embria after she’d tried to invite him out for drinks and Ilvriss was still a Wall Lord—but right now he was in his official capacity and this had a direct impact on the safety of Liscor. He cleared his throat and his tail curled around his chair leg.
“I um, completely agree with the report. There’s no reason why Tyrion Veltras wouldn’t have attacked the Goblins already if he was intending to destroy the army. He outnumbers them both in quality and quantity of his troops, which is clearly overkill.”
Zevara muttered, still reading. Olesm nodded again. His leg jittered under the table, making the entire table vibrate slightly. He stopped and flushed.
“Sorry. It uh—yes, clearly he could have won at any time. But he delayed attacking for so long and he’s marched an entire army so far, at great expense I must add! If you factor in the cost of feeding so many soldiers and paying them, not to mention taking them away from their posts…”
Ilvriss was nodding.
“Clearly he has a plan. And this is it. In true Human fashion, he intends to push the threat of the Goblins onto us.”
“It’s sound strategy.”
That came from Embria. The red-scaled Drake looked like she was stepping on hot coals, but she nodded grudgingly as she went back to sit down. She looked at the other Drakes as she spoke.
“That Goblin Lord’s already destroyed two armies and taken out a pair of [Generals]. The Humans can let him rampage across our lands so that we’re weakened. Maybe they intend to beat us during the annual battle at the Blood Fields, or maybe this is part of something larger. Either way, the Goblin Lord is their weapon to do it. They can run him south and claim he ‘got away’.”
“No one would buy that, surely.”
Olesm protested weakly, but Ilvriss shook his head. The Drake ground his teeth together.
“The excuse would be flimsy, but it would work, politically. We have an accord with the Humans that prohibits unprovoked assaults onto Drake sovereignty. So long as they can pretend that they have no direct hand in what the Goblins do, they can claim they’re upholding the treaties.”
He grimaced. The other Drakes sitting at the table went silent, and then Zevara spat a lick of flame.
She rolled up the scroll and tossed it at the table. Then she looked hard at Olesm. When she spoke, it was with the sharp edge to her tone that she used in battle. Olesm was relieved to hear it. Ilvriss might be a Wall Lord and Embria was technically his superior and an officer of Liscor, but Zevara was the Watch Captain. She held the walls and she was the one who made the decisions that kept Liscor safe.
“Olesm, you’re convinced the Goblins are headed south. The question I have for you is this: are they coming through the High Passes, or past Liscor?”
Olesm frowned and tapped the tips of his claws on the table.
“The report gives it seventy-thirty odds that they’re going through the High Passes rather than Liscor. The Goblins can probably survive marching through the base of the High Passes with minimal casualties—well, they’d probably get at least half across with the Goblin Lord leading them.”
“But you disagree?”
The [Strategist] hesitated. His mind was working hard now.
“I’m considering that they might come through Liscor, yes. And if they do, we’ll know soon.”
He went over to the map of Izril he’d brought to the table and pointed out Tyrion’s current position on the map.
“They’re four days away if they keep marching this fast. Maybe five or six if they hit delays, but four’s my estimate. If it’s the High Passes though, we’ll know tomorrow. They’ll have to change course and they’ll be there two days from now.”
Embria eyed the winding gap that marked the only other entrance point between north and south in the High Passes.
“Assuming they do that, there’s little we can do. They’ll pop out far further west. But say they come to Liscor.”
She tapped Liscor on the map and pointed out the basin that Liscor lay roughly in the center of. Embria shook her head.
“It’s foolish to try pushing the Goblins across the water while Liscor is flooded.”
“If they try to push the Goblins across the water, they’ll die by the tens of thousands to our archers on the walls and the monsters and fish in the waters. We can range them, if not with bows, then with spells. And they won’t have boats. They’ll be sitting ducks!”
Olesm nodded. That was what the [Strategist] from Zeres had written. But still—he frowned.
“That’s true Wing Commander Embria, but the High Passes are just as deadly. It might be safer to dare crossing the basin, especially if Rock Crabs and assaults from Liscor are the only dangers. We have limited arrows and even if we slew—what, forty thousand? How many arrows can our archers put out per minute? What if the Goblins travelled around the edge of the basin? That’s still a huge force if this Goblin Lord can keep it alive. And more if they link up with the Goblins from the dungeon.”
Embria paused. Ilvriss sat up slightly.
“You think Tyrion Veltras is aware of the Cave Goblin situation and intends to grow the Goblin Lord’s army?”
Olesm shook his head.
“I doubt he knows, Wall Lord. But it might complicate matters if he finds them there.”
Ilvriss nodded slowly.
“I have given much thought to the situation. There may be a few thousand Goblins living in the dungeon still, at least several hundred. Like all of the monsters that plague Liscor, they must be dealt with.”
Olesm’s stomach did an unhappy belly flop. Ilvriss sighed.
“It is my duty to say they should be eradicated without mercy. But to slay them outright…it sits ill on my conscience.”
“Yes sir. I completely agree.”
The Goblins had helped save the citizens of Liscor. More than that, Olesm had gotten to know the Redfang Goblins living in Erin’s inn and he couldn’t fathom the idea of killing them. Embria clearly didn’t share the same opinion, however.
“They may have served Liscor once, but they are monsters, Wall Lord. If you wish to reward them, give them an hour to run and then send the Watch and my soldiers after them.”
Ilvriss glanced up.
“You think you could rout an army of two thousand Cave Goblins, Wing Commander Embria? With your 4th Company?”
There were barely more than a hundred soldiers in her company. Olesm blinked, but Embria nodded confidently.
“Give me a thousand Level 10 [Soldiers] and I could take on an army twice as large. Against Goblins? Four times. My company and I were deployed to hold Liscor. If the Goblin Lord comes through Liscor by water, or these Cave Goblins need to be dealt with, the Watch supplemented by my soldiers can deal with either issue.”
The red-scaled Drake smiled confidently. Ilvriss nodded slowly and Zevara frowned, but didn’t object. As for Olesm, he nodded slowly as he did the calculations. Embria wasn’t lying, or boasting—much.
A hundred of her soldiers plus a thousand members of Liscor’s Watch could do just what she said. They’d proven it in the dungeon against the Raskghar; with low-level recruits and part of Liscor’s army, they could take on threats vastly above their level. All thanks to Embria and her officers.
It was Liscorian strategy—that was to say, a way of forming armies unique to Liscor. Liscor had an army of a few thousand strong at all times, a small army given how large the city was. Even smaller Human cities in the north half as large as Liscor had an army of at least five thousand! But the Watch was equivalent to any militia, and Liscor’s regular army didn’t need numbers to win battles. They had a trick, an open secret anyone in the military could figure out, really. And the secret had to do with classes.
At birth, each citizen of Liscor was formally conscripted into Liscor’s army with a small ceremony. It was a trivial detail for most, but it was mandated by law. None of Liscor’s citizens had to join the army, mind you. It was a formality, but that formality mattered very much for how Liscor’s army operated. Because it allowed them to promote their soldiers with impunity.
You couldn’t have an unlimited amount of officers in an army. That went against common sense and military protocol. There was no way you could have two [Generals] in the same army, obviously. In the same way, higher-ranking officers required a certain amount of [Soldiers] serving under them or they couldn’t change classes, even if they were promoted in rank. That usually posed a slight problem in other armies, but not in Liscor’s army.
Olesm wasn’t sure of the numbers, but if one [Sergeant] was promoted to command eight soldiers…or sixteen, or even thirty two….there was a finite number that could be fielded in any army. And smaller armies of a few thousand would have a few hundred sergeants at most. But if every citizen of Liscor was technically a soldier…
It was the trick that made Liscor’s army so deadly in small numbers. They had only a few thousand regulars in the army. But they had so many [Sergeants], [Captains], [Lieutenants], and even [Wing Commanders] that they could turn a group of low-level [Soldiers] into an army of war demons.
That was how Liscor fought. They kept an elite core of high-rank officers and constantly recruited soldiers who would fight under the effects of a dozen Skills at once. That was why a hundred or so of Embria’s soldiers and officers could actually turn the tide of battle if they fought with the City Watch. That was how General Sserys had held the Antinium in the first Antinium War at Shivering Falls Pass, and it was why Liscor’s army was famed throughout Izril.
Embria wasn’t wrong to think she could beat an equal or greater force with help from the Watch, but Olesm knew Liscor’s army wasn’t invincible. It had suffered defeats like any other force, and the Second Antinium War and the assault on Liscor by Az’kerash had shown just how weak Liscor’s army was to an enemy with powerful magical support…
The Drake jumped. He looked around and realized Zevara was looking at him. He flushed and sat up.
“I’m sorry, what was that, Watch Captain?”
Zevara ignored his lapse as she tapped the map in front of her.
“So the Goblin Lord will be pushed through the High Passes or go around Liscor. That’s the contents of the report. What do you believe the reaction of the other cities will be?”
“Naturally, to ensure the Goblin Lord does not pass into Drake lands and disappear.”
Ilvriss frowned. Olesm nodded.
“I believe that the Walled Cities will put forward a motion to gather a truly large suppression army at Pallass. Or Zeres, if the Goblins move through the High Passes instead of Liscor. They will attempt to meet the Goblins and force them back to the Human lands in turn—or destroy them where they were.”
He grimaced, imagining how difficult it would be for all the cities to send the required number of soldiers to Pallass in time to repel the Goblins. Zevara just nodded.
“In that case, we can only wait to see what the Humans do. But if they come to Liscor, I’ll make sure the Goblin Lord’s army turns the waters red. I’m going to check our ammunition stores and recheck the status of the enchantments on our walls. Wall Lord Ilvriss has agreed to communicate with the other cities and Wing Commander Embria will do an inspection of our walls for weak points, if any. Is there anything else we should be doing?”
Olesm shook his head.
“No, I’ll ah, continue monitoring the progress of the Humans. I will of course report to you all when I have any information—”
He got up, trying to gather all the reports. Zevara nodded and turned. Embria was already striding out of the room. Ilvriss slid his report to Olesm. The older Drake sighed.
“Another damn complication. It seems like every other week a disaster strikes Liscor. I should have known this one was coming; trust a Human to make our lives difficult.”
Olesm couldn’t argue with that. The enmity between Drakes and Humans was usually nothing pleasant, but he’d grown used to Humans, living so close to their lands in Liscor. But this Tyrion Veltras was known for his anti-Drake stance and he’d personally fought against Liscor in the annual battles in the Blood Fields many times. If anyone could be considered an enemy among the Humans, it was him. Ilvriss sighed as he put his claws behind his back and faced the rain-spattered windows.
“I think Watch Captain Zevara is overstating the danger. The Goblins may pass by our walls, but they’ll be no threat. For once, Liscor may relax.”
Our walls. Olesm noted the words, but all he did was nod.
“Yes, Wall Lord. But I thought I should bring it up given the situation.”
“Oh, of course. We must be informed at all times. You do your job with commendable attention, Swifttail.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Ilvriss smiled fondly at Olesm, as an uncle would to a nephew. Rather like how Olesm’s uncle Lism would puff up with pride, come to that. It wasn’t a favorable comparison. The Wall Lord frowned suddenly as Olesm was rolling his map up securely.
“That reminds me. Young Olesm, I know you’re an acquaintance of Miss Shivertail. Would you pass the results of the lottery to her or Guildmistress Tekshia in person? I would send a Street Runner, but I wouldn’t put it past some adventurers to waylay any messenger in hopes of altering the results.”
Olesm jumped. He stared as Ilvriss pulled out a folded bit of parchment and proffered it to the [Strategist]. Olesm took it nervously.
“Oh—the lottery’s finished?”
“It was decided by random lots yesterday. Fairly. Most of the teams acquired some manner of magical artifact or other and the rest will receive adequate gold as compensation. As will Liscor. Please inform the adventurers that they may begin picking up their shares here. In an orderly fashion.”
Ilvriss sighed as if he was already anticipating angry mobs. Olesm nodded.
“I’ll give it to Selys at once, sir.”
“Thank you, Swifttail. Now, I must inform Salazsar. Excuse me.”
Olesm left Ilvriss in the conference room. He stowed the reports and his map in his office and hurried down the stairs and out of the city hall. He paused and stared up at the rain as it instantly soaked his scales, but he didn’t bother going back for his cloak, which he’d forgotten in his office. Instead, he just tucked the parchment Ilvriss had given him into his waterproof belt pouch and hurried through the streets, grumbling about the rain.
“I can’t wait for all this water to stop. When’s it going to end? It has to be next week at the latest, right?”
The [Strategist]’s aggrieved comments drew little notice from the Drakes and Gnolls hurrying about on their business in the wet streets. Complaining about the rain was practically a tradition in Liscor. That and moaning about clogged sewers or Quillfish. Then again, comments about the sewers had stopped due to a sudden improvement in the drainage system underneath Liscor, much to the displeasure of those who liked to groan about such things.
Olesm paused as a torrent of water from above nearly missed him. He shook a fist at a Drake who was unapologetically emptying a bucket from a balcony above, and wondered when he’d see the sun again. Maybe if he went to Celum after visiting Selys. It would be nice to see clear skies.
Clear skies. Olesm paused as he stared up at the cloudy, rain-sodden skies. When would Liscor have clear skies? It had to be…how long had it been raining? A month, now? He paused, and then picked up his pace. But this time he was staring up at the sky. The rain had to stop soon. Olesm felt that way as any native of Liscor did. But how soon? When, exactly, would it change? There was something about that thought that disturbed him greatly.
She dreamt she was floating in a sea of clouds. As high up as she could go, and resting on a cloud as soft as cotton. But then she felt a hideous pain in her chest. She looked around and realized she was falling. And suddenly she was bleeding, and she saw a Goblin staring at her with eyes like crimson fire—
Durene shouted as she woke. She sat up and cried out in pain as whomever was standing next to her went flying. She heard a shout, and then someone rushed into the room. Durene was too busy clutching at her chest. It hurt! But the pain was illusory—as soon as she touched her chest she felt only rough skin. Raised skin. A scar.
The half-Troll girl looked up. A young woman with a pointy hat stood in the doorway.
“Wiskeria? What’s going on? Where are the Goblins? Where—”
Durene tried to swing herself out of bed. She heard an exclamation and reached down, unthinking. She pulled up a terrified woman dressed in white. A [Healer]. She had both herbs and healing potions at her belt. Durene stared and slowly lowered the woman to the ground.
“Where am I?”
“In Riverfarm. You’re safe.”
Wiskeria reassured the young woman as the [Healer] fled out the door. Now Durene was getting her bearings, she could see that she was in a house. It looked like…one of the many houses that Laken had ordered built for the villagers, but wider, more open. Not her cottage. And when she looked down she saw she was lying in a newly-made bed, made wider and longer to hold her. She looked around. Bright sunlight was streaming through the windows.
“Where am I?”
“In a hospital. That’s what Laken called it anyways. It’s a place for the [Healers] to work. You’re in a private room. In Riverfarm.”
Wiskeria repeated herself slowly. At last her words sank in. Durene stared at the [Witch]-made-[General].
“What about the battle? There were Goblins. I was—”
Again, she touched her chest. She realized she was bare from the chest up—the [Healer] must have been tending to her. Durene looked down. Her dark grey, cracked skin was whole in most places, but there was a red wound on her chest, right between her breasts. It ran from just below her chin down nearly to her navel. It was nearly closed, but it was red. Puffy. It hurt. Durene touched it and felt a flash of pain. She put her head down.
“I got hurt.”
Wiskeria nodded. The [Witch] tugged the hat brim lower on her head.
“You…took a bad injury. We had to evacuate you from the battlefield and so the didn’t completely heal when we used the healing potion. There were also complications. If we’d had a better one—”
“It’s fine. It’s not as if it makes me uglier.”
Durene spoke numbly. It was not fine. She ran her fingertips down her chest, feeling the scar again. Then she looked up sharply.
“But what about the battle? We won, right?”
They had to have won. How else would they be here? Durene remembered the battle, hearing the soldiers screaming around her as they fought the Goblins. So many Goblins. It had felt like they were pushing the entire army back, but Durene had held her ground and swung her club again and again, trying to hold them back. Until the fat hob with the battleaxe had appeared. She looked at Wiskeria, hoping. But the [Witch] only looked away.
“We…lost. After you fell, Benoit charged to your rescue. That Chieftain took him down too. I called a retreat and we ran. The Goblins nearly ran us all down.”
“All? Did they kill—”
Durene’s heart sank. Wiskeria shook her head hurriedly.
“They didn’t get a chance. Another group of soldiers charged them. A group of cavalry led by Lord Pellmia. They came here with Tyrion Veltras himself.”
The name stirred a thought in Durene’s head. Veltras? Wasn’t that one of the Five Families? She stared at Wiskeria.
“How? I mean, how’d they know to—what happened?”
Wiskeria hesitated, then sat on Durene’s bed. The half-Troll girl found there were clothes folded near her bed—her clothes from her cottage. She dressed silently as Wiskeria told her what had happened. First the army from Riverfarm had been routed, then Lord Pellmia had broken the Goblins in turn. They’d disappeared, hunting the Goblins while Lord Tyrion himself had ridden to rescue Riverfarm.
All of that had happened as she slept. It was too much to take in. Durene put her head in her hands.
“And I was out for all of it?”
“You lost so much blood. Even the healing potion wasn’t enough. And the [Healer] told us that you needed rest, so they put you here. You woke up a few times, mainly to use the toilet, but you were practically a zombie.”
“How long was I asleep?”
The [Witch] hesitated. Durene raised her voice.
When she spoke loudly, people tended to listen. Wiskeria didn’t pale or freeze up, but she answered after a second.
“Nearly a week.”
Again, Durene tried to get out of bed. Wiskeria held up a hand.
“You were practically dead when we brought you to Riverfarm! If you hadn’t been as tough as you were, I think you would have been dead. Benoit had armor on and he still nearly died! You took a blow from an enchanted axe to your chest and survived.”
“But we lost. And I lost. We lost the battle.”
Durene felt completely adrift as she stared at Wiskeria. She saw how the [Witch] looked down, and a wave of despondency swamped Durene. She looked around frantically. She had to see him.
“Laken. Where’s Laken?”
Part of her hoped he would be nearby. But Wiskeria didn’t meet Durene’s eyes.
“He’s not in Riverfarm. He wanted to stay, Durene. He refused to leave your side, but Tyrion Veltras insisted. So he left. He was here every day until—”
She yelped as Durene grabbed her. The half-Troll lifted Wiskeria into the air as easily as a kitten and brought her closer to her face.
“Where is he?”
“He left! He rode out with an escort two days ago! He wanted to stay! But Tyrion’s messenger gave him no choice! Durene, put me down!”
Durene realized she was shaking Wiskeria. She stopped and let the [Witch] drop. Wiskeria gasped as Durene took a step back.
The [Witch] shook her head.
“I don’t know exactly. All I know is that Laken struck a deal with Lord Tyrion Veltras. But he wouldn’t tell me or Prost or Rie what it was for. He had the entire village of Riverfarm working these last few days. Now he’s gone, and so is Gamel and Tessia and over thirty of the villagers. They’ve taken—”
Durene didn’t hear the rest. She slowly sat down on the bed. Gone. Laken was gone, just like in her worst nightmares. And he’d left without her.
She didn’t know what to think. She’d lost. For the first time she’d actually lost a fight. She remembered the Goblin looking down at her as he swung the axe. She’d lost.
And Laken was gone. Durene bowed her head. Then, suddenly, she looked up.
“Where are they?”
“I don’t know exactly. Durene, you’re in no condition to move just yet. If you’re thinking of following them, forget it. They had Skills and horses. They were trying to catch Tyrion Veltras, I think. And if he’s where I think he is—”
“Just tell me where! In what direction did he go?”
Durene covered her face. She wanted to cry. Nothing was right in the world. She heard nothing for a moment, and then Wiskeria sat next to Durene. She put a hand on the Troll girl’s shoulder and Durene felt it trembling. She looked up and saw the desolation in Wiskeria’s eyes too. They’d failed. The two sat together for a moment, and then Wiskeria spoke.
“South. They’ve all gone south.”
Olesm stood in the Adventurer’s Guild and felt every eye on his back. He felt more in danger here than in a room full of zombies. There was nothing like having a dozen Gold and Silver-rank teams eying you from behind to get your heart racing. As casually as he could, he leaned over the counter.
“It’s uh, good to see you, Selys.”
“Yeah. What brings you here, Olesm?”
The [Receptionist] looked unusually strained as she smiled back at Olesm. She was manning the desk in the Adventurer’s Guild as always. But from what Olesm understood, that was not an enviable task at the moment. All the adventurers in Liscor had been fighting over who would get what from the lottery Ilvriss had created. And the fighting wasn’t just verbal. Olesm could feel suspicious eyes on his back and he was conscious of the slip of paper in his claws.
Ilvriss hadn’t understated things. Olesm wondered if he’d actually be jumped if he mentioned that he had the list of who got what in his claws. So, conscious of eyes on him and the various Skills that the adventurers had that would aid their senses of sight and hearing, he leaned forwards and pretended to smile.
“I was actually hoping you could help me, you know, in my capacity as a [Strategist]? I need some information about Liscor’s weather and your grandmother’s one of the oldest Drakes I know.”
Selys smiled, but her eyes flicked to the piece of paper Olesm covertly showed her. She looked at Olesm and her tail twitched slightly. She knew. But she kept her face straight like the best of [Actors].
“Really? Well, Grandma is old, and apparently she knows a lot about Liscor. She won’t shut up about how things worked in her day, at any rate. What do you need to know?”
Olesm shrugged casually.
“Nothing much. I’d just like to know when the rainfall usually stops.”
“The rain? I’d say it’s due to stop soon, don’t you think?”
“Yes, but when, exactly? Are there patterns? If Guildmistress Tekshia could tell me herself, or point me to any books or reports on the subject, I’d be grateful.”
“Oh, well in that case I can take you to her. Why don’t we go now?”
The two Drakes slid away from the desk and casually walked towards the stairs, bantering lightly. Olesm saw the Flamewardens, the Wings of Pallass, and two other Gold-rank teams sitting by the stairs. He could feel sweat rolling down his scales as the adventurers stared at him.
“Hey, Olesm, isn’t it?”
Olesm and Selys froze as they passed by the not-leader of the Wings of Pallass, Bevussa. The Garuda smiled at him.
“We met during the battle. And the baseball game. How’s it going?”
“Oh, well. You know how it is. I’m just on business for Liscor.”
“Yeah? You work with Wall Lord Ilvriss, don’t you? Any news about who got what yet?”
The atmosphere sharpened to a razor’s edge. Olesm saw Keldrass of the Flamewardens look up, and a Gold-rank Gnoll slowly sniff the air. He tried to keep his tail from tying itself in knots.
“T-the lottery? I’ve got no idea. Wall Lord Ilvriss is making his decisions. If I knew anything I’d let you know, sorry. I’m uh, just going with Selys—”
The [Receptionist] tugged Olesm and he stumbled towards the stairs. Bevussa half-rose as her eyes narrowed, but the two Drakes practically ran upstairs. Selys pushed Olesm towards the end of the hall where Tekshia’s office was. Only when they were a few feet from the doors did she finally slump.
“Ancestors, Olesm! You are the worst liar I’ve ever met! And I’ve talked to the Antinium!”
“I’m sorry, I panicked!”
Olesm wiped sweat from his brow, then he froze.
“Can they hear us…?”
Selys shook her head.
“No, there’s an anti-eavesdropping spell around Grandma’s office. They can’t hear a thing. Is that really the list of rewards?”
Olesm showed Selys the parchment. She snatched it from him and unfolded it.
“Shut up. Let’s see here…oh wow. Griffon Hunt got their first pick, the bow, the Halfseekers didn’t get their armor, but they did get a mace, the Wings got a sword and the Flamewardens got the armor—this isn’t good.”
Olesm craned his neck to see the neat scrawl. Selys tsked as she read.
“No, but it was going to be bad no matter what. All that fighting—why couldn’t Ilvriss have hurried up? Well, I guess either way…there’ll be a huge brawl when the adventurers hear who got what, you mark my words. Grandmother’s probably going to have to get them to leave the city before she tells them or something. Otherwise they’ll wreck half the guild.”
The [Strategist] winced.
“Well, that’s none of my business. I’m just the messenger.”
“Right, message received. I’ll get this to Grandma. You can go.”
Selys waved a claw at Olesm. He hesitated.
“Actually, I was serious about the rainfall question.”
“It may be a matter of Liscor’s security.”
“Why? No, wait, I don’t want to know. Let’s just get this over with. Grandma’s not going to be happy about the Halfseekers, though.”
“Why? Does she favor them?”
“No, but she has a thirty-gold bet they’d get the armor. Hold on. Grandma?”
Selys raised her voice and knocked on the door. Olesm heard a muffled sound from within, and then jumped as he heard a thump. It sounded like someone had thrown something heavy against the door. Selys frowned, and then the door opened and a pair of people spilled out.
The two women scrambled out of Tekshia’s office as if they were being chased. They paused and stared at the two Drakes. Revi was smiling more widely than Olesm had ever seen her, and Yvlon looked pleased. However, both adventurers quickly shut the door behind them.
“Selys, Olesm, I didn’t realize you were outside.”
Yvlon nodded at the two of them. Revi just kept smiling. It was quite eerie compared to her usual scowl. Olesm blinked. Selys folded her arms.
“What’s going on? I thought you two were meeting Grandmother on adventuring business.”
“We were. Just a casual update for Liscor’s guild.”
Revi pointed back to the door. Selys rolled her eyes.
“In that case, why did she throw her spear at you? Don’t lie—I recognize that thump.”
Yvlon and Revi exchanged a quick glance. The armored woman was the first to answer.
“Your grandmother’s insane, Selys. She could have hit us!”
“Only if you really made her mad. Sounds like she was trying for it anyways. What happened?”
“Well…we drew the short straws, so we had to meet her.”
Revi and Yvlon exchanged glances. They didn’t seem too displeased despite their brush with death. Selys frowned.
Yvlon coughed and Revi shrugged. The two looked too happy. Olesm narrowed his eyes. Selys made a displeased hissing sound.
“Just tell me, would you? You told my grandmother—she’ll tell me.”
“Oh, but we didn’t tell her—”
Revi nudged Yvlon. The Stitch-Woman smiled at Selys.
“We can’t give out details, Selys. But you know how adventurers have to report income to the Adventurer’s Guild?”
Both Selys and Olesm nodded. Adventurers generally owed ten percent of everything they made to the guild. Normally that was pre-deducted in cases of requests, but when adventurers found treasure in dungeons they were required to pay a tax on what they earned, both to the Adventurer’s Guild and the city if the dungeon was on their lands. Olesm knew Selys would have to fill out a myriad of forms after the Raskghar’s treasure had been divided up.
“Everyone knows that. What, did your groups find some more treasure in the dungeon? If you did, you’ll have to pay up just like everyone.”
The two adventurers grinned giddily. Now Olesm was seriously beginning to be weirded out. He took a step behind Selys as Revi replied.
“Oh, we know. And normally we’d have to disclose everything. But ah, not this time. We were just stopping by to let Guildmistress Tekshia know that our teams—that is, Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers, and the Horns of Hammerad—received a huge amount of income. And we’re not paying for any of it. She was just testing us with truth spells.”
“What? But you have to pay! Grandmother wouldn’t let you two off unless—that’s illegal!”
Selys stared at Revi and Yvlon. Again, the adventurers shook their heads.
“Not if it’s a gift. Gifts aren’t taxable under the Adventurer Guild’s laws. And it just so happens that we got a huge ‘gift’ of treasure the Raskghar left behind. So it’s all ours and we don’t owe the guild a copper coin.”
Revi smirked. Olesm raised a hand timidly.
“But that’s just a technicality. If it was in the dungeon, it’s still acquired loot. You can’t just claim it’s a gift to be exempt. If you found it—”
“But that’s the thing. We didn’t find it, so it wasn’t adventurer’s loot. We got it from the Goblins. They had all the treasure. All of it.”
“The Redfang Goblins did? But they’re adventurers too!”
Selys looked astounded. Revi’s smile only grew wider as she shook her head.
“That’s what we thought. But guess what? Apparently, Erin told us that they were made a team yesterday. Funny thing, that. I thought they were supposed to be regular adventurers already, but it sounds like someone confused the paperwork so they wouldn’t have to give the Goblins any of the treasure we got.”
Olesm blanched as Selys shot him a quizzical glance. He remembered that discussion with Ilvriss and Zevara. They’d fudged the paperwork so that the Redfang Goblins would be exempt from the lottery.
“T-that, how do you know that?”
“Oh, we don’t care. And they don’t either. But that means they were just random…Goblins until yesterday. And they gave us all the treasure three days ago. So…guess what?”
Revi assured Olesm. She was still smiling. Slowly, Olesm began to put the pieces together. He paled.
“You don’t mean—”
“That’s right! Your Guildmistress nearly strangled us, but we checked the law and we’re in the clear. She can’t claim that’s dungeon treasure, not if the Goblins had it first and they weren’t adventurers. So all of this is a private donation by individuals unaffiliated with the Adventurer’s Guild or Liscor to us. Which means we owe you nothing.”
Olesm’s jaw dropped. He didn’t know how much Revi was talking about, but the huge grin the Stitch-Woman wore and the pleased expression on Yvlon’s face told him everything. Selys stared at Revi as well. The [Summoner] wore the evilest, smuggest smile Olesm had seen on any face, Human, Drake, or otherwise.
“And Grandmother let you live?”
“She nearly got us with that spear. But we’re in the clear. If she wants to argue, she can try, but we don’t have to tell you what we got. We’ve done our duty by disclosing the rough amount and we’ve been checked under truth spell. Now we owe you nothing. See you!”
Revi waved at the two Drakes and then practically bounced down the corridor. She was actually singing to herself. Yvlon smiled and paused before following her.
“Sorry, but that’s how it is. It’s…good seeing you two. Keep it a secret, okay?”
She followed Revi. The two Drakes stared as Yvlon and Revi walked down the stairs. Slowly, Selys looked at Olesm.
“Grandmother’s going to have a heart attack. If I walk in that room she’s going to be dead—or about to blow her scales off.”
“And Wall Lord Ilvriss and the Council will have my tail.”
Olesm groaned. He was putting the pieces together now. The Redfang Goblins—or rather, the Cave Goblins must have known about the Raskghar’s treasure stash! Of course they wouldn’t have kept it in their mobile camps! And Revi was exactly right—it wasn’t taxable! By preventing the Redfang Goblins from earning their reward, Liscor had just lost…
The [Strategist] was about to smack his head repeatedly into a wall when he noticed Selys smiling. He looked suspiciously at her.
“What’re you happy about? This is a disaster!”
Selys smirked in a pretty good replica of Revi’s expression.
“For Liscor, and the guild, probably. But did you forget? I’ve been leasing the Heartflame Breastplate to the Halfseekers. Under our agreement, I get 30% of whatever the Halfseekers make. It’s no scales off my tail.”
Olesm’s jaw dropped. He opened his mouth to protest, but Selys just opened the door to Tekshia’s office. She called in cheerfully.
“Hi Grandma! Lower your spear, it’s just me. The adventurers are gone. Bad news, huh? I’ve got more! Ilvriss finally gave us the lottery results and there’s going to be a fight! Oh, and Olesm is here with a question for you. He’s one of the people who helped make it so the Redfang Goblins got registered at the wrong time, by the way. Olesm?”
She waved at Olesm. The [Strategist] felt his scales go white. He stared at Selys as he heard a guttural hissing sound coming from inside the office. He wavered at the door and then he slapped himself and focused. He had to know about the rains. He stepped inside—
Below the office, the adventurers who weren’t Revi and Yvlon were sitting together, glaring at each other and speculating about why they looked so happy. They looked up as one as they heard a shout of terror. They saw Olesm Swifttail dash downstairs, crash, roll, and spring to his feet and run out of the Guild’s doors. He was pursued a moment later by an angry old Drake holding a barbed spear.
Olesm ran frantically and felt Tekshia’s spear graze his shoulder. He ducked and ran faster as the old Drake hurled obscenities at his back. He resolved not to go near the Adventurer’s Guild for a month. As Olesm ran, he felt the immediate, temporary fear of Tekshia’s wrath subside and a truer, deeper panic set in. Because in between the Guildmistress’ fury and his flight, he’d learned what he needed to know.
The rains would stop any day now. And when they did—
Well, Liscor would still be safe. In theory. But now Olesm was worried. He ran straight towards the Watch Barracks to find Zevara. And to warn her of an impending brawl at the Adventurer’s Guild.
Lord Yitton Byres had lived for over fifty three years. He did not consider himself a humble man, but he did consider himself somewhat practical. And he did not think of himself as a good man, a failing often found in genuinely good men. Or realists. But he had lived as honorably as he could for over five decades and faced more than his fair share of monsters despite never having taken up arms as a [Knight].
He thought he had faced enough beasts and creatures of evil in his life. But the night after Tremborag had fallen, Yitton Byres found himself pouring an uncharacteristic first, second, and third cup of wine to steady his nerves. Yitton tossed down the third cup of the strongest and cheapest wine he’d been able to buy from the [Quartermaster]. It didn’t help.
He could still smell the burning flesh. He could still hear Tremborag’s howl, a sound that hadn’t ceased even when they tore open his chest and cut him to the bone. Yitton closed his eyes. The Great Chieftain of the Mountain had not died, though he had been speared through the heart, though they had torn him practically to shreds.
“Dead gods. I thought I’d seen the last of such monsters in the Second Antinium War. How many more beasts like that roam the earth? Hidden in mountains. Underground?”
His blood chilled at the thought. And it grew colder still to think of one of his offspring, Ylawes, for instance, facing a beast like that alone. Six Gold-rank adventurers had died or been maimed in the battle. Six. Yitton was proud of his son and ranked the Silver Swords highly even among the continent’s Gold-rank teams. But Tremborag was a monster worthy of a Named Adventurer.
“Why didn’t Arcsinger bring him down? She didn’t fight. If she had—no, Veltras had his reasons. And perhaps he would have killed her.”
That was a troubling thought. Yitton hadn’t ever laid eyes on the last Goblin King; he’d fought to protect his home and faced off against a Goblin Chieftain and even laid eyes on a Goblin Lord, but he had not seen the Goblin King. As far as he was concerned, though, Tremborag had been every bit as terrifying as a Goblin Lord.
“Silver and steel. I should [Message] Ylawes. I haven’t seen him in too long. And Yvlon—where is she? Ylawes swore he’d bring her back, but I’ve not heard word from him or her. Are they—”
Yitton was pouring himself another cup when he heard a knock at his tent’s flap. He turned.
Lord Erill, one of the richer [Lords] and newly come to his nobility, pushed himself through the tent. His expression was a mirror of Yitton’s own; pale, somber. For a camp that had just brought down a Goblin Chieftain, the mood was terribly quiet. Yitton rose at once, although he found himself stumbling slightly as the effects of the alcohol hit him. He was not a strong drinker.
“Lord Erill, greetings.”
Erill nodded to him. It was not a slight since Yitton had requested the informality, but the patriarch of the Byres house couldn’t help but use the man’s title. Far too many other [Ladies] and [Lords] tended to slight Lord Erill and Yitton abhorred that kind of disrespect. At the moment however, Erill shivered as if he’d like nothing more than to be a [Merchant] a thousand miles from here. He looked at Yitton, opened his mouth and spotted the pitcher of wine.
“What’s that you’ve got there, Yitton? Wine?”
“Yes. Cheap stuff, though. I’d offer you a drink but it’s practically vinegar.”
“I’d drink that if I could forget today. Will you offer me a glass?”
Yitton poured Erill a full cup and after a moment of thought, did the same for himself. Erill drank his cup as fast as Yitton. Some of the color ran back into his face.
“I warned you.”
The other man shook his head.
“No, crude is what I need. I could use another cup, in fact. Thank you. I still can’t unsee that monster. I’m no [Warrior], Yitton. I’m not ashamed to say that I’m still terrified of that beast, headless or not.”
“You’re not the only one.”
Yitton gulped down his wine. He shook his head briskly, feeling the liquid warm him from within. Erill breathed out slowly.
“To think it took that long to bring him down. When we had archers and mages and—I thought he was done for when Tyrion ran him through with a lance, didn’t you? But he survived that. Are they truly heartless, those Goblins? Or did he have several hearts, like some monsters?”
He looked quizzically at Yitton. The older [Lord] shook his head. He nearly poured himself a fifth cup and then stopped himself. He still had to ride tomorrow.
“No. He was dead the moment Veltras struck him. We just didn’t believe it. And he tore us to pieces before we had the sense to leave him alone.”
The two men stood in silence for a while. That was the irony of it. The soldiers had assaulted Tremborag relentlessly, attacking him from all sides and they had paid the price in blood. But when they’d drawn back, the Great Chieftain had seemed to lose track of them. He’d just…walked away. Northwards. Towards his mountain. And stopped.
“It doesn’t feel like a victory.”
“No. I think we underestimated this Tremborag. It was worth the price to see him fall, but I can’t call this a triumph. A necessity perhaps, but…no, not a victory.”
Yitton shook his head. Erill nodded. He tilted his cup up, realized it was empty, and set it on Yitton’s plain table. It was cheap wood; Yitton hadn’t brought a bag of holding with him and so his furnishings were part of the camp’s supply.
“You live simply, Yitton. I’d offer you a spare tent of mine if I thought you’d take it. But I’ll spare such pleasant negotiations for another night. Right now I’m remembering why I came here.”
“Not to poison yourself on my wine?”
Erill almost smiled.
“I didn’t think you had a sense of humor, Byres. No. We’re to meet Lord Tyrion for a late-night repast. I should have gotten you right away, but I got distracted.”
“Lord Tyrion wants us?”
Yitton was surprised. He set down his cup and strode towards the tent flaps. Then he checked himself.
“He won’t mind. We should be there soonest. And I’ve got a Wand of [Cleansing] somewhere on me—I’ll find it as we walk. Come on; if I can’t drink in your tent I suppose we’d better meet him.”
“By we, do you mean you and I? Or a gathering of all the nobility?”
Yitton followed Erill out of the tent. The camp was busy as always; torches and [Light] spells clearly illuminated the area for patrolling sentries. But there were more people out tonight than usual; Yitton saw more than a few men and women in the shared camp for officers and the nobility drinking and sticking together. He understood the urge.
“Not just us, no.”
Lord Erill walked briskly ahead of Yitton, rummaging in a bag of holding at his side. He turned back and glanced at Yitton.
“Two of our peers have been invited to this very select gathering. Any ideas who they might be?”
Yitton didn’t have to think.
“Gralton and Lady Ieka.”
“Correct. The same group that went to so boldly challenge Tyrion to his face. He’s summoned us and apparently has a surprise in store. It’s a smart move; I doubt the other nobility will whine more than usual since it’s we four.”
“They won’t? But I’m not—I could understand Tyrion’s mistake, but me?”
Yitton was baffled. He wasn’t an important noble! House Byres probably earned in a year what Erill’s estates could make in a month. No, a week! And Yitton was hardly as accomplished a [Lord] as, say, Pellmia. But Erill just laughed.
“Think on it, Yitton! We’re the best representatives to see whatever Tyrion’s cooked up! Can’t you understand why?”
“I’m afraid not. Kindly illuminate me.”
Erill shrugged. He found his wand at last and tossed it at Yitton. The [Lord] carefully ran the wand down his smudged and muddy tunic, blinking as he saw the wrinkles and stains vanish and the mud slough off. That was a lot of money just to enchant an entire wand to clean clothes. He carefully handed it back to Erill. The [Lord] flicked it into his bag of holding and responded.
“Each one of us is important in our own way. Tyrion could have invited two dozen nobles, or all of us, but he’s chosen to have an intimate gathering. Less chance of interruptions I suspect, and he has our measure.”
“Go on. Why we four especially?”
“You don’t see it? Gralton’s an excellent fighter and leader, in his own way. He might be a hothead and smell like wet dogs, but he can evaluate good strategy when he sees it. Lady Ieka is both a [Mage] and one of the most powerful [Ladies] I know. My money commands authority, if not respect.”
“And my estates are neither large nor powerful or influential. Where do I fit in this gathering?”
Erill smiled. It wasn’t the charming smile that Yitton had seen him using in public. Instead, Erill’s true smile looked sardonic. Not at Yitton, but the world in general.
“Why, you’re the honest one, Yitton. Every secret gathering needs at least one honest man. Who would they trust if not you? Gralton? Ieka? Me? Or take Tyrion at his word? No, but they’d trust Yitton Byres.”
That paused Yitton, but only for a second. He strode forwards to catch up with Erill.
“I see. I don’t consider myself particularly trustworthy, though. And if it’s honorable Tyrion wants, he would be better served by a [Knight].”
“Spoken like a trustworthy, honorable sort. Besides, Tyrion seems to like you. Honorable men must not be something he encounters every day. A shame he couldn’t find an honorable woman while he was at it, but I suppose you can’t have everything. Come, Yitton, you understand my point.”
Yitton did, but he was troubled by the implications on a few levels. He bit back any response though; he had to admit that he was slightly pleased by Tyrion Veltras’ trust in him. The man was hard to like on some levels, but there was much to admire as well.
The two [Lords] walked in silence through the camp, listening to the noise and horns blowing for the dead, as was the tradition for some cities. Yitton had been present when the corpses were cremated; some of the adventurers or ranking officers’ bodies had been preserved for burial in their homelands. After a while, Erill spoke.
“Still, that Goblin Chieftain…it makes you think that Tyrion really knows what he’s doing. Sending the Goblins into Drake lands, that is.”
“You think that’s his plan?”
“Something like it. I think he’s realized keeping it secret’s pointless now. Everyone knows what he’s up to, Drakes and Humans both.”
If there was one thing you could say about Izril’s Human nobility, it was that they employed people who weren’t idiots. And some of the nobility were fairly intelligent, too. They’d come to the same realization as the Drake [Strategists] quickly enough when they’d tracked their progress on a map. By now the entire camp knew what Tyrion Veltras was doing: sending the Goblin Lord and all the Goblins into Drake lands.
The idea had shocked Yitton the first time it had been suggested. He was no lover of the Drake people, with all their pride and hotheadedness and provocations, but he had grown used to the idea of the peace they had between north and south. True, tempers flared occasionally and then both races would send an army to fight in the Blood Fields during a preselected time, but that was different from this. This was tantamount to war, but it wouldn’t be because of politics.
Few shared his reservations, though. The hostility towards Tyrion’s mysterious behavior had all but vanished when the nobility learned what he was intending. In fact, many of the nobles had begun to treat it as if it were some glorious prank, the height of cunning.
‘A present for the Drakes.’ Yitton Byres had heard others saying it, almost as a joke. But he wasn’t laughing.
“We don’t know that’s what Tyrion intends.”
“Well, we’ll know soon enough. We’re almost here. Good evening Lady Ieka, Gralton.”
Erill raised a hand and Yitton saw they’d arrived at Tyrion’s personal tent. It was certainly large enough to host a gathering, and the two nobles standing outside the tent looked like they were dressed for the occasion. Each in their own way.
Lady Ieka wore a semi-translucent gown of enchanted fabric that looked scandalous at first—until you realized that the outer layer was simply there to highlight the darker inner blue, so that the transparent outer layer looked like water moving over a dark ocean, flecked by distant stars. The effect was beautiful and mesmerizing.
By contrast, Gralton wore his travel gear and he hadn’t bothered to use any spells. He looked dirty from riding and he seemed as if he could sit down at a rowdy banquet and begun quaffing at any moment. Both nobles stood far apart from each other. Gralton sniffed Yitton and Erill.
Yitton opened his mouth to apologize, but Erill smoothly cut in.
“Apologies. I delayed in picking up Yitton. I was tempted by the idea of drowning my thoughts, but then I recalled that we were supposed to be here, enjoying Lord Tyrion’s social graces, which he is of course known for. Have we any word of who our mystery guest might be?”
“You mean the one that’s been housed in the finest tents? And the mysterious influx of commoners? Not a clue. But he’s inside. And it is a he.”
Lady Ieka raised two perfectly shaped eyebrows. She stood with the three men in a circle as they spoke. Yitton glanced towards the tent flaps.
“Should we announce ourselves?”
“Don’t bother. He knows we’re here. Tyrion’s kept us waiting until you two arrived. Childish. And don’t bother knocking. There’s a powerful anti-detection spell on that tent. He’s taking this seriously, at least.”
“Going to tell us what everyone knows? That we’re giving the Goblins to the Drakes with a bow on top? Feh. I don’t need to listen to that.”
Gralton spat, which earned him a reproving glance from Erill and Ieka. Yitton just frowned. He opened his mouth to voice his opinion, but then Tyrion’s tent flap opened. Jericha, the personal [Mage] and Tyrion’s aide, opened the tent flap.
“My lords and ladies, I apologize for the delay. Lord Veltras welcomes you to a minor repast. Please, enter.”
The nobles exchanged a look and then they entered, Ieka in front, Gralton, and then Erill and Yitton bringing up the rear. He swallowed the words he was about to say as he entered the tent and saw the dining table set up with expensive cutlery and porcelain dishes. There was more than a light repast set on the table, and six chairs had been set around the table.
If the nobles had listened to Yitton a moment longer, they might not have been so surprised later on. For Yitton had his own opinion of what was going on. He was no [Strategist], but he knew Tyrion if by reputation alone. Simply pushing Goblins into Drake lands? It couldn’t be that simple. And when he saw the young man standing next to Tyrion, he was certain.
His eyes were closed, so Yitton could not see the color of his pupils, but the young man was thin, and his hair was flaxen, slightly darkened, and his skin pale. His clothes were simple, far too plain for any [Lord], even a poor one. His eyes were closed. They remained closed as the nobles entered the tent and stared at him. And Tyrion Veltras. The [Lord] stood next to the young man, as if they were equals.
Yitton stared at the youthful stranger. Even Erill was older than him by at least a decade. He could have passed for a commoner with his garb. And yet, he had a presence. Yitton saw the young man tilt his head towards the four nobles. And still he did not open his eyes.
“Lord Tyrion. We’ve come at your request. Who is this?”
Lady Ieka did not waste time. She peered at the stranger, her eyes narrowed as she flicked her gaze to Tyrion. The [Lord]’s face was impassive as he indicated a chair.
“I apologize for the delay, Lady Ieka. Please have a seat.”
Then he turned to the young man standing beside him.
“Your Majesty, I present to you Lady Ieka of House Imarris, Lord Gralton of House Radivaek, Lord Erill of House Fienst, and Lord Yitton of House Byres. They serve as representatives to the larger gathering of nobility and are among those I trust to keep the nature of tonight’s conversation secret.”
Ieka froze in the middle of sitting down. Yitton felt his knees quiver. Did Tyrion just say ‘your Majesty?’ He saw Gralton snort in surprise and Erill’s eyebrows raise. The merchant [Lord] cast a sharp glance towards the young man. Yitton saw the closed eyes turn towards him. And still, the stranger had not opened his eyes. Yitton felt a chill as he recalled a rumor he’d heard.
A blind man. A foreigner carrying jewels and gold who appeared in Invrisil. A stranger who had attracted the attention of Magnolia Reinhart.
The Unseen Emperor.
Yitton stared at the young man. Lord Tyrion nodded. He met Yitton’s eyes briefly, then looked around the tent. He spoke softly.
“Lady Ieka, gentlemen, I present to you [Emperor] Laken Godart of Riverfarm. Please, have a seat. We have much to discuss.”
“It’s all part of his plan. Tyrion Veltras, that is. He’s going to take the Goblins to Liscor. And when he arrives—in a few days—the waters will be gone.”
Olesm shook as he reached for a mug. He’d ordered alcohol despite it being only early morning. He needed a drink to steady his nerves. He didn’t know why he’d dragged Zevara to The Wandering Inn, but something about it reassured him. And he didn’t want to discuss this in the Watch House, not if he was wrong.
Zevara drummed her claws on the table, eying Olesm as he sipped from his mug. It was a dark lager, which Erin seemed quite proud of for some reason. It tasted normal to Olesm, but Zevara had ordered the same.
“When you asked me out for a drink, I didn’t think we’d be talking about strategy.”
Olesm looked up sharply. Zevara grinned sheepishly at him. He didn’t smile back, and the Watch Captain leaned forwards. She coughed.
“Okay, bad joke. Are you sure, Olesm? The waters will recede around Liscor in four day’s time? Right as he’s getting here?”
The [Strategist] nodded. He saw his claws steady on his mug as the alcohol went down. He took a deep breath. It was going to be okay. It was just—
“He’s timed it perfectly, Zevara. Any day now the rains will stop. And when they do, Liscor has only a few days before the waters drain. You know how fast the water levels go down. After that Liscor’s surrounded by mud, but you can fight in mud. Or lay siege in it.”
“And you’re sure it’ll be then? How can you be certain?”
“Tekshia thinks it’ll be around then. I asked her before she nearly gutted me and she told me that there is a pattern to when the rains start and stop. It’s not precise, but you can get within a few days of when it’ll occur. And—it’s too much of a coincidence. First Tyrion camped his army without moving and only now he makes his move? He’s timed this, I’ll bet my class on it.”
Zevara scowled and sat back in her chair. The two Drakes stared at each other in grim silence—for all of a second. Then they heard Erin breeze past them.
“Fries! Here’s your fries, Olesm! And for you, Zevara, a bowl of fish flakes?”
Olesm looked around. Erin’s inn wasn’t exactly hopping, but it was doing good business. The young woman had Gnolls and Drakes and Humans eating in her inn, a few of which Olesm recognized as regulars.
There were a few new faces like the [Mage] with the gaudy robes sitting at a table just next to Olesm’s. And was that a Cave Goblin walking in and out of the kitchen? Olesm spotted Numbtongue sitting at a table, playing on a guitar. He shook his head and focused back on Zevara.
“The waters will fall. And he’ll march the Goblins straight in here. It’s safer than the High Passes. And if they’re not swimming, they can run right around Liscor with minimal casualties. Or there’s a worse option.”
Zevara’s grip tightened on her mug. Olesm took a deep breath.
“They make the Goblins assault the city.”
He stared at Zevara for a few seconds in grim silence. The Watch Captain blinked, and then she laughed. She drank from her mug and chewed down a few fish flakes.
“You had me worried there, Olesm! That’s not going to happen.”
Olesm’s racing heart finally began to slow. Zevara nodded, chewing her food with good humor.
“There’s no way. Even if a hundred thousand Goblins attacked our walls tomorrow, we could hold them. This isn’t like the moths. There were probably at least a hundred thousand of them and they could fly. The Watch is thousands strong and we have enchantments on our walls, Embria’s company, Wall Lord Ilvriss…and the Antinium.”
“That’s true, but I was considering the timing and I thought—”
Zevara shook her head. She indicated the fries and Olesm realized he hadn’t touched his food. He began to eat as she replied.
“No, you’re dead right about the Goblins moving through Liscor. Damn, they’ll get past with far less casualties this way. But there’s no way they can take the city. Not even if the Goblin Lord brings his entire force to bear. I’m certain of it. Don’t worry about that, Olesm.”
The [Strategist] sagged in relief. He’d been running through scenarios in his head, but if Zevara said so, he could relax. He was about to ask more when Zevara coughed. She glanced at Olesm and then leaned back in her chair.
“So, how’ve you been lately?”
The change of conversation was as jarring as Olesm could imagine. For a moment he stared, and then realized what Zevara was doing. He jumped and remembered that he had asked if she was free. And they were eating at Erin’s inn.
“Oh, nothing much. It’s been work as usual, you know.”
“We do see a lot of each other.”
“Yeah. And uh, I haven’t had much free time what with the Raskghar and all the reports.”
“Right. We’re uh, overdue for time off.”
That line of dialogue died fast. The two Drakes stared at each other. Then Zevara shifted.
“I heard there was something interesting happening over here the other day.”
“When is there not?”
“Hah. But I meant this game that Relc played. Apparently it was in Celum? And it involved hitting a ball and running around in a circle?”
Zevara looked hopelessly at Olesm. He smiled.
“A diamond, actually. It was this fascinating game that Erin introduced us to. It’s called baseball. I wish you could have been there. You see—”
“Olesm, is that you? I haven’t seen you in—oh.”
The Drake broke off as Zevara was leaning forwards. He turned and winced. Of all the times…Zevara leaned back and her smile vanished. Ceria Springwalker paused as she realized what she’d walked into.
“Uh, hello. Ceria.”
“Hey Olesm. Sorry, I didn’t see you were busy.”
Ceria stared at Zevara. The Watch Captain crunched down on a fish flake.
“Don’t mind me, half-Elf. I’m just sitting with a fellow co-worker. Talking about business. Together.”
“Right. I just wanted to say hi.”
The [Cryomancer] stared cautiously at Zevara, and then turned to Olesm.
“Sorry, I’ll leave you to it.”
“Yeah. It’s uh, good to see you.”
Olesm shuffled his feet. He was about to leave it at that, when he saw the man across the table from him raise a hand and throw a bunch of sparks into the air. They floated upwards, turning into tiny phoenixes which flew about, flaming birds dancing in every color.
Ceria turned. She blinked as she saw the tiny birds and then shrugged.
“Him? That’s Eltistiman Verdue, a [Magician] who just came through from Celum. He showed up this morning pretending to be a Dragon when Erin opened the door. She punched his lights out and he’s been performing here all morning as an apology.”
“Eltisti—who? He got here this morning?”
The half-Elf nodded. She leaned over the table, ignoring Zevara’s irritated look.
“Yup. He knows a lot of illusion spells. Some of them are pretty impressive. He and Pisces had a competition this morning. You should have seen it. Erin’s over the moon about him. I think she likes him. And she’s guilty about punching him in the face, which was hilarious.”
The half-Elf smiled. But Olesm felt a bit irritated. Not necessarily about Eltistiman, but about how so much happened around Erin that he never got to see because of his work.
“Why haven’t I heard about him being here?”
Ceria gave Olesm a flat look.
“Like I said, he arrived this morning. You aren’t here all the time.”
“True. I have work—”
“—Which is very pressing, isn’t it, Olesm?”
Zevara jumped into the conversation. She leaned around Olesm, not quite nudging Ceria out of the way. The half-Elf glowered at her. Olesm cringed.
He’d had a brief fling with Ceria until she’d essentially prevented him from joining the Horns of Hammerad. And Zevara had a not-so-subtle interest in him. It didn’t take a [Strategist] to tell that he shouldn’t be here. But now Ceria had locked gazes with Zevara.
“It’s a shame he’s so busy. But Olesm’s not on duty right now. Can’t he chat?”
“He’s discussing private information. With me. I’m sure Olesm will have plenty of time to talk when he’s free for trivial pursuits.”
The half-Elf’s eyes narrowed.
“Is that so?”
Zevara breathed out a puff of smoke.
“Do I need to repeat myself?”
Olesm was just about to pretend to choke on a fry when salvation appeared in form of Ksmvr. The Antinium walked over and waved a hand.
“Hello, Olesm. Hello Watch Captain Zevara. Hello, Captain Ceria. May I join your conversation?”
All three stared at him. Ksmvr looked from face to face and only now seemed to pick up on the underlying tension.
“Ah. I perceive my presence is unwelcome. Am I being a nuisance? Please inform me directly when I am and I will take note of my behavior.”
“No, Ksmvr—I mean, yes, Ksmvr—look, I’ll explain it to you over here. Sorry, Olesm. I’ll talk to you later.”
Ceria hustled Ksmvr off to one side. The Antinium kept asking what he’d done wrong. Sheepishly, Olesm and Zevara turned back to each other. After a moment Olesm brought up the only thing he could think of.
“So, about the Redfang Goblins and this huge amount of money the adventurers have gotten…”
Zevara groaned. She fished around in her bowl for more flakes and found there were none. She sighed and took a sip of her drink instead.
“There’s not much we can do about it. Those adventurers will raise all kinds of hell if we try and reverse what’s happened. I want to nail my tail to a wall but—at least we don’t have to worry about the information leaking. Imagine the riots we’d have if that got out. This is classified and buried.”
Olesm nodded. Zevara sighed.
“And on the subject of Goblins, did you hear what Ilvriss was suggesting?”
Again, Olesm nodded. This time he traced a pattern on the table.
“It’s…not something I want to consider. They saved those Gnolls, Zevara.”
She tilted her mug up. It was already empty.
“They did. But you know they can’t stay here forever. Maybe—no, maybe it’s best if they leave with the Goblin Lord. By accident. Or maybe they can be ‘encouraged’ to leave ahead of time. They’ve got a grace period while the waters are up, but if the citizens of Liscor see a huge tribe of Goblins suddenly roaming the plains…”
“Could they stay in the dungeon?”
“If they do, they’re on their own against adventurers.”
The two Drakes sat together. Olesm scrubbed a claw through his spikes.
“It’s really not up to us. There’s only one person who can get them to move. I can speak to Erin. Drop a few hints.”
Both Drakes jumped and turned around. Erin paused with a bowl of soup in one hand, and a spoon in the other. She delicately tasted the soup. Olesm stared at her and felt sweat rolling down his back for the umpteenth time today.
“Uh, Erin! How long have you been there?”
“I just heard my name so I came over. What’s up?”
Olesm and Zevara exchanged a quick glance. Olesm cleared his throat.
“Nothing…but how’re the Goblins, Erin? Uh, have the Hobs been in your inn recently? Are they…doing well?”
“They’re doing great, thanks for asking! The Hobs aren’t in my inn so much—they’re busy with the Cave Goblins. You know, leading them and teaching them how to survive and stuff. Numbtongue’s over there. Actually, he’s about to go back to their cave. I just need to give him this soup. I think it’s done.”
Erin pointed with her spoon at the Hob. She tasted the soup again and smiled.
“Yup, it’s done. Hey, Numbtongue! Order up!”
She shouted at Numbtongue. The Hob looked up and abandoned his guitar. He walked over and Olesm saw the same Cave Goblin trot out of the kitchen with a huge pot in her hands. He stared as she waddled over with it. The soup was steaming and gave off a fishy, yet enticing aroma.
“This is Pebblesnatch. You remember Pebblesnatch, right, guys?”
Zevara spoke flatly as she eyed the soup. Erin offered the bowl to Numbtongue. He grunted with approval and tasted the soup before nodding vigorously at Erin. She smiled.
“I’m teaching the Goblins how to cook as well as feeding them meals. It’s actually sort of fun! You see, they really like to cook and all I have to do is show them how to make something and they copy me. Sometimes they get it wrong, but there’s a few promising [Cooks] among them! Pebblesnatch has been watching me work.”
She patted the small Cave Goblin on the head. Pebblesnatch grunted and put the pot on the floor. Erin offered her the bowl to sip from as well. She pointed at it as she spoke to Numbtongue.
“This is fishy minestrone soup with a side of hot garlic bread. Share it; Pebblesnatch can teach the others how to make more, okay? Oh, and take some baking soda. And some flour. Krshia just sent me a shipment via boat. And you’ll need some vegetables. Oh, and pepper. And do you have enough plates?”
The Hob grunted and sighed. Erin began dragging over bags and eventually the Hob had to drag everything through the magic door into a cave filled with Goblins. Olesm caught one look of a dozen Goblins swarming Pebblesnatch, peering into the pot as she hit them with her ladle before the door closed. Erin walked back into her kitchen as Olesm looked at Zevara. The Watch Captain shook her head.
“That Gnoll must be making a killing providing so much food for the Goblins.”
Olesm nodded. He recalled a report that had landed on his desk.
“Apparently someone’s bought enough food to drive up prices in the city. I’d have spoken to you about it, but since we have access to Celum’s markets, I didn’t think it was cause for alarm.”
“Oh really? Well, I can handle that.”
Zevara smiled slightly. Then she leaned back in her chair and shouted towards the kitchen.
“Oi, Human! Buy your food from Celum instead of Liscor! We don’t have unlimited supplies, you know!”
The Watch Captain grinned as she sat back and looked at Olesm.
“Problem solved. Now where were we?”
“Can we talk about Liscor and the Goblins? Er, I mean, the Goblin Lord. I was going to ask you how certain you are. I hate to keep harping on about it, but…”
Olesm twiddled his claw thumbs together. Zevara nodded. She sat up straighter and leaned forwards, lowering her voice.
“It’s not a concern to me because I know our numbers, Olesm. A siege isn’t easy and there’s no wood around Liscor—at least, not in enough quantities to help in besieging our city. Our gates are nigh impregnable and even if the Goblins had siege towers or ladders…the Watch numbers in the thousands. We have Embria and her soldiers and they’re worth something. So is Ilvriss. But what really reassures me are the Antinium. Don’t let anyone know I said that.”
There was a lot Olesm knew as Liscor’s [Strategist], but some things were still above his pay grade. At least, they had been as a [Tactician]. Zevara nodded. She lowered her voice even further, although no one was listening.
“Officially, the Antinium have three hundred Soldiers they can bring to our defense if necessary. Unofficially…we could hold off a hundred thousand Goblins even if all of them had ladders. We can fill the walls with bodies, make it practically unclimbable. And the Humans have to know that.”
Olesm whistled. Obviously a single defender could repel multiple attackers, but Zevara was speaking about hard numbers here.
“So we’re safe?”
“If they want to besiege us, they’ll have to take our walls just like the Goblins and we won’t fall so quickly. It’s my opinion that you’re right and the Humans are pushing the Goblins past Liscor, but not attack it. With that said, keep listening.”
“Good. Keep me informed.”
Zevara fished in her belt pouch and stood up. She tossed a few coins onto the table and strode towards the door. Olesm saw her pause there and waver. After a moment she stomped back over, blushing.
“Sorry, I guess this was a work discussion after all. I’d stay and talk, but I need to tell Embria and Ilvriss and file a report with what you’ve told me.”
Olesm stood up, flushing with embarrassment.
“Of course. I’m sorry, this was my fault.”
“No, no, it was good. And important. It’s just that—”
“Duty calls. Right. Another time, then?”
They stared at each other for a second, and then Zevara turned away. She strode towards the door, so flustered that she took the bridge to Liscor rather than the magic door. Olesm sat back in his chair. He looked at his practically uneaten fries for a second, and then noticed he had an audience.
At some point a furry little Gnoll had crept up to the edge of his table. Now two big, round eyes stared at him. Olesm turned red.
Mrsha stared sympathetically at Olesm. Then she grabbed his fries and dashed away. He leapt up, outraged, and then flinched as Apista buzzed over his head, stinger raised.
He watched Mrsha dash upstairs, resigned, as Apista triumphantly followed her. Olesm stared down at his nearly empty bowl, and then saw someone turn towards him. The [Mage] with the fancy robes who’d cast the illusionary phoenixes raised a mug and saluted Olesm with it.
“She got mine too. Same trick, even. Fearsome things, those giant bees.”
Olesm sat back down, looking sadly at a wimpy fry at the bottom of his bowl. He raised his mug in turn to the mage.
“Sorry, she’s part of the inn. She’s usually less trouble, but she’s a food thief. Erin’ll probably replace your food if you complain. My name’s Olesm.”
The Human smiled. He threw his mug up and Olesm winced, but it vanished liquid and all. He’d been holding an illusion! He winked at Olesm.
“Eltistiman Verdue, [Magician], at your service. I was told this inn was the place to visit if I wanted an interesting time, and I believe it! You wouldn’t happen to know when the ah, play is starting, would you?”
“Sometime tonight, sorry. Why, are you here for it?”
“I’m here to join it, if I can. I was wondering how much time I had. I was hoping to go to Pallass, actually. This wondrous door can send me there in an instant, can’t it?”
He indicated the door, which had the glowing red mana stone on it. Olesm nodded.
“It can do that, but the magic is limited. It can only send two people at a time.”
“Ah, that is inconvenient. But natural given the distances.”
“Right, but there’s more complications too on Pallass’ side. They don’t just let you walk through like, uh, Liscor. You’ll have to fill out a request. I’m sure it will be approved, but it will be at least a day before you can go through.”
Olesm looked apologetic, but Eltistiman didn’t look too put out.
“Ah, a pity. I’ll inquire about the details later. Thank you for your help, sir.”
He smiled at Olesm and turned back to his table. The [Strategist] sat back down and tried to gather his thoughts. He wanted more fries…no! He stared at the table, thinking hard.
“Something’s not right here.”
His conversation with Zevara had reassured him on a lot of points. But still, something didn’t sit right with Olesm. He knew she’d probably run countless simulations, but he wasn’t reassured. The timing, the way everything was falling together…was Liscor in danger? The least he could do was think it out. Olesm sat at the table, pondering hard as his brain ran through possibility after possibility. After a few minutes he looked up and called towards the kitchen.
“Hey, can I have another plate of fries?”
The late meal was elegant despite being held in a war camp. Almost ridiculously so; Yitton eyed the gilded plates and silver silverware with deep concern for the priorities of whoever had packed the camp’s supplies. There was no need for this.
Then again however, it suited the gathering. Emperor Laken Godart sat next to Lord Tyrion, dining carefully. He was blind. Yitton had met men blinded in battle and Laken behaved as they did, although there was a surety to his movements that he had that the men had lacked.
The young man sat stiffly, head slightly tilted towards Tyrion. He moved slowly, but not randomly, carefully finding his plate and food with knife and fork. He was able to eat with only a minimal amount of inconvenience. But his presence disturbed the others. He bothered Yitton too.
“Tyrion, how is it that an…an [Emperor] is sitting among us? Your Majesty, I hate to be rude, but the presence of any sort of royalty on Izril is unheard of. Let alone for someone of your station to appear here…”
Ieka glanced between Laken and Tyrion, her face torn between suspicion and incredulity. Lord Tyrion looked up from his meal—carefully prepared scallops adorned with so many little toppings that they quite outnumbered the seafood itself.
“I requested Emperor Godart’s company, Lady Ieka. The need for his presence will soon be made clear. As for his origins, that remains for his majesty to reveal. I have not pressed him on the matter.”
“You aren’t curious?”
“I consider the information superfluous. Emperor Laken, would you care for more wine?”
“No, thank you. My stomach’s still unsettled from the ride from Riverfarm these last few days. I’ve discovered that I don’t care for horses.”
Laken replied calmly. Yitton tried to remember where Riverfarm was. He must have been riding nonstop and with powerful Skills to have caught up. He was about to ask something—Erill had been uncharacteristically silent—when Gralton interrupted.
“I don’t care for games. Are you an [Emperor] or not, boy? And where the hell did you come from?”
The table went silent. Laken Godart slowly turned his head in Gralton’s direction.
“Is that Lord Gralton?”
Tyrion opened his mouth, looking displeased, but Gralton interrupted. The man had all the manners of a savage.
“That’s me. Izril has no [Emperors]. We have no [Kings]. Where did you come from so suddenly that not even a she-weasel like Ieka knows of you?”
Yitton held his breath with the table. Ieka narrowed her eyes. Tyrion did not look inclined to intervene, and so everyone stared at Laken. The young man calmly speared a scallop.
“That is none of your business, Lord Gralton.”
That was the wrong thing to say to Gralton. The man half-rose and uttered a low growl, like the dogs he raised. The sound made Yitton’s hair stand on end. Consumed by his class. He eyed Gralton warily, wondering if he should say something.
But Laken Godart didn’t flinch. He calmly chewed his bite and spoke.
Yitton’s blood ran cold. The sound Gralton made was all beast now. He rose from his chair.
Erill sounded wary. The [Lord] looked at him and Erill backed up in his seat. Gralton leaned over the table.
“I’ve killed men for lesser insults.”
“And will you try again tonight?”
Laken’s voice was glacial. He looked towards Lord Gralton in complete silence, his eyes still closed. Gralton’s eyes narrowed. If the man had a dog’s ears, Yitton thought they would have been laid flat against the back of his head. The intensity between the two ratcheted up another notch. Gralton began to snarl.
Yitton could sense the impending violence in the air. He held his breath, his body tensed to move. If Gralton leapt, possibly not even Tyrion could save the [Emperor]. But the air was heavy, and it wasn’t just the threat of violence that hung there. Yitton felt something heavy pressing down on his shoulders. And he was not the center of Laken’s focus. The young man sat in place, head turned towards Gralton. And then he took another bite of the scallop.
The snarling abruptly abated. Gralton sat back down. Suddenly the wild look was gone in his eyes. He laughed. Yitton stared, but Gralton roared with laughter.
“So you are an [Emperor]! At least that is true.”
“As I said.”
Laken Godart smiled coolly. Yitton remembered to breathe as Gralton grabbed a scallop himself with his bare hands. Only now did he sense the air lighten. And only now did he place the strange emotion he’d felt coming from Laken the entire meal.
He seemed irritated. Impatient, as if he did not want to be here. It was such a simple emotion that it surprised Yitton. For a moment he was like one of Yitton’s offspring, clearly unhappy about being here. But at the same time he had faced down Gralton and even now exuded an air of…assurance. Confidence manifest.
Pride. And it was Laken who put down his fork and turned to Lord Tyrion.
“Thank you for this meal, Lord Tyrion. But I believe your guests and I have come for the same reason. Would you please explain what your grand aim is with the Goblins?”
He sat back in his chair. Lord Tyrion inclined his head.
“As you wish, Emperor Godart.”
He was respectful, but Yitton was sure that Tyrion used Laken’s titles out of a desire to be correct, not out of any sense of deference. And he was just as sure from reading Laken’s expression that the young Emperor Godart knew exactly what Tyrion was about to say. Yitton stared at Laken and then turned his attention to Tyrion.
For all an [Emperor] sat next to him, Tyrion Veltras commanded the room. He did not speak loudly or make grand gestures. He simply stood and spoke without wasting time.
“I am aware of the rumors and gossip swirling about in the war camp. And I am also aware that many of the nobility have deduced the destination to which we travel. But in the interest of transparency, I intend to share with you all the full scope of my war plans tonight. Lady Ieka, gentlemen, our destination is Liscor. And I intend to use the Goblins as a first weapon to strike against the Drakes.”
A sigh ran around the table from the other nobles. Satisfied, resigned, dismissive. Yitton looked from face to face at Gralton, Erill, and Ieka. They didn’t look shocked, or even surprised. He glanced at Tyrion. Erill mused into his wine glass.
“So the rumors were true. We are indeed fighting a war by proxy with the Goblins as our instrument.”
“I suppose it is somewhat worth the effort. But all the cloak and dagger nonsense could have been avoided to save us all distress, Tyrion. Just say we’re sending the Goblins into Drake lands and we’ll all support you. Well, most of us.”
Ieka sighed as she lifted a fork to her mouth. Tyrion smiled. Yitton glanced at Gralton and noticed the man hadn’t made a comment either. Like Yitton, he was watching Tyrion. It was his eyes. They betrayed the man’s burning heart.
“I am afraid that you are wrong in that regard, Lord Erill, Lady Ieka. My aim is not to simply send the Goblin Lord into the south as a marauding force. Rather, I intend to aim at a specific target. I told you we march to Liscor. And it is Liscor I intend to take.”
For a moment Yitton was convinced his ears had betrayed him. He half-rose from his seat. War. Gralton was grinning madly. Ieka and Erill were frozen. Yitton uttered a strangled sound and Tyrion looked at him.
It took Yitton a second to make words come out of his throat.
“Lord Tyrion, you cannot be serious! War has not been declared with the Drakes! To attack Liscor would be—”
“I do not intend to declare war. Nor do I intend to violate the terms of our treaty with the Drakes in any way. We will take no direct action against the city of Liscor. But it will be taken.”
Erill leaned over his plate. His eyes were sharp as they studied Tyrion. He spoke plainly, dispensing with formalities.
“How, Tyrion? The Goblin Lord may be weaker than our army, but he is not a mindless tool. Goblins are not entirely suicidal. Do you intend to force him to attack Liscor? I fear he would rather march around the walls and take his chances fleeing rather than face certain death. Liscor cannot be taken by an army so quickly, not without preparation. And not while the waters have risen.”
Tyrion nodded. His eyes flicked amusement towards Erill, though his face was stoney.
“That is true, Lord Erill. But the waters will fall shortly. By the time we arrive, Liscor will be assailable.”
“Not by Goblins, and not without an even larger army than the one you brought! Their walls are enchanted! We’d need dedicated siege mages, not the ones we’ve brought. And ladders! Siege towers, dozens of them! Erill is right, an assault is suicide! You might as well kill the Goblin Lord and be done with it—he’ll never risk an assault!”
Ieka glowered at Tyrion. He shook his head.
“I intend to offer Liscor to the Goblin Lord as a prize, Ieka. By making it a target easy to take.”
“Impossible. No one can break the walls with magic or with steel. The Necromancer hurled his undead against the walls and they held. The Goblin Lord’d never get over before the Drakes reinforce the city. But go on.”
Gralton grinned. Tyrion smiled coldly.
“I happen to have a way to open Liscor’s walls, Gralton.”
“That would be where I come in, wouldn’t it, Lord Tyrion?”
Laken looked up casually. Tyrion nodded.
“Yes, your majesty. As you surmised, your help is essential.”
He began to rise from his seat, but a strangled noise interrupted him. Tyrion looked to Yitton. The [Lord] was on his feet. He looked around the room, from Ieka to Erill to Tyrion to Gralton—and then at Jericha. Finally he looked at Laken, though the young man could not return his gaze.
“Lord Tyrion, everyone. Are you serious? Are you truly contemplating an attack on a sovereign city? Unprovoked?”
He stared around, but saw no wavering in any of the gazes that came back to him. Just cold calculation in Erill’s eyes, a burning fever in Gralton’s, curiosity in Ieka’s. And in Tyrion he saw that burning excitement.
Only Laken Godart didn’t respond with his eyes, because they were closed. But he shifted slightly, looked down. If he could have met Yitton’s eyes, what would he have said? Tyrion interrupted Yitton impatiently.
“We are at war with the Drakes, Yitton. We have been for centuries.”
“In name only. Surely this—”
“If the Drakes thought they could push into our lands, they would. Since we are strong, we have repelled such attempts. But I do not intend to wait until that day comes. Liscor falls, Yitton. And I would ask that you refrain from voiceing your objections until I have finished speaking.”
Slowly, Yitton sat. He was trembling. Tyrion waited a beat, and then went on.
“Yes, Liscor has been my target from the beginning. Ever since I began mustering this army. I would not have informed any of you of my plans until the moment was at hand. It is not that I do not trust any of your personally; I trust no one at all with my plans. But it seems Magnolia Reinhart is determined to sabotage me regardless of the cost. She has sent a message informing the Drakes of my plans.”
Ieka breathed in sharply. Erill stirred and Gralton muttered a word not fit for polite company. Or any company, really. Tyrion nodded coldly.
“She is determined to keep the false peace in place. So she’s warned the Drakes.“
“And that’s ruined your plans, hence you telling us? Or must we move quickly, alter this plan you’ve yet to tell us?”
Erill raised his glass and looked at Tyrion sharply. The [Lord] smiled.
“On the contrary. I’m choosing to tell you all because it’s too late for her to stop me. Too late for her, or anyone else.”
Erin peered across her inn. So far her day had been pretty normal, aside from punching Dragons before breakfast. She’d made some soup, hung out with her friends, scolded Mrsha for stealing food…now she was a bit worried about Olesm. He’d been muttering to himself for the past hour and people were beginning to stare at him.
Olesm was sitting at the table, head in his hands, muttering to himself. Since that was how he tended to behave when he played chess against her, she didn’t worry too much. But she did make sure he got his fries, and sent a plate to Eltistiman the [Magician] as well as an apology.
She was about to go over and talk to Olesm when she noticed Jelaqua coming in from Liscor. She noticed because the Selphid was dripping wet and holding something behind her. A bulky, cloth-wrapped something. Seborn was holding the other end. It looked like a body.
“Jelaqua, what’s that?”
The Selphid turned. She’d clearly been trying to sneak upstairs, but she was about as good a grave robber as…well…Erin had no frame of reference. She smiled guiltily at Erin.
“Hey Erin! What’re you talking about?”
“That. What’s that you’re holding?”
Erin pointed at the clearly large, clearly dead body. A furry paw was sticking out from underneath the cloth.
The Selphid tried to hide her end of the covered body behind her. Erin folded her arms. The Selphid wavered.
“Okay, maybe it’s a dead Raskghar. But its dead, see?”
She poked the body and lifted the cover. Erin recoiled.
“Why are you bringing it into my inn?”
“I was going to store a few in my room. You know, just in case? Or…I was thinking we could use the basement. There’s only food down there, and you don’t have rats. And it’s nice and cool.”
“No. Absolutely—why do you need multiple dead bodies?”
“Spares in case my body gets damaged? To try out? Emergency food supplies?”
Seborn raised his end of the Raskghar. Jelaqua and Erin stared at him. The Drowned Man shrugged.
“That’s what you told me.”
“I’m not having dead bodies in my inn. They’ll rot. Okay, maybe they won’t with the [Field of Preservation] but—rats will eat them! If I had rats. I—I’m just not having them here! No way!”
Erin raised her hands. Jelaqua nearly dropped the dead Raskghar and held up her claws imploringly. Seborn swore as he tried to prop the body up.
“Come on, Erin. Please? I never get extra bodies and these ones are so—do you know how prestigious it is to be the first Selphid to wear a new body? You won’t notice them at all, I swear! And we’ll pay you.”
“There’s no w—how much?”
The iron wall of refusal Erin had built up turned out to be rusty. She hesitated and edged over to Jelaqua.
“I mean, okay, I’m pretty rich from all the gold I got from Ilvriss right now. I can buy a lot of potatoes or…nails…but if you’re giving me money—not that I’m saying you have lots of money to give or anything—”
The two conferred for a minute. After a little bit, Jelaqua shook Erin’s hand.
“You won’t regret this. They won’t go anywhere, I promise. Unless I’m in them! Come on, Seborn, we’re taking these guys downstairs!”
“Good. Hurry up. Moore says the other ones are getting drenched in the rain.”
The Halfseekers stomped down into the basement. Erin looked around sheepishly. All of her patrons gave her a long stare. She coughed and sidled over to a table. She leaned on it and then spoke to Eltistiman.
“Sorry about that. That doesn’t happen all the time.”
The [Magician] blinked up at Erin. He opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out for quite some while. And Olesm still muttering.
“It can’t be that simple. This Tyrion Veltras can’t be that stupid. He had to know a Goblin Lord’s army couldn’t take Liscor, not with the Antinium and the Watch and enchanted walls on our side.”
He was doing calculations on a scrap of parchment. Erin had banned him from using the table. Olesm frowned as he muttered.
“What if they tried linked casting? If they linked every mage they had—assuming all the Gold-rank adventurers he’s hired, and if you assume…what, one high-level [Mage] per thousand [Soldiers]…”
He had to consult a [Mage] on that. Unfortunately, only Falene and Pisces were present. They had been playing an unfriendly game of chess, but the half-Elf paused to give her opinion on how feasible that would be.
“Linked casting is certainly a powerful technique. However, it requires immense concentration and discipline on the part of the casters. It cannot be performed with totally untrained mages—in Wistram, only students of the fourth year or older would learn to cast together. Of course, any true graduate of Wistram would know how to perform such a spell.”
She looked pointedly at Pisces. The [Necromancer] rolled his eyes. He interrupted Falene with a sneer.
“The problem that Falene has yet to point out, Olesm, is that linking does not allow [Mages] to cast spells they do not already know. They could boost an existing spell several times over—the classic example is using [Siege Fireball], which is simply an overcharged version of [Grand Fireball]—but unless the lead mage knows a Tier 6 spell or higher, the effort is usually pointless.”
“I get it. So there’s a limit.”
“And unless there’s a truly powerful Gold-rank team—no, they’d be Named Adventurers. Or you’d know of the [Mage] by name if they were coming your way.”
Falene nodded grudgingly. That left Olesm with an answer. Of sorts. He went back to his table and continued calculating.
“Okay, so assuming they don’t have that many powerful spells or Tier 6 is the absolute limit…they might be able to do that. But we have anti-spell wards. We could take at least a few hits from a Tier 6 spell, and [Siege Fireball] wouldn’t be enough to damage our walls. Right? And those [Mages] are in danger of being killed if they’re in range. It’s not a sensible idea. We held off the [Necromancer], after all…”
There was no way Tyrion Veltras would try something with so many risks. And his army wasn’t that mage-heavy. Olesm crossed that idea off his list. That should have made him relieved, but he wasn’t. He felt like he was missing some crucial piece of information. Something important that would put it all together.
And then it came to him. Not as an idea, but as a letter. The door to Celum opened and someone appeared in the doorway. Olesm paid no notice at first. He vaguely tuned out Erin exclaiming and greeting a tall Human [Runner] who Olesm only barely recalled.
“Fals! Why are you here?”
“I’ve got a letter, actually. It came by regular mail. Took a while to get here, due to a few delays—an idiot sprained his ankle, and it would have taken several more days, but someone paid more for a faster delivery. So here I am.”
“Is it for me? Wait, is it from Ryoka?”
“No. It’s to…”
The Drake looked up. He saw the Human offering the letter to him. He blinked at the delicately scented stationary.
“Oh, it’s a fan letter to me. For my chess newspaper. I haven’t run an issue in a while. I—thank you. I’ve got my seal around here. One second…”
Absentmindedly he gave Fals his personal seal and a tip. The [Runner] left the letter with him and went to chat with Erin. About Ryoka. Olesm left the letter on the table for a while as he mentally struggled with the puzzle he was facing. And then, since he was tired and out of sorts, he opened the letter.
It was indeed fan mail, or at least, that was how it began. The delicate cursive made Olesm blink, as did the gold-nibbled edges of the card. It looked expensive. It even smelled expensive, but then he’d received a lot of letters from famous [Strategists] and chess fans. Even Niers Astoragon. He read the letter slowly.
“To Olesm Swifttail of Liscor, I am a deep admirer of your ‘chess newsletter’ that seems to have spread across much of the continent recently. I must confess to having only a passing interest in the game, but I am acquainted with chess and found the games rather fascinating. They are also, apparently, games of the highest caliber according to a rather grumpy friend I regularly correspond with. He has since become vaguely interested in your newsletter and that is quite an accomplishment in itself. I do hope you will continue releasing the game…hope that you will consider sending copies north…mhm…”
Olesm scanned the rest of the letter. It seemed like what he regularly got. He vaguely wondered who was writing this and checked the envelope. Sometimes the writers sent him gold or trinkets. One time he’d gotten a clawful of powdered silver. Weird stuff like that. Olesm found nothing else, but he noticed something on the bottom of the card.
It was a single sentence, underlined and circled repeatedly. It stood out from the rest of the writing, and it made him freeze. It was a strange sentence, that didn’t mesh at all with the rest of the letter. But it mattered. It was the same sentence, word for word, that was sent via Courier to the top [Strategist] in Zeres, and to other Drake [Strategists] via [Message] spell and Runner. Three words. But they made Olesm shout and leap up from his table. He overturned his chair, ran for the door to Liscor and raced out it, shouting for Zevara. It changed everything.
When Olesm’s wild shouting had died off, Erin unfroze and walked slowly over to the table. She picked up the card he’d dropped and turned it over. She skimmed the message until she reached the bottom and saw the underlined word. Then she frowned.
“He has trebuchets.”
She looked up at the staring customers. Erin stared at the card and then looked around. She scratched her head.
Yitton sat at the table. He tried to picture the word, but he had only seen one in a book. He’d heard what they could do, of course. They were siege weapons, designed to take down enemy walls from afar. But none existed in northern Izril. They were impossible to make unless you were an [Engineer]. Who would contemplate building such a thing? Who would know how other than someone who had a class?
An [Emperor], that was who. Laken Godart sat at the table and nodded, calm as could be. The staring nobility finally remembered to close their jaws at last.
“You know how to make trebuchets?”
“Of course. I’ve taught my [Engineers] how to make them as well. We had two when Lord Tyrion rescued Riverfarm. But at his request, we’ve been working on duplicating them as fast as possible.”
“And now? How many do you have?”
Lord Erill leaned over the table, ignoring the food that smudged his expensive clothing. Laken paused for a second and then nodded.
“We have thirteen trebuchets, eight of which have been tested. My [Engineering] team will continue testing the others and constructing more on the march.”
“I’ve conscripted every high-level [Carpenter], [Blacksmith], and [Builder] into working on the trebuchets. I intend to have at least twenty by the time we arrive at Liscor. If I can contrive, it, forty.”
“Forty—but how many [Engineers] do you have?”
Yitton choked on the thought of so many. Laken just sighed.
“Only a pair for now. But the class doesn’t matter, Lord Yitton. It is not the class which brings knowledge. It is understanding. And I understand how trebuchets work. I do not need a Skill or time to experiment; I can order my people to replicate the design a hundred times. A thousand times, if need be.”
“And you brought thirteen of them. To besiege Liscor.”
Yitton repeated the words slowly. He tried to remember if he’d heard any rumors of strange weapons arriving. How big were they? They had to be massive, surely. Erill frowned.
“Where were they kept? I heard nothing about any trebuchets arriving—”
Ieka laughed softly. She fanned herself, glancing at Tyrion with something akin to admiration.
“He’s using bags of holding, obviously. You’ve got all the parts stored neatly away. And ammunition, I shouldn’t wonder. Nothing to see. Or sabotage. How quickly can they be set up and operated?”
“It will take time, but Emperor Laken assures me that his people can train others in the operation of the weapons. And with them, taking Liscor becomes a reality.”
It was the same question, but there was urgency in it this time. Now all the nobles looked at Tyrion, not with incredulity, but wanting to know exactly how it would be done. Yitton pointed out the obvious with a sick feeling in his stomach.
“Attacking Liscor will still violate the terms of our peace.”
“Not if the attack was incidental.”
“You mean—an accident?”
“Yes. An unfortunate misunderstanding. Poor aim as our army finally assaults the Goblin Lord.”
Lord Tyrion’s eyes glittered. He had a cup in his hands. Now he put it down to speak.
“Our army has been pursuing one purpose and one alone: to slay the Goblin Lord. He has escaped us for many days, but at last, we will have cornered him at Liscor. To attack his army, we will deploy trebuchets, a powerful weapon which will surely be his downfall. Unfortunately, on the day of the assault, the trebuchets will misfire. And strike Liscor instead.”
Erill shook his head.
“There is absolutely no way the Drakes will accept that.”
“No? Accidents occur. Regardless, the trebuchets will continue firing until Liscor’s walls are breached. And then, naturally, they will stop. The army will advance upon the Goblin Lord as is our mission. And the Goblins—”
“—Will storm the city through the breaches. Of course.”
Ieka sat back in her chair. Yitton nearly vomited. That was the plan? That? A lie barely disguised? Destroy the walls and let the Goblins pour through? Tyrion was still talking, outlining his plan to the others.
“It is not an offensive action against Liscor. The trebuchets are a terrible mistake. All the bloodshed and the taking of the city itself would be the fault of the Goblins. Naturally, once they sack the city, it would have to be retaken.”
“By a conveniently placed Human army?”
Gralton snorted with amusement. Tyrion nodded.
“If one happened to be nearby.”
“And you think you can take Liscor? Just like that? With trebuchets?”
Ieka eyed Tyrion sardonically, but her hands played with a fork rapidly. She was excited. Tyrion nodded.
“Trebuchets are a rare weapon, one that Liscor was never designed to withstand. Magic, yes, but trebuchets? No. They have enchantments on their walls, but no siege weapons themselves either. Drakes are naturally possessive and that technology resides solely in the Walled Cities, and [Engineers] capable of constructing such weapons have been practically impossible to find—until now.”
“But Liscor was designed to be unassailable. The Necromancer—”
Tyrion held up a hand, forestalling Erill’s argument.
“Liscor’s walls are spelled against magic and physical harm, but how strongly? A [Mage] will tire, but a trebuchet? How many stones will the wall endure before the magic runs out? Forty? A hundred? Liscor is no Walled City. The Necromancer could not take it with his magic, but that was his arrogance. I place my trust in stones and wood. What is real and will not evaporate or disappear.”
“And which you can replicate. Clever.”
Ieka gazed at Laken. The [Emperor] didn’t notice her glance. He was staring ahead. He did not look happy. Tyrion did. He nodded.
“We have the weapons to crack Liscor’s walls, and an expendable army that will see the city as their only salvation. By the time we reach Liscor, I have no doubt that the Drakes will be marching a force north from Pallass to keep the Goblins out of their lands. The Goblin Lord will have no choice but to assault Liscor and hope he can hold the walls.”
“And when he does, Liscor falls. And we take the city. We outnumber the Goblins. But wouldn’t they know it’s a trap?”
“Better trying to hold a city than fight a Drake army or a Human one out in the open. And Liscor is what you want, isn’t it, Veltras? That’s what all this is for. Liscor.”
He looked at Tyrion, not as a rabid dog might, but with sharp cunning in his eyes. Tyrion smiled in response. He had a map of Izril and he brought it out now. His fingers traced Liscor and moved ever south, pointing out lines of attack and defence that all ran through one spot.
“Liscor’s value as a strategic location cannot be understated. In the past, our armies have traditionally fought in the Blood Fields as a matter of course; we cannot hope to take and hold Drake Cities further to the south with Liscor at our backs, able to cut our supply lines in half, so we fight at a prearranged location with the Drakes. But if we hold Liscor, we may mount as many southern offensives as need be, at our leisure. The city is practically impregnable if defended correctly.”
“This is insane. It would be the first prelude to a full-scale war. The Drakes would never let Liscor fall so easily.”
Yitton felt like he was alone in the room. The others barely glanced at him, but Erill did look up.
“Yitton has a point, Tyrion. If Magnolia Reinhart has warned the Drakes, they’ll be marching north as fast as they can. But they don’t have to wait. They have that magic door. You recall, from the siege of Liscor?”
Lady Ieka snapped her fingers, frustrated.
“Of course! I recall that thing! They could continually reinforce Liscor, send an army through before we got there! If they do that then—”
“Calm yourselves, that issue has already been accounted for.”
Tyrion’s voice was unperturbed. Erill’s eyebrows nearly disappeared into his hair as he glanced at Tyrion. The [Lord] did not elaborate.
“I’ve already made a move in that regards. Moreover, I suspect that door cannot transport legions of soldiers without great cost. But it is another reason why I intend to take the city. A doorway that would allow us to reinforce the city or transport an army would be of considerable strategic importance.”
“Not to mention economic.”
“Of course. Liscor is a gateway city. And in times of peace, it would be valuable to hold.”
“Lord Tyrion. All of what you’ve said is an open declaration to the Drakes. If you take Liscor, they will declare war. A true war that will split our continent in two once more.”
Yitton spoke through numb lips. He stared at Tyrion. How could he have misjudged the man? But then—he hadn’t. Tyrion had always been aiming at this. He hadn’t lied to anyone. If he’d done the trickery, it was by hiding his intent until the last moment. But he’d shot towards his goal. Straight as an arrow. And just as deadly. Lord Tyrion looked at Yitton, and for a moment his gaze softened. Perhaps he wanted Yitton to understand, but the Lord Byres couldn’t. At last, Tyrion shook his head.
“This is not an act of war. This is an unfortunate accident that will lead to the fall of Liscor. The Goblins will sack the city. And we will clear them out. We will not violate our treaties; nor will we kill a single Drake. Naturally, Liscor must be occupied and so our army will rebuild it stronger and populate it once more.”
Just hearing the way Tyrion phrased it made Yitton feel as though he’d swallowed muck. He bit his tongue rather than shout, but then he heard laughter. It was coarse, boisterous, almost mocking. Lord Gralton stood up. He pointed down at the map and looked Tyrion in the eye, challengingly. His bloodshot gaze promised death, but his words were surprisingly measured as he spoke to Tyrion.
“And if the Drakes don’t buy your twisted words? What if they march their armies north and demand Liscor back at the point of the sword? What if they take it back by force of arms? What then?”
Tyrion Veltras paused. And then he smiled.
“They can try.”
Olesm stood in the conference room of Liscor’s city hall. He was panting, out of breath. For a second Ilvriss, Embria, and Zevara stared at him and the same horror in his chest painted their faces. Then Ilvriss moved. He turned and roared an order at his aides, who were staring into the meeting room.
“Get me a [Message] spell to the Walled Cities now! I want every report on Liscor’s rainfall sitting in front of me!”
They ran. Ilvriss swore and grabbed at his scrying orb. Embria’s voice shook as she looked around.
“I need to find a [Mage]. Now. I must inform the High Command!”
“Them? What can they do?”
Olesm looked incredulously at Embria, but the Wing Commander was already gone. He turned back to the map that Ilvriss was already pouring over.
“If they can break our walls, it’s not a question of holding out. If they can breach the walls, the battle will be swift. How many Drakes can we call up north? How quickly?”
He turned to Olesm. The [Strategist] measured the distance between Pallass and Liscor and shook his head. His claws trembled on the table.
“It’s a four day march from the Blood Fields to Liscor! From Pallass—even with Skills, they won’t make it on time! And that army’s massive! Pallass can’t field—”
Ilvriss turned away from the map.
“The door, then. How many soldiers can we pull through per day?”
“It can barely hold two—but if we use [Mages]—”
Zevara was staring out a window, at the walls of her city. Her voice was very distant as she spoke.
“We’ll need thousands to hold the walls if they can create a breach. Are you sure they have trebuchets? How many? If it’s just a few—”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. If they have an [Engineer], they should have one. Two at best! But if Tyrion has multiple [Engineers] somehow—the letter said trebuchets.”
“It doesn’t matter. He wouldn’t come without enough to do the job.”
Ilvriss slowly sat down at the table. Olesm stared at him. The Wall Lord looked tired. And grim.
“He’ll break open the walls and let the Goblins come through. Then he’ll take the city and pretend it was all an accident. The fault of the Goblins.”
“But that’s such an obvious lie.”
Olesm whispered through numb lips. That was the part he hadn’t understood. Why lie about it? Ilvriss was convinced that was how it would occur, but why did the Human have to pretend? But the Wall Lord just shook his head.
“Of course it’s a lie. But it’s a splendid little lie the Humans can shout. We’ll know its true, and our people will know, but what about Humans who only hear what Tyrion Veltras says? What about other nations? The lie will become truth to many. And it’s the lie that will start a war that Tyrion Veltras wants. It’s…a reason. Humans need reasons to go to war. Even if they’re lies. They want to believe they’re in the right.”
“Then it’s happening. He’s going to besiege Liscor. The Goblin Lord’s coming to destroy the city.”
Ilvriss didn’t move. Olesm looked at him, and then at Zevara. Both Drakes were very still. And then Zevara turned. She looked older than she had this morning. Older and tired. But fire burned in her. She spoke it as she turned.
“Someone get me Klbkch. Tell him I need to speak with his Queen now. Tell him—Liscor may be in mortal danger. Summon the Antinium and rouse the Watch. Send word to the cities.”
She looked at Olesm and Ilvriss. Both Drakes slowly looked up. Zevara clenched her claws into fists.
“Tell them. And tell the damn Humans. Tell Tyrion Veltras. Tell the world. Liscor hasn’t fallen yet.”
The dinner party ended with drinks and a toast, as was custom. Yitton could have thrown his drink down, but he stood mechanically as Tyrion addressed the others. The honorable man stood and watched as his peers toasted. And he knew that he was not an honorable man.
An honorable man would have found a way to stop the bloodbath. An honorable man would have fought, rather than stood silently. But for all Yitton feared a war between Drakes and Humans, he had not the courage to try and stop what was occurring. He knew he could not.
So he stood and listened as Tyrion spoke. The Lord of the Veltras family smiled, a cold smile while his eyes burned. He looked from face to face as he raised a wine glass.
“Prepare yourselves accordingly. I will make a formal announcement two days hence, although I suspect the news will already have been leaked in some fashion or other. Regardless, it matters not. In four days we will reach Liscor and the Goblin Lord will begin his siege of the city. In four days, Liscor falls.”
He drank and the others toasted him. Three [Lords], a [Lady], and an [Emperor]. Yitton looked at Laken Godart. The young man raised his goblet but didn’t drink. And though he could not see Yitton, though he was blind, his head turned slightly towards the [Lord]. And Yitton thought he saw a similar expression cross Laken’s face. He was an [Emperor]. But in that moment he and Yitton were the same.
It was another ordinary day. That was how all days were. Ordinary, until they weren’t. Erin stood outside her inn and stared up at the sky. Normally she would have been drenched in a moment and water would have pelted her upturned face. But for the first time in what felt like ages, Erin didn’t feel the downpour. She felt light and she turned her gaze up to see a bit of sunshine poking through the dark clouds.
“Oh. The rain’s stopped. That’s wonderful!”
She smiled. The rain had stopped! Maybe it would be only for a moment, but people had been saying it was about time for the weather to change. She hoped it would be sunny soon. She couldn’t wait for the summer. She tilted her head back up, smiling, and then heard it.
A strange echo of the falling rain. A distant patter, a thumping heard far off. Like a heartbeat. Or drums, heralding war. Erin shook her head and rubbed at her ears, wondering if there was water caught in her inner ear. After a moment she shrugged and went back to her inn. That was the last she thought of the sound.
But he heard it too. The Goblin crouching on a distant hilltop, nearly invisible in the grass, raised his head and looked northwards. He could sense the thunder in the distance, growing louder and louder. He looked back to the inn, and at the closing door and the young woman who disappeared inside. The old Goblin stroked his grey, tangled beard.
“What do I see? An army of lost children and five who walk Garen Redfang’s path. What will you do, for all those who play games with Goblin lives? And who is she?”
Greydath of Blades stared at the inn, and then his gaze twisted north, to a cave where he sensed the strangeness that had drawn him south. An unexpected twist to all this. There were some things even a Goblin Lord couldn’t predict. Well, he would see what it meant soon enough.
He grinned and his eyes burned crimson. Greydath stood up and leapt into the water. He disappeared with a splash into the murky depths and the fish swimming around him fled. After a few minutes a dark shape darted closer. The waters became violent for a second, and then blood began to rise up like an underwater cloud.
No one noticed. The people of Liscor looked up as the rain stopped, and they saw something wonderful as Erin went back to her window. The end of the rains had brought something special to the skies over Liscor. A rainbow. It shone down from the heavens, a beautiful light that stretched from mountain to mountain. Erin smiled and hummed to herself as she stood outside and the sun finally showed itself.
It looked like it might be a beautiful day.