Aiko Nonomura sat at a table and felt a bug run up her leg. She brushed it off absentmindedly, not even bothering to check what it was. A few months ago, Aiko would have screamed, cried, and washed her leg—especially since Baleros’ bugs were the kind of things that lodged in the mind. Literally, if they crawled up your nose.
Today though, was different. Aiko could have stomped a dozen bugs and not blinked twice. There were more important things to worry about. Geneva had taught her that.
Yesterday, Aiko had helped deliver a Centaur baby—colt. A baby. And she hadn’t panicked or fainted. She couldn’t. She’d been Geneva’s assistant. Wiping sweat, holding clamps—Aiko had seen worse than a childbirth. And in surgery, the stakes were never higher.
There was no surgery today. Everyone was hung over, or tired from last night’s party. But the present leaders of the United Nations company were here. Geneva had woken up and they were talking.
Just—talking about the future. But Aiko could sense a shift in the mood from last time they’d talked, two days ago. There was more optimism. Not just from Ken—he was always trying to be cheerful and bring everyone’s spirits up, even if Aiko could tell he wasn’t happy. But the reason the group felt better was because of her.
Geneva. She sat in her chair, not tense, worried or guilty for once. The intensity of her eyes, that glare that could go through you, was subdued. She had done her job. She had saved Miss Hastel and delivered the baby. She felt…confident. Calmer. And Aiko was reassured for it.
They all were. Around the table, Daly, Paige, Siri, Ken, and Aiko sat, listening to Geneva outline her proposal.
“So, a clinic?”
Daly sat up. He looked good too. He’d come in late last night, and no one asked why. Come to that—some of the United Nations members hadn’t come back until the morning. Aiko wasn’t sure what to make of that; it wasn’t the fact that they might have found love outside the Human genome that bothered her. Dullahans, Lizardfolk—even Centaurs you could love, she was sure.
Because they were like people. You didn’t think they would be. You thought they’d be like aliens, but all too soon it felt like you were just talking to someone with a different face. And when you closed your eyes…
“A clinic. It doesn’t have to be large, but I need at least one room to perform surgeries in.”
Geneva nodded. Siri frowned a touch anxiously.
“That means another house at the least. Can we afford it?”
Paige snorted, but gently.
“We can afford it and maybe get two apartments on this street. Miss Hastel’s gratitude knows no bounds.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say no bounds—”
“Okay, she’s still going to charge us rent. But her gratitude goes a long way. We can definitely get a good deal on it. And from what you’re saying, Geneva, money might not be a problem anymore. Is that right?”
Paige looked at Geneva hopefully. The [Doctor] smiled slightly. She actually smiled!
“No. I think I’ve found a permanent source of income outside of treating amputated limbs and so on.”
“C-sections. Who would’ve thought?”
Daly leaned back. Ken looked from Geneva to Aiko.
“You think it will earn money, Geneva? And that you will have business?”
“I think so. Miss Caleffe told me Centaurs have the most complicated childbirths out of all the species, but there are always problems a [Midwife] has to learn to anticipate. And Caesarian Sections are a way to avoid those complications. It’s not an easy way out—”
“Even if healing potions don’t leave a scar and it’s less strenuous on the body than pregnancy.”
Paige muttered under her breath. Geneva gave her a reproving look.
“I don’t want to make it seem like this is the better option. And I am concerned about complications during the operation. I had no experience prior to this, and Miss Hastel was the first surgery I ever performed. There are four main species on Baleros, each with different anatomies…”
The others let Geneva go on. But despite the good [Doctor]’s reservations, her conclusion was the same.
“I can be on call for childbirths. And if a [Midwife] detects a problem, or if a mother comes to me…I can perform the operation. It might be a case where those who are affluent come to me to have the operation done to preserve their figures or lessen the pain.”
Geneva grimaced. Aiko nodded. She’d heard of that happening. Too many operations as opposed to natural births. But that was a moral quandary for later. Right now, the point was that Geneva had something that everyone needed.
After all, wars came and went. Healing potions could heal most mundane injuries. And severed limbs were rare, if distressing anomalies. But childbirth was forever.
“We might get more patients coming in just by word of mouth alone. Saving Miss Hastel’s baby put your name out there again.”
Paige was trying to figure out how much they could spend to get Geneva’s clinic up and running. There were things to be considered, like how to charge people. Geneva was firm in that she’d give anyone who needed medical attention aid, especially pregnant mothers. Ken proposed a fine alternative—charge them by what they could pay. A [Merchant]’s wife could make up for a half dozen poorer patients.
But there was something else Geneva had to talk about. And it came up the instant she turned to Daly.
“I hear a group of Dullahans may be joining your team.”
“Ah. The Rustless Guard? Yeah. I spoke to Eldima last night. She was really impressed by our group. And I think we can hit it off. Uh—working together that is.”
Daly grinned sheepishly. A hint of a blush crossed his features. The others around the table reacted according to their personalities. Siri sighed. Paige rolled her eyes. Ken looked away politely. Aiko covered her mouth as she smiled. Geneva just stared.
“Did you two have sex?”
“Aw, come on Geneva—”
“Answer the question.”
“It was more like…uh, well, we didn’t get to sex, but—”
“Kissing? Penetration of any kind?”
“Fuck me. Why’s it so important?”
Daly stood up, flushing red with a bit of anger. Geneva sighed.
“Because—the next time you’re in that situation, you need to ask Eldima, or Quexa, or anyone you meet if they have any symptoms of infection around their genitals. And to be safe, you need to use this.”
She pulled something out of her pocket. Aiko recognized it at once. Paige had been helping Geneva make them based on the blueprints the [Doctor] had worked up last night. She must have been fast, because the completed product was already in Geneva’s hands. The first prototype of many.
The group of Earthworlders stared at the object curiously. Geneva shook it out and Daly’s eyes widened. He took only a second to identify the crude linen condom and groaned.
“Oh come on. STD’s? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”
Siri blinked down at the object Geneva placed on the table. Ken eyed it, looking very surprised. He stared at Geneva.
“Condoms. And you want us to…”
“Wear them. Use them. And ask your partners if they show signs of infectious diseases. I’ll be giving the company a full lecture on what to ask for and symptoms later today. I should have done it last night before we had a party. If I hadn’t fallen asleep—I’m giving everyone a second checkup. This time pants and underwear off. No objections.”
Geneva grimaced. The others looked at each other. Siri frowned.
“Is this serious, Geneva? Pregnancy isn’t a problem in this world. There’s a potion for that, you know. As for diseases—I haven’t heard of any. You said so yourself that plagues were rare.”
“That’s what I thought. Until I saw two of Quallet’s patients who had just contracted something called Yellow Rivers in a brothel. They were seriously ill. They’d used healing potions and the infection had rapidly progressed. I have pictures. Do you want to see?”
The table blanched. Aiko felt her breakfast try to come up. Ken took one look at her face and hastily replied.
“No, we believe you. So there are infectious diseases, Geneva?”
“Yes. And if there’s one, there are more.”
Geneva tapped the condom grimly.
“I know there are potions to prevent pregnancy. And it’s not enough. A potion might prevent pregnancy, but only a condom will prevent STD’s—even then, it’s risky. So use one. Especially if you’re having sex with someone from another species. Don’t have sex unless you’re sure they’re fine, understand?”
Daly grumbled as he sat back down and leaned back in his chair, covering his eyes.
“You know, there was one good thing about coming to this world—”
Siri smiled as Daly glanced up at her in ire. Then the Swedish girl looked at Geneva.
“I mean, could the infections also be magical?”
“It’s a distinct possibility. My two patients I’m treating by cleaning out their infections, bandaging them, and giving them an antiviral and antibiotic treatment based on the [Healer]’s recipes. It will take me some time to see how effective the treatments I gave them are. But if it’s partially magical…I can’t stop a magical disease. I don’t know how. If there’s a magical antibiotic or…neutralizing agent, I need to use it.”
“There are dispelling charms and magics. I suppose an [Alchemist] might be able to find you an herb or mixture you could use.”
“More research to do. But these condoms should work. They’re waterproof and I’ve soaked them in a mild mixture I think should kill off bacteria. It works on the cultures I’ve been growing. Still, there’s only one way to be sure, so everyone needs to know the risks.”
Daly put his face in his hands.
“How’re we supposed to explain this to Quallet and the others?”
“I’ll do it.”
Ken looked miserable as he volunteered, but Geneva held up a hand.
“He’s in the city, isn’t he? Or rather, camped outside it? I’ll go with you.”
“We all will.”
Paige sighed. Aiko stood up and followed the group into the apartments. She looked at the other Earthworlders. Daly’s reaction was probably indicative of how the others would react. Sexually transmitted diseases felt like an Earth problem. But they were even worse here. She thought of the infected soldiers in Quallet’s company and had to excuse herself to sit down for a minute.
Aiko found the others talking to Quallet in the inn he’d rented. The [Mercenary Captain] was nodding as Geneva told him about STD’s in general terms.
“It’s a serious problem, Quallet. Your soldiers need to be briefed on the risks, especially of visiting brothels. Ken or I can give them the lecture themselves, but I have to insist they hear it.”
Quallet was nodding, before Geneva finished her sentence.
“You’re damned right it’s a problem. Anyone who comes down with that kind of sickness can’t use healing potions. It just makes the…rash worse. Very quickly. By all means tell them. And I’ll make sure Quexa and my other officers knock it into their heads. But what’s this thing?”
He waved a hand at the condom Geneva was holding. Daly covered his face as Geneva explained what it was.
Credit to Quallet. His face barely twitched as she described—and showed him with a handy banana, the ubiquitous tool across all worlds—how it should work. But then he looked at the condom a second time and nodded.
“How many can you give me?”
“For my company. It would ease my mind—and others, of course to have them. Even if they’re not perfect. I’ll buy…damn. At least four hundred? They’re cheap, right? Or can we…reuse them?”
Geneva looked at the others. She had to excuse herself to go into a huddle with the others.
“We could import that materials and make up a few thousand. It’s not hard. It’s just—well, you know how they work, right?”
“Who’ll make them?”
“We could get some of the people without jobs to do the work. It’s really not that bad. The pricey bit’s getting the materials and doing the condom properly. Linen, you see? But get a few [Stitchers]…”
“We could outsource. Hire some Lizardfolk in the city to do the job. So long as there’s quality control.”
“Are we really getting into the condom business?”
Paige looked mildly upset as she protested. Daly, who’d finally gotten over his reservations, slapped her on the back. She punched him in the gut in return.
“Ow! Come on, Paige! We’re miles ahead of Baleros in terms of uh, STD-prevention! Who’s got the best sex diseases? We do! Go Earth!”
Ken just sighed. Geneva was working out a plan to manufacture condoms with Paige and Quallet. Aiko leaned back as Ken and Daly began talking seriously about…boy things. She looked out the window of Quallet’s inn, towards a glittering, shining body of water. It shone green in the morning’s light, and she could see people on the docks, ships in the harbor.
The ocean. For all that Baleros was jungles and forest around the city of Talenqual, it was a port city. And the sea was vast. Aiko looked out across it and thought of the one member of the company who hadn’t returned. She looked back.
“I’m spreading the word right now. No one’s visiting a brothel until we have more of these things. Geneva, I’d be grateful if you came with me.”
Quallet hurried down the steps. Geneva followed him. In the silence, the others looked at each other.
“Hell, if it earns us money…”
Daly shrugged, sighing. Paige nodded.
“It’s important. I’ll work with Geneva on this. But while she’s gone—Aiko, close that door for a second.”
Aiko did. Quallet’s room was quiet for a second as everyone glanced at Paige. The [Engineer] lowered her voice.
“Ken, you brought back what I needed on your trip. Alchemist’s materials. I haven’t been able to get ahold of the right stuff until now, but you found exactly what I needed.”
The young man from Japan smiled.
“It was the right ingredient? The [Alchemist] had a difficult time telling which substance you wanted, Paige. I am glad it was correct.”
“I can get more now that I know what to ask for. And it’s more plentiful than I thought. Charcoal, saltpeter…there are volcanos too. So…I can make gunpowder now, guys.”
She looked around. The room went silent. Daly’s head rose and Siri’s eyes flashed as she looked at Paige. The two adventurers looked at each other.
“Geneva won’t like it at all. And she had a point about spreading the tech, Paige.”
Daly frowned, worried. Paige nodded.
“Guns would be hard to make. And I’d have to have a [Blacksmith] help me, so it’s risky. They’d be able to see what I’m doing even if all I need are the metal parts. And…someone sees you using the guns, or just hears a rumor and you’ll have people trying to steal it. Take it.”
“So what’s your idea? You have one, right?”
Siri met Paige’s eyes. The Australian girl nodded.
“I do. I’m skipping guns. I’ll…work on something. An emergency weapon like Daly’s poisoned miniature crossbow. But my real focus will be grenades.”
The others paused. Daly exhaled.
“Grenades? You mean…bombs.”
“It doesn’t need a metal shell. I could make a pot and fill it with shrapnel. It’s not even that far from an [Alchemist]’s creations. They have exploding flasks filled with oil, and so on. But these will be non-magical.”
“You’ll need a separate space. And be careful. If you set stuff off—”
“I’ll be careful. But I want your approval before I argue it out with Geneva.”
Aiko bit her lip. Geneva wouldn’t like this at all. But Paige was looking at her, so Aiko nodded hesitantly. She’d seen monsters. If the Bushrangers were fighting them…oh, would they sell this to Quallet?
“We’ll take on the arguments. It’ll be a company secret. And no one lets the grenades be touched by anyone else. We use them, and that’s it.”
Daly’s eyes were lit up. He was already thinking how to use them. Ken nodded slowly. Aiko felt her stomach twist again. So that was today. Condoms and babies. Grenades and gunpowder.
The room fell silent after that. Aiko looked again out the window. Softly, wishing he were here to say something—no, only that he were here, she spoke.
“I wonder where Luan is?”
The others looked at her. Aiko, staring out the window, saw Daly give Ken a look and then lean over to whisper. Ken made a very unhappy face, but he nodded. It was Paige who finally spoke up.
“Say, Aiko…while we’re on important topics, about you and Luan.”
“What about Luan?”
Aiko turned, confused. Paige hesitated. Ken took over for her.
“It is not that we do not understand, Aiko. But even if we are in another world, Luan was married. So it is not good to—I know that you liked him, but even so, this is—”
He was glancing at the others. Daly sucked in his breath and Paige was wincing. It took Aiko a moment to realize what Ken was suggesting. When she did understand, she was furious. She stomped over and punched Ken in the arm.
“It is not that. Never that.”
“Really? Aiko, stop, stop! But you’re always asking about Luan, so we thought—”
“No! It is—it’s about—”
It had been a secret between Aiko and Luan. A hypothesis, as Luan had put it. But he’d confirmed it, so she was sure he would take care of the matter before he came back. She might do the same. But she didn’t want a tattoo. Nevertheless, Aiko told them, furiously. Ken’s mouth opened. Siri’s eyes went wide. Daly and Paige looked at each other.
“Oh. I had no idea.”
“Is Luan sure?”
“He is married. He has a wife and baby.”
Aiko punched Ken in the shoulder again, hard. He stepped back and made a silent gesture of apology. She glared at him—they’d have words later. But Daly was turning pale.
“I think he’s right. I noticed it too.”
“When was the last time you thought of them?”
Paige looked at Siri. The Swedish girl shook her head.
“Not even once. Not even—”
Suddenly, there was a look of anguish in her eyes. Daly bit his lip. Ken, Aiko, Paige, they all paused as familiar faces came back. Aiko closed her eyes.
“You see? We do not remember.”
“So what’s Luan going to do about it?”
Aiko turned to Daly. The Australian was shaking his head. She pointed at her arm.
“Make sure he doesn’t ever forget.”
And miles to the north, and east, far from Talenqual, at least for him, a South African man paused and took a sip of water. From a canteen at his side. The slightly warm water was very sweet to him. Refreshing. And also, his last drink.
That wasn’t too bad, but Luan Khumalo had underestimated the length of his journey by a few hours. He still wasn’t too concerned because he’d been regularly hydrating so he wasn’t in desperate need of water, but he made a note to store more water and rations. Just in case.
Then again, there was a lot of water around him. But as the saying went, water was all around, but not a drop of it would Luan drink. The ocean’s saltwater lapped at the side of his boat. And though Luan had reached the ocean from a river outlet, he hadn’t refilled his canteen in that water either.
It wasn’t a good idea. Even if Baleros’ waters looked fresh, leeches and other water-born creatures could easily be drank if Luan had tried the water. If he was desperate he could boil some water, but Geneva had still warned him to buy his supplies at the Runner’s Guild instead.
“So I’ll get some water before I head back. It’s not a problem. Yeah.”
Luan tossed the empty water flask into the bottom of his small boat with a sigh. Then he picked up the two mounted oars attached to his boat and dipped them into the water. He pulled back, a single, fluid stroke. His boat shot across the water.
Boat. Actually, it was more like a canoe, but thinner. Built for Lizardfolk—it was as close as Luan could come to a proper single scull. Nevertheless, it was far bigger than anything he’d use in a race. Nor was it designed in the same way a modern shell would be.
And yet, Luan’s oars dipped into the water. He pulled, his legs straining against the wooden brace he’d installed. The water resisted, and in accordance with physics, the boat moved. The shell broke out of the surf and Luan felt gravity fighting him. He pulled the oars back, dipped them into the water, pulled again.
Long, power strokes. A steady, unfaltering pace. Luan breathed evenly, his body performing the action he’d practiced a hundred thousand times with ease. And his boat moved across the water.
Sculling. That was what you called it if you understood what Luan was doing. Rowing was another acceptable word. Paddling or kayaking would probably tempt Luan to smack the asker with an oar. But he accepted that not many people understood the very real difference between rowing and paddling. After all, some people would never so much as enter a boat in their lives. They’d live landlocked and that was fine, if a bit sad. But Luan had made sculling his life’s work.
On Earth, he had been an Olympic hopeful. The person who would have represented his nation of South Africa in the single sculling event. It wasn’t an exaggeration to say that Luan was one of the best in the world at what he did.
And that thing was getting from point A to point B as fast as possible. Two kilometers, to be exact. Not that anyone in this world used kilometers as measurements.
“How many miles can you go in a day, Luan? Twenty? Fifty? Stupid…American…system!”
Luan growled to himself between oar strokes. Yes, two kilometers was what the single scull event he’d trained for was measured in. Two kilometers. The fastest team of rowers in the world could go two kilometers in under six minutes. That was blazing quick. As for a single sculler, well, you’d be slower, but only by a minute. Yes, you could go faster than some people could run. But the difficulty was completely different. On land, any decent athlete could run that fast, if only for a while. But in the water?
Luan’s oars dipped into the water. He drew in, knees pressing inwards, and his arms stretched out. The paddles of the oars, which had been flat and drawing back, turned, twisting, and dipped into the water. Luan felt a moment where his weight pressed against the oar handles, and then he pulled.
Or rather, he pushed the boat through the water. It was a smooth movement that made the water ripple with the force as all the energy in his legs and arms and the weight of his body went into the motion. Accordingly, the boat moved faster, and Luan felt the power of the thrust carry him across the ocean. He bent forwards for another drive. Which was what you called that motion. Aiko had described it as ‘pulling the oars’. Luan had given up trying to correct her.
The shell was moving fast. And it would go faster if Luan could stop tearing at the water with each drive. It was throwing off his smooth rhythm and wasting the energy he was putting into the oars.
It made him feel like a beginner, actually. But Luan had grown…stronger over the last few weeks. So markedly so that he was struggling to find a new style that would keep up with his more powerful movements. He kept lapsing into his old patterns and having to correct himself.
Because that was the thing. Luan was flying across the ocean. This close to the shore, the waves weren’t that large, but Luan ignored them regardless. His single scull broke through the crest of a wave, soaking Luan from behind. He swore, but kept going, knowing he had more or less flat water to go through. And that his destination wasn’t far away.
He’d been rowing for a long time. For hours, in fact. And when he’d started, it had been from a town up the river he’d come down, twenty eight miles away. And he had at least fifteen more to go.
“How many is that in kilometers? Seventy?”
Something like that. A long ways to go even on land. But Luan wasn’t that tired. And he was sure he’d get to his destination—a port city named Cinfal—soon enough. And that was because Luan could see how fast he was moving by the passing shoreline.
Here was the thing. His boat wasn’t nearly as streamlined as a modern craft. Luan hated it. It was made of wood, and far, far wider than any boat designed for speed would be. And the riggers for his oars were a clumsy construction; he’d had to get them specialty-fitted and made by a [Blacksmith]. Even his oars were heavier. They’d given Luan blisters until he’d made the handles easier to hold. He’d also lost some of his calluses, but even so, they weren’t as nice on the palms.
All of these things made him slower. Especially the design of his shell and the weight. And yet, still, Luan Khumalo knew he could enter any Olympic race and win it with this boat and oars.
“Because I am a [Rower]. Not just a rower, but a [Rower]. Isn’t there a class for [Sculler] instead?”
Even the leveling system didn’t use proper terminology. Luan grunted. The sun shone down on his bare back. He swung the oars, feeling the smooth motion. Dipped them into the water. As Aiko put it, pulled.
And the boat nearly left the water this time. The force was like nothing Luan had ever felt, even when rowing in a coxless pair with his best friend. For a second he stared at his arms. He had muscle of course, and he was an athlete. Even so, he shook his head.
Yes, that was it. The more time Luan spent in this world, the more he was convinced that was what was happening. To him and the other people from Earth. They were part of a system that was just…
Unfair. Frankly, ludicrously unfair. Perhaps others would have called it magical, wonderful, but Luan was an athlete. He took no drugs. He practiced and exercised to achieve a mastery over the one thing he was truly good at. He’d devoted his life to becoming a master at rowing. But someone could paddle about for a few weeks and gain a Skill that made them so much faster in the water than they had any right to be.
Skills. Levels. They allowed someone to reach past their limits. To do what was impossible. Luan had known it. Hell, he’d reveled in the fact, at watching Daly use [Power Strike] or marveling at the way Geneva could make a bleeding patient just stop with a touch. That was one thing. But this?
Pull. The next drive made the wind rush past Luan’s back. He gritted his teeth. His shell was shooting through the water, much, much faster than anyone from his world could ever hope to be, he was sure. He couldn’t tell, but he thought he was going faster than most people could hope to run. Without Skills, that was.
[Boat: Spray Cutter]. [Power Strokes]. [Greater Endurance]. [Lesser Strength]. [Enhanced Durability – Oars]. [Boat: Lightweight Craft]. [Wave Sense].
Those were his Skills. Those, and a few more. Each one had made Luan’s already high-speed that much more ludicrous. One Skill. One Skill could turn you into the best athlete in the world if you were close.
[Lesser Strength]. Oh, it sounded weak, but it had made Luan so much stronger it was insane. As if he could lift and extra…what was it from pounds to kilograms, again? Ah yes, an extra 20 kilograms with each arm. Ridiculous. If you had that Skill on top of a body? The weight limits at the Olympics would have absolutely no meaning. As for [Greater Endurance]—
Luan had healing potions and stamina potions on his belt. It was a thing Runners used. Magic to make them fresh and rested, able to run all day at their peak performance. He hadn’t used a potion and he’d been going at a fast pace this entire time. He could do three races back to back and win each one. His boat was barely affected by the waves. He could, and had blocked an axe with his oars and not even chipped it. As for the rest?
Ludicrous. Unfair. And…so much fun. Luan wanted to laugh and marvel at the speed at which he was going. Laugh and weep because he hadn’t earned it. Not really. He’d just leveled up. The system had given him levels and a class. He was an [Expert Rower]. Level 27 in only two months.
“Perhaps I earned it. I don’t feel like it, though. Not at all. This is too easy. What if I were a [Warrior]? Level 27? What must they feel like if they’re Level 30? 40? 50? Like gods. And that’s too much power for any one man, woman…Dullahan…”
Dark thoughts for such a beautiful day. Baleros slowly passed by Luan on his right. Forests and jungles devolving to brilliant white sand or cliffs. And the ocean was another marvel. Untouched by trash, even a hint of it. Pure and brilliant, green fading to blue in the distance. A world without pollution. Luan wanted to turn and admire it. But he did have a job. So he kept rowing.
With his back turned, mind you. The biggest danger Luan’s technique held was that he was rowing with his back to the front of the boat. In other words, he couldn’t see what he was rowing towards. Not a problem if you were on a lake, competing in a race. But on the ocean, or going up a winding river?
If he had to go slow, Luan would scull with one of the smaller oars. But when travelling from port to port along the continent’s shoreline, he used a different technique. Luan glanced at something propped in front of him as he drew forwards for another drive. A flash of light—he avoided staring at the reflected sun. But the image in the angled glass showed him a shape pulling out in front of him to the right. Luan cursed and pulled, using more force on his right. His shell turned.
“Thank you, mirrors. Thank you Paige.”
He’d spotted the second canoe coming off a beach just in time. Luan’s course took him right, and the figures on the canoe turned to follow. He heard a shout.
“Hey! You there! The Human on the boat! Hold on, we want to talk!”
Lizardfolk. Luan chanced a glance over his shoulder and saw them. They were turning, trying to catch him. Luan could change the course of his shell—right now he was headed around them, but that meant they had time to catch up. He could do that and make it a race, but instead—
Luan spoke the Skill and felt his body grow even fresher. Now he felt like he was on a day’s full rest. He swung forwards and drove his oars into the water. The South African man heard an exclamation from the boat and then a shout.
“One, two, stroke, stroke! Come on, catch him! There are eight of us—”
The eight Lizardfolk on the canoe turned. They were all using single oars, rowing towards Luan, trying to intercept him. But it was a futile effort. They had coordination, and maybe some Skills of their own, but their canoe was too heavy, their technique imperfect. Compared to Luan they could have been sitting still in the water. He raced past them and heard a shout.
“Aw, damn it you guys—”
Luan turned his head, wary of arrows. But the Lizardfolk had just given up. Some were laughing at their leader who was exasperatedly berating them. Another waved and Luan grinned.
Good-natured Lizardfolk. Still, if they were [Pirates] or [Brigands] they’d force Luan to hand over his cargo and all the money he had on him. The [Rower] wasn’t about to take that chance. He kept going and spotted the canoe heading back down to the beach where it had been hidden.
“Most definitely bandits of some kind. But at least they didn’t shoot arrows at me.”
After all, it was dangerous doing his job. Luan’s boat was marked along the side with a bright white splotch of paint, upon which was drawn a letter. Not alphabetical letter, but an actual letter, envelope and all. It was a crude but effective way of letting people know he was a Runner—or rather, water-based Runner—delivering messages for the Runner’s Guild. It usually worked, but sometimes it made him a target.
Still, Luan hadn’t ever run into anything he couldn’t outscull yet. And he’d been working for two months. In fact, he was so good at his job making deliveries from port to port that people were already remembering his name. Calling him the ‘Human who actually knows how to row’. Not the flashiest of titles, but it was getting there.
A [Rower] from Earth. An athlete good at one thing, and one thing only, really. Luan’s smile faded. This was all he could do. He was no warrior, he didn’t like fighting, and he had no head for magic. He couldn’t help Paige build a steam engine or figure out how batteries were made—how were they made? Acid? He could only row. And so he did. Straight into Cinfal’s harbor and towards the docks. But Luan had to pause to let the navy pass him by.
Sixteen ships had been crowding Cinfal’s harbor. It was a large city, but the armada of vessels were huge. The largest warship was so big that it hadn’t even been able to get near the docks. It was a massive vessel, with four masts that took an age to pass Luan by. No paddles for this great beast of a ship; it had opened all its sails and wind was blowing hard into them, despite there being only a slight breeze to the day.
“Magic. I suppose that’s how you do it.”
Luan shaded his eyes as the lead warship passed him by. The hull wasn’t just plain wood; it had been painted yellow and black, giving it an eerie look, that of strikes of lightning against a black background. And on deck? Hundreds of [Sailors] and [Soldiers] moved about, armed with cutlasses, swords, some even wearing armor despite being at sea. A few waved to Luan as he passed. The others eyed him like an insect in his tiny craft.
And the warship even made waves. Luan cursed and swung his oars, dodging the first swells the ship left. The other fifteen ships followed it out of the harbor, all propelled unnaturally swiftly by the wind. Luan was sure he could take them any day in a race, even with a huge head start. But to see such massive vessels moving like that was still eerie.
When they were gone, Luan rowed into the harbor. He looked up, shouting, and switched to single-oar sculling to navigate past the smaller fishing ships and vessels still present. He waved and a Dullahan directing traffic in point and shouted in a voice even Luan could hear.
“Right-most dock, Human! Watch out! Trading cog’s inbound!”
Luan glanced up, saw the cog moving slowly towards him, and picked up his oars. The Dullahan blinked and a few Lizardfolk unloading ships laughed and clapped their hands in delight as Luan zoomed past the cog to his place. By the time he’d tied his boat up, the Dullahan was striding towards him.
Part of Luan, a small part, wanted to act like a certain pirate captain as he stepped onto the dock. But since he didn’t want to sink his precious shell, he clambered out and waited for the Dullahan politely.
“Runner, are you?”
The female Dullahan propped her hand on her hips. Her head was being carried in a sling around her neck, much like a baby would be. Luan looked at that as he nodded.
“On a delivery.”
“No. I can pay now.”
“Ah, well then, how long will you be here?”
“Let’s call it a day. I can actually drag this thing onto the docks if you’ve got a place to put it…”
It was far heavier than a modern boat, so Luan didn’t really want to do that if necessary. The Dullahan [Harbormistress] shook her head.
“No need. You saw that fleet heading out? They were our big customers. We’ll have open docks for at least a day or so. The fee will be four silver for the night.”
Luan grimaced. Four silver? That was a lot—but he was renting a space. And…he mentally tried to gauge how much it would be to pay for only a small time and hire people to haul the boat and rent more space.
“Four silver it is. Here you are.”
He carefully placed the silver coins into the Dullahan’s waiting palm. She couldn’t nod, but her body performed a kind of half-bow.
“It is accepted. Your name, Human?”
“Luan. Luan Khumalo.”
“You will be recognized by anyone managing the docks if I am not there. Need you further proof, or will name and sight alone suffice?”
“It will suffice. Thank you.”
The Dullahan nodded and then she was gone. Luan checked the knot securing his shell, and then bent to grab his things. He could leave most of it in the vessel; a good harbor left no fear of [Thieves] stealing. But just to be safe, Luan took his most precious gear and his delivery, leaving only the empty water flask and some travel rations in the boat. And then he entered Cinfal.
“Excuse me. Coming through. Runner on a delivery.”
Luan’s first few steps out of the wet harbor and port area was into a market where fresh fish and, predictably, hawkers were waiting. They were hoping to prey on any fresh arrivals with shiny goods or the latest gossip. Directions to a brothel? Sharpen your sword? Like the seasoned [Sailors] and [Travellers], Luan pushed through them with an eye on his belt for stray hands. His cry also abetted the press of bodies somewhat—a Runner had no time to buy knickknacks.
“Which way to the Runner’s Guild? Anyone?”
A dozen hands pointed. Luan hurried down the street, a touch unsteadily since his legs had grown used to the rowing. He made it to the Runner’s Guild quickly though; like any good guild in a port city, it was located near enough to the docks. There was a Lizardgirl receptionist at the desk. She looked up and grinned toothily as Luan came in.
“Hey! You’re that Human I heard so much about! Skin as dark as night and fast as a bird on the water? Luan?”
Luan dumped his package on the table. It was mail—and four individual deliveries, all held together in a thick bag. And heavy. The town he’d come from had paid him on top of the four individual deliveries to get to Cinfal fast—the City Runners who went on foot didn’t want to make the difficult journey all the way here, as the foot-route was twice as difficult and long as if you went by ocean.
“Wow! I got a message from Paxil that you were coming with a bunch of mail. Let’s see…four individual deliveries?”
“Thank you! We’ll get Street Runners on it right away. May I see your runner’s seal? Just a formality. Thank you again! And did you encounter anything of note on your way here?”
“I saw eight Lizardfolk on a canoe. They pushed off a beach and tried to catch me. I wasn’t sure if they were [Bandits], but I didn’t stick around to find out.”
“Ooh. Got it.”
The Lizardgirl noted the information down for any Runners in the area, or law enforcement. Then she smiled at Luan.
“Alright! We’re all set! Your payment for the packages as well as your current unclaimed coin comes to…”
She rummaged for Luan’s file, which was meticulously updated by [Message] spell between the Runner’s Guilds, especially if Luan was in the area. The Lizardgirl blinked and Luan saw her neck frills open for a second in shock.
“A lot, I know.”
He smiled wearily at her. Luan hadn’t been back to Talenqual in a while. He’d gone from city to town to village, doing deliveries nonstop. As such, he had a fairly good idea of what had made her eyes pop.
The Lizardgirl stared at the number again and then coughed. She lowered her volume a tiny bit.
“Fifty four gold coins from all your deliveries. You want it all now? Because I’ll have to open the strongbox to get it all if you do.”
Fifty four coins. Luan’s smile sprang to his lips unbidden. Now that was the fruit of hard work. And from the look a Centaur [Runner] standing at a counter next to him was giving him, it was good even by City Runner standards.
“No. Just…four gold coin’s worth. I’ll pull the rest out when I get home.”
“You got it! Wow. That’s a lot of money. You sure you’re just a City Runner? I heard you can make it from Talenqual to Ravelm in less than two days!”
“I’m hoping to make it to Courier eventually. But a City Runner I am. Thank you.”
Luan accepted the four gold coins from the Lizardgirl and signed the receipt she handed him. She sighed.
“Wow. And you use that tiny boat! Who taught you how to row that well? Lizardfolk? It wasn’t Centaurs, that’s for sure. Right, Minta?”
She laughed and indicated the Centaur. Minta the Centaur didn’t laugh back with her.
“Let’s just say I was pretty good at it back home. One of the best, in fact.”
Luan smiled. The Lizardgirl nodded and didn’t ask for more details. She waved the next Runner in line forwards as Luan strode towards the door.
There went Luan Khumalo. A few of the Runners in the guild knew him, and he thought he recognized a few faces, but it was them knowing him, not the other way around. Because, and Luan was proud of this, Skills or no, he was developing a reputation as an excellent City Runner. Only two months and he’d already made a name for himself.
Luan specialized in lightning-quick deliveries from spot to spot. After all, it wasn’t as if he’d trained to do long-distance rowing. Even with [Greater Endurance] and all his Skills boosting his speed, there was a very hard limit on how far Luan could go. But fast? He could do fast.
“And it’ll be faster still if I can hold onto some of that gold I’ve earned.”
Luan muttered to himself as he pushed out the Runner’s Guild door. Now that he was on land and not in an athlete’s mindless trance, he could think about his future. He’d been mulling over the idea in his head. He was faster than the world record holders in his world already. But he could be even quicker in the water if he had the money to spend.
“Get a boat made of the lightest-weight wood. Sliding seat—and make it actually aerodynamic.”
That meant a proper single scull, long and narrow, not wide, like the one Luan was using. But to have that, he’d need a bag of holding, a good one, to hold his deliveries and other gear.
“And paddles. Lightweight. Made of that good wood the Lizardfolk use. Expensive. And enchanted.”
Yes, enchanted. Paddles enchanted with the [Weight] spell were what he wanted, according to an [Oarsman] he’d spoken with in a tavern. They’d add as much as fifty pounds to each stroke. And a spell could make the boats and oars practically featherweight. Add that to something to put the wind on his side—
Luan wondered if he could actually achieve liftoff with that kind of setup. He sighed happily, and then frowned.
“But that’s hundreds, thousands of gold coins. And from what Paige said, this might be going towards a new apartment for the kids to live in.”
His good spirits sank a bit. But Luan refused to let them sink further. He shook his head.
“Children. They come first.”
Perhaps that was a harsh generalization. But Luan did truly feel like one of a few adults sometimes. Some of the Earthworlders brought over to this one were only fourteen or fifteen. Luan and Geneva were older than they were by a decade. They had to take care of them. And the fifty four gold coins Luan had labored for was a big step in that direction.
“Time to head back to Talenqual. After a good night’s rest. Big dinner. Yeah.”
Luan licked his lips. He was exhausted from nearly a week of non-stop work. Part of him thought it would be best to get back to Talenqual tonight, but he was too tired to contemplate rowing for that long. If he could, he’d have arranged it so Paige could withdraw his earnings at the Runner’s Guild. But they were very careful to make sure a Runner’s hard-earned money wasn’t extorted or stolen from them.
Luan was about to head to the nearest inn and ask about a lovely bed and some food when a thought sprang out to him. Something in the back of his mind.
Children. No, child. Remember.
And then Luan did. The spring in his step faded. His smile vanished.
A sour-faced Dullahan passing by the Human on the street saw Luan’s smile turn into a dour look to rival his own. He stared as Luan’s pace slowed.
Child. His child. Remember it. Aiko’s words bounced around in Luan’s head, along with his inescapable conclusion.
He’d forgot again. Forgot…that he had a child. That he was married.
That they were left behind.
In the bustling streets of Cinfal, right outside the Runner’s Guild, Luan stopped and stared at the sky. Remember them. Remember their faces. Worst yet, you must remember to remember. Because if you don’t—
You’ll forget. Forget as easily as a lost pair of keys, or a missing sock. As if they didn’t matter. As if they never existed. It was the same for Aiko. For everyone, Luan suspected. But he hadn’t brought his conclusion to the attention of the others yet. It was too strange an anomaly to fully understand.
And yet—he was certain it was true. Because Luan kept forgetting his baby’s face. And that—
Luan’s fingers dug into his palm. He had to remember. A wild craze swept through him. For a second he wanted to hurl the gold coins in his palm into the face of the Dullahan staring at him. Grab his oars, grab the knife Daly had given him and stab and cut everything around him. Gone. Gone from home and his family!
But that was not the way. Luan relaxed slightly. It was no one’s fault here. No one around him at least. Possibly no one at all was responsible for this. It might just be an accident. If it was the doing of someone, Luan would have vengeance. But if not?
Luan walked slowly down the street. He thought of Aiko and what she’d suggested to him.
Yes. No time to go back and tell the others. Luan had to do it today. How long had it been since he’d forgotten this time? Six days? And he’d talked with Aiko, tried to force himself to remember. But the instant he’d stopped repeating the names in his head, capturing the face—it was gone. So, Luan decided to do what he should have done from the start. He turned to the nearest Lizardperson on the street and began to ask directions.
The Lizardwoman in the small tattoo parlor looked up. She was a Lizardperson. She had scales. Admittedly, there were colorful designs painted on top of the scales, but as [Tattooists] went, Luan was fairly certain that this didn’t recommend her.
He stopped uncertainly in the entrance to the shop. The Lizardwoman’s eyes brightened as she saw what might be her first client in a while wavering. She scrambled out from behind her desk.
“Come in! Welcome, welcome! This is the Inked Scale, the best—and only—tattoo place in Cinfal! You want a tattoo? Have a seat! I’ll get some designs.”
“Ah, no thanks. I just came by to…I’ve got a design.”
The Lizardwoman stopped fumbling for some sketches. She walked back over to Luan as he walked over to a chair. The shop was very small and quite empty. He saw vials on racks, needles—and brushes.
“You do tattoos here?”
“Oh, sure! Tattoos for the fleshy folk, scale art for anyone who sheds. We even have stuff that keeps away fur if you’ve got body hair. Anything you need I can do! Don’t worry, I get [Sailors] from all over the world in here! Drowned People are the worst, between you and me.”
She winked at Luan. Reassured, the man smiled at her.
“I’m looking for something simple. Ink tattoo. Two words on my right hand. Right here.”
He placed his fingers on his arm, just below the wrist. The Lizardwoman nodded energetically. She already had a very long, very sharp stick of—Luan gave it a second look.
“What is that?”
“What, this? Never seen a tattooing needle before? Don’t worry, I only use the tip.”
The Lizardwoman smiled at Luan. She showed him a long, bamboo stick that had been carved with some extremely sharp points dark with ink. Half of it was lacquered, but the tips—Luan blanched a bit.
He’d seen tattoos being done before, but now that he recalled it, it was always with a tattooing machine. An electronic, handheld, mechanical device. He hadn’t made the obvious connection that no person in this world would have that kind of technology. The Lizardwoman saw he was having second thoughts and tried to reassure him.
“Don’t worry, don’t worry! The ink goes here, see, and the little needles go into your skin and let the ink stain it. It doesn’t hurt—er, much. Not unless the needles are really sharp, and believe me, they’re wicked sharp! Wait, this isn’t reassuring, is it?”
“I’ll…you can give me a tattoo, right? No blood or open wounds?”
“None at all. I’m Level 21. That’s good by our standards. And I’ve got healing potions in case you start bleeding, tons of experience—”
The Lizardwoman reassured Luan. He bit his lip, but he’d come this far.
“Okay. Can you put the names in black ink here? I’ll write them out so you can see the right spelling.”
He wrote carefully on a piece of parchment the Lizardwoman handed to him. She looked at it once, nodded, and then eyed Luan.
“That’s easy. I can have you done quick. But…ink, you said?”
“Yeah. Is that a problem?”
Luan grimaced at his arms. He’d barely see the tattoo. But what other choice was there? Aiko had suggested them as a permanent reminder. The Lizardwoman clearly saw his problem and swished her tail back and forth, but not for the reason Luan was expecting.
“It’s just—I don’t think black ink’s gonna show up well on your skin. You sure you don’t want other colors? Cause we’ve got lots.”
Luan looked up with a frown. Wouldn’t they be just as hard to see? But the Lizardwoman was nodding energetically.
“Yeah! What, you thought I’d use natural inks on that skin? No thanks, pal! We’ll use a magical dye—it’s cooler anyways. I can make it glow in the dark, too. What color do you want? White? Red? Pink? Ooh, and look at this. This ink changes color depending on how warm it is. And this ink—”
She showed Luan a rapidly changing ink that flashed from color to color. He blinked at it.
“Uh, no. I’ll take—gold? Do you have—”
The Lizardwoman was already pulling out a golden vial. Literally golden in color. Luan stared at it as the liquid ink rolled back and forth. She eyed him, smiling.
“Glow in the dark? Other effects?”
“No thank you.”
They’d make him too visible at night. Luan nodded as she offered him two more variants on the idea of gold and yellow. Then he frowned.
“How expensive is this?”
“For you and that tattoo? A gold coin. Yeah, I know it’s a bit pricey, but this ink isn’t cheap! Still, you don’t want much—[Sailors] now, they pay for the big stuff. You sure you don’t want your ink to do anything cool? I can make your tattoo change shapes too!”
“No. Just the names.”
“You’re the customer! You have half an hour to do this?”
“Yep. Here’s your payment.”
Luan handed the Lizardwoman a gold coin. She smiled and tucked it into her purse. Then she grabbed the vial and her bamboo needle.
“Here’s the rules: you sit there, I do my work. Don’t move your arm or I’ll have to put it in a clamp. Tell me if it hurts real bad and we can stop. But if you do, I get to tease you, got it? If you start bleeding I’ll use a potion, but I don’t like to do that while tattooing. They mess up the ink sometimes.”
Luan laid back and put his arm out as the Lizardwoman instructed him. He’d never wanted a tattoo and was afraid of that stick. But the first time she jabbed it into his skin he only flinched a bit. And then the poking pain was a constant, so he quickly relaxed.
To his surprise, the Lizardwoman wasn’t at all chatty while doing her work. She was intent, her eyes focused on the delicate lettering she was writing onto Luan’s skin. And there was also a second reason.
Not five minutes into the tattooing, someone else entered the parlor. The [Tattooist] glanced up, but said not a word. Luan, whose eyes were closed, didn’t look up until he heard some heavy clicks on the floor. Then he looked up and saw a Minotaur standing over him.
“You’re the City Runner who goes by the name of Luan?”
The Minotaur stared down at Luan. The South African man tensed for a second. He couldn’t help it. The Minotaur was something right out of legends. Bull’s head, complete with horns. A humanoid body, heavily muscled but concealed by light Balerosian clothing. And like Centaurs, hooves instead of feet.
Minotaur. But Luan’s paralysis only lasted as long as it took him to realize the Minotaur was speaking English and behaving…like a normal person. Luan realized. Here was another species of this world. The Lizardwoman didn’t even seem bothered by his presence.
And then Luan realized he’d been addressed by name. He frowned up at the Minotaur.
“That’s me. Do I know you?”
He was sure the answer was no. For a reply, the Minotaur pulled up another chair and sat down on Luan’s other side, quite unbidden.
“My name is Venaz. I have an offer to make you, Luan the Runner.”
Luan glanced at the Minotaur, and then at the [Tattooist] who was ignoring both of them. He frowned.
“I’m a bit busy, friend.”
“Which is why I came here. You can’t run away. Hear me out first. I’ve noted your career. You’re Luan. Human affiliated with a new company. United Nations or something. Served in Gravetender’s Fist, a suppression company as a mercenary before becoming a Runner. You’ve served for two months, but you have a number of notable deliveries.”
“Excuse me, I’m busy. If you want to talk, you can find me at the Runner’s Guild—”
Luan spoke up angrily, but Venaz only raised his voice, talking over Luan. He had an imperious nature and Luan gave up trying to interrupt him after five tries.
“—not only considered near Courier-level on that boat in the water, but you’ve done what Runners consider dangerous deliveries. Noticeably, a mission to escort a young Dullahan being pursued by a suitor to her home city, delivering through crocodile-infested waters…does that count? Stupid report. But you did a trip to pick up a Dullahan in the starving city of Phelt before it was wiped clean…”
Luan stared at the Minotaur. Unbidden, the memory surged around him. Dragged him in.
Lizardfolk were friendly, cooperative, and social. They were the most pleasant of folk to be around—until you saw them at their most desperate. Then they were animals, like anyone else.
The desperate Dullahan [Merchant] at the docks. Yanking him on board and then seeing hundreds of slim bodies pouring into the harbor, leaping off the docks as Luan swung the oars and pulled through the water desperately. The Lizardfolk were screaming. They clawed at the boat as the Dullahan kicked their claws off the boat. Luan was struggling, forcing the boat further from the harbor. Only as he fought his craft clear of them did he hear the starving Lizardfolk’s voices.
Take me with you.
Save my child.
Luan jerked. The [Tattooist] must have sensed it, because she stopped just in time. She stared at Luan as Venaz paused. The Human caught his breath. The Lizardwoman grabbed his arm firmly.
“Hold still, please.”
After a second, Luan did. The pain returned. Venaz kept reading as if nothing had happened. But Luan was still remembering Phelt.
Starving people. The town had been raided of food and coin and they had nothing to pay with. So rather than request food, the [Merchant] had bought his own life. Luan hadn’t known. The town was a blip on the map. Luan still remembered them trying to swim after him.
He should have stopped. But they’d eaten all the other non-Lizardfolk in the town already. The Dullahan had survived with an invisibility potion. Luan could remember the Dullahan shaking, talking about it.
Still, he should have slowed. Should have reached for one of the children being held out to him. Should have…
The next day Luan had gone back with as much food as his little vessel could carry. But by that point, cannibalism had turned the townspeople against each other, not just outsiders. Luan had seen the nightmare, dropped the food on what remained of the docks, and fled.
Memory. Luan blinked, and Venaz was still talking. Listing off more of Luan’s accomplishments. How did he know so much? Luan shook his head, which earned him a tut of disapproval from the Lizardwoman.
He needed to go back to the two apartments. Hopefully Geneva would be back. Or Paige. Luan could use time on the impromptu ‘therapy couch’ with one of them listening. The [Rower] glared at Venaz.
“Do you have a point here?”
The Minotaur harrumphed and stopped talking for a moment, which was a relief. The problem was when he started again.
“My point is that I know your capabilities. You’re fast on the water, nearly as fast as a Courier. But you’re not, which suits my needs. I have a job for you. It’s in three weeks. Interested?”
Luan stared at him. He looked around the parlor and then glowered at Venaz.
“You could have put in a request! Asked for me by name. I’d be happy to meet you whenever. This is rude. You are aware?”
His words and look bounced off Venaz’ face. The Minotaur sat back.
“I’m aware of Runner’s Guild protocol, thank you. But I wanted to meet you privately. Putting out a request is blatant. No one’s to know of this conversation taking place.”
Luan rolled his eyes at the Lizardwoman sitting right next to them. Venaz smirked.
“No one I’ve not accounted for. Why else do you think this place is empty?”
His words made Luan pause and look around the parlor. He’d assumed the Inky Scale was just unfrequented, but then, he’d seen the tattoos the [Sailors] sported on the docks. Venaz nodded to the door.
“The sign says closed now. And until this moment I was using an artifact. No one noticed me coming in. The [Tattooist] will give me something that fades in a few days—I am no [Warrior], but a [Strategist]. As for you, you’ll go out the back after we’re done here. Our meeting was chance, and so this incident will not be reported by those watching me—if I haven’t given them the slip already. I’ll be doing enough suspicious things later that anyone will write this moment off. Well, the Professor might not, but he’s not the one I need to fool, is he?”
He smiled smugly, proud of himself. Luan digested this little monologue. Professor? Spies? This Venaz thought highly of himself. Then again, if he had a magical artifact he had money to wave about.
“As I said, Couriers attract too much attention. So I scouted you out. You’re the City Runner who most easily fits my qualifications. Waiting for you was a simple task.”
“You knew I’d be here?”
That threw Luan. But Venaz’s smug smile said it all.
“You inquired about tattoos in the last two Runner’s Guilds you visited, which indicated it was on your mind. This was the first city where you claimed any of your earnings, which gave me the clue. If you hadn’t stopped here, I would have found you in the inn this night.”
For some reason, Venaz felt like he was Luan’s age. Maybe even younger. Despite being taller than Luan and a lot bigger. Or maybe Luan just felt old these days. He frowned, deeply unhappy.
“People told you everything I was doing?”
“Everyone sells everything. For a price. This is Baleros. What did you expect? Now, about my offer—”
Both Venaz and Luan blinked and looked at the Lizardwoman. She blew on Luan’s skin and then tapped the slightly sore flesh.
“Look at that! Good, clean work! Not even a bit of blood! Like it?”
Luan stared down at his arm. There, written in gold, entirely without him knowing, were two names. Gold ink glittered at him, spelling out two words he would never, could never forget again.
His eyes stung. Luan looked down and thought of the two faces. His family. Smiling. Holding his son. Now the image was clearer in his head. And now, he was certain, he wouldn’t forget. All he had to do was look down.
“Thank you, Aiko.”
Luan felt the beginnings of tears. But then Venaz’s voice sounded right next to his ears, ruining the moment.
“You told me you could stretch out the tattoo for as long as I needed.”
He was scowling at the Lizardwoman. The [Tattooist] spread her claws innocently.
“It wasn’t a big job! And I’m an artist! What, you want me to poke him for another ten minutes? Because that’s rude and it hurts! You can do your tattoo now if you want.”
Luan stood up suddenly. He glared at Venaz.
“I’m going back to find an inn. I paid you—”
He looked at the Lizardwoman who looked mildly embarrassed and nodded. Luan turned to Venaz.
“—so you can find me or put in a formal request.”
He spun to go, but Venaz caught him. Luan went two steps, but the Minotaur didn’t budge. Luan spun back to him, angry now. Venaz’s face was impassive.
“And as I said, that’s not an option. Hear me out. It benefits you and I.”
He paused for a second and eyed the tattoo shining on Luan’s wrist.
“Hm. I didn’t ask. What’s the tattoo about? Odd writing, that.”
Luan wanted to cover the tattoo. He glared up at Venaz.
“The names of my son and my wife. So I don’t forget.”
“Did you think you would? Shameful.”
The casual comment made something snap in Luan. He raised a fist and punched Venaz in the solar plexus as hard as he could.
Nothing happened. Except to Luan’s fist, that was. Luan felt like he’d punched a mildly rubbery rock. More rock than rubber, really. He stepped back, suddenly wary. Venaz had let him go, but he hadn’t so much as budged. He eyed Luan, and then the Minotaur grinned.
“My name is Venaz, City Runner Luan Khumalo. I’ve told you it twice now. Remember it, for it will one day be famous. So, do we have a deal?”
Luan stared at Venaz, rubbing his knuckles. Then he had to laugh. The Lizardwoman stepped back, sweeping her fragile vials of ink out of the way as he and Venaz sized each other up a second time.
“Okay, what’s the mission? How dangerous is it?”
“Not at all. But I require your word before I tell you more than the rough details.”
“Tell me the basics, then. I won’t commit to anything too dangerous. Or illegal.”
Venaz nodded. He spoke briskly now, eyeing the designs the [Tattooist] hopefully shoved in front of his face and waving them away.
“Twenty gold pieces to deliver a small object to my person alone in a port city north of here. The danger to you will be minimal, although you will have to be swift and precise. There may be pursuers, but if you are caught—which you will not be because you are a significant portion of my plan—you will likely only be held for a few hours. At most, roughed up.”
Luan didn’t know if he liked that. But—twenty gold pieces? He heard the Lizardwoman gulp and agreed. That was a good job. Especially if the danger wasn’t that great. Still—Luan eyed Venaz and folded his arms.
“Forty? For a small delivery? You overestimate your worth.”
Venaz’s eyebrows shot up. Luan shook his head.
“Forty gold pieces. You researched me, and you admitted that I am an important part of your plans. You need a fast City Runner on the water who is not a Courier. I’m your best option and you know it.”
The Minotaur glowered. He muttered to himself. Luan thought he caught ‘must be what the Professor’s always telling me about’ before he looked up abruptly and nodded.
Luan thought for a second and then shook his head.
“It’s sixty gold pieces now.”
“The price went up.”
“In two seconds?”
“I just remembered that you insulted me and bothered me when I asked to be left alone. So, sixty gold pieces, friend. Can you pay that much?”
“Yes. Sixty, damn it, but not a copper piece higher.”
Venaz growled in disgust and gave Luan something almost approaching a look of admiration. He sighed.
“I’ll pay you ten pieces up front, fifty on delivery. Do we have a deal?”
He held out a hand. Luan hesitated.
“One last thing. Promise me no one will be hurt by what you’re doing? No one dies? I’m not bringing something illegal or that harms someone else?”
If the Minotaur couldn’t make that promise, Luan would do it anyways. But Venaz just grinned.
“No one dies. As for harm—they’ll be bruised, maybe a few broken bones at most. But this is no war. Runners have their codes about interfering in battle, after all.”
That was enough. More than enough for sixty gold pieces. Luan had risked his neck for less. He held out his hand gingerly. Venaz gave Luan a crushing handshake and then nodded to the side. The [Tattooist] stretched her arms, sitting by the closed door as Venaz and Luan spoke in low voices. Luan listened, no longer annoyed, but a Runner listening to a well-paying client.
Outside, the city of Cinfal hustled and bustled and presumably got on with their lives. Inside the parlor though, the Lizardwoman [Tattooist] debated over what inking she’d give the Minotaur, trying not to listen as he spoke to Luan. Venaz’ voice was quiet, his eyes alight as he showed Luan a map, and then another map, and then explained why three weeks was so important and where Luan fit in.
“That you don’t know my name means you don’t get what’s happening. Well, in three weeks, an annual event occurs. Wait—no, biennial. No—hold on, the Professor sometimes doesn’t hold it at all. But it is a significant event, and I will be participating in it, as will my class. And the former classes, which is why I intend to win. You see, once every…few years, the Professor, whom you know as the Titan of Baleros has a little game…”
Luan jerked at the name. Venaz grinned, his eyes alight. And Luan realized he’d quite forgotten to why Venaz needed someone with the skills of a Courier. Or exactly who would be chasing him. But it was too late to back out now. And on Luan’s wrist were etched the two names. And so long as he had that, he could do anything.
So it was that in Cinfal, the best laid plans of men and Minotaurs were begun. But in a city much further inland, a creature far smaller than a man or Minotaur was hard at work. He was, in fact, about the same size as a mouse. But Niers Astoragon was considerably more dangerous than a mouse, and after a certain encounter with some rats, he’d begun hunting the damn things at night. After all, the greatest [Strategist] in all of Baleros had to find enjoyment somewhere, didn’t he?
He wasn’t quite enjoying himself now. Not that he was miserable, but Niers was more in a state of mind that could be describe as busy concentration rather than actual fun. Luan would have understood; there was a joy to doing something you could do, but other times it was just the work of it that kept you going. Work, and pride in your work.
Not that Niers was rowing a boat. Rather, he was poring over a piece of paper, walking down and reading the neatly-written words row by row. It was slightly tedious, and Niers debated hopping back onto his reading seat so he could read them from above. But he liked to move, and sitting meant he’d have to ask someone else to bring the next paper over, which was a waste of time.
That was all the Fraerling said as he reached the end of the report. He stamped on the carefully written signature and the wax seal below it and then kicked the piece of paper off the desk. A hand caught it as the paper dropped to the ground. Peclir Im, the [Chamberlain] of the Forgotten Wing company and the man responsible for keeping a good portion of the citadel that was Niers’ academy and home running, picked up the paper and put it in another pile as Niers strode past him for another report.
“That idiot Balegilt wants two more [Mages]? Write a reply and tell him he can have his [Mages] when he learns not to let [Snipers] pick them off! He’ll go without and he can take his entire company to hell if he objects!”
Peclir Im nodded.
“You wish me to write that verbatim, sir? Or in spirit?”
“In spirit, I suppose. Balegilt’s Marsh Troll company is useful. But damn them if they’re not careless. Give him a warning, Peclir. If he keeps losing our people, we will sever our ties with him.”
“I shall make a proper note.”
Peclir did just that, jotting Niers’ reply down on a piece of parchment he held. The Titan scowled.
“Where’s the next report?”
“Here, sir. And I repeat, if you wish, we could hire a Fraerling to copy all this down. It would save you the necessity of calling on myself—”
“I don’t need a [Scribe] reading all this confidential information, Peclir. Regular reports are fine by me.”
“As you wish. This is a detail by our 14th Division.”
“Where did we put—ah, right. Holding action. And they’re facing…”
Niers read the brief and much less eloquent message by one of his field commanders. He grimaced.
“Skirmishes with Centaurs. Oh, how wonderful. It must be a local clan. Not a company; they’re too scattered. We must have angered the entire area somehow. Send in our [Diplomats]. And make sure they’re Centaurs too. The nuance will be lost on someone not of that species. In the meantime, the 14th is to avoid killing—if possible. Next?”
Peclir checked his notes.
“There are two battles taking place at…Selx’s Ravine and the Olkem Grasslands. I have the coordinates.”
“Show me. Nothing too large, I hope?”
“You would have been notified, sir. These are allied companies—”
“We still want to win, though. Let’s see what their odds are. Ah. This would be over that damned mine we’ve been fighting over. If we take it, I’m sending some high-level [Miners] to get what we can and then abandon the place. And the other…? Oh.”
Niers Astoragon looked down at the magical map as Peclir indicated the two battlegrounds. He grimaced, told Peclir to message one of the two commanders embroiled in the battles to retreat if things went south, and got back to work. Peclir hurried over to the door to issue a few instructions to a waiting attendant helper, who in turn hurried off to make the necessary [Message] spells. By the time he got back, Niers was kicking his way across the desk.
“Casualty reports. Income reports. Where are my level reports?”
Peclir handed Niers a list of every person of note who’d leveled in Niers’ company this week. That included class changes and gained Skills. The [Strategist] ran his eye down the list, grunting as he saw nothing too extraordinary.
“Alright. We’re moving past supply counts for now, Peclir. We’ve figured out what was draining our ration of mana potions and no one’s complained. And I’m sick of doing numbers. I’ll make the new students do it as an exercise in logistics. Onto incomes. Another wonder. Where’s the abacus? Not yours. I meant, mine.”
The Fraerling was managing his company. Or rather, to put it another way, overseeing the affairs of the Forgotten Wing Company, one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros and arguably one of the powers of the world. And he was doing it while kicking over empty ink pots, kicking over full ink pots and swearing, hunting for a cheese crumb as a snack, and generally mucking about.
It wasn’t that Niers wasn’t taking this seriously. But the reports and questions on Niers’ desk were things he didn’t strictly need to take care of himself. He had a system in place and if he’d let it work, nothing would have reached his attention. That was the point of a good chain of command. Niers had trained his subordinates to take care of all the things he was pouring over.
But someone had to be at the top, and since Foliana was there, it fell to Niers. He didn’t obsess over every detail all the time, but he made it a point to do a deep inspection of all his company’s affairs at least once a week. And that was on top of giving orders to the officers, various company commanders and so on for large-scale movements, vacations, and so on.
“Enough, Peclir. We’re good on income reports.”
At last, Niers sighed and sat back. The various holdings of the Forgotten Wing company, from direct control to payments from protected cities, to their income in trade and goods bought and sold and any number of sources were finally looked over. Peclir knuckled his back and straightened.
“Anything else, sir?”
“Give me…five minutes. Or I’ll drown myself in that ink pot.”
“I’ll procure a fresh one in that eventuality.”
Peclir gave Niers a moment. The Fraerling grinned, and then sighed. A thousand things his company was doing, and a thousand little mistakes that could lead to big ones if no one was watching.
Accumulating too many gemstones and selling them in bulk would crash a market. Bunching up too many sheep in one place meant they could all catch a disease. Taking away a city’s main source of income meant it grew poorer and unrest started. Not to mention directing forces, conducting diplomacy with the thousands of companies in Baleros, fighting monsters, worrying about that damned Yellow Rivers disease in the brothels…
There was always something to do if you looked for it. That was the curse of command. The more you could do, the less time you had to do it. How could you ever quit? The answer was that you couldn’t. Not if you yourself were irreplaceable.
“This is the problem with becoming one of the Four Great companies in one lifetime. Not enough experience and not enough high-level subordinates to fall back on. Right, Foliana? Foliana?”
Niers looked up. No one replied, so the Squirrel Beastkin wasn’t in the room. He shrugged and went on talking.
“If one of us dies, it falls apart. Which would please the others no end. But if we keep doing well, we die anyways of old age. Or we slow down and die. The point is, we need fresh blood. Our next generation has to be as good as we are, or better, or we should scrap the company now rather than watch it fall apart and come back to bite us. And we’ve got a few good candidates, but not enough. So what do we do? Find loyal personnel abroad or hope we gain more good recruits? Because if we need it—”
“I thought the company was doing quite well as it was, sir.”
Peclir appeared in the doorway, fresh inkpot in hand. Niers sat up. Peclir set the pot down next to him. The tiny [Strategist] grinned up at the Human.
“You’d think so, Peclir. But that only accounts for when I am here. When I’m here, the company functions well. But if I go for a while…”
“Ah. You require a fallback for your vacation.”
Peclir raised an eyebrow. He had to be aware of Niers’ plans. You couldn’t hide much from a [Chamberlain]. You had to trust them. Even so, Niers hesitated.
“Yes. I’m hoping to get some system in place. More so than we already have in case of emergencies, that is. But I won’t leave until I’m sure I can trust this company to more than that tree rat.”
“Our glorious leader?”
“Who? Foliana, yes. She needs subordinates she can order about in my absence besides you. Where is she, by the way?”
Normally Foliana would be here, listening to Niers. Although she was as helpful as a wet sponge. The head of the Forgotten Wing company was, in fact, not good at any facet of managing it. But she did stick about, if only to needle Niers. The Fraerling looked inquiringly at Peclir. The man pointed above.
“I believe she’s currently eating oysters in her room, sir.”
“And throwing up, no doubt. She hates oysters.”
Niers groaned. He was going to have to endure Foliana eating every variety of oyster under the sun for the next few days or even weeks.
“Who’s the target this time?”
“She did not say, sir. And I did not ask.”
Not even Peclir would be that keen to ask Foliana who she was targeting. But he had to be guessing. The oysters were a big clue. As was Foliana’s diet in general, that was.
Muffins, spaghetti. Oysters today. As soon as Foliana completed her job, it would be something else. Fruits, maybe. Dates. Or some other dish, foul or fair.
It wasn’t a secret. When Three-Color Stalker ate your food of choice, she was aiming for you. Some said it was a way to get inside your head. Freak you out that she was coming. Others claimed it was so that the target would be lulled by a familiar smell. A few idiot [Mages] in Wistram thought it was so Foliana could study her victims, through some kind of food-psychology.
“Why does Lady Foliana eat the food of her victims, Lord Astoragon?”
Today was the day Peclir finally asked the question. Niers sat up and grinned. It had to have eaten away at the man, but he’d been working here for years without so much as asking it. Now that was self-control. And he was only too happy to answer. Again, it wasn’t a secret if you were in the know.
“Not to camouflage herself or anything stupid like that, Peclir. The reason is simple: she’s showing off. Warning her target.”
“Ah. To disturb them?”
Peclir’s eyebrows shot up. Niers chuckled to himself. That was what people didn’t get.
“It’s just to warn them. Nothing else. No advantage in it—and a lot of disadvantage if it’s something Foliana hates. But she does it because it’s her thing. Everyone needs a calling card. What’s the point of doing something if it isn’t with style?”
“That’s the entire reason?”
The [Chamberlain] closed his eyes for a moment.
“Another grand mystery, solved. Well, thank you, sir. I believe I’ll lie down and weep for the grandiose mysteries and designs of the powerful after we’re done here.”
“You do that.”
Niers laughed. Peclir didn’t get it. But when you were that high-level, your reputation meant as much as actual efficiency. When Foliana ate oysters, anyone within a thousand miles who loved the dish started watching the shadows. It meant that someone who loved oysters was her next target. How much better was that reaction than being the silent, unpredictable killer?
“I’m feeling better now, Peclir.”
“I am pleased my disappointment fuels you, Lord Astoragon.”
Niers threw a tiny bit of chalk at Peclir. It bounced off a button on his lapel and was promptly lost forever. The [Strategist] looked at his papers and sighed.
“Enough reports. Let’s do the daily tasks. Meetings, I think. Have I got any?”
He usually did. Niers’ day was filled from start to finish with things he could be doing, but didn’t. For whatever reason he’d put them off, delay, forget entirely—and spring on things that really mattered. He liked unpredictability, at least from his side. After all, the Titan of Baleros had enemies and he didn’t like being caught out.
But today at least, this year, had been peaceful. Only a few battles, all low-scale. Not every year in Baleros was huge bloody wars, at least for a Great Company. In fact, the Four Great Companies had found that peace was more profitable for them, at least in the long run. They could earn money off of their holdings and trade, and as a result, it was their allied companies, smaller divisions and so on that usually saw fighting.
Baleros was bloody, but if two or more Great Companies fought, the jungles would turn red with blood. And that wasn’t what anyone wanted. For the moment, at least.
So Niers’ day-to-day life looked like this: check the health of his company. Make big decisions like rising to provocation, seizing resources, etc. Meet with those too important to ignore. Annoy Foliana. Eat. Sleep. Be annoyed by Foliana.
Teach his students. If every Great Company had their specialty, from the Iron Vanguard’s emphasis on outfitting their soldiers and constructing military bastions, the Forgotten Wing company’s trait was its base of officers. It trained students from around the world into military geniuses.
Not just [Strategists], but [Lieutenants] who got hands-on experience, [Commanders] who would see action in the jungles, even [Generals]. But it was known for [Strategists]. And those who were able to join Niers’ coveted classes, much less the rare group of elite students, were sure to become forces that would influence the world in the decades to come.
That was what Niers spent most of his time on in days of peace. In war too; there was nothing more instructive than letting a [Strategist] command a battalion of [Soldiers] if they were ready for the job. And if they weren’t? Well, that was why the Titan’s nickname was also the Professor among his students. He liked to think he could bring out their best quality, and his lessons were often…inventive as a result.
“How are the students doing, by the way, Peclir?”
The [Chamberlain] sighed at the innocent tone in Niers’ voice.
“Your core students?”
“Those? No, I gave them the weekend off. They’re preparing, no doubt. Getting up to no good. Give me a report on all their movements later. I want to see how they’re planning for this—if they even know what’s coming at all. Wil has some idea, but I think the others haven’t read the signs. I know Venaz hasn’t. He thinks this will be a little event.”
“I shall light a candle for his survival later. And the report. But your new students are currently in their beds. Most of them. The children of nobility sent from Terandria were particularly distressed. After being made to survive for three nights in the jungle with no supplies. I believe their parents have sent several angry [Messages], sir.”
“I’ll read them in my bath with a glass of wine.”
Niers chuckled to himself, in a good mood. He glanced at Peclir.
“Anything else? Wait, I asked about meetings.”
“Ah. Right. I was waiting upon a list…here we are.”
A door above Peclir’s head opened. A little Fraerling popped out using the Fraerling walkways built into the citadel.
“Sorry, Master Im! Apologies, Lord Astoragon. There was a rat in the tunnels.”
“Another one? I thought I got rid of all the nests!”
Niers sat up, alarmed. Rats were a danger to Fraerlings. But the [Messenger] only grimaced.
“You did, sir. This one was quite dead. It wasn’t cleared, though. I had a [Servant] remove it.”
Niers sat back and shrugged as Peclir gave him a long stare. The [Chamberlain] accepted the small bit of paper the Fraerling carried and adjusted his spectacles to read the tiny handwriting.
“Hm. Ah, yes, there are a number of people wishing to see you, Lord Astoragon. As always.”
“What’s new? Anyone of note?”
Niers sighed. People always wanted something of you if you had something to give. And the Titan of Baleros? He had money to spend, which meant there were [Merchants] offering artifacts, [Mages] trying to get him to fund their research, adventuring teams hoping for some fame or a tipoff from him, [Cooks] trying to get him to eat their cooking—one time a [Chef] had even baked a life-size replica of Niers. Now hadn’t that been fun to use as a prank on his students?
But generally all they wanted didn’t really help Niers, so he’d made it known that you could come and petition the Titan for an audience—but you weren’t likely to get it. And still, they came. There was actually a quite profitable business in the city for people waiting to see him for months or even years. Mostly in vain.
“Hm. Well, here is the list, sir. I don’t see anyone too notable, but then again, I would underscore the Naga near the bottom.”
Peclir handed the sheet to Niers. The Titan grunted and ran his eye down the list. The same old suspects. But he paused at the Naga.
“Xalandrass. War merchant. I don’t know the name. Small fry?”
“Fairly. His fortunes turned south when he was caught up in that incident by the ah…Razorshard Armor company?”
“Ah, I remember. Those two idiots broke the rules of engagement. Well, it seems Xalandrass survived. Why’s he here and why do I care?”
“I couldn’t answer the first part, but I understand that he tried to bribe his way to the front of the queue.”
“Two hundred gold pieces. As much as he could afford, sir.”
Niers’ eyebrows rose. Bribes weren’t uncommon, and they were wasted effort since Niers just gave it back to the briber, but two hundred gold pieces wasn’t small. And if Xalandrass was in trouble, it made it more interesting still.
“So he thinks he has something I want, does he? Very well. Send him in. I’ll meet him in the sitting room with the velvet curtains. You know.”
“I will send him there at once, sir. Refreshments?”
“He may have whatever he wishes.”
Niers hopped off the desk and strode onto Peclir’s waiting hand. The man spared Niers the effort of climbing all the way to the Fraerling walkways and departed via the door. Niers took the considerably quicker tunnels running through the citadel. Along the way he spotted where the dead rat had been.
“Ah. Oops. I remember that one. Caught it running away. Must’ve slipped my mind. Oh well.”
Niers strode up the sloping walkway, navigating by memory to the waiting room. Along the way he met a few other Fraerlings. They were employed by his company—a rare thing. Even in Niers’ company were Fraerling a rare sight. They wanted to stand aside, but the Titan waved them onwards.
“Keep moving, for dead god’s sake! It’s not as if this tunnel isn’t big enough for all of us. Let the tall folk bump into each other.”
That made them laugh. Niers saw a new hire, the [Messenger] who’d done the delivery, point at his back. They did that, the first few months they were here. After all, there were legends of Drakes, kings and heroes of Lizardfolk, giants among the Dullahans and so forth. Even the Goblins had kings, wretched though they were. But the Fraerlings only had one hero.
Sometimes it weighed on Niers. Sometimes he wanted to go away. To Liscor, in this case. But he couldn’t. Not just yet. So Niers sighed, kept his back straight, and prepared his entrance.
Xalandrass the Naga had seen better days. Worse days too, like fearing for his life while two companies battled feet from his wagon’s door. But better days, still. He’d spent a lot of his coin, or rather, lost it escaping from the battlefield. And the days since then hadn’t exactly refilled his coffers.
Still, the Naga was if nothing else, vain. He’d brought out his best silk vest, and his hair was combed. He wore jewelry on his arms, decorative bangles, but nothing too ostentatious. His serpentine head was gently powdered, and he had oiled his scales. His long, serpentine lower half shone as he slowly entered the waiting room the [Servant] had pointed him towards.
He was afraid. Despite being a Naga, one of the forms a Lizardfolk could turn into if they were truly exceptional, Xalandrass was acutely aware of whom he was meeting. He had treated with company commanders with a mixture of arrogance and deference, but this was someone else.
Xalandrass looked around as he entered. He slithered into the room slowly, watching the ground. A Naga was a humanoid upper half and a serpentine lower body. Their tails were powerful and they were similar to Centaurs in that they resembled a cross of species. Xalandrass paused, afraid of running over something.
He knew the Titan’s true stature. In that he wasn’t a fool. He was, slightly, in assuming that Niers would be anywhere near the ground. Xalandrass glanced over his shoulder at Peclir Im, whom he was taller than by quite a bit.
“He may be along shortly. I cannot say when he will arrive. Your patience, please. If you have any wishes for refreshment, simply ring the bell..”
“Oh, no. I am quite fine. Quite—quite fine.”
Xalandrass coughed and reassured the [Chamberlain]. Of course the Titan wasn’t here yet. He was incredibly busy. Xalandrass was just lucky to have gotten a meeting this soon. He settled back on the open carpet, breathing a sigh of relief as Peclir Im clapped his hands and a gentle [Light] spell filled the room.
Xalandrass looked around, noting that this was a room built to accommodate Naga or Centaurs. Open, without more than a single table. And on it…was a little armchair? Oh! Just the size for a Fraerling. And a fat candle, in case the [Light] spell ran out. Of course.
Xalandrass chuckled. And in that moment, as he relaxed, preparing to wait as long as it took, he was at his most unguarded. So that was obviously the exact time when Niers made his entrance. He stepped from behind the fat candle he’d specifically had placed in every room for such moments and turned.
“You—wished to see me?”
The Naga’s eyes locked on Niers. He recoiled with a shout of horror that filled the room. Niers smiled as Xalandrass reared back instinctively, and then fell over himself with apologies. He flourished, giving the Naga a small bow.
“Niers Astoragon, at your service. I am pleased to meet you, Xalandrass the Naga. Peclir, thank you for bringing him here. I will see him now.”
Peclir rolled his eyes as he shut the door. Niers winked at him and then turned his attention to Xalandrass. The Naga was trying to collect himself—and failing.
“My apologies for the little surprise. How may I help you? I was told you had a matter of importance, and of course I’m eager to hear any information…of merit.”
Niers stepped around the candle in front of his armchair. This too was a tactic. Xalandrass was trying to calm down and now Niers had cut to the heart of a subject. The Fraerling watched him carefully.
A smart negotiator might calm down and take a few breaths. Someone with ice for blood might even address Niers’ rude introduction. But Xalandrass, [Merchant] though he may be, wasn’t that good. He rushed over himself, tripping over his words in his haste to address Niers. As if he was afraid he’d be tossed out for not instantly answering the question. Well, in another company. But not here.
“Lord Astoragon. I’m so delighted—forgive me, I hardly noticed—er, I did come here with vital information! To the best of my ability. I was…you are no doubt aware I was involved in that unpleasantness between the Roving Arrow company and the Razorshard Armor company? Well, aside from the tragedy that unfolded, I made a number of significant encounters at that time.”
Niers put a lot of emotion into that one word. Impatience, a hint of intrigue…Xalandrass nodded as fast as he could.
“Indeed—yes! A number of personages took to the field. I don’t refer to the companies. But rather—that was the battlefield on which a unique individual appeared. I don’t know that you’ve heard, but the Last Light of Baleros—a [Doctor] who cures the wounded—took part in that battlefield. And I observed her work. Truly splendid. And I came here to…to tell you…”
He was mopping at his brow with a handkerchief. Niers stared at him. Suddenly disappointed, he sat down in his tiny armchair. If all Xalandrass wanted to tell him were more rumors about this Last Light, then Niers would pass. Baleros was full of legends, heroes who rose and fell in the course of a moon’s cycle.
“I’ve heard of this Last Light. But an individual, even a [Doctor] isn’t a unique occurrence on the battlefield, Merchant Xalandrass. I trust she isn’t the topic of your visit?”
The Naga gulped.
“Not entirely, Lord Astoragon. But she is related! I did, in fact meet her. And several others whom I can only describe as—they were all part of—but perhaps I should show you this. It speaks far better than I can.”
He was fumbling at something at his side. A bag of holding. Niers eyed the odd object that Xalandrass pulled out. The Naga tried to flourish it, and then panicked as he realized the only place to set it was on the table where Niers was sitting. He offered it up with two hands, slithering closer to let Niers see.
“What is that?”
Niers frowned. Of all the things he’d expected Xalandrass to pull out, this wasn’t it. He stared down at some kind of…it was a compact tube, that was for certain. And there was…glass on one end? Glass and something inside of it. But the rest was made of a colorful steel—no, it wasn’t a steel. But it wasn’t a wood either. Or any other substance Niers could name.
“This, Lord Astoragon, is a device I obtained on that battlefield. Not from the companies, but from some strange individuals. Humans. I believe it is known as a…flashlight. If you will allow me to activate it?”
The name was instantly familiar to Niers. You didn’t need to be a genius to know what it did. But he was intrigued. So he clapped his hands and the lights in the room went out. In the darkness, lit only by a pair of windows covered by velvet drapes, he saw Xalandrass fumble with the device.
Belatedly, Niers wondered if this was an assassination attempt. Well, he had on his gear and Xalandrass would have been screened. So if it was, it was original. But Niers didn’t sense a spell come at him. Instead, he heard a click—
And a beam of light shot from the end of the flashlight. It was bright. Almost painfully so. And as Xalandrass swept it up and down the room, Niers saw the glow came from the thing inside the flashlight. It was being magnified outwards. Strange. Xalandrass swept it across the room, flashing it at Niers once and then apologizing hurriedly. Then the Fraerling clapped his hands and the lights returned.
The Naga swept backwards. He gestured to the flashlight proudly.
“I saw a light. A cute artifact, but hardly better than a mage’s lantern. And too bright to do more than give away your position. Unless you can control the spell?”
Niers replied drily. Xalandrass wavered, and then he slapped his forehead.
“Oh! Of course! I neglected to mention—Lord Astoragon! This isn’t a mage’s artifact. This device isn’t magical. Not at all!”
He raised the flashlight. And now Niers’ eyes locked on it. He frowned.
“Explain. And bring it closer. You may place it here, please.”
He gestured to the table. Xalandrass did so, talking hurriedly.
“No magic at all. Feel free to examine it, Lord Astoragon. It’s got components inside—you can see the metal and glass past the…”
“Odd surface. Too smooth, but it’s definitely not metal. What’s it made of?”
Niers interrupted Xalandrass, running a hand along the strange body of the flashlight. He glanced up sharply and saw the Naga hesitate.
“I’m told it’s called ‘plastic’, Lord Astoragon.”
“But you don’t know. And it’s completely non-magical. Not even a rune or mana stone inside?”
“I had a [Mage] friend of mine test it. She swears there’s no magic at all.”
Now that was strange. Niers studied the device. There was no fire to it, even when he pressed the button and it lit up. Something was glowing, but—Niers went blind for a second as he stared at the glowing filament of…whatever that was inside it. That wasn’t magic. No, that was some kind of metal. Wasn’t it?
He glanced up and saw Xalandrass was watching him hopefully. Niers stepped back, hit the button on the flashlight, and decided to sit. He blinked spots out of his eyes.
“Well, Xalandrass, congratulations are in order. You’ve got my full attention.”
The Naga puffed up a little. Niers held up a hand.
“Don’t waste it. Without exaggeration, tell me. What is this device? How did you get it?”
“Ah, well, I would love to embellish the tale, but the answer is simple. I acquired it in the line of my business. A few mercenaries from a suppression company hired for the battlefield came over and tried to barter for some alcohol. They offered this in trade and I took it.”
Niers’ eyebrows shot way up. Even a weak artifact was worth far more than that. Xalandrass smiled.
“They were desperate. And I offered them quite a bit to drink for these trinkets. And others.”
I’ll bet you did. Niers had a low opinion of war merchants, who sold to companies when they were at their most desperate. They preyed on the short-of-luck. But he didn’t say any of that out loud.
“So, you made a good business deal from some soldiers desperate for fun. Who didn’t realize what they were carrying?”
Xalandrass pondered that.
“Let’s say that their good sense was in shorter supply, Lord Astoragon. There were others whom I made better offers to who did not relinquish their…objects. All part of the same company I might add. All Human. All new to warfare.”
Niers was getting an image. A group of desperate travellers, who’d bartered this away. Poor enough to work in a suppression company. But rich enough for…? And they didn’t know the worth of this.
“Tell me more. Or rather, show me.”
“The flashlight is a good start. But I obtained a handful of these during the battle. Taken from the…deceased. I traded for it with some Dullahan soldiers. To them it was only a flash of light and sounds, but I discovered they could be [Repaired]. Sir, please look.”
If the flashlight had been calculated to grab Niers’ attention, the second thing that Xalandrass showed Niers was intended to seal the deal. Because Niers had no idea what it was. It was a rectangle. Some object made of the same foreign substance as the flashlight, but the front as was smooth as glass. And it had a…button on it. And when Xalandrass pressed it hard and it came to life…
“What is that symbol? An apple?”
“Keep watching, Lord Astoragon. But—steel your eyes. There are a number of bright shapes.”
“And look. If I touch this…”
The screen came to life. Xalandrass’ fingers delicately tapped one of the square beacons of light and it expanded. Niers stared as something appeared. He saw words. Nonsensical. Xalandrass tapped one of the words and it lit up. Everything on the thing in front of him changed. And then a face appeared. Niers jerked back, but the face was still, like a [Mage]’s illustration. And then there was music.
At least, Niers thought it was music. It sounded nothing like anything he’d heard. He stared at the screen, at the moving thing at the top, at Xalandrass’ face, and then held up a hand. The Naga instantly hit a strange pair of vertical bars near the bottom and the music stopped.
“Take it back, please.”
Niers settled back in his chair as Xalandrass retreated, looking pleased. The Titan realized he was showing his curiosity and bewilderment and cursed internally. He looked at Xalandrass and decided to play the Naga’s game.
“Alright. I am mystified. Xalandrass, tell me what it is.”
“They called it an ‘iPhone’, Lord Astoragon.”
The Naga pronounced the word clumsily. Niers stared at the device. And then at the flashlight. His mind offered him several explanations. But he went with his gut.
“And you got that off of the dead, did you?”
“They would not part with it until…several of their members were caught trying to desert.”
“Ah. By which company?”
That meant beheading. Niers winced.
“And those soldiers gave these things to you for a song and a dance? One would assume they’d have realized the importance, given them to their commanders.”
“As I said, these devices were damaged when I obtained them. One made light, the other…nothing. But I had my [Mage] friend [Repair] them and…”
Xalandrass gestured. Niers thought for a second. The Naga was clearly excited. He knew something of the worth of what he held. The problem was, Niers wasn’t sure he did.
“You see, Lord Astoragon, this iPhone has many functions. One of them was playing that music. But the others—”
Niers cut him off. The Naga paused, and Niers looked at him. He wanted to talk about the device, but Niers had only one question for him.
“The Humans you bought this from. The ones new to war. Where were they from? What continent?”
“Ah, well, they said—”
“Again. Stop. Don’t tell me what they said. You’ve reached a conclusion, Xalandrass. Tell me it. And then tell me why. I’m not here for a story. Where are they from? Answer me. Now.”
Niers didn’t sit up in his chair. He didn’t raise his voice. But he concentrated and some of Xalandrass’ confidence faded.
“Tell me everything you saw, Xalandrass. Tell me in order, in a way that exaggerates nothing. You came here because you saw an opportunity. This is your chance. Use it wisely.”
The Naga wavered. He looked at Niers, and then hit a button. The iPhone went dark. The Naga drew himself up, and then relaxed, his tail coiled inwards upon itself. Perhaps there was some wisdom in him, because when he spoke it was as Niers had asked.
“I met them in one company. Gravetender’s Fist. The Last Light had been on the battlefield, tending to the wounded. She was an anomaly, but as you say, there are those who are strange. But the children in the company—they were odd. They wore unique clothing, and spoke with accents not familiar to me. They knew each other—or rather, they all came from the same place. But I heard numerous names from their lips. All foreign. This is what I saw. This is what they did.”
Niers listened as the Naga told his story of meeting the Gravetender’s Fist company. Of witnessing their arguments, splintering, overhearing odd snippets of conversation. And then—of seeing Ken and Daly rescuing a wounded soldier. Of Geneva, the Last Light, reattaching a Dullahan [Juggernaut]’s arm. Of a flag. Of all that had passed before and after and most importantly, the conversations Xalandrass had had with the children on the road as they fled that battlefield.
He never said outright what he thought. But he didn’t have to. The strange names. Earth. Americans. Australia. And the things their devices could do, their references to Geneva’s skill as something natural. And what Xalandrass had overheard the children saying to each other.
How did we get here? Magic exists? Really? You hear about Nagas in stories. Want to go home. What about the others?
A thousand clues that pointed one way. It was such an obvious conclusion that Niers would normally suspect a trick. But the device Xalandrass held said otherwise. He showed Niers more of what it could do. Niers stared at a screen full of characters even smaller than he was move about before vanishing and wondered if an [Illusionist] could do that well.
No magic. A [Doctor] with skills beyond any other [Doctor]. Names and places never heard, never spoken aloud before. And Xalandrass saved the best for last.
“They formed a company after that. The United Nations. A symbol of their home, Lord Astoragon. Something they hoped would draw others to them. Unite them. Something only they would know.”
And Niers remembered the report he’d read. His mind turned to fire. It raced from conclusion to conclusion, igniting. Not just with what Xalandrass was hinting. At last, part of a bigger picture unraveled in his head. He had a moment he’d felt a thousand times as a [Strategist], that of seeing the big picture. Of knowing.
Flashlight. Chess. The game of Go. A new game coming from an established Drake city. A girl waving a white flag. Wistram’s new concept of scrying orbs and viewer mages.
One conclusion. One that made sense. Niers found his breath coming quickly in his chest. The world turned itself upside down. Only, it wasn’t one world was it?
It was two.
At least two. At least two worlds. How else did you explain the flashlight? The iPhone? No other way. Maybe if Niers weren’t in his position—but he had all the resources and experience of a head of the Great Companies and he had never heard of a material like the one the two devices were made of. Xalandrass was a war merchant. He had seen any number of artifacts. But what was most telling was the way it fit with the other things he’d picked up on. Mysteries unsolved. It could solve everything. Chess, the dungeon Niers still thought about—
And Niers felt his heart racing. He felt his mind bursting with thoughts, and he was filled with too much energy to contain. But he didn’t move. He sat in his chair as Xalandrass finished and held still. He didn’t tap his leg, he didn’t raise his hand. He didn’t give any signs as to the turmoil in his soul. He just tapped the armrest of his chair.
Xalandrass watched the Titan greedily, expectantly. He was prepared for Niers to shout after a moment, or swear, or do anything in line with his colorful personality. But nothing happened. Not a twitch. Not so much as a smile or a movement of the eye. Niers’ finger kept tapping the cloth. The Naga watched, confidence wavering. He had to know the value of his information. But when he saw Niers’ face, his certainty fled.
“Er. Lord Astoragon. This is all happenstance. But the coincidences. I have a supposition—and I am sure one as intelligent as you has come to the same conclusion. If what I believe is correct, then—”
Niers slowly looked up. Xalandrass’ tongue tied itself in knots in his mouth.
“It is interesting, isn’t it? I’m not sure what to make of it. But I think you have something. What, I’m not sure about. But something.”
The Naga’s hearts beat hopefully. He waited as Niers pondered. Then, the Titan stood up. He walked once around the table, lost in thought. Then he stared at the Naga.
“I don’t know how adept a [Merchant] you are, Naga Xalandrass. So I will be blunt and spare us both embarrassment. Not a word of this to anyone else in passing. Not this, not the company, and not your good fortune either. I’m buying silence and all these trinkets—even the ones you’ve ferreted away and didn’t intend to sell me at any cost.”
A huge breath of air left Xalandrass’ lungs. He opened his mouth and Niers cut him off again. Brusquely. Calmly. Was he thinking the same thing Xalandrass was? That the children were from somewhere else? Did he not fully believe? He was so…calm. Unnervingly so.
“Twelve thousand gold coins for your information. Let’s call it two thousand per…flashlight? Ten thousand for these other things. Per item. You won’t walk away with more than…six thousand gold coins right now. But the rest will come in business deals. Stay at your inn for two nights, and then head north. You may run across some lucrative opportunities there.”
That was a lot of coin. Enough to make Xalandrass rich and prosperous again and then some. Rich, generous…but hardly worth the information if the Naga was right. True, it was objects and unverifiable claims—at least for now, but the Naga couldn’t conceal his disappointment. Then he had a thought.
“Ah, but what about the price of silence, Lord Astoragon?”
The Fraerling gave him a ghost of a smile. It was the right question. He looked at the Naga speculatively, then raised his voice.
The door opened. Xalandrass spun, but it was just a Dullahan [Servant]. Niers pointed.
“Find Peclir. Tell him to bring me the purple cloth covered item.”
The door closed. Xalandrass waited, his scales sweaty, until the door opened. Niers was content to wait. When Peclir returned with an object in his hands on a small pillow, Niers nodded to it.
“Show Xalandrass. You want to know what I buy for your silence? This.”
Peclir looked at Xalandrass. He approached slowly and twitched the cloth back. Both of the Naga’s hearts stopped beating at once. He stared at the object, reached out a hand, and snatched it. Back. Wordlessly he looked at Niers. The Fraerling nodded.
“For yours and your [Mage] friend. It will make its way to you in time. In a bundle of wool, I think. Check each shipment that crosses your path. You have no objections?”
“None I—so generous! Of course I will keep the utmost silence and never, ever—”
Xalandrass tripped over his tongue. Then he had a horrible thought.
“Er, Lord Astoragon. It crosses my mind that perhaps, it could be that my information, my guesswork, might be in error. The possibility is small, but if that should be the case…”
He looked at Niers nervously. The Fraerling smiled again.
“If you’re wrong, we’ll renegotiate. But you’ve told me everything and you’re sure you’re correct, aren’t you?”
The Naga placed his hand over his secondary heart in his chest.
“I would swear on any truth spells you know. If—”
If he wasn’t using them already. Niers had a truth detection spell, but he rarely bothered to use it. Watching people was more important. Besides, you could fool [Detect Lie] spells. Not many people knew that. The Titan shook his head.
“Oh, I trust you Xalandrass.”
The Naga sighed with relief. Peclir took the cloth-covered object out of the room and Niers watched the Naga’s eyes follow it. A fortune indeed. But Niers had many fortunes, and [King]’s ransoms, and so on. And buying this secret was worth the price. There was a reason why people still came to him. Because if they had something he truly wanted, Niers would make them rich. He had let that be known too.
And this information. Oh! If it were true…Niers was still thinking. It was beyond just one company now. Xalandrass only saw the United Nations company. But Niers was looking at the world. What if this weren’t one incident? Surely not.
If this is so, then the world changes. If this is so—the flashlight. No magic? What’s inside? I need a [Blacksmith], a [Mage]—you can [Repair] it?
The King of Destruction’s reawakening. The death of Zel Shivertail? Tyrion Veltras’ actions—no, the [Emperor]? Trebuchets? Of course.
But deal with the Naga first. Niers cleared his throat to get Xalandrass’ attention.
“All your artifacts will go with Peclir. And your silence means another Great Company hears nothing of this. If you are aware of any rumors like this—”
“—Not spread by me! Of course not!”
“Oh, no. Not you. If you hear of any rumors, you will bring them to me. And remember, Xalandrass?”
Niers raised his voice. The Naga was over the moon with his success and the reward. He glanced back at Niers. The Titan smiled. And it was a grandfatherly smile.
“The reward matches the information given. Of the service rendered. As do the consequences of betraying that trust.”
That was all he said. That was all you needed to say. But for a second Xalandrass looked at Niers and remembered who he was talking to. A foot-high Fraerling. A tiny person. Someone Xalandrass could squash with a single palm.
And the Titan of Baleros. And Xalandrass remembered all the legends and wondered if they were true.
That was enough. Niers left him with a mixture of jubilation and fear. The right mix, or so you hoped. It was a balance. But he gave instructions to Peclir Im about Xalandrass, very precise instructions, and then went to his study. Niers walked over to an inkwell, made sure the door was closed, and went crazy for half an hour.
Peclir Im entered the room after the shouting had died down. Or rather, when Niers had begun shouting for him and ringing the bell. Niers was standing in a mess of torn up paper and ink and other possessions. Peclir blinked; he had no idea what Xalandrass had said, but he’d rarely seen Niers this upset. Or was it jubilant? The Titan was something, and he was pacing back and forth, reading from a document and muttering under his breath.
“Oh, Venaz. You clever, stubborn idiot. This is just what I need. This, and nothing else. You’ll play your role. And I’ll be sure you do. Thank you for Minotaurs. Thank you for—Peclir?”
His head snapped towards the [Chamberlain]. Peclir hesitated. There was a wild look in Niers’ eyes. The same kind of look Peclir had seen a few times before. If the Titan of Baleros was a giant, it was a sleeping giant. A friendly, sleeping one most of the time. But someone had just woken him up.
“May I help you, Lord Astoragon? I have a message for you. An important one from the Iron Vanguard company. I thought that even under the circumstances—”
“Give it here.”
Niers snatched the paper from Peclir. It was written small, for a Fraerling. Even in his madness, he was still able to note small details. Peclir had already read the note.
“The Seer of Steel accedes to the Titan’s request. Tulm the Mithril will be present in three weeks’ time. Well, that makes it perfect.”
The [Strategist] had a crazy grin on his face. His mind raced. Yes, Venaz would probably do what Niers was thinking. Which gave him the perfect opening. Manipulate the minotaur. He could see Peclir watching him for some clue. But he couldn’t know. Hell, Foliana would have to be told in their secret room, spelled against every single eavesdropping measure in the world. If he was right—
Where was that damn Magnolia Reinhart’s letter? And—damn, he’d need to check every report on suspicious activities. He’d written it all down somewhere. But first—
Niers looked around. His desk—or rather, the table where he slept and worked was just a normal table. Cluttered—less so after his rampage. But there was something by his tent.
A picture. A [Mage]’s illustration, copied in perfect detail. It had been taken from a battlefield. From another person’s eyes, at range. Still, Niers had requested his [Diviner] to enhance the image. It was still faint. Blurry.
But on that hill, a girl stood. In the mud, her clothes plain. She held a flag of white. And her back was turned. Niers stared at it. He spoke softly. Start with her. At last…
He had to know.
“I need to hire someone. Peclir?”
“Yes, Lord Astoragon? You wish me to make a call?”
“Not to anyone in Baleros. Send a [Message] spell. Encrypted. Look up the cipher. But I need to make a call. To…the best.”
Peclir waited. Then he coughed.
“The best whom, sir?”
“I worked with some experts in First Landing before. The best of the best.”
The [Chamberlain] waited. Niers stared at the picture. Then he looked up. The die was cast.
“First Landing. Tell the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings that I have a proposition for them. And send them some of our finest wine via our contact there. I’ll be awaiting their communication with greatest pleasure. Or something like that. And Peclir? They have access to my personal [Diviner]. Day or night. I want to speak with them immediately.”
“I shall send the [Message] spell at once.”
Peclir bowed and left the room. Niers stood alone, staring at the picture. Then he took a deep breath. He looked around, at the destroyed desk, at the papers, at the report of Venaz’ not-so-covert actions…if you knew what to look for, and then at another report.
“The United Nations.”
Niers stared at the name. And then at the flashlight Peclir had left on his desk. He walked over to it. Touched the material that did not come from this world. And then he smiled.
“After years of searching, of wondering. At last. The world changes. Let there be light.”
He hit the button. And there was.