Magnolia Reinhart. To many, she was as much of a legend as any Named Adventurer that Izril could boast of. She was a name that defined the continent, for better or worse.
Pallass. First Landing. Tyrion Veltras. Saliss of Lights. Terithia Kinslayer. The Bloodfeast Raiders. The Terland family. Zel Shivertail—or who would now step into his place? Klbkch the Slayer.
Heroes and villains. All depending on who you asked, of course. But in that list there was always her name. Magnolia Reinhart. And she was a villain to many. To very many, in fact. They still told stories of her rise to power and how she had claimed authority over her family.
She was a schemer, someone who used assassins and poison without scruple or mercy. A manipulator. And a woman. Those ideas often ran so close together, especially when people talked about women with power. Magnolia Reinhart could not be trusted.
“Compared to who?”
Ressa shook her head as she pinned her hair back. It always bothered the [Head Maid] of Magnolia’s household whenever she heard those statements. You couldn’t trust Magnolia? She often kept her word. More than most of Izril’s nobles. Who would you trust if you couldn’t trust her?
Lord Tyrion? Sure, if you wanted to beat your head against the unwavering brick wall that was his skull and stubborn pride. Another noble? Lord Erill? The man had as many ties to the underworld of crime as he did to honest enterprise. Lord Pellmia? That man had enough blood on his hands and enough broken vows to match anything Magnolia had ever done. One of the Walled Cities? Ask Liscor how Pallass honored its debts.
And as for women—no. It was just because Magnolia was the first among them that they called her untrustworthy. She was a woman in power. And that was frightening.
To some. But in Magnolia’s mansion, when Ressa opened the door to her private quarters and stepped out, she didn’t see fear or terror of poison on the faces of the staff as she swept through the carpeted floors. She saw a good deal of fear, true, but it was all directed at her.
Here she came. The true terror behind Magnolia, at least to her staff. And it wasn’t because Ressa was unflinchingly strict. She could be that—but it was rather how she tended to operate when there weren’t guests about. Ressa had ways.
Her first way was to get up before dawn. When the sky was still growing brighter, Ressa flitted from shadow to shadow, inspecting the hallways for dust and possible signs of infiltration. She was a [Maid]. But she had been trained like an [Assassin]. And she had inherited the best Skills of both classes.
Now Ressa leapt. The [Maid] dusting the hallway outside of Ressa’s room looked around. It was the constant occupation of the staff. A mansion as large as Magnolia’s estate obviously needed tending, but the staff hunted even the smallest of dust motes to extinction for a good reason: it helped them level.
The [Maid] class was one of the easiest classes in the world to level up if you kept busy. And it was infinitely combinable. And so if you could gain a level from dusting vigorously for a month, why not have the highest-level staff in the world? The ultimate cleaners. And if need be—
Fighters. Mages. And yes, assassins. The [Maid] in question was yawning, not having Ressa’s tolerance for early mornings. But she was dutifully dusting—right until she noticed a noticeable stain on the wall. This required more than a feather duster. So the [Maid] clicked her fingers and produced a small orb of water. She dipped a cloth into the water, cleaned the stain, inspected the wall, and created a bloom of light to inspect it. She leaned forwards, and then whirled.
The spell shot up across the hallway, towards the figure perched on the ceiling. Ressa jumped out of the way and ran down the wall. The [Maid Mage] gasped—Ressa’s hand was at her throat. She stared down and saw Ressa’s gloved hand. It was holding a feather, from the duster.
“You dropped it.”
“Miss Ressa. I—”
“Phesofi. You did spot me. But you used water on an ink stain. Next time apply an alchemical tonic.”
Phesofi looked behind her at the wallpaper, which might have the tiniest of smudges now. Ressa shook her head.
“Good work. Clean up.”
She dropped the feather. Phesofi caught it and then stared past Ressa at the webs now clogging the upper hallway. And at Ressa’s slight footprints that had dirtied the polished woodwork. The [Maid] sighed.
Ressa continued onwards, ignoring the [Maid Mage] as she levitated up to take care of the stains. They did level. And if you had a [Maid Mage] class, when you leveled, you leveled up as both a [Maid] and a [Mage]. Far faster than you’d level as a pure [Mage]. Even if your Skills were divided, that was power.
“Phesofi, good. Next—”
Ressa walked up the side of the wall, avoiding a large and hairy [Maid] passing down the next corridor. Bekia, the sole Gnoll [Maid], sniffed the air. Then she looked up.
“Good morning, Miss Ressa.”
“Morning, Bekia. Pass.”
The Gnoll nodded. Ressa walked on the ceiling, a fact that annoyed some of the staff assigned to clean up there no end. But this was a test. She passed down the next corridor and looked down. A young [Maid] was wiping at the side of a regal painting. Ressa frowned, although this girl wasn’t one of the combat-capable staff she was testing on her patrol. Ressa dropped from the ceiling to the ground, twenty feet. The mansion had three floors, all with tall ceilings for good reason.
The [Maid] whirled around and screamed. Instantly, Ressa heard running feet. Both Bekia and Phesofi appeared around the corridor. They relaxed when they saw Ressa and the terrified [Maid].
“M-miss Ressa? I didn’t hear—”
The young woman stuttered. Ressa had appeared behind her like a ghost. The [Head Maid] stared at Mavi. She pointed at the cloth in the girl’s hand.
“You are polishing the portrait of Sir Gilet’s triumph over the King of Griffins with—is that chamois leather? Absolutely not. You’ll tarnish the silver.”
She reached out and touched the edges of the silver painting. Mavi the unfortunate [Maid] shook in place.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Ressa. I only though that since it looks so good, I should use—”
She held up the delicate cleaning cloth. Ressa made a disgusted sound. Amateurs. Mavi had probably never served in a noble house with actual, precious silverwork.
“Use cotton. And soap and water! Bekia, take Mavi in hand and ensure she doesn’t make more mistakes.”
“At once, Ressa.”
The Gnoll [Maid] hurried over. Mavi stared up at Bekia with huge, round eyes. The Gnoll was over six feet tall, while Mavi, not yet seventeen, was a little over five feet. Bekia gave her a friendly smile. For a Gnoll, which meant lots of teeth. Ressa sighed. She stepped back and to Mavi’s horror, vanished.
“Hrm. Not too bad of a tarnish. We can clean this easily, yes? Good thing you didn’t do the entire painting. I’m surprised no one caught this earlier. But you were hired in a few days ago, yes? Tsk. What do they teach young [Maids] these days?”
The Gnoll inspected the silver, ignoring Mavi’s expression. The girl stuttered as she pointed at the space Ressa had been.
“Hm? Oh, Miss Ressa is just very busy. She doesn’t mean much by her words. She is really quite kind, yes?”
Bekia turned and gave Mavi a reassuring smile. The girl stared at the Gnoll and gulped. She was hyperventilating, so Bekia gently let her sit on the carpeted floor.
“I’m going to die.”
“B-but I heard she killed [Maids] who didn’t do their jobs right!”
The Gnoll looked shocked.
“Miss Ressa? No, no. She would never do that. Not unless you damaged the painting. Er, that is a joke, yes? She’s very nice. Just…secretive. You’ll get used to it.”
“But there’s Golems walking around the courtyard! And I went near the gardens and the [Gardener] threatened to feed me to the plants!”
“He does that. Didn’t anyone tell you not to go near the garden?”
“I only wanted to pick a flower.”
“Better you don’t. The [Gardener] regards his flowers like people. Pick a flower and he’ll pick you.”
The girl shuddered. Bekia realized that she wasn’t actually being reassuring and laid a big paw on Mavi’s shoulder. The girl stared at it, wide-eyed. Bekia smiled again.
“You haven’t met a Gnoll before, yes?”
“We will be friends, then! And you will do fine. Most new staff have a terrible first week. But the ones who stay, they do well. And you will stay, I think. You would not be hired if you were not promising.”
“Oh yes. Now, let’s clean this silver and you will have breakfast with me. And I will explain to you about cloths, how to clean footsteps off the ceiling, and why the gardens are so very dangerous, yes?”
Mavi wavered. She looked ready to run. But faced with Bekia’s smile, the girl realized that a Gnoll’s toothy grin was the least scary thing in the mansion. So she sniffed again, stood up, and nodded.
That was all Ressa had waited to see. The [Head Maid] walked away across the ceiling, invisible and soundless. She didn’t leave that many footprints either. Even so, Bekia turned her head to wink.
Bekia. A good [Maid]. One of the best, really. A proper [Maid] as opposed to the combat staff. A devil at polishing and hunting down vermin. And she can cook as well as any [Chef] with [Advanced Cooking]. If only she could handle the shedding, she’d be perfect.
Ressa nodded to herself. Bekia was a credit to the mansion. Phesofi on the other hand was a Wistram graduate, who still acted more [Mage] than [Maid]. She’d been with them…two years. She had potential, but she had to act her role. Was she [Mage] or [Maid] with magic? If she couldn’t be the latter, she couldn’t be part of the staff.
And you wanted to be part of Magnolia’s personal staff. The benefits were considerable. True, the demands could be just as unreasonable, but Magnolia Reinhart’s people did not want for money or security, for their jobs or their families. But you had to be good.
Very good. Ressa proceeded down the next corridor. This time the hallway was filled with glass windows; the front of the mansion. She saw a colorful shape glide across the glass; one of the magnificent, enchanted animals that swam across Magnolia’s mansion as if the walls and windows were water.
Ressa kept away from the windows and landed on the floor again. The hallway had several pedestals bearing treasures on display. Ressa crept from pedestal to pedestal, until she was nearly upon the [Maid] staring out the window. Ressa reached for one of the throwing daggers and flicked it from her wrist as she slid behind the [Maid].
The woman lowered her mace. Ressa lowered the dagger.
Sacra nodded. She put the enchanted mace into her bag of holding.
“Weekly security check?”
“I’m conducting it early.”
“Perhaps. Something’s in the air. Keep your mace ready. Magnolia may call on you.”
Sacra nodded. She turned to inspecting the window as Ressa leapt back up to the ceiling. A [Manservant] hurrying down the corridor with a load of cleaned curtains saw the shape flitting upwards. He stared up as Ressa stared down at him from the ceiling. His scream was no less high-pitched than Mavi’s.
“Quiet. The household is asleep.”
Ressa glared at the man. He nodded as he grabbed at the curtains. Sacra suppressed a snort. And Ressa was gone again.
Her reign of terror was indeed a combination of her habit of sneaking up on people and her strictness. And the fact that Ressa was known for her role in disposing of nuisances around Magnolia Reinhart herself. But yes, the main reason the staff feared her were instances like that.
Reynold was enjoying a cup of tea in the kitchen. He was eating a sandwich. Ressa whispered in his ears as she stood upside-down right behind him.
The [Combat Butler] jumped, spilled tea on himself, and reached for his sword all at once. Ressa waited until he’d recovered from his minor heart attack.
“Watch your back, Reynold. And clean up the crumbs.”
She indicated the crumbs on the table. Reynold nodded miserably as he adjusted his outfit, which would now need cleaning and pressing. Ressa walked onwards. Now she slipped out of the mansion and did a check around the estate.
Magnolia Reinhart’s estate was large. It wasn’t part of Invrisil, but rather a decent distance away from the city, separate, but not isolated. The place was more like a fortress than a retreat; aside from the ensorcelled walls and gates, layers of security lay between any visitor and Magnolia Reinhart herself. And in the months since the last attack, the defenses had grown only more elaborate.
The most obvious of defenses marched past Ressa as she quietly walked on the ground, still walking in the shadows of the night. Steel Golems passed the [Maid] by, their heads on a swivel. These gargantuan warriors were more of a show, though. They could help against an army, but despite being giant metal war machines, Ressa knew they were as useless as stationary rocks against anyone in her line of work. She slipped past them, and this time skirted a shadow in the air.
A giant floating raincloud passed Ressa by. It was enchanted to rain on the parts of the estate that needed water. And while it wasn’t raining yet, Ressa didn’t trust it not to rain. She also didn’t like to get below something that could throw [Chain Lightning] spells around. She did a circle of the gardens, inspecting the flower beds, some of the statues, enchanted and mundane, even the walls for signs of tampering or failures in the wards.
The only place Ressa didn’t go was the garden. It had its own protector and was, in a way, the most dangerous part of Magnolia’s mansion. And Ressa did not get along with Nalthaliarstrelous, the [Gardener]. The man was also a [Druid] and Bekia was quite correct in that he took his job seriously. His overgrown hedge maze could probably kill a small army if they wandered in.
Inspection done, Ressa walked into the mansion and visited the kitchens. She didn’t scare the [Chef] on duty, a male Dullahan. The last thing she needed was for him to burn any food by accident. Ressa collected her breakfast and glanced around.
“Have Reynold bring today’s meal to the carriage. We’ll be departing at first light.”
“Yes, Miss Ressa.”
The Dullahan, his armor a decorative mix of silver and wood—painted with floral designs by a master [Artist], very attractive to other Dullahans—watched gloomily as Ressa gulped down her breakfast. Simple porridge and fruit for the [Head Maid]. And she was done in less than a minute. It was good food, which was all the more heartbreaking to the [Chef], but he had learned that Ressa ate fast.
This was how Ressa’s day started. By the time the sun was rising and Magnolia Reinhart was waking up, her right hand and best friend had checked the mansion from head to toe, terrorized the staff, eaten her own breakfast, and collected the day’s itinerary. As Magnolia Reinhart’s head rose from her luxuriant bed, Ressa was standing next to it, a prim and proper shadow for her mistress, the most powerful [Lady] of Izril. Or so Ressa believed.
Magnolia Reinhart, the Deadly Flower Blooming in the North, head of the Reinhart family, and one of the most famed and feared Human women in the world opened her eyes. She stared at the ceiling, raised her head from the pillow—and let it fall. Then she rolled over.
“Another hour, Ressa.”
The [Maid] stared at Magnolia’s slumbering form. Magnolia rolled over, curling up in her silken sheets. Ressa cleared her throat.
“You have a busy day, Magnolia. You’ll need to be on the road in ten minutes. Dressing alone will take—”
“I’m sleepy, Ressa.”
“I’m aware of that. Should I cancel your schedule, then?”
Ressa’ crooked eyebrow suggested that she would hit Magnolia with her list if the woman did. Magnolia groaned.
“I’d like that. Where am I going?”
“Village inspection. We’re headed to Talizmet and then Embrie. Unless you have other plans?”
Magnolia smiled into her pillow.
“No, that sounds quite nice, actually. Fresh air and all that. Is the carriage ready?”
“Reynold should have it prepared and ready to go. Are you getting up?”
“In three minutes.”
Ressa stared out of Magnolia’s window. A huge eye stared back at her. An enchanted whale swam down the outside of Magnolia’s mansion. Through its transparent body, Ressa could see the sun rising.
“I think you need to get up now. Magnolia. Magnolia Reinhart. It is time to get up.”
“Ressa. You are as terrible as those shrieking sounds those children showed me on their devices. No, worse. Just give me two more minutes…”
Magnolia’s voice faded away. Ressa leaned over her. She whispered to Magnolia’s comatose form.
“If you don’t get up I will make you get up.”
“I will push you out of your bed.”
Magnolia considered this. Wearily and very grudgingly, she rolled over. Then she sat up.
“I detest you at times, Ressa, for all of our long enduring friendship.”
“I’m prepared to be hated. That’s part of my job.”
Magnolia nodded glumly.
“I fear that hatred doesn’t encapsulate all of the delightful emotions I’m feeling right now. May I at least see my apparel, tyrant?”
Ressa sighed. The wardrobe slid open and rows of dresses arranged themselves in the air as she clicked her fingers. Magnolia blinked blearily, not one whit impressed by the magical dresser.
“I think the mauve dress. The long arms and lattice, yes. Mm. Nicely trimmed. I’m feeling properly mauve today.”
“As you wish. It’s a dull color, but I don’t choose your dresses for you.”
Magnolia sighed, exasperated as she stood and quickly changed clothes with Ressa’s help.
“Ressa, you wear a black and white maid’s uniform. And your fashion of choice is dark grey, green, or blue. And that’s when you’re not on the job.”
“And you like pink.”
“Either way. You’re dressed. Do you want anything else?”
“Dignity? But I suppose I’ll find that later.”
Magnolia sighed. She slapped her cheeks lightly and turned around. The bleary look in her eyes faded, as did the casual, chatty tone in her voice. She sighed, and then a [Lady] gave Ressa a smile that you could use to hammer a nail into the wall. You could bounce bricks off Magnolia Reinhart’s façade. And she’d just woken up.
“Ah, well, time to be about the business of the day. Let’s be on with it, shall we?”
She walked towards the door as Ressa held it open. And the complaining, sleepy Magnolia was a thing of the past. The real thing, or rather, the person everyone else saw delicately walked out the door, calling a cheerful greeting to the first servant she saw in the halls. Only Ressa saw the complaining Magnolia, the one who wanted to sleep in. She saw Magnolia’s weakness and that was a cherished moment of weakness. For Magnolia Reinhart let few people see that she had anything close to vulnerability. She had too many enemies. And too few friends.
“Are we taking the main carriage or the backup today?”
Magnolia chatted softly to Ressa as they walked through the halls of Magnolia’s mansion. Now the place was beginning to wake up with the house’s [Lady], and servants were filling the halls.
Not all were there just to clean or cook; many had other roles. Tending to guests if they were there, shopping, preparing for little trips abroad to fulfill Magnolia Reinhart’s tasks, battling the encroaching garden…Magnolia had a large staff, and all of them paused to greet the lady of the house. Magnolia frowned absently.
“The main carriage’s enchantment spell is still malfunctioning?”
“Apparently. I’ve had the [Enchanter], Hedault, look at it twice, but he claims the encounter with the Goblin Lord has damaged the wards beyond his ability to repair. He insists we call upon a [Mage] of Wistram for further repairs.”
The two women walked down the mansion’s corridors. Magnolia smiled and greeted servants who curtseyed to her while Ressa glared over her shoulder.
“Damn. But that isn’t his specialty, is it? Hello, Mavi. Don’t mind Ressa. She’s in a mood. Good morning, to you all.”
She passed by Mavi, who was with Bekia as the Gnoll showed her how to clean a vase to Ressa’s standards. Magnolia smiled at the younger, Human girl with freckles as Mavi jumped and stammered a greeting. Mavi paled as Ressa gave her a look. Magnolia sighed.
“Don’t bully the younger staff, Ressa. You’re supposed to be nurturing.”
Magnolia flicked a hand impatiently at Ressa. The [Maid] leaned back and the fingers missed her by a second. Magnolia flicked her wrist again and missed; Ressa dodged the waving fingers with ease.
“I’m kind to the staff in my own way. However, I am their boss.”
“And I’m their employer. Surely that gives me the authority to give orders?”
Ressa snorted softly. Magnolia sighed.
“Of course not. How silly of me. Good morning, Reynold!”
The two walked out of the double doors of the mansion. A [Butler] stood by an astonishingly pink carriage. He swept Magnolia and Ressa a quick bow.
“Milady Reinhart. Miss Ressa. Where to first?”
He held the carriage door open as Magnolia settled herself inside. The sumptuous carriage was rich enough to make any transport pleasant, and the padded, cushy interior was only a fraction of the carriage’s delights.
As Reynold climbed into the driver’s seat, two ghostly horses appeared and the carriage smoothly began rolling forwards. The wheels actually levitated a few inches off the ground, and the entire vehicle could reach insane speeds without the occupants feeling a thing. Inside the carriage, Magnolia leaned back as Ressa fussed with a silver-domed, covered tray.
“Talizmet first. What’s first on our list, Ressa? And is this breakfast I smell?”
The [Maid] lifted the cover with a nod. A pleasant aroma filled the carriage.
“Spiced biscuits. Nutmeg. Assorted fruits. Milk. Some butter. A boiled egg.”
Magnolia smiled in genuine delight as Reynold took the carriage out of the mansion and out onto the road at gathering speed. Both women ignored the landscape blurring outside. Magnolia peered around the hot plate of food with dismay.
“However…I heard you say milk, but where’s the tea, Ressa?”
“I have a small pot here. But there is no sugar to add to it.”
Ressa shook a tiny kettle. Magnolia froze as she reached for her cup.
“Well, that’s clearly a mistake. Check the side cupboard. I always keep a spare bag there.”
The [Maid] gave Magnolia a cold smile.
“You’re mistaking me. What I meant to say was, there is no sugar anywhere in this carriage, Magnolia. Even in your hiding places. You’ve been having too much. You’re gaining weight.”
She poked at Magnolia’s midriff. The [Lady] sat up indignantly.
“I resent that! I have a full figure compared to you, Ressa. But I’m hardly overweight.”
“Because I watch your diet. Skills or not, you eat too much sugar. Your teeth should have melted years ago.”
“Hence the ban on sugar for breakfasts?”
“You can have some later. For now, you may have tea with milk. Or none at all.”
Magnolia’s eyes slowly narrowed as she stared at Ressa. She took a deep breath.
“Ressa, I love you like a sister sometimes. And bearing in mind that I am a Reinhart, you should understand exactly how much of a threat that is. Don’t take away my sugar. Or I’ll have to get nasty.”
Her glare could have pinned a gnat to the wall. Ressa was unmoved.
“So that’s no tea, then?”
Magnolia glowered. Then she raised her cup.
“Fill it. And if I don’t have a sugar cube by midday, there will be blood.”
“Duly noted. Eat up. Your food’s growing cold.”
The pink carriage that bore Magnolia Reinhart was obviously as famous as the woman itself. Death to [Bandits], the fastest and most obnoxious vehicle on the road, it could travel over a hundred miles an hour. It could even fly. So Magnolia and Ressa arrived at the village they’d chosen almost minutes after Magnolia had finished her breakfast.
Talizmet wasn’t far; it was in fact on Magnolia’s lands. That was to say, the area around Invrisil, the City of Adventurers. Magnolia Reinhart owned Invrisil, the surrounding demesne, and a few other properties as her main holdings. Of course, the Reinhart family possessed far more land, but if any could be said to be Magnolia’s explicitly, it was this area.
“We’re just rolling through this village, Reynold. Keep us moving, but at a walking pace. Ressa, where did the money go?”
“Let’s see. You gave the [Headman] a sizeable fund after the winter snowmelt and spring rains flooded the village four weeks back. The record states that the village suffered extensive flood damage.”
“So I note.”
Magnolia stared gloomily out the window. The pink carriage had slowed as it entered the village, but the wheels still failed to touch the ground. Which was a good thing; the street was more mud than road, and though some parts were dry, it was hardly an ideal walking surface.
In the same vein, Talizmet was not a village on the up and ups. Magnolia could see water damage around three feet in height on the exposed foundations of some of the wooden houses. In other places, the water had clearly damaged the wood. Talizmet was based next to a river—too close, really—and the spring rains and snowmelt had flooded the area.
“I don’t see any effort to fix the houses, do you, Ressa?”
The [Maid] was looking out her window.
“None. Neither is the road rebuilt, although the [Headman] had plenty of time to have it dredged, or even paved if need be. I believe Sacra left him with the details of several reputable [Builders] in Invrisil.”
“She would have. Where has the money all got to? Healing potions? Or have they decided to rebuild a farm? Shore up the river, perhaps?”
Magnolia’s left hand drummed in her lap. Her face was still as she slowly surveyed the damaged village. Ressa glanced at her notes, printed on costly, clean paper in handwriting that would be a match for any [Scribe]’s. Another task of the staff.
“No. There weren’t many injuries and the outlying farms didn’t suffer unduly.”
“The river then. Take us forwards, Reynold. Unless—”
And then they saw it. As the carriage turned around a block of houses, Ressa took in a sharp breath. Magnolia hissed softly. There, standing out like a sore thumb in the middle of the village was a new building, untouched by water damage. A new, sturdy foundation had been laid, and the building was even raised to avoid the same issues of flooding. But it was one building. And it was—
“An inn. A damned inn?”
Magnolia raised her voice in disgust. Sure enough, a large inn had been constructed, and the lights in the windows told Ressa that the inn was getting business, even in the morning. More than one villager looked to have been getting their breakfast there. And from the way a woman missed a step as she walked out of the building, they’d gotten more than just food.
“At least we know now where all the coin went.”
Ressa’s dry voice hid the anger she was feeling. Magnolia didn’t answer. The [Lady]’s hand had stopped drumming and clenched into a fist in her lap.
“Yes. We have. And I’ve seen quite enough. Reynold.”
The [Butler] looked back through the sliding door towards his employer. His face was equally affronted, although it quickly smoothed over into careful neutrality.
“Yes, Lady Reinhart?”
“Find the [Headsman]. Or if he’s not available, one of the sober villagers. I believe you know what to do.”
Magnolia sat back in her carriage, fuming. Ressa silently offered her more unsweetened tea. Magnolia sipped it, stared at Ressa, and poured the tea out the window. Meanwhile, Reynold leapt lightly to the muddy street and looked around, straightening his lapels.
The pink carriage could hardly have been missed as it drove into Talizmet. The color, the enchanted horses and wheels—all of it pointed to one individual. So a number of Talizmet’s villagers were already congregating and someone had roused the inn’s patrons. They came pouring out of the inn to stare.
“Lady Reinhart? Here? Herself?”
It was inconceivable. But then—this was on her land. And she’d just pulled in. So was she here to see the [Headman]? On some other business? Had she sent word and had they failed to notice it? The villagers grew increasingly anxious as Reynold stood by the coach, searching the faces.
Like an unsettled anthill, the villagers gathered, and then found their victim. A man stumbled forwards, middle-aged, his cheeks slightly ruddy and flushed with more than just nerves. He straightened his clothes as he marched towards Reynold in the mud.
“Er, sir! Sir Butler, may I help you?”
The [Headman] of Talizmet halted as Reynold delicately blocked his way. The [Headman] craned his neck, but the windows of the carriage were now covered. He stared at Reynold. The [Butler] gave him a polite, small smile.
“I believe you can. I am Reynold, in service to Lady Reinhart. May I ask if you are the [Headman] of Talizmet, sir?”
The middle-aged man gulped and stood straighter.
“I am. Er, well met, Mister Reynold. My name’s Boultend Drawe. [Headman] of Talizmet. Although the village has seen better times, eh, sir?”
“Indeed, Headman Boultend.”
“Ah—but we’ve been ever so grateful for Lady Reinhart’s aid! The gold’s gone to good use, as you can see.”
Boultend grinned uncertainly. Reynold was looking around as he spoke to Boultend, and his expression, while politely friendly, wasn’t exactly warm. The [Headman] gestured at the inn.
“It’s uh, a real help. Fresh food, good, strong drinks, and the [Innkeeper]’s a right sort. We got him two towns over. Why, with a bit more gold, we’d be able to turn the rest of the village into a place anyone would want to visit. Is—is that why Lady Reinhart’s here?”
His worry suddenly turned hopeful. Boultend stared at the carriage with its magical horses and gilt exterior. He edged closer to Reynold, raising his voice while trying to be conspiratorial.
“We could use a bit more of her funds, to tell you the truth, sir. I’d hardly ask, but the roads are still a mess, and the houses could use more raising. And if we could see to the river as well? I’m sure Lady Reinhart’s generosity would make the young folks ever so gratef—”
The [Headman] stopped then, because the look Reynold gave him wasn’t [Butler]-like at all. It was rather like a man deciding whether to crush a snail in his path. The [Headman] stopped, gulping.
For a second the look was there, then it was gone. Reynold smiled, and it was a polite smile, with no actual engagement on the part of the person behind it. A servant’s smile. He too raised his voice so the people of Talizmet, edging closer, could hear.
“Relief funds? I’m afraid you misunderstand, headman Boultend. Of course the issue of Talizmet’s flooding distresses Lady Reinhart greatly. But, having seen the splendid new inn Talizmet had constructed in lieu of repairing the roads, houses, or shoring up the river against further flooding, Lady Reinhart has decided that the village clearly doesn’t need anything other than the inn. This visit was simply to confirm that fact.”
Color drained out of Boultend’s face. The villagers looked shocked. The [Headman] scrambled to block Reynold’s path as the [Butler] marched back to the carriage.
“Hold on! But sir—our village is in dire need! Surely Lady Reinhart can see that herself!”
“She can and did see the reports, sir. But as I noted, she has also seen how her generous donation to Talizmet has been spent.”
Reynold knocked aside Boultend’s hands and straightened one of his cuffs. Boultend spluttered.
“But we built—”
“An inn. Talizmet has little foot traffic. It does not need an inn, sir. Nor was this the first thing the village should have attended to. Perhaps you thought you could claim the funds were ill-spent, or the costs exceeded your funds. However, Lady Reinhart is known to take a personal interest in how her money is spent. She has seen quite clearly how Talizmet’s [Headman] prioritizes his village.”
Reynold calmly delivered the words like a splash of cold water. Boultend, now completely sober, watched in horror as Reynold climbed into the coach. He reached out, as if to pull the man back. Perhaps he might have even had the thought to throw himself in the way of the carriage, but Reynold’s hand stopped him. As the [Butler] got into his seat, his other hand slid towards the sword at his waist. And Boultend backed away.
“Sir! Mister Reynold, let me speak to Lady Reinhart! I—we may have erred, but we thought her generosity would surely extend to more than a few repairs!”
Reynold checked his seat. He flapped the reins gently and the carriage began to move forwards slowly.
“Perhaps it would have. But generosity is wasted if not put to good use. I hate to take up more of your valuable time, sir. I will not trouble you, and indeed, Lady Reinhart is quite busy. Please clear the street.”
The carriage turned. Boultend ran with it as a buzz ran through the air. He could see everyone in his small village watching, so he abandoned the voice in his head and grabbed for the side of the carriage. Instantly, a hand like steel gripped his, crushing his fingers and pulled them away from the seat. Boultend stared up into Reynold’s eyes. Wincing, gasping, he forced one last plea out.
“Sir Butler. What are we supposed to do? If the river floods again—”
Reynold bent over. He spoke in a carrying voice as he forced Boultend back from the carriage.
“I’m told a stiff drink wards away all ills, sir. Perhaps it works as well on water?”
Then he let go. Boultend staggered back, clutching his injured hand. Reynold sat back upright, flicked the reins, and the carriage accelerated. It left no tracks on the mud and the villagers watched as it sped out of the village, in an instant moving faster than a horse could run. And then the carriage was gone, and it was as if it had never been there.
Silently, Talizmet’s villagers stared at their [Headman]. He looked around, suddenly hunted, and they considered what had just been said. What had transpired. They stared at the inn, which in hindsight, didn’t look like such a good idea now, did it? And they looked at Boultend and thought.
But of course, it was far too late for reasonable thought. Magnolia Reinhart had come and gone. And she had been here, in their little village! One of the richest women in the world and she had been here. And they could have impressed her. She could have changed their lives. She already had of course, but the people of Talizmet were only now learning the lesson they should have thought of at the start.
You only got one chance.
The carriage ride away from Talizmet was silent for five minutes as Reynold drove away from the muddy, small village. He kept to the road, keeping his speed shy of the anything insane. He was on the lookout for wagons, travellers—anything that might be unfortunate to hit. Only when he was on a relative straightaway did he increase the speed to the point where he left birds in the dust.
Inside the carriage, both Ressa and Magnolia were silent. The [Maid] silently made a few notes on the paper concerning Talizmet. She knew better to interrupt Magnolia. When the [Lady] did speak, it was in a tight, but controlled voice.
“Unbelievable. I’d heard their [Headman] liked his drinks, but to this extent? If he’s not thrown out of the village in a week, make sure to send Sacra by again in disguise to help relocate them. The families who actually have a head on their shoulders don’t deserve to pay for the rest of the village’s idiocy.”
Ressa had already made the arrangements. But she appreciated that Magnolia wasn’t too incensed to let anger cloud her judgment. And the [Lady] was angry. Her eyes were flashing. But she only took another sip of tea.
“Talizmet was a failure. The village may well disintegrate. If it does not, it has far to go. They never should have built so close to the river. Or if they had, they should have taken precautions.”
“The flooding may not have happened in years prior. Or if it was, it was probably more manageable. Whoever founded the village might never have thought of it, and once it was a community, who would move? Would you uproot them? Or would it have been better to tell the [Headman] exactly what to build and oversee the process?”
Ressa calmly filed the paper away. She was playing out an old conversation with Magnolia, to give her friend a chance to vent. Magnolia pursed her lips.
“Of course not! If I ordered them about like Tyrion, what would they learn? Am I an expert on fishing village architecture? Should I hire an [Architect] for them? No. I am content to let them sort out their own issues. Even give them money if need be. But if that money is misused—”
“That’s why we do these checks. You’ve found out Talizmet’s leadership is inept. What’s to be angry about?”
“The fact that he is inept. And that the people will suffer his idiocy. And theirs.”
Magnolia slumped back in her seat. Ressa nodded. Neither mentioned the fact that Magnolia could have paid to rebuild the entire village in stone a hundred yards to the east in a heartbeat. Because that wasn’t the point. And if you didn’t understand that, you didn’t understand Magnolia.
She could be cruel. But often, she wasn’t so much cruel as practical. She did not waste money. And to some, practicality, no—a refusal to spend every single coin possible to help someone else—was often called cruelty. And what those people failed to recall was that Magnolia Reinhart owed them nothing. A [Lady] or [Lord] could manage their estates and care for their people well, protect them at every turn, and make their lands prosper. It did not mean they had to. And still, Magnolia Reinhart spent more on her own lands than any two nobles combined.
Ressa knocked on the front of the carriage. Reynold acknowledged and the [Maid] sat back. Magnolia sighed. She sipped more tea, grimaced, and looked at Ressa.
“Alright. One village down. Let’s get to the rest of my business. I suppose. Top concerns of the day?”
Ressa nodded. She had a bundle of papers with her, and aside from the reports on both villages, she had a list of items for consideration. The first she flipped through was world events. Then spy reports. Income and expenses—Ressa had of course read it already, but she was refreshing her memory.
“Let’s see. Rhir is quiet, but the Blighted King’s latest failed offensive and the attack on the palace mean both sides are probably recovering. The Titan’s game hasn’t upset Baleros…I see two minor conflicts, but nothing noticeable. Terandria is speculating on what the Kallinad family will receive from the Titan, so most of the politics are focused around that. You are aware of the marriage proposed between the Kallinad family and—”
“Yes, yes. Not interesting. No wars?”
Ressa raised an eyebrow.
“Not in Terandria. Chandrar is stirring. The Emperor of Sands has declared war on two more nations. Meanwhile, Jecrass and Belchan have both affirmed the King of Destruction’s claim. As have a number of other nations, including Nerrhavia’s Fall. On the other hand—Tiqr is already on the defensive.”
Magnolia frowned, surprised. Ressa nodded.
“It seems the Illivere League and Savere both launched immediate assaults into the land, and Nerrhavia is already moving. Along with the smaller nations, the war golems and Savere’s [Raiders] have forced Tiqr’s forces to retreat.”
“Tiqr has beasts, don’t they? They can’t fight golems. Odd. I thought Illivere would be slowest to move since their leader is usually so neutral and hospitable. I wonder if it’s a feint on his part. Never mind. We’ll see what Flos does, if anything. If he breaks his oath, all the better. Izril news?”
Ressa turned a page and grimaced. Magnolia raised her brows.
“Do you want to hear it?”
“Ah. Should I guess? It involves me. And people are not happy about me.”
It was an accurate summation. Ressa shook her head.
“There are a number of prominent voices calling you a coward for your actions against Tyrion. Some individuals are even calling for you to be censured at the next gathering of nobility.”
Magnolia sat back.
“I take it there’s a coalition forming? And a censure is new. They’ve lost their fear of me. I have no doubt there will be a sizeable party in opposition.”
“You could put a stop to it, you know.”
“How? By poisoning a few bodies? For talking?”
The [Lady] frowned. Ressa shut her mouth and hesitated before replying.
“Your father and mother would have taken a different approach.”
Magnolia turned her head to regard her old friend. Ressa hesitated.
“They would have.”
“I am not my mother. Nor my father, for which we should all be grateful. It is not a good method, Ressa. The Reinhart family’s historical doctrine is to rule by intimidation and fear. Or rather, the hint of such things. We are, traditionally, great friends until we are enemies. And then we are the most deadly of enemies.”
Ressa had more cause to know than most. She knew the Reinhart history. Magnolia went on, pointedly ignoring Ressa.
“And what makes the Reinhart family so feared is that the line between friendship and mortal enemies is invisible, incalculable, and unpredictably quick to move to those in the middle. So far better to be a good friend than an enemy.”
Sighing, the [Maid] sat back.
Magnolia scowled as she nodded.
“It did! But somewhere in the past two centuries, my family decided it was better to be a terror than an unpredictable, yet generous friend. Hence the state of affairs when I took over. Were it not for dear Regis, I might have been born a pauper. Or not at all.”
“None of that means you can’t instill some nervousness in the hearts of your opponents, Magnolia.”
“And again, I ask, over what? Ressa, if they want to insult me, they may. But I am trying to cultivate an image other than that of decidedly attractive tyrant. The fact that anyone is willing to voice their dissent is a step in the right direction, or so I feel. Or do you think it’s better if they took me holding my peer’s beloved ones hostage in silence?”
Ressa didn’t respond to that. Magnolia sighed.
“I have made the reason for the actions I took perfectly clear. My peers may not agree with it, but many do recognize that we averted a war with the Drakes at the last moment. If they wish to censure me, they are welcome to do so. But I will not provoke them for insults that are rightly deserved. Or would you have me start poisoning everyone?”
The [Maid] glowered.
“Playing peacemaker only works so long as there is still a threat.”
“And who should I threaten? Name me a list of actual enemies that seek my head, Ressa.”
“The Circle of Thorns?”
“And how many of them are there? Who are they? Are they even peers of the realm? Until I know that, I won’t fall into the Reinhart way of shoving a vaseful of roses down the throat of anyone who so much as sneezes at me the wrong—”
“Lady Reinhart? Miss Ressa? We’ve arrived.”
A delicate cough cut off the argument between the two women. Ressa slowly sat back. Magnolia smoothed her skirts. Both of them glanced towards the front of the carriage and the open sliding door they’d forgotten was open. Magnolia called out in a cheerful voice.
“Thank you, Reynold! Take us around the village.”
She opened a curtain as Ressa did the same. This time Magnolia took one look at the village of Embrie and smiled.
“My. Would you look at that!”
What greeted the three visitors to Embrie was an odd display on the street. Sheltered out of the sun in makeshift awnings were a bunch of seated women, tending to long, wooden contraptions. Looms. And the outdoor looms were perfectly positioned to take advantage of the cool spring weather. Not only that; Magnolia saw women sitting together, sewing fabric, some delicately dying the fresh fabric, and others adding embroidery to finished dresses or bolts of cloth.
“It’s a small fair outside. Ressa, is all this new?”
The [Maid] regarded the outdoor looms and then checked her notes.
“Embrie did have a few strong [Weavers] and other tailoring experts, but not this many. And not nearly this many looms. They must have taken the gold and had some more made. I can’t account for the dyes, though.”
“Does any town nearby import the dyes? Or do villages around here make it?”
“Possibly—yes. Yes. There’s a village fifteen miles north of here that creates a yellow pigmented dye, and another that manufactures green and blue.”
“And so I see on display here. With a few other colors.”
Magnolia nodded at the dyed cloths, which did indeed feature all three colors as the primary colors in their patterns. They were all different, though, and very pleasing, if not as complex as a richer fabric in pattern. But a simple bolt of blue cloth was still very desirable. And…Magnolia smiled.
“Look. They even have children learning it.”
She indicated a few girls who were watching as an older woman showed them how the loom worked. That decided Magnolia. She pulled at the carriage door.
“I’m going to get out. Reynold, drive us closer.”
Ressa was out her side of the door and scanning the street in a flash. She had already done a check, but now she scrutinized the entire area with her Skills and one of the artifacts she carried. The [True Seeing] spell revealed nothing, but Ressa still made Magnolia wait for a few seconds to check everything from the needles to the children. And meanwhile, the carriage had been spotted.
The women of Embrie watched as Magnolia Reinhart left her carriage. And the susurration that arose was of a different kind than Talizmet’s nervousness. A lot of it had to do with the way Magnolia swept out of her carriage at once this time, with a beaming smile and a cheerful ‘hello!’. It caught people off-guard, especially people who thought they knew Magnolia Reinhart, one of the famous Reinhart family. It was like when Magnolia would open the door to greet City Runners. And when she wanted to be, she was very friendly.
One of the older women murmured in disbelief. Magnolia smiled. She had never been here. And Embrie had never had reason to suspect Magnolia would take an interest in their village, aside from the fact that it lay on her lands. She swept forwards, Ressa at her side and Reynold carefully settling the carriage.
“I’m terribly sorry to intrude. But I was just passing through and I couldn’t help but notice you all! How do you do? I am Magnolia Reinhart, yes. And you are?”
“Ah—my name is Lettice, milady.”
The older woman, caught quite off-guard, tried to curtsy. Magnolia tutted.
“No need for that. I’m just popping in. I wouldn’t want to disturb you at your work. Tell me, is this a village of artisans? I’ve not seen so much fabric since I was at Invrisil’s bazaars! And such colors! Hello to you all! And hello there.”
She bent, smiling, to one of the girls, who was staring open-mouthed at Magnolia’s own magnificent dress. The women abandoned their tasks and hesitantly approached, put off-guard by Magnolia’s greeting and the lack of an escort. They might have seen nobility riding past, but Magnolia had come alone. But there was a second reason why they soon abandoned their wariness and became welcoming.
If some were afraid of her with or without good cause, Magnolia had her admirers. And they were her people.
Women. Both young and old, they stood around Magnolia, talking to her, listening, and gaining a measure of the Lady Reinhart that Izril knew. Because of course, Magnolia was a name they knew. And she was a female name. One of the few among so many males. And the woman herself did not disappoint. Soon, Magnolia was laughing and asking innocent questions she already knew the answer to. And she was charming. Without using a Skill.
“My. And you wove that yourself?”
She looked admiringly at a girl who was showing her a little scarf made out of yellow thread. The girl nodded proudly and Magnolia clapped her hands.
“How wonderful. I don’t have the patience for knitting, weaving, or anything to do with thread. Sometimes I wish I had, but I have a terrible time with my own hair as it is. Ressa, do look at this scarf! Would you try it on for us?”
The girl nodded ecstatically. Magnolia laughed delightedly, and it was genuine.
“A little [Princess]! And I daresay your fabrics will sell well at any market you choose to go to. Tell me, please, Miss Lettice. Is this a new venture?”
The old woman smiled.
“A new one, Miss Reinhart. That’s right. Oh, we’ve made cloth for decades, but dyeing them and even tailoring dresses is new. You see, we’ve come into some money after a richer harvest, and we noticed that wool was cheaper than it had been in years. Well, we already needed new clothes after some bad moth infestations—so we thought, why not take it further?”
She waved excitedly at the dyed fabrics.
“And we knew that Vitti made good dyes and approached them to get it cheaper than if we bought it on the markets. For some of our product, we got it for a song. And if we turn this into a business, we could sell more than just clothes and our field’s harvests!”
“That is wonderful. And will you sell it to Invrisil?”
Lettice’s face grew cautious.
“Well—I don’t know that we’d go that far. Perhaps if our fabrics made it to the nearest town and did well, but I imagine a [Merchant] would take it the rest of the way if he thought it was worth doing, begging your ladyship’s pardon. We take pride in our work, but this isn’t nearly as good as some cloth. Nowhere near good enough for a dress like yours.”
She indicated Magnolia’s dress. The [Lady] nodded.
“I won’t deny that, Miss Lettice. But I imagine that in a few years’ time it might well be. After all, you must all be leveling quicker in your classes. And with a diverse set of tailoring Skills, you could produce something fine. Not that I think you should try going to Invrisil just yet. But might I ask what you intended to charge for each bolt of cloth? Because, you see, if it were me, I wouldn’t ask for, oh, what do you think a good price would be, Ressa?”
Innocently, Magnolia cast towards Ressa. Amused, but hiding it, the [Maid] replied with the going rate for fabrics in Invrisil. Embrie’s women brightened, but Magnolia pounced on the emotion before it could bloom too far.
“True, Ressa, but that is in Invrisil, which sells to so many. For a town? I imagine so many products would lower the price by at least four silver coins. If you sold it to one town, of course. Now, it would be difficult and even dangerous to send a trading caravan to multiple spots, but [Merchants] are well aware of the profits to be made. And if you could bring one here, and nail him or her down to a reasonable, price, I’d say…fourteen silver pieces for that lovely bolt over there might not be beyond possibility! Although, again, if I were in your shoes—or lovely yellow scarf—I might hint to multiple [Traders] and [Merchants] that a deal is to be had here. After all, competition spikes prices. Now, with that money, how were you going to reinvest it?”
The women were blinking hard at Magnolia’s speech, but some of them caught on. Lettice was among them. The old women gave Magnolia a frown, and them a smile that smoothed the lines on her face.
‘Well, Lady Reinhart. My man would want to put the money into his field. Perhaps buy some more livestock. But I want to sew, and if I knew I’d have more work, I’d want something to help out here. How would you spend the money?”
Magnolia’s eyes twinkled. And perhaps in that moment, some of the villagers put together the real reason the pink carriage had stopped here. But did they know the whole picture? Ressa couldn’t tell, but she did see how the women lined up to shake Magnolia’s hand and exchange a few words before she left. From old to young to child, who had to reach up as Magnolia bent to shake the tiny hand.
“Nothing is certain. But if your village continues selling cloth, it may prosper. With all the pitfalls and wonderful things that entails. You may change the market, ladies. But it does depend on you. And your decisions will affect the village. I do hope your counterparts realize that.”
Magnolia left them with that simple message. Lettice curtseyed and Magnolia returned the gestured, quite gracefully. Reynold, who’d had to stand still and put up with a range of ages flirting with him, gave a blushing bow. Ressa just nodded. Magnolia returned to the carriage and they were gone in minutes. But their actions might linger for years. And the memory of the [Lady] who told Embrie’s women they had power? That might linger a lifetime.
One could only hope.
Magnolia Reinhart was in a better mood on the return to her mansion. She hummed as she sat back in her chair, holding a small, finely-woven handkerchief, colored yellow slashed with blue.
It was true it wasn’t nearly the quality of the handkerchiefs that even her [Maids] used, but it was a gift. And if someone saw Lady Reinhart with it, perhaps Embrie would get a lot more attention. Or perhaps that was a bad idea so soon. Ressa was prepared to discuss the matter, but Magnolia didn’t bring it up. She just put the handkerchief on the table and folded her hands.
“They used the subsidies on wool well. And the gold was put to better use than in Talizmet. I saw new roofs, a fresh well. I wonder if the husbands grumbled?”
“The sensible ones wouldn’t. They know how much damage leaking water can cause. But it was money well spent.”
“Sensible. The exact opposite of Talizmet. And not just because it was women who had a voice in how the money was used. Why is it that a bag of gold makes fools out of everyone, while slightly fuller pockets brings out prudence? Maybe next time I should simply send materials and workers, rather than gold, Ressa.”
“Isn’t that deciding how the money should be used?”
Ressa raised an eyebrow. Magnolia threw the handkerchief at her. The [Lady] calmed herself after a second.
“I’m very pleased, Ressa. Hopefully the money we invested in the sheep herds will increase the flocks to Embrie’s benefit. Let’s make sure the [Shepherds] do well.”
Ressa nodded and made a note. That was all Magnolia Reinhart would do. Ensure that the sheep population increased in this area. She wouldn’t step in to save Embrie unless a natural disaster occurred. Outside of the advice she’d given the village, she would keep away. And she might never see Embrie’s people again. But if, someday, cloth from that small village appeared in Invrisil’s markets, it would be worth it.
That was what Magnolia Reinhart did with her days. She offered people a chance. A hand, or sometimes a leg to stand on. Never a ladder and certainly no flying carpets. Just a chance.
And not just for villagers too. On the way back, Magnolia Reinhart called on Reynold to slow his carriage and approach an interesting sight twice. She was an avid window-watcher and the first time she wanted to see a team of seven adventurers hauling a boar’s carcass out of the woods.
“Ressa, do you recognize that team?”
“Not from this far.”
“Reynold, ask them what their team is.”
The [Butler] hopped down from his seat and came back a minute later.
“They call themselves…Haresbane, Lady Reinhart. They’re a Bronze-rank team returning from a hunt. The local village put out a request for game to augment their stores until the first harvest. They’ve foraged some mushrooms as well.”
Magnolia watched with approval as the adventures got to their task. Sometimes [Hunters] were hired for tasks like this, but for a village, it made sense that they’d put out a request for a team of adventurers, especially if they were hunting boars.
“I see. And they’re skinning the boar with some dedication. No meat wasted. And they’ve pulled in a good amount of game already. Ressa, put them on the list, by all means.”
The [Maid] nodded. She wrote down the name and location for one of the many [Informants] or [Spies] to look into. By the end of the week, Ressa would know the particulars of this team, and how reputable they were, what crimes they’d committed, if any, and how they were all regarded. She might even have transcripts of conversations they’d had, if she really wanted it.
“If they’re suitable, should I offer them some challenging requests?”
Magnolia tapped a lip as she inspected the team. There were two women and five men, ranging from teens to the late thirties.
“Yes. Nothing too arduous, but something to help them level.”
Ressa nodded. There was an art to that too. Crafting a suitable request that did what was needed—cull a growing animal population or halt a dangerous monster—while at the same time giving the teams a challenge they could level from without putting them in danger of their lives, was difficult. But it could help. One successful mission with a large reward could boost a team’s career.
Villages. Adventurers. If people knew how much Magnolia Reinhart meddled, would they be more reassured or more suspicious? Or would they be relieved to know she didn’t meddle nearly as much as some people thought? Certainly, this wasn’t anything new. Izril’s nobility often took note of things they had interest in, and the only variable was how overt they were in supporting their passions. Magnolia was discreet. Most of the time. But the second time the carriage slowed, she was anything but.
Traffic near Invrisil had slowed Reynold’s carriage, although he could have taken them off-road if need be. But he hadn’t, and the sight of a man racing down the road on horseback caught Magnolia’s eye. Not least because the man had the distinctive surcoat that marked him as a [Messenger], not a Runner. She tapped on the sliding panel.
“Reynold. Find out what that [Messenger] is delivering. If it’s not confidential.”
The carriage sped up. The [Messenger] barely slowed as Reynold called out to him. Magnolia heard a warning shout, and then as the pink carriage was recognized, a breathless exchange. The carriage kept level with the panting horse, and Magnolia eyed it.
“Rare to see [Messengers] around here. They’re normally attached to noble households. Perhaps he’s from one of them?”
Ressa nodded silently. [Messengers] were usually privately employed, as opposed to the public Runners.
“Sometimes I wonder why more Runners don’t use horses, Magnolia. It’s certainly faster.”
“Ressa, I would imagine that’s obvious.”
“Only to someone like you who delights in studying the minutiae of economics. Just tell me.”
The [Maid] refused to be baited. Magnolia sighed.
“It’s fascinating. No, really! You see, horses are quicker. And with a pony express, or stallion express, or what have you, you can indeed get a package moving faster than most Runners could dream of. At least, anyone who’s not a Garuda or a Centaur. But if you need to send written correspondence, a [Message] is faster than any horse. And if a [Messenger] or [Runner] switches horses, oh, three times on a hundred mile journey…how much more are you paying them?”
“Ah. So it’s about expense.”
Magnolia nodded happily. The [Messenger] was still shouting at Reynold breathlessly. She waved at the mare he was riding. The horse just stared back, panting as it raced its ghostly counterparts.
“Feet don’t require food. Nor do they throw horseshoes, require stabling, and so on. Runners are cheap, if slow. On the other hand, most Couriers can outdistance horses with ease. Which is better, a [Beast Master]-trained horse trained for years and ridden by a dedicated [Rider] that can be lamed or killed, or a Courier who can outrun almost anything she comes across?”
“I understand. You don’t need to belabor the point.”
Ressa sat back. She eyed the horse. She could probably outrun this [Messenger], at least if it were a quick dash. But she didn’t have the stamina to be a Runner. She was meant to kill things at speed and disappear. It had used to bother Ressa that she immediately wondered how she’d kill anyone she came across. Now she was used to it. And that fact sometimes bothered her.
At last the [Messenger] pulled away, or rather, the carriage slowed to let the horseman ride ahead.
“Well? Anything urgent, Reynold?”
Reynold spoke back to Magnolia and Ressa as he steered clear of the road.
“Ogre sighting, Lady Reinhart. A pack of them have descended and are laying waste to the nearby countryside. They’ve already sacked a village; most of the people fled and sent an immediate request for aid. But their gold and valuables were all left behind in the village. The [Messenger] is taking word to the Adventurer’s Guild, but…”
Ressa saw him grimace, which was unprofessional. But Reynold had been born in a small village just like Talizmet, Embrie, or the one being attacked. Magnolia’s eyes sharpened at once.
“How many Ogres, do they know?”
“Sixteen or so, Lady Reinhart. They think it’s an accurate count, but there might be more.”
“I know there are more. Reynold, get back to the [Messenger]. I will guarantee a twelve gold piece bounty on each Ogre head. Thirty for the leader. That should bring any Silver-rank team in the area to deal with the issue.”
Reynold nodded and Ressa saw a flash of a smile as he turned forwards. The carriage accelerated and before she shut the sliding panel, she heard Reynold shout to the [Messenger]. Magnolia sat back in her seat, thinking aloud.
“If there are sixteen here, there must be at least fifty total in the mountains. Ogres don’t multiply like Goblins, but they do grow fast. Still, this bounty is sufficient. If the Ogres are well-armed or have magical weapons, I will triple the bounty.”
Ressa nodded. The bounty was generous, but in this she would never call it a waste of funds. After all, Magnolia collected a tax on her lands, and ogres destroying villages and disrupting trade would take far more money than any bounty on their heads. And again, that was what separated Magnolia from other nobles.
“You don’t want to send Reynold and a team up into the mountains? He could probably deal with most of the ogres with some backup. Sacra and Phesofi alone might be enough.”
Magnolia pursed her lips before shaking her head, rejecting the idea.
“You know the family motto, Ressa. Gold for blood. I agree with it, at least in this instance. Bethal does it the opposite way. She’d have sent her Rose Knights in. But would they level from a fight like that? Not unless the Ogres were truly dangerous. She prefers to crush her foes. I would rather adventurers level up and gain notoriety from their deeds.”
Ressa nodded. So the adventurers might get hurt or die. But they would level where Bethal’s [Knights] would advance slowly, and not grow as fast. That was Magnolia’s style. And it was why some people called her cruel or uncaring.
Izril’s people had to help themselves. Magnolia Reinhart could only give them aid. She would incentivize the Ogre’s deaths, but she would send none of her people to hunt down the monsters themselves.
“Speaking of notoriety—about our earlier discussion.”
Magnolia’s smiled faded. She looked at Ressa, mildly vexed.
“I was in a good mood, Ressa. Don’t let’s spoil it. Please?”
“Tell me again why it was better for you not to make an example of one or two of the loudest dissenters, Magnolia. You don’t need to poison them. But some humiliation, something to make the other nobility duck—you’ve done it before. Why not now?”
Magnolia was silent. She sat back, pensive, before looking up and replying slowly.
“I must have peace, Ressa. I do not want a political war on my hands. Not now I’ve received an invitation from my Drake counterparts. And it would be war if I used you or anyone else. I don’t have the Assassin’s Guild at my back. The Circle of Thorns is one thing, but rousing the wrath of my peers is far, far less preferable than enduring their petty slaps to the face.”
“As long as it is just that.”
The [Lady] Reinhart ignored that comment. She stared out a window, at a blurring landscape.
“The nobility have their way of doing things. They tolerate aberration and new ideas only as long as they can see clear benefit—and as long as it does not impact their lives. Tamper with it and we face every house as an enemy. It has taken me decades to foster the idea of peace between the Drakes and Humanity. I have my supporters. This squabble has put me in the position of coward, saboteur, and thug by threatening Tyrion. And yet, it has won me some small measure among the Drakes. I will take that.”
Ressa gave a grudging nod. That was true.
“But why not back up threats with teeth? Why not move on the Assassin’s Guild after they sent back their refusal? You could destroy it. Or at least, put a bounty on their guild that would make them run for cover.”
A few Named Adventurers sieging the guild would give Ressa no end of satisfaction. Although it would be a dangerous feat for any one adventurer or team, Named or not to try it. Magnolia sighed.
“Because it would result in bloodshed. Much of it, Ressa. And while the Guild is my enemy, if I placed myself that openly against them—with the purpose of annihilating them rather than keeping them as—well, the Assassin’s Guild which is free to choose targets, I would have to kill them all. I rather grew tired of killing people, Ressa. It was not something I ever wanted to be good at.”
The [Maid] digested that.
“I’ve never heard you sound so melancholy about it.”
Magnolia Reinhart looked up shortly.
“Do you have nightmares about the people you’ve killed, Ressa?”
The two women sat in silence. Ressa met Magnolia’s gaze. Slowly, the [Lady] shook her head.
“Better to be less feared than I was a decade ago, Ressa. Better that than even children checking their plates and cups when I pass them by. It may be better for a ruler of any kind to be feared, rather than loved. But what sort of heart can bear it? I missed their smiles.”
She looked at the handkerchief on the table. Ressa only sighed. She couldn’t argue with that. She flipped through her notes. Reynold had lost the [Messenger], and they would be back at the mansion shortly.
“Very well. I’ll drop it. In that case, aside from my petition for you to let me build you an army—”
“My family has an army, Ressa. Regis will give me artifacts if I need it. Izril needs more armies like a Goblin needs teeth. I have a household staff that can deal with nuisances.”
“But not Goblin Lords.”
Magnolia glowered. Ressa crossed the item off the docket.
“A discussion for tomorrow, then. I will convince you. Now…I do have a note from one of our households. The staff report conflicts with their guests. Care to guess who I’m referring to?”
Magnolia closed her eyes for a second and massaged her temples.
“Our guests from another world?”
“Safe. Unhappy, but safe. But vocally unhappy. They want to speak to you. It seems they quite hate being adventurers.”
“Which part? Killing monsters? Diving into their guts for treasure? Risking their lives? I wonder why? They are free to pursue any profession they wish.”
“It seems they would like not to pursue a profession. They want to return to the mansion.”
Magnolia gave Ressa a bright smile. The [Maid] returned it mirthlessly. She wouldn’t entertain the idea either. The otherworlders Magnolia had collected had been a nightmare of incivility towards the servants. And they caused a mess.
“Their argument is, and I’m referencing their complaints directly here, is that you failed to provide them with any way to succeed. They have no magical gear, no support, little training other than the services they can pay for in their city—”
The thunderous frown on Magnolia’s face darkened further. For the second time today, genuine heat entered her voice.
“And why do they deserve magical artifacts, pray? I am giving them an opportunity. I give everyone an opportunity to rise or fall. They have chosen to sit in the mud and weep about it.”
“That is their complaint.”
Ressa calmly put the piece of paper down. Magnolia stared past her [Maid]. Then her eyes focused. She blinked and intoned her next words very slowly and carefully.
“They came here with nothing, Ressa. Nothing, as lost children, half of them stealing from honest people within the first day of arriving. And they expected me to give them magical swords and treat them like conquering heroes in our backwater world. Because their world can blow cold air out of a box. I say no. Once they prove they can fight without magic swords, they can use them. If they can master a spell by themselves, I will give them a spellbook. If they find a profession and excel, I will sponsor whatever they need. But I do not believe in handouts. Tell them that.”
“As you wish.”
Satisfied, Ressa made a note. Magnolia huffed for a few seconds, then glanced up at Ressa.
“Do you tell me these things just to annoy me, Ressa?”
“I would never.”
The [Maid] lied to Magnolia’s face. Her employer made a fist. She punched, and Ressa leaned aside. One of the perks of being both [Assassin] and [Maid] was that no matter how angry Magnolia got, she couldn’t hit Ressa. Sometimes it felt like they were young women still. And then something happened that made them feel as old as…
Magnolia and Ressa returned to the mansion. Reynold immediately went to the kitchens for lunch and a deserved break. Ressa was shuffling her notes, deciding what other issue Magnolia should address first—one of her Gold-rank teams she was actively sponsoring, forging ties abroad, hunting down clues for artifacts—when all of a sudden, she looked up. She dropped the stack of paper in the middle of the hallway.
The [Lady] spun as she reached for her door. The staff in the hallway looked up. Bekia, who was polishing the windows next to Mavi, raised her head to howl. Ressa cut her off.
“Bekia, silence. They’re not in the mansion. They’re outside the walls. My wards are all going off.”
Magnolia’s brows snapped together.
“How many and where?”
“The garden and the eastern walls. Twenty, ten on each side.”
“Did they trip a ward by accident? Or are they open?”
“They’ve tripped three wards in total. But they’re trying to be stealthy. Either this is a ruse—no. What’s the point of revealing themselves? This feels like amateurs. This is a test.”
Magnolia’s brows shot up.
“Of our defenses? We had that with Ryoka, remember? And those were professionals. What is this, then?”
The two had their answer as Reynold slid around the corner. He was panting after having run to the third floor in seconds.
“Lady Reinhart! Miss Ressa! There are two dozen Runners at the front gate! They all have a message for you!”
Ressa turned, disbelieving. That had to be the stupidest trap she’d ever heard of. Only, it wasn’t a trap, at least in full. Reynold had taken one of the packages from the City Runners, despite the Runner’s strict instructions to deliver only to Magnolia Reinhart herself. The [Butler] had checked it twice, but Ressa intercepted the black rose before she let Magnolia handle it. It was clean. But the message was as clear as the look on Magnolia’s face.
“The black rose of cowardice. Well. Well, well. And all the Runners have the rose?”
Reynold was as versed in flower language as Ressa. His face was very pale as he nodded.
“All of them, milady. And they all come from different senders. I—I will turn away the Runners at once if you wish it. I do not believe they are aware of what the gesture means.”
“No. They would not be. Or else they have spines of steel. Well, so this is the escalation of my peer’s ire with me.”
Magnolia gently inspected the black rose. Her hand trembled a bit as she gripped the stem between two fingers.
“A black rose. For me. I stood at the Sacrifice of Roses. This is—eminently fitting as an insult. A coward who would threaten her own peers is a coward as great as one who fled the Goblin King’s armies, is that it? I won’t say they don’t have a point. But what sort of a coward attacks a Drake city that has done no wrong? What kind of a coward welcomes the slaughter of tens of thousands?”
She looked up, eyes flashing. Ressa’s own hand was on the enchanted dagger. Her blood was boiling. Magnolia Reinhart straightened her back and the air around her grew tense. Heavy. Fury rolled off her like waves.
“Even for an insult. This is too much. Call us cowards. But we fought at First Landing. Nothing will change that. This is beyond tolerable. They have declared war on me, my peers. Or else they invite it. How many declared, Reynold? No—”
Her eyes widened. The smell of fury and taste of it hanging around her vanished in a heartbeat. Magnolia took a breath and controlled herself. Then her eyes opened and narrowed.
“It wasn’t the only one.”
Ressa forgot her station for a second. Magnolia’s eyes had become calculating, and her pupils were flickering, darting from idea to idea that only she could see.
“It is not just me. The flowers are such a pointed reference. And whoever’s at my walls—this is a coordinated attack! The other ladies who were with me must have received similar gifts. And if so—”
She spun to Ressa.
“Warn the other [Ladies], Ressa. Bethal, Pryde, Wuvren—all of them! If someone dares strike at me, they will certainly be assaulted.”
Ressa turned. She leapt down the hallway, calling for Phesofi. The [Mage] sent the [Message] spell there and then, but had no answer. And, barely a minute later, as Ressa sprinted into Magnolia’s private sitting room, she saw Reynold standing to attention, sword drawn, while Magnolia sat at the table.
“Magnolia. We need to take you to the safe room.”
“Do you think the people skulking outside the walls will really pose a threat, Ressa?”
Magnolia raised her eyebrows. She was calm now, even cold. But her eyes were locked on the rose. Ressa hesitated.
“There might be a second wave. Or this could all be a feint.”
“No. I think I know exactly what’s going on. This is a message, Ressa. A declaration. And the [Assassins], if they are [Assassins], are a separate message entirely. From the same source? I think not. I won’t hide. Prepare a welcome for our guests. If they even get here.”
Ressa wavered. But Magnolia was looking at her, and the [Lady] Reinhart’s voice was the voice of authority at this moment. Her voice was steady as she picked up the cup and sipped from it.
“You sent the [Message] spell?”
The woman nodded lightly.
“No doubt we are too late for a warning. But it should not matter. Unless someone is—check on Bethal. As for the rest? They should be fine.”
Her eyes glittered. Reynold gulped softly as Magnolia turned to look out the window.
“Deserved or not, this insult is grave. And the assault on peers of the realm? It hasn’t happened on this scale for years. So there is a message twice-over. Peace be gone. And everyone is vulnerable, even the Deadly Flower of the North and her delicate peers. However. Someone has forgotten the flowers of Izril have thorns.”
Once upon a time, she had a father. And then the Second Antinium War engulfed the continent. And her father died in the March of Roses. She wasn’t even born, then. She was a surprise. A single bloom in the aftermath, when her mother discovered her father had left something of him behind.
A memory. Eliasor had grown up under her mother’s care, in her household. For nine years—no, ten now, she had heard the same. Her father had died a hero. He had marched against the Goblin King and saved a continent.
But she had been a hero too, hadn’t she? Eliasor’s mother, Patricia had been there. She had walked with her husband through the same trial and the only difference was that she had lived.
She had been a hero. But she was dead too. It had happened months ago. It felt like a second ago. Eliasor still saw her mother’s head, staring past her. And then the [Assassin] falling to the blade of the [Chevalier], Thomast. It was some small consolation. But it didn’t help.
And as memories worked, it was never complete until she appeared. Lady Magnolia. She had been Eliasor’s mother’s old friend. Her mother had always spoken of Magnolia Reinhart as if she could do anything. But she couldn’t save Eliasor’s mother. In the girl’s memory, Magnolia appeared. She pointed down at Eliasor.
“You are a [Lady] of Izril now, Eliasor Melissar. Your line begins and ends with you. I fear you must rise. I will support you and protect you. But I cannot take your place. I would that I could.”
Was that how she had said it? Somehow else? Eliasor didn’t remember the words. But she remembered gaining the class. Her mother had always said that it would be when Eliasor turned ten. Or thirteen. Fourteen at the latest. Eliasor remembered going to sleep excited, dreaming of that moment when she’d become a [Lady]. When she’d gain a class.
Now, it felt like a stone on her shoulders. Everything did. Life weighed Eliasor down. She didn’t sleep. She couldn’t. Even sleeping draughts brewed by [Alchemists] didn’t help. They couldn’t change the truth.
Eliasor was alone. Her mother was dead. And if she had a choice, she would have lain in her room until she faded away. But her servants wouldn’t let her. They had called for Lady Reinhart after Eliasor stopped eating.
And Magnolia Reinhart had sent another [Lady] in her place. By magical carriage, another [Lady] had come. Less famous, but no less fearsome. Lady Zanthia, withered and old, with cold hands and iron hair and face. She had taken Eliasor from her home.
And now Eliasor was a guest of Lady Zanthia’s. A young [Lady] housed by Zanthia’s house to learn to become a [Lady]. She had six peers of the realm who all studied with her.
Eliasor hated them all. She was a [Lady], and so were they. But the six with her had been expelled from their houses. Well, five had. For being lazy, promiscuous, rude, arrogant, and lazy again. The sixth was just there because she had to learn from Zanthia according to her family. They didn’t like being there.
Nor did Eliasor. She resented Lady Zanthia and the other members of her house. Three [Ladies] including Zanthia had charge of the young wards and they watched the seven like hawks. Eliasor couldn’t lie about. She had tried, but Zanthia had ways of getting her up. Even when Eliasor tried to ignore a prodding finger, she couldn’t ignore smelling salts, cold buckets of water. A full [Lady]’s voice of authority.
It was unkind. Eliasor sometimes wept into her pillow. Her mother had never been so unkind. But Zanthia would not let her rest. She was pure evil. As evil as the Goblin King.
All this was so. And Eliasor had been studying under Zanthia for two months. The woman was letting them walk through the quiet city where her wards resided at one of her estates. It was meant to be a treat, although the old woman was quite clear none of the girls had earned it.
“I do not recall a single instance where I would compliment you seven for having learned a lesson. In your studies both in etiquette, law, and rhetoric, you are all quite obstinate failures. But the mind wastes without activity. So here we are. Follow close. We can always continue our lessons in your rooms.”
The old woman’s cracked, precise voice made Eliasor grit her teeth. But anything was better than having Zanthia talk at her and demand answers. So she meekly followed Zanthia down the busy street. The [Lady] walked with a small escort of the town’s guards folk. The other young [Ladies] giggled and looked around, some looking sidelong at the handsome young men guarding them, who blushed. Eliasor, who was ten, just looked down at her feet. But apparently even that was cause for censure, because Lady Zanthia stopped the group after a dozen paces and turned.
“Eliasor. Spine straight. Shoulders back. Mind your pace.”
The girl sagged. She was too tired. She opened her mouth to protest. She looked up, and Zanthia’s glare skewered her. For once, Eliasor glared back.
She wanted to go back to her room. She had dreamed of her mother again. She didn’t want to be here. She wanted to be home. She wanted to go to her mother’s bed and lie there. But Zanthia didn’t care. The old woman clicked her tongue as the other young [Ladies] winced and fell silent. Zanthia’s daughters, two younger [Ladies], sighed impatiently as the old woman began to lecture.
“I teach young women such as yourselves to become [Ladies]. It is not simply a matter of being born or inheriting a class. And proper posture is one of the foundations of true nobility. Eliasor. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you, Lady Zanthia. But I don’t care. I don’t want to be a [Lady].”
The other young girls gasped. Zanthia’s eyes narrowed. Backchat was cause for discipline.
“I don’t recall ever asking your opinion, Lady Eliasor Melissar. And as I understand it, you are a [Lady]. You have the class. And you are last of your line. You have no right to refuse.”
Eliasor jerked as if Zanthia slapped her, which the old woman never had. She glared up at Zanthia seething with more hatred than she’d ever had. Zanthia returned the look impassively.
“You have no right. A [Lady] may not lie in her bed and refuse eating. If I must feed you with a straw, I will. And if I must drag you kicking and screaming and mold you into a [Lady] with my bare hands, I suppose that will be my duty. I’ve had worse students than you, girl. Worse than any of you. I taught Magnolia Reinhart how to sit straight and Lady Pryde to mind her tongue. By all means, resist. But you are [Ladies], and I will have you uphold your duty.”
Her tone reminded Eliasor of her mother. That was the worst thing. Patricia Melissar had scolded Eliasor three times in her life like that. Eliasor’s eyes filled with hot, frustrated tears and she desperately wished none of the other [Ladies] could see, or the [Guardsmen] or townsfolk. But she couldn’t help it. She was about to scream, or rush at Zanthia and try to strike the old [Lady], though she was as tough as metal. But then it happened.
A horde of Runners. Shouts in the street as the town [Guardsmen] belatedly tried to stop them. A cry. Zanthia turning and her voice snapping order.
“Cease this at once!”
And then Eliasor saw it. The first black rose, offered on bent knee. Towards Lady Zanthia. First one, then another. And then over twenty Runners, all offering the same token. The same insult.
Zanthia went white and then crimson with fury. Her two daughters gasped. The other young [Ladies] shrank back in horror. But Eliasor felt a jump of visceral delight.
Served her right.
“This is a message from my peers?”
Zanthia stared at the black roses. The Runners looked at each other, unaware of the message. But Eliasor knew. She looked gloatingly at Zanthia. She didn’t know where the old woman had gone a few weeks back, but she had heard the outcome. All of Izril had. Zanthia had threatened peers of the realm—blackmailed Lord Tyrion Veltras with Magnolia Reinhart!
So this only made sense to Eliasor. It was justice. And it served Zanthia right. She hadn’t been there. She wasn’t a warrior like Eliasor’s mother and father. Eliasor raised burning eyes, wishing she had had the idea herself. But her angry pleasure faded when she saw Zanthia’s face.
The old woman was staring at the roses. And there was a haunted look in her eye. A haunted, painful look that Eliasor recognized. She had seen it in the mirror. And then there was fury. The same fury in Eliasor’s chest. The old [Lady] turned. And the Runners quailed. The other [Ladies] dipped their eyes. The townspeople froze. But Eliasor met Zanthia’s gaze.
“I was there. I marched with the men and women of First Landing. I walked with the banners of Melissar. I saw House Walchaís fall. I saw my sons die like lions. I saw it.”
She looked at Eliasor. Lost and tired. And the girl stared up at the old [Lady]. She had been there with Eliasor’s father? With her mother? Suddenly, the girl had a hundred questions to ask.
But she never got the chance. Because at that moment, they came. Shadows out of a side street. Flashes of steel, a leaping body past one of the Street Runners. A sword, cutting. The [Guardsman] stumbled. A sword protruded from his neck and he choked blood. Eliasor’s eyes went wide. A black shape wrenched the shortsword through the neck, sawing. The head came loose. The [Guardsman] collapsed.
Another raised a sword. An arrow took him through the chest. Black figures were everywhere, overwhelming the town’s guard. Black shapes, covered in clothing that hid their identity.
The street erupted into a panic. The townsfolk ran back, screaming for the Watch. The Runners turned and fled. The remaining [Guardsmen] closed ranks. Eliasor saw one of the older [Ladies] shouting.
“Close ranks! Keep together!”
The other girls fled towards her, sobbing in terror. They had never seen someone die. Never seen so much blood. But Eliasor had. She stared at the [Assassin] who’d killed the first [Guardsman]. And she heard someone calling her name.
“Eliasor! Run, girl!”
Eliasor knew she should. The black figure was cutting down another [Guardsman]. She knew she should flee or he would kill her. But…what was the point? Her life was hollow. Her mother was gone. Her father was long gone.
And the [Assassin] was here. Not just one, either. Nearly a dozen. They had come for her. Like her mother. Deep down, Eliasor had always known they would. No matter what Lady Magnolia and Lady Zanthia promised. But the realization of her nightmare made the moment no less horrible.
This [Assassin] was no dark figure like the one in Eliasor’s dreams that strode into the ballroom time and time again with her mother’s head. This one was shorter, almost portly. And clumsy. He had the [Guardsman]’s severed head in one hand. And as he turned to the [Ladies], he raised it.
He tried to brandish the head, like the [Assassin] that had killed her mother. But this man had made a poor cut. Bone and sinew hung from the head and blood spattered his clothing. Eliasor heard him curse. It was the only sound in the world to her. The head, and the black figure the only thing.
“Eliasor! Run away!”
One of the other girls shouted it. But Eliasor didn’t run. The [Assassin] was coming towards her, bloody sword in hand. And she didn’t run. She didn’t move towards him. She just held still, as the other [Assassins] fought and killed the guard. And Eliasor stared into the two eyes visible, the strip of flesh not covered by cloth. And she thought the pale brown eyes were too normal. Too ordinary to belong to her death.
But there he stood. And the [Assassin] held the dripping head in one hand and lowered the blade. A touch awkwardly. As if he didn’t know where to stand or how to act. Like Eliasor sometimes felt at court. She looked up at him. And the man wavered.
“Aren’t you going to run?”
Even his voice was ordinary. A tad breathless, muffled by the cloth. Eliasor shook her head. She replied as blood thudded through her veins.
“A [Lady] faces death without fear.”
She raised her chin. For a better cut than the poor [Guardsman]. The [Assassin] wavered. Then he half-shrugged and swung his blade. Eliasor Melissar, who was now ten, watched the blade swing for her throat and waited for the red arc to reunite her with her mother.
But the blade never touched her skin. A hand spotted with age and wrinkled with time reached out. And the blade halted. Lady Zanthia caught Eliasor with one hand behind her back. The [Lady]’s arm gripped Eliasor tightly to her. And her other hand blocked the blade, an inch from Eliasor’s neck. The [Assassin] strained and cursed, but he couldn’t move it forwards. And Lady Zanthia turned to the girl.
Eliasor looked up with wide eyes at the old woman. Lady Zanthia knelt, her dress dirtying in the blood and dirt of the street. But she didn’t look at that. Her eyes met Eliasor’s. And the girl saw Lady Zanthia smile. It was a smile that hid tears, shock, and emotions which Eliasor had no words for. A [Lady]’s smile. The old woman looked at Eliasor, and then she embraced the girl.
“Well said. Well said, Patricia Melissar’s daughter. You will be as great a [Lady] as your mother. Perhaps greater.”
The [Assassin] wrenched his blade free from the block in the air. He stepped back and swung at the two. Eliasor’s eyes went wide. Zanthia turned her head and her eyes narrowed. She raised a palm and flicked it.
And the [Assassin] flew. He cartwheeled through the air, screaming, and struck the wall of a building ten feet distant. The fighting [Assassins] and wounded [Guardsmen] turned to stare. And Lady Zanthia rose.
“Avi, take Lady Eliasor.”
Lady Avi stepped forwards. Eliasor felt a hand pull her back. She saw Lady Zanthia step forwards.
“[Guardsmen], stand back. Guard my wards and my fellow [Ladies].”
She gestured. Uncertain, the [Guardsmen] stumbled away from their opponents, clutching at half-severed limbs. The [Assassins] regarded Zanthia, eleven of them. They spread out. One raised a bow. Zanthia regarded the archer. The [Assassin] froze. And then the arrow flew.
Fast, fast. A shaft aimed straight at Zanthia’s unguarded heart. But the [Lady] just raised a hand and flicked a finger. And the arrow broke in midair.
One of the black figures muttered it. Another raised a hand and threw something. A dart. Zanthia flicked a second finger and the metal dart clanged in midair and clattered to the ground. The [Assassins] stared at her.
They backed up, drawing bows and drawing daggers. One grabbed a wand and rolled behind a cart. Eliasor stared as Zanthia calmly turned her head. One of the other girls made a squeaking sound.
“But how—is she a [Warrior]?”
The [Lady] who grabbed Eliasor, Lady Avi, smiled as her companion snorted.
“Have you heard of a warrior who could do that? That isn’t a class. It’s a Skill.”
A second dart flew. Zanthia swatted it aside. An [Assassin] rushed at her and she flicked the figure off her feet as if swatting a fly away. Lady Avi watched her mother.
“[Deft Hand]. It is one of the first Skills any [Lady] learns. But it is by no means weak. Refined, it is a weapon, a shield as strong as magic.”
The [Assassins] loosed as one. Dozens of missiles flew at Zanthia from every side. The old [Lady] flicked her wrist. The arrows snapped out of the sky as if something had struck them. And then she turned. The young [Ladies] in her care stared at her with wide eyes, Eliasor included. Zanthia smiled, and the old lady’s smile was the most beautiful thing Eliasor could remember. Lady Zanthia spoke softly.
“Young women, be brave. We are the flowers of Izril. And we do not wilt before cowards hiding behind masks.”
Behind her, the [Assassins] dropped their bows. They charged her with a roar, screaming in dissonant harmony. And Lady Zanthia walked through them. She raised her arm and scattered them like petals on the breeze. She spun and a bolt of lightning arced around her hand. She sent it back in a roar of light and sound that blinded and deafened Eliasor. A black shape exploded into flames. A second spun past Zanthia, clutching at a twisted arm.
But still they came. Left, right, above, below. From behind—Zanthia twisted and the enchanted blade bounced off a bit of air as she flicked her hand. Now she was using both arms, and the [Assassins] spun around her, going flying as she deflected them. But they were so quick.
Zanthia took a step forwards, and then another, her hands moving in every direction. And then she took another step. And another. And suddenly, she lowered her hands. Her arms came up, and she held an imaginary bit of air. Suddenly, and without reason, she was dancing.
Yes, dancing. Dancing across the street, whirling, as if an invisible partner held her. For a second Eliasor couldn’t believe her eyes.
Neither could the [Assassins]. They picked themselves up and stared. But then they leapt. And they went flying.
This time it was part of the dance. As Zanthia whirled, the [Assassins] around her were knocked back. A step forwards forced the attackers in front of her back. And Zanthia’s eyes closed. And she danced.
It was an old dance. Something that belonged on a ballroom. Eliasor had seen it before. But now Zanthia danced the weaving, turning steps alone. Lady Avi breathed slowly as she watched the old woman trace a path amid the [Assassins].
“[Gliding Steps]. [Waltz: The Traveler’s Journey]. [Polite Deflection]. The qualities of a [Lady] are more than the Skills we are born with, Lady Eliasor.”
It occurred to the black killers that the other [Ladies] were an easy target. So they turned to the remaining [Guardsmen] and the women. But Lady Zanthia spun through them, an invisible force that hurled them aside like toys. And something was happening. The patch of air in Zanthia’s arm where her dance partner should be was…twisting. Changing.
Eliasor stared at the air that Zanthia held. It had been air, but now it looked like an instinct figure. A person, hazy, but growing more detailed with each step. Lady Avi inhaled, and Eliasor heard the catch in her voice.
“Lady Avi? What’s that?”
The woman looked down. And then she gestured at Lady Zanthia and the spectre. Now Eliasor saw a face. Legs. Clothing, appearing in details with each passing second. Ali’s voice was quiet. Awed.
“One of the ultimate Skills of our class. [The Eternal Partner]. That a [Lady] might never dance alone.”
Eliasor looked ahead. And now she saw him in his entirety. A smiling face. A tall figure, taller than Zanthia. Gracefully curved to accommodate her height. And on the dance went as the [Assassins] changed targets again, sensing the danger.
The [Lady] danced with her ghostly partner across the street, and the dark shapes armed with weapons charged her. But though they leapt and spun, slashing wildly, Lady Zanthia danced through them all. The weapons glanced sideways. The figures staggered, pushed back by an invisible force.
And the arrows curved in flight. They missed the elderly woman and the phantom who held her hand as she glided across the rough ground as if it were ice. With each step, a missile flew astray, striking one of the attackers, or a shape now charging the younger [Ladies] and their escorts tripped, or went flying.
But that wasn’t all. What drew the young Eliasor’s eyes was the dancer who held Lady Zanthia’s arm, led her on a quick progressive step, a natural turn. And then—gently, a slow twirl with one arm raised as Lady Zanthia slowly spun underneath.
And with every step, the phantom seemed to grow in clarity. In focus. From a ghost, a pale distortion in the air, he took color and form. Until a man danced with Lady Zanthia. His skin was dark. He wore an old-fashioned doublet, decades out of style. And his neck bore the distinctive stitch marks of his people. He smiled down at Lady Zanthia and the old woman’s lips turned up as she walked forwards with him.
The [Assassins] fell back as the figure stepped back. He bowed, one hand out, and Zanthia did the same. They came to rest, and if you stared at them and nowhere else, you could believe the simple street in the city was in fact a ballroom.
He was dressed so. In clothes from another age. And he couldn’t have been more than thirty years of age. He looked at Zanthia, and the old woman, her hair pinned back, her face lined, smiled and sixty years fell away in a moment. She inclined her head and the figure turned. He was no longer a ghost, but real. Cotton-and-blood. And he drew his sword and gave the [Assassins] a bow.
Wide-eyed, they stepped back. One raised a bow, and the Stitch-Man darted forwards. His sword slashed once, and the black-clad shape fell, clutching at an arm cut to the bone. They fell back, and the dancer set them to flight. He darted left and right, his sword a blur. He leapt and his figure split as he landed. Two figures now advanced.
He had Skills of his own! The Stitch-Man engaged an [Assassin] in a clash of blades as the attackers began to flee in earnest. One took a parting shot at Lady Zanthia. A [Fireball] bloomed and the [Lady] turned. She twisted her hand, and the orb of fire flicked upwards and exploded in the air. She stepped back. And the Stitch-Man turned to the next opponent as his phantom-double downed his opponent.
“Who is that?”
A shaky voice from another girl. Zanthia watched as the Stitch-Man pursued the ten—no, nine [Assassins] now. He was everywhere, and his doubles struck with all the reality of the original. Men and women died. And the [Ladies] watched. Ali’s voice was soft.
“That was her first husband. The Emir Sandel of Chandrar. He passed away nearly four decades ago. Father.”
The other [Lady], Lady Havilet standing next to Ali agreed. Eliasor looked up at them. And her heart squeezed. She clung to Ali’s dress. Because she’d just realized that they’d lost their father too.
And their mother walked through from the fleeing black figures. She followed Emir Sandel as he put them to flight and then to death, laughing. Eliasor could hear his voice. And she saw him turning, as if to show off to Zanthia. The old woman waved a hand, and Eliasor thought she was scolding him.
And the black-clad murderers died. The last fell back, begging for mercy. But Emir Sandel had none to give. He saluted the figure and swung his sword. And then he straightened with a long sigh.
With the last of the [Assassins], the shade of Sandel paused. He was growing more indistinct. Less colorful. Imprecise. He turned back, his form blurring and fading. Like an old memory. He strode across the ground, towards Lady Zanthia as his clone disappeared, the Skill undone. And so too was the man’s memory. He paused once before Lady Zanthia, and he was only a blur. Still, he knelt, and she held out her hand. Across a lifetime, he reached for her.
Before he touched her fingers he was gone. And the only proof of his existence was the blood he had left on the ground and the certainty in Eliasor’s heart that she had seen him. That left only Zanthia. And she looked old as she turned back to her wards and her daughters. Old, as four decades returned.
“It appears our outing was disturbed, [Ladies]. But take note. A [Lady] has work to do after a disaster. Not least is tending to our guards before their limbs are lost.”
She clapped her hands briskly. And time resumed. The townsfolk crept back out of hiding. The City Watch arrived too late, shamefaced, perhaps having delayed their arrival. The Runners were promptly arrested. And Lady Zanthia stood amid it all, directing the children off the street because this was not a sight for them, having the [Assassin]’s weapons bodies and weapons collected, tending to the wounded. She said nothing of what had passed on the street until the [Ladies] were walking home. Without an escort; there really wasn’t a point.
“Lady Zanthia? What was that Skill?”
Eliasor had to ask. And for once, the old [Lady] didn’t snap her head off. She looked at Eliasor appraisingly, and the girl thought that Zanthia finally saw something she liked. So the old [Lady] ducked her head as if she were embarrassed.
“We are creatures of attention, young lady. We are not desperate [Criers] who demand attention, or sycophantic [Bards] who strum our vanity onto any ear who listen. But are [Ladies]. We steal every beam of light we step into. We attract the eye and mind and demand respect and consideration. By elegance or wit, beauty or passion. That is what it means to bear our class.”
It was an answer and not at the same time. Eliasor nodded. She brushed at something wet on her cheek and found it was someone’s blood. Unconsciously she shuddered and reached out. And Lady Zanthia’s hand found her. As if she had been waiting for Eliasor to reach out. The old woman took Eliasor’s bloody hand in her own. And her voice was gentle as she led Eliasor back to her home. At least, for now.
“It was ill-done, this attack. Wrong, Eliasor. Just as your mother’s death was. Someone must be held to account. You see, this is not the way we do battle. Yes, we of Izril war amongst ourselves. But seldom with open blood. Someone has violated that law. Magnolia threatened it, but fools have forgotten why we play politics instead of war. And in doing so, they have forgotten that the flowers of Izril are not shrinking blossoms.”
Eliasor. Zanthia looked towards the sky. And her hand gently tightened over Eliasor’s.
“But I promise you, you will have vengeance. Whether by Magnolia’s hand or mine. Or your own. Never forget them. That is what makes you strong.”
Two hundred miles east and south, another [Lady] was entertaining. Her estate was open to callers. And oh, there were many. The [Lady] flittered from guest to guest, never staying long, and every eye followed her.
She was nearly sixty years old herself. But the years that had turned Lady Zanthia into iron seemed not to touch Lady Wuvren. She laughed as she swung around the dance floor, dancing, chattering, snacking, flirting. And if you looked at her, you would never guess her age. Never in a million years, because time had lost meaning for Wuvren.
She looked like a much younger woman. She could have been twenty eight. She was in the prime of her life.
True, betimes she seemed older. A woman in her full thirties. A mother of forty, bending to speak to a child. It came out in the way she spoke, the age in her eyes and voice. Sometimes. But in appearance, she was almost always a younger woman, with little more than two decades and a half behind her.
And it wasn’t an illusion. Her skin was as fair as it had ever been, her hair, now styled in the fashion of the day, long and sweeping with only the hint of a curl, was as vibrant as it had been back then. She even acted young, which befuddled one of her guests, an [Earl] from Terandria beyond belief.
“I must confess, I had heard of your beauty in [Bard]’s tales, milady. I am struck. Simply struck that not a word was untrue.”
The man took Wuvren’s hand, searching her eyes for even a hint of the age he knew she bore. But Wuvren’s touch felt smoother than most of the young women he’d courted. And her eyes danced with merry delight. Teasingly, she snatched her hand back.
“Oh? You came all this way on a [Bard]’s song? And you claim not one word is untrue. Do you call yourself my admirer, then, sir?”
She teased him gently. The [Earl] blushed and stammered.
“Well, I—one hears rumors. I hate to question it, but I have heard rumors. A [Lady]’s age is of course your own business. But—”
He trailed off because he had no idea how to proceed without giving further offense. Some of the other men in attendance looked appalled, but Wuvren just laughed. She spun around the Earl and somehow he found he’d linked arms with her. The young? [Lady] leaned on his arm and spoke with a sigh.
“Some women wear their years like weights. Others bear them lightly. Myself, I prefer to wear it like a veil. Which is to say, as a delicate façade. Or not at all. Does it bother you that much?”
She looked up at the [Earl]. He fell over himself to say no. Wuvren laughed.
“Then you must join me for dinner. After a ride? I have a delightful hunt planned, and I would love to see your skill with the bow.”
She left the [Earl] before he could think to protest. On the way, Wuvren passed by a stately man with a trimmed chestnut beard. She eyed the man as she stood to attention, chatting with another woman. The man turned with a sigh to regard Wuvren and the [Earl] who was watching her every move.
“You’ve won another convert, mother.”
“Don’t fret so, Gilliad. And hold my arm to chase away the bad men if you don’t want to lose me.”
“Mother, please. Must you?”
The older-looking man looked appalled and resigned. Wuvren laughed and threw her arms around him, attracting looks of jealousy from most of the men in the room. Gilliad just sighed.
That was how the roses came. And the [Assassins]. In fact, the Runners never made it into the estate; they were stopped at the door. But the [Assassins] were more determined and leapt down from the open windows overhead. They landed among the men and women, eliciting shouts of horror.
“Lady Wuvren! We come for your head!”
The lead [Assassin] pointed their blade at Lady Wuvren. A tad uncertainly; the [Lady] didn’t look the part. Gilliad reached for his dagger, but Wuvren pushed her son back. She stepped forwards as nine shapes spread out, warding the other guests and bodyguards back. Wuvren’s guards stopped as they saw the leader’s blade was inches from Wuvren’s chest. But the [Lady] never blinked. She put one hand on the flat of the blade and pushed it from her chest. Then she winked at the [Assassin] in front of her.
“Would you hit a [Lady], Miss?”
“I—how did you—what?”
Caught off-guard, the [Assassin] stuttered. She lowered her blade. Wuvren sighed. Two men and a woman swooned.
“I couldn’t bear it. Blood, shed upon my floors. Yours or mine. Wouldn’t you like it more if you sat? I have all the time to talk with a delightful young woman. Or man. [Assassin] or not, I always have room on my staff. Would you at least lower the blade so we could talk?”
Her voice was hypnotic. The female [Assassin] lowered her blade. Another black-clad figure growled and shook his head. He grabbed her hand, twisting her head and his away from Wuvren.
“You idiot. I told you not to look at her! She’s got charmed eyes!”
“And a charming face. Tell me, sir, would you care to—”
The [Assassin] leapt back, swearing. Gilliad’s dagger slashed the spot where he had been. The [Assassin] grabbed his companions, who all jerked stupidly.
“Retreat! Her Skill is too powerful!”
The [Assassins] looked at their new leader and stared at Wuvren. Two never looked away. The rest ran for it. Three went down as Wuvren’s guests went for them. The last four had horses hidden for a getaway. Wuvren walked and saw them flogging the horses, racing away as her guards caught them.
“Well. That man was quite good. But I nearly had the young woman.”
Wuvren complained to her son. She sighed.
“Maybe I’ll leave her with a gift. Here. [Heartbreaker Kiss].”
She put two fingers to her lips and flicked them towards one of the retreating shapes. The female [Assassin] jerked and clutched at her chest as she rode away. Wuvren saw Gilliad glancing at her. She explained lightly.
“Heart broken. But not dead. I’m not Bethal or Magnolia. Or even Zanthia, for that matter. Gilliad, find out who they were. But be careful. And oh, send word that I need to speak to Magnolia.”
The man retreated, shaking his head. The other guests flocked around Wuvren, shaken. The [Earl] was particularly upset. His enchanted sword was bared as he glared at the retreating shapes.
“What was that? Is this some kind of Izril plot? Is this how politics are done in Izril?”
Wuvren purred as she smiled around at her guests. Then she focused on the Terandrian man.
“Not usually, my good [Earl]. But I am allied with Lady Magnolia Reinhart. It appears her acquaintances are the subject of some ire. A silly quarrel for such a reaction. But I fear we are under attack nevertheless. I wonder, who will protect us?”
She gently swooned into the [Earl]’s arms. He held her for a perfect moment as she fell against him. And her soft arms, the gentle pulse in her veins and her flushed face—surely she couldn’t be as old as they said? And even if she was, who cared? The man’s thoughts quickly eroded and he bent to profess something, anything.
Then one of the other suitors kicked the Terandrian [Earl] in the back and half a dozen hands were there to prop Lady Wuvren up. Someone offered her a handkerchief, a flask of water. A sweet stamina potion. Someone else punched the [Earl].
Beauty and age. A [Lady] could enhance one and stave off the other. But those were Skills for women who feared loss, or coveted one value or another. What did you give the [Lady] who had both? Perhaps you gave her a Skill in the form of lineage, genetics that always threw true. Or a gift for money. The ability to manage her lands or charm others. Or, perhaps, you simply gave her—
Power. The [Lady] stood in the middle of her city, amid broken black roses. And the [Assassins] approaching her with weapons couldn’t get any closer. The [Lady] was furious. She stared at the black figures and her eyes flashed, the orange pupils darting indignation and fury as her citizens looked on in shock.
“I am Pryde. And you sent four to claim my head? How dare you? How many did you sent to Magnolia? Zanthia? Wuvren? Bethal?”
The [Assassins] stared up at her. They had leapt for her from the cover of a rolling wagon. But something had pinned them. It was so hard to move—one was reaching for a crossbow, but the wood was cracking and his bones creaked. And he was six feet away from her. But he couldn’t move. Lady Pryde stamped a foot.
“Four [Assassins]? Send a hundred! Send a thousand! Tell your Guildmaster that I want him to take this contract himself.”
She pointed at the silent attackers. The one with the crossbow finally raised it. Lady Pryde’s brows snapped together. She pointed.
“[Ego is Weight].”
The gravity crushing the man redoubled. The crossbow snapped in his hands. He lay flat on the ground and Pryde stood over him. Never had anyone been so aptly named. Or perhaps the name had forged the woman. She beckoned imperiously.
“Come. If you can even touch me. I am Lady Pryde of House Ulta.”
They reached for her. But that was as far as they got. The citizens of Ulta’s city advanced with a roar of outrage. They descended on the four immobilized [Assassins]. And when the bodies had been dragged away, they surrounded their [Lady]. And she stood up and passed each of her subjects, touching a bloody brow or a hand.
A [Queen] of [Ladies]. Untouchable, undefeatable.
And they were dying. To guards or the [Ladies] who blew perfume laced with magic, or deflected spells with magic fans. The black-clad [Assassins] fell like flies. And disbelief was written on their lips.
It should not be like this. They had known the dangers of this job. They had known it was suicide. But they had expected at least one group to succeed. And the riches of killing even a single [Lady] would have made the killers rich beyond their dreams, even divided a dozen ways. But they had failed.
And it was to be expected. They were just recruits. The lowest rank of the Assassin’s Guild, whose shadowy number was in the thousands. Possibly even tens of thousands, if, as rumored, they had bases in southern Izril still. And to send a message, the Assassin’s Guild was willing to throw away nearly a hundred of their weakest.
For a message. It was a gesture that might reward the guild in dividends. But it was a bitter truth to the last group of [Assassins] crouched outside of Magnolia’s estate. This group wasn’t plotting an ambush. They weren’t even at that stage yet. And unlike their comrades, even the ones who had assaulted Bethal, these were the last to act.
Because they were afraid. No delusions of riches or fame could sway the twenty, ten in each group, who had been given the contract for Magnolia Reinhart. They knew they would never claim that bounty. But they had orders. So they waited as long as they could, whispering. Unprofessionally.
“She killed the [Mage] who went after her. And, what was it, two dozen of our own? They were the Guild’s best.”
“And she’s got her personal [Maid]. Ressa. She was trained by the Guild! I heard she was even an [Assassin].”
“A Reinhart. We’ll never make it inside. We won’t last ten paces.”
One of the [Assassins] in the garden group shook her head miserably.
“If we don’t try, we’re dead. All we have to do is try. Then we can run at the first sign of danger. We’ll level up just from the attempt.”
That was true. The [Assassins] looked at each other. Slowly, both groups moved. The first one on the west side readied their grappling hooks. They climbed over the walls, silently, alert for any helpful [Servant] they could accidentally be discovered by. And they did get over the wall. Not all of Magnolia’s private estate was warded.
The [Assassins] landed on lush, thick grass. Very high, grass, in fact, that went up to the knees. They stared at the unkempt, unmowed lawn, and then at the huge, brambling walls of hedges they hadn’t spotted from the outside. The hedges that stretched up and up until they were over a dozen feet high in the smallest spots. The [Assassins] blinked at some huge, half-rotten toadstools growing out of the ground.
“This is a [Lady]’s garden?”
Someone muttered in disgust as he kicked at a tall stand of grass. The others looked around uneasily. Someone drew a blade.
They had gotten into Lady Magnolia’s estate. Her garden, more specifically. Or rather, the hedge maze part of the garden. Which was tended by her [Gardener]. And because they had chosen to enter through that spot, they were never seen again.
The second group that infiltrated the mansion didn’t choose the garden, which meant they survived for longer. There were ten of them. They were detected across the stretch to the [Mansion]; a [Maid] spotted them while dusting. The Gnoll calmly shot one with a crossbow. The other nine ran for it.
Three made it into the mansion. The Steel Golems got three with blade and crushing blows. One was knocked out by the stables by a horse. Two more had been running along the wall when one of the magical creatures swimming across the front of the mansion had opened its mouth. The remaining three had seen a whale pop out of the stonework to swallow their screaming friends. The last three never looked back and ran inside, blades drawn.
Three people stood in the entrance hall to Magnolia’s mansion. A [Butler], polishing his sword with a handkerchief. A [Maid] who held a huge, enchanted mace. And a miserable [Assassin], armed with similar weapons as the ones the [Assassins] carried. The [Maid] glanced up as the three [Assassins] skidded to a stop.
“Only three? Sloppy. They’re definitely third-rates. The ones that attacked the mansion the first time were some of the Guild’s best. I have no doubt. These ones are expendable.”
“They’re trainees. Barely qualified for their first missions. Probably between Level 10 and Level 20 at most.”
The black-clad man looked up, sighing. The [Butler] glanced at him.
“Like you, you mean.”
Theofore the luckless [Assassin] nodded. Reynold stood straighter.
“Well, it should be a good warm up. Who wants all three?”
The [Assassins] drew back as Reynold drew his sword back. Sacra sighed and propped her mace on one shoulder. One of the [Assassins] pointed at Theofore.
“Theofore? We thought you were dead. The Guild’s put a bounty on you.”
“Life isn’t so kind.”
Theofore sighed. He drew a throwing dagger and flipped it. The [Assassins] tensed. Theofore looked at his companions.
“You know I’m better than all three of you. And these two could kill an entire training team without breaking a sweat. Surrender. You’ll live. But you won’t like it. Don’t, and you’ll die. Either way.”
He shrugged. The [Assassins] stared at him. They looked behind themselves and then weighed the odds. They tossed their blades to the carpet and held up their hands. Sacra glared.
“I just cleaned that carpet. Drop another blade on it and I’ll kill you. Blood comes out easier than poison.”
Five minutes later, Reynold poked his head into the sitting room and coughed once before delivering his message.
“All sorted, Lady Reinhart. We’ve ah, recovered the weapons from the garden. Theofore is looking through them now. We’re turning the corpses over to Mister Nalthaliarstrelous. For…composting.”
Magnolia Reinhart looked up. She was reading [Messages] while sitting on her personal, pink couch. A cup of sugar with some added tea was sitting in front of her.
“Thank you, Reynold. Have Sacra see to the interrogation. You may have the rest of the day off. If I need a driver, I will make Ressa do it.”
“You’re too kind, Lady Reinhart.”
Magnolia smiled and tilted the tea cup to her lips. She frowned as she read the rest of the [Messages].
“So. The party accompanying Lady Zanthia, Wuvren, Feli, Sypaci, Allima—no word from Bethal, but we have to assume she was attacked too.”
Ressa nodded silently. Magnolia glanced at her.
“All failures. Do you think they underestimated us that badly, Ressa?”
“I think they wanted to see how good each [Lady]’s defenses were. And perhaps they were wary of sending their best in case they did fail. It could be the Circle of Thorns or whoever hired them was simply cheap. The Assassin’s Guild is expensive, even for the richest of [Merchants]. This must have cost tens of thousands of gold coins.”
Ressa replied drily. Magnolia nodded. She made a face.
“What is that idiotic Guildmaster thinking? Then again, knowing him…what a waste of bodies. But the Guild has members to spare. I suppose this is their message, then. Assassinations are open game. They aren’t under my control and so on and so forth.”
She set her cup down and stared at the pile of black roses on the table in front of her.
“And Izril is officially divided. There are now sides. How wonderful. We have dozens upon dozens of enemies publicly declaring against us, with more to come no doubt.”
Ressa nodded. She studied the list of names of those who’d sent the flowers to the [Ladies].
“No black flowers from any of the Five Families. Is that unusual?”
Magnolia glanced up.
“Tyrion knows better. And this wasn’t his idea. I’m rather surprised one of my family didn’t send a flower my way, though. As for the other families—they know what’s coming next. They’ll pick sides soon enough. But they aren’t idiots.”
“Do you think the senders of the flowers organized the [Assassin] attacks?”
Magnolia sipped thoughtfully from her cup.
“It certainly puts us against them, doesn’t it? But no, that’s too convenient for our real enemies, Ressa.”
She tapped the flowers in front of her.
“These are from some of those who joined Tyrion’s army against the Goblin Lord. They’re expressing their contempt openly. Foolishly, one might say. The [Assassins] are different. The Circle of Thorns sent them, I have no doubt. Everyone else assumes I still have a contract with the Guild—or I did until today. Even if they had doubts, who would organize such a concerted attack with the danger it might be traced back to them? No.”
All that was true. Ressa nodded, and hesitated.
“Even so, you could make an example—”
“What about the Circle of Thorns? At least one of the nobility in Tyrion’s camp must have been part of the circle. How else would they have coordinated the attacks with the insult?”
Magnolia rolled her eyes.
“I’m sure there is someone. At least one of the nobility who rode with Tyrion Veltras is in the Circle of Thorns. Oh, that narrows it down so much.”
The [Maid] glared.
“You’ve been attacked. And insulted. You can’t let this slide, Magnolia.”
Magnolia picked up a flower and studied it. She sniffed it and tossed it down with a grimace.
“I don’t intend to. But I told you, Ressa. I’m trying to move away from fear. Surely I can be formidable and merciful. Or is twenty missing [Assassins] a light touch?”
Ressa didn’t reply to that. She just folded her arms.
“How are you going to reply, then? A stiffly worded letter? A few roses in kind?”
Magnolia smiled brightly.
“Oh, no. I’ll simply hit their coffers instead.”
So saying, she stood up. Magnolia held out one hand and Ressa felt the air in the room go still. She backed up a step. Magnolia glanced around. She took a breath, and then spoke in a level and ringing tone.
“I, Magnolia Reinhart, declare a [Trade War].”
She brought her hand down and slapped the coffee table lightly. The roses jumped and the table and floor shook for a second. Ressa winced as the reverberations ran through the mansion. The door slammed open and Sacra appeared with a mace in hand.
“Lady Reinhart, what was—”
“Just a Skill, Sacra. Close the door, would you?”
Magnolia waved a hand tiredly. Sacra did, hesitating. The [Lady] Reinhart looked at Ressa. She raised an eyebrow.
“Good enough for you?”
Ressa blinked at her.
“It’s a start.”
Magnolia rolled her eyes and shook her head.
“Ressa, send out [Messages] to Invrisil’s Merchant’s Guild and to our other affiliates. The clever ones shouldn’t need to be warned.”
Ressa nodded. In minutes she had [Messages] flying out to all of Magnolia’s affiliates. And that was all Magnolia said on the matter. But the shaking, trembling quake that she’d struck the table with still reverberated as it ran down through the mansion, into the bedrock and ground. And it grew and grew, a tremor. A quake of vibrations. And it grew and grew, until the entire land around Invrisil—
It was an earthquake! On his way to Invrisil’s market, the [Farmer] named Tanel clutched at his wagon as his horses reared. The tremor was minor, but sudden. It shook the ground under him and sent his covered wagon’s contents spilling as a rope suddenly snapped. Tanel cursed and swept out of his seat, rushing to pick up the fallen goods.
He was a [Berry Farmer], a good one too. And his Skills had given him an early harvest, which he was contracted to sell to Invrisil’s markets at a mint. This early, berries would be in high demand, and Tanel was looking forwards to making a profit. He’d just crossed into Invrisil’s territory from Averin lands.
It was normally an uneventful trip. Invrisil was very safe, what with it being the City of Adventurers, and the Averin lands, if less prosperous, benefitted from their proximity to one of Izril’s main cities. Up until recently, Tanel had considered it a boon for his farm. These last few days however, he’d heard that tensions were on the rise between Averin’s house and Magnolia Reinhart. Over some big to do down around Liscor and the Goblin Lord, who was now dead.
It was nothing to do with Tanel. He just wanted to make money and retire young. And Invrisil loved his berries. He was hurrying to pick up the precious cargo, wondering how it had spilled with such a minor shake when he noticed something awful.
Horrified, Tanel looked at the squished and bleeding berries. If he hadn’t known better, he would have sworn this was the worst of his crop! He looked into the wagon and stared.
“They’re all—but I could have sworn—”
His berries were all bruised! Some were damaged from the trip, and some even had mold on them. How was that possible? Tanel always, always checked his fruits before going to market. Had the trip somehow turned them all bad at once? The [Farmer] stumbled back, his visions of a cushy return to his farm on the border of Averin crushed.
“No, no, no—how is this happening?”
Then he remembered the quake. And he had a terrible premonition, a sense in the back of his head. He shouldn’t have come to Invrisil. Tanel couldn’t say why. But he was certain. Invrisil was a bad place to be. Bad to sell his goods. He’d have to find another market for his second harvest. It would mean no gold and pittance in his pockets, but it was just no…good here.
Bitterly, Tanel reflected that meant less money for the tax collectors when they came by too. It was a bittersweet feeling at best. Mostly bitter.
“Dead gods, that was a bit of a quake.”
Two [Traders] sitting in one of Invrisil’s open-air restaurants looked around shakily. One of them, a local stock merchant in Invrisil who sold a number of wares, grabbed at a bag of gold on the table sheepishly. Then he let go and laughed. The [Trader] sitting across from him, a man who handled the Indivu Estate’s purchasing, laughed a bit contemptuously.
“No need to panic. The gold won’t fly away. And we do have a deal, don’t we?”
They were about to close a profitable deal where Invrisil would sell some much-needed stocks of alchemical ingredients to Indivu for their [Alchemists]. The Invrisil [Trader] felt like he was getting the raw end of the deal, but he needed to shift the ingredients now before they expired, and the Indivu [Trader] had given him little bargaining room. Reluctantly, he nodded.
“For the gold on the table, I can do it.”
“Then we have a deal. We’ll shake and sign.”
Impatiently and rudely, the Indivu representative held out a hand. The [Trader] gritted his teeth as he reached out. At that moment, he heard a shout.
“Street Runner, coming through! Coming—whoops!”
A running girl struck the table the two men were sitting at. Her hip accidentally struck the bag and something—a loose seam, a cut in the bag—burst. Both [Traders] watched, as, in classic fashion, the bag of gold exploded raining gold down the street.
Invrisil’s pedestrians might be richer than, say, Celum or Liscor’s people, but no one turned down free gold. Hands were snatching the pieces even as they fell and people grabbed the money and ran. The Street Runner fled and the Indivu [Trader] clutched at his head.
“Stop! Call the City Watch! [Thief]!”
He turned desperately to the Invrisil [Trader]. But the man was already backing away.
“Terribly sorry, but it appears the gold is no longer on the table, as it were. So—”
He fled. The Indivu [Trader] tried to follow him. He slipped on a gold coin.
Was it luck or design? Existing faults being exploited, or new ones being created? The Merchant’s Guild of Invrisil didn’t know and they frankly didn’t care. Magnolia’s [Message] hit their guild like a [Fireball]. Within minutes, [Merchants] were apologizing to customers waiting who represented various estates.
“I’m terribly sorry, sir. But your line of credit is no longer good in Invrisil.”
A [Merchant] wiped at her forehead as she tried to explain to a very upset young nobleman why he couldn’t borrow any money. Another, a journeyman [Trader], was frantically erasing prices on the board, much to the confusion of a young [Secretary] who’d come to arrange transport and goods.
“The price of barley is four coppers higher per pound. For anyone buying and selling in Vite lands. And a number of other estates. I’m sorry, Miss. I have a list. It just came in from the Merchant’s Guild.”
She tried to protest, but it was no good. And indeed, the heads of the Merchant’s Guild realized the very same thing when they called on Magnolia Reinhart an hour later. The [Lady] met them at her gates, just in time for them to see a [Butler] having some of the staff drag a few dead bodies towards the garden. The [Merchants] stared and swallowed their objections fast. Magnolia Reinhart’s face was the picture of pleasantness.
“So good of you all to come here! Despite my explicit [Message] that already stated what was going on. Let me say it twice, then, ladies and gentlemen. You may sell to my competitors. At one and a quarter times the rate you will charge anyone else. Anything less, and you will fall foul of my Skill. And believe me, even the best [Merchant] will find themselves mildly inconvenienced. Anyone of a lower level, say, Level 30 or less, will be significantly distressed.”
“A [Trade War], then, Lady Reinhart?”
One of the senior [Merchants] stared at her, mildly appalled. Magnolia nodded.
“The very same. Products entering my lands will not do well. It is of course an inconvenience. But I think the Merchant’s Guild can help Invrisil weather the slight pinch for a good time. My competitors? Less so.”
The [Merchants] considered that. Invrisil didn’t lack for suppliers, although it might raise rates. On the other hand, anyone who wanted to import goods through the trading hub of a city was now facing massively increased prices and a string of bad luck. They hesitated.
“How long will this ah, situation last, Lady Reinhart?”
The [Lady] twirled a black rose between her fingertips. The [Merchants], who were already in the know, shuddered.
“Oh, as long as it takes, good gentlefolk. As long as it takes. I may accept an apology. In time. Until then, please let me excuse myself. I hate to be abrupt, but I am terribly busy as you must now know. And I think my [Gardener] wants to turn some skulls into pot holders. Good day to you!”
Ressa slammed the gate in front of the [Merchants]. She watched them go, then followed Magnolia as the [Lady] swept back towards the mansion. Magnolia was already thinking aloud.
“We’ll need to watch the borders, obviously. There may be raids. Of a certainty I think we’ll see unpleasantness. [Knights] dueling. Young [Lords] deciding to get their own back. But I haven’t declared a [Trade War] for nearly ten years. I imagine a number of my peers are having a very unpleasant shock right now. They really shouldn’t underestimate my level.”
“Is that the start or end of it?”
Ressa glanced at Magnolia. She was tempted to ask about sending Sacra on a mission, or performing the more traditional Reinhart maneuvers in the dark. If not assassination, then certainly espionage. But Magnolia shook her head.
“Money is enough, Ressa. Money, and perhaps a few judicious secrets leaked. Time to send some rather inappropriate gossip. All truthful, of course. I’ll need my little black book, a quill, some good stationary—”
Ressa smiled thinly. That was closer to the Magnolia she knew.
“Planning on starting some duels of honor?”
“I don’t think enraged brides-to-be duel their prospective husbands, Ressa. They tend to just go for the kill. I’ll send off a few letters to begin with. Oh, and get me some good Runners, Ressa. Couriers, preferably, but trustworthy City Runners in Invrisil will do for some of these notes.”
“We have a list.”
Ressa was already pulling a few names from memory. She paused as she thought of one name in particular that had come up of late. But she didn’t say it out loud. Instead, she looked at Magnolia. The [Lady] sighed. Tired, but fierce.
“[Assassins] and [Runners]. Intrigue in Izril. It’s a fine time to be a Runner, I suppose.”
“You mean, dangerous.”
Magnolia turned back with a smile.
“It’s one and the same, Ressa. Risk equals reward. And I believe, yes, I believe it’s never been better to be a Runner. After all, we are at odds, Ressa. The noble Humans of Izril are squabbling again.”
Her face fell.
Ressa shook her head.
“Better than being at war with the Drakes?”
She saw her friend pause. Magnolia turned her head, searching the sky, as if for a clue. At last, she turned back to Ressa and shrugged.
“I think so. But we’ll have to wait and see. Won’t we?”