The grass was lush and green. The perfect height, which was to say, short. Not like the tall, whippy adult grass that was what real grass actually looked like. This grass was fresh. It had the kind of green quality and density that you only saw on lawns religiously tended to by their owners. It was the kind of grass that invited the viewer to walk outside barefoot, so you could wriggle your toes in it.
There was the grass. It was growing on a hilltop. And on that hilltop sat an inn. The doors flew open. A young woman raced out onto the grass. She raised her arms and then cartwheeled across the grass.
“It’s spring! Proper spring!”
A white shape bounded out the door after her. Erin Solstice laughed as Mrsha raced onto the grass and did a flying belly flop. Erin completed her cartwheel and caught herself, a bit dizzy.
“I did it! Hey Mrsha, did you see that?”
The Gnoll nodded rapidly. She raced around on Erin on all fours, then got onto two legs. She raised her arms, waving them, clearly encouraging Erin to do it again. The [Innkeeper] laughed.
“Like this, Mrsha! See? Here I go!”
She took three steps, raised her arms, and then lunged. Her body twisted down, her hands struck the ground, and to Mrsha’s amazement, Erin cartwheeled. The Gnoll’s tiny mouth popped open as Erin cartwheeled across the grass.
“Whoop—whoop! I nearly went over the edge, there! Careful!”
Erin caught herself a second time, this time from going over the edge of the hill. It would be a somewhat steep roll down the hill, and the lovely grass covering the top hadn’t managed to infest the slopes. Brown mud stared at her as she hopped back towards the inn. She spotted a figure standing in the doorway.
“Cartwheels! Want to try, Lyonette?”
The [Princess] stared at Erin, perplexed.
“I’ve never done something like that in my life. How on earth did you do that? You don’t have the [Tumbler] class, right?”
“Do I need to? It’s just a cartwheel. Most guys can’t do it, but I learned it in gym class.”
“Oh. Another of your Earth things. You can really just do that?”
Erin propped her hands on her hips as she smiled at the younger girl.
“I bet you can do it. Come on. It’s simple. Watch. All you have to do is put your arms up, lunge, and then twist—”
She did a slower cartwheel to show Lyonette and Mrsha. It was too slow, so Erin fell down halfway through. Mrsha leapt on her, tail wagging, and Erin laughed.
“Mrsha! You’re getting heavier! Off! Lyonette, you try.”
“You’re sure you can do that?”
“You don’t need a class or a Skill for everything, Lyonette. And this is easy-peasy. Come on.”
The [Princess] looked dubious. But then she shrugged. She raised her arms.
“Okay. Like this?”
She copied Erin’s pose. Erin nodded. Lyonette took a deep breath.
She took five steps back, and then came out at a run. Erin opened her mouth to tell Lyonette she was going too fast, when the [Princess] did a perfect triple-cartwheel past her and Mrsha. The Gnoll and young woman gaped. Lyonette caught herself at the edge of the hill, raised her arms, and smiled.
She turned and Mrsha crossed her arms, shaking her head. Erin raised her voice.
“Cheater! You used your [Flawless Attempt] Skill!”
Lyonette laughed as Mrsha indignantly signed ‘not good’ to her. She held up her hands, palm out and bowed her head. ‘I’m sorry’. Then she turned to Erin.
“Well, I wanted to do it right! And now that I did it right, I can do it again. See?”
So saying, she took a step, and did a nearly-perfect cartwheel again. Erin put her hands on her hips, miffed.
“Can’t you fall down once or twice? That’s unfair!”
Lyonette sniffed, raising her brows in an imitation of Pisces.
“What, and descend to the level of you peasants? Besides, it’s convenient. I can learn how to do something right once and never have to worry about it again. Like my poached eggs. Or learning how to flip pancakes. Or riposting in my sword lessons from Yvlon and Pisces.”
“Yeah, but—but I can’t do that.”
Erin sighed mournfully. She glanced at Lyonette as the girl raised her arms to encourage Mrsha. The Gnoll child was wobbling a bit on her two feet, although she could walk when she needed to without issue.
“I’ll trade you my uh…[Alcohol Immunity] Skill for your [Flawless attempt].”
“I’ll throw in [Lesser Endurance]? And [Quick Recovery]?”
“You have your rare Skills, I have mine. If you could trade, I’d take your [Wondrous Fare] Skill for it and nothing less.”
Lyonette turned to smile at Erin. Then both watched as Mrsha raised her arms, frowning hard. The Gnoll cub tried to imitate Erin, but only managed a slow somersault. Erin laughed.
“You nearly did it! Come on. Let me help you.”
Like her gym instructor had once done, Erin helped lift Mrsha’s legs as the Gnoll went through the cartwheel.
“Look? See? It’s not hard at all.”
Erin said that, but she noticed how uneasy Mrsha looked when she was upside down. Lyonette, watching, flicked some hair out of her face.
“You say this is from your world, Erin. Do people do that all the time?”
“Well, only the athletic ones. I haven’t done it in ages, but I saw the grass and…”
Erin waved a hand. Lyonette nodded. Mrsha kicked her legs to make sure Erin was holding them tight.
“Don’t worry, Mrsha. Erin won’t let go. It’s not dangerous, see?”
“Yeah! The worst you could do is cartwheel and hit your head or something. Or roll down the hill.”
A finger poked Erin in the back, hard. Mrsha looked up anxiously.
“Ignore Erin. And on that note, I’ve never seen anyone I knew personally do cartwheels, Erin. Maybe they did in the towns or villages, but only [Tumblers] and other entertainers would do that. I’ve never seen a [Knight] or [Warrior] pull that off. I wonder if it’s a defensive move?”
“I…don’t think so?”
Erin tried to imagine Ceria or Yvlon cartwheeling out of the way of an attack. She shrugged.
“It’s just for fun. What’re you worried about, Mrsha? I’ve got you!”
“I don’t think Gnolls do acrobatics. I could see Garuda doing this, or String People. But some species aren’t built for it. Imagine a Drake trying this? With the tail? Or a Dullahan.”
“Yeah! I should show Maughin! Or Pelt! Maybe that would make him laugh.”
So saying, she patted her belt and felt a leather sheathe against her fingers. Erin adjusted her personal kitchen knife, and caught Mrsha as the Gnoll warily did a handstand and promptly fell forwards.
“Easy! It’s not hard, Mrsha. Although maybe a handstand would be simpler. But I bet you can do it. Want to try one on your own?”
Mrsha shook her head vigorously. But after four more slow cartwheels, she did give it a try. Erin and Lyonette applauded wildly and Mrsha raced around, looking delighted. Lyonette bent down and Mrsha hopped into her arms.
“You have to learn to do that so you can show Krshia. She’ll be very impressed. Right, Erin?”
“Exactly! And I’ll show Maughin! Hey Mrsha, did you know you can do multiple cartwheels? Well, Lyonette spoiled that. But watch me!”
Erin took a breath and inhaled the fresh, cool air with delight. She stared up at the blue sky, the bright sun, and beamed.
“It’s springtime! Here I go!”
Mrsha and Lyonette sat down on the grass and watched as Erin began cartwheeling across the small hilltop. Aside from the inn, the hill had room for a few outhouses, a sign, and little else.
The inn was still partly-destroyed from the Goblin Lord’s attack on Liscor. The third floor and tower were gone. But the second floor and ground floor had been all fixed up. It looked a bit ramshackle, but if you focused only on the bottom, it was quite nice. And Erin Solstice, the [Innkeeper], laughed in the spring air outside of her inn.
“Whee! Whohoo! Yeah! Watch me! Hold on. I’m getting sick.”
She paused to steady herself. Her stomach wasn’t pleased. Erin put a hand on one of the walls of her inn.
“Whoof. Is this what getting old’s like?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
Lyonette grinned as Erin turned to glare at the eighteen-year old girl and Mrsha, who was six. Erin shook a fist.
“Just you wait. You’ll be twenty before you know it! Or twenty one. My birthday’s coming up and it’s getting close to summer!”
“We’ll throw you a party. And Mrsha will cut up your cake so it’s nice and easy to swallow. She’ll even help you with the icing, right, Mrsha?”
Lyonette tickled Mrsha. The Gnoll wriggled and yelped silently. She squirmed out of Lyonette’s grip and raced away. Erin laughed.
“Let’s do a flip next! Hey, I bet I can—no, wait. I can’t. But Lyonette can do one with her fancy Skill!”
“You’ll have to wait four hours until that. Mrsha, you can run about, but remember, you can’t leave the hill! It’s dangerous and you’ll get mud all over your paws and fur!”
The Gnoll paused as she scampered towards the edge of the hill facing Liscor. She looked back and put a paw over the edge, staring at Lyonette. The [Princess] frowned.
“Mrsha. Don’t you dare.”
Mrsha weighted the odds of disobedience and grudgingly drew her paw back. Erin smiled as she crept over. She leapt and snagged Mrsha. The Gnoll thrashed wildly in delight.
“Gotcha! Let’s play tag, Mrsha!”
A big smile came over Mrsha’s face. She nodded rapidly. Lyonette sighed.
“I have to manage the inn. You two have fun. But please don’t get all muddy!”
Erin raced after Mrsha, laughing. Then she stopped. She frowned and looked up suddenly.
Mrsha’s slowed. She turned around. Lyonette bit the inside of her cheek. But her gaze was fixed on both Erin and Mrsha. Because Erin’s face had suddenly gone blank. Both the Gnoll and the young woman hesitated. Erin Solstice stared up at the sky. And for a moment, Lyonette saw her expression cloud. Then she shook her head and the smile returned.
“Whatever. Hey, this isn’t large enough to play tag in and we don’t have enough people! Liscor’s all mud and rain, but at least we’ve got grass, right Mrsha? Lots of it! But I bet Celum has a lot more.”
She looked at Mrsha. The Gnoll nodded and smiled, and her tail wagged a bit. Lyonette sighed in relief. She walked back towards the inn as Erin decided to give Mrsha a piggyback ride instead. She paused at the open door to the inn to look around.
Springtime for Liscor. It was actually a disgusting sight. The hill that The Wandering Inn stood on was indeed lush, where the grass and other plants had yet to reclaim the mostly muddy Floodplains around Liscor. No matter where Lyonette looked, she only saw brown mud and dirt, with sparse patches of color where the plants were regrowing. But the valleys were still full of thickening mud. And aside from Liscor’s drab walls, the mountains were the only distinct contrast in the background.
And yet, the area around the hill was verdant. And the culprit responsible for that was sitting next to Erin, tail innocently wagging as she panted excitedly. Erin picked Mrsha up and twirled her, laughing.
“Who’s the best little [Mage] ever? You are! Yes, you are! Did Moore teach you how to do this?”
Mrsha shook her head and reached for her little wand strapped to her side. She waved it excitedly and Erin leaned back before she got an eye poked out.
“All by yourself? Well, don’t work too hard. But you did very good! Maybe I should give my [Gardener] a raise?”
She laughed as the Gnoll’s ears perked up. Lyonette watched as Erin handed Mrsha a copper coin and Mrsha, as serious as any Gnoll with money, spirited it away in the tiny pouch she now carried around her neck.
So there sat Erin Solstice, playing with Mrsha. Weeks had passed since the days when she hid in her rooms. And even if the sun was occasionally lost for the clouds and rain, those days had passed. The eternal rain around Liscor had ended. And things were looking up.
Better and better. Lyonette walked back into the inn. And it was Lyonette who straightened her apron and checked for grass stains. Her red hair was tied back with a handkerchief, and it was a familiar eye that Lyonette ran over the guests in her inn. Because it was her inn.
For now. Erin was on break. She still cooked and helped with some tasks, but she often went into Pallass. Or just walked around Celum, or played with Mrsha. She needed it. And Lyonette needed this.
“Not too busy. Drassi, can you make a run into Liscor? Erin’s thinking of trying to make more egg drop soup. And she uses a lot of eggs. I think she’s being too literal.”
“Can do, Lyonette!”
A Drake happily saluted and abandoned her table-cleaning duty. Lyonette nodded to the [Barmaid], then raised a finger.
“You have one hour.”
“Aw. Okay, fine. I’ll be back!”
Drassi pouted, but she and Lyonette knew that an hour was more than enough. And given the chance, the [Gossip] would have happily spent three hours chatting with everyone she met in the market and on the way back. She headed towards the magic door. Lyonette turned her attention past her.
“I’m telling you, Pisces. It may not be ‘economical’, but these guarding contracts are worth good money. We can do a few and come away with gold. What’s your issue?”
She saw a group of adventurers sitting at one of her tables. Pisces, Yvlon, Ceria, and Ksmvr were all sitting together, arguing. They too were a fixture of the inn. Pisces raised one finger as he sat back, nursing a cup of water.
“They may be worth more money as a whole package, but as I explained twice, Ceria, the pay-per-hour is far, far less reasonable than we would earn hunting monsters. Moreover, we do not level any of our classes when we guard our clients. In most cases. It’s more efficient to hunt down monsters rather than waste time on fruitless idle work.”
“You just don’t like standing around. You could read while we did it, you know. We don’t all have to be on guard duty all the time. It’s good pay.”
“I do not mingle well with most of our esteemed clientele.”
“That’s because you sneer at them, Pisces. Look, until we get better requests by going north or getting that door to Invrisil open, we can’t do monster hunting all the time. We’re wiping out the local jobs. We’ll have to go to Ocre or Wales soon.”
“Yes. Our efficiency is a cause for great distress in the other teams. Another sign of dominance.”
That came from Ksmvr. Lyonette snorted gently and Ceria and Pisces laughed. Yvlon sighed.
“Ceria, don’t encourage Ksmvr. I told you, Ksmvr, it’s not polite to say that to the other adventurers in the guild.”
“Keep doing it, Ksmvr.”
The Antinium’s head swung back and forth between Yvlon and Pisces. He wavered, then turned to Yvlon.
“I will not do so in the future, Yvlon.”
“Traitor. Is it so wrong to mock the teams, which, might I remind you, conspired to jail all of us and then attempted to usurp our mission? We may have struck a nonaggression pact, but I personally believe—”
“Shut up, Pisces.”
The adventurers laughed again. They sat back easily and Lyonette saw Ishkr pass them with a tray of drinks. He was heading towards the back of the inn. And when she turned her attention and ears there, another conversation became audible. Or rather, a soliloquy.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my paw? Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.”
On the stage, watched by a few scattered tables of early morning guests was a Gnoll. He stood on stage, grasping at a dagger before him. Macbeth, staring at a very real dagger being held up on a string, paused in his delivery of the soliloquy and coughed. An impatient voice yelled from behind the curtain.
“Cut! What’s wrong this time, Yimur?”
The Gnoll looked apologetic as the other [Actors] appeared. Two of the audience members sitting at the tables booed; the Players of Celum took no notice. The ten or so veteran Human actors and new aspiring cast of Drakes, Gnolls, and Humans crowded around the lead Gnoll.
“Sorry. It’s just that…hrr, it’s these lines, Director Temile. I do not know if this is all too fitting for a Gnollish Macbeth. You see, I agree with the changing of ‘hand’ to ‘paw’, but this dagger? It makes no sense, yes?”
He scratched at one red-brown, furry ear as he spoke to Temile, the lead direct and [Actor] now that the main cast had left Celum for the north. The man scrubbed a hand through his hair impatiently.
“It makes no sense. Why not? It’s a dagger. Macbeth is staring at it. What’s there to wonder about?”
Yimur spread his paws out helplessly.
“If it is a dagger, why does Macbeth have a hard time seeing it? Even if it is pitch-black, he should be able to see it if he can make it out. Gnolls have very good eyesight. I understand that a Human might not have an issue, but if I see a dagger, I know it’s a dagger, yes?”
He looked around. The other Gnolls nodded along with some of the Drakes. Temile groaned.
“It’s meant to be a metaphor. Look, Erin explained it to me once. This fellow, who you’re playing—”
One of the Drakes added in helpfully. Temile turned to glare.
“Yes, Macbeth. Whose part you were selected to play before all the others, by the way, Yimur. He’s staring at a dagger. In his mind. Alright? We’ll get rid of the prop. Or maybe we’ll say it’s an illusion spell. But he doesn’t know it’s a dagger, see? He’s wondering if he’s gone crazy.”
“Even so, if it were a Gnoll, he would know what he sees. Why does he have to wonder? I know that’s a dagger. And that’s a spoon. And that’s a cup. Why would I waste words wondering, even if my mind is playing tricks on me?”
“So would Drakes. We know daggers. We’re not all crazy like you Humans.”
The non-Human cast agreed. Temile clutched at his hair.
“It’s an illusion in the mind! Madness! He’s thinking to himself, alright? And if you want to be Macbeth, you’ll start imagining a dagger too! Take it from the top!”
Temile stomped back behind the curtain. Lyonette watched as Yimur the Gnoll disconsolately took his position again. The Gnoll stared at the air and gasped.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my paw? Yes! Come, let me clutch thee.
I have thee not, which surely indicates an illusion spell and yet I see thee still.”
Lyonette laughed. So did some of the audience. The Players of Celum weren’t ready to put on any big plays, not if the arguing cast was any indication. But they were practicing every day in the inn, day and night, and the casting call had attracted nearly a hundred applicants. And they did bring in some guests, who came just to watch the plays and the actors working out the bugs in their routine. When they finally started putting on proper plays, Lyonette expected some good business.
But the inn was still pulling in money. Not huge money, but enough. Lyonette had big plans. And as a breathless Erin came in with a tousle-haired Mrsha, Lyonette was pleased enough that she could just direct one of the Gnoll servers to bring Erin and the Gnoll some water rather than have to do it herself. Erin smiled as she came to a table and Mrsha drank thirstily from her cup.
“That was fun! How’s the crew, Lyonette?”
“Dreadful as I understand it. You want to give them some pointers?”
Erin laughed as she watched Yimur do another take of Macbeth’s soliloquy.
“No thank you! I got enough questions from Jasi and Wesle’s lot. The Players are a lot more into plays than I ever was. They’d be right at home in a class discussing all that. I’m just lucky that I got a B- in class.”
“That’s one of your scores, right?”
Lyonette tried to remember Erin’s lessons about Earth. The young woman nodded.
“It’s uh, below average. A tiny bit. Anyways, I remembered the plays thanks to my Skills. Someone else can interpret them. Whew! I’m beat. I think I’m going to do some work now. Enough grass.”
She plucked at some grass stuck to her tunic. Mrsha shook her fur and Lyonette sighed. Someone would have to clean that up. She still helped clean. But the smile on both faces was eminently worth it. She cast a glance at Erin. The day had started well. And knowing the [Innkeeper]’s new routine…
“Are you going to Pallass today? I’d like you to look for some rarer ingredients in the market if you do.”
Erin hesitated. She frowned and glanced back towards the magic door. Ishkr trotted over and changed the dial holding the magic stones. He checked all the locations for waiting guests, shrugged since there was no one, and closed the door. Erin shook her head.
“Maybe not Pallass today. I’m gonna stop bugging Rufelt and Lasica every day. Plus, I want to make some stuff to take to them. I promised I’d show Lasica my cakes! So how about it, Mrsha? Want to help me make some cakes today? If you promise not to keep stealing from the bowl, I’ll let you lick the spoons.”
Mrsha looked up and nodded rapidly. Lyonette frowned.
“Mrsha’s been gaining a bit of weight, Erin. She needed it, but no extra slices of cake. Okay?”
Mrsha shot Lyonette a betrayed look. Erin smiled.
“I promise. And it’s great weather for it. I just need to maybe get more eggs and…”
Her head turned towards the bright windows, letting in sunshine. Erin frowned. She was suddenly struck by a thought she hadn’t had in months.
“Hey. You know, it is springtime.”
“You don’t say?”
Lyonette glanced at the windows and raised her eyebrows. Erin blinked at her.
“What I mean is, it’s been spring for a while. I hear some [Farmers] are even pulling in harvests. Everything’s growing, right?”
Mrsha rotated her paws in front of her chest, twitching her ears impatiently.
Go on, go on.
Erin absently nodded.
“Right. So…I wonder if we can harvest some blue fruits?”
Both Lyonette and Mrsha sat up. They stared at Erin. She looked at them.
“We couldn’t in winter. But it is spring. Right? They were the first things I ever ate here. And I bet the trees are still there.”
Lyonette blinked. Blue fruits? She had no idea…no, wait, she did remember Erin moaning about not having any. Erin got to her feet. She looked at Mrsha.
“Want to go for a walk?”
The Gnoll grinned. Lyonette hesitated.
“Put your boots on first, Mrsha. And no running on all fours! And Erin, remember to take some emergency items.”
And there they were. Blue fruits, hanging from the pale grey trees. The bright, rounded shapes were unnaturally colorful in the muddy valley. Mrsha and Erin’s boots splashed in the bottom layer of congealing mud. Both Gnoll and young woman were slightly muddy; it had been a dirty trek. But it was worth it. Erin breathed out as she stared up at the blue fruit trees.
“Oh wow. So that’s why they’re impossible to knock down. They were under water!”
The valley of blue fruit trees had indeed been under water. When the rains had come, this entire area had been submerged, Erin was sure. Now, as the sun and air slowly dried the area, higher valleys like this were nearly dry. Still, Erin was fascinated that none of the blue fruit trees had collapsed. She was sure the mud and draining water might have shifted a lot of the landscape. Why hadn’t the trees been toppled? She walked around one, staring up at the tall branches.
“Must have some kind of…incredible root system. And the ability to photosynthesize under water? Can trees hold their breath? No—wait—do they need to breathe?”
Mrsha looked blankly up at Erin. The young woman stroked her chin.
“Well, I was bad at biology anyways. And look! They’ve got blue fruits! Well, hm—those are black.”
She pointed at some of the fruits higher up. Mrsha squinted and nodded. The smaller fruits on the limbs were black, wrinkled, not nearly as lush or round as the lower-hanging, earliest blue fruits.
“So the fruits aren’t ripe until they’re blue. And they’ve got those big, poison seeds. Don’t bite any until we get to the inn, Mrsha. I’m serious. I think I got poisoned once and I threw up. Pisces said they’re deadly and he’s right sometimes.”
Mrsha nodded seriously. She eagerly waved the basket she’d carried. Erin laughed.
“Yes, yes! We can get some! Let’s see. I normally just kick the trees and wait for the fruits to drop. But ick. And that sometimes makes the cores break. Why don’t we do it like this? Mrsha, you get a ride on my shoulders. Can you reach them?”
The Gnoll nodded. After shucking her boots, she stood on Erin’s shoulders and began plucking fruits. Erin kept her steady and the Gnoll filled the basket. Although she had to stop every few seconds to glance down at Erin for reassurance that Erin was holding on tight. Mrsha really didn’t like heights, or cartwheels or anything that altered her sense of gravity.
Erin wondered if that was a difference between her species and Mrsha’s ancestors. Humans evolved from apes, right? What did Gnolls evolve from? Hyenas? Erin bet there was a video of a monkey doing a cartwheel. Right? There had to be one.
The orchard was bigger than Erin remembered. Or rather, looking at it now and all the budding fruits hanging off the tall limbs, Erin was sure that it could provide the inn with enough fruits all year if the trees kept producing into the fall. Especially with her [Field of Preservation] Skill. The only thing was that Erin didn’t remember there being nearly so many fruits when she’d first found this place.
“We can make a lot of blue juice, Mrsha. Get those ones too! We’ll get a big basket and Lyonette can help us get the rest later. Or we’ll borrow a bag of holding from Ceria.”
Erin trotted over to another tree. She stared up. The trees had a lot of fruit! So why hadn’t she noticed so many? Did they produce less in the fall? Or did the orchard have other eaters? She’d never seen one of the Dino Birds eating from it, and the Rock Crabs avoided the place like the plague. So how—
Mrsha was reaching for another blue fruit when she noticed Erin had stopped. She kicked gently, and then looked down. Erin was staring blankly up at her. The young woman’s voice was quiet.
“Oh. Rags’ tribe must have eaten these all the time as well.”
Mrsha’s ears drooped. Erin stared up at her and her face scrunched up. But neither she nor Mrsha cried. Erin stared at the basket tucked under one arm. She lowered Mrsha. It was nearly full to the brim, anyways.
“It’s okay. Let’s go back, huh? And then you can have the first batch of blue fruit juice. I think we should water it down though; it’s too sweet! But hey, we can make a carrot cake, okay?”
The [Innkeeper] smiled. And after a moment she didn’t need to force it. Mrsha nodded eagerly and Erin carried her back to the boots, which were partially embedded in the mud. Erin looked at the orchard as Mrsha put her boots on.
This was Erin Solstice’s new world. With less evil Goblins, but one dear friend. Instead of walking alone, a little Gnoll held her hand. And her inn had patrons, guests she knew and loved and people who came to her inn because it was a place. Everything changed.
Except for Rock Crabs. One came over the hill and Erin and Mrsha chased it away and legged it back to the inn. Rock Crabs sucked.
“I shouldn’t have let you go. Not without a guard.”
Lyonette was fretting when Erin and Mrsha told her the story. The Gnoll shook her head while she let Lyonette clean her fur with a bit of soapy water. Erin raised a hand.
“Hey. In my defense…I did have some potions and a Tripvine Bag. It’s just that blue fruit cores work best on those rock-jerks.”
“It’s still dangerous. At least neither of you were hurt. But you both have to take more care. At least bring more items! Or we can have Ishkr or Numbtongue go with you.”
“As what, bait?”
Lyonette recriminations were cut short by Ishkr emerging from the kitchen. The Gnoll had the basket they’d brought back and some blue paws. He placed the basket on the table and Erin saw it was filled with sticky blue fruit cores, all unbroken.
“Good work, Ishkr! That was quick!”
“No problem, Miss Erin. I’m going to get some water and wash my paws. Where do you want the basket, Lyonette?”
“By the window, Ishkr. They can dry out and then we’ll keep them to chase the Rock Crabs off. No, Apista! Leave Ishkr alone. And don’t you dare break those cores! Ishkr, sorry, but can you wash them in the stream first?”
Lyonette chased Apista away. Ishkr eyed the Ashfire Bee and nodded.
“Watch out for those big fish!”
Erin called at the Gnoll’s back. Then she turned to Lyonette.
“I love employees.”
“They are useful. I’ll pulp the rest of the fruits myself. It really is as sweet as you claimed! I thought you had to be exaggerating. And the colors!”
The [Princess] smiled widely with delight. She wanted to rub her hands together, but they were all muddy and Mrsha was squirming. Erin nodded. She had a cup herself. She sipped from it.
“It’s so sugary! Just as good as anything back home. Totally worth nearly getting eaten by a Rock Crab for.”
“We can sell your blue fruit drinks for a big profit, I think. Especially since no one else in Liscor seems willing to harvest blue fruits.”
Pisces, sitting close to them, leaned over.
“Because they’re a deadly poison. The amount of toxins in one fruit core could kill you quite, quite dead even with a healing potion! I’ve told Erin this time and time again. The fact that none of us have perished yet is a statistical anomaly, not a cause for complacency!”
He stared at the three females. Mrsha rubbed her nose. Erin rolled her eyes and Lyonette took Pisces’ words to heart. Pisces stared at them, then sat back up right and raised his empty cup.
“Another blue fruit beverage, if you would be so kind. I will admit that the sacchariferous nature of the drink makes it quite refreshing.”
“Me too. I love this stuff. Tree rot, I’d forgotten how good it was!”
Ceria sighed as she sipped from her cup. Yvlon looked mildly appalled as she watched both get big refills from one of the Drake [Servers].
“I’d forgotten how sweet this is. It’s okay for me. No more, thank you. Do you have any water?”
She pushed her cup back. Ksmvr gently vibrated in his seat as he reached for the pitcher.
“I believe I am experiencing a sugar overload. I will have another, thank you.”
Lyonette gently motioned and the female [Server] drew back before Ksmvr could help himself. She turned to Erin.
“Do you have a price set? Or can I choose one?”
Erin shook her head.
“I dunno. You charge what you want for it, Lyonette. And we should start putting out those acid fly traps I told you about. Remember? No, wait. You don’t. You came after the acid flies!”
The [Princess] frowned.
“I’ve seen those green things buzzing around with all the dead fish and mud. That’s money too?”
“It is. I’ll tell you all about them! And my traps! I sold this horrible face-eating acid stuff for a lot of money to adventurers!”
Lyonette’s eyes lit up. The idea of selling acid in jars sounded dangerous, and the concept of farming flies was gross. But she could get behind the idea of money. The idea of acid flies filled her with avarice, rather than disgust. Okay, and a bit of disgust. She snapped her fingers together, thinking of a good spot for the traps. Not too close to the inn; Mrsha might get hurt.
“I’ll take care of it. And—Pisces, it’s six copper coins per cup! Got it?”
She looked at Pisces. He yelped.
“Six copper—that is sheer robbery, Miss Lyonette! Sheer, pure, theft of—”
Ceria slapped the [Necromancer] on the shoulder.
“Pisces, you’re rich now. You can afford the drinks. Remember?”
“Oh. In that case, I’ll take a sealed container of the drink, if you would. And some snacks for my room.”
Lyonette rolled her eyes. She looked back at Erin, doing some quick calculations.
“Six for now. If we sell just thirty four cups or a few pitchers, we’re up an entire gold coin, Erin.”
“Ooh. That’s a lot more than I charged. I think. Yeah, I used to charge two copper coins. Wow.”
Erin shook her head. Lyonette bit her lip.
“No wonder you never made money, Erin. You need to be competitive.”
The young woman paused. She screwed up her face and then gave it a resigned shake.
“But what if they complain? Or it’s too expensive? I’d feel awful. I’m no good at being mean.”
“Well, I can be mean. Peon.”
Lyonette smiled and Erin laughed. The [Princess] glanced down at Mrsha. The Gnoll was dozing in her arms.
“You need a nap, Mrsha. Too much excitement already.”
She lifted the sleepy Gnoll up and looked at Erin.
“The money will be very useful. I’m getting the Antinium to do a lot of construction work. First they’ll be expanding the hill. But Pawn hasn’t been too active of late. I think he’s…thinking. I hope he visits today.”
“Yeah. I haven’t seen him. I hope he’s okay. It took me a long time and he lost Yellow Splatters and a hundred other Soldiers. I could see if Klbkch will let me into the Hive after the cake…wait, expanding the hill?”
She blinked up at Lyonette. The [Princess] shifted Mrsha to one arm as she began to explain. Then she saw Erin’s eyes slide to the magic door, currently connected to Liscor. Forewarned, Lyonette was already turning when the door burst open and Olesm Swifttail burst into the inn.
The Drake’s blue scales flashed in the spring sunlight. He’d come through the magic door at a run. As it slammed against the wall Mrsha woke up. She stared at Olesm as he hurled an armful of letters, half opened, onto the ground. Erin and Lyonette stared at Olesm’s heaving chest, the tears in his eyes, and the letters. The Horns and other guests turned to stare. The Players of Celum stopped rehearsing.
One of the Gnoll regulars in the inn raised his mug. He grinned cheerfully.
“At last! Blue fruit juice and drama! This is what I pay for!”
It had been nearly two weeks since the last huge dramatic incident in the inn. Plenty of time for peace and quiet, which it had to be said, was much needed. But some habits died hard it seemed. And Lyonette was savvy enough to know exactly what to do.
“Anyone want more blue fruit? I’m mixing it with some ales, spirits—I’ll try some blue fruit and gin mixer. Special discount. Only eight coppers to try it out! We also have some great pretzel snacks and some fries. Mayonnaise is free for a big platter. Hands? Anyone?”
As Ishkr circulated the tables with the staff and Lyonette made a killing, Erin was with Olesm. She got him into a seat as the Drake sniffed and pounded the table, upset, but not actually crying that much. The Horns watched, munching their food and Mrsha began sneaking fries from plates as Erin sat.
“Come on, sit down Olesm. What’s this all about?”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to come here. I mean—”
The Drake [Strategist] sniffed and Erin watched some snot disappear back up a nose hole. She made a face.
One of the employees passed her one. Erin beamed. It was so nice to have hired help.
“Thanks, Fysi! Here, Olesm.”
She passed Olesm a napkin and he blew his ‘nose’. Drakes had noses like lizards, which meant their nose-holes…Erin looked away as he wiped and sniffed again.
“I’m sorry. I really am. I know you don’t want to see me. But I just got this all by City Runner and I—”
Erin stared at Olesm. She felt a mix of emotions. Anger, guilt, heartache—but none of them were overpowering. She glanced around. Numbtongue wasn’t in the common room. He was relaxing after having a bad encounter with some Rockmites the other day. And if he did come down? Well, Erin would deal with that.
She had a lot to say to Olesm. And he had done a lot. But Erin didn’t feel able to kick him out of her inn, distraught as he was. So she put her past with him aside for a second. Because they were friends. And Erin could know that, now. They were friends, still. And so she patted him on the back.
“It’s okay. What’s wrong?”
“My newsletter. I—I knew it was a bad idea. But I thought—and I sent it and I didn’t get an immediate response, because I didn’t check! They were all coming in letter form. From my big clients. I didn’t even go to the Mage’s Guild. I’ve been too afraid to. I’ve been reading the replies. But—oh, Ancestors. I’m quitting. I’m never writing another newsletter again.”
Olesm collapsed into his seat, hiccupping as the scales around his cheeks turned darker. Erin looked around.
“Your newsletter? You mean, the chess magazine with the strategy? What’s wrong with it? I thought everyone loved it! Hey, a blue fruit juice over here? With gin?”
The [Strategist] snuffled as he accepted a cup. He took a big drink and blinked. He stared at the cup.
“You have blue fruit juice in again?”
“Yup. Just today. Are all those letters about your chess magazine?”
Erin stared at the letters Olesm had dropped. The Drake nodded.
“I—you know I normally do chess games and now those games of Go? Well, I had some of your old ones written up. But I thought I’d give some commentary. Just as a [Strategist]! You know? I do have the class. But the response—”
His claw indicated the pile. Ishkr dropped a bunch on the table and Erin nodded to him. She reached for one of the opened ones and stared at a long letter full of angular script.
“May I, Olesm?”
The Drake put his head down. Erin read the letter out slowly, ignoring the screeches as the inn’s patron’s edged closer to read. Pisces unapologetically levitated a few letters towards him. Yvlon slapped his arm. Ceria grabbed a letter to read. Erin ignored both.
“‘Dear Strategist Swifttail. With respect, please eat your tail, then stand in front of a wagon so your death increases the intelligence of our species as a whole. Your commentary—I hesitate to call it an actual ‘analysis’—of Liscor’s battle with the Goblin Lord is ludicrous, ill-thought out, and frankly wrong. Moreover, it is purely unnecessary in what is meant to be an impartial commentary on chess.’”
Erin blinked. The opening of the letter looked like it had been written by someone very angry. And the contents suggested the same.
“‘Your notions about Goblins are the most ludicrous worm slime I’ve ever heard of in my life. I cannot fathom how you ever became [Strategist] for a city. Liscor is ill-served in your position, and I personally cannot bear to read your inane drivel any longer. I am unsubscribing from this newsletter. Please refrain from sending me any correspondence in the future. Strategist Beillfamt of Tullss.’ Whoa. What did you do to make him so angry?”
“Just keep reading.”
Olesm didn’t look up. Erin reached for another letter. She got two lines in this time and recoiled. There wasn’t any mention of what Olesm had done that was so egregious, but the sender was very explicit in what should be done to Olesm.
“Wow. He wants you to do what with a Creler? No, Mrsha, you can’t see.”
Erin hurriedly pushed Mrsha back. Meanwhile, at the Horns’ table, Pisces was cackling as he read through a letter. Yvlon’s lips twitched as she read from her letter.
“‘Dear Scales-for-brains’…oh my.”
Ceria read from another.
“‘To the idiot who thinks he knows strategy…’”
“This one is golden. ‘I will hunt you down and eat you alive. You have been warned!’ Ah, it’s too much! May I take some of these to read later?”
Pisces waved his letter, laughing even harder. Olesm buried his hands in his claws.
“Some of them couldn’t even be delivered. The Runner’s Guild said at least fourteen contained poison, feces, hex spells, and bugs!”
“Are there any bugs here?”
Ksmvr looked interested. Erin shook her head. She read another letter, frowning. Then she looked up.
“You said Goblins weren’t monsters?”
The inn’s guests glanced at Olesm. He jumped and slowly met Erin’s eyes. She looked at the letter she’d received. This one wasn’t as rage-filled as the others.
To Olesm Swifttail of Liscor,
I wished to write you a letter in regards to your latest newsletter, of which I am subscribed. I am a passionate fan of the new game of chess, and sincerely interested in the strategic elements of the game, as well as this new game of ‘Go’, which has just reached my city. However, I was somewhat disturbed when I discovered that your latest edition of your newsletter contained a substantial analysis of the Siege of Liscor and commentary on the Goblin element which factored into the entire affair.
Without delving into the mechanics of your analysis of the battle itself (which I have to say was well done), I confess to being greatly disturbed by your suggestions that the Goblins were in fact victims of Human and Drake politics in the battle.
I was even more alarmed by your proposal for a hypothetical peace with the Goblins, wherein the Adventurer’s Guild’s bounties on Goblins would be rescinded and they would be considered people. Let alone forging trading and non-aggression pacts with smaller Goblin tribes! I consider this suggestion dangerous, not to mention irresponsible to suggest to your audience, and I believe many of your readers share the same opinion.
We have had Goblin pacts in the past. Historically, there are four instances of Goblins on Izril being awarded exemptions from monster status. In all but one case, the Goblin individuals or tribes eventually came into conflict with the sovereign powers and were destroyed. Most recently, Garen Redfang, a noted Gold-rank adventurer slaughtered half his team before fleeing. I understand he perished at Liscor, which all to the better. But it only proves the point: history shows Goblins are unlikely to be trusted.
Strategist Olesm, your arguments, while well-intentioned, fail when shone upon with the light of history. I have enclosed three books with this letter, which detail in part the efforts to make any kind of lasting pact with Goblins on Baleros and Chandrar respectively, as well as their use as auxiliaries in Rhir at one point. Note the Baleros book – Monstrous Warfare with additional commentary by none other than Niers Astoragon, the Titan of Baleros whom I understand you hold in some regard. He underlines the same points I have just made.
Please educate yourself and present any further arguments with factual references to back up your assertions, or at least an acknowledgement of counterarguments. I do await further newsletters with impatient anticipation, and would request that you include a more basic guide to the strategy of this new ‘Go’ game that has come from Baleros. You appear to have a quite expert player you are sourcing from, but the nuances of your three examples are lost on me at the moment. Thank you for your time.
[Strategist] and [Historian], Quelmi Seventails of Fissival
Erin stared at the letter. Olesm was hitting himself on the forehead. He snuffled.
“Yeah. I wrote it. I just thought—I know what you must think, Erin. And I thought you were right! Sort of. At least at the battle, I thought, if we had tried some other tactic, or if we’d had any framework for peace—I just suggested using Goblins as a deterrent for other monsters! I proposed hypotheticals in which they could be treated as something other than monsters. And I got…”
He waved a hand weakly at the letters. Erin picked up another. This one said that if Olesm ever made it to the Drake’s city, he would be beaten. The next one was from a Human. It was no less vitriolic. Erin shook her head. She looked at Olesm.
“You actually wrote that Goblins aren’t monsters? And you didn’t expect people to jump down your throat and try to pull your stomach out?”
Ceria looked skeptically at Olesm. He glared at her with one red eye.
“I thought they’d understand my point, Ceria! These are supposed to be [Strategists]! Can’t they accept an idea? Instead, they hate me. It’s over. No one’s ever going to read my newsletter again. I’m going to be a pariah in every city in the world.”
He collapsed into his seat. Yvlon rolled her eyes.
“Don’t be dramatic. They’re not all bad. This one thinks you’re hilarious. Have a read.”
She flicked a letter at Olesm. He grabbed for it and read. His face only grew more morose.
“So I’m a joke as well as a traitor and an idiot. Wonderful.”
He slumped back over and drained his entire cup. Erin stared at the second letter. She shook her head.
“So they didn’t like it. Not all of them hated it. And—maybe your ideas did suck.”
This time everyone stared at her. Erin looked around.
“What? Maybe they did.”
“You’re the last person I’d ever expect to hear that from, Erin.”
Ceria gave Erin a very long look. The [Innkeeper] sighed.
“Olesm’s writing to [Strategists]. Maybe his proposals sucked. Strategically. You know? I know about magazines and being good at something. I used to make fun of idiots who wrote in the chess stuff I read. This letter says that Olesm didn’t think his arguments out or use facts. I get that. It doesn’t mean his ideas weren’t right. Just that he didn’t cite his sources and stuff. See?”
She passed the letter to Olesm. He began to read gloomily. But then his expression grew more intent. Erin looked around.
“Hey, everyone grab a letter. They’re not all bad, are they?”
“This one’s not.”
Lyonette passed one to Erin. She read it.
“‘Too much personal opinion. Not enough chess. I didn’t sign up for that, thanks.’ Lyonette, this isn’t nice.”
“It’s not super bad. And they say they want more chess, right?”
“Indeed. This one advises Olesm to ‘stick to what he knows’. Heh.”
Pisces chortled. Ksmvr waved another letter.
“This one seems the least hostile. Miss Erin. Come see.”
He handed Erin a letter. She read it. It wasn’t so much a letter as a pair of sentences.
I don’t agree about the Goblins. But keep up the good work.
There was no sender or address. There were, however, four gold coins stuck to the back of the letter. Erin nearly dropped the letter in shock. When she showed Olesm the letter, the Drake’s head snapped up and his eyes went wide.
“What? That can’t be right. That’s a bribe to have the City Runner hit me over the head or something. Isn’t it?”
“It came with the letter and you don’t have a bruise. I think it’s for you. And—look. Here’s another.”
Ishkr had another letter which Erin read out loud.
“‘To Olesm Swifttail. I like it. None of my [Strategist] teachers liked your proposal. They’re probably sending you outraged [Messages] right now. But I wanted to say that we study strategy in Manus’s school, and all of my classmates think your strategy makes sense. Why do we have to practice the same strategy that Drakes a thousand years ago used? Ally with the Goblins? Try out new ideas? I wish you taught my school instead of these old flake-scales. Please keep writing about new and interesting things like this!’ Wow! Olesm!”
The Drake grabbed the letter and read it himself. Then he read the long one Erin had gotten. His eyes widened.
“They actually liked it? This is from students in Manus? But that’s the officer training school!”
“This one’s complimentary too. And this one.”
More letters began appearing in front of Olesm. Of course, for every good letter there were ten or sometimes twenty bad ones, but they started appearing the more Erin looked. People who hated Olesm’s guts, people who wanted him to get back to chess. Ambivalent, amused—it wasn’t all vile. Of course, the vile letters still hurt. Erin was so offended by one letter she had to burn it.
“That hurt my feelings! Wow! No one reads that, especially not you, Olesm. You’ll seriously cry.”
Pisces just laughed harder.
“A [Writer] or [Scribe] wrote that. They can make words hurt as much as stones. Ah, but this is good.”
He sipped from his drink, reading another letter. Erin glared at him.
“I’m glad you can enjoy Olesm’s pain.”
The [Necromancer] looked up sardonically.
“Why shouldn’t I? It’s not as if any of this matters.”
Everyone looked at him. Pisces shook his head. He scornfully tossed his letter into the fireplace.
“These are just words. Well, I suppose the letters that were trapped bear some danger. But what should Olesm care about anyone’s opinion? He is free to say what he chooses. And if he is correct, then the opinions of his peers are worth less than the barking of dogs. If he is wrong—well, he is still free to say what he wishes. But deriding an opinion is the mark of small-minded folk.”
His eyes glittered as he leaned over his table, looking at Olesm. Ceria followed Pisces silently with her head. After the [Necromancer]’s speech, the inn was silent. Olesm slowly looked up. He looked down at the letters in front of him. Then, abruptly, he rubbed at his eyes and stood.
“I’m…going to write an immediate newsletter. After I read those books. He said there were three other times when Goblins weren’t considered monsters in Liscor? And one that didn’t end in death? I’m going to find it. And do a tutorial. And—Erin, can you show me how that Shogi game worked?”
He looked at Erin. The young woman blinked.
“Of course. But you’re writing another newsletter?”
“I have to clarify my position. And put more chess into it. I’ll—I’ll attach some of the notes the Adventurer’s Guild gave me on the Raskghar too! That’s critical information! I can’t just do nothing, can I?”
Olesm grabbed at the letters. He looked around. Pisces nodded. He raised a cup and downed his drink as well before standing.
“I believe Liscor would lack the books required. But Pallass may well have the tomes you want, Olesm. Why don’t we visit the city and come back to study Erin’s games?”
The [Strategist] paused.
“You want to come with me, Pisces?”
The [Necromancer] pretended to inspect his robes.
“I imagine you’d want to craft a suitably encompassing reply to your detractors. And I personally think a few scathing remarks would not go amiss to the more asinine complaints. A proper, cited essay isn’t easy to do either. You would do far worse than Wistram’s top student in drafting a proper dissertation.”
“Former top student.”
Ceria whispered. Pisces ignored her. Erin blinked. And then she remembered that Pisces and Olesm did hang out together from time to time. The [Strategist] sniffed again.
The [Necromancer] smiled, and looked uncomfortable at the genuine emotion. He conjured a sneer to hide it.
“Lead on, friend Olesm. And don’t drip on me. Miss Solstice, we will be borrowing the door to Pallass. If you don’t object?”
He raised his brows as he steered Olesm towards the door. Erin opened her mouth. Then she paused.
“Nope. Go ahead.”
Pisces opened the door and Pallass’ streets appeared for a second. Then he and Olesm walked through and the door went dead. Erin winced, but then she grinned.
“You big softie.”
“That’s certainly new.”
Ceria started at the door. She blinked at Yvlon, who blinked back.
“Who knew Pisces would actually volunteer to help anyone. Well, I’d better recharge that door. Damn. I’ll get it up and running, but those two might have to stay in Pallass the night.”
Grumbling, she went over to the door. But Erin caught the pleased look on her face. The [Innkeeper] looked at the letters, and swept the ones on the table into a pile.
“Well, I think I’ll wait and see if they can find a way back. I’m always free to talk about chess. And Go…I think I can remember a few good games. Hold on. Do we have a good Go board? I should get one made.”
She got up. The inn’s guests sighed. The show was over. And as if on cue, Numbtongue wandered down the stairs, yawning and scratching at a few recently-healed bites on his legs. He stopped when he saw the crowd.
“Morning. What’s that?”
He pointed at the blue fruit juice. Erin beamed.
“Blue fruit juice! Want some?”
The Hobgoblin looked dubious, but he accepted the drink and downed some of it. Instantly his eyes brightened. He had another cup as Erin explained where she’d gotten it and gave him a summary of what had just happened. The [Bard] didn’t seem disappointed to have missed Olesm, but after a few second’s thought, he grabbed some of the letters to read himself. No one stopped him.
Lyonette was counting the coin from her recent sales. She looked around, and then came to a second decision.
“Ishkr—no, actually, Numbtongue, can you do me a favor?”
The Goblin and Gnoll looked up. Lyonette gestured towards the magic door that Ceria was recharging.
“The door’s got only a bit of energy left, but it should recharge in an hour. And it’s got enough for a few teleportations. So…Numbtongue, can you bring a door out to the orchard and find a place for it? That way we’ll spare the trip and danger collecting the fruits from now on.”
Erin’s eyes brightened with delight.
“Ooh. A door right next to the orchard? That would make everything so much easier! But why Numbtongue and not Ishkr?”
“Numbtongue can call down lightning bolts. Ishkr, set the door to his stone just in case. Numbtongue, do you mind?”
The [Bard] eyed his drink and shook his head.
“Easy. I’ll do it.”
The Hobgoblin grabbed his guitar and a blue fruit on the way out. Lyonette followed him, pointing the orchard’s direction out for Numbtongue.
“Just use your emergency door for now. I’ll order a…door from Liscor or Celum.”
He nodded and ambled out. Erin smiled. That was another thing. Numbtongue was so casual. He talked, he did his thing—and he belonged here. And Lyonette certainly didn’t hesitate to ask him to lift something or help her out.
Erin got out a Go board and the stones and put them on a table. She remembered her magical chessboard and inspected it.
“No moves since last time. But that’s okay. We don’t play too often. I wonder if my opponent’s bored? I’m not. Just busy.”
Despite having more time on her hands, Erin just didn’t play chess as much as she had at some points in her life. There was an entire Walled City to see. And besides, a few games every other day was good enough. It wasn’t like she was obsessed. But for Olesm’s newsletter, Erin was only too happy to begin recreating some devilishly hard Go games and chess matches.
Ironically, it was that which killed almost all interest in her. The inn patrons returned to watching the play, while Ksmvr and two of the guests who liked chess watched Erin with pure fascination. She was happily explaining a game to them when the door opened and Numbtongue strolled through. He wiped his feet on the rug and tossed a blue fruit at Lyonette.
“Wow! That was fast!”
Erin looked up. Numbtongue gave Erin a long look.
“It’s been thirty minutes.”
Mrsha was asleep in the seat next to her. Erin looked at the chess board.
Then she went back to explaining chess to her small audience. Lyonette treated Numbtongue to a bowl of chewy pretzels and mayonnaise as a thank-you, and Ceria yawned, mana spent and tired. Yvlon got up as the Players of Celum began a run-through of Macbeth.
“I’m going to do some training in the Adventurer’s Guild. Ksmvr, will you join me?”
“I am being fascinated, Yvlon. I fear I must decline.”
Ksmvr waved a hand at Yvlon. She nodded and ambled through the door to Celum. Erin stayed where she was, smiling. She had some blue fruit juice, she was playing chess, and she had just seen the pawn on the magic chessboard move experimentally.
The crisis with Olesm was over. She had blue fruits, acid flies might be on the way, and Erin had games to play, and a cake to bake. Pisces and Olesm might come back tonight and in that case Erin would have fun teaching them some more strategy and seeing what they’d wrote.
That was her day. And it was a fine day. It would have happened almost just like that too, but for a strange thing. Five minutes after Yvlon had left, she thrust the door open.
“Hey. There’s a huge crowd in Liscor. It looks like some kind of protest! Anyone know what it’s about? It looks like Krshia’s leading it!”
She said it to the room, but her eyes went straight to Erin at her table. The young woman paused in moving a spectral chess piece and looked up.
“Who, me? I didn’t do it.”
Ceria, Mrsha, Lyonette, and Ishkr all turned to look at Erin. Numbtongue poked his head down the stairwell with his bowl of pretzels in one hand. The Players of Celum and other guests turned to stare. Erin raised her hands.
“It wasn’t me! Honest!”
She hesitated and rolled her eyes up for a second.
And in fact, for once the event had nothing to do with Erin. It had been started by people who had no intention of involving her, and nothing in her inn or any of her actions had started it, in any direct sense of the world. It was happening outside of Erin’s inn and outside of her ability to influence the situation greatly.
It was a novel situation.
In Liscor, the name of The Wandering Inn was as famous as that of the Tailless Thief. It was a place that almost everyone had heard of. Most people could point it out, even if they called it an eyesore or a ‘festering hotspot of trouble’. Of course, there were people who spoke only praise of it. And those who didn’t care.
But love it, hate it, the inn had become part of Liscor. It was known. And the young woman who ran it, Erin Solstice, was just as infamous. People recognized her on the street. That insane, loon of a Human. The girl who protected Goblins. The [Innkeeper] who’d helped destroy Skinner. Friend of the Antinium. Foe of the Raskghar. That crazy human.
And her life was full of event. So here was someone in Liscor who did not have an eventful life. He was a Drake. And his name was Stales Greenscale. He had green scales.
Nothing about Stales’ life was that extraordinary. Nor was he an extraordinary figure. Oh, he has some qualities which were out of the ordinary, but only in a mundane sense. He was not one of the Oldblood, although his great, great aunt had been gifted with vestigial wings. A source of much pride in the Greenscale family.
Stales himself though had no defining features. His scales were an olive green. He wasn’t particularly tall, although his tail was half an inch stouter than the average. Stales was proud of that fact, and worried about the slight bleaching of color in his neck spines over the years. He was in his middle ages and often dressed in less contrasting clothing to accentuate the color of his scales and spines. Because he wasn’t married. He’d always waited for the right Drake to come along (or Gnoll, you couldn’t be picky, although the fur was something to think about), but he’d never just…clicked with anyone.
So Stales was looking, but not too hard. And honestly, wasn’t he a catch? If you were into ordinary fish, he was…a trout? A good one, though. Stales was a [Merchant], the current head of Liscor’s Merchant’s Guild. And he was a wealthy Drake, at least in Liscor. That made him slightly unordinary, even influential. But unlike the more ambitious breed of [Merchant], Stales was content to make money, save it, and not put his tail on the line to earn a vast amount.
He was happy. Or at least, he thought so. Stales’ one goal in life was to find Miss Greenscale, or Greenfur, again, as the case might be. Not Greenflesh, thanks. Stales had gotten over his weird years and a body covered in skin just didn’t do it. He knew it was only a matter of time. He was a desirable candidate, after all! He was head of the Merchant’s Guild, fairly wealthy, and he was even part of Liscor’s Council.
Sometimes Stales forgot that himself. It wasn’t as if it was a brilliant job. A Councilmember earned a small stipend from the city, met once every week or more if need be, and generally made decisions that would keep Liscor running. Usually this just meant following the advice of Liscor’s [Strategist] and the army, which sent regular suggestions back.
Sometimes the Watch Captain brought forwards an issue, and the Council had to debate on what course of action was best. They always had options, and deciding between those options could get heated at times—sometimes there were even quills thrown about! But it was seldom arduous.
Until recently of course. The events of the last few months had given Stales more grey scales than he could count. The Council had been meeting almost every day near the end, and always to little gain. The Watch Captain wanted her orders and of course something had to be done. But was the Council the body to really do it?
None of them were [Politicians] or [Leaders]. It was frankly a waste of levels, which was why the Council was always made up of Guildmaster or other prominent members of Liscor’s society who rotated on a bi-yearly basis. Usually Liscor ran itself, with occasional input from the army or its Watch Captain and [Strategist]. But recently?
At least Zel Shivertail had been around. And Wall Lord Ilvriss. Stales shuddered as he sat at an outdoor restaurant and had some perfectly ordinary salad—to watch his figure. If Wall Lord Ilvriss hadn’t kindly stepped in and given his aid to the Council, who knows what might have happened? There was just no precedent for any of the disasters that had hit Liscor, from the dungeon to the Raskghar. And the Council wasn’t about to steer the boat that was the city itself, thank-you.
Stales was looking forwards to getting out of his job. He’d helped Liscor survive the worst and even potential war with the Humans and he could pat himself on the back for that. He’d appoint a successor as was the custom of the Council and the poor Drake he nominated would be in charge for two years.
Stales was already looking at his second in the Merchant’s Guild, a really outstanding young Drake who was only in his thirties. Solid, sharp. It never crossed Stale’s mind to nominate anyone outside of his Guild. The Merchant’s Guild, which was almost solely comprised of Drakes, needed a voice on the Council. Just in case. It wouldn’t do to go somewhere else and rock the boat, would it?
This was Stales Greenscale. You could sum up his life in less than a thousand words, and even that would probably be too many. He sat at a restaurant eating salad, even though greens gave him gas. And he was not prepared for anything interesting to happen to him. Unfortunately, interesting spotted him on the street, strolled over with a brisk, ‘excuse me!’ and sat down at his table.
Stales looked up, fork in his right claw as a Drake slid into the seat across from him. This Drake was interesting. He had an eye patch. His scales were a sharp viridian and he was imposing, physically and in demeanor. When he spoke, his voice was more of a bark; it had that quality that made every sentence sound like a statement.
“You there. You’re Stales Greenscale, aren’t you? I’ve been looking for you. Mind if I have a word? Regisav Sixtails. [Butcher].”
He held out a claw. Stales stared at him, but then saw the invitation for a handshake. He hesitated, but it would have been rude to refuse, so Stales shook the proffered hand.
“Er, how do you do? I’m pleased to meet you. Stales, as you know. Head of the Merchant’s Guild and [Merchant] myself.”
“Pleased. So tell me. What’s this about Liscor not funding the City Watch?”
Stales stared at Regisav. The [Butcher] leaned further over the table.
“I said, the City Watch. I hear we’re not giving Watch Captain Zevara all the funds she asked for. She plans to double the Watch. I say that’s a good idea. We need more boots on the wall. The damn army’s not here to pick up the slack. I get that—they’re earning us coin in Oteslia, but with that dungeon, we need defenders, right? Can’t let the Antinium do all the job. So why’s the Council not giving her the funds?”
He stared expectantly at Stales. The [Merchant] blinked and fumbled for his words, completely off-guard.
“I—where did you hear that? That’s confidential information!”
His mind raced as he wondered how this Drake had found out about the Council’s latest vote. It would be public knowledge, but—drat Watch Captain Zevara! Was she causing trouble because they’d turned down her request? It was just like those young, hot blooded female Drakes. He ground his teeth. The Council would have having words with her. He composed his face and smiled insincerely at Regisav.
“I’m sorry, Butcher Regisav, was it? I’m not at liberty to discuss the Council’s decisions myself.”
That sounded good and official. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. The viridian Drake’s brows shot up and he raised his voice.
“Oh, so you won’t discuss why the City Watch isn’t being properly funded with me? Is there some kind of big secret? It’s just a question!”
Heads began turning at the restaurant and on the street. Stales winced as he saw a couple of Drakes pause and stare.
“It’s not that! It’s just that I uh, I can’t speak for the entire Council.”
“But you all made the decision. What’s there to hide? Is it lack of money? Will the army be sending more soldiers? It’s got to be something. Come on, just tell me.”
Regisav prodded Stales. The [Merchant] was sweating.
“It’s—look, it’s a complicated issue. I could pull up all the necessary reports, but some of them are classified and it’s just not something I can get into. Here. While I’m eating?”
He tried not to sound hopeful. Regisav frowned, but to Stales’ great relief, he reluctantly nodded.
“I suppose that’s fair.”
Stales sighed. Too quickly as it turned out. Regisav edged his chair closer to the table.
“Alright then. Why aren’t you thinking about taxing Liscor’s dungeon? And why aren’t there any Gnolls on the Council?”
“What? Tax, I—who’s telling you all this!”
Stales saw to his horror that the Drakes on the street were listening close, as were some of the diners at the table. He looked around for the [Waitress], but she didn’t appear inclined to come over for the bill. Regisav pointed a thumb-claw over his shoulder.
“I heard some Gnolls talking about it. Said the Council doesn’t ever accept Gnolls or new ideas. Why aren’t we putting an entry tax on the dungeon? And why isn’t the Council doing something about rent?”
“Wait, what tax on the dungeon? We’re not taxing the adventurers?”
Someone broke in from another table. The [Butcher] turned around.
“Apparently not. And we could. That’s the thing. Blew me away when I heard it too. We’re not taxing the adventurers, even though they’re bringing in gold from the dungeon. And there’s no plans to deal with rent.”
“No plans? My [Landlady] charged me an entire silver piece more than she did last month!”
Someone on the street strode over to the table, tail lashing furiously. Stales leaned back as a young Drake practically hissed at him. Suddenly he was at the center of attention and he didn’t like it one bit. Regisav, who was now speaking for a crowd, leaned even further over the table.
“So about this tax.”
“I haven’t heard about any tax! Not one thing! Who proposed it?”
The [Butcher] shrugged.
“A [Shopkeeper]. I know her from Market Street. She’s pretty famous. Runs a clean shop. Good prices. I sell my meat to her—”
“Why would I know about some [Shopkeeper]’s ideas?”
Stales was outraged. That outrage stopped cold when some [Butcher] gave him a glare over the table. Regisav tapped the table with one claw.
“Because she’s been trying to get the Council to consider her suggestion for weeks! Apparently she’s tried everything. And the Council just hasn’t listened. And it’s a damn fine idea, taxing the adventurers! Not to mention it could pay for the Watch—or expanding the Adventurer’s Guild! But that Krshia, she brought up another good point. Why are no Gnolls on Liscor’s Council? It’s all Drakes, and all Guild Leaders too. [Merchants] and so on. What about a [Butcher]? We don’t have a Guild, but our class has never had a seat on the Council. Ever.”
He looked meaningfully at Stales. And the Drake might have been an ordinary person, but he was still a [Merchant]. He could process fast and he knew a bad situation from his days as a [Trader]. He stood up abruptly, fishing for coins in his money pouch.
“I’m sorry, sir. But I can’t just sit here and tell you about the Council’s decisions on request! If there is a request, we’ll consider it as long as it comes through proper channels.”
Regisav looked impatient.
“What are the proper channels?”
Stales hesitated. ‘I don’t know’ was not a good answer here.
“—Talk to Strategist Olesm! Or Watch Captain Zevara! As for Gnolls, the Council selects its own members. The lack of a Gnoll on the Council is just…”
He trailed off. There were six Gnolls watching now. They stared at him with their big, brown eyes, unblinking. One of them, a male Gnoll, or a very burly female one, folded his arms.
“Go on. What is it just? Why aren’t we on the Council? Does the Council just never pick Gnolls?”
“Of course not. Don’t be silly.”
“Then why not let us pick the next Council? With a public vote?”
The question threw Stales. He stared at the Gnoll, along with a lot of the Drakes. But more than one face looked interested. Stales was just horrified.
“What, like some kind of election? Are you mad?”
“It’s just a suggestion. That’s what I heard too. You come from Market Street?”
Regisav turned to the Gnoll. The Gnoll nodded and bared his teeth.
“We could vote on the next Council. Why not? We could elect the best representatives. Gnolls, Drakes—male or female. Only, I was told that the Council wouldn’t even hear Honored Krshia’s request, or any of her suggestions.”
The [Butcher] grunted.
“I’m just worried about the City Watch. We need more funds for our [Guardsmen]! If this Council won’t do it, how do we know they won’t pick another Council that’ll just do the same. And not answer any of my questions.”
He looked pointedly at Stales. The [Merchant] spluttered as he backed away from the table. But he bumped into someone behind him who didn’t move.
“This is all ridiculous. The Council chooses the best members to replace us as we see fit. We make the best decisions for Liscor. The lack of money going to the City Watch is regrettable.”
“Ah, so it was unavoidable, then? Is the city out of money?”
Stales’ jaw worked for a second as his mind clamped down on any words out of sheer self-preservation.
“I can’t comment. Excuse me, I have to go. I don’t have time to talk about elections or whatnot.”
“So you’re just going to avoid the issue? You won’t even tell us why you won’t allow it?”
The Gnolls looked outraged. Stales tried to back away again and failed.
“I’m not avoiding it! I’m just very busy! The Council will decide. Later! You—you can’t just walk up to a Councilmember on the street and ask questions, you know!”
No one budged. The angry Gnoll folded his arms.
“Why not? You are a member of the Council, yes? Why can you not defend the Council’s decisions? You made them, did you not?”
The walls were closing in. And the walls were made of bodies, of scales and fur. Stales looked around wildly for any sign of escape. He found one and jumped for it.
“Ask—ask Watch Captain Zevara! Yes, she’s the Watch Captain of the City. She can field any requests.”
The crowd looked at each other. Regisav shook his head sadly. He hadn’t gotten up from his seat.
“She’s put out a public announcement that the Watch has no part in the Council’s decisions beyond enforcement. She’s also said that she’d support and help enforce an election. Even for her own position. You didn’t hear?”
He had not. Stales closed his eyes. He was going to kill Watch Captain Zevara. If he ever got back to the Council, he’d—he’d—put forwards some kind of motion for censure! What was the precedent for disciplining Watch Captains? Well, Stales was going to do some research and find out for once. He snapped at last.
“I’m not—look, we have a meeting every week. I’m not the one responsible for all of the decisions! It’s a collective decision! A vote! It’s out of my claws, get it? Now, please, I have to be going.”
He turned around. Drakes stared at him. Stales put his hands out to push and thought better. One of the Drakes tapped a claw to her chin. She was the [Waitress].
“But the Council’s what, eight people? See here, you have a vote. You’re one eighth of the Council. Would you support an election? Or put the idea before the Council yourself? That’s all I want to know.”
“I can’t decide that. It’s got to be a majority decision. I can’t just give—”
He looked around, hunted. The [Waitress] propped her claws on her hips.
“Why not? All we want to know is what you, personally, would do. Not what the Council does.”
This had never happened. Stales was hyperventilating. When the previous Councilmember, the former head of the Merchant’s Guild had told him about the position, he’d described it as just a series of boring meetings. He’d never hinted to Stales that he’d ever be surrounded and asked these sorts of questions! He was a Council member! He shouldn’t be subjected to this!
“What’s your opinion? Yes or no on elections? No Gnolls in the Council? Yes?”
Regisav was pushing Stales. The others were watching, calling out questions. The [Merchant] spun, and a desperate sentence escaped his lips.
“Of course! Of course I’d support Gnolls on the Council. Elections! Why not? We could try it.”
The mood of the crowd instantly…relaxed. They started murmuring, and Stales saw his chance to escape. He began to push through the crowd, taking advantage of the lull. Right up until he heard the voice from the Gnoll.
“You hear that? He supports it! That’s one fifth of the votes right there for a majority! Let’s tell Honored Krshia! Spread the word, Councilman Stales says yes to elections!”
“Wait, you can’t do that!”
Stales spun around. He began to panic, but it was too late. Already someone was calling it out.
“Councilman Stales says he would allow an election for the Council seats! That’s at least one vote right there! What do the other Councilmembers have to say?”
“Wait, wait! Don’t shout that! I haven’t decided! Not entirely!”
Stales screamed desperately. The crowd twisted back on him. Regisav the [Butcher] looked incredulous.
“But you just said yes! Wait, were you lying?”
Stales the [Merchant] waved his claws frantically. He hadn’t been lying! Well, not entirely. He would have brought it up before the Council. Maybe. And they probably would have entertained the idea for a few seconds. He’d just said that to get the crowd off his back. But having to commit to that exact idea?
Only, now the crowd was staring at Stales. And they had heard his words and worse, were taking them at face value. There was no comfortable, closed city hall meeting room where Stales could debate with the other seven Councilmembers whom he all knew, and look for the best and easiest option, or ask Olesm or Zevara for their opinions. There was no Wall Lord Ilvriss to take charge, or orders from the army. Zel Shivertail was dead.
And all Stales had were his own opinions and words in this crowd of Liscor’s people. And he would be accountable for everything he said. The Drake looked around wildly, realized there was no way out, and screamed once before fainting. Unfortunately, they were all there when he woke up.
The crowd that had gathered in Market Street was no riot. It wasn’t an angry mob, or even an audience to a tragedy of spectacle that usually occurred when Erin was present. It was just a crowd, filled with listening citizens. Because the center of attention wasn’t Erin Solstice for once.
It was Krshia Silverfang. She stood on her stall’s counter, almost as if she were hawking her goods to passersby. But her stage was much larger this time, the audience more crucial. And her words had more impact than any goods she could have sold. Because this time Krshia was selling an idea.
“It’s very simple, yes? Liscor’s Council needs to be changed!”
The Gnoll was speaking to the crowd. It was the third crowd she’d addressed this morning, and it was the largest one yet. People slip in and out, some having heard what Krshia had to say, others bringing friends to listen. Liscor was, after all, a small city in the large scheme of things. And Krshia was a known face. She had a simple message too, which helped.
“The Council should be replaced. It will be replaced, yes? This is the year when the Council changes! But do we want them to choose their replacements? Do we trust the Council to make good decisions? Have they made good decisions before, I wonder?”
The crowd muttered. No one exactly leapt to the Council’s defense. Krshia nodded and went on.
“What did they do when the Raskghar attacked? Or when Liscor was under siege? It seems to me Watch Captain Zevara handled all of the work! And perhaps that is well, for a Watch Captain is in charge of a city’s security. But why then were more funds not allocated to the Watch? Why didn’t the Council begin implementing new regulations on the dungeons? Why has rent doubled, yes, doubled in some parts of the city without the Council addressing the issue?”
“Tell us, then! Why aren’t they doing anything?”
One of the Drakes called out impatiently in the crowd. Krshia gave him a bitter smile, one with lips.
“The answer, Mister Silkscale, is that the Council, this Council, does not act. It maintains. And a city that does not change becomes weak. The Council does not give more funds to Liscor’s City Watch. It does not pass new laws. It does not, in fact, do anything. Which is why many of us are fed up!”
Her words provoked a lot of nodding in the crowd. Not wild cheering; Drakes were hard to get to cheer and Gnolls even harder in many respects. But they were nodding with her. Krshia raised her voice to carry even further.
“We want a new Council. And we, the Gnolls of Liscor, want to be on it.”
She tapped her chest. This provoked a few howls, similar to cat calls but much deeper, in the crowd. The Drakes looked around, but Krshia didn’t sense a lot of distrust of the idea. Just curiosity.
“And how does that help the Council? We get Gnolls who do nothing, instead of just Drakes?”
Someone called out, and laughter followed. Krshia wondered if there was a [Heckler] class. Probably, yes. She grinned in the direction of the shouter.
“No. The Council should be made up of those who will pass laws. Who will change the city. So why should the Council replace itself? Would it not be better if, instead, the city chose its Council this year?”
She may have been too roundabout in her statement. The crowd digested what Krshia meant and then someone called out incredulously.
“An election? Like some kind of democracy? You have to be joking! We’re not those loons in Pallass!”
That provoked the most unified head-nodding yet. Krshia bared her teeth desperately. She’d had to sell them on this twice. And she was a good [Shopkeeper]. She could do it again!
“Would you want the army appointing the Council? Or the existing Council to replace itself? How else would you choose a Council?”
No one had an easy answer for that. Which was the point. Krshia waved a paw at them.
“Elections are strange, yes? But think of it. We could choose our own Council. We could choose eight of our best, rather than eight Drakes many of us have never heard of. Who here knows the name of a single Council member? Anyone?”
The crowd waited. And there was no response. Krshia, who knew the names of all eight, nodded slowly.
“You see? But if we elected a Council, we would know what they would vote for. Where they would stand. You would get a Council that acts, yes? And if some Gnolls were to be part of the Council, well, it would be because they were trusted by all. Is that not so?”
“So you want an election. To choose the next Council.”
Someone near the front raised their voice. Krshia bowed slightly to an older Drake.
“Yes, sir. A fair election. Gnolls and Drakes both compete for a seat on the Council. Nothing is gained that is not deserved. Is that not an idea worth considering?”
The people of Liscor looked at each other. And some were nodding. Krshia had a moment of hope as she saw a few more figures join near the back. And then, from behind her, she heard a mocking tone.
“Gnolls have lived in Liscor for about a decade. Your people were a tiny minority until then, Silverfang. Now you strut in and demand a voice when we Drakes built this city and have lived in it for centuries! How is that fair, Krshia?”
The slightly hissing, indignant voice was familiar. As was the glaring expression. The tight-lipped smile. And he was standing on his own stall too. Krshia glared.
“You’re disrupting my business, Silverfang.”
The [Shopkeeper] glared at Krshia. She glared back. The feud between her and Lism was well-established. If there were two top salespeople on Market Street, it was Lism and Krshia. And they got along about as well as Drakes and Gnolls had historically done.
“Why should Gnolls be part of the Council, Lism? Why should they not? What is wrong with giving the option to anyone who the city trusts?”
“Only that our Council has led the city fine until your people came along. Now you want elections? Is this a blatant power grab, or just insurrection against the city, Krshia? What’s wrong with the Council’s decisions? Last I checked, Liscor was still standing. Or is defeating the Raskghar, beating back the Humans and Goblins and those damned moths not good enough for you?”
Lism studied his claws as he spoke, nonchalantly. But he look he gave Krshia was anything but. And he got some nods in the crowd. Not as many and not from any Gnolls, but some. Krshia gritted her teeth.
“I did not say the Council has done nothing—”
“That’s what you just said, Silverfang. They did nothing.”
“Well, perhaps it was the City Watch and adventurers who did the work while the Council made no changes!”
The Gnoll snapped back. Lism raised his brows.
“And what should they have done? They let the adventurers and the City Watch do their job. How is that a fault? Should the Council run about slaying Face-Eater Moths themselves?”
His words provoked chuckles. Krshia cursed Lism as she flushed and regained her footing. When she spoke, she ignored Lism’s question and stuck to her script.
“I say the Council has not done enough. That is what I am saying, Lism. And if I were on the Council, I would do more! I have put suggestions before them, tried to get their attention and been ignored! So! I am telling all you what I would do instead, since Liscor’s Council will not listen to me!”
Krshia turned her back on Lism and felt his scowl. She spread her paws, speaking and sincerely and as clearly as possible.
“If I were on the Council, I would put a tax on adventurers entering the dungeon and use the money to expand the Adventurer’s Guild. I would give more funds to the City Watch, to empower them to fight any foe that threatens Liscor in the future! The Council has not done either of these things, but if there were elections and I were elected, I would make that happen!”
Krshia watched the reactions of her audience. They perked their ears up, or looked at each other approvingly. But that was just the opening. Krshia took a breath.
“Not only that. One of the crucial issues is the soaring rent. You know it. I know it. We all pay more because Liscor is full. That is why, I say to you all now. If I was on the Council, I would solve this issue of rent. I would expand Liscor’s walls.”
A hush. And then a shout of incredulity from Lism and questions and noise from the crowd. Krshia raised her paws.
“Think on it. Liscor can hold less than a hundred thousand souls when bursting to capacity. And we are an important city, a gateway, but think of how small Liscor is! Have you not heard people of the Walled City calling Liscor a backwater? How long have these walls stayed the same? Liscor cannot grow larger than our walls. But we are not Rock Crabs, yes?”
She got several nods before Lism burst out. The [Shopkeeper] was furious as he pointed a claw at Krshia.
“You can’t expand the walls, you idiot! They’re enchanted! They’ve been here for centuries!”
“Why not? They are still just stone. Enchanted stone. But that can be built, surely?”
Lism opened his mouth furiously and hesitated. Krshia jumped in.
“Before the Second Antinium Wars, Liscor had many smaller villages around the Floodplains. Why not build more? And, I know this from the records, Liscor was not always this size! It too was built! The walls expanded twice before reaching this size! I say, why not expand them again? Why not build more walls, more houses? Why not?”
“Because—because of the cost! And because it’s not needed! We’ve had these walls for decades! At least!”
Lism faltered. But he hadn’t prepared for this debate and Krshia had. She grinned at him and felt the malice coming off him.
“So? It is just stone. And if you say we cannot afford to pay for it, Lism, I say, that is why I propose the tax on adventurers! And Liscor has its treasury. We have income from our army. We can build it cheaply.”
“Oh yes? And who can build an entire wall large enough to hold back the spring rains before next year?”
The Drake glared angrily at Krshia. She smiled. Thank you, Lism. She looked around, and the answer was on the tongue of half the people in the crowd.
“The Antinium can. And if I ask them, I think they would. They could build us a larger city. They are Liscor’s allies, are they not? And we could have a larger city. We could put a fair tax on the adventurers, expand the City Watch. But the current Council will not do it. But if we had an election—if, friends. If that were possible.”
Krshia looked across the faces, scales and fur. And she saw a Human one, peeking up and holding a white Gnoll at the back of the crowd. Krshia grinned at Mrsha and she bowed, ignoring the simmering Lism.
“I think it is possible. And this is our city. Shouldn’t we decide what we want it to be?”
And her people looked up at her. And they got the idea.
Later that day, all eight of Liscor’s Councilmembers found themselves under siege. Not in the literal sense, but very much close to it. They were confronted at work, on the streets, and in their homes by insistent citizens, angry citizens with little regard for personal space. And like Stales, they found that Liscor’s people wanted direct answers.
Krshia’s message was spreading like wildfire. An election? Well, why not? It wasn’t as if they were going to turn into Pallass. And choosing your own Council? There was some idea to that! And why not Gnolls? They were part of the city, sure enough. And did you hear what Krshia would do? And if she could run…what about you?
It was one of those ideas that took hold. Well, why not? What did Liscor have to lose? And look at how much it had to gain. Like the debate over Goblins, the conversation invaded the streets, routing the indifferent and forcing people to take sides, figure out what they thought.
But one Drake didn’t need to think. He’d known exactly what he thought the moment he heard Krshia speaking.
Lism the [Shopkeeper] strode through the streets, fuming. He’d been unable to keep standing on the stall with that—that Gnoll gleefully shouting at the crowd. Lism knew he couldn’t stop her, not alone, but she was completely wrong. He could stand her ideas about adventurers, even if he personally would kick them off. He might even agree with her ideas about the Watch. But the Antinium?
Never. And Krshia? Lism would soon as pull off his tail and eat it rather than see that sanctimonious, smug Gnoll on the Council seat. He stormed into the Mage’s Guild and up to the front desk. The [Receptionist] on duty stared at him. Lism snapped, almost too angry for words.
“Send a highest-priority [Message] to Liscor’s High Command at once. Tell them there is a situation in Liscor that requires their immediate attention.”
“A [Message], sir? High priority? You want instant delivery and straight to the [Mage] in the army? That’ll cost gold, sir. We can’t do that unless it’s an emergency. Are you sure?”
The young Drake looked uncomfortable. Lism drew up short. He glared at her.
“What? Yes, of course it’s an emergency! I want an immediate connection! Don’t worry about the cost; they’ll pay for everything! Tell them I must speak with them at once!”
“Sir, I can’t just send a priority request. Let alone to the army. That’s a serious alert! I’d have to get the Watch Captain’s permission at least to do that. Or the Council’s. Or Strategist Olesm’s. Do you have their authorization?”
“I—the Council is indisposed, but I’m acting on their behalf! This concerns them!”
Lism pounded a clawed fist on the desk. The [Receptionist] stared at it. And then at him. She frowned slowly.
“Maybe I should call my boss. Sir. Please hold on.”
She backed up, making a not-so-convert gesture to one of the other [Receptionists]. Lism saw the Gnoll pull a tiny string that would ring an outside bell. For the Watch. He flushed and bellowed.
“There isn’t any time for this! I demand an instant [Message] to the High Command! They need to hear this! Don’t you dare pull that string again! Do you know who I am?”
They blinked at him. The Drake [Receptionist] opened her mouth, peered at Lism, and then shook her head slowly.