(The Wandering Inn is on break until July 13th! 15th for public readers. The author must rest. See you then!)
Wing Commander Embria Grasstongue of Liscor got up like she normally did. For a minute, a good, nice, long minute she lay in bed as the dawn’s rays began tickling the scales on her face. Her crimson scales, as vibrantly red as could be, reflected the light, creating a small nimbus of color on the far wall of her room. Embria admired it. Then she raised her voice.
“4th Company, assemble!”
The shout went straight through the thin walls of Embria’s private quarters. She heard a thud from the room over, a groan, and more distant sounds still. The Wing Commander swung herself out of bed and reached for her folded clothes and armor. Then she checked herself and just took the clothes.
A minute later, Embria pushed out of her room. The Drakes and Gnolls in the officer’s quarters were still dressing. They looked up as Embria strode into the room.
“Inspection, then morning training. Hop to it.”
The two [Captains], five [Lieutenants], and eight [Sergeants] in the room groaned. Embria ignored them and headed straight for the main barracks that housed the regular [Soldiers]. It was larger, but not by much; the officers weren’t outnumbered by much when it came to the regular soldiers.
The first [Sergeants] followed her as the sleepy [Soldiers] rolled out of their bunks. Those who’d slept through Embria’s call and their fellows warning them to wake up got up as the [Sergeant] rolled them out of their mattresses onto the floor.
The thumps and curses were a backdrop to Embria’s voice. The Wing Commander bellowed into the barracks that the 4th Company of Liscor’s army was using in Liscor.
“Wake up, ladies! What are you complaining about? We’re waking up at dawn, not before! This is the height of luxury. Now, present your gear and so help me, anyone who isn’t ready for a scrap I will feed to Captain Vell for breakfast! Stand to attention!”
The [Soldiers] did. The [Sergeants] and [Lieutenants] proceeded down the bunks, checking gear and calling the Drakes and Gnolls out. The Drakes and Gnolls of Liscor’s regular army stood straight, wincing only when some aspect of their preparations was called out.
They were, as Embria had indicated, all female. The Wing Commander gave the female wing of the barracks five minutes of her presence, and then marched over to the male half, where the officers were already doing the same process.
“That’s enough. Captain Wikir, take the squads out and have them practice. Anyone with punishment detail will take it out of their vacation time. The rest of you, to the practice grounds on the double!”
Embria jogged out of the barracks, followed by her 4th Company. She ignored the muttered jokes and groans coming behind her; her men and women, none of whom were in fact actually Human, were right on her tail. And in the early morning, all ninety seven of Liscor’s 4th Company was running down the streets of Liscor.
They were headed to the sparring grounds. Usually they’d do it right outside their camps, but since they were quartered in Liscor, the 4th Company had arranged to use the Adventurer’s Guild’s large practice area. Embria didn’t expect to find many people there this early.
And indeed, only a few private citizens were there. They let the 4th Company form sparring sets and occupy eighty percent of the courts. Embria grabbed a practice spear and went through her morning routine alone. She barely thought about it until she came to sparring with one of her [Captains].
First Captain Wikir, the second-in-command to Embria, was her first victim. Then two more of his [Captains] took his place. Embria took a few hits during a sparring session with two-on-one, but the wincing officers walked away with twice the number she did.
“Alright. That’s an hour. Back to the barracks!”
Embria called a halt to the morning training as she checked the position of the sun. She led the way back down the streets which were still mostly empty and towards the barracks. The [Soldiers], who had been reluctant to abuse their bodies, brightened up and picked up the pace. They could smell food coming from the barracks and the [Mess Sergeants] on duty had readied the morning meals.
That was how Embria started her day. But in truth, that was almost all muscle memory. And muscle shouting. It was rote and routine. It was only during breakfast she remembered what day it was. Then she smiled.
4th Company’s officers got their own, smaller mess hall to eat in. The [Captains], [Lieutenants], and a few [Sergeants] had the privilege of dining with their [Wing Commander], a rank roughly equivalent to [Major] in other military traditions. The [Commander] rank that Embria possessed meant she acted with autonomy and authority; the officer ranks below her possessed some of the privileges and abilities she did, but the [Wing Commander] class was a leadership role of note.
If [Leader], [Sergeant], [Mercenary Captain], and so on were all the most basic tier of leadership—from small groups to larger ones—then [Commander] was the middle tier. And [Generals], [Lords], and so on were the greatest of leaders. In 4th Company, Embria’s was the highest role.
It still meant she ate the same food as the regular soldiers. There being no dedicated [Chefs] attached to 4th Company at the moment, the [Mess Sergeants] had to take up the slack or Embria would have to hire a [Cook]. And she wasn’t about to do that. Not that anyone minded.
“Good food! Pass me a damn biscuit. I’m starving.”
The first female officer into the room was a Drake. She flopped into her seat, her scales beaded with perspiration. A Gnoll sat across from her and obligingly flicked a biscuit at her commanding officer. The Gnoll yawned. She reached for a steaming kettle.
“Hrr. I hope the tea’s strong this time. I’m nearly falling asleep on my paws.”
Embria walked towards her head of the smaller table as some of the other officers took seats nearby. The Gnoll [Sergeant] shrugged. It was a relaxed formality in the officer’s mess.
“Hrr. I was up late. Drinking. This tea’s not strong enough for me. Got some more tea leaves?”
She peered into the pot. The Drake sitting across from her, [Captain] Vell, a sharp-tongued Drake with yellow scales, eyed the Gnoll under her command, Lieutenant Kesa.
“It’s good enough for me. But then, I like tea. You hate it, don’t you, Kesa? Wing Commander, biscuit?”
Embria raised a claw. Vell skimmed one across the table. A Gnoll [Captain] leaned back reflexively and scowled as he reached for his plate. Embria caught the biscuit without missing a beat. Kesa sighed through her nose.
“That’s right. I’d use stamina potions, but they taste awful, yes? And they do terrible things to the stomach if you have too many for too long. You have a better option, [Captain]?”
“Sure do. Hold on. Try some of these.”
Vell got up and reached for her belt pouch. She slapped a handful of hard, brown, objects onto Kesa’s plate. The other officers eyed the objects dubiously; Vell was known to pull a lot out of her belt pouches, and it was very rarely wise to eat what came out.
Kesa the Gnoll sniffed along with a few other Gnolls at the table. She wrinkled her nose, but picked up one of the little objects.
“What is this? It looks like a bean. Do I put it in my drink?”
“Hah. No. Just eat them. Grind them up and swallow. They’re a natural wake-up supplement. I bought them from Oteslia a while back and I use them sometimes when we’re out of tea or I need to wake up.”
“What, from the Walled City? Really?”
“No, scales-for-brains. The other Oteslia. Not the one we’ve been fighting with and against for the last two years.”
The Gnoll sniffed.
“Hrr. No need to be rude. What kind of beans are so…hard? And small?”
“They were actually green. See, they’re good for energy, but they were starting to rot. So I tossed them in a pan and fried them up. To get rid of the moldy spots.”
All of the [Soldiers] stared at Vell. She scowled.
“Don’t give me that! It works! Anyways, they work. Try it.”
She glared at Kesa. The Gnoll hesitated, but Vell was her superior. The things you did for rank. Embria watched sympatheticall as Kesa delicately popped three of the bean-things into her mouth and began to chew. Embria heard some loud crunching, and then Kesa made a face. She took a gulp of tea as Embria sipped hers.
Today’s breakfast included some pickled fish, preserved from the spring. It went really well with some roasted onions, a few greens, and all put together with a Gnollish sauce that had enough spice to really make the mouth water. The biscuit was a wonderful carrier for the concoction and Embria chewed, watching Kesa make a face.
“Eugh. Bitter. Almost as bad as stamina potions. How long does it take?”
“Few minutes. But you’ll wake up. Go on. Have the handful.”
Kesa did as she began to eat the rest of her breakfast. After a few minutes, she did indeed perk up.
“That is better than stamina potions, yes? Say, Captain, would you mind lending them to me?”
Vell nodded. She spilled more beams onto the table from a pouch dedicated to holding them.
“Take ‘em. I’ve got tons. Apparently they’re from some Balerosian plant that Oteslia imported. Those [Gardeners] grow all kinds of things and this stuff isn’t popular. Good travel pick-me-up, though.”
“You keep anything else you want to share in one of those pouches, Vell?”
Another [Captain] leaned over, looking interested. He was male, one of four [Captains] left in 4th Company since their battle at Liscor. Traditionally, that number of [Captains] would have demanded a huge regiment of [Soldiers], but Liscor’s army was somewhat unique. It relied on high-level officer classes and a very small army of sitting [Soldiers]. In fact, Liscor’s army was more of a force-multiplier. If it led a larger force of low-level [Soldiers], it was incredibly deadly.
Vell scowled and placed a hand over her belt.
“Nothing I’m offering you, Pielt. Only my squad gets to share my stuff. You want to get something? You should have gotten it at Oteslia before we crossed half the damn continent.”
“Aw, come on Vell. Not everyone saves their coin—”
“What are you, a [Soldier] with his first month of back pay? Pass me that gravy boat and I might give you something.”
“Yup. Out of my scales.”
The Drake sighed and raised a finger. Vell threw a biscuit at him. It bounced off of another Gnoll’s head and he glared around. Vell shrugged apologetically. Then she turned to Embria.
“Hey, Wing Commander. Any reason for today’s inspection?”
“Besides making sure you lot aren’t getting lazy? Be glad I didn’t check the officer’s gear myself. If we need to fight, I’m not having anyone claiming they left their sword at a [Sharpener]’s.”
Embria glanced up from her second helping. Vell nodded.
“Fair. Fair. I’m just asking because my squad’s getting antsy. They were telling me that they’re afraid they’ll be stuck here for another month before being recalled with no action. After the Goblin Lord was…”
She drew a claw across her neck.
Half the officers in the mess glanced at Vell. Embria could see the missing spots where some of her officers and friends should have been. Vell didn’t blink twice, though. After a beat, Embria replied.
“They think that, do they? Well, I can’t say how long we’ll be here, but we’re not sitting on our tails all this time. I suppose now’s a good time as any. Captain Wikir.”
The Gnoll sitting next to her glanced up. He twitched one tattered ear as he looked at Embria. Wikir was twenty years Embria’s senior and had dozens of scars hidden under his fur.
“Wikir, it’s Shield Spider breeding season. Word is it’s even worse this year given all they’ve had to eat. Which is why we’re helping out Liscor and the City Watch with this year’s culling. You know where I’m going with this?”
Several Drakes and Gnolls groaned. Wikir grinned.
“Vell gets her wish?”
“Exactly. Tomorrow, all the squads are sweeping the area around Liscor. Work your way down the road first, then sweep out from there. Each squad cleans at least four nests by the end of the day. Collect their shells and turn them in to the Adventurer’s Guild. The squad that does the best gets a night in Wishdrinks, on me. The squad that does the worst will also get a night of fun and relaxation—cleaning the barracks.”
That perked up the room, as intended. Embria didn’t mention that the squads would be doing this for at least two weeks, but Wikir got it. He nodded and flicked his ears at the [Lieutenants] and [Sergeants] under his direct command.
“Sounds like fun.”
“So says you. I’d rather fight Wyverns than Shield Spiders. Ever been covered by a hundred little spider babies?”
“No. And I don’t plan to. Burn the nest, Captain Pielt. If your group doesn’t have a strong [Mage] like mine…”
Captain [Pielt] raised his brows. Wikir grinned.
“Enjoy picking baby spiders out of your earholes.”
“Go to hell.”
The other two [Captains] in the room, Vell and Igissi, laughed. Wikir grinned toothily and one of the Drakes under Pielt’s command covered her eyes with her claws. Sergeant Fika shook her head despairingly.
“My vacation’s in two days! If I start my days off with spiders laying eggs in my nostrils, I will kill myself.”
Pielt turned to his subordinate as the table laughed even harder. He glared at Wikir and Vell.
“Think of the opportunities, Sergeant. You invite a few lovely ladies to Wishdrinks and you won’t need to come back to a clean barracks tonight!”
Sergeant Fika glanced up.
“Lads, you fucking idiot. Sir. I’m no Turnscale.”
Embria glanced up. Pielt blinked, but then grinned. Vell stopped laughing abruptly, but no one save perhaps Embria and Lieutenant Kesa noticed.
“Sorry, Sergeant. Two lovely lads. Drakes or Gnolls for preferences?”
“As long as you can figure out which parts they’re supposed to have, I’ll settle for whatever you can get, sir. Just get our squad the most nests.”
More laughter. Pielt rolled his eyes, but good-naturedly. Wikir chuckled, then glanced back at Embria.
“Commander. Helping out the City Watch wouldn’t also be part of our attempt to make good with Liscor, would it? And help win an election?”
He looked innocently at Embria. She scowled and put down her butter knife. Ancestors take it, she’d forgotten the drama of yesterday for a second. That was really going to complicate today’s activities. Maybe.
“That’s right, Captain Wikir. And I’m afraid that you’re in charge of banging the drum and doing parade marches all today. It’s my day off. Try to reign in that Shopkeeper. Lism. But yes, we’re trying to convince people to vote him into the Council for that election. Just don’t say or do anything that’ll upset the civilians, got it?”
Wikir nodded. Vell stretched, looking annoyed.
“And here I’d nearly forgotten about that stupid election. Commander, you make it sound like that Lism Swifttail’s a problem. But he’s the one running against that Krshia Silverfang, right? What’s your problem with him?”
She glanced up the table. This time, Embria hesitated. She didn’t have to answer. But this was her command and they knew her. Better to answer than not.
She looked down at her cup of tea and grimaced. Then Embria glanced up and checked both doors leading into the officer’s mess. She tilted her head; Sergeant Tlik got up and closed one of the doors that was partly ajar. The other officers sat up a bit and leaned in.
“It’s not that I’m against this election thing. The High Command is, and they’re livid that it’s happening, but they’d be fine if we elected good, law-abiding citizens to the Council, I think. Doesn’t matter what the Council does so long as it keeps Liscor safe, right?”
The officers sitting on both tables around her nodded. Embria sighed.
“I’m not even saying we’re wrong to be against that Gnoll, Krshia and her proposals. Some of what she’s saying sounds good to me, but allowing the Antinium any concessions? No. Absolutely not.”
“Idiotic idea. I can’t believe Watch Captain Zevara’s going for it. I thought she had sense.”
Vell growled. Embria had her own opinion about Zevara that wasn’t germane to this conversation. She shook her head briskly.
“The terms are good. And I’ll speak with Watch Captain Zevara. But despite all that—and this is my opinion, not High Command’s—Lism is not our guy. He’s obnoxious, sycophantic, prejudiced against Gnolls as far as I can tell, and he’s going to lose. But the High Command trusts him and I haven’t been able to convince them to let me approach Krshia instead.”
The table was silent. Most of the officers carefully covered their reactions, although a few, like Wikir and Vell, nodded openly. Pielt’s tail lashed under his table.
“Captain, you make it sound like he’s as bad as that Krshia Silverfang. But as far as I’ve seen, he’s been for the 4th Company since we came to Liscor. He’s given my boys discounts when we visit his store and he’s the only person who’s stood up and told the truth about the Antinium.”
“True. Which is why we’re supporting him. But he’s not offering a good platform. Just one that says the Antinium are evil and everything’s fine. Which it isn’t. Have you seen the rent prices on rooms?”
“Double that of when I was here ten years back.”
One of the [Lieutenants] muttered into his tea. Embria nodded. Kesa popped another bean into her mouth and crunched it.
“Exactly. But we have orders to support him, and we have to. I wish we didn’t. Soldiers like Zel Shivertail never played politics. He said what was important. Stop the Antinium. Kill the Goblin Lord. Tying ourselves to someone else or meddling in this election is going to come back and bite all our tails. But we have to win.”
She looked around the table. The other officers sighed or muttered, but they all nodded. Vell leaned over, looking troubled, and poked Wikir.
“Hey, Wikir. That Gnoll [Shopkeeper]. She’s a big shot, yeah? What’re her odds on the Gnoll side of things. How many of them will see sense about the Antinium?”
Wikir coughed. He looked at Embria and shrugged.
“She’s honored Krshia, Commander. I can’t explain it too well and I’m not running with the civilian crowd yet. They don’t trust me. But I do know Krshia. She’s smart. Got lots of authority. When she howls, a lot of Gnolls will follow, no matter what deal with the Antinium is going down.”
“Then maybe we have to get her to reconsider her stance on the Antinium thing.”
“And fund all her shiny projects how?”
“Tax the adventurers more? I’m all for expanding Liscor if that’s possible. I have an aunt who told me about the prices yesterday. And if she’s hurting for coin—”
The breakfast table erupted into several arguments. Embria quietly drank the rest of her tea as she listened to the pulse of her officer’s opinions. At last she raised a claw and had silence.
“I’ll explore our options. Tomorrow. For now, keep an earhole open and wait for further orders from High Command. We’ll support this Lism and wait for more candidates to emerge. There are eight seats on the High Council unless anyone’s forgotten and these two are fighting for the same district under that plan Krshia rolled out. Someone get me a map of those districts too.”
The Drakes and Gnolls nodded. Fika shook her head as she scratched at a patch of scarred, burned skin on the side of her face where the scales had never regrown.
“What do you want to bet its eight Gnolls vs eight Drakes on either side? Ancestors, we might have more Gnolls than Drakes on this year’s Council.”
Wikir turned his head down the table like the slow wrath of the mace he used. Which wasn’t slow at all in battle.
“And would that be a bad thing, Sergeant?”
Fika’s cheeks colored.
“Nossir! Not unless it means I wake up sharing my bunk space with an Antinium!”
Another laugh. Pielt covered for Fika, who was part of his mainly Drake squad.
“You just worry about getting our squad that table at Wishdrinks, Sergeant. I’ll see to it we walk out with two lovely companions. Drakes or Gnolls.”
“You keep saying that, Pielt. But even if you got more nests than all the other squads—which you won’t—could you even get anyone to join you for a drink?”
Captain Vell smirked. Pielt glared at her.
“No problem, Vell. I’m as smooth on a tavern floor as I am on the battlefield.”
“Really? In that case, give me your best shot.”
Vell spread her arms, mockingly. The officers laughed and Pielt grinned. He pushed back his plate, then leaned one arm on the table and gave Vell a full-toothed grin.
“Hey there, sweet-scales. I saw you checking out my tail. I’ve got two. Want to see the other one?”
Embria saw Vell’s eyes bulge, and then heard her guffaw. The Wing Commander smiled as the female side of the mess hall laughed and some of Pielt’s male friends rolled their eyes.
“Dead gods, that’s your best, Pielt?”
“If it works, Vell…”
Pielt grinned around. Kesa snorted and leaned over to Vell. The Gnoll whispered loudly.
“He says that, but I’ve never seen a tail that short before.”
The table burst out into raucous laughter. Two of the male Drake [Captains] coughed as their morning tea went down the wrong tube. Pielt’s scales turned beet red. He opened his mouth to reply, and Embria decided it was time to cut short a potential argument. It was nearly time for her to go, anyways. She didn’t want to be late. So she put a snap into her tone as she stacked her cup on her plate.
“Lieutenant Kesa, stop impugning your commanding [Captain]’s authority. Captain Pielt, stop bringing up your failed attempts at romance. Find someone outside of the army or I’ll write you up for your inability to conduct interpersonal relationships.”
“Under what charge, Commander?”
The [Captain] looked hurt. Embria stared at him and replied, deadpan.
“Making me laugh my scales off.”
This time even Pielt joined in the laughter, and Embria considered it a job well done. She was standing back to bus her plates when Vell glanced up.
“You are one to talk, Commander.”
Embria paused, one claw holding her plate. Captain Vell shrugged, looking apologetic.
“I’m just saying. I’ve heard your best, and Pielt’s a master [Seducer] compared to you. No offense to the class.”
“Oi, Vell. Commander Embria can’t be that bad.”
Another officer chortled. Vell only raised her brows. She looked teasingly at Embria and the Drake felt an ominous prickle on her back. She’d known Vell for years. Even so, she couldn’t just walk away after hearing that. Embria tossed her plate back on the table.
“My game’s better than Pielt. I can guarantee you that, Vell.”
“I’m wide open, Commander. Or Pielt is. Come on, give us your opening line. Say you spot someone handsome across the bar—not Pielt, for instance. What do you say/”
Suddenly it was Embria on the spot. And the Wing Commander couldn’t see a way out of it. Embarrassed, she cleared her throat. No problem. Casually, she walked over and put a hand on Pielt’s shoulder. She gave him a smile.
“Yo. Good looking. Are you part Selphid? Because I’d like you to get inside me tonight.”
Pielt stared up at her as if she were a Creler. Embria wavered. She looked around. The other officers weren’t laughing. They were just staring. Wikir reached for his cup and found it was empty. Mechanically, the Gnoll reached for a kettle and tried to fill his cup.
“You’d actually say that, Commander?”
“What’s wrong? Too forwards? Okay. Fine. How about this?”
Exasperated, Embria turned back to Pielt. He flinched as she leaned further down, treating him to another smile. Something charming, the kind of thing that would sweep him off his feet if Embria were interested in him.
“Hey there. Are you a Courier? Because you’ve been running through my mind ever since I laid eyes on you.”
She waited a beat. And then she winked. Pielt opened his mouth slightly. He gulped.
“I uh—wow, Commander. That’s…terrible.”
“What? No it’s not. ”
Embria looked around. No one else could meet her eyes, except Wikir. The tea cup he’d been filling from the kettle was slowly overflowing on the table. Embria stared at it.
“It’s not. Is it?”
Vell looked delighted. She gestured with a claw.
“One more. Come on, Commander.”
Embria hesitated. This time she abandoned the winking and just leaned on Pielt’s shoulder.
“You come from Salazsar? Because you’re a fine gem in my eyes.”
He froze. Just froze up in his seat. Embria searched his face for something, anything, then straightened. She glared around the room, daring anyone to say anything. They were silent.
“I’m going to take my day off. We’ll discuss this later, Captain Vell. The rest of you—you’ve got a job to do. Dismissed!”
She stalked out of the room, her tail twitching angrily. The officers watched her go. None of them, not even Vell had the heart to laugh this time. Pielt stared back at his fellow [Captains]. It took him a few more gulps to make the words come out.
“Ancestors. The smile, the timing, the way she looked at me—everything was wrong there. How is that even possible?”
Vell sighed. She finished her last mouthfuls of breakfast.
“You know those sad losers who hang out in taverns and bars and buy anything with a pulse and a tail a drink? I’ve seen Commander Embria scare them away when she’s trying to be encouraging.”
“Dead gods. I hope she doesn’t try that on her date today.”
Someone else mumbled under his breath. Vell turned her head.
“You think she’s on a date? She didn’t say.”
“Well, she’s not wearing her armor. And she usually dresses up. Did you notice she was only wearing her practice gear? Normally she’s in full armor. Who’d she land with those lines?”
“Oh. That? It’s not—”
“It’s not a date. It’s her father.”
Wikir cut in quietly. He mopped the table with a napkin. The other officers went quiet. Lieutenant Kesa growled.
“You mean she still visits him? That’s too good for that coward.”
“Lieutenant, show some respect. That Drake saved our Commander’s life. He’s a former [Sergeant], even if—”
“Even if he’s a coward? He gave us one retreat order, Captain. A coward’s a coward no matter what. I’m not licking his boots even if he was a big shot. And if the Commander wants to waste time on his sorry tail—as if we’d just let him waltz back in after abandoning—”
Kesa’s growling voice turned into a yelp of pain as Vell kicked her in the stomach across the table. It wasn’t a light kick either. The [Captain] stared at her subordinate and hissed.
“Stow that shit, Lieutenant. Unless you want to go for a twenty-lap run around the walls again? If the Commander hears you, you’ll be scrubbing the toilets with your tail.”
Vell jerked her head sideways. The younger Gnoll [Sergeant] followed her glance towards Captain Wikir. Kesa’s ears flattened on her head and she went quiet at once.
The oldest Gnoll at the table didn’t look at Kesa. Wikir calmly drank from his cup, and then spoke, as if reminiscing to the air in front of him.
“He got Garen Redfang, a former Gold-rank, even if he was a Goblin. He’s as good as I remember. And I was barely a [First Sergeant] when he retired. What Wing Commander Embria does is her business. You can’t choose your family. And if he’s a coward, then every single Drake in 4th Company will lose to a coward in a one-on-one duel.”
No one had a reply to that. After a long moment, Pielt bit into his fish.
“True that. My day off’s coming up. Birthday, actually. I almost wish it wasn’t. I’m going back to see my folks. My dad’s a Gnoll and he’ll try to get me playing catch. I want to tell him it’s not my thing, but his idea of fun’s throwing around a ball for hours.”
The mood at the tables relaxed. Wikir grinned sheepishly and the other Gnolls sighed, shaking their heads. Vell looked curious.
“You adopted, Pielt? You never said.”
“Nah. Fertility spell. One of those cross-species kinds. It works out well, but…you know? I think it hurts my old man when I don’t race after a ball. Just toss it to me. Don’t make me run for it.”
Pielt sighed. Sergeant Fika patted him on the back. Vell looked around; one of the youngest [Lieutenants], a Gnoll, looked frankly jealous of Pielt. She shrugged. What was there to say?
“I wonder what the Commander says to her father?”
Thoughtfully, Pielt stroked his chin with a claw, and shrugged.
“Whatever she has to, probably. Gotta make it work, Vell. Gotta make it work. Pass the butter?”
Breakfast came and went in Liscor’s barracks. The 4th Company was having an easy time of it. At least compared to the quick meals that came and went during their time on campaign. They would be the first to describe their more relaxed schedules, frequent days off, and easy duties as luxurious. And that was because life was subjective affair. If the 4th Company’s breakfast was luxurious, what could you call breakfast at The Wandering Inn?
Sinful? Decadent? Hedonistic? The Wandering Inn was gaining a reputation as having some solid cooking. But that wasn’t what propelled the Drake [Guardsman] up the hill. He hadn’t even bothered to wait for the teleportation door to activate. Relc Grasstongue rubbed his claws as he pushed open the door.
“Oh boy. Oh boy. Ohboyohboyohboy—”
Relc’s partner, Klbkch, walked in through the magical door from Liscor a minute after Relc had arrived. The Antinium glanced around; Relc was already sitting at a table.
“Klb, get over here!”
Relc waved a claw excitedly. He was sitting at a table near the front of the inn. The Players of Celum were warming up on the stage, and some of the [Actors] and the regular guests were having their breakfast. Klbkch walked over to Relc and saw someone bustling out of the kitchen. Erin Solstice herself set down a big plate of pancakes on the table and a cup full of blue fruit juice in front of Relc.
“Here you go! Blue fruit juice, fresh! Hi, Klb! It’s great to see you! It’s been ages! Come in! What do you want to eat?”
“It is good to see you as well, Erin. I would like to inquire—are there any acid flies on your menu yet?”
Klb glanced at the cup Relc was lovingly caressing. Erin shook her head.
“Not yet. But we’ve laid traps and I’ll let you know at once when we have enough.”
“Ah. In that case, perhaps a fish-based dish? I had a quite enjoyable fillet last time.”
“You know what? I think I have that exact fillet still in a cupboard. Drassi! Get that fillet and some condiments for Klbkch! Blue fruit juice, Klbkch?”
“Thank you. And perhaps a pitcher?”
Klbkch indicated Relc. Erin turned to look and saw Relc tilting his cup up. The Drake licked his lips.
“Blue fruit juice! I’ve missed this so much!”
He was nearly crying as he gulped down the sweet cup of juice. Erin nodded and waved an arm at Drassi. She turned to Relc, smiling.
“As good as you remember?”
“Better. Better. This is amazing. I can’t believe I went a winter without it. Hey, can I buy a flask of it or something for work? I’ll have a pitcher. How much is—aw. You upped the prices? Fine.”
Relc spotted the sign above Erin’s bar. She made a face.
“Sorry. Lyonette controls the prices. I can definitely get you a flask, though.”
“You’re the best. And these pancakes are great! You’ve got to try one, Klb!”
Relc stuffed half a pancake onto one fork and swallowed all of it in one bite. Erin watched with fascination; Klbkch deliberately averted his gaze.
“I am allergic to wheat-based products, as you may not recall, Relc. Although…my Queen did mention she removed my gluten intolerance after my last body was developed. Or didn’t she? I would have to ask her.”
The Antinium paused to think. Relc eyed him.
“You don’t remember what your current body does? That’s weird.”
“I did not qualify that as important information. Eating pancakes is not high on my list of priorities.”
“Because you’ve never had these pancakes.”
“Hm. Would they then shift my entire perspective? Very well. I will try one.”
“Hey! These are mine! Get your own.”
Relc protectively covered his plate. Klbkch stared at him. Then he looked at Erin. She beamed at him.
“It’s so good you’re back. Both of you.”
“That is a highly subjective and generous opinion. Thank you.”
Relc reached for his cup, which Drassi had just refilled. He drank half of it, sighed, and then, suddenly, looked up. He looked around the inn slowly, and then focused on Erin. And to her surprise, to Klbkch’s surprise as well, Relc put down his fork and looked seriously at the young woman.
“Thanks for letting me come for breakfast, Erin. Seriously. I won’t stay long. So if you need me to go…”
He glanced at the stairs. Erin followed his gaze and line of thought, and she blinked. She looked at Relc, then at Klbkch, who silently shook his head, and gazed at Relc.
“What? No. It’s fine, Relc. You’re free to be here. If…anyone has a problem, he can just eat in his room. But he said it’s fine.”
“Well, thanks. I appreciate it. And I really missed your cooking. It’s good stuff, these pancakes. I wish I could make them. Klb misses this place too.”
Relc gestured around at the inn. Erin stared at him, then smiled. She looked at Klbkch. The Antinium was eying his partner as if Relc was some strange new species.
“That is correct. I do appreciate the ambiance and cooking. Although I have to point out that pancakes are not, by and large, considered high cuisine, Relc.”
“How would you know? You’ve never eaten them.”
Erin grinned. Klb’s antennae twitched.
“And you cannot cook them. Why is that?”
“Yeah, why? Pancakes are easy. I could teach you how to do them myself.”
The young woman looked at the Drake [Guardsman]. Relc grimaced as he filled his cup for the third time.
“I’m just no good, Erin. Believe me.”
“No one’s that bad, Relc. If I walk you through it—”
“I nearly burned down my kitchen last time I tried to make pancakes.”
Relc eyed Erin as he took a small sip from his cup. She blinked. Her eyes slid sideways to Klbkch. This time the Antinium nodded. Erin digested this fact.
“Okay, no cooking. How are you so bad at it?”
“I dunno. I don’t eat at home. Why are you so good at it? It’s all oil and fires and stuff the moment you light a stove. I nearly died when I tried to make pasta last week.”
“How did you—? You know what? Fire hazard or not, I’m willing to take this risk. We can make pasta in the kitchen right after this. You, me, a healing potion on standby…”
The smile on Erin’s face was infectious. Relc grinned and Klbkch smiled politely. But the Drake cast one eye towards the window and shook his head.
“I’d love to. Really, Erin. But I don’t think you want to build a new inn—although you’re sort of missing a third floor, so it wouldn’t be too bad. But I can’t either way. I have an appointment. Today’s actually the start of my days off. Klb and I just finished a night shift.”
He yawned as if to prove that fact. Erin raised her eyebrows.
“Wow. Maybe I should have served dinner. Fillet’s a dinner, though. What do you have planned after this, then?”
“Er…just hanging out with my kid. You know.”
Relc shifted in his chair. Erin gave him the blankest look possible until a light went off in her head.
“You mean, Wing Commander Embria? The Drake with the red scales? The one who’s really, really, angry?”
“Uh. Yeah. That’s her. You’ve met her before.”
“A few times. What’s she like?”
“Good. Good. I uh, well, we do this every week. Sometimes it’s hard to get the dates to line up, but it usually works out. She’s her own boss, at least of 4th Company so she can choose her days off. And I—well, I’m going to meet with her after this. All day.”
Relc slowly bit into the second-to-last pancake. Erin studied his expression.
“Sounds like fun.”
“Yeah. Of course. Why wouldn’t it be? Do you uh, want to come with?”
“Me? Or Klbkch?”
The two looked at each other. Erin bit her lip. Klbkch was the first to respond.
“I believe that would be unwise. Your daughter has made her feelings about my presence very clear on fifteen different occasions.”
“Yeah. But she only says that. Come on, Klb, buddy. It’d be fun.”
“I believe that statement is incorrect on every level conceivable. And I do not believe Erin would have fun either. This is a prearranged time with you and your offspring, Relc.”
“Yeah. I don’t want to get in the way.”
“Right. She probably wouldn’t like that.”
Relc slumped into his seat and sighed. Erin looked from him to Klbkch. The Antinium was studying his partner. Erin coughed.
“So…I’m sure it’ll be fine. You’re her dad, right?”
“Her actual dad.”
“You’re her father and everything. You. Relc.”
“You keep saying that, Erin. Yes, she’s my kid.”
Relc looked up. Erin stared at him, unblinking, until the Drake looked down at his plate. He played with the scraps. Erin pondered Relc for a moment.
“So why are you trying to avoid her?”
The table fell silent. Relc silently ate the last of his pancake bits. He pushed back his plate and looked at the nearly empty pitcher of blue fruit juice. Erin stared at it, and then him. The Drake [Guardsman] stared ahead. Then he shrugged heavily. His huge shoulders slumped.
“There’s not much to talk about. Or rather, we talk about the same things, Erin. That’s all. It feels like a pain for her to do this every week. I don’t think she likes me that much, honestly. Can’t say I blame her.”
“Then why does she do it?”
“I don’t know. Duty? She’s big on duty. Which reminds me. I’d better not be late. Thanks for the juice.”
Relc stood up. He fished in his belt pouch and put down some coins. He pointed at the pitcher.
“Can I get a flask to go? Later? Sorry, but I should go. I’ll come back later for dinner if I’m free. Or pick it up after. Thanks for the meal, Erin. It was great.”
“Sure. Uh, good luck!”
Erin raised her voice. Relc was already heading towards the door. She stared at his back as he pulled open the magical door and vanished. Then she looked at Klbkch.
“That was weird. What’s that all about? Has he been like that every week?”
The Antinium nodded absently.
“Their ongoing arguments have featured heavily in Relc’s conversations with me. I gather that she wants him to rejoin Liscor’s army. He refuses to. Hence the quandary.”
“Oh. Do you think…”
Erin trailed off. She stared at the door through which Relc had gone. She half-rose, and then seemed to decide to sit. The table was quiet as Klbkch pushed back his empty plate. After a minute, he looked up seriously at Erin and opened his mandibles.
“After due consideration of the risks, I will have a pancake after all, Erin. What is the appropriate amount of syrup and butter?”
The young woman blinked. And then she beamed, Relc temporarily forgotten.
“Klbkch, you’re in for a treat. Drassi! Butter and syrup on the side! Pancake for Klbkch! Hey, wait. Do you know how to make pancakes?”
“The desire to create a pancake has never occurred within me in my entire life.”
“Today’s your lucky day.”
Liscor in the morning, the real morning in which most people got up, not just the eternal early-risers, was busy. The city was in the midst of late spring. Life was blooming across the continent. And excitement abounded.
On the streets, Lism and Krshia’s supporters engaged in shouting matches in the early morning. The Drake [Shopkeeper], severely on the back foot after the drama of yesterday, tried to make his case to a city full of people. The 4th Company marched. But so did the Antinium. And the giant who led them attracted every eye.
There was something to see everywhere. In her inn, Erin tried to teach Klbkch and Mrsha how to make pancakes. In her inn, Lyonette stopped a fire. Three times. In her office, Zevara got some very irate [Messages] from a lot of cities. And the High Command. Olesm got back with Pisces from a night in Pallass and an adventure involving a [Librarian] to find out…everything…had changed. In her shop, Octavia paid the protection fee and sat under her counter. Her shop was closed.
And among it all, two Drakes met on a small street outside of an apartment. Theirs was not an important, exciting event. It was quiet. In fact, neither one said anything for a second when they met.
He was big. Not just tall; he had height, but the impression he gave was of musculature, not stature. His scales were light-green.
She was shorter than him, but only by a bit. And she had muscles, but she didn’t give off the same impression. If her posture and body indicated anything, it was her profession. He slouched; her back was straight as the spears that neither one carried at the moment. Her scales were crimson, vibrant.
Neither Drake looked particularly comfortable out of their gear and in casual clothing. And their idea of casual clothing was…Relc stared at his daughter’s cream-colored tunic and leggings. She eyed his slightly syrup-spotted front and worn clothes.
“Good morning. You’re late.”
Relc started guiltily.
“Oh. Sorry. I uh, had breakfast. At The Wandering Inn. Uh, how was your day? Just get up?”
He smiled hopefully. Embria eyed him. Her lips did not feel the need to reciprocate the smile.
“I’ve been up for a while.”
“Really? Doing what?”
“Morning training. Or have you forgotten?”
Relc scratched his neck-spines. Embria stared at him silently. When he didn’t respond, she jerked her head challengingly.
“Never mind. Let’s go. Do you have anywhere you want to go today?”
“I could go to a few spots. I have some shopping to do. What about you?”
Relc trailed after Embria. She shook her head and slowed down to accommodate his amble.
“I’m free. Where to?”
“Market—no, wait, that’s probably crowded. Let’s go to the [Trader]’s stalls.”
“Fine by me.”
The two proceeded along the street. It wasn’t anything like the quick march that Embria was used to, and she kept stepping too fast for Relc, whose leisurely stroll sped up for her. The two Drakes glanced at each other and both sought for conversation topics. Relc was first.
“So. Heck of a thing. These elections, huh?”
“They’re something. You aren’t for them, are you?”
The younger Drake eyed her father. Relc held up his claws.
“Hey. I’m staying out of it. I’m surprised Captain Z backed it, to be honest. She usually says the Watch should stay out of politics.”
“I’d like to know why she’s trying to push for the elections myself. I understand what she wants, but is this the way to do it?”
Relc gave a shrug that was the opposite of eloquent. He gazed at Embria.
“So…I heard you were marching for that Lism guy. The army’s not for the elections or Krshia, huh?”
Her regular pace faltered a beat, and then picked up.
“I had orders. From High Command. I’m carrying them out. You know how it is.”
“…If I had the choice, I wouldn’t be involved at all. But I have to do my job. And Shopkeeper Lism’s right. I’m not saying I disagree with the idea to expand Liscor, but having Antinium aid…did your partner tell you about his Hive’s plans, by any chance?”
She glanced swiftly up and to the side. Relc smiled crookedly.
“Klb? He doesn’t tell me anything. Well, usually. These days he complains about his subordinates. Pawn and the others. But he doesn’t talk about stuff like that. Suits me.”
“And it doesn’t bother you? His proposal?”
“What? Paying for more buildings in exchange for making the Hive bigger? Works for me.”
“But they’ll expand the Hive.”
“And Captain Z will double the Watch. We could probably use both, after the siege. Right?”
Embria opened her mouth to respond. After a second she closed it and kept walking. The two walked down one street and then the next. They passed by arguing Drakes and Gnolls. Embria eyed them. She looked twice when one of the Drakes threw a punch and a Gnoll raised a fist.
“Shouldn’t you stop that?”
Relc picked at his teeth.
“Off duty. Besides, it’s just a fight. Long as there’s no blades, it should be good. It’s healthy to punch things. It was like this just a bit ago, remember? When that Numbtongue guy entered the city?”
The tone in Embria’s voice passed Relc completely by, or he ignored it. He nodded. Then he brushed at a crumb on his front and brightened.
“I tell you though, it was good being back at the old inn. Ever since that thing with the Goblins, it’s been hard to visit. I think she’s forgiven me; she didn’t throw a knife at my head, anyways. Breakfast was good.”
He smacked his lips together absently. Embria just looked at him.
“You mean, during the siege?”
Relc paused. He looked at Embria and the two shared a long glance. After a second, he kept walking and shook his head.
“Oh. Well, that too. I meant the first thing with the Goblins. And the other thing with that small one. Rags or something.”
“What thing? Rags?”
“The first time I killed some Goblins. Cut their heads off. Erin really didn’t like that. The second time—I was sort of a jerk to a little Goblin who always came in. Erin kicked me out after that. I didn’t really go back until recently. Haven’t gotten into a fight this time, and I’m trying not to. They’ve got blue juice there now.”
The Wing Commander stared at her father. She opened her mouth, then closed it and sighed. The worst part was that she could decipher some of what Relc had just said from previous anecdotes.
“Why do you want to go there anyways? A Goblin-loving—what’s that inn got to offer that the Tailless Thief doesn’t?”
Relc looked surprised.
“Besides price? Besides the free plays, which are awesome and the really good food? That uh, Peslas guy who runs the Tailless Thief just serves Drake food. Erin serves new stuff, and really good stuff. I love it.”
He licked his lips. Embria smiled.
“You do like to eat. But why not cook it yourself? You could probably get the class.”
“I can’t cook, kid. You know that.”
“Still? How long has it been?”
Relc counted on his claws and then shrugged.
“I just can’t get a hang of it. But I do have hobbies.”
“Well, here we are.”
They’d turned down another street during the course of their conversation. This one had a number of stalls, but it wasn’t as occupied by [Shopkeepers] as Market Street. If there was a place for [Merchants] to trade in their rich stores, [Traders] had their own spot to ply their wares. And this street was mercifully free of the arguments enveloping most of the city. Relc explained eagerly as he took Embria from stall to stall, clearly searching for one in particular.
“I tried gardening. Didn’t work out. But I’m into these puzzle-things. They’re—oh, look! There they are!”
He pointed excitedly. Embria saw one [Trader] had a display full of…she could only call them rejected [Blacksmith] pieces. Pieces of bent metal, odd shapes, some made of wood, some metal, a few decorative, but all very, very strange looking. They weren’t decorations. And as Relc showed her one excitedly, Embria saw they were meant to come apart. Only, it was the doing that would be the challenge.
“Take a look. I’ve got like six of these and I work on them during my patrols. And at night. And when I wake up. See? I know this one by heart.”
He had a tiny pair of what looked like bent, intertwined wires in his claws. It was two parts, joined at the center with a tiny little gap, but the two pieces of wire were twisted so that it seemed you’d never get them apart. But Relc confidently held the puzzle up by one claw. He flicked the little wire puzzle expertly and the connected pieces flew apart.
Embria blinked. Relc caught the piece before it could fly off and joined them together in a moment. He turned to the [Trader], a Gnoll with spectacles who looked approving.
“Not bad. You’ve done some beginner puzzles, hrm?”
“I’ve done advanced and even expert ones. Do you have any of the Wistram head-scratcher puzzles? The last female [Trader] who was in said sometimes you have the really complex ones.”
The Gnoll grinned as Embria picked up the pieces of wire, bemused.
“I’ve got a few very hard ones. Would you like to see?”
“Yes! Ooh. Oooh. How much is that one?”
As the Gnoll brought out some of the ‘special’ puzzles from below his counter, Embria gazed at her father and then the puzzle she was holding. She stared at the puzzle and tried to copy what Relc had done. But when she flicked it, the little wire pieces just spun around without separating.
Frowning, Embria tried to figure out how the two pieces were supposed to disconnect—the gap didn’t seem large enough, but maybe if she twisted it so the thin side was going through…no, that didn’t work…why had he flicked it?
She was so engrossed in the puzzle that she didn’t notice time flying by. Or the Drake who suddenly appeared behind her.
The Wing Commander turned. She blinked down at a shorter Drake, around her age—no, slightly younger. She had bright yellow scales and a huge smile. The Drake beamed at her.
“I thought so! Only one Drake I know has scales like yours. Embria, hi! It’s me! Drassi! Remember me?”
Embria stared blankly at Drassi. The Drake wasn’t familiar to her, but she acted like she was. She peered at the puzzle Embria was holding.
“I didn’t know you were into those metal puzzles! They’re really hard. But there’s an entire group of people who love to solve them. Especially the magic ones. Apparently even Archmages get stumped with some! I’m not one for puzzles myself, but I hear [Thieves] like them too. Say, Embria, how has it been? I’ve seen you about, but you’ve always been on the job and we never had a chance to catch up!”
The words washed over Embria like rain. The Drake [Commander] opened her mouth for a word in edgewise, and had to wait for her moment.
“I’m sorry, Miss. But are you mistaking me? I don’t remember you, I’m afraid.”
“You don’t? But we were friends! At least, I thought so.”
Drassi looked heartbroken. She glanced over Embria’s shoulder at Relc and brightened.
“Hey Relc! It’s me, Drassi! I was just at the inn! You know me, and you know I used to know Embria, right?”
Relc turned. He had a flashing, half-ghostly puzzle in one claw and the [Trader] was showing him another one that was invisible—Embria could barely see the outlines as some dust or dirt covered it. Relc blinked.
“What? Drassi? Hey. You knew Embria? Wait…did you?”
He frowned. The [Gossip] looked crushed twice-over.
“I did! We haven’t seen each other for over a decade but—don’t you remember? When we were just kids? Embria, you came to Liscor with Relc back when he was just starting out as a [Guardsman], right? And you and I used to play in the streets! We got into tons of trouble! Heck, you and Selys used to know each other! Any of this ringing a bell?”
It was…vaguely familiar. Embria frowned. She could remember growing up in Liscor after Relc had left the army. Until she’s joined it. But it had only been for a handful of years. She didn’t remember Drassi. Although she did vaguely recall the same loudmouthed, cheerful voice the longer it went on.
“I—maybe I did? I’m sorry, but everything before I enlisted’s a bit of a blur. My apologies, Miss Drassi.”
The Drake laughed good-naturedly.
“It’s just Drassi! But I’d love to sit and talk, Embria. I just got off my shift. Do you have time? Hey, we could sit at The Wandering Inn and catch up! How about it?”
The offer was vaguely tempting. But—Embria glanced at her father. Relc was inspecting his puzzle while watching her out of the corner of one eye. She hesitated and shook her head after a moment.
“I’m sorry, Drassi. But I’m busy today. Maybe another time?”
She smiled apologetically at Drassi. The Drake didn’t look too put out.
“That’s totally fine. I’m actually shopping for some bug-killing traps myself. I have this infestation. Bad wood in my apartment. Know where I can get any charms?”
“My friend six stalls down has a number of charms.”
The Gnoll [Trader] leaned into the conversation. Drassi grinned.
“Really? Thanks! I’ll check him out. Embria, Relc, let’s talk again sometime, okay? Don’t be a stranger! And don’t forget me!”
Bemused, Embria waved a claw as Drassi headed off. Relc grunted to himself as he peered into one side of his puzzle.
“She’s cool. I talk to her on my patrols sometimes. Although I get in trouble if I talk for too long. You did use to know her, you know.”
“I sort of remember. But it’s ages ago now. I don’t know anyone in the city.”
Embria watched Drassi disappear into the crowd. Then she turned back to the stall. The Gnoll was smiling as Relc cursed over the puzzle he was holding.
“Like it? Only two Archmages have completed it. Feor and Nailihuaile. Amerys doesn’t count; she blasted hers apart. You can try as long as you like. Solve it here and you can take it with you.”
“Hah! I can do that. Just give me a second. Hey, kid, do you uh, think this thing goes here?”
Embria was still watching Drassi. Then she noticed a Gnoll mother walking from stall to stall with a young child. She watched the Gnoll grabbing his mother’s hand excitedly and pulling her past him to look at a display of colorful toys the next stall over.
“Damn! This one’s impossible! There’s no way to move this thing!”
Relc complained. The [Trader] laughed.
“You’ve barely even unlocked half of the functions, yes? There’s a lot more you need to do to even come close. How about it? I can show you some more if you’d like. All equally hard or harder! There’s one that not even Wistram’s mages have figured out how to open yet. But I’m told that the creator swears on a truth spell that it’s doable!”
Relc’s eyes lit up. Then he glanced to one side at his daughter. She noticed his stare at last and looked up. The [Guardsman] hesitated, then shook his head.
“Eh. I’ll get one later. This is boring. It’s boring, right, kid? Let’s go somewhere else.”
He jerked a thumb down the street. Embria started.
“What? No. Go on, try your puzzle.”
“You’re not into them, though. I won’t take up your time.”
“No, it’s fine…why not get one? For your patrols, at least.”
Embria smiled, and it wasn’t too forced. Relc stared at her, and then turned back to the [Trader].
“Alright. I can’t afford whatever that stupid magic one is. How about a good, expert-level one? I can spend…”
A few minutes later he counted out some gold and silver into the [Trader]’s paw and walked away with three small puzzles, all mechanical and magic-less. Relc seemed happy, although Embria was mystified.
“You had to have spent at least a few day’s pay on that. Maybe a week’s! How much do Senior Guardsman earn per week?”
“Eh…enough. Look, I like these things.”
Relc answered evasively. He walked down the street and both he and Embria heard Drassi’s cheerful voice as she talked to the [Trader] with charms on display. Relc paused as he watched Drassi.
“You really don’t remember Drassi?”
He looked at Embria. She shrugged, embarrassed.
“I don’t. I wish I did, but all I remember is the voice, and not even that.”
“Really? You kids used to get into all kinds of trouble. I remember that. I can’t believe I didn’t…well, you weren’t here long. Hey. Why don’t you catch up with her at the inn? I could sit and watch a play or something.”
Surprised, Embria blinked up at her father. He shrugged in answer to the question in her eyes.
“You don’t have to hang out with me. If you’re busy. I know being a Wing Commander’s hard work, and you only get so many days off…”
And for a second she wavered. Embria stared at Drassi’s wagging tail, then at Relc’s smile. Her expression firmed and she shook her head.
“It’s fine. Did you have anywhere else you wanted to go? I didn’t have a plan for today.”
The second stop they came to was a shop that smelled like animal. Because it was in fact, inhabited by animals. Lots of them. Embria pushed open the door, sneezed, and then saw a cat glaring at her from its window perch in the sun. The Gnoll running the counter shouted he’d be out from the back and a number of dogs barked. That set off the birds. And a sheep. Embria stared around, and then at Relc. He grinned.
“I thought about getting a pet, too. That’d be cool, right? I could get a big dog and have it run down [Thieves] while we’re on the job. One of the Senior Guardsman has an attack dog he’s allowed to take on patrols. He never has to run.”
“You want a dog.”
Embria eyed the animals wandering the floor. They were either all amazingly well-trained or the owner cleaned up after them. Relc nodded.
“It would be cool, right? Dogs run. I can run. Dogs like food. I like food. It’d be this thing. Anyways, I’m just checking them out. But if you get a good impression—hey! Elirr! It’s me!”
Relc waved at the Gnoll who came out of a tattered curtain in the back. The Gnoll froze when he saw Relc. Then he groaned.
“For the last time, Senior Guardsman Relc. I will not sell you a trained attack sheep—”
He protectively moved in front of the one sheep in the room. Relc scratched the back of his neck, avoiding Embria’s pointed gaze.
“I’m not interested in sheep. I’m just looking for a dog. And I’ve got my uh, daughter here! This is Embria. Embria, Elirr’s a [Beast Master].”
“Yeah, that thing. Say, do you have a dog with really big teeth? And how fast do they run?”
The long-suffering sigh that Elirr emitted sounded almost familiar to Embria. She’d heard it from a number of Relc’s colleagues. But the Gnoll soon had a number of dogs wandering the floor, and she was impressed at how well they obeyed even Relc’s commands. The Drake bent to scratch ears and ask who liked the taste of [Thieves]—Embria stood back and watched.
“You are Senior Guardsman Relc’s daughter, Wing Commander? I recognize both of you, but I hardly put the pieces together until now.”
Elirr’s voice made Embria turn. She smiled at him, and the older Gnoll smiled back. He only smelled a bit like wet dog, and if you got to know Gnolls, you understood that was a distinct possibility anyways.
“That’s right. I’m back home on duty. I haven’t been back to the city in…years.”
The Gnoll’s gaze sharpened.
“Of course, the army hasn’t. But Liscor is pleased to have the army back defending us, yes? Your company saw fighting during the siege.”
Embria nodded, surprised. Not everyone gave them credit. But the Gnoll’s smile seemed genuine. He gestured to the menagerie. Relc was going from pet to pet, and he was popular with dogs. Not so much with the cats, who flipped their tails up at him.
“Do you wish to see the animals? You need not buy them; they enjoy a good scratching. And ah, is your father serious about a dog? I have had a number of odd questions from him, yes?”
The Drake smiled ruefully.
“Sorry about that. I don’t know if he’s serious. I like cats and dogs. My dad—my father prefers dogs, though. He doesn’t get along with cats.”
She pointed. Embria turned back to see Relc glowering at a cat perched at head-height. The cat was hissing at him. Relc hissed back.
“Bleh. You want some? Bring it.”
That was the wrong move, apparently. The cat leapt and slashed at Relc’s extended tongue. The Drake staggered back, howling. Elirr sighed. Embria covered her face.
“That cat slashed my tongue!”
Relc’s first reaction after a drop of healing potion had been used was outrage. Embria put her claws on her hips.
“What are you doing, picking a fight with a cat? And how did it injure you, anyways? You’ve got two defensive Skills for your scales alone!”
“My scales, not my tongue!”
Relc moaned. Elirr was apologetic.
“I’m afraid Miss Twekla is also a bit more dangerous than the average housecat. Which is already a bloodthirsty murderer. She’s trained to kill pests, and her claws are sharper than normal. Please don’t tease her.”
“Do you sell cats for stew?”
The Drake glared at the cat. Miss Twekla hissed at him and leapt out of Elirr’s arms. She disappeared among her friends. The Gnoll shook his head.
“No one eats my animals. Or dogs in Liscor. Or cats. Unless they poop outside the litter box.”
He eyed his charges. They looked innocently back at him and raised their backsides, as if for inspection. Embria had to laugh. Elirr shook his head.
“I wonder how much they do know—Guardsman Relc, do you want a dog? You’ve seen all the ones I have, although I could hold any puppies that are birthed. It is a chore training them, but they are lifelong friends, yes?”
He looked at Relc. The [Guardsman] looked like he was seriously considering it.
“Maybe. You know, it’s a big thing, but I could see myself having a dog.”
“Oh come on, dad.”
Embria was exasperated. She poked Relc in the side, eliciting a yelp. He looked at her and she folded her arms.
“You’ve never had a pet. And you’ll forget to feed the poor animal. You don’t need a dog anyways; you can barely spend one day out of the week with me.”
“That is a consideration. Hrr. I do ask that my pet owners be able to care for their animals. If you weren’t taking this dog with you on patrol, it would be an issue.”
Elirr bent to pet one of the war hounds that had wandered up. Relc bent to pet it too.
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t going to leave it alone. I guess I have to ask Klbkch for his opinion. But he likes animals. I think. In theory. These are good dogs, though. Right? You hate cats, don’t you, pal?”
The dog panted in agreement. Embria had to smile. Relc cast her a side-ways glance.
“Why don’t you take one, kid? You could raise a dog yourself. Worth a shot?”
Elirr looked up hopefully. Embria blinked at the dog, who had rolled onto its back and revealed that it was a he.
“I do have good hounds trained in a number of roles, from tracking to combat, Wing Commander. Even cats who can pull their weight in adventuring teams, believe it or not. Birds…”
Embria cut him off with a polite, apologetic smile.
“I’m sure, Mister Elirr. But I’m afraid that we’re not allowed pets in the army.”
She saw her father frown. Relc leaned on a counter, accidentally pushing a cat off the side. He ignored the yowl of hatred.
“Commander-ranks are. Getting a cat would be weird, but you could get a war dog instead of me.”
“No. I really don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Embria straightened. She would have loved to pet the dog more, but she had a sense that Relc was about to be attacked by a bunch of cats if he stayed any longer. Elirr nodded, but Relc was insistent.
“Why not? They’re good company. You could get one that can bite legs off. One of those super-big ones, the size of wolves. Or a Carn Wolf. Can you train those, Elirr?”
“Not unless you’re willing to pay the food bills.”
The Gnoll muttered. He lifted up a small terrier and offered it to Embria. She hesitated. The Gnoll’s smile was welcoming. But then Embria closed her eyes.
“Animals die in battle first. I’m fine. Thank you, Mister Elirr, really. But I can’t.”
And that was that. Elirr nodded. He gestured to the shop.
“If you would like to stay, feel free. The animals do like company and I can’t be everywhere. Just, please. Don’t keep the doors open. The cats like to think they can come back whenever they please. They’re incorrigible.”
Much to Embria’s surprise, she did stay for half-an-hour longer, to inspect some birds with Relc and watch as a cat projectile-urinated on him from above. After Relc had sponged off the worst of it with some water, they left the shop. Two cats followed them out; Relc tossed them back inside. He grinned at Embria and she smiled back. Relc pointed down the street.
“Hey. You want to get lunch? My treat. I want to show you a cool drink.”
“Sure. But if it’s that blue fruit drink you’ve been harping about…”
“What? No, no. Yes. Come on. It’s great, I promise.”
Relc led the way down the street. Embria followed him, a step behind now. She saw Relc humming to himself, pleased as could be despite the dampness on one shoulder. She stared at his swinging arm, and then her own.
She looked at her claw. It twitched. Embria looked ahead at Relc’s claws. She reached out hesitantly. Then she lowered her arm.
And she followed him down the street without another word.
It was just a memory.
The Wandering Inn had a lunch crowd. In fact, the lunch crowd was big. Apparently there had been a near-fire, but only the inn’s regulars were disappointed they’d missed that. The rest were here to debate the ongoing election issue. It seemed the Council would be forced to vote on it! And what if they voted no?
Embria and Relc sat removed from it all. They were having lunch, and Embria found herself enjoying it. The blue fruit drink was indeed blue, and such a vivid color that she was immediately uneasy about it. But the taste was as sweet as Relc had claimed, and Embria found herself drinking it with a will. Although she did water hers.
The two were having a slice of Erin’s pizza, another novel taste. Embria picked apart her first slice, then watched as Relc devoured two in quick succession. She had to admire the utilitarian nature of the slice, and even the Players of Celum performing in the back.
“They’re getting better. They’re not nearly as good as the original crew, but this new cast is doing all kinds of fun stuff. They even let you perform some of the roles as the lead while the others do a scene some nights! It’s great!”
Relc was clearly happy to watch the performers on stage. It was all Drathian to Embria, but she listened to him talk about a number of ‘plays’ that made no sense to her. He pointed at the blue fruit juice as she helped herself to another cup.
“You like it? It’s good, right?”
“I do like it. Thanks for dragging me here. It was your first good idea today.”
Embria slyly looked at Relc over the brim of her cup. He mock-bristled.
“Hey! I have plenty of good ideas! Just ask Klb! Not cooking was one of them. You see those burn marks?”
He jerked his thumb towards the kitchen. Embria had to agree.
“Okay. The puzzles were interesting. I had no idea you liked those. Honestly, though. A dog? How long would you keep one for before it died or ran off?”
Relc looked embarrassed.
“It was just a thought. I thought it would be a fun pal, you know? I wouldn’t mistreat it.”
That was…true. Embria had to admit, she couldn’t see Relc deliberately neglecting a dog, or even forgetting to feed it really. A fish? Definitely. A cat? Probably on purpose. But not a dog. She hesitated. Something about it did bug her, though.
“You don’t need a dog. I don’t need a dog or a cat. Or a pet. They’re a distraction for me, and if you got one, it would get in the way if—”
Too late. She bit her tongue. Relc’s convivial gaze sharpened.
“If what? If I…rejoin the army?”
Embria didn’t reply. She was gripping her leg with one claw under the table. She shouldn’t have said it. But it was too late now, and Relc was glowering.
“Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t be allowed a pet, being a lowly [Sergeant]. If I rejoined the army. Which I won’t. Although, now that you mention it—it sorta seems shitty, doesn’t it? No pets, no regular days off, fighting and dying without coming back to Liscor and forgetting all your old friends—hey, it’s almost like there’s more to life than fighting and nearly dying every week.”
He glared at his drink. Embria folded her arms, feeling a spark of indignation flare up in her chest.
“I didn’t bring it up once. That was an accident. You don’t need to bite my tail off.”
“Oh, sure it was. But you keep thinking it’s going to happen, don’t you? And I didn’t see you turning your tail up at all of my hobbies. What’s wrong with them? I’m retired, kid.”
“I didn’t say they were—Senior Guardsman is not retirement, father.”
A note of heat entered Embria’s tone. Relc’s was already as hot as the fireplace. It wasn’t that this was coming out of the blue. It was continuing a discussion—an argument—a quarrel, that they’d had week after week. Both knew what was coming. Both couldn’t stop it.
“It is for me. I’m never going back. Stop suggesting it. Why do you keep wanting me to, anyways? It’s not like I was ever more than a [Sergeant]. That’s nothing in our army.”
“You weren’t just a [Sergeant] and you know it. If you asked—”
“They’d welcome me with a huge banquet and give me a crown? Fat chance. You think it’s great being in the army? Who’s got you marching up and down for Lism, huh? Fun job, that.”
Relc slowly drained his cup. Embria pushed hers back.
“I won’t have you insulting my home. The Antinium deal is idiotic and you know it. Liscor needs to make the right choice—”
A claw cracked the pewter cup.
“What would you know about the right choice? You haven’t been back in years! The army doesn’t know what Liscor wants or needs! And you don’t know the Antinium!”
“I know more about the Antinium than anyone in this city! You’re mad if you think they can be trusted, and that includes your so-called partner!”
Embria raised her voice. No—it had been risen. Relc stood up amid the localized silence. He pushed his chair back, tossed the shards of the mug onto the table, and glanced to one side.
“Sorry about that, Erin. I’m going to the outhouse.”
He turned and walked out of the inn. Embria looked to one side and saw that everyone was staring at her and her father. Including the young woman sitting at another table, feeding a Gnoll bite-sized morsels of pizza. Embria colored. But Erin Solstice came over. She stared at the shards of the mug on the table.
“Huh. He drank everything before cracking the mug. Cool, cool. I can respect that. Uh…hi. Embria, right?”
“That’s right. You’re Erin Solstice. We’ve met.”
Embria recalled their first meeting. So did Erin. The [Innkeeper]’s mouth twisted slightly, but then she looked over at Relc’s place.
“Um…so. Relc’s your dad.”
Embria sighed. She was already predicting the flow of this conversation.
“That’s right. He is. I know he’s…young. Compared to how old I am, at least. He was young when he joined the army. And my mother—I’m sorry about the shouting.”
Erin waved a hand.
“Don’t worry. ‘S cool. There’s been a lot of shouting all day. And screaming. And fire. People are really upset about the election thing, right?”
“That’s only part of the issue.”
The Wing Commander was glad it was hard to tell when she was flushing. She picked at her last slice of pizza. Erin studied it.
“Yeah. I gathered. Well, I don’t know the whole thing about the army and so on, but I know Relc. So—my condolences. Want another pizza? Or a burger? On the house. We also have alcohol. Dark lager.”
She waggled her eyebrows. Embria looked up sharply.
“What do you mean, my condolences.”
Erin raised her palms innocently.
“Oh, nothing. Nothing…but he is Relc. He can sort of be a jerk without trying sometimes. And he’s a goof—he makes mistakes, he’s rude, unhygienic…I can see how it’s hard. Y’know?”
She gave Embria what might have been meant to be a commiserating look. It failed. Embria controlled her temper, which had sparked up in her gut. She fixed Erin with a stare.
“No matter what you might have heard, Miss Solstice, my father is a Senior Guardsman. I hope you give him the dignity of his rank? I’ll remind you that Sergeant Relc has served Liscor’s army and the city for over twenty years. He’s entitled to his faults, and I didn’t hear him pointing out yours just now.”
“Well, of course. I didn’t mean he was bad. He’s changed a lot! Improved! I just meant—”
Erin began to stammer as Embria got up. The [Commander] stepped back from the table and fished for money. She slapped down some coins and walked towards the door—at the precise moment Relc, looking annoyed but also relieved, walked back in. He stopped, staring at her.
“Where are you going?”
“Out. I’ve just insulted your [Innkeeper] friend. I don’t think I’m welcome here.”
Embria mumbled, wishing she could reduce the heat in her cheeks. Relc stared at her face, and then over Embria’s shoulder.
“What? You didn’t get along with Erin? Everyone likes Erin. What got under your tail? Besides me, I mean.”
Embria snapped back. Then she caught herself. She shook her head despairingly at the blank, exasperated look on Relc’s face.
“Nothing. I’m just done. Sorry I brought up your past, father. Have fun with the play.”
“Hey, I thought you wanted—”
Embria walked past Relc before she could say something she’d regret. She did anyways.
“We don’t need to keep this up, father. You’ve got your life. I’ve got mine. I’m going back to work. I’ll see you next week.”
With that, she walked out the door. Relc watched her go, as did Erin and half the inn’s guests, who were used to tableaus by now. The [Actors] on stage were taking notes. Erin wandered past the Horns of Hammerad, to Relc. She looked at him. He looked at her.
“Was that my fault?”
“No. I think it was mine. Don’t worry, Erin. It happens every week.”
“Yeah. She always gets around to asking me to rejoin the army. And I always say no. We were having fun up until it this time, though. Well, even if we don’t do that, we argue about the High Command or something.”
The Drake felt at his shoulders, shaking his head. Erin looked at him. And then at the door. Embria had taken the door to the outside, which meant she’d be walking back in the mud and drying soil.
“It didn’t look like that to me.”
Both Relc and Erin turned to look at the person standing behind them. Relc blinked.
He hesitated. Then he snapped his fingers a few times.
“Uh, we’ve met. But I forget. Who are you again?”
Wing Commander Embria was unhappy. And unlike her father, she had no hobbies to engage her. Or rather, none she could really pursue at this moment. She had no friends outside of her subordinates, and she was their [Commander]. So she was alone. And because she was alone, she did what she knew.
The training grounds attached to the Adventurer’s Guild were in use at this time of day, mainly by adventurers who weren’t currently at work. The City Watch must have had their own area, because Embria saw none of them there. She did recognize some teams—the Gold rank teams, the Wings of Pallass, and the Flamewardens looked to be coordinating team attacks together.
They were known even outside of their home Walled Cities of Pallass and of course Embria knew them as part of her job. Another time she might have introduced herself, but at the moment she was just angry. So she grabbed a training spear, eyed it, and then stalked back to her barracks and came back with her regular spear.
That alone earned her a small berth of space, although the grounds really weren’t that busy. Embria went through a basic attack drill, thrusting and pivoting, parrying invisible shapes, working out her muscles and trying to forget anything else. She was so caught up in the drill that she didn’t notice the figure standing in bright armor on the other end of her area until she was halfway down towards her. Embria instantly stopped; her enchanted spear was very dangerous to anyone carelessly walking in front of it. Not that anyone but an idiot did that in a practice area.
But the person wasn’t a foolish passerby, or even a member of the audience too close for their comfort. It was in fact, a woman, perhaps Embria’s age, with long, golden hair, fair skin that invited the word faire, and the complexion that would fit right at home on a damsel in distress in a similar, very specific era of Human society that had somehow still endured in Terandria and parts of Izril until this day.
The only difference was that this damsel was both [Knight] and maiden. Her armor was polished, if slightly mismatched, and clearly enchanted. She held a wooden longsword in two hands and nodded politely at Embria.
“Apologies. I was wondering if you’d like to spar?”
It was a common request and the courteous answer was yes. But Embria was in no mood. She planted the tip of her spear in the ground.
“Sorry. I’m not in the mood for a spar. One of us would get hurt.”
The [Knight] or adventurer shrugged.
“I’m willing to take a risk. I have armor on. And you’re quick with that spear. What do you say? Practice spear, though? I don’t want to take a hit from whatever that is.”
She indicated Embria’s enchanted spear. The Drake bared her teeth. But why not? She took her spear to one side and grabbed the training spear. Then she walked back.
“Don’t blame me if you get hurt. Call out any time if you want to stop.”
The [Warrior] nodded calmly and set herself. Embria didn’t bother with a count or formality; she set to with a series of rapid thrusts aimed straight at the woman’s chest. She didn’t intend to strike the unguarded face—that was begging to put out an eye or do serious damage—but a few sturdy hits against the breastplate would make Embria feel better.
Only, it turned out the woman was better than Embria had thought. She blocked and moved back with the longsword, calmly deflecting aggressive thrusts meant to hit her. More than a fair number got through; Embria was a Wing Commander and she had the advantage of reach and speed with her spear.
But the woman was quick and more adept with her longsword than most [Warriors]. Even better than the [Lieutenants] under Embria’s command. And yes, she took hits, but if she had a helmet on and Embria were trying to get through her armor? It would have been closer.
After a few minutes, Embria let the woman go on the offensive. And she found that the [Warrior] was just as aggressive as Embria herself. The Drake blocked a heavy two-handed strike and grunted; she pivoted and avoided a lancing thrust at her chest. To the Human woman’s clear frustration she didn’t get more than a single, glancing blow in on her entire offensive. She lowered her sword, panting, and Embria smiled.
“You’re not half bad, Miss Warrior.”
“The same to you. Although it’s more like false modesty in your case. I thought I’d touch you properly at least once. That was humbling.”
The woman planted her sword in the ground, looking disgusted with herself. Against her mood, Embria laughed. And she was feeling better.
“If you could hit me so easily, I’d be worried. You’re a Gold-rank adventurer, Miss?”
“Silver. But I’ve improved since my last ranking test. Not enough, apparently.”
“A Wing Commander should be the equivalent of any Gold-rank adventurer. At least.”
“True. True enough. But you’re quicker with a spear than I thought. I’d hate to try that with my actual sword, enchantments or not. Yvlon Byres, at your service.”
The woman held out a hand. Embria blinked; normally you’d take off a gauntlet, but she shook the hand anyways. Yvlon rubbed at one forearm as she stepped back and Embria wondered if she’d taken an injury. She didn’t comment on it.
“Please. Wing Commander Embria Grasstongue. Are you here to challenge Liscor’s dungeon, Miss Byres?”
“Call me Yvlon. And I’ve had enough of that dungeon for two lifetimes.”
Yvlon’s smile was bitter. But she brushed that away in a second. She and Embria stood to one side, watching as Bevussa flew up in a mock sparring match with Keldrass.
“I have to admit, I sought you out myself, Commander Embria.”
“Just Embria. Have we met?”
“No. But you were just at The Wandering Inn. And I uh, saw part of what happened there.”
The Drake’s mood soured at once again. Yvlon spoke quickly, eying her face.
“I don’t know about the uh, Drake. Relc. Your father? I meant about Erin. I heard what she said. And I wanted to clear the air. Erin can be tactless, but she counts Relc as a friend.”
“That’s something. But she didn’t get anything wrong. And you can probably guess our relationship at a glance.”
Yvlon’s quiet voice made Embria look up. The [Warrior] gripped on arm absently, then she met Embria’s eyes.
“He’s quite good. I saw him fighting during the siege. And against the Face-Eater Moths. The Raskghar too, come to think of it.”
“You were here for all of that?”
Embria was surprised. She’d heard of Liscor’s woes. To hear tell, the city had barely made it out of each encounter. Yvlon nodded.
“I took part. Not as the vanguard of any of the action. But your father was a good part of all of it. I think he took out one of the giant Face-Eater Moths? He certainly killed a number of Raskghar. Even one of their Awakened. And…Garen Redfang.”
Her expression grew still at that. But it only made Embria more curious.
“I haven’t been able to get anyone to give me a full account of what happened. Can you tell me more? Uh—would you like to sit?”
“I could stand or sit. It’s not like we’re that tired. By all means, let me fill you in. I can’t say I saw all of what Relc did, but as for the action—”
Yvlon began to tell Embria about all three encounters. Then, with a grimace, she went back and related the encounter with Skinner as well.
“I didn’t see any of that. Not—well, not Liscor’s side of things. But I heard that he helped chase off Skinner himself.”
“No one mentioned that. It doesn’t surprise me, though. He’s one of Liscor’s best—no, probably their best fighter, if not the highest-level [Guardsman].”
By this time Embria was sitting. The Wing Commander smiled to herself as she balanced her enchanted spear on her legs. Yvlon eyed the tip with interest; it had been given a very fine metal inlay that made it look like blue tracers of metal were forged into the spearhead.
“I have to admit, I was surprised at how good Relc was. I’ve known [Guardsman] and none, not even their Watch Captains, have come close. Not even in places like Invrisil. I know the Drakes value their law enforcement, but Relc’s as strong as a Gold-rank adventurer. Without more than his enchanted spear. And he was a war hero?”
The question in her voice was without judgment. Embria hesitated.
“You could say that. He was really just a soldier. One of Liscor’s finest. He was a [Sergeant]—I don’t suppose you know how Liscor’s army works? We have a lot of officer classes.”
Yvlon’s lips quirked.
“I have a friend who educates me on everything and anything. I do know a bit. [Sergeant]’s low, isn’t it?”
“It is. But my father wasn’t just an ordinary grunt. He had a nickname. The Gecko of Liscor. And he was an anti-officer fighter. He could charge into enemy lines, take out a commander, and retreat.”
“And he was only a [Sergeant]? Was it a ploy?”
Embria ducked her head.
“Yes and no. You see, he really wasn’t the kind of person who could lead an entire unit, let alone a wing or an army. He had the fighting skill. Leadership? Strategy? No. He was perfect for a [Sergeant], so the High Command decided he could be the best. And his class also interfered with him advancing. You see, he’s a [Spearmaster].”
Yvlon whistled softly. Embria nodded a few times.
“You get it?”
“They’re like [Fencers]. The ones with silver and gold bells, I mean. Not just anyone can get that class. Don’t you have to be trained for years to be a [Spearmaster]?”
“Or kill one in combat. The trouble is, there’s no class consolidation that combines [Sergeant] and [Spearmaster]. There is a [Spearmaster General], although that’s generic, and he might have gotten [Spear Captain], but…it just didn’t work out. So my dad’s a Level 30 plus [Spearmaster] and nearly as high level in [Sergeant].”
“And a [Guardsman]. No wonder he can fight with the best of them.”
“Right? He was a nightmare to face for low-level officers. The High Command even made an allowance to give him a [Commander]-grade artifact.”
It was no use, Embria couldn’t suppress the delighted smile on her face. Yvlon was smiling too as she balanced the practice sword on her knees.
“Like the one you use? I’ve got a good sword myself. The armor’s second-rate, but decent. But my sword? It’s a Sword of [Weight]. I’m trying not to let it do the fighting.”
Embria blinked. Her [Soldier]’s mind took over for a second.
“I haven’t measured. But maybe as much as thirty pounds? Higher?”
“It is. But your spear looks just as deadly. May I ask what it’s enchantment is?”
Yvlon indicated the spear balanced across Embria’s legs. The Wing Commander looked down. She hesitated, but anyone who knew something of spears would be able to identify it.
“It’s an Evercut spear. Heard of it?”
The warrior nodded.
“I’ve heard of Evercut arrows. Same principle? One cut and you don’t stop bleeding?”
“Not with magic. And it halts regeneration. It also makes the bleeding worse since it takes far longer to clot. It’s a good spear. Not the best, but I’ve used it for years. His is better. My father’s, I mean. He’s got one enchanted with anti-magic. It’s nearly as strong as a blade made of Naq-Alrama steel. It’s a [Mage]-killer, or an officer-slayer.”
“That is good.”
Yvlon nodded appreciatively, as only one who knew something of combat could. She glanced at Embria as the Drake blushed, realizing she’d gone on about Relc for the last five minutes.
“Sorry. I just don’t get a chance to learn about my father that often. He doesn’t talk about his life. Much less his past with me.”
The Human woman shook her head. She sighed and sat back on the practice bench.
“No, it’s refreshing. And I’m glad I could tell you what’s happened. I have to say…I suppose I was wrong. You admire him. I guess that’s not like my father and I at all.”
“W-what? Well, he is my father.”
The armored woman nodded.
“I know. And I have a similar relationship to my father. I admire him too. But he’s not my hero.”
She looked at Embria. The Wing Commander froze. And what might have come out of her mouth next was anyone’s guess. Because she saw something similar in Yvlon’s gaze, a knowingness. And then she saw something else reflected in her vision. And she heard a voice, polite, friendly, clicking, from behind her.
“Hello, Yvlon. I am not interrupting you, am I?”
Embria spun. She saw two open mandibles, a black body. Multi-faceted eyes. Antennae. Three arms.
Reflexively, Embria rose, spear raised. Yvlon jumped to her feet, putting an arm out. The Antinium stepped back, studying Embria. He raised one hand in greeting.
“I am Ksmvr.”
Embria snarled. Yvlon quickly interposed herself between Embria and the Antinium.
“Ksmvr, take a step back. Wing Commander, please calm down. Ksmvr is with me. He’s part of my team.”
Embria stared at Yvlon. She felt like she’d been punched in the gut. She’d heard someone was crazy enough to have teamed up with an Antinium. But Yvlon? The [Warrior] nodded.
“Ksmvr’s from Liscor’s Hive. He was exiled. I know what Liscor’s army’s relationship is with the Antinium but—they’re not all monsters. Neither are all Goblins. It took me a while to realize that myself.”
“That is correct. I am not listed as a monster in the Adventurer’s Guild.”
“Not helping, Ksmvr.”
Embria was shaking her head. She took a step backwards, glaring at both Yvlon and Ksmvr, her body taut.
“I don’t care. I know my enemies, and Goblins and Antinium don’t get a pass for being different. They’re both species that have nearly wiped out Liscor and my people—you have no idea what that thing is capable of.”
A touch of fire entered Yvlon’s yes. She held an arm blocking Embria. The Drake lowered her spear’s tip, but she still glared at Ksmvr.
Both females looked at Ksmvr. The Antinium adventurer nodded.
“Wing Commander Embria is quite correct. You do not know the full capacity of my abilities, Yvlon. I have been trying to educate you. But Wing Commander Embria’s hostility is quite understandable.”
“No, it’s not.”
Yvlon folded her arms, glaring between Ksmvr and Embria now. She turned to him.
“Your people may have invaded Izril, Ksmvr, but you killed no one. And the Antinium helped save Liscor. Surely that earns them a small pass? Humans and Gnolls have both been at war with the Drakes, and I didn’t see Commander Embria instantly threaten me when I approached. No Antinium has killed a Drake in a decade. Can’t we be civil?”
She looked pointedly at the Drake in question. Embria took a deep breath.
“No, we can not. You’re the one who doesn’t understand, Miss Byres. The Antinium are not another species on Izril who can be reasoned with. They are cold, insectile strangers. And I’ve killed Antinium before.”
The [Warrior] paused.
“How do you mean? From Liscor’s Hive?”
“We haven’t been here long enough. But Liscor’s army fights everywhere. You think we aren’t called to patrol the neutral border between the Hives? It’s not peaceful like you Humans think. The Antinium attack us, and we attack them. Clashes happen all the time on the border zone. And not with these Worker-types either. Liscor’s Antinium are tame compared to the ones I’ve seen. Flying bastards who pick off travelers on the roads. Armored Antinium. Invisible ones. And there are worse kinds, like the things that sometimes appear and kill entire villages. They don’t look like regular Antinium—until you cut them open and see the similarities. We are at war.”
The woman opened her mouth. But it was Ksmvr who jumped in.
“That is correct, broadly speaking, Wing Commander Embria. But I am no longer a member of my Hive. Therefore, I am no enemy of yours, Wing Commander Embria. I am an adventurer. That is all I have left.”
Embria filed away that information in case it was important. But she still held onto her spear. She lowered it to the ground and stepped back, but she couldn’t let go.
“That changes nothing. I’m sorry to bother you, Miss Byres. But I think it’s time I get back to my drills.”
She saluted with her spear. Yvlon looked annoyed and disgusted by turns. She moved Ksmvr back and spoke sharply.
“I’d have hoped that you could meet one member of a species without tarring the rest with the same brush. Or are all Drakes the same? All Gnolls? Either way, if you won’t accept the Antinium, at least you could rethink Goblins. One stays at Erin’s inn. And Goblins may have attacked Liscor at the behest of their Goblin Lord, but Goblins—”
It was a common refrain. Embria spat the words. She looked Yvlon in the eye and shook her head.
“You want me to be at peace with the Antinium? Fine. I’ll do that when we’re actually at peace. When I can trust that the Hive isn’t working to undermine Liscor.”
“That would be very difficult.”
Embria ignored both. She tightened her grip on her spear.
“But Goblins? Make peace with Goblins? Never. Goblins killed my mother.”
And then she was the angriest she’d been all day. For a moment. For ten minutes. For twenty. Twenty seven. And then she couldn’t be angry anymore. Because as deep the injustice, as true as the emotions were, they were old wounds. Embria couldn’t be angry. So she was just tired. And a bit sad as she practiced alone.
That was how he found her. She didn’t expect it, but when she turned her head there he was. Just standing there, watching her. He nearly made her lose her grip on her spear. In the end, Embria swung it onto one shoulder and glared at him. She wasn’t in the mood for half-hearted apologies.
“Did you send that Human? Yvlon Byres?”
Relc looked around. Yvlon was standing on the far end of the practice grounds, showing Ksmvr how to fight with sword and shield more effectively.
“Her? Nope. I got sort of mad at Erin when I found out she’d gone. But apparently it was all Yvlon.”
“Well. She’s best friends with an Antinium. Just like you’re now best friends with Erin and all her Goblins, right? Are you enjoying their company too, along with Senior Guardsman Klbkch?”
The words felt like acid coming out, as if Embria was Oldblood. Relc just stared at her, until she couldn’t meet his gaze. Shame rushed through her; the look in his eyes was—
“No. I don’t speak to that guy. And he doesn’t speak to me. But I don’t need to join the army and slaughter another thousand to avenge your mother.”
“So you’re fine with Goblins now? Is that it?”
Embria whirled on him. Relc’s shrugged. It was pained, contemptuous, and tired all at once.
“I didn’t say that. But tell me. How many more should I have killed? How long should I have stuck around to kill them? One killed her. And it could have been, Humans, Gnolls, Drakes, a damn Corusdeer—”
“They killed your parents. You told me.”
“I did. And they did. I never said I was okay with it. But Antinium got my buddies. Klb is my buddy. Let’s just say it’s like that.”
It was too much like what Yvlon had said. Embria turned her back.
“You don’t have to follow me about. We had our half a day. That’s better than normal.”
Relc sighed loudly.
“Why is it always like this? I thought you liked the pet store. And the pizza. Maybe even the puzzles.”
“I did. But that’s your life, father. Not mine.”
“Yeah. So maybe I should visit where you work. What’s stopping you from saying where we’ll go one time?”
“If you went back to the barracks, half of my command would be lining up to have a ‘friendly’ sparring match with you. The other half would spit in your face.”
“Sounds about right. So it’s my crummy life, huh?”
“It wouldn’t bother me if you did anything useful with your time. But what am I supposed to do? Just watch you go about your business? Can’t you—do something I’d do?”
There was a pause. And then a sigh. Embria listened to it as she stared at Yvlon and Ksmvr, who were studiously ignoring them. Well, Yvlon was.
“I tried. But I guess my life just isn’t that interesting. Puzzles. Dogs. Blue fruit juice. I’m sorry. What would you like me to do? Go for a drink? Watch a performance or something?”
“I don’t know. No.”
“Then I’m out of ideas. What do we have in common?”
Embria spun. She walked over to Relc and poked at his chest.
“You’re my father. I’m your daughter. Isn’t that enough?”
He looked down at her sadly.
“I guess not, kid. Or I guess we’re too alike. Only, we’re on the wrong side of things. You’re in the army. I’m not. How do we deal with that?”
And she had no answer. If she had, she wouldn’t be here. They wouldn’t do this. And she wouldn’t have been a Wing Commander while he stayed in Liscor. And both of them knew it. So Embria turned around. She grabbed her spear and ran through one of her exercises. The spear cut the air. Embria did a basic spear dance, alone in her world. Waiting for him to leave.
He didn’t leave, though. Whenever she turned her head, there he was. And that was different too. She’d expected him to stalk off in a huff or just sneak away. Run away. But this time he stayed. He was watching her. Watching the arcs her spear traced in the air. Embria turned her head and kept practicing. And after three more forms, she heard his voice.
“You do that pretty well. I have a similar warm-up, you know.”
She concentrated on her footwork. It was familiar. Comforting. But she was aware of his presence. It was aggravating and familiar. And…Embria tried to shut out the rest with the purity of her art. She transitioned. From basic thrusts and steps to advanced moves. Sweeping cuts, sudden feints and reverse-strikes. The sounds in the practice courts slowly died down as Embria cut and stepped, faster and faster, each strike striving for precision, the height of martial prowess that Skills alone could not achieve.
And then she turned—and he was gone. Gone from the place he’d been standing. Just like that. It hit Embria in the gut and she staggered for a second. But what had she expected? For him to wait forever. Angrily, Embria turned. She raised her spear to slash—
And there he was. Relc raised his spear above his head. And he was right there. His head turned to look at her. Embria faltered. Her spear nearly slipped. Then she realized. His arms. His posture.
It was a copy of hers. And as Relc brought his spear down, he completed the slash she’d been about to perform. Slowly, Embria cut downwards, in the same arc. She looked at her father. And he waited.
What came next? Embria’s body took over for her mind. She retreated, cutting across the first cut. And beside her, Relc copied the move.
No—he didn’t copy it. Because that would have put him a beat behind her. He had moved at the exact same time she did. He knew what was coming next. And of course he did. This was a spear technique. A move he had learned. Perhaps even the ones he had shown her growing up.
Of course they were the same. Slowly, Embria brought her spear up. It was her routine. Her warm up. But two spears rose. They fell as one. And daughter and father looked at each other. And then Embria took a deep breath. She spun her spear and Relc blinked and then mimicked her. And they began again.
Yvlon saw the two figures moving in synch out of the corner of her eye at first. And at first she didn’t pay attention, coaching Ksmvr in traditional Byres swordplay. But then the movements were impossible to ignore. Because they were an anomaly. Just like something completely dissonant stood out, the unity of the two figures was also different. Yvlon turned and halted her practice session.
Her eyes widened. She saw Embria, sweat covering her crimson scales, turning. Her spear was lowered, tracing a circle in the dirt around her. And beside her, his spear held in the exact same way, at the same angle, was Relc. He flicked his spear up, and hers flew with it, a slight thrust that kicked up dirt. They jumped back, and the veil of dust billowed up. And two outlines moved together. Two shadows.
Step. Pivot. The spears cut a line through the cloud of dust. Yvlon watched the tips of the spears tracing silver lines in the air. They caught the light.
“Silver and steel.”
Yvlon breathed the words. The move was beautiful, but the technique of both Drakes was flawless. And she wasn’t the only one who’d seen. Across the sparring grounds and practice area, other people were lowering their weapons. Captain Bevussa and Keldrass halted in their practice to watch.
“Are you seeing this, Issa?”
One of the Oldblood Drakes alighted on the ground. Her eyes caught a crescent cut. This time Embria and Relc advanced, and the half-moons cut patterns through the air. Bevussa glanced at her teammate.
“You use a spear. How good are they? Could you do that?”
“Good, Captain? I can’t tell. But I can’t do that. Not with a Skill. Look.”
It wasn’t just the way they cut, or the fact that they moved in tandem. Because a spear was not a single weapon like a sword you could only hold a limited number of ways. It could be long or short, and where you held it, where you stood, affected how you fought your opponent.
Stab. Cut upwards. Shift grip. The spears jabbed and then spun, from a lance to quarterstaff. The other practitioners in the courtyard looked up. The two Drakes struck, up, down, left, right, a never-ending flurry of blows. Then they changed their grips and swung.
The long end of the spear swung across the courts. And Relc and Embria were too close. They were going to strike each other across the torsos! Bevussa started forwards with two Drakes from her team. They were too slow.
And it didn’t matter. Embria’s torso twisted. Sideways, and down. She leaned under Relc’s swing and as she completed the sweeping slash he twisted back, letting her enchanted spear’s tip pass over his face. Neither Drake blinked. They kept moving, wielding their spears like longswords now, with even greater reach.
Yvlon watched silently. So did Ksmvr. Both used swords. But Yvlon was the daughter of a martial house. Ksmvr had been born a Prognugator. They understood the art of wielding a spear. To Yvlon, it was a lesson in watching basic forms executed flawlessly. And then both Drakes left her understanding of spear combat behind.
A flash of light. The spears touched the ground. And then dust billowed up. But the two Drakes didn’t appear from behind the dust cloud. They pivoted, and then used the blunt ends of their spears. And as casually as if they were walking, they swung themselves off the ground, landing, cutting. A backhanded strike cut the air behind Embria as Relc duplicated the feat, before the cloud had begun to drift downwards.
“What was that move?”
Bevussa wondered aloud. No one on the courts answered her at first. And then an old, crackling voice spoke up.
“Blinding moves. Repositioning. Fighting an opponent to your rear.”
Yvlon looked around. An old, female Drake stood behind her, in the back door to the Adventurer’s Guild. Tekshia Shivertail, Guildmistress of Liscor’s Adventuring Guild, watched as Relc and Embria turned. Their spears lashed out, cutting the air.
“They’re good, Guildmistress?”
Bevussa asked on behalf of the silent audience. Neither Embria nor Relc noticed. Tekshia shook her head. She watched Embria as the younger Drake’s scales flashed.
“If you have to ask, you know the answer. Watch.”
The spear dances had changed. Now more complex forms were appearing. Relc and Embria stepped back, walking backwards from an invisible foe. The spears flickered, front, back, jabbing with the tip and butt of the spear.
“Fighting off a two-pronged attack. Spinning technique to keep them off-guard.”
The two spears flickered as the Drakes spun then, and Yvlon lost track of where the spear tip was for a second as the two attacked two directions at once, repeating the confusing maneuver, halting the rotating of the spear to attack with the spearhead or lash out backwards.
Then the two Drakes paused. They looked at each other, and Relc gestured up. Embria nodded. Yvlon was confused. Then Embria and Relc took a run up. They leapt, using their poles to vault high, high into the air.
They should have fallen, no matter how long it took. But they stayed in the air. The butt of Embria’s spear struck the hard earth and the force launched her again as her body twisted sideways. She struck again, and the earth cracked. And then again, launching herself in midair before she could touch the ground. The impacts kept her moving through the air until she landed. Next to Relc, across the sparring courts. Thirty feet away.
Silently, the audience stared at Tekshia. The old [Guildmistress] folded her arms.
“That’s just showing off.”
As the two landed, they finished the routine. The final combination was just a series of thrusts.
Strike. Step. Strike. The spears shot forwards, finding an invisible target with each strike. As if there was no doubt they would ever miss. It was confident. And just when Yvlon thought the two would lower their spears, they turned. As smoothly as they had been in clockwork before, suddenly Embria was facing her father. And her enchanted spear lanced out like a serpent at his chest.
He knocked it down. Undeterred, Embria swept her spear up. But the sound of wood meeting wood was the only sound in the world. She spun her spear, and Relc blocked the butt of the spear swinging to his thigh. The female Drake slashed again and it was blocked. But she continued. Faster, and faster.
Clack. Clack. Clack. Clackclackclackclackclack—
The sound became an endless stream of sound in Yvlon’s ears. Each slash was blocked or diverted, each blow parried. And then, suddenly, it was Embria on the defensive. First Relc attacked, his spear whirling from form to form—short stabs, long slashes, whirling the spear like a stave—and then Embria was advancing.
Back and forth. Advancing and retreating. They pressed each other hard, but not once did the spear’s tip touch the other, wood or enchanted metal. It put Yvlon’s bout with Embria to shame. If this was what the Drake was capable of, Yvlon wouldn’t have ever touched her.
The duel, the practice, lasted sometime between a heartbeat and an hour. Then Embria lowered her spear and wiped at her brow. And Relc propped his spear up on his shoulder and stretched. Yvlon exhaled, and Tekshia applauded.
Once. It was so quiet that Yvlon barely heard it. She saw Keldrass uncertainly raise his claws with some of the other watchers, but Tekshia had stopped before anyone else could join in. The Guildmistress shook her head once more. But her tone was far from dismissive.
“And they say we don’t have true skill at arms. Someone show those [Martial Artist] freaks at Pomle this sight.”
She hobbled forwards, using a cane that rather resembled a spear itself for a crutch. No—it was a short spear. Tekshia leaned on it. Yvlon followed her.
“That’s what a Wing Commander in your army can do?”
The old Drake snorted.
“That’s what Commander Grasstongue can do. Why do you think she made Wing Commander in just two decades?”
She shook her head. With her spear-cane, Tekshia indicated Relc. He was smiling. So was Embria.
“That was a [Spearmaster]’s routine. No [Spear Hunter] could do that just by practicing or leveling up.”
The look she gave the other adventurers in the sparring fields said they couldn’t do it either. Yvlon tried to remember if she’d ever seen Ylawes or anyone else perform a sword-dance nearly that advanced. Pisces…no, he had polished moves, but not nearly to this level.
Now Relc and Embria were talking. He wiped off sweat from his brow as he indicated at the spot where they’d literally flown across the ground for thirty feet.
“Where’d you learn my patented [Soaring Spearsman] trick?”
Embria grinned. Her tone sounded waspish, but her expression looked pleased to Yvlon.
“Don’t make up Skills. I watched you do that trick for years. It took me a decade to learn to copy it. And unlike you, I’ve actually used it in battles.”
“Hey! Wait, really?”
“Yes. I didn’t think you still practiced, though.”
“Well, you know. I keep up. The Captain would kill me if I didn’t practice. So I do. Say…I’m beat. Want to wash off and…get a drink?”
Embria paused. She looked at Relc and hesitated. At last, she shrugged.
“I could try that. We could.”
“Sure. Want to go to the bath house?”
“Nah. I’ll just grab a bucket of water and…get a change of clothes. You’re covered in sweat. What if we meet at your apartment in ten minutes?”
“Sure. I mean, great.”
Relc stood to one side. He watched, almost bemused, as his daughter left the courtyard, spear on one shoulder. He turned his head and stared at his spear—even the way he carried it was the same. He looked around and then noticed the audience at last.
“What’re you looking at?”
Tekshia poked Relc in the back with hear spear.
“You, fool. Where did that girl learn how to do that spear dance?”
“I don’t know. From the army?”
Relc ducked as Tekshia swung at his head. And she was quick too. She glared at him.
“Don’t be cute. You’re too ugly. She copied you. I’ve seen you practice that before. And you can’t learn that from sight alone, no matter what genius you are. You taught her.”
The big [Guardsman] hunched his shoulders.
“So maybe I did. I didn’t think she’d keep using that in the army. I taught her how to use a spear and nothing else. So what? That’s a terrible gift for a kid to get.”
Tekshia just shook her head. She looked around and then clicked her fingers.
“You. Keldrass. Grab a bucket of water. Fill it up from the wall.”
The Gold-rank Captain blinked. But another click of Tekshia’s claws sent him trotting off. She looked at Relc. He was leaning on his spear, sweat dripping down.
“Go wash up. And put something decent on. Don’t leave your daughter waiting. If you really feel that way, then your company is the least she deserves.”
Keldrass came back. Tekshia grabbed the bucket and hurled it on Relc. The Drake cursed, and then blinked at her through a waterfall of water dripping off him. He hadn’t dodged it. Tekshia snapped at him.
“Did you hear me? Get lost.”
Relc uncertainly looked around. Slowly, he put his spear away. Then he trotted down the street. Yvlon stared at the puddles of water he left. Tekshia sighed as she watched him go. Then she stared around.
“What are you waiting for? Do you think you’ll level up by watching? Get back to work!”
The adventurers started and took their spots, even if they’d been intending to get a nice long drink instead. Tekshia walked back into her guild. She paused to stare backwards at Relc’s disappearing from. Then she looked at the place where they’d been. She swishes her tail and shook her head a final time.
“Ridiculous. Liscor doesn’t need three [Spearmasters].”
But she was smiling when she said it.
A father and a daughter met outside his apartments. As they do. As they did. They walked together through Liscor’s streets. It was both their days off. And as it had been noted, Liscor was full of things more interesting and exciting than them.
On his platform, Lism dueled Krshia with words. By his side was the esteemed, no, heroic Captain Wikir. The Gnoll stood in full breastplate and armor, saluting and looking bored and embarrassed to tears by halves. Embria paused to stare at him with Relc. She hesitated, and then pointed to the stage.
“You should be the one he calls out. Not me. All I did was follow orders. You slew that Goblin. Garen Redfang. I never thanked you for doing that.”
“But you’re Liscor’s war hero. If anyone was.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
Relc crossed his arms. He looked bleakly at the stage and shook his head. He looked at his daughter. This was the first thing they’d really said to each other since the sparring match. But it was honest. It didn’t dance about the subject. And it wasn’t the same conversation. She looked at him, hesitating.
“Why not? You stopped Garen Redfang. A Gold-rank traitor. And you commanded the 4th Company. You called the retreat when I didn’t. And they listened. Didn’t you feel anything?”
The former [Sergeant] hesitated. And he could have evaded or lied. But he didn’t.
“Of course. I went out there and for a second it was like being back in the ranks. But just for a second. I didn’t want to go out there swinging and fighting with the [Soldiers]. And I didn’t go down there for the 4th Company. I went there for you.”
He looked at his daughter. And his daughter looked back. Relc shook his head. He stared at Lism, and Captain Wikir. His voice was far-off.
“I didn’t do anything heroic. I killed a dead Goblin. And it still wasn’t me that got him. He just stopped. I’ve seen it before. What’s heroic about that? He killed the Goblin Lord. He went through an army—no, two armies and the 4th Company. And you think I stopped him? Besides…”
His voice trailed off. Embria waited for more, but a roar from the crowd drowned out whatever might be said preemptively. One of the candidates had shouted something inflammatory. Both sides pushed forwards, and Embria reached out.
“Let’s get out of here!”
Relc pushed through the crowd, single-handedly driving through the flow of people. He felt a grip on his hand, and when he won clear of the immediate crowd, he looked back and saw Embria was holding his hand. Relc swung his arm.
“Whew. Glad I’m not on duty. It’s going to be a pain breaking up the fights. Where to, kid? Uh, you can let go.”
Embria hesitated. But then she gripped Relc’s hand. He stared at her. She didn’t let go. Relc stared at her clawed hand. He opened his mouth. She jumped in.
“How about the inn?”
Relc closed his mouth on what he had been about to say. He nodded.
And so they walked. Hand in hand. Embria’s cheeks were flaming with embarrassment, but you would hardly notice with her fiery scales as it was. And the hands? No one noticed as the two walked together at first. But the two whom it mattered to felt it.
“You’ve gotten a lot taller. When was the last time we did this?”
Relc looked down at Embria, mystified. She blinked up at him.
“It must have been around ten years ago. Eight at the least. Remember how I ran away when I was thirteen?”
His hand tightened on hers.
“Yeah. Yeah. I do remember that. And we never did this back in the army, did we? I just got back from the front or something. You were usually asleep.”
On they went. Embria took a deep breath as they walked down the street, past people whose lives didn’t matter to her right now.
“Is that why you left? Really? It wasn’t cowardice.”
“Nah. It was.”
“Dad. You don’t need to—”
“What? Lie? I don’t need to. I know what they say about me. I was one of them, remember?”
He looked at her. And he shrugged, looking a bit sad and guilty.
“It’s the truth. I just didn’t want to die. I thought I would. No, I knew I would. I had a nickname. And I was going into every battle with the front lines. I was afraid. Someday, someone was going to lay a trap. Or hire an [Assassin] and get me. I already had a dozen close calls. I didn’t want to die. And you were there. That’s true. So I quit. But it was about me, kid. It always was.”
It wasn’t what Embria wanted to hear. But the bitter pill wasn’t the poison she thought it would be.
“You know, I was serious about you coming back. There’s a bunch of your old friends who made it to the High Command. They’d call you in. You could be a [Captain]. It’s a possibility.”
And she hoped. Oh, she hoped, but she knew what he would say. For a glorious second he hesitated. Then Relc shook his head.
“I wouldn’t be happy there, k—Embria. I couldn’t go back, even if everyone welcomed me with open arms. I was afraid, yeah. But I wasn’t happy, near the end. That’s why I left. I could have died for the army, with my pals I guess. But I wasn’t happy. I didn’t say that either, did I? I’m sorry.”
He looked at Embria. And his grip was very gentle. And she looked up at him. And slowly, she nodded.
It was the last time she would ever ask. Embria tried to blink tears out of her eyes, but there were none. Even so, Relc brushed a hand across her neck spines.
“Hey. It’s a good offer. If I ever lose my job, I’ll think about it, okay?”
And she laughed. Because that, more than any of his denials, was the truest refusal she’d ever heard. And on they walked. And in time, unbidden, Relc spoke. He looked at the inn on the hill as they walked out the gates, walking through mud and growing grass and plants.
“So I never got why Erin was upset. I thought Goblins were trash. Monsters. And I kept thinking that until I found myself hitting this little Goblin. Rags. Erin kicked me out of the inn. And then I realized ‘oh wow, she’s not kidding. She really likes Goblins.’ But I still didn’t get it until later. Really later, I mean.”
Embria waited. The inn was growing larger. The sun falling. And it was lit up. Relc swallowed, and then went on.
“The first time I came to the inn after the siege, Erin welcomed me in. She didn’t say a thing. And that Hob, Numbtongue, he didn’t attack me. Just gave me a look. I felt like I saw it in a mirror. I killed his dad, I guess. Goblins don’t have dads. But I heard that Redfang guy was his tribe’s Chieftain. Taught them all how to fight. But Numbtongue never went after me.”
Relc let go. He ran a claw down his neck and shook his head. Embria stopped to watch him. And the emotions flickering across his face were also realer than she had seen before.
“I asked him. Erin asked him, really. And he said it was because I didn’t kill him. Garen Redfang. His brother did. The Goblin Lord. Or Garen did. He chose where to die. I just held the spear. But you know what was familiar? Numbtongue, that guy. He didn’t forgive me. And I don’t think he will. And that’s fair. More than fair.”
That was all he said. Embria absorbed it quietly. She stood in the wet soil, inhaling the wet, musty scent in the air that was almost overpowering. And she had to ask. It wasn’t the same thing.
“So you’re okay with being here? With just being a Senior Guardsman and being a joke to some people?”
Relc hesitated. Then he smiled.
“They say that. But they made me Senior Guardsman. And Erin let me back into her inn. Klb’s my buddy. They say tons of stuff, but they’re my guys.”
Embria nodded. She swallowed a lump in her throat. Relc kept walking. He went on, staring at the sky.
“Everyone forgot about the Gecko of Liscor. Until recently, that was. No one remembers Sergeant Relc and that’s fine by me.”
A hand reached for his. Relc started, and then looked back. A little Drake looked up at him. And then an older one replaced her. Embria looked up at her father.
“I never forgot.”
For a while he looked at her. Startled. And then he smiled. They walked on, into the night and towards the inn sitting on the hill. And after a while, Relc spoke up. His thoughtful tone was gone, and a brasher, relaxed, note entered his tone. Bragging. And it was nostalgic.
“You know, I did use that trick where you keep jumping with the spear in battle. Didn’t I tell you about it?”
Embria rolled her eyes.
“Go on, Dad.”
“Well, when I was in the army, I was fighting an entire nest of Crelers. Babies. And the little bastards were swarming the ground, popping out of it. The [Mages] were going to hit the entire spot, so I…”
And he jumped ahead of her, demonstrating. Like a kid. But as Embria rolled her eyes, she realized this was the first time he’d talked about being in the army to her. And then she told him what her life had been like. And he listened.
“And that’s how I killed my first Wyvern.”
Embria finished her tale and sipped from her cup. No blue fruit juice for her. Just a dark lager, which was in fact, light. Erin had gotten the barrels mixed up again. But it didn’t matter. Relc sat across from her, listening. And when Embria was done, he grinned and leaned over to nudge the girl sitting next to her.
“Hey Erin, hear that? My kid got her first Wyvern when she was eighteen. Not bad, Huh? You know, I was twenty eight when I killed mine. Not that we had to fight them that often. Obviously. But that’s something. Those bastards have sharp teeth and they dive fast.”
“Way too fast. You hear the shriek and it’s too late. Nightmarish.”
Embria agreed. Relc made a face.
“Damn High Command. Deploying us in Wyvern territory every two damn seconds.”
Embria nodded. This at least she could get behind. Relc grinned, caught by a sudden thought.
“But you know, we did figure out a way to deal with them. Poisoned dead cows. Or pigs. Didn’t old Scartail tell you to do that? He figured it out when I was in command.”
“I wish. We had a green Field Commander when I was deployed. Didn’t even get the horses under cover on the march.”
“Ancestor’s sack, what an idiot. But you got a Wyvern yourself. That’s something. Right, Erin? Embria’s almost as good as I am. And she’s a [Commander]. Right?”
Nudge, nudge. Erin nudged back out of irritation and lowered her mug.
“I get it Relc. She’s cool. Stop nudging me!”
“Sorry. Are we boring you?”
“Maybe? You’re been talking about this campaign or that mud pit you had to fight in for the last two hours. I’m not saying I’d rather listen to Pisces talk, but I might.”
Relc and Embria laughed. The Wing Commander spread her claws helplessly.
“Sorry, Miss Erin. I guess that’s what [Soldiers] do. Swap war stories. Even retired ones.”
“Well…okay. At least it’s acting hour in the inn. I get to watch people being booed off if I’m bored.”
Erin waved to the stage. The [Actors] were letting members of the crowd come up and try their hand at performing, usually with disastrous results in specific scenes. Then she brightened up.
“Hey! I should sell moldy produce to throw at them!”
“No you shouldn’t. We have to clean that up.”
Drassi passed by Erin with a refill for all three mugs. She winked at Embria, who waved at her. Relc harrumphed.
“Just you wait. I’m gonna have my turn and be excellent.”
“Sure, Dad. In the meantime, have you ever fought on the water? One of my fellow [Wing Commanders] said you never did, but two of my former superior officers claim you were with them on several naval campaigns.”
Relc looked indignant. He reached for a french fry and stuffed it into his mouth, chewing furiously.
“Have I fought on the…of course! I used to eat Drowned Sailors for breakfast. And that’s uh, not entirely a lie. There was this winter where—hold on. Is it my turn?”
He broke off, looked up, and shoot to his feet. The [Actors] on stage were beckoning to him. Relc raced forwards.
“My turn! Sorry, I’ll tell you later! Hey! I want to be Macbeth with the dagger!”
That left just Erin and Embria. Amused, the two young women watched as Relc clambered onto stage, already looking around for his costume. Erin cleared her throat as she looked at Embria.
“Sorry about earlier.”
“No. I should apologize. I bit your tail off over nothing.”
Embria waved a claw. Erin shook her head.
“It was my fault. I was a jerk. It was my Pisces moment. Everyone wants their dad to be a hero. Right?”
The Wing Commander hesitated, then she nodded. Ruefully, she looked at the stage.
“I just wish they could see what I saw. I’m sure Senior Guardsman Relc is well-loved. But I knew him back when he was the Gecko of Liscor. And it wasn’t just an insulting nickname either.”
“He was cool, huh?”
Erin watched Relc posing with an imaginary dagger in front of him. She blinked as Relc delivered Macbeth’s soliloquy without a flaw.
“Wow. He’s not half-bad. And he memorized half the play in a single day.”
“He gets into things. Just don’t let him act. Please. I don’t think I could bear him quoting that weird language to me all the time. And if someone insults him, he will jump off the stage and start a fight.”
“Gotcha. Don’t worry, I think he’s too busy anyways. Plus, he’s too muscly for most lead roles. Maybe Othello? We can make it part-time at best.”
Embria nodded. She had no idea what Erin meant, but she was happy enough to eat from her plate of lasagna and watch Relc enjoying his moment. Erin watched her.
“How’s the food? Good?”
“It’s not bad. I’ll probably copy this for the 4th Company back in the barracks. Shouldn’t be too hard.”
Embria tapped the layered lasagna. Erin stared at her.
“You can make lasagna? Really? No one I talked to knew how to make it, at least not Drakes or Gnolls.”
The red-scaled Drake shrugged.
“I’ve never made it. But it’s not hard, right? Layer of noodle here, noodle here, cheese, bake it probably—it’ll go good. And if the idiots on mess duty can’t copy me, I’ll make them eat whatever comes out.”
She smiled and Erin laughed.
“You have [Basic Cooking]? Or are you some kind of [Cook] as well?”
Embria waved her claw dismissively
“Some classes like [Mess Sergeant] get [Basic Cooking]. Myself, I never got anything like that. But cooking isn’t that hard, no matter what people think. You just need to learn what goes where and when and take calculated risks.”
“But how did you learn…?”
“Lots of practice.”
Embria pointed at Relc. He was coming down the stage, flushed with triumph to modest applause. Erin nodded slowly. Both turned to Relc as he strode up excitedly.
“Did you see? Line perfect! What you think—do I have a shot?”
“It wasn’t bad. Do you think you’ll become an [Actor], then? It would be a nice class to pick up for a few Skills, right?”
Embria raised her brows. Relc stroked his neck spines, looking smug.
“I mean, if I get the call. What do you think, Erin?”
“I think you should hope all four lead actors break a leg, Relc.”
“I can help with that.”
Embria smiled. Then she looked out the window at the moon.
“Unfortunately, I can’t help you with that. I think I have to go back. It’s going to be an early day tomorrow. And I can’t have anything more to drink. This was…fun. Same time next week, Dad?”
She looked back at him. Relc nodded.
“Sure. That would be fun.”
He looked surprised as he said it. Then he smiled. Embria agreed. She walked towards the door, her steps lighter than they’d been in a while. Erin, sitting at the table, saw Relc’s smile change, and then he half-rose, and called out after Embria.
“Hey. Have you ever thought of…quitting?”
She turned back. Elirr held her breath. Relc grubbed at his neck.
“It’s—I mean, just—have you? It’s not like [Guardsman] pays a lot, but Senior Guardsmen get more. And while it’s fun being here, no one can keep up with me. Not even Klb. It’s lonely, being the toughest and the greatest. So if this army thing never worked out…would you do it?”
He looked at her. And Embria looked back. Erin held her breath as she watched the Drake study her father, and then the inn. Embria glanced about, and then smiled ruefully.
“If you became Watch Captain, I’d think about it. Later.”
Relc smiled. Embria walked out the inn’s door. Erin held her breath. She stared at Relc.
“Does that mean you’re going to run for Watch Captain?”
Relc shook his head. The [Guardsman] sat at his table, staring at the remains of his plate. Then he smiled wearily, and looked at her.
“She said no, Erin.”
“It’s okay. I think—”
Relc abruptly got up. Embria, who was walking down the street, heard the door open behind her. Relc bellowed down the street of Liscor.
“Hey kid! What time is morning practice? Your [Captains] and officers aren’t nearly as good as they were when I was in the army. They could use a good example. When do you train in the morning?”
Embria’s heart skipped a beat. She turned, laughing.
“It hasn’t changed! It’s the same as always! Come on by whenever!”
Relc grinned. The door closed, and he stepped back. Erin stood next to him. She stared up at him.
“You don’t remember what time it is.”
Wing Commander Embria walked back. Towards her barracks. Towards the only home she really knew. And she knew that tomorrow she’d have to deal with the High Command’s new orders. With Lism. With Shield Spider nests and perhaps the issue of a father who was too lazy to wake up in the morning. Or, conversely, a group of [Soldiers] who would not be happy to see him.
It didn’t matter. What mattered was a realization that Embria had. A strange feeling. Something had happened today. Something quiet, wonderful; something Embria hadn’t known could even happen.
Because she’d always had a father. Now? She had a friend.