Springtime in Liscor was disgusting. True, the initial rains had passed. And the muddy Floodplains were drying. A few valleys were still mudpits where the most stubborn amphibians and fish still clung to life, but the rest of the hills and valleys were now soil. And greenery.
The flowers were blooming. Little shoots of grass were poking up, the various species of grass—crab grass, bent grass, centipede grass, fescues, zoysias, Sage’s Grass, and more, all fighting for a war of supremacy over prime real estate. Some of it was lovely, lush grass that anyone would want to walk through barefoot. Other types would punish the bared sole, or even the improperly maintained boot. But that wasn’t what was disgusting.
The disgusting things were the wildlife. Nature was in bloom, and accordingly, nature was ready to reproduce. And unlike the Rock Crabs which conducted their clandestine affairs in secret under the water and laid deep, hidden caches of their eggs, the rest of the natural world was reproducing fast. Especially the spiders.
Of the many varieties of dangerous spiders in the world, the Shield Spiders were a problem for Liscor. For Izril in general, but Liscor in particular. Shield Spiders weren’t as aggressive as Spear Spiders, but they laid vast nests. Traps they used to ensnare victims.
And Shield Spiders laid a lot of eggs. And in the springtime, they hatched. The average Shield Spider could lay a few hundred eggs in a single egg sac. Larger, older spiders could lay thousands. And they didn’t stop at one egg sac.
The nests writhed with hundreds of thousands of baby spiders, crawling over each other. Eating each other. Covering their parents. Scuttling. And they descended on anything that fell into the nests. Corusdeer, rabbits, errant travellers…the spiders tore into flesh, crawled into openings, invaded organs, and already, began to reproduce again.
Monsters. And there were enough Shield Spider lairs to mean that their springtime reproduction might fully overrun the Flood Plains. Unless something was done.
In the closest Shield Spider lair, built not just two miles south of Liscor’s walls was a burgeoning nest. The walls were coated with sticky silk. And the ground above was cunningly concealed by a thin layer to look like grass. If anything heavier than a rat stepped on it, the artificial terrain would give way and drop it into the nest. And the hungry spiderlings were already devouring a Fortress Beaver that had fallen in.
Now the thin veil of spiderweb parted again. Sunlight shone into the nest as something big hit the ground. The adult Shield Spiders, some the size of wolves and growing ever larger, scuttled forwards, ready to tear the prey apart. But the intruder had landed on his feet.
The Gnoll roared as he lifted the mace. He brought it down and smashed the first Shield Spider’s head in. The second met a boot to the pincers and reeled back. The other Shield Spiders, sensing the threat, scuttled forwards. But more shapes were breaking through the firmament above.
Soil and grass cascaded down as Drakes and Gnolls leapt down. Five Gnolls and three Drakes hit the ground. One stomped a Shield Spider into the earth. They swung as they landed, cutting others, bashing them into the ground. Above, seven more members of 1st Squad waited. Captain Wikir bashed in another Shield Spider’s abdomen with one contemptuous strike. He turned, stomped a smaller, raccoon-sized one into the ground and tore a finger-sized one as it climbed up his armor. He snarled.
“Kill the adults. Torches!”
The nest was still wet with morning dew. But webs were flammable. And as the 1st Squad cut down the biggest spiders and stomped, the smaller ones fled. Some crawled up the [Soldiers], biting frantically, but they were ignored or swatted. Torches came down and the unhatched egg sacks, the walls of the nest went up. Captain Wikir climbed out of the pit, shaking off tiny Shield Spiders and growling in disgust.
Sergeant Gna helped her Captain out of the pit. Wikir accepted her paw and saw eight tiny Shield Spiders scuttle from his paw onto her fur. Gna grimaced, but pulled him out before flicking the spiders out of her fur. Wikir cursed, began to shake himself, and decided against.
“Damn. Get clear, the rest of you. I’m shaking these things off.”
“Watch out that they don’t get in your ears. Or nose.”
Sergeant Gna watched, amused, as Wikir stomped back to the pit and shook himself. It was burning. And the [Mage] attached to their squad was adding to the flames with controlled bursts of magic. The female Gnoll raised her voice as the rest of the [Soldiers] who’d gone down to do the fighting tried to divest themselves of the tiny spiders in the same way.
“You could have let us set fire from above, Captain.”
“And let Pielt call me a coward?”
Wikir looked back. The oldest [Captain] in 4th Company grinned, baring his teeth in a predator’s grin. He gestured to the pit.
“I went in. And if I have to pick these little things out of my fur all day, it’s fine. His squad gets to do these all by hand and torch. The rest of these we burn from above, just as planned. The big Shield Spiders come to us.”
The younger Gnoll grinned as well. So did 1st Squad. They looked around and saw more squads of 4th Company doing what they’d done. Hunting down Shield Spider nests and destroying them. And they weren’t the only ones; the Floodplains had a lot of people covering it today. Drakes and Gnolls, nearly a thousand in total.
4th Company was helping with what was a tradition for Liscor’s City Watch. Culling the Shield Spider numbers before they could grow to a plague. It was a gesture of goodwill—and in practice, a good way to get on both the City Watch and Liscor’s good side. And that was important, especially today.
“Hope Watch Captain Zevara appreciates the work.”
Sergeant Gna remarked as she found a fine-toothed comb and approached her Captain. It was standard-issue; thorns and insect eggs were the least of what could get into a Gnoll’s fur. He grunted his thanks and let Gna comb his hair around his armor from behind. He was already working on one arm.
“Damn Pielt and his bets. 1st Squad! Keep moving! Find those nests! And don’t fall in; the last thing I want is wasted healing potions or broken bones! Get a move on—or do you want 3rd Squad to enjoy a night at Wishdrink’s?”
The female and male [Soldiers] got back to work with alacrity. Their tools were simple—long sticks to check the ground for telltale pits. They moved fast. This was a contest. Wing Commander Embria had promised a night of fun at one of the best taverns in the city, Wishdrink’s, for whomever got the most nests.
Speaking of which…Gna and Wikir glanced left. They saw Wing Commander Embria, mounted on her warhorse, watching her company work. She wasn’t taking part, but she was hardly slouching on the job; her posture was military straight. Gna grinned.
“There’s our Wing Commander. And that’s why she’s a Wing Commander, eh, Captain? She’s not jumping into nests.”
“It. Was. A. Bet.”
Wikir bit out. He sighed and put away his comb, then stomped the mud and growing grass to kill the spiders he’d just toss off him.
“That’ll do. But we’re all getting checked and a visit to the bathhouses. The last thing I need is for one of those little things to lay eggs in your ear.”
“They do that?”
“Hah. When I was a rookie, I heard about someone who got a bunch of these worm eggs in his head. Began acting weirdly. And then the swelling started. By the time they hatched out of the head, they were was large as…”
The [Captain] was grinning, regaling his subordinate with a tale as his company searched for another nest. 2nd Squad, led by Captain Vell, was already on their third. A particularly large Shield Spider met a cluster of spears that sunk halfway into the thick, hard shell, until Captain Vell herself cut off a leg and the [Soldiers] took it apart from a distance. 4th Company was efficient.
The City Watch was slower, owing to lower levels and less motivation. But everyone was at work. The city was watching. The people of Liscor had taken to the walls to watch the annual spring culling with urbane amusement. And it was all going well. Embria cut a fine figure on her horse, her spear at the ready in case a giant Shield Spider emerged. Her crimson scales were a flash of color on the dull landscape of colors. And 4th Company was working hard, brave [Soldiers] aiding in the safety of their city.
“Hear that cheering?”
Captain Wikir grinned at his Wing Commander as she rode slowly down a hill towards them. Embria smiled slightly.
“Good sounds, aren’t they? Keep it up, Wikir. Nice show.”
“Anything for the city, Wing Commander. And these elections.”
Wikir flicked at his fur. Embria nodded. She scratched the spines on the back of her head. The cheering was indeed coming from the city, and it was a surprise, but one that made both her and Wikir smile with pleasure. The army seldom received accolades when it returned home, but that was understandable. There were often issues. But a smaller group, say, 4th Company? It seemed they’d finally won the trust of the city. They’d only had to fight in a siege to do it.
“We’re making good progress. Three nests for 3rd Company already. Don’t fall behind.”
“We won’t. And we’ll toast to you at Wishdrink’s tonight.”
Wikir grinned. Embria eyed him.
“I’ll take that. You have night duty again tonight. Three days of break after that. I’ll be—er, having a dinner.”
“With Sergeant—no, Senior Guardsman Relc?”
Embria hesitated. She nodded casually, looking past Wikir at the teams working down the Floodplains.
“Is that a problem?”
The Gnoll thought carefully, watching his squad blasting another pit with flames. Sergeant Gna kicked a Shield Spider into the pit.
“Not from me, or my squad, Wing Commander. There was some talk when he appeared for morning practice. But you can’t fault the fact that he’s the only one better than you on the courts. And it’s not like its private ground; the Adventurer’s Guild is anyone’s territory. So…”
“Just let me know if there’s real complaints. Lieutenant Kesa can run her mouth.”
“Will do. And it helps that Senior Guardsman Relc appeared early. Beat half the trainees to be up.”
The middle-aged Gnoll caught the smile on Embria’s lips before she schooled her face. But he liked the pleased look he’d seen. It had been too long.
“That’s my d—uh, Senior Guardsman Relc. He may have quit, but you never forget. Punctual as always.”
That didn’t actually sound like the Relc that Wikir knew. But he kept his mouth shut. The cheering picked up from the walls of the city. He half-turned to look, trying not to show Embria his wagging tail.
“Looks like the civilians really like seeing Shield Spiders getting taken out.”
Embria nodded, very pleased. She looked back towards the city.
“Everyone enjoys a bit of action, Wikir. Especially exterminating monsters. Why don’t we have the [Captains] and [Lieutenants] use some flashier Skills? We can—what’s that?”
Wikir’s head turned. For a second he didn’t spot what Embria was looking at. Then his eyes narrowed.
The Gnoll [Captain]’s curse was an echo of the oath that Embria shouted. The 4th Company and nearby City Watch [Guards] looked up. And they saw what Liscor’s citizens had already spotted from their walls. They turned.
It was a pounding in the ground that heralded them. As fast as a racing heartbeat. And there they came, out of the city gates, five abreast. Their shells gleaming. They ran forwards, accompanied by cheers from above. And their colors glowed in the morning light.
There they went. On the other side of the city, over the muddy hills, trampling newly growing grass shoots underfoot. Then, stopping. Pausing, to stare at the grass. At new life poking upwards, frantically growing. Staring at little insects and worms busily surviving in the mud. A passing bird. And of course, the sky.
Three hundred. Far fewer than the City Watch deployed en masse, and far larger than the 4th Company of Liscor. But the Soldiers were an army unto themselves. They poured into the Floodplains and up the first hill, an unstoppable wave. Not just regular Soldiers either; they all bore markings on their carapaces, on their bodies. Each one was unique, each one individual.
The Painted Soldiers. But that wasn’t what chilled Embria’s blood in her veins. It was the figure leading them. A giant among the Soldiers. Like the rest, his carapace was marked by color. But he stood out again. Because his body bore no paint. The yellow splatters of color splashed across his chest, arms, legs, even his neck stood out. He led them.
Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] stood out even from the other Soldiers. He led them at a charge up the next hill; the Antinium sprinted after him. They didn’t pace themselves; they just ran, their footfalls thundering in unison.
Ahead of them, the City Watch was moving back. They’d identified dozens of Shield Spider nests, but, Embria noticed only now, hadn’t actually begun destroying any of them. She watched, with equal parts loathing and apprehension as the Antinium ran to the unearthed pits, spreading out. Forming squads. Like her own.
The Painted Soldiers moved precisely, adopting squads, spreading out with an efficiency that put the 4th Company of Liscor’s army to shame. It was a connection facilitated by their Queen, by their nature. Soldiers were no True Antinium, but bereft of language, they had a connection that bordered on instinct. They could read body language, and like one multi-bodied organism, they could react to threats within moments, without needing vocal command.
And yet, the Painted Soldiers paused as they reached the first line of Shield Spider nests. And they turned their heads and bodies, looking up. At him, Yellow Splatters. And the [Sergeant] knew they were waiting for his order. So he raised one arm.
He did not have to open his mandibles. He could have nodded, or just tilted his head a fraction of a centimeter. The Soldiers could have known what to do in a hundred more efficient ways. But he stood straighter. And the Soldiers below him looked, waiting. They wanted to hear him say it. Because he could. So Yellow Splatters pointed. And his voice was quiet, but they heard it in their minds, bodies, and souls.
It was one command. But it triggered an avalanche. The Painted Soldiers poured forwards. They charged and Embria saw the first, a Soldier with white-blue paint covering his shell like snow, leap. He crashed into the first Shield Spider pit, and Embria saw a Shield Spider go flying out of the pit a second later.
More Soldiers crashed into the pits after the first. They fought in brutal symphony, crushing, breaking, tearing apart the spiders with their four arms and legs. And before Embria could blink, the first Soldiers were already climbing out of the first pit, their bodies stained with Shield Spider blood.
Wikir breathed, his face slightly pale under his fur. Embria’s voice snapped as she turned to him.
“Get ahold of yourself, Wikir. They’re aiding in the cleanup too. Get your squads moving! All of 4th Company, stop slacking off! Do you want the damn Antinium to show you up!?”
Her voice roused the 4th Company. They set back to work with a will. But the Painted Soldiers were moving even faster. If Embria’s [Soldiers] were running, the Painted Soldiers were sprinting. One with pink stripes reached down and ripped a Shield Spider’s head off his body. Another lifted a spider as large as he was up, capturing four of the eight legs and another mercilessly pounded the spider’s exposed belly until it burst.
Embria had seen Antinium fight. She had killed them. But even she was taken aback by the ferocity of this group. She watched them destroy another nest in less than a minute. Then her eyes travelled to the logical source of this oddity.
Him. Yellow Splatters had paused on a hill, arms folded like Embria. But he leapt into motion as she watched.
A giant Shield Spider, a mother, a matriarch as large as two wagons had taken objection to the slaughter of her kin. She unearthed herself, clambering after a group of [Guards] that fled her and a swarm of her kin. The angry giant Shield Spider crawled after them. Embria swore.
“2nd Squad, with me! Captain Vell—”
She charged her horse down the hill, her spear ready. But she was too slow. The Antinium were already on the move. A squad of eighteen Painted Soldiers rammed into the Shield Spiders, scattering them like pins. The giant Shield Spider screeched in fury. She snapped her mandibles, taking a Soldier by the chest. He struggled as she lifted him. And Yellow Splatters struck the giant Shield Spider’s side.
The crash as the [Sergeant] hit the Shield Spider made Embria’s horse halt. Embria watched as Yellow Splatters punched, cracking the mother spider’s side, then reached up. He grabbed a huge leg, and pulled.
The leg came out of the body. Yellow Splatters ducked as the giant Shield Spider swung towards him, letting go of the Soldier she’d captured. The [Sergeant] punched away a huge mandible. He retreated, but only to use the leg like a club, bashing at the smaller Shield Spiders around him. And then the rest of the Painted Soldiers arrived. They leapt, grabbing at the giant spider, breaking her legs, hammering at her sides, killing the smaller ones.
In minutes the corpse had stopped twitching. The Soldiers moved past Embria and the silent [Captains] who’d answered her call. The Drakes and Gnolls watched as Yellow Splatters ran forwards. The Painted Soldiers streamed after him.
“Ancestors. Wing Commander. Is that what this new breed of Antinium can do? Some kind of improvement over regular ones?”
Captain Vell, unnaturally pale, breathed out slowly. She looked…uneasy. Embria couldn’t apply frightened to Vell. But Embria herself felt rattled.
“I’ll add more notes to my report. High Command is aware of this new type. But—damn them. They actually did it. That’s more than a Prognugator. That’s a leader.”
Embria glared at Yellow Splatters. She pointed at the [Sergeant]. Vell glanced at her, confused.
“There’s a difference?”
The crimson-scaled Wing Commander bit out. She watched Yellow Splatters pointing and the Soldiers charging past him. They were too animated, even for Antinium Soldiers. She shook her head and then looked back at her officers.
“I never had the privilege of watching General Shivertail fight. Let alone General Sserys. But I heard that Zel Shivertail was no genius of strategy. And his army-wide Skills were few and far between. He was a monster in close combat and practically undefeatable there. But what made him terrifying was his skill as a leader. Not just a [Leader]. When he led, it was said that the Drake [Soldiers] who followed him turned into rampaging warbeasts, every last one of them. When he was fighting for home, no army from Baleros, Chandrar, the north, or anywhere else stood a chance. Because it was him.”
Vell’s eyes widened. Then her jaw dropped when she realized what Embria was implying. The Wing Commander shook her head.
“Maybe he’s low level. Or maybe he’s just hiding his true abilities. It doesn’t matter. He may not have a Skill, but when he starts getting some—some leaders are like that. Some [Squad Captains] too. But they’re a different breed from planners, or even regular [Generals]. I hear the Bannermare of Baleros and the King of Destruction are both nearly as good as General Shivertail was.”
“But Wing Commander—the Antinium don’t have morale.”
Captain Pielt protested. Wikir growled in disgust. He slapped Pielt across the back of the head with a paw.
“That’s what you see, Captain Vell? Pluck out your damn eyes, then.”
The others went silent. They looked at Embria. She followed Yellow Splatters with her eyes. The Painted Soldier was moving on, letting his Soldiers clear nest after nest at breakneck speed. He was a reflection of her, standing alone. And that bothered Embria most of all. She saw him turn his head. And for a moment their eyes met.
Then Embria turned away in disgust. Disgust and unease. Because she wasn’t sure if she had seen an anomaly, or a new type of Antinium, one far more terrifying than even the flying monsters or the color-changing assassins. She looked at the quiet 4th Company and snapped.
“Well? Do you want them to take all the credit? Back to work! Blast those nests! Officers, use your best Skills! The Antinium may be machines, but they don’t have magic or Skills!”
Vell muttered as she trudged back to her squad. Embria paused. And that one word scared her more than anything else. She turned back to watch. With the people of Liscor. The Painted Antinium marched on.
Onwards, across the Floodplains. Bright colors on dark shells. And they were laughing. Because he led them.
And he had come back.
“Wow. That’s something.”
Erin Solstice stood on the hill outside of her inn, watching the battle. Well, it was charitable to call it a battle. It looked to her like pest extermination. The Shield Spiders certainly had about as much of a chance as regular spiders against the City Watch, the 4th Company and the Painted Antinium.
Maybe if they’d been the giant behemoths that had assaulted Tyrion Veltras’ army they could have fought back. But Shield Spiders of the smaller variety were dangerous to individuals. Not armies.
Erin wasn’t participating in the culling of course; she was just watching. With a glass of lemonade in one hand, the most appropriate drink in the world. She glanced at it as she took another sip through a wooden straw.
“I had no idea that lemons were this plentiful on Izril.”
“Not Izril. They’re usually native to Baleros. But Oteslia, one of the Walled Cities, is famous for growing plants from across the world. They drive the cost down. Although it’s still going to be a lot pricier than, say, cider. But we can sell this well. I’m surprised I haven’t ever had anything like this.”
Lyonette stepped up to watch with Erin. She had a pitcher of fresh lemonade in one hand. She glanced at Erin.
“Something else from your world?”
“One of the most popular drinks in the world. Besides Coke. It’s a classic.”
Erin sipped her drink absently. Lyonette nodded. She poured a small cup and reached down. A furry paw reached up for it.
“That’s your second glass. You only get two, Mrsha. And don’t share with Apista.”
The Gnoll nodded seriously. Then she drew a smiley face and patted her stomach.
“Oh? Glad you like it, Mrsha. We’ll try it on our guests tonight. But it’s really great for hot weather, you know. Either way…give me another cup, Lyonette?”
The [Princess] nodded. She handed Erin her cup and then filled another from a table. There were tables outside on the grass, and chairs. And customers. It was a special Shield Spider viewing morning, with a special on breakfast. Lyonette’s idea.
Erin handed Lyonette back her drink, took the new one, and went to find some of her guests. She slipped down one hill, balancing her drinks.
“Whoop. Whoop! Slippery! No, Mrsha, don’t follow. Who—ah, darn. Got some on my hands.”
She tsked, climbing up another hill with a much less steep gradient, and found a group at the top. Erin smiled and raised her cup.
“Hey! Anyone want to try some lemonade?”
The figures on the hill looked up. Pawn, kneeling in a patch of grass and pressing two of his hands to a Soldier’s leg, looked up. The Soldier was sitting on the ground. He had an open wound from which green blood was oozing. Or—had been oozing. Erin blinked. His leg was healed. The Shield Spider bite he’d suffered was closed. As she watched, Pawn drew his hands back and the Soldier flexed his leg experimentally.
“Nice. Using some healing potions, huh, Pawn?”
The Worker jumped. He hesitated, then nodded judiciously.
“I have been doing healing, Erin. Thank you. Fortunately, few Soldiers are getting injured. The Shield Spiders are not really a threat and Yellow Splatters is leading the others.”
“So I saw.”
Erin stared at the Painted Soldiers, still killing nests. It had been four hours and they weren’t slowing down. Neither was 4th Company; the [Soldiers] seemed determined to win this competition, if it was one. The City Watch had decided it was not and started trudging back to the city. Erin anticipated guests to her inn. She decided Lyonette could handle it with the morning’s staff. She took another sip from her drink and smiled.
“Mm. Here. You want a lemonade, guys?”
She offered it to Pawn and the Soldier. The Soldier, who had bright green vines twining up his legs, looked at Pawn. The Worker hesitated.
“…What is it?”
“Sweet lemonade. That’s lemons plus water. And sugar.”
“Ah. We can consume that. Please give it to Twisted Vines. I will have some later, if there is more.”
“Sure. Hello, Twisted Vines! Want some?”
Erin offered the Soldier the cup. Reverentially, as if he were receiving the holy grail itself, the Soldier clumsily took the cup. He raised it to his mandibles and gently poured some of the liquid into his mouth. He paused. Erin and Pawn watched. Then, slowly, the Soldier poured a single drop of the lemonade into his mouth. He paused. For twenty seconds. Then he did it again.
Pawn nodded. He looked at Erin.
“He is savoring it. He doesn’t wish to waste the lemonade, Erin. It is delicious to him.”
Twisted Vines raised one of his free hands and nodded. He ducked it, almost timidly at Erin. Embarrassed, the [Innkeeper] looked at her nearly empty cup.
“He can have more! That’s what refills are for!”
“Nevertheless. Thank you, Erin.”
Pawn said it so genuinely that Erin had to turn and go bright red for a second. There was something off-putting about how grateful Antinium could be for a cup of lemonade. Even though she was used to it, it could hurt. But it also made the world clearer. Erin nodded.
“You’re going to tend to the injured here? You can do it at my inn, Pawn.”
“I should be closer to them. Just in case.”
The [Acolyte] rubbed two of his hands together absently. He watched as the Soldiers moved towards them. Erin nodded. She sipped, found her cup was empty, and nodded.
“If you like. I’ll be at my inn, reevaluating my life and being grateful and stuff. Come on over when you’re done! Bring your Soldiers! Lyonette wants to sell them stuff.”
“I will. Thank you.”
Pawn watched Erin go. Then he turned to Twisted Vines. The Painted Soldier was still savoring the cup, drop by drop. Pawn hesitated. Twisted Vines glanced at him, then carefully put the cup down. He stood up.
“You may stay. Finish your cup before you leave. That’s…necessary for your full recovery.”
The Worker ordered Twisted Vines. The Soldier glanced at his comrades, but did sit and pick up the cup. He drank, but more swiftly now. And Pawn stared at his hands.
All four of them. Then he looked at Twisted Vine’s leg. Gone was the visible interior flesh that had been exposed by the Shield Spider’s sharp mandibles. Pawn noted the remnants of the blood.
“Your wound doesn’t hurt? Did you feel any undue pain when I was—healing it? Does it feel functional now?”
Twisted Vines paused. He regarded his leg, then looked up and shook his head. Then he hesitated, and carefully put a thumb up. Purple Smiles must have taught him that.
“Good. Inform me if it does hurt afterwards.”
Again, Twisted Vines nodded. He sat on the ground, finished his cup of lemonade, and then stood up. Pawn realized the Soldier had no idea what to do with the cup.
“I will take it back to Erin. You may go. If you must.”
Twisted Vines nodded. He handed the cup to Pawn, then turned and rejoined his brethren. Pawn sat on his hill and watched them fighting. He felt a desire to be below. But he knew he would struggle to keep up just with the Soldiers as they ran. And he had been assigned to this hill, to relative secrecy. Because Klbkch did not want many people seeing Pawn using his new Skill.
A new Skill. And Yellow Splatters. Pawn didn’t know which surprised him more. But he took both. Oh, he took what he had been given. And he had never felt more grateful.
He was back. Yellow Splatters. And part of Pawn’s internal hell, his damnation, had eased when he saw Yellow Splatters. But the [Sergeant] was…more than he had ever been. Far more. In body and in other ways. Pawn saw the Painted Antinium moving closer to the inn. And he realized they were done, at least for the moment.
Soldiers were streaming back across the Floodplains, many towards the city. Some were collecting the more edible Shield Spider corpses for processing. The rest were following Yellow Splatters. He directed them with efficient movements of his four hands, using the silent communication method of the Hive’s Soldiers. And in that he was familiar to Pawn. The Worker raised a hand as he walked down the hill towards him.
The [Sergeant] looked up at him. And then his mandibles opened in a smile. And he spoke.
And that word changed everything. Pawn halted for a moment. Yellow Splatters could speak. A Soldier could speak. But that wasn’t all. Yellow Splatters gestured to the Soldiers behind him with one hand as another pointed at the inn. Still two more were singling out Soldiers in the group behind him.
“I have two injured. Firestones, Azure Clouds, Pawn will tend to your wounds. The rest of you, proceed to The Wandering Inn. You will receive food there.”
The Soldiers obediently trooped ahead as two moved out of the ground. Pawn saw a bloody wrist on one of the four arms, and the second Soldier had a cut on one abdomen and cracks around his leg armor, perhaps from a bad fall. He reached out for them, even as he stared at Yellow Splatters, still with that awe.
He could speak. Fluently. Yellow Splatters had the natural intonation and speed of any natural speaker. He was better than Bird. And his voice was deep, commanding. Without hesitation. He was the same in many ways. But oh, so different.
“Let me heal you.”
Pawn directed his attention back to the two injured Soldiers. Firestones and Azure Clouds obediently let Pawn press his hands against their wounds. The Antinium Soldier with burning coals etched onto his body in paint didn’t move as Pawn put his hands over his cut wrist.
The words were simple. But the prayer Pawn gave for that very thing to happen were from the core of his heart. And part of what was in that prayer was doubt. Uncertainty. But also hope. And faith that his hope would be—Pawn took his hands back. And the wrist, though stained with blood, was whole. Firestones looked down at his wrist, and the Soldier’s antennae waved with amazement.
“You too, Azure Clouds.”
The other Soldier let Pawn put his hands on his legs and stomach. And when Pawn removed the hands, the wounds were healed. Just like that. A healing potion could have done the same, but Pawn felt the healing being done. As if some of him had gone into the two. He felt tired, but only slightly. And they were healed. Yellow Splatters nodded.
“Join the others. We will follow you.”
The two Soldiers nodded. They walked past Pawn. But Yellow Splatters stopped them with a hand on each shoulder as they passed him. The giant among Soldiers, barely more than a few inches taller than the two below him, looked at the two.
“You have done well. Eat and rest. It is earned.”
That was all. But the two Painted Soldiers walked with more pride back to the inn than Pawn had seen in them…ever. The Worker looked at Yellow Splatters as the [Sergeant] held a hand to help Pawn up.
“You are different.”
The two walked up the hill of The Wandering Inn slowly, side by side. Their heights were different. Their bodies similarly contrasting. But they were both Antinium. And they both knew each other. But Pawn felt like a stranger. Perhaps Yellow Splatters did too, because he kept glancing at Pawn.
It was one of the first times they had been alone. Since Yellow Splatter’s reveal in the streets of Liscor, that was. True, a day had passed. But Klbkch had kept Yellow Splatters moving, repeating his message of support for Krshia. And then the [Sergeant] had been surrounded by the Painted Soldiers. Pawn didn’t begrudge that. But now, walking with Yellow Splatters, he didn’t know what to say. He had a thousand questions. Ten thousand words. But how to begin?
“I am different. But the same. I can speak. And say the many things I would have before my death.”
“Gratitude. Regret. Frustration—at not being able to say these things. Questions for you. Ideas. Things the Soldiers need. Questions. Thanks.”
The [Sergeant] looked at Pawn. The Worker shook his head.
“I didn’t do enough. I was—”
Pawn looked up at Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] smiled. And they reached the inn bearing a silence more profound than any Pawn had shared with Yellow Splatters until now. And then Pawn saw the doors were wide open. And he heard a familiar voice.
“Pawn! Yellow Splatters! Come in! Lemonade for my guys!”
Erin swept over to them in an instant. The tables were filled with Painted Soldiers—forty nine of them to be exact. Each one had a bowl and was eating as they watched a performance on stage. Erin herself came to Pawn. She beamed as she grabbed some lemonade off a tray.
“Here. It’s fresh. Want some soup? I’ve got a big pot of this really great soup Lyonette came up with. Here, sit, sit! It’s so good to see you, Yellow Splatters. I mean, we said hi.”
The [Sergeant] sat at a table offered by Erin. Pawn remembered Erin hugging Yellow Splatters after she’d found he’d returned. Even now she looked misty-eyed, but she was already waving for more soup.
“Here! It’s hot, fresh, and uh, probably not gluten!”
The bowl steamed as it appeared in front of Pawn. It was a clear broth with obvious bits of pork and what might have been yellats mixed in with some other greens. Pawn raised a spoon before he could help himself. Instantly, his mouth was flooded with flavor. It had been far, far too long since he’d come aboveground.
“It’s delicious, Erin.”
“Really? I’m glad. This is only like fifty of the Soldiers, though, right? Are you bringing more in? Lyonette’s making a huge batch!”
Erin pointed at the kitchen. Pawn hesitated. Both he and Yellow Splatters had been given the morning’s orders by Klbkch, but he’d said nothing about the Soldiers having food. Just that they would meet him here.
“I…believe only fifty are normally allowed aboveground except for formal operations. But these Soldiers can rotate with the others.”
“Gotcha. I’ll let Lyonette know. Oh! And we’ve got special spoons and bowls for them to eat with. I’ll get—”
Erin half-rose, glancing down at the table. Pawn looked down too and nearly dropped his spoon. He stared at Yellow Splatters.
Pawn hadn’t noticed it before, but even Yellow Splatter’s hands were different. Two of his four arms were a Soldier’s arms. Functional. Deadly. Capped by clumsy fingers more suited for making a deadly fist with than any other task. They could dig and fight and manipulate some things, but crudely. But the other two arms, the higher of the four, hand been changed.
The limbs were thick. Reinforced. Suited for combat. But the hands were hands. Five digits, like a Worker’s fingers had replaced Yellow Splatter’s previous hands. And they were gripping the spoon Erin had given him, meant for her regular clientele and Workers. As Erin and Pawn watched, he brought it up and transferred some soup into his mouth.
Delicately, carefully. As if he had always known how to use a spoon up till this moment. But he had never had a chance. Yellow Splatters looked up, noticing the stares.
“Thank you, Erin Solstice. It is good soup.”
Erin’s jaw dropped.
“You can speak. I mean, I know you can. But…wow. You can speak.”
“I can. And I will never be silent again.”
Yellow Splatters looked at the two of them and nodded once more. He tapped his chest with one finger even as another grabbed his cup and a third lifted the spoon towards his mouth again.
“Before, I had no words. That was me. And then I had words but no voice. And now I have more words. And they come from the same silent Soldier. And from heaven. From the voices of the many who have never had the chance to speak.”
Pawn was struck silent. Erin just looked at him, thoughtfully.
“I’m so glad. Listen—I want to talk to you two, but there’s a lot of guests. Just sit there and wave if you want anything. I’ve gotta actually do my job for a bit. Coming, Lyonette!”
She stood up and went for the kitchen where Lyonette had been waving at her urgently. Pawn looked back at Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] was silent as he ate his soup as greedily as any Soldier. Come to it—Pawn looked down and realized he was eating the delicious soup as well.
The Antinium’s meal was silent; they didn’t want to waste the food by talking, but it was interrupted near the end. A Drake and a Gnoll, regular guests, hesitantly came towards the table. The Drake nudged the Gnoll, and the Gnoll nudged back. They were both male, and at last, the Drake cleared his throat.
“Hell of a thing. The uh, Shield Spider culling that was. We saw it from the walls. You’re…Yellow Splatters, right? The Soldier? The…war hero?”
Skepticism was written all over his voice. Yellow Splatters nodded. He put down his spoon and stood up. The Drake and Gnoll stepped back fast and the nearby tables turned to look, but Yellow Splatter’s voice was calm and measured.
“I am Yellow Splatters. [Sergeant] of the Painted Antinium unit of the Free Antinium. Son of Liscor.”
“Oh? Wow. Uh, a pleasure. Sisl Taltail. And this is my friend, Wilr. We were just asking—are the Antinium really planning on funding an expansion to Liscor?”
The Drake was clearly nervous and he didn’t hold out his claw to shake hands, which Pawn understood as being customary. But he didn’t run screaming either. Yellow Splatters nodded.
“Senior Guardsman Klbkch would not lie.”
“Of course not! I just—so the Antinium are willing to give gold to Liscor? Just like that?”
The Drake glanced around. And Pawn saw some more non-Antinium customers lean in. Yellow Splatters nodded coolly.
“We are pledged to defend Liscor. That also means defending the interests of the city. We do not break our promises. Vote for Krshia Silverfang. And we will build your city. Workers to build and Soldiers to guard. It is our city too, after all.”
He looked around. Sisl opened his mouth for a second, and then nodded.
“Okay. Thank you.”
He backed off, staring at Yellow Splatters, but his Gnoll friend looked almost impressed. Yellow Splatters sat back down. Pawn stared at him as well.
“You speak with authority.”
“Yes. Should I not?”
The [Sergeant] looked blankly at Pawn. The Worker hesitated.
“But where does it come from?”
The Soldier pondered the question. Then he kept eating because the soup was going cold. He raised one cup, sipped from it, and answered.
Senior Guardsman Klbkch entered The Wandering Inn shortly after cleaning up some mud from his gear. He’d participated in the Shield Spider culling too, but the City Watch had vacated the field after the Painted Soldiers had proved so effective. Still, it was because of Relc’s tardiness that he and Relc reached the inn after the Painted Soldiers had been there for a good fifteen minutes. That irked Klbkch, slightly. He would have preferred to study Yellow Splatters in person. Because the [Sergeant], the unique Soldier among Soldiers was an enigma.
He had changed. Not that Klbkch had interacted much with the previous Yellow Splatters. But this new Soldier was different. Confident. Even outspoken. Had death changed him? Had a voice only unearthed what was there to begin with? Klbkch didn’t know. But today his mind was overfull with questions, speculations, and, perhaps, a bit of surprise.
Pawn and Yellow Splatters. One was predictable, at least in part. Klbkch had known about the Rite of Anastases being a success, even if he hadn’t been prepared for the personality of the [Sergeant]. But Pawn?
“A Skill unlike any other. The potential of that power is…or is it not? I must know what Xrn thinks.”
The Antinium sat himself down at a table at the back of the room, observing Yellow Splatters and Pawn. A yawn came from his left.
“What was that, Klb?”
“Nothing, Relc. And I am still irate at you. You are more slothful today than usual, which is an impressive event.”
“It is not a compliment.”
Relc sighed. He stretched out, and Klbkch leaned out of the way of an errant arm.
“Bite me. I’m tired, alright? I had to wake up super-early because of my kid—and she spars way too hard!”
“By that, do you mean she puts forth actual effort?”
“I will endeavor to do so if you continue irking me.”
“Yeah, yeah…hey! Close those mandibles!”
Relc sat up, groaning. He glanced at the stage and brightened.
“Ooh! New play! Awesome! Hey, mind if we get a closer seat?”
“I suppose it is not out of the question. I have to speak with my subordinates.”
Relc was already getting up, tail wagging as the Players of Celum began a play Klbkch didn’t recognize. He nodded absently.
“Cool, cool. Wow, it’s busy in here. Look at all these Soldiers. And jerks drinking my blue fruit juice. Which is yellow. Is that a new drink? Hey! Hey, I’ll have—damn. What do you want, Klbkch?”
“I will have an ale. And a bowl of the soup. Please order it for me.”
Relc raised a hand as he sauntered forwards. Klbkch walked towards the table with Pawn and Yellow Splatters. He sat across from them.
The two looked up, mildly startled. Klbkch stared at them. They were…it was so strange, looking at them. Not because of their bodies, but because of what they represented. An incalculable amount of worth each, where generations upon generations of Soldiers and Workers had died, sacrificed in the hopes of becoming exactly what they were.
But now Klbkch had them, he wasn’t certain what to do with them. He wasn’t certain he remembered…what it was like to have other thinking Individuals in his Hive. Could he trust them with the Antinium’s true purpose? Did his Queen? Klbkch didn’t know. But they were valuable.
And yet—Klbkch looked at them. And he felt little connection, little to emphasize or even sympathize with in them. They were so unlike the Antinium he had known.
Pawn still felt uneasy talking to Klbkch. Now that he had met so many people, even other Antinium, he could sense Klbkch’s reserve like a wall in front of him. The Revalantor of the Hive listened impatiently as both gave their reports. Yellow Splatter’s was shorter than Pawn’s; Klbkch listened intently as Pawn described healing four Soldiers.
“That aligns with both tests I had you perform. It appears your ability recharges itself after rest. Much like Skills in that category.”
Pawn ducked his head. Klbkch stared at him. Then his gaze shifted to Yellow Splatters.
“Your combat ability is also improved, despite your loss of ten levels from resurrection. It is to be expected as well. The Free Queen had modified your body for improved musculature and performance.”
“Yes. Will all Soldiers become like me?”
Yellow Splatters looked at his hands. Klbkch shook his head instantly.
“Changing the…specific formulas of the Soldier’s creation is an intensive process. It is one thing to shape an Antinium as it is being formed. Another to make the process default, without the need for supervision. You are unique.”
“Then I will lead the Painted Soldiers. That is my duty.”
Again, Klbkch shook his head. The Revalantor’s voice was sharp, and Klbkch himself felt annoyed.
“Your duty is to survive. You are an investment in time and effort. Let other Soldiers die before you.”
He waited for Yellow Splatter’s affirmative, but the Soldier didn’t immediately give it. He stared at Klbkch, and the Revalantor felt a prickle on his carapace. If it had been any other Soldier before then, Klbkch would have taken that as a sign of potential Aberration or Individuality. Yellow Splatters folded two of his arms.
“I am unlike any other Soldier. I am their leader. That was why I was brought back. I lead them. So does Purple Smiles. We must lead because we do what they cannot. If we die leading from the front, that is inevitable.”
Pawn sucked in his breath. Klbkch just stared. It sounded like an echo of an argument he’d had once in the past. He hesitated. And something inside of him twisted. It was an unfamiliar, unpleasant feeling. Like when he had seen Erin hurt. But he felt it now?
“You have your orders.”
“But I am no Soldier. I am their [Sergeant]. I must show them courage.”
Klbkch sat back in his chair. Pawn was afraid, but Yellow Splatters didn’t look away. For a moment the Revelator just looked at Yellow Splatters and Pawn. And he felt the strange, pained, familiar tugging inside of him worsen. Like arrowheads, cutting into his heart.
At last he roused himself. Klbkch put thorns into his words this time. He stared at Yellow Splatters and opened his mandibles slowly.
“Courage? Courage is a value of heroes. Of champions, of other species. It is not an Antinium concept. We have had heroes. They are dead. And you cannot replace them, Yellow Splatters. You are not Galuc. He was Centenium. Taller than you. Stronger. You bear a flawed, incomplete copy of his body. You are weak. Weaker than I and far weaker than he. I know this. Because I am Centenium. You are a Soldier. So obey.”
He met Yellow Splatter’s gaze until the Soldier nodded. Klbkch turned to Pawn.
“And you. You can heal a smaller wound in moments. Six times in an hour. Any quality healing potion can do far better. This ability is unprecedented. Useful. But neither of you two have qualities invaluable to the Hive. Cultivating those abilities is your function.”
He felt a twinge of guilt at those words. Why? Klbkch forced it down and went on.
“Both of you are forbidden from discussing the nature of your classes or levels. Especially in Pawn’s case. Nor will you reveal any secrets of the Hive. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Revalantor Klbkch.”
They said the words quietly. Meekly even. And Klbkch felt as if he were lecturing two rookie [Guards] in the City Watch. Only, he wouldn’t have used those words. There was need for empathy in the Watch. And Klbkch had a small attachment to some of the [Guards]. But Antinium weren’t the same. Soldiers and Workers were…
Disposable. But these two weren’t. Klbkch hesitated. He could see hurt in Pawn’s expression. And Yellow Splatters?
They waited. Klbkch opened and closed his mandibles a few times. And that roiling feeling in his stomach forced the next sentences out of his mandibles.
“Continue exceeding my expectations. A rotation of…fifty Soldiers may remain aboveground at all times under supervision as per our agreement with Liscor. They may stay at Erin’s inn during permissible work hours, or continue patrolling the city.”
The two Workers couldn’t blink, but they did move slightly in shock. Klbkch stood up briskly. Yellow Splatters raised a hand.
“Revalantor Klbkch. May I also request a stipend for the Soldiers? As a reward—as motivation for further growth and advancement?”
Pawn held his breath. Klbkch never granted him a larger budget. The Revalantor hesitated. Then, almost grudgingly, he turned back and nodded.
“Four silver coins and six copper per Soldier or Worker. You may withdraw a lesser bag of holding for usage.”
Abruptly, he walked away. Pawn gaped with his mandibles open at his back. Yellow Splatters lowered his hand slowly. They looked at each other until Erin Solstice came back out of the kitchen.
“Hey! Sorry, I had to help make some food real quick. Was Klbkch just here? Was he nice? I heard him talking to you when I passed.”
“He is our Revalantor. His job is not to comfort us, Erin. He was very instructive.”
Pawn answered diplomatically, staring at Klbkch’s back. Erin pursed her lips, unconvinced. She leaned over and shouted at Klbkch.
“Klbkch! You’re a bad dad!”
Pawn froze up at his table. He saw Klbkch turn around in his chair. The Senior Guardsman eyed Pawn and then addressed Erin.
“I am not their father in any sense of the word.”
“Says you! Relc’s a better dad!”
Relc looked up as he slurped from a bowl. He laughed and slapped Klbkch on the shoulder.
“Hah! Hear that, Klb?”
“Do not hit me.”
Klbkch jabbed Relc with an elbow. He looked almost irritated at Erin, certainly at Relc. He was expressive with them. Not with Pawn or Yellow Splatters. The Worker wasn’t sure—no, he was sure how he felt about that. Erin put her hands on her hips in disgust.
“That guy. I’m gonna give him what for when I get to his table. But for now—sorry. I forgot to do this! Here, Yellow Splatters, lean in?”
The [Sergeant] looked up. He moved back and Erin surprised him and Pawn both by grabbing their shoulders. She hugged them both, a long, tight hug that warmed both Antinium from within. They stared at each other, and then at her. Pawn hesitantly reached a hand up. Yellow Splatters was still.
“I’m glad you’re back.”
That was all Erin said to Yellow Splatters. But her watery eyes said it all. She wiped at them.
“Thank you. I never got to say it, but thank you. When the Goblin Lord and—I saw your guys. And Pawn told me what you did. I’m so sorry—but thank you. I know it seems like they died for nothing. But you saved me. And I wish—”
She sniffed hard and wiped her eyes again. Pawn looked at Erin, aghast at her tears. He stood up.
“It was not in vain. They are in—”
A hand grabbed one of his. Yellow Splatters looked at Pawn and the Worker froze. Erin didn’t notice. She wiped her eyes again and smiled brightly.
“It wasn’t in vain. I know that. Definitely. And I want to do something—oh! Hold on. Let me get something for you.”
She hurried back into the kitchen, calling for Lyonette again. Pawn looked at Yellow Splatters. He sat.
“Why did you stop me?”
“It is not for her.”
“What? Heaven? I know that. But she can know they are there.”
Yellow Splatters shook his head after a moment’s pause.
“But it is not hers.”
The Worker looked at him. Pawn opened his mandibles, but he couldn’t conceive of arguing. Instead, he sat closer to the table. And some of the questions bubbling away at him poured out.
“What is it like? Are there gods there? Is it in the clouds? How many—how many of us are there? Is it really…heaven?”
His heart beat anxiously in his chest. And he believed, he tried to believe, he truly did. But the proof sat in front of him. And when Yellow Splatters met his eyes, Pawn felt hope and something as pure as faith blossom in his chest.
“Yes. It is there.”
Pawn exhaled. Slowly. The feeling he had was—
“How? Was it always there? What does it—”
Yellow Splatters was shaking his head.
“Only those who believed could find it. And it was…”
The [Sergeant] broke off. He reached up, his mandibles opening and closing, towards the ceiling.
“It looked like…felt…like…as…”
The words trailed off. At last, the Soldier sat back and shook his head. He met Pawn’s gaze.
“If there were words that could describe it, it could be built here. But there are not. It was…satisfying.”
The Worker’s antennae waved in puzzlement. Yellow Splatters nodded slowly, mulling it over.
“More than that word. Yes. Satisfying. Peaceful. Warm. But fragile. It must be guarded and grown. By the Painted Antinium. They must know it exists, and fight for it. Fight to live so that death has worth.”
Each sentence struck Pawn like a blow. He wanted to fall to his knees. Instead, he gripped the table, overcome by wordless emotion. At last, he looked up. And his voice trembled.
“I am so sorry. I asked so much. I did not know the cost. If I could have, I would have died. But they all—all of them—”
It was what he’d wanted to say. Had to say. The words poured out.
“—should have stopped you. Or listened. Or done something better. The spells—I didn’t know. I had to do it for Erin. But I—I—”
He trembled like a leaf. Yellow Splatters looked at Pawn until the shaking words ran out and Pawn was just shaking. Then the [Sergeant] reached forwards with two hands. He rested them on Pawn’s shoulder, and two more found Pawn’s hands on the table. The Painted Soldier spoke.
“We forgive you.”
And if Antinium could but weep, Pawn would have. But he had not learned how. So he only sat, overcome, until Erin came back with something in her hands.
“Hey guuuuuuuys. Guess what I just got from our acid fly traps?”
The Worker and Soldier looked up. They’d had breakfast, but lunch appeared in front of Pawn. And this time—the Worker inhaled suddenly as Erin placed a cup and bowl in front of him.
“Blue fruit juice. Acid fly bowl, extra heaping. With an egg on top! Sunny side up!”
She spread her hands, beaming. Pawn stared down at the bowl in front of him and Yellow Splatters. Small, tiny black shapes, acid flies sans the acidic abdomens, were piled up in the bowl. A fried egg glistened on top of the black heap, just waiting for the yolky goodness to run down and flavor the acid flies.
“It’s breeding season! And you know what that means! Lyonette just got a bunch. Sorry, we had to make sure Mrsha knew not to play around with them and Apista does not like them either. But yeah. This is the first bowl. Who’s my taker?”
Pawn stared at Yellow Splatters. Yellow Splatters stared at Pawn. They both answered at once.
Erin slapped her forehead.
“You two are too nice. Let me get another. And we’ll have some for all the Soldiers who come in today! Not huge portions; we’ve gotta build up a stock. But today?”
She looked at Yellow Splatters and put a hand on his shoulder, smiling.
“Free of charge. Until we run outta acid-flies and eggs. A back-from-the-dead special.”
The [Sergeant] looked up at her. And for the first time since coming to the inn, Pawn saw him smile. And that was so familiar, that he felt a warm feeling in his stomach. Erin beamed. Behind her, Lyonette sighed. But she didn’t object.
“Well then. Blue fruit juice for all! Acid flies on the house for anyone who asks! Not you, Relc. And I present to you a new play by the Players of Celum! Enjoy!”
Erin waved at the stage and the [Actors], flushed with excitement, took a pre-play bow. Another bowl and cup appeared in front of Pawn. He stared at the little bugs. Yellow Splatters looked uncertain.
“I have never had these. I think.”
“You must. They are the best things to eat. Ever.”
Pawn reassured him. Yellow Splatters reached for his spoon, then hesitated again.
“The other Soldiers are waiting. They should have sustenance. There may not be enough.”
This was true. Pawn put a hand on Yellow Splatter’s.
“Yes. But there will be food for all who come. And you lead them. You must enjoy yourself.”
The [Sergeant] paused, and then nodded. He reached for his cup with another hand and Pawn took his. They touched glasses, tentatively. And then both began to eat. On stage, the Players began their act. And Erin, pausing to argue with Klbkch, help serve food, came back to talk with them. And give another hug.
Pawn ate next to Yellow Splatters, deciding how long the Soldiers would get before they had to rotate out. He saw Lyonette overseeing the staff, radiant, and covered with a light sheen of sweat. A little white Gnoll crept up, sniffed his bowl once, and decided she wasn’t interested. And Pawn sat amid it all, in the inn where he had become him.
He had been happier before. Deliriously happy. Overjoyed. But this was deeper. Quieter. Perhaps even more filling. The word was…satisfying. And Pawn thought he knew what heaven might be like. Someday, he would find out. But right now?
He was just happy.
The stream of Painted Soldiers entering and leaving Erin Solstice’s inn was obviously a good source of revenue. And the efforts of the Antinium in clearing the Floodplains had naturally aided in keeping the population of Shield Spiders down. And yes, true, the new play was sure to be of note to anyone who valued such things. But for Liscor, the happenings of The Wandering Inn were, for once, relatively unimportant. Because something big was happening to Liscor.
Elections. Democracy. The streets were abuzz with the idea of both. And that was the narrative which gripped the hearts and minds of Liscor. Because the world revolved around this issue. The story, the narrative of destiny depended on the outcome. It wasn’t about Antinium, or the inn. The main story was, obviously, Liscor’s story. How could it not be? And the Antinium and Yellow Splatter’s revival, for all they were significant, were just a part of the real narrative. Backdrop.
And the election for Liscor’s City Council was heating up. In the city for the third day running, traffic around Market Street came to a nearly complete standstill. But the street was hardly inactive.
Krshia Silverfang stood on a platform, created by a pair of [Carpenters] overnight. She didn’t cup her hands to shout this time; she used a small speaking amulet to amplify her voice. And she was not alone.
“If we want to build a better Liscor, it starts with a better Council, yes? Funding for the City Watch! A better Adventurer’s Guild! A larger city! Force the Council to hold an election! And we will get to work.”
The Gnoll woman waved at the people standing to her right and left. And the crowd of Drakes and Gnolls in equal numbers looked up and murmured at the other three figures on the platform.
Raekea, one of the finest smiths in the city and the best [Armorer] in truth. Elirr, a beloved [Beast Trainer]. Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, a veteran [Guardswoman] trusted by all. They waved at the crowd, and got cheers of support. Krshia raised her voice.
“You all know these Gnolls! Each one is respected! Each one would help change the city! Isn’t it better to know who is on the Council, rather than let them elect themselves? Why should we not have a voice? If you agree, find the Council members! Ask them why they are not allowing a vote! And remember—we can have a better Liscor!”
She raised her paws to a huge cheer. Because Krshia’s message was a simple message, and her plan was easy to grasp. You could articulate it after hearing it once. And the Gnoll’s speech had legs.
Selys Shivertail, sitting in the shade of one of the stalls on a stool, watched how many people were moving past or in and out of Market Street. It occurred to her that Krshia could use one of the city’s plazas, but here was the thing: you could avoid a plaza. It was hard to avoid one of the most frequently-used streets in the city. And Krshia was campaigning in this district. Assuming the election got passed. Assuming she won.
But they were good assumptions as far as Selys was concerned. She eyed a group of excited young teenagers hurrying away and shot a glance to her left.
“Looks like we’re getting more and more people coming here to listen to Krshia by word of mouth alone. And a lot of people already heard her. Think they’ll put pressure on the Council?”
“If the eight different requests for a detail of [Guardswomen] to escort the Council across the city isn’t an indication, I don’t know what is.”
Watch Captain Zevara smiled crookedly as she watched the crowd. Normally this was the kind of thing she would be worried about, but the energy of the crowd pleased her in a perverse way. Here she was, subverting the natural order of law in the city. It was an odd feeling.
As were her co-conspirators. Zevara glanced down at Selys. The [Receptionist] was checking off her notes for the day’s rally. And she did have notes. Zevara had thought all Selys was good for was the money, but she was a [Receptionist], after all. The Drake nodded to herself and then looked up.
“Oops. Looks like Krshia’s going to hand off the speaking stone to Raekea. Good thing too; we should really buy a tonic for her throat, not just a healing potion. Krshia! Hey, Krshia! Over here!”
Selys waved to Krshia. The Gnoll’s ears perked up as she descended from the stage. The crowd surged around her for a moment, but let up as the burly Gnoll woman, Raekea, began to speak. Krshia was smiling, waving as she tried to push through to Selys—Zevara eyed her as she finally got there, panting.
“Maybe I should assign a few of the City Watch to you to keep you clear of the crowds, Krshia. You and your four candidates.”
“No. It’s better this way, yes? I can talk to people.”
Krshia panted as she wiped sweat from her brow, despite it not being that warm in the morning at all. Selys offered her a flask of water and Krshia drank greedily. She shook her head, sending a droplet of sweat onto Zevara’s cheek.
“Sorry. I have been speaking all morning. Raekea will go next, then Elirr and Beilmark. They are the most popular, so I think they will be well-received. I have four more candidates, one for each district. We may not take them all, but we can try, yes?”
“We can do more than try. I think the Council will have to issue a vote. Six of them have said they’ll okay a vote. Maybe even by the end of the week? We have to keep the pressure up so they actually pass an election vote or they’ll definitely renege on their promise.”
Selys consulted her notes, frowning. Krshia and Zevara nodded in agreement. They both turned to look at Raekea. Krshia bared her teeth in a grin.
“She’s speaking well. And we’ll let her and Elirr hold this spot, yes? Beilmark has her duty, but she can answer questions on the job. And in the meantime—”
She pointed down the street. Selys nodded.
“We’ve got a crowd ready. And a stable platform for you to stand on. Need a stamina potion? A break?”
The [Shopkeeper]’s eyes lit up fiercely. Selys smiled. She whistled, and when the heads of those nearby turned, a shift in the crowd revealed a group of Gnolls and Drakes breaking off from the rest. Krshia clambered on top of a platform held up by some of the strongest in the group—just in time. A ratatatat of drums and a loud, magically-enhanced voice heralded a new arrival. Lism and his supporters swept into Market Street with a squad of 4th Company marching at their head, trying to drown out Raekea’s speech.
But this time Krshia was organized. Her supporters were out in force, Gnolls and Drakes. And they outnumbered Lism’s side nearly two-to-one. Her crowd pushed forwards, forcing Lism’s back, and suddenly Raekea was calmly moving back as she continued her speech, carrying the curious crowd away from Lism while Krshia’s supporters and his clashed. The Drake [Shopkeeper] hissed as he saw a good number of his audience leave. He shouted at Krshia from his platform.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than blockade a street, Silverfang? Or is obstructing business really in everyone’s best interests?”
“I am simply speaking about a matter which concerns Liscor’s future, Lism. Why are you arguing against my plans? Is that in the city’s best interests?”
Krshia shot back. Lism rolled his eyes as he shouted at the crowd, some of which were already booing him.
“Don’t listen to this mad-Gnoll, people! Remember, she wants to have the Antinium’s help! Her plan about the walls is just inviting their trap. Don’t fall for it. We don’t need to even have an election, remember! She’s brought all this up, like some agitator, no, [Saboteur]!”
His words created a rumble from his crowd, but it was drowned out by the loud shouts of denial from Krshia’s side. She smirked at Lism as he colored.
“Don’t do this. Don’t do that. If you have better ideas, Lism, loudly shouting that you are, you should say them, yes? How would you fund new construction? Pay the City Watch? Expand the Adventurer’s Guild? Will the army pay for all of it? And did they have the coin all this time, if so, why did they wait until now to offer it?”
Lism hesitated, then ignored the question.
“We don’t need Antinium support. We’ll bring back three more companies—”
“Three hundred [Soldiers]? I’m sure that will stop every single threat that has assailed Liscor over the last year, yes? Giant Face-Eater Moths. Raskghar? An entire army? Two?”
“If I’m elected—”
“You just said we don’t need an election! Tell me, Lism, is it really an election you don’t want? Or is it that you want to bring our soldiers back? Which is it, hmm?”
Krshia smoothly interrupted Lism. The Drake choked and tried to shout over her, but his speaking stone was inferior to hers and she smoothly adjusted her volume to speak over his voice.
“I wouldn’t want to compromise our army’s ability to fight abroad, would you, Lism? I would rather our brave soldiers do the fighting without splitting their number. Wouldn’t bringing them back weaken our army? Four companies staying here—that is a fifth of our army’s strength, is it not? Would you weaken them so much? Where will we house them in the city? Oh. Wait. Perhaps we should build more walls?”
A roar of laughter drowned out Lism’s reply. And then a chant.
“Build more walls! Build more walls!”
Selys listened, smiling. She turned to Zevara.
“I like it. It’s catchy. I don’t know what bothers Erin about it.”
She looked back just in time to see Lism choking, waving for attention. The Drake’s voice was more than a little furious, and Selys heard the wobble in his tone.
“If—if you think—this is about the Antinium, people! Don’t forget that! You can’t trust them!”
“Oh? And I suppose the army is trustworthy? Where were they when the Raskghar attacked? The moths? What about the Goblin Lord? Where were they, Lism?”
And the [Shopkeeper] had no response. His eyes darted left and right as he struggled for an answer. And Krshia was already moving onto her next point. She caught Selys eye as she turned to the crowd and winked. Selys winked back.
Organization and strategy. There was a lot to be said for having a [Receptionist] on your side, and one of those things was planning out what you were going to say. This wasn’t a market-stall shouting match, and Lism really didn’t have a plan. This time Selys saw heads focusing on just Krshia, and even some of Lism’s supporters looked uneasy.
Because Krshia was right. They could either build Liscor out, expand the Watch, improve the Adventurer’s Guild…or do nothing. And who wanted to be on the side of nothing? There was always Lism’s plan of course, but it wasn’t solid. Selys turned to Zevara in delight.
“We’re winning. I’m pretty sure of that.”
The Drake nodded, smiling. She stepped over to speak to Selys when a group of Drakes pushed through the outer edge of the crowd. They made a beeline for Zevara and Selys. One of them, a Drake in his thirties, waved a claw urgently.
“Watch Captain Zevara. What do you think about this election? Are you really for it?”
Zevara turned smoothly and Selys settled back. It wasn’t the first time the Watch Captain had gotten this question. Zevara flashed a fake smile, which was her best attempt, and spoke to the lead Drake.
“Speaking solely as a personal citizen and not for the entire City Watch, I’m for Krshia’s proposal to expand our—er, the City Watch’s budgets. I approve of her spending plan and would welcome an election.”
“And this is really in the city’s best interests?”
The Drake demanded a touch incredulously. Zevara shrugged.
“I can tell you that the current Council has not approved any increase in the City Watch’s budget. Make of that what you will.”
The Drakes looked troubled. One of them, a woman, scratched her cheek scales.
“No increase? But that’s madness. If it’s that or doing this democracy thing—”
“It’s dangerous. I hear one minute you’re having a little vote, the next there are useless [Senators] and [Politicians] up to your earholes.”
“If it’s that or pull in more of the army—”
“Have them quartered here, full-time? Causing trouble? I’d rather have the Antinium myself. Did you see them smashing those Shield Spiders this morning?”
The group began arguing. Zevara and Selys exchanged a delighted glance. It was working. And Zevara hadn’t needed to check her script! The Watch Captain stepped back with Selys, poised to answer more questions. Selys rifled through her folder.
“You can bring up the potential of more trade if Liscor begins actually farming the dungeon as a commodity. And I can talk about the uses of monster parts. Why don’t you—”
Before she could finish, a Drake pushed through the crowd. He was wearing armor and the insignia of Liscor’s Watch on his uniform. He waved a hand at Zevara.
“Captain, a word? There’s a bit of trouble by the brewery.”
Instantly, Zevara’s gaze sharpened. She took a step and then turned to Selys.
“I’ve got to handle this. Mind covering for me?”
Selys watched as the two left through the crowd. The Drakes and Gnolls protested as Lism and Krshia’s shouting match continued in the background, but the two members of the City Watch were on business now. So it was Selys’ turn. She shuffled her notes, and then called out in a bright voice.
“I can answer any questions in place of Watch Captain Zevara!”
The Drake in his thirties turned to blink at Selys. He hesitated, and then squinted at her face.
“Hold on. Aren’t you that [Receptionist] at the Adventurer’s Guild? General Shivertail’s…what do you know about all of this?”
The [Heiress] put on her best smile. She took a deep breath, and then remembered something.
Liscor didn’t have a brewery.
Selys was right. Liscor did not have a brewery. It had inns, taverns, both of which would make their own beverages with fermented barrels and hops in some cases. Or it imported alcohol. But a dedicated brewery was considered unnecessary; beer wasn’t that popular. Or great. Now, distilleries on the other hand…
Zevara knew this of course. It was a classic code the City Watch used. She followed the [Guardsman] through the crowd and back towards the City Watch barracks at a quick trot.
“What’s the real issue, Guardsman Tells?”
“Not for me to say, Captain. Sorry. I was just told to bring you.”
Zevara frowned and her tail began to twitch faster.
For an answer, Tells pushed open the door to the barracks. Zevara walked inside and saw a crowd of twenty one Drakes. Three Gnolls. They were mostly off-duty, but she knew each one. And she recognized the Drake waiting at their head. Zevara paused, and her mind raced as she slowly looked around.
“Senior Guardsman Jeiss. Guardswomen. Guardsmen. How can I help you?”
The crowd of Liscor’s finest—and only—law enforcement shifted. It was Jeiss, Beilmark’s partner and one of the most respected Senior Guardsman pairs who answered.
“It’s this election thing, Watch Captain. We’ve been listening to the gossip, and it sounds like the Council will actually hold an election. Are you really for Krshia Silverfang?”
The group behind him shifted uneasily. Zevara folded her arms, but she wasn’t about to shout them down. This was different, and she knew that Jeiss calling her out was…well, she wasn’t going to shout. She chose her words carefully, working off of Selys’ script.
“I’m not for putting any one person in power if that’s what you’re asking, Jeiss. This is certainly not a coup or something if you’re worried. For one thing, we aren’t the army even if we are the City Watch. Krshia Silverfang wants a seat on the Council, and I’m giving her my aid. But it stops there. She’ll do what’s best for the city and I don’t expect to control the Council. I’ll swear that on a truth spell first off.”
The [Guards] in the room relaxed slightly on hearing that. Zevara made a note to do it even if they didn’t ask at the end of this. You had to prove what you said or they’d wonder. She went on.
“It’s my decision as an individual that we need funds. The City Council’s refused my proposals three times. I can’t expand our ranks or get better gear any other way. So, yes. I’m willing to push for elections even if it means accepting the Antinium’s support.”
There was a murmur at that. Jeiss bit his tongue and looked at the others.
“Okay, Watch Captain. But…turning this into an election? It just feels like we’re going against the laws of the city, like Shopkeeper Lism’s been saying. And I respect Senior Guardsman Klbkch. But you know, the Antinium…”
He looked at Zevara and shrugged. She bit her tongue. The crowd was mostly Drake, but she knew how they felt. And she agreed in part, especially about the Antinium. She sighed, scratching at her neck.
“Jeiss, if I thought there was another way, I’d take it. But you saw what we’re up against. Krshia offered me funding for the City Watch. The current Council won’t. They rejected my offer three times, citing ‘lack of funding’. If it meant getting the City Watch what we need, I’d back anyone in an election. Anyone except that crazy Human.”
A chuckle ran through the crowd. Jeiss smiled, but then it faded.
“And the Antinium?”
Zevara looked up.
“We let them expand their Hive with the city. We put more Soldiers on the walls, and let more into the city. If they wanted to stab us in the back, they could have done it any number of times over the last decade. That’s my perspective. You have a different one?”
She waited for Jeiss’ response. He bit his lip shook his head reluctantly, and then sighed.
“If you’re doing this, your job’s in jeopardy too, Captain.”
Zevara nodded slowly.
“I know that. The next Council could replace me. Or this one might if things go south and Krshia doesn’t get her vote. Either way, that’s my decision. The City Watch stays neutral. I’m just a private citizen. With a lot of influence. I won’t ask you to do anything to support Krshia or help me keep my job. Got it?”
There was a lot of nodding, which was encouraging. Zevara had seen City Watches turn against their Watch Captains and that wasn’t a pretty sight. Jeiss looked around. He collected some invisible census, and then briskly shook his head.
“No worries on the job, Watch Captain. We’ve got your tail. You’re the boss, not Wing Commander Embria or the army.”
She exhaled softly, trying not to show her relief. It meant a lot.
“If that’s all, we’ve got a job to do. Anything else?”
She looked around. No one else wanted to speak, but Jeiss held up one claw.
“If—if there were a better option, Watch Captain, would you take it?”
Zevara paused. She looked quizzically back at Jeiss.
“Just a hypothetical question, Watch Captain. I’m just saying. Will you keep an open mind?”
He met her eyes. Zevara nodded slowly.
“An open mind. If you’ve got any better ideas, I’ll listen.”
She waited. Everyone looked around, but no one spoke up. Jeiss shrugged, grinning tiredly.
“Turns out Lism can be shut up. You just need to get him mad enough to choke on his own spit.”
That night, Selys raised a glass and toasted Krshia and Zevara. The Gnoll was grinning, and her voice after a small gulp of a specialty healing tonic for the throat was back to normal.
“We got a message throughout the city. And Lism, that windbag, couldn’t stop me, even with two squads of the army marching.”
“And the Council is being hounded to act. They meet tomorrow morning by popular demand. If they don’t vote for an election, they’ll have to answer to a crowd. I suppose I should put some of the Watch on the scene just in case.”
Zevara drank from her cup, smiling faintly. Selys leaned back at her table, grinning hugely. She felt powerful. Or maybe motivated was the word. It felt like everything was coming together and relaxing at Erin’s inn after a hard day was excellent. As was the lemonade drink. And on cue, Erin came over with a pitcher for a refill herself, and tonight’s dinner.
“Congratulations! Krshia! Selys! Uh, Zevara! This is amazing!”
She set down three large, steaming plates of spaghetti and meatballs, a classic. Selys immediately reached for a fork and slurped up some noodles. Krshia picked up a meatball with her paws, popped it into her mouth, and chewed with her eyes closed. Zevara eyed Erin.
“Uh, thank you, Miss Solstice. This is good…lemonade, was it? I’ve had something like this. Not nearly as sweet, though.”
“You know us Humans! We love sugar.”
Erin smiled at the table. She put the pitcher down.
“I also have another drink for you to try. On the house! I’m supporting this election. Although I can’t vote. But I really want you to win, Krshia! And the other Gnolls too. Mrsha was really happy Elirr was running!”
She came back with a clear glass with a brown liquid at the bottom, and a blue one balanced on top. Selys eyed it with great interest, as did Zevara. Krshia was eating meatballs.
“Blue fruit juice mixed with rum. Try it. I’m going to show it to my friend in Pallass, Rufelt, later. Thoughts?”
Zevara took the glass, swirled it until the liquids mixed, and took a sip. Her brows shot up.
“Not bad. But it’s so sweet.”
“Some people like sweet. Like me. Erin, can I have one?”
“Of course. Krshia?”
“I could use a drink. Especially after dealing with Lism.”
The Gnoll stretched out. Erin nodded, smiling, and went for the bar. Selys reached for her fork, sipping from both sweet drinks. Zevara requested an ale. Selys bit into her spaghetti, and noticed a paw sneaking up to one of her meatballs on the side.
The little Gnoll jumped, hit her head on the table, and raced away. Zevara jolted—Krshia just rolled her eyes. Her meatballs were safely in her stomach. Selys laughed and tempted Mrsha back with a meatball.
“What are you, a dog?”
“Gnoll cubs are sometimes indistinguishable from them. And often less well house-trained.”
Krshia muttered. Mrsha shot her a frown, stood up on both legs, and delicately bit off half of Selys’ meatball. She folded her arms, as if to say, ‘there! See?’ Krshia just blew air into Mrsha’s face teasingly.
“Don’t feed Mrsha more than that, Selys! She’s begged enough snacks already. I’m telling everyone to stop; she’s putting on weight! And for once, she doesn’t need it!”
Lyonette passed Selys’ table by, carrying a bowl filled with black flies to a table with some of the Painted Soldiers, still being rotated in from the Hive. It was night, but they were still eagerly coming in and watching the Players of Celum, who had rotated through their three acting teams throughout the day.
“You’re not fat, are you, Mrsha?”
Selys teased Mrsha. The Gnoll indignantly patted her stomach, glaring at Lyonette. She flashed her paws in a signal Selys didn’t understand, but Lyonette clearly did. The [Barmaid] frowned thunderously as she handed a Soldier a bowl.
“Say that again young miss, and you can kiss your own dessert goodbye. In fact, I don’t think a rude young lady deserves any. Do you?”
Mrsha’s face fell. She raced around Selys, hugging the Drake. Selys flicked her tail at Mrsha.
“I’m not protecting you from Lyonette. If you were rude, you were rude.”
The little Gnoll looked at Selys, betrayed, and then slunk to another table to Selys’ left. She poked her head up and surprised a half-Elf sitting there. Ceria rubbed Mrsha’s head.
“Mrsha! What are you doing now? Hiding from mean Lyonette? Sorry. My [Ice Walls] can’t stop her. Go say sorry.”
She ushered Mrsha out from the table. The Gnoll plucked at the woman sitting next to Ceria. Yvlon looked down and read something.
“A mistake? I don’t think so. Own up, Mrsha. Honesty is important.”
Selys wished she’d been at the inn longer to pick up on Mrsha’s new sign language. Guiltily, she looked over at the Horn’s table. Mrsha slunk back to Lyonette, ears down, and Selys cleared her throat.
“How’s it looking from your end? Think this election thing’s a good idea?”
They turned. Ksmvr, Ceria, Yvlon, Pisces—and Olesm. Both Pisces and Olesm had returned from Pallass yesterday, but this was their first full day experiencing the new climate. Ceria shrugged as she bit into her own spaghetti.
“I’m for it. Then again, I’ve never lived anywhere for long as a citizen. Adventurer’s Guilds let teams do their own thing. And Wistram was…well, confusing. This is nice and straightforward. Hope you win.”
“No disagreements there. And it seems like you three have the popular opinion on your side. What do you think, Pisces, Ksmvr?”
The two looked up from their plates. Both seemed intent on winning the award for most spaghetti consumed. Ksmvr opened his sauce-covered mandibles.
“I am no longer a member of Liscor in any sense of the word since I was expelled from the Hive. Therefore all my thoughts about Liscor’s election are voided.”
“…Fair enough. Pisces?”
The [Necromancer] looked up with a smirk.
“Ah, naturally the one expert on Drake politics and culture is addressed last, as usual.”
Ceria sighed. Selys rolled her eyes.
“Big talk for a Human with more sauce than lips.”
Pisces’ hand went up and touched his spaghetti-sauce covered lips. He blushed, scrubbed at his face with one arm of his robe, and cleared his throat. Yvlon gave Selys a thumbs-up which Pisces ignored. He sat back, steepling his fingers together.
“I for one quite enjoyed the spirited debate. I may have added in a few salient points of my own.”
“Hence you nearly getting into a fight three times?”
Ceria eyed Pisces over the rim of her cup. The [Necromancer] sniffed and adjusted his pristine white robes.
“Trifles. A good debater always has an exit strategy prepared in case simpletons unable to mount a coherent defense take objection. Isn’t that so, Olesm?”
He looked at his companion. The Drake [Strategist] didn’t immediately reply. Olesm looked up from his mostly-untouched plate of spaghetti.
“I can’t believe all this happened when I was gone. Is this really happening? An election? And—you’re all going for it? Krshia? Selys? Zevara?”
He looked at them from his table. Selys frowned and Krshia and Zevara looked up at Olesm’s tone.
“Yeah. Why? Isn’t it a great idea?”
“I—I suppose so? I mean, I’m for elections. In theory. I guess. I’m not against it. But this deal with the Antinium—and expanding the walls? Can we secure them by next spring against the flood waters? And what about getting them enchanted? If they aren’t, we’re potentially giving someone a foothold into the city.”
He looked at Zevara. The Watch Captain frowned and put down a napkin.
“I think we can do it. There’s a Wistram [Mage] scheduled to check our walls soon for the annual inspection anyways. And if not this, then what? What are your objections, Olesm?”
“The Antinium’s deal for one. Politically, if we allow Antinium from foreign Hives into the city—no, it’s the expanding Hive that bothers me. And allowing more Soldiers aboveground. Why didn’t anyone consult with me first? I am Liscor’s [Strategist]!”
The blue-scaled Drake looked upset. Guiltily, Selys sipped from her drink and shrugged. She didn’t really get his objection. Erin came back with more meatballs for Ceria and Krshia.
“Mrsha said sorry! So don’t let her beg more meatballs, anyone. What’s this about more Antinium being a bad idea?”
Olesm avoided Erin’s gaze. He mumbled as he forked up more spaghetti.
“Well, I meant the Hive in regards to the Free Queen, not the Painted Soldiers…er, I’m just saying, it’s a deal worth looking twice at.”
Pisces frowned, resting the point of his chin on his steepled fingers. Yvlon raised an eyebrow, but Ceria just sighed.
“You sound just like that Lism guy, Olesm.”
He hunched his shoulders defensively. Selys remembered he and Ceria had been a thing briefly. Or had they? The half-Elf chewed, swallowed, and burped.
“Sorry. Well, that Drake’s clearly against non-Drakes. He’s anti-Human and frankly, I don’t see why anyone supports him. I’m only half-Human and I was offended listening him to rant about Humans and filthy Antinium and conniving Gnolls.”
The rest of the table nodded. Krshia nodded and Selys looked at her sympathetically. She called to Ceria.
“That’s Lism. Well-known Drake [Shopkeeper] on Market Street. Krshia has to deal with him all the time.”
“Oh? My condolences.”
Ceria raised her mug. Krshia nodded. Olesm protested weakly.
He was cut off by Erin, who leaned over the Horn’s table, dishing out more meatballs for Ksmvr—none for Pisces. The [Necromancer] obligingly stole them off Ksmvr’s plate instead.
“You’re talking about Lism? Let me tell you, that guy. Whatta jerk. He’s been mean ever since I came to Liscor. Someone should hit him with a wet fish or something. I really hope he gets into the election—and Krshia kicks his butt!”
She raised a tong over her head. Ceria laughed. Olesm looked upset.
“Aw, come on, Erin. I know he can be—but he’s my uncle.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot. Sorry, Olesm.”
Erin blinked at the Drake unapologetically. Then she headed to Selys’ table and offered her pot of meatballs. Krshia took six.
“But come on. Even if he is family, isn’t he a bad guy? He tried to scam me first time I met him! And he’s rude. And grouchy.”
“And his tail sucks.”
Selys added with a nod. Zevara’s lips quirked.
“Is it really that bad?”
“Ugly tail. Ugly personality. His has a crook in it—”
Olesm cut Selys off from sketching the objectionable tail in question. He looked around, his shoulders hunched, his tail lashing the floor.
“I won’t deny he has his faults. But that’s not all he is. You don’t know him.”
“I know what I hear. And I see an angry Drake who’s attacked Ksmvr twice when he’s walked past him for no good reason. I’ve seen racists before, Olesm. That’s what he looks like to me.”
Yvlon calmly ate from her plate with a knife and fork. Olesm’s tail stopped for a moment.
“I know he doesn’t like Antinium. Or Humans. But he helped raise me. He can be kind. Stop it. Please.”
The Drake looked around and both tables went quiet for a moment. Krshia sighed.
“Lism is…Lism. Market Street would not be the same without him, this is true. And he has his points, which is why he is free to run against me. I just intend to win.”
The others looked at her and smiled. Ceria grabbed a mug.
“I’ll drink to that! Good luck, Krshia! Win this thing and get on the Council! Upgrade the Adventurer’s Guild too, please? That’s what we want.”
The mood around both tables regained its cheerfulness. Pisces raised a mug.
“To a flawless victory. May you overwhelm your opponents on all fronts.”
“More like drown them in votes. Lism’s the only opposition to Krshia and she’s got tons of support. We’re slated to get four seats at the moment—we could aim for eight, maybe!”
Selys tipped her mug up and drank her lemonade down. Krshia grinned. Erin laughed.
“Yeah! Beat that Lism jerk! Teach him a lesson for insulting Numbtongue.”
Zevara raised her eyebrows as she lifted her ale.
“I remember that. I heard someone tried to drown him afterwards.”
“Wish they’d succeeded.”
Olesm’s claws slammed onto the table. The tables—no, the entire room went silent. The Drake looked up at the stage full of [Actors] across from him, the Painted Soldiers, regulars, Relc making a fist—he turned red.
“I’m sorry. Thanks for the drink. I’ve got to go. Zevara. Can I have a word?”
He grabbed for some coins abruptly and pushed his chair back. Erin opened her mouth, wavering.
Olesm shook his head. Zevara stood up. She looked at Krshia and Selys.
“I’ll be a moment.”
Quickly, she and Olesm walked out of the inn, through the door to Liscor. They didn’t even need help; the mana stones were now labeled on the dial. The door closed as the silent inn watched Olesm go. One of the [Actors] coughed on stage. Ceria turned guiltily to her team.
Ksmvr raised a slow hand.
“In fairness, Captain Ceria, drowning is a very horrible way to die. I would prefer disembowelment over drowning myself.”
He looked around at the silent table.
“No? Just me? Strange.”
Olesm walked swiftly down Liscor’s streets for a good thirty seconds before slowing. He turned back, the scales along his cheeks dark with color.
“It’s fine. We were being insensitive. I apologize.”
Zevara folded her arms, her heart skipping a beat. She’d mostly forgotten her burning desire to ask Olesm out, but sometimes it resurfaced in inopportune moments. She schooled her face, though. Olesm seemed serious. Watch Captain Zevara cleared her throat.
“Did you have something you wanted to talk to me about, Olesm? About the proposed deal with the Antinium?”
Olesm nodded curtly. He took a few breaths to steady himself, and then crossed his claws behind his back. When he looked at Zevara, it was seriously, his previous embarrassment and anger put aside.
“I heard what you agreed to. Allowing the Hive to expand? Increasing the limit of Soldiers permitted aboveground? Giving other Hives access to Liscor? Zevara, with respect, are you insane? That deal favors the Antinium in huge ways!”
Zevara’s stomach sank. She didn’t like the disapproval in Olesm’s eyes. Reflexively she crossed her arms.
“I’m aware of the implications, yes. But elaborate for me. Why is this in particular so egregious? The Free Antinium have been in Liscor for over a decade now. They’re already protected by the peace treaty. What’s wrong with letting in a few foreign Antinium?”
“Besides the fact that they could give the other Hives valuable information or force us to allow them to pass into our territory under diplomatic privileges? That’s not my biggest worry. It’s allowing their Hive to expand. It’s dangerous! Why would you allow any deal involving that?”
Olesm glared at Zevara. She glared back and pointed at the ground under their feet.
“Why wouldn’t I? It’s an easy concession to make! You and I both know that the current Hive has exceeded its boundaries, Olesm. And they maintain far more Soldiers in their Hive than the agreed-upon three hundred. These are paper promises.”
The Drake took a deep, frustrated breath.
“You don’t understand. We regularly use a [Geomancer] to send probes into the earth. We can tell—to a certain distance—whether there are tunnels belowground. The Hive can probably dig below the [Geomancer]’s range, and I’m certain they do. But it still impedes their overall capacity. But if the city expands and the Hive is allowed to expand with it, the danger they represent will exponentially increase.”
“As will the City Watch. We could potentially double our numbers! And Liscor itself will expand!”
“That’s not the point!”
Olesm clutched at his neck spines agitatedly. He stomped one foot on the ground, and then gestured to one of the houses on the street.
“The Antinium are far, far more efficient than Drakes, Humans, or any other species in the world in terms of space. If Liscor expands, the Antinium will gain two Workers or Soldiers for every new person we can house. And they are all potential combatants.”
That silenced Zevara for a second. She gnawed at her lip.
“Even so, we’ve always known the Hive was large. They’ve always outnumbered the City Watch. That’s why we have safeguards in place.”
“Safeguards that account for a certain number of Antinium and being able to hold parts of the city!”
Olesm’s raised voice made a shutter fly open. The two Drakes heard an aggrieved shout.
“Shut up down there! Stop talking about the election! I’m trying to sleep!”
They hurried back, keeping their voices low. Olesm hissed at Zevara, his tail lashing.
“The Antinium have always been able to overwhelm Liscor, Watch Captain. At any moment, if their Queen orders it, they could storm the city and I would give them the odds of winning. The only thing that saves us is that it is not advantageous for the Antinium to do so. And the fact that there is a chance, a decent chance, that any sudden attack would fail, due to the safeguards we have in place. If we give them more concessions, like having six hundred Soldiers aboveground at any moment…the odds begin to favor the Antinium more and more. If we give them an incentive, the Free Queen—no, the Grand Queen might decide—”
The Watch Captain cut Olesm off. He blinked.
Zevara folded her arms. They’d come to a rest in an alleyway, completely sanguine about the dangers. A potential mugging would be welcome at this moment; Zevara’s tight throat and burning lungs made her want to spit fire at something. She contained more than a few wisps of smoke from leaving her mouth.
“I said, I know, Olesm. I haven’t been a Watch Captain the entire time the Antinium were here. But I’ve been briefed. I’ve had conversations with the High Command, the leaders of the other Walled Cities…I know what’s at stake. They may call Liscor a backwater border city, but we are the lynchpin between north and south. And more importantly, we are the experiment. I know how deadly an Antinium siege gets. Don’t you think I do?”
“To fight the Goblin King, we allowed the Antinium into Liscor. That was the deal. But there was another reason. We wanted to learn about the Antinium. Study their weaknesses. But now, I think some of the original [Diplomats] in charge of the deal were still hoping, thinking it might lead to…peace.”
Zevara looked past Olesm. His jaw dropped.
“Peace? With the Antinium? With all due respect, Watch Captain, that’s insanity. We still have border conflicts. Deaths each week! The other Hives are not content to remain sedentary, and we’ve had Aberrations in the city, which we have never proven are an actual flaw among the Antinium—”
“I know all that, Olesm. Shut up for a second. That’s an order.”
Zevara waited for Olesm to be quiet. She went on, clenching a claw.
“I know. I know the risks. I know the Grand Queen. I’ve read the reports on the other Hives. But there’s something else I’ve learned. I know Senior Guardsman Klbkch.”
Olesm was quiet. Zevara went on, pacing back and forth.
“I remember when I first met him. Of course I knew the stories. And of course I watched him like a hawk. And he’s given me reason to watch him—but he’s also been honorable, hard-working—Ancestors, if he wasn’t an Antinium, I’d be worried he’d take my job! A lot of the city hated the Antinium when they first arrived. But thanks to one Antinium, one person, now not even Lism can attack Klbkch directly without losing most of his supporters. And Klbkch is a Prognugator—no, a Revalantor of the Hives. I have to trust that there’s more than just an opportunity for peace. And if one Hive might make peace with us, that’s one sixth of the Grand Queen’s armies. I trust Senior Guardsman Klbkch, Strategist Olesm.”
She met the shorter Drake’s eyes. Olesm’s blue scales shifted in the moonlight as he studied Zevara. He was breathing fast with agitation, and thinking too. At last, he shook his head.
“I know Senior Guardsman Klbkch too. But I don’t know Klbkch the Slayer. And I know this. To him, we are all dust.”
Zevara stared at Olesm.
“His words, Watch Captain. I don’t agree. I understand your reasoning, but I think you’re wrong.”
The knife twisted in Zevara’s stomach. Coldly, she stepped back.
“Well, you’re free to that opinion. But I’ll remind you that I’m not using my authority to unduly shape the election. I am allowing Krshia Silverfang a chance, but I am supporting her as an individual, which is my right. The City Watch may vote to their conscience. As may you.”
Olesm looked up at Zevara. He narrowed his eyes.
“I think I’ll have to do that. I’m sorry, Watch Captain.”
He turned and walked away without another word. Zevara stared at his back and tail until they disappeared. Then she leaned against the alley wall. She sighed, slowly.
While Krshia and her small team were celebrating the day’s victory at The Wandering Inn, a similar committee was burning the midnight oil. Literally. It was midnight, and the lantern was using cheap oil. It smelled, but none of them were [Mages] or even capable of casting the [Light] spell. Lism hissed as he rubbed one claw across his reddened eyes.
“Okay. Make an appointment with Wing Commander Embria. Request that two squads join us for our counter to Krshia down Market Street. And if she can spare a third, it would be best used marching wherever those other candidates go. Remind people of the real defenders of Liscor. Now, how in the hells do we figure out how to put a hole in that stupid Gnoll’s plans? Anyone?”
He looked around the table. A group of weary Drakes—and one Gnoll, stared back. All of them, mostly Lism’s age or older, shook their heads. A Drake with grey scales with only hints of speckled orange leaned on the table.
“She’s got the Council by their tails, Lism. They’re going to vote for an election. I can feel it in my scales. And if she runs with all those Gnolls—they could take the Council. Put all those laws through. You can’t argue her ideas don’t sound good.”
Lism’s brows darkened. His voice rose impetuously.
“Sound good? Oh, they sound good, I’ll grant you. But they’ll sell the city to the Ants and open us up to a hostile Human takeover. Did you hear her saying how she’d reach out to all the Human cities if she was elected today? As if they won’t bleed us dry! You all know her proposals are as rotten as ten-day-old fish. None of you would be here if you thought she was right.”
The table slowly nodded. But Lism didn’t like the exhaustion in the eyes of his fellow Drakes. And one Gnoll. He glared to his left.
“Shazzi! You know the Gnolls around your home. Can’t you talk sense into them?”
An old, fierce Drake clutching a cane even in her seat looked up. Shazzi, a retired [Seamstress] who could still sew like a monster, shook her head, pursing her lips.
“Not me. They’re all too afraid to cross Krshia Silverfang. She’s some big shot in her tribe and everyone who came with her supports her unconditionally. Plains Gnolls. And the rest won’t speak up.”
“Damn. Cellic. What about you? Can’t you rally more support for the army? What happened to patriotic Drakes waving the flag? Cellic? Cell—”
The Drake across from Lism woke with a start. He was far from the oldest Drake here—he was actually in his mid-thirties, but a large scar crossing the back of his head had left a divot in his skull. He looked up, befuddled.
“What? Did I—what’s that, Lism?”
The [Shopkeeper] hesitated. He eyed Cellic, and then looked out the window. Nothing but darkness greeted him. Lism looked around at the other faces and modulated his tone and put a smile on his face.
“Ah, nothing, Cellic. It’s clearly late. You should get some rest.”
“No, no. I’m fine. I’m here if you need me. Say the word, Lism.”
The retired [Soldier] protested mildly. He blinked and unconsciously reached for the scar at the back of his head.
He yawned and drifted for a second. Lism looked at him, and then around.
“Someone take Cellic back. Make sure he gets some sleep in his bed. On his front, mind! Anyone? Tess, will you…?”
A Drake in her twenties sighed and plucked at Cellic’s shoulder. He awoke with a violent start and for a second his claws opened. Then he caught himself.
“I’m…sorry. What’s going on?”
“A nap, Cellic. We’re all going to sleep. You’ll be the thing tomorrow. I’ll be counting on you.”
Lism jovially laid a shoulder on Cellic’s arm. The Drake looked at him and smiled.
“I’ll be there bright and early.”
He let Tess guide him from the room. Lism rubbed at his eyes and looked around. A morose team stared back. The old Drake with orange scales shook his head again.
“We could just petition the Council not to go ahead with the election. Point out exactly why it’s not necessary.”
“Can we stop half the city from following them around? Wait. Maybe. We could…form protective squads. Keep busybodies back. Maybe. I’ll think on it. But it’s late. You all need sleep. You’ve got your jobs, after all.”
The conference table looked at each other and reluctantly nodded. Lism clapped his claws together.
“Go, then. Thank you for your time. Anyone who can spare it, come here tomorrow. But if you’re hurting for coin—I’ll have a plan by the time you wake up.”
He smiled. Unconvincingly, he knew. But the others just murmured agreement and left, patting him on the shoulder, pledging to be here. Brave souls, fighting for what was right. Lism saw them off, and then went to sit back down.
His house was much, much quieter without the group sitting around his dining room table. The Drake sat in a chair, restlessly turning back and forth, getting up to pace.
“Maybe if I—no. Damn. And if I argue with her on—no. No! That won’t work either! If the High Command would only sign over enough money to match the Antinium! Can’t they see what will happen? And Wing Commander Embria’s not being cooperative. Her and those idiots blindly supporting—Silverfang!”
He uttered the name of his mortal enemy like a curse as he had so many times before. Only this time, Lism couldn’t see a way to beat her. He kicked over his chair with an oath.
“That damned furball—”
The sharp voice made him spin. Lism’s hand instinctively went for the knife at his belt, but the voice and the face instantly made him relax. A surprised smile crossed his face. He spread his arms.
“Olesm! My boy, it’s been too long!”
The surprised younger Drake with blue scales was enveloped in a hug. Lism clutched his nephew tightly, smiling fit to burst. Suddenly his problems seemed distant, at least for the moment.
“Come and sit! Don’t mind the mess. We’ve just had a late night planning out this election nonsense. Can I get you some tea? A snack? I’ve got some scraps—let me put a kettle on!”
He fussed around Olesm, but the younger Drake was reluctant to sit. He was restless, and his brilliant scales and handsome face—Lism saw the family resemblance. Handsome, regal even, and intelligent. All the marks of the Swifttail clan. He beamed at Olesm.
“It’s been over two weeks! But I imagine you’re beating ladies away with your tail. How is work? Liscor’s [Strategist]. And you’re not even thirty years old! You’ve got more levels than years! Wall Lord Ilvriss himself picked you out. If that’s not a sign of greatness, I don’t know what is. Has he reached out to you since returning to his city? Let me get you some tea.”
“He hasn’t. And I’m not fighting anyone off with my tail, Uncle. Stop fussing, please.”
Embarrassed, Olesm finally sat down. He looked up at Lism and frowned.
“And don’t use that word, please!”
“Word? I was just frustrated.”
Lism spread his claws innocently. Olesm folded his arms.
“You used it in public to address Krshia. Uncle!”
“I didn’t say furbag.”
Olesm ground his teeth together audibly and Lism sighed. The younger [Strategist] pushed his chair back.
“It’s still insensitive to the fact that we used to skin Gnolls during the old times. It’s as—as—it’s as bad as if I called you a Human-kissing Turnscale. No, far worse!”
“Alright, alright. It was my mistake. But that damn—Silverfang’s caused this mess in Liscor and I’m trying to sort it out. Give me some credit for stress!”
Lism sighed. He couldn’t deny his nephew anything. He doted on Olesm in fact, never mind that the boy sometimes hung around with that terrible Human girl and had moped for weeks after his fling with that half-Elven adventurer who’d nearly gotten him killed. But Lism’s heart swelled with fondness for Olesm. He was the family’s pride, after all. Never mind what anyone else had thought. Lism had known Olesm since he was a hatchling. And Olesm had never betrayed his hopes.
“I’m glad to see you, Olesm.”
“Me too, Uncle. Me too. I’m sorry I haven’t called on you. I’ve just been—busy.”
Olesm smiled, but he didn’t look happy to see Lism. He looked tired. Tired, worried, distraught—Lism felt like he was looking at a mirror. The [Shopkeeper] cast about his modest home and cleared his throat.
“We-ell, why don’t you tell me what’s been happening to you? I could use a break from this business with Silverfang. Don’t worry, I’ll stop her from ruining this city.”
“Not to worry! I can do it!”
The Drake waved a claw. He sat back, opening his mouth and eying his nephew. Then he coughed and shook his head.
“No, no. Don’t worry. I’ll figure something out. I haven’t sold copper pennies for silver pieces for years without picking up some tricks. And I know you’re friends with that stinking—with that insane—with that Human girl and Watch Captain Zevara is your superior. It’s fine.”
Olesm sighed, leaning forwards on his knees.
“Erin’s a wonderful person, Uncle. I told you already. If you hadn’t tried to swindle her—”
“Overcharge her. It’s not illegal!”
“She’s a really good person. The best chess player. In the world! I’ll swear she could beat the Titan himself. And Krshia’s a good person too.”
“She’s got you fooled, my boy. You can’t trust her. She’s as slippery as a greased eel and twice as treacherous as a Creler.”
“She’s trying to help the city, Uncle!”
The Drake paused.
“You think so too?”
For some reason, the thought of Olesm siding with Krshia stung more than any of the Gnoll’s damned barbed insults this morning. The blue-scaled Drake, a far cry from Lism’s purple-and-red scale colors, more like his mother than anyone else, shook his head.
“I’m not…all for her. But I know Krshia. I know her heart’s in the right place. So is Selys’ and Watch Captain Zevara’s…I just spoke with them, actually.”
“Did you now.”
Lism sat down heavily. For a second his mind flashed to Krshia’s arguments, seeking a hole in them. But the problem was…Olesm looked up at his uncle. The single oil-burning lamp flickered, wafting a bit of stink towards the two. Neither one moved.
“Uncle. I came here because I wanted to ask you about the elections. Krshia’s ideas. Her proposing them. You’re her biggest enemy. Tell me honestly. Please. Is this really just about you hating Krshia’s ideas? Or are you serious?”
Lism squirmed like a fish on a hook. He opened his mouth, looked over his shoulder, but he couldn’t escape his nephew’s gaze. Reluctantly, at last, he opened his mouth.
“I’m not saying she’s all wrong. She’s…right we need to expand Liscor. Rent’s up, and we’re all feeling the pinch. Just the other day, Mella, you know her, right? The old [Florist] on Salpik Avenue? She was turned out of her apartment without anywhere to go. After living in her spot for eighteen years, only now she can’t pay the rent because it’s nearly tripled from two years back.”
Olesm rubbed at his face, shocked and mildly horrified.
“Mella? She used to babysit me. What happened to her?”
Lism was indignant.
“The neighborhood association got to her is what it did. You think we’d let her freeze to death? We put her up with Miss Shazzi. They get along like cats—or two Drakes—in a bag, but it’s manageable. You can imagine the stories, though.”
Olesm laughed quietly.
“I can. I should visit her. Or see about that [Landlord]. Evicting someone from a house at Miss Mella’s age? That could be a death sentence. And triple the price? I’ll check on it tomorrow.”
Lism nodded, proud as any father. Prouder than Olesm’s, certainly.
“That’s the [Strategist] of Liscor for you. Never too large to notice the honest folk.”
“But it just proves Krshia’s right, doesn’t it, Uncle?”
Olesm looked up, fixing Lism with another stare. The [Shopkeeper] hesitated.
“Well…okay, she has a point. And maybe the Adventurer’s Guild could use some coin. And I won’t say I’m against the City Watch expanding—Ancestors, of course I’m for it! It’s just…”
The younger Drake folded his arms, waiting. Lism grabbed at his neck spines. At last the words exploded out of him.
“It’s just her! That Human-loving Gnoll thinks we can cozy up to any warm-blooded Human. She thinks we can rely on the Antinium for help—and she’ll toss out our entire system of government to do it! Just because she wants power. And she’s wrong. The Antinium aren’t our friends. Hah, we saw that during the First Antinium War, didn’t we? Even if a few can walk about without killing anything in sight—and those Humans! We had an army at our gates not a month back! Has everyone forgotten that?”
Olesm shook his head.
“No one has, Uncle. But I’ve heard you speaking. You talk about filthy fleshbag Humans. About Gnolls getting ‘out of their place’. About other species—Uncle, they’re not all evil. I’ve told you that. Not even all Goblins are bad.”
Lism was quiet. He leaned on his table, and then looked up.
“So? So what? Should I apologize? Change my views? They’re not all evil. But it’s not ‘all’ of them I’m worried about, Olesm. It’s the ones who rule. Tyrion Veltras. That [Lord] tried to take Liscor. He would have slaughtered—slaughtered the entire city and started a war. But for luck, he didn’t. Should I forget that? When? In a month? A year? A decade? What about what Humans have always done? We welcomed the Five Families when they first came. In return, they betrayed us, burned our Walled Cities, slaughtered us in the north and took half a continent away.”
His claws shook as he gripped the table, staring at Olesm. The [Strategist]’s face was bleak.
“I know. But that was millennia ago, Uncle.”
“Have they changed? Should we forget? I don’t like them. I don’t trust them. And I’ve always been honest about that. I don’t put on a fake smile and stab them in the backs. Why do I have to pretend to like them? Why do I have to like them at all? Why can’t I hate them for what they’ve done? What they do? Why do I have to say ‘oh, some of them are different?’”
Olesm bowed his head. He shook it a few times as Lism paced back and forth. The [Shopkeeper]’s voice shook.
“I can live with them. Isn’t that enough. Or will Krshia pass a bill forcing me to duck my tail and smile at every Gnoll and Human who passes my way? Why the Antinium? Why not—not let Drakes and Gnolls build the city? We used to have [Builders] once. Honest work for honest folk. And then the Antinium came with their damn workers and put hundreds out of a living.”
He paced up and down, airing old grievances, angry, despairing. And he felt guilty, because he knew Olesm didn’t agree. He didn’t want to see his nephew’s look, so Lism kept ranting. Right up until Olesm stood up.
And Lism was quiet. He turned to Olesm.
“I’m sorry, my boy. But I’m not going to stop fighting Krshia. And if I have to be the last one kicking and screaming, I’ll oppose her right up until she becomes a member of the Council. If I can just stop it…”
His tail thumped the floor helplessly.
“You know, lots of the Drakes in the city feel just like I do. More than half of the ones I spoke to were uneasy about an election, about messing with the system, the Antinium and Humans. It’s just that when that damn Gnoll sounds so convincing with her talk of free money, people lose their heads. We are Drakes, after all…”
Olesm looked at him, and then he half-smiled. Bitterly, tiredly.
“I disagree with a lot of what you said, Uncle. And if you keep saying it, I can’t—won’t help you. But you’re right about one thing. The Antinium. And if you’re willing to think about what’s good for the city…I’ll help you.”
Lism paused. He stared at Olesm. His nephew looked up at him. Lism didn’t hesitate. He spread his arms wide, beaming.
“For you? Olesm, my nephew? I’ll try. Tell me what you’re thinking.”
Olesm sighed, closed his eyes. And then he pulled out a quill, inkpot, and began to speak.
The next day, Selys hummed as she strolled down Market Street, getting ready for the big day. This was it. They’d push the Council to begin an immediate election, put out four more candidates for the Council, and then—win. She couldn’t wait. She was so excited, she was practically vibrating. She saw a crowd had already gathered next to a promenade. They were gathered around something. A council member? Were they having a debate? Selys slowed. And then she stared.
“Ancestors. What is that?”
Five minutes later, Krshia, Zevara, and the rest of the Gnoll candidates were standing in a group, looking up at the large poster made of parchment posted on a wall high up, for all to see. Zevara read it out loud, not even needing to squint to read the words.
“Jobs for Liscor. Build your city with your own claws/paws! What in the name of Dragons…?”
“Is this something you did, Krshia? Anyone else?”
Selys turned to the group. Beilmark, Elirr, Raekea, all of them shook their heads. Selys looked around, puzzled, and then she heard a familiar sound.
“Oh no. I thought we beat him yesterday!”
She groaned. Krshia uttered a few Gnoll curses and turned, calling for her crowd to form up. But to Selys’ surprise, this time Lism wasn’t heralded by a huge crowd. Instead, he was walking on his own two feet, followed by a gathering of onlookers—but not the vehement protesters that usually shouted insults at Krshia’s supporters. And the drummer was no [Soldier], but just a regular Gnoll [Drummer], banging a brisk beat on the drum.
“Vote for a better Liscor! Vote for walls! Vote for economy, independence! Vote for a Liscor you built yourself!”
Lism shouted, cupping his hands to amplify his voice even further with the aid of his amulet. Krshia, poised to ride the platform over the heads of the crowd, appeared with a large group of Gnolls. She stared down at Lism and looked around. It was almost comical without the huge crowds of yesterday. Krshia coughed, embarrassed, and called down at Lism.
“What are you doing, Lism? Causing more trouble? Is this your doing?”
She pointed at the huge flyer above the street. Lism smiled, shading his eyes to see.
“Ah. Like it, Krshia? Yes, it’s mine. Courtesy of a few [Scribes] I know! But I see they forgot to add my name to this particular one. It’s my campaign’s slogan. Like it?”
He gestured up at the flyer. The crowd looked at him, clearly confused. So did Krshia. She folded her arms.
“So you’re for an election suddenly? Are you flip-flopping on your word again?”
Lism gave her a huge smile.
“Only because I’ve had a change of heart! Yes! I am for an election! And we should build a new part of the city! By all means!”
He raised his hands. And the crowd behind him cheered. It was, after all, what Krshia had been saying all this time. Completely off-guard, Selys stared at Zevara, whose brows were completely raised. Krshia stared down at Lism. Then she realized where she was and awkwardly climbed off the podium.
“So you’re acknowledging mine is the good idea, yes?”
Lism studied one claw.
“It’s…a good idea. But I’d rather I take the Council seat. You see, I am running in your district, Krshia. And if I’m elected, I’ll ensure that we expand our city by one third, fund the Adventurer’s Guild and fund the City Watch! Build those walls! Build those walls!”
He raised his hands and the crowd cheered behind him. Krshia stared. Then she spluttered.
“What? You can’t say that? That’s—that is my promise, no?”
Lism smiled beatifically.
“Well, it’s my promise too. I’ll ensure that Liscor gets exactly what it needs, but unlike honored Krshia here, people, I’ll do it right! Lism for the City Council!”
He raised his arms again, but Elirr thrust his way forwards. The older Gnoll shouted at Lism.
“Do it right? You just stole Krshia’s idea!”
The Gnolls around him roared the same thing. Lism shouted back.
“Not at all! I improved it! You see, I won’t rely on Antinium to build the wall! I’ll hire honest Drakes and Gnolls to do it!”
The words stunned Elirr into silence. Lism waved a claw around.
“Yes, Krshia has the right idea. And expanding Liscor is the best way to combat this ludicrous rent! But why let the Antinium do it? Think about how many jobs a project like that would create! Thousands! And the money would go into your pockets, not back to the Antinium for such a huge building contract! And I have more—”
“Wait, but that’s—”
Selys was scrambling, tearing through her notes to figure out just what—but Lism was going on.
“Krshia would have us open the city to adventurers from the north. I say, look to our tails. The Bloodfields have always been a deterrent to trade coming north. But with that fabulous door, and our brave soldiers, couldn’t we seek a safer path through the hills around the Bloodfields? Cut a path to enable trade throughout the year? This is just one of the proposals, which I, Lism, would implement if I am elected to the Council. Fund the City Watch! And bring our soldiers back! They could keep our roads safe! Why stop where Krshia is content to coast? Vote for me and let’s get as much done as we can!”
This time the cheer was drowned out by Krshia’s howl of fury. She advanced on Lism, pointing an angry paw.
“You cannot say that! You stole my idea!”
“It’s just an idea, Silverfang! If you can’t improve on it, what’s the point?”
Lism crowed as he looked around. He got nods of agreement. Some people clearly disagreed, but Lism’s banner was waving above his head. Build your city with your own claws. Selys clearly heard a Drake lady remarking to a friend behind her.
“Why not hire Drakes and Gnolls? My son could use a job.”
“But how will you pay for the wall? Without the Antinium’s help?”
Krshia snarled at Lism, losing her composure. The Drake rubbed his claws on his tunic.
“Well, the army has pledged some money to Liscor. But—happily, three of the Walled Cities have already pledged to cover five percent of the costs rather than force the Antinium to pay. Each.”
Selys’ jaw dropped. Krshia took a step back, her fur paling.
“That is a lie. You cannot have—”
“Reached out to the Walled Cities? Let’s just say they’re concerned about the Antinium too. And they’re willing to help pay for an expanded City Watch—we may be able to fund the Adventurer’s Guild’s upgrade solely based on private donations!”
Krshia’s eyes bulged. Lism reached for something behind him. A Drake carrying a sheaf of…of papers handed a small stack to him. Lism pressed it into Krshia’s paws with a filthy smile.
“It’s just been printed. But the reaction is already spreading across the continent. I’m sure I have a few [Messages] waiting. But until then—Drakes and Gnolls, lend me your ears! Do you want to have the Antinium expand their Hive and build everything? Or would you rather build your city yourselves, and see the gold flowing into your pockets?”
He walked past Krshia, shouting at the crowd further down the street. The procession followed him and Selys saw to her horror that people were breaking off, talking to each other. Spreading the word. It was a twisted parody of yesterday. Selys rushed over to Krshia. They had to stop Lism! Think up a counter! But the Gnoll was staring at something in her paws. Her hands were shaking as Selys rushed up.
The Gnoll growled. Her eyes flashed as the papers crumpled in her grip. She thrust them at Selys.
“That dirty, rat-tailed—”
Selys stared at the papers. Slowly, she unfolded the crumpled paper, read the freshly-dried ink. It was in fact, a [Scribe]-written copy. A copy of a rather long introduction. The first thing Selys saw was the author’s name. Olesm Swifttail. With a sinking heart, she began to read.
To my remaining readers,
My name is Olesm Swifttail, [Strategist] for the City of Liscor. In my previous newsletter I made a series of suggestions and recommendations about a possible system that could be implemented along with an analysis of the events surrounding the Goblin Lord’s recent siege of Liscor. I understand it was received with much chagrin by a good number of my audience, not least for the idea of fostering peace with the Goblins. I would like to address that issue in brief:
To those I have offended, I sincerely apologize. My arguments were not backed up with historical fact, which do cite instances where Goblins have coexisted with other species—albeit a relationship fraught with tension. I have since educated myself, and hope this further, more coherent argument will better represent my opinion—and the inherent dangers I was suggesting.
I would like to delve into the realities of trying to work in harmony with species classified as monsters, such as Ogres, Trolls, Goblins, various ape species, Giants, (with the understanding that the remaining half-Giant tribes are of course, now fully recognized as a species with rights in all cases but those of the Demonfolk of Rhir), and so on.
But before that, I would like to bring up another issue troubling Liscor: that of an election. I consider it a fascinating case-study of politics and will be attaching my opinion over a troubling change in Liscor’s traditional system of governance that may, inadvertently, grant too much power to the Antinium Hive located beneath Liscor, known as the Free Antinium.
My attached summary and thoughts are below, and in this newsletter, I have tabulated the letter to clearly differentiate games of Chess, Go, my findings on the issue of interspecies politics and strategy, and the current situation in Liscor.
Please also note the final section, which contains a fascinating report by Liscor’s Adventurer’s Guild on the species known as Raskghar, an exceptionally savage, monstrous subrace that deviated from Gnolls and their biology, danger classification, and the situation which lead to a large tribe abducting Gnolls from Liscor itself for a ritualistic sacrifice which has many disturbing implications…
“Oh dead gods.”
Selys slowly raised her head from the paper. Zevara, looking bewildered, snatched at it.
“What is it? What does it say?”
“Olesm. He released another newsletter. And he not only talked about Goblins, but he’s talking about the Antinium in it. About the election. It probably went out to every city on the continent with a [Strategist] in it. And I bet they read his letter with that opening. He just told all of them what’s at stake!”
Elirr’s fur went pale. He read the cover letter over Zevara’s shoulder.
“Olesm? He’s siding with Lism?”
Selys opened her mouth. Then she covered it because she wanted to throw up. No wonder the Walled Cities had just gotten in touch with Lism! If Liscor’s [Strategist] pointed out that they could help fund Liscor’s expansion or let the Antinium get a number of concessions…
Lism’s voice was coming back this way. He was marching at the head of a crowd, and he wasn’t by himself this time. A Drake was marching on his left, another on his right. Lism raised his voice jubilantly.
“For your consideration, good folk of Liscor! Senior Guardsman Jeiss for a seat on Liscor’s Council! Alonna Swiftwing, our esteemed [Mage] and head of the Mage’s Guild for a seat on Liscor’s Council! Vote for them! Vote for me! Liscor, built by our own claws! Or paws!”
The Gnolls watched him march down the street. Zevara stared at Senior Guardsman Jeiss. He saluted her awkwardly. Beilmark, his partner, said not a word. Jeiss avoided her gaze. Selys watched as more Gnolls and Drakes turned to listen to Lism’s new message. And then she realized the worst part.
“Oh no. He’s making this an issue about the Antinium. Not about building more of the city. If he can offer what the Antinium can—then it’s about whether you trust Klbkch and his Hive or not.”
“And whether you want Antinium to build the city or…us.”
The group fell silent. Selys thought she would puke. And then, a Drake approached their group. He was the same one from yesterday. And like yesterday, he made a beeline for Zevara.
“Watch Captain. Are you supporting Miss Krshia here? Are you against Shopkeeper Lism? He says he’ll support tripling the City Watch’s budget if he can. And he says he’s all for you as Watch Captain. Are you against him?”
Every head slowly turned to Zevara. She cleared her throat once. Twice. Three times. Selys beseeched her silently, but Zevara wouldn’t meet her eyes. Eventually, she looked at the Drake.
“Well, if—if any Council member were to see fit to grant the City Watch an appropriate budget, I don’t know that I could categorically denounce Shopkeeper Lism’s proposals…”
The Watch Captain murmured. The Drakes looked at each other. One of them whistled.
“Well in that case…I mean, I’m supportive of the Antinium and all that, but I wasn’t too keen on having that many Gnolls on the Council. Maybe one? And I like more Drakes. Humans…”
“Exactly. Say what you will, but Lism’s right about Humans. And I mean, Klbkch is Klbkch, but historically, those Ants…”
They broke up, backing away from Krshia’s party. The same Drakes who’d cheered her yesterday. Selys desperately went after them.
“No, wait! That’s not fair! Let me talk to Zevara! Don’t spread that! Krshia—”
She turned to look at the Gnoll. Krshia’s shoulders were hunched. She was staring at Lism with her teeth bared. Selys slowly backed up.
“We can win this. Everyone just stay calm. We need to think up a rebuttal for Lism. Talk to Klbkch. Get Erin in on this—”
Elirr and Beilmark nodded. They grabbed Krshia before she could, say, pounce on Lism. Selys was trying to usher Krshia back from the smug Drake when she saw him, standing across from her on the other side of the crowd.
His head was ducked, and he was looking down. But his blue scales were telltale. And he had a sheaf of papers in one hand. Olesm Swifttail was flicking through them, nodding as he listened to Lism speak.
Oh, spin and spin. Sudden changes and betrayals and the fickle nature of the crowd. That was politics. Selys felt the world which seemed so solid, turn to jelly around her. And then she saw what Olesm was holding. The papers. His notes.
Selys saw them and the world went red. She didn’t know what possessed her to push through the crowd. And she didn’t catch herself until she was right in front of Olesm, throwing her detailed notes in his face and punching at him with a claw as he tried to block. But a dozen hands caught her, dragging her back, and Gnolls and Drakes yanked the people grabbing Selys off her.
And then both sides were shoving, jostling, shouting—and then someone threw a punch. And both sides erupted into a brawl and Selys and Olesm were caught in the middle of it. Zevara shouted for order and roared for her City Watch while Krshia and Lism looked on, shouting insults at each other. Selys threw punches and tried to push out of the sudden riot as Lism’s supporters clashed with Krshia’s.
But unfortunately, suddenly, it looked like it was an even fight.
Liscor heaved. It turned. It fought amongst itself. And all the momentum Krshia Silverfang had worked for was snatched up, converted, and turned on her in an instant. A classic reversal in chess. Or perhaps Go was a more fitting metaphor?
Whatever the case, it was messy. And dirty. And when a despairing and scratched-up Selys walked into the inn, in tears, while Krshia shouted at Lism on the streets and Zevara sat in her office and thought, the scales were even. Or perhaps slanted in Lism’s favor. He had more than enough scales already.
And there they lay. Right up until the [Innkeeper], a young woman named Erin Solstice, came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands. She listened to Selys. She heard about Olesm. She dropped the towel. Slowly, Erin picked it up off the floor. She looked at Selys, around at her inn, her patrons. She thought of Krshia. Erin Solstice looked out at Liscor and made a fist.
“Oh, it is on.”