The Walled City of Salazsar was silent at dawn. Silent, and cold. Frost touched the roofs and stone walkways near the top of the city. Even in the spring, it was so; the braziers that were always tended to with great attention were mundane, not magic for that very reason. They kept the frost from becoming treacherous sheets of black ice that might cause a fatal fall.
Perhaps it was a luxury. And indeed, the ever-burning flames that warmed Salazsar only provided their warmth to the highest floors of the city. The peaks, where, appropriately, only the richest denizens of Salazsar could afford to live. But it was hardly a small place. For Salazsar was the second-largest of the Walled Cities. Where Pallass was a fortress, and had been constructed to fend off attackers from any conceivable direction or even altitude, Salazsar was different.
The canny [Architects] who had laid plans and designs in countless years past had not trusted to the mere might of walls to protect the city. So they had trusted to something far older, stronger.
They had built Salazsar into the side of a mountain. There it sat, a mountain-fortress, like the capital of Hellios, or the few other famous cities which had chosen to use geography to their advantage. The home of the Dwarves in Terandria was one such location. But, tellingly, the Drakes of Izril were not content to make their homes subterranean. Salazsar was part of the mountain, yes, but it was built of it. As the mountain had vanished, stone by stone, Salazsar had emerged. The city was the mountain and when the mountain died, Salazsar would finally be complete.
That was the conceit of the city. And it was all conceit. As a lonely Drake made his way from the highest towers and down across crisscrossing bridges in the sky, he reflected that each Walled City was defined by more than just its economic strength. Each city had personality. If Pallass was the City of Innovation, with its limitless capacity for change and burning desire to improve—in politics, in industry, to change and adapt—then its counterpart might well be said to be Salazsar.
For tradition held the city. Tradition—the lineage of Wall Lords and Wall Ladies that had not been rendered obsolete by democracy as in Pallass. A profession—mining, gem cutting, and the wealth and contempt, the arrogance such that even other Drakes pointed to Salazsar as a hallmark of pride. And was that truly a fault? Or had the Walled City transformed a defect into a glowing gem, a city beyond all other Drake cities to aspire to? He knew what he believed. But then, he was a son of Salazsar. The City of Gems.
And it glowed in the light. The towers shone, their stained glass and gemstone windows illuminating the city below with wondrous light from above. The city was a marvel of stonework, of craft, if not engineering like Pallass. No ugly elevators marred its walkways, and indeed, the ramps and stairwells down were sometimes inconvenient to climb. Simply travelling from the top of Salazsar to the bottom would exhaust the lesser-abled. Let alone the reverse. But each section of the city could sustain you; you hardly had to walk far to find amenities at hand or claw or paw. Assuming you were in the correct section. Because of course, the higher you went, the richer everything was.
Statues passed the Drake by as he walked. Wall Lords captured in exquisite detail, stone busts gravely looking towards oblivion, even entire scenes carved out of stone and given color by gem or paint—or sometimes left bare, starkly reminding the viewer that the past could only be caught in mere stone for moments. And the windows danced their colors upon these pieces of art as well.
It was indeed art that shaped the highest levels of Salazsar, from tower to tower. And why not? The bottom of the city, the width of the city set against the base of the mountain was made of ancient walls. Already they were three hundred feet high; anything above that was impossible to strike at. Even a trebuchet would struggle to even graze the tallest of the towers. And Salazsar’s protections were such that no army had even taken the battle to those vaunted heights. Salazsar had fallen before, to treachery and even plague, but not to armies with sheer, destructive might. As the Drake peered over a railing he supposed that nothing could threaten Salazsar’s elite by air. Not even an entire migration of Wyverns, surely. But Dragons?
Perhaps Dragons. Yet, the ancestors of Drakes had long since passed from the earth. Perhaps all, or perhaps some remained. But they were not a threat as they had been in days of yore. So the Drake walked further down, descending into the main part of the city.
Salazsar was a vertical place. Unlike Pallass which had floors, Salazsar had towers, connected by walkways. Each one was huge, as large as any castle or citadel around the base and narrowing as they rose. Fingers rising to the sky, perhaps. And the Drake descended one of these towers, noting how the elegance shifted, became less pronounced. The statues and reliefs certainly grew sparser in number.
And yet, the majesty of the city never disappeared no matter how low you went. No dingy halls, or low-cut, rough ceilings for the Walled City’s folk, though. Ilvriss looked up at the ceiling, a product of masterful architecture. Yes, each generation of Salazsar built upon the city, trying to outdo itself. You could capture the construction techniques across a thousand years if you went for a stroll.
It was to the tower closest to the mountain—overshadowed by the retreating rock face that Ilvriss had journeyed today. The newest tower, being built upwards, was of a classic design. All sleek rock, smooth edges, minimalistic in the nods to, say, gargoyles or other protrusions. Ilvriss was mixed on how he felt about it. Still, it was his base of operations. And he was proud; it had been constructed in his generation. And when he died, it would be there. Standing as a memento to all those who had helped raise it.
That was the pride of this Walled city, beyond all the others. Salazsar grew. It absorbed the mountain into itself. From the stones, the city was built. From the earth, its treasures excavated. Because Salazsar sat on a mother lode of gems. The largest, most comprehensive and varied set of veins in the earth. From its mines you could find exports of diamonds, rubies, metals like silver, mithril, even adamantine—and rarer minerals still. That was what made Salazsar richest of the Walled Cities for thousands of years. A vein miles deep, seemingly without end.
Of course, one didn’t simply excavate all those treasures with sheer abandon. Ironically, the Drakes of Salazsar had learned first-hand how easy it was to render gold, gemstones, or any valuable commodity useless by having a glut of wealth stockpiled. So they carefully expended their trove of treasures, digging deeper with each passing year, keeping themselves rich, but not bankrupting themselves by excess.
And some day, yes, some day, the glorious treasures of the earth might run out. But by that point, the Walled City would be the mountain itself. And the keepers of this great city had laid vast stockpiles of wealth against such a time.
It was said that Salazsar’s streets ran with gold and gemstones. Which was a blatant lie; anyone who saw, say, a citrine gemstone lying on the ground would snap it up in a second. Who left money lying around? And Salazsar had its lower classes, Ilvriss was all too aware. It was not perfect. But it was richer than any other Walled City.
And its Walled Lords were richest of all. A match for the wealthiest of the Humans in the north, like the conceited Magnolia Reinhart. But they did things better in Salazsar, of course. Ilvriss walked up the newer tower and pushed open a door set into the stone. Instantly, the cold, even chill air of altitude vanished. And he walked into pomp. Possibly circumstance.
The interior of the latest tower was adorned in rich carpeting. Wood built into the stone made Ilvriss feel as if he were suddenly enveloped in warmth; the fire burning in the entryway certainly did that. He luxuriated in the warmth after his cold walk for a moment, then briskly strode towards the next door.
It opened into a large staircase, which branched off into smaller rooms. This high up of course, each room was meant for only a few occupants. But further down, as the spiraling staircase widened, you could reach entire mess halls, complexes of apartments, indoor courts for exercise—Ilvriss walked up instead of down. Not much further to go now.
Few people were up. Those who did see Ilvriss, sweeping along in his rich, dark clothing—silk, thank you, pleasant on the scales despite the cold of outside—bowed or nodded to him as was their wont. None exchanged words; they were all busy—until a young voice called out.
“Wall Lord! Wall Lord!”
Ilvriss turned his head. He saw a Drake child, scales as yellow as a flower’s, waving at him excitedly. He was tugging on the dress of a set-upon Drake, a [Tutor] perhaps, who was urging him into a doorway. The young Drake was dressed well; of course, he wouldn’t belong to this area if he wasn’t rich. Ilvriss strolled towards him, smiling.
“Young Felidel. Good morning to you.”
“You too! Wall Lord sir. They said you were back in the city! Did you kill lots of Goblins? They said you fought with General Shivertail himself. Before he died.”
Ilvriss’ smile slipped a bit. The Drake [Tutor] curtsied, her cheeks red.
“Apologies, Wall Lord. I’m to teach Felidel’s class, but he insisted on waiting for you.”
“Not at all, Miss…?”
“Hessa, Wall Lord.”
“Miss Hessa. And Felidel, I’m gratified to see you. You’ve grown since our last chat, but we mustn’t inconvenience our fellow citizens, correct?”
The Drake child shuffled his feet.
He looked up and caught Ilvriss’ smile. The Wall Lord nodded to Felidel.
“I have been gone a substantial time. I would have worried, but I’m sure you’ve protected our city while I’ve been gone?”
The Drake’s face lit up.
“I have, Wall Lord Ilvriss!”
“I expected no less. And I trust you’ll learn your lessons and grow into a Drake who can serve Salazsar well. Miss Hessa, I leave Felidel in your claws.”
Ilvriss straightened. He held out a claw and Felidel shook it solemnly. The Wall Lord smiled. He nodded to the two Drakes, and then he was gone. There went Ilvriss. Purple-scaled, unaccountably handsome, regal even, one of the most respected Wall Lords in the city. A terror to Salazsar’s enemies, a champion of all Drakes.
Bereaved. Periss was dead. And few, too few knew or cared of her passing. Ilvriss walked slowly up the steps to a room near the top of the tower. There he paused, checked his clothing, and entered.
A Gnoll was waiting for Ilvriss, bending over a desk with a younger Drake and consulting a sheaf of papers. They had been sent up by a pulley and dumbwaiter; the Gnoll expertly rifled through them as the [Secretary] sent a reply written on neat, clean paper. The Gnoll, dressed in clothing almost as impeccable as Ilvriss, noticed the Wall Lord and turned. Ilvriss nodded to him.
Alrric nodded his head deferentially, but with only a touch of it. He was wearing a suit, a proper, tailored dress to Gnoll specifications, loose enough for movement and tailored to their form; not some ill-fitting suit. And he fit the part, despite suits being a Human conceit. His fur was short-cut, neatly trimmed and combed unlike the vast majority of Gnolls. It shone with a faint oil, and Alaric himself cut a dignified figure. Except for the black eye. Ilvriss eyed it as the [Secretary] bowed his head.
“I see the day has more than one surprise for me. Good morning, Josial. I’ll take the morning’s reports in my office. Alrric, if you’d care to join me?”
The Gnoll nodded. He pushed open the double doors and Ilvriss stepped through. Down one short corridor with a branching intersection; this series of rooms wasn’t much. It was just big enough to contain what Ilvriss and Alrric considered essential staff for the management of his estates; it was all reports and managing up here. Ilvriss strode down the hall to the next set of double doors and into his office.
You could spend time describing what Ilvriss kept in his office, but that mainly became a description of endless binders and bookshelves of paperwork. Ilvriss kept his office bare of most interesting things, preferring that to his personal rooms. His office was to work, and so his tools of the trade were sealing wax, ink, quills, magnifying glass, spectacles, geological maps, an abacus, and oh yes, a small bell.
And paperwork. A folder was already there, waiting to be perused. Ilvriss sat down with a sigh. Then he glanced up at Alrric. The Gnoll stood patiently with paws folded behind his back.
“A recent injury, Alrric? Or trophy?”
“I gained this last night. I thought I’d keep it for a day or two to remind everyone what it was for, Wall Lord.”
“Ah. I see. The regular dispute, then?”
Alrric smiled thinly.
“A few upset Gnolls I encountered while relaxing at a bar. They took issue with my appearance. I needn’t tell you what’s said.”
The Gnoll shrugged his shoulders.
“They call me a City Gnoll, sir. But worse, a pet. I’d use specific language, but I’m afraid I didn’t hear much after I took objection to their objection.”
“And then you challenged them to—what? Fisticuffs?”
Ilvriss smiled. Alrric grinned at the joke.
“I would not use that word to describe it, but something like that, yes. You know, they think I’m your [Butler], Ilvriss.”
The Wall Lord sat back in his chair. He tapped his claws together, eying Alrric. He shook his head dismissively.
“A common misconception they get from watching Humans. Did you explain to them the difference between your job and a Human’s before you took them to pieces?”
“I may have omitted that part.”
The Drake’s expression was wry.
“Perhaps it bears repeating for those who don’t know your class. I can see why they might object, though. Very few Drakes would suffer to be a permanent servant. And Gnolls likewise, Alrric. Could you do what the Humans do? Dress me each morning with your paws? Help me adjust the fit of my clothing? Powder my face?”
The Gnoll’s face said it all. Ilvriss imagined Alrric fussing over him each morning. Helping him bathe. The two shuddered as one.
“Humans. I can dress myself.”
“And I have my dignity, your Ancestors be praised. Will you review your holdings? We hit a vein of beryl the other day. Aquamarine, more’s the pity, but perhaps there’s some variation.”
Alrric gestured to the documents, and Ilvriss supposed the matter of the black eye was dropped. Gnolls did police themselves and if it wasn’t an incident Alrric was willing to speak on, he could handle it himself. He nodded absently, paging through the document.
“Don’t send word I’ll be along; call it a surprise inspection. Hm. Are the reports…?”
“Left side of the desk. You also have a guest waiting on your pleasure.”
The Wall Lord signed with gratitude and pulled the papers over.
“Ah, efficiency. I have missed it. In that case, I’ll review, touch bases with you on the holdings that have been underperforming in my absence—I think my Skills should improve efficiency just by my return, but we can review the [Manager]’s performances. And…did you say I had a guest?”
“Wall Lord Brilm. He’s waiting in the guest room. Not for long; I will send him in directly. It’s good to have you back, Ilvriss.”
“My pleasure, Alrric. I couldn’t leave my affairs out of place for too much longer either. I know you had it well in paw. Even so—it’s good to be home.”
The Gnoll smiled. He went for the door and opened it smartly. Ilvriss sighed. It was good. Managing his investments in his city, seeing to staff, enjoying his home—it had been too long. First a pointless campaign against an alliance of cities and fighting with Zel Shivertail in a bloody conflict, running up against the Goblin Lord, tracking down Ryoka Griffon in Liscor and staying there for—Ancestors, months—before returning home. It truly felt like years. Ilvriss was inspecting the first report in his pile when the door opened. Another Drake, pinkish-beige of scale and somewhat heavier than Ilvriss, but the same age, thrust his way into the room.
“Anyone home? Ilvriss!”
He spread his claws. Ilvriss got up. He walked out behind his desk and the two clasped claws.
“Brilm. A pleasure. To what do I owe this?”
The heavier Drake chuckled. To call him heavier really was mean; he wasn’t exactly overweight, just with a bit of extra flesh. And he cut a very dashing figure in his red-and-orange conflagration he called an outfit. Brilm was as energetic as Ilvriss reserved. He paced to Ilvriss’ desk and hurled himself into the chair.
“Visiting my friend after he’s been back for less than a week isn’t an occasion in itself? Ancestors, Ilvriss, but you haven’t called and I’ve been remiss. Can’t you take a break from all this for a day or two and savor being back? You’ve been on the road for ages! This must be the height of luxury compared to what you went through.”
“It was hardly me camping out with a handkerchief held over my head. I had my command.”
“True. But it can’t have been easy. And after losing Periss, your best subordinate—ah, I’m sorry.”
Ilvriss’ face froze for a second as he sat down. He cleared his throat.
“Thank you. I’ve spoken to her family, but it’s…a blow. Yes. I regret it.”
“Damn Zel and his army. We might have been at odds with his city, but he cut apart our army. No love for fellow Drakes, is there? No wonder he threw us over for the Humans at the end.”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“No? Tell me what it was like. Ah—never mind. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t speak ill of a war hero. And you were in the same spot as him, weren’t you? Tell me when I’m in a better mood.”
Ilvriss glanced up at Brilm’s sour face.
“Only your Gnoll, Alrric. He showed me in without so much as an ounce of courtesy. Used my name and everything. I can’t fathom why you keep him around—it was hard enough dealing with him when you were gone. I know he’s efficient, but dead gods, there are limits to value, Ilvriss!”
The Wall Lord sighed. Suddenly, he remembered all the little issues that came with being home. Such as squabbles like this. He carefully avoided looking at his old childhood friend.
“He’s a busy fellow, Brilm. An [Administrator] cannot be expected to genuflect at every moment to a Wall Lord, can he? Let alone my [Gemstone Administrator] and executive director in command of all my affairs.”
The other Drake made a disgusted sound as he picked up Ilvriss’ monocle and stared through it.
“One step below a Wall Lord and you choose a Gnoll for your second-in-command. I’m not questioning you, Ilvriss. I just think it’s odd.”
Ilvriss leaned back in his chair, frowning.
“Really? Do you want to know how to light a fire under the tails of your Gnoll workers and have them try to outperform their Drake counterparts without actually lighting a fire, Brilm?”
“Make a Gnoll your top [Administrator]. And give anyone who works for the opportunity a chance to advance. I have six Gnoll [Head Miners] on my staff, each of them the best I could ask for. They came to me because they knew I’d give them the positions they earned. You might consider it yourself.”
“I employ many Gnolls.”
Brilm waved a claw, looking mildly offended. Ilvriss corrected the edge of his papers against the desk.
“How many working in your offices?”
Wall Lords controlled holdings, particular mining areas, or just enough wealth to finance the various sectors that kept Salazsar alive. They were, in truth, the hearts of the city. From their businesses, smaller shops, operations, and so forth flourished. And so each employed individual owed their allegiance to one particular Wall Lord. One…house of Salazsar. That was how the city operated, with efficiency unlike a democracy like Pallass. A Wall Lord had to actively manage his affairs or hire someone to do the job competently.
Brilm ignored the question. He eyed the reports Ilvriss was holding and abruptly changed the subject.
“Heard about the mining crew down on the old Creler-nest shaft? I hear they declined an offer to work for Wall Lady Tielma. Are you going to snap them up? I’ll make them an offer, but if you want another crew as good as they are—”
“I did make them an offer already.”
“Damn. How much? Mind trading me a [Foreman] or two?”
“I’m afraid you misunderstand. I was rejected. Flat out. I fear this team might try to finance themselves and work independent of any support. We might be seeing the growth of an independent mining operation soon, Brilm. Doesn’t that worry you?”
Brilm laughed incredulously.
“And how would they finance all their supplies? Tools? Guards against monsters? I hear rumblings like that every few years, Ilvriss. It’s nothing to worry about. To succeed in Salazsar you need a vast amount of wealth.”
“Or to strike a lucky vein.”
The two fell silent. Mining was more expensive than a lot of people thought. Even if you dug up a lot of riches, processing and selling your goods was work. Protecting yourself against monsters who loved magical stones was a huge risk. And feeding miners, making sure they were well-equipped, defending against [Thieves] or the unscrupulous who might raid a mining site…it was why the Wall Lords were the founts of all industry. But Ilvriss had read of Drakes and Gnolls who’d created their own magnates from nothing in Salazsar’s history. He wasn’t as sanguine as Brilm.
“We’ll talk it over if it’s a problem later. At a dinner party. Mine this time. I’ll have my [Chef] put out a proper spread. Something to make you forget about any privations you may have had.”
The Drake smiled warmly. Ilvriss smiled as well, but he shook his head.
“It was hardly as arduous as you might think, Brilm. I was at Liscor when I wasn’t on campaign, and it’s no Salazsar, true, or even a Manus. But it has its strengths. For all its rustic qualities, I found myself enamored with the—the spirit of Liscor’s inhabitants. And there were a number of interesting diversions, for all it was trying at times.”
“Really? You’re saying this? Ilvriss? Ancestors, you have changed! I thought I’d hear nothing but a litany of complaints from you! I was prepared to hear you out and everything—I even brought a gift to cheer you up! I thought you didn’t tell us all about the horrid food and disgusting customs—not to mention the Antinium—because you were trying to spare us at your dinner party! Which was a hit, I might add!”
Brilm slapped the table. His rings struck the wood and he adjusted one absently as he spoke. Ilvriss smiled.
“I wouldn’t let polite company hold me back from my real objections. But you enjoyed the dinner party?”
Brilm blew a kiss with his claws into the air.
“Magnificent. New dishes, fascinating conversation, tales of a Goblin Lord’s defeat, Antinium to worry over, even you pulling out a Pallassian [Captain] into your service out of nowhere—brilliant stuff! And that—that condiment you served with those potato wedges! Wonderful stuff. What did you call it?”
“Mayonnaise. A Human invention, but my [Chef] managed to make it quite palatable. I only regret that I couldn’t bring back more souvenirs of the journey. Some of the things I encountered were quite valuable.”
“Ah. Yes. The magical door.”
Brilm nodded seriously. He looked at Ilvriss and shook his head.
“That’s a treasure. We could use it. Not least to transport our miners from the lower veins to the surface! Or facilitate trade; a shame you couldn’t steal it. But I suppose with those damned Pallass fools trying to obstruct your travel back home, it was hard enough getting back. Congratulations on giving them the slip by the way; we were leaning as hard as we could on them to let you through, but they weren’t budging. I was worried they’d sent their people after you.”
“I prepared for that. And the magic door did assist me in my escape.”
“It did? All the more reason to make a bid for it. But—later, later. And speaking of trinkets, I brought this to cheer you up. I might as well show you ahead of my dinner party; have look at this.”
So saying, Brilm put a small object on the table. Ilvriss eyed it. It was…a gemstone. Quartz; common, fairly worthless until he noticed the shimmer of pink inside the cut crystal. Then he identified it.
“Hm. Pure quartz. Clearly holding a spell. Not a powerful one, though. Some kind of single-use spell? A charm?”
“Charm? Do I look like I use charms? Please, Ilvriss. Give me some credit. No, this is a recording. Listen. It’s a song.”
So saying, Brilm rubbed the quartz and spoke a word. Ilvriss heard a garbled sound, and then a blast of beating drums and a loud, Human’s voice. She was singing—well, shouting something out of the stone. He covered his earholes reflexively.
“What is that racket?”
The sound cut off. Brilm looked offended.
“It’s music! Don’t scowl! Listen!”
“It’s horrendous is what it is. You call that music? Are you on some kind of drugs, Brilm?”
“You have no taste, Ilvriss.”
“I’ve listened to more forms of music than I can count, Brilm. And that is worse than Dullahan love songs. Or Garuda scream-songs.”
Ilvriss grimaced. Brilm glared at him and then, grumbling, reached into the bag of holding he’d pulled the first stone from.
“I should have known not everything would change. Picky, picky—okay, try this one.”
He pulled out another quartz, this one glowing faintly blue from within. Ilvriss ignored the color; that just told him the stone was slightly magical. He watched as Brilm whispered the activation message for the second stone. At once, a soft melody began playing. Ilvriss tried to place the instrument—and then he heard a voice.
It was the same voice as before. A female Human’s voice. Ilvriss braced for a cacophony, but the words that came out were slow, sonorous, spoken with a slow melancholy. And the song—
Brilm smirked as Ilvriss’ eyes widened. Then he looked at the quartz. And his own face softened, and his eyes closed. Ilvriss stared at the stone as the song played on. The music swelled, and horns and flutes accompanied the sad, slow song. But it wasn’t just pained. There was a triumph to it. A…passion that the female singer captured. And yet—the words could have been Ilvriss’ himself.
The female voice sang on, as soulful as if she were in the same room as the two Drakes. And the words spoke to Ilvriss, in a way few songs had before. Because this was no [Bard]’s melody, certainly no tavern song. And the instruments, the composition—Ilvriss was a studied connoisseur of music in many forms of art. But this was a new style to him. You could feel it in every line. And yet, the song was polished.
And when it ended, Ilvriss felt himself exhaling a breath he didn’t know he’d held. The last notes of the horns and stringed instruments faded out with the young woman’s voice, and Ilvriss stared at the crystal. It stopped playing music and he looked at Brilm. The Drake raised his brows silently.
“Hm. That’s…genuinely impressive. What’s the name of this song?”
“I believe it’s called My Way. Originally performed by…Frank Sinatra. I have no idea who that is. Look, it’s written here. But the song itself is being performed by the—the Queen of Pop.”
Brilm waved a claw.
“That’s what she calls herself. There’s no country called Pop—don’t bother looking for it. I already did. It’s a nickname. She’s known as the Baroness of the Beats. The Queen of Pop. The Siren of Songs. The [Singer] of Terandria.”
“All that for one Human?”
Ilvriss raised a skeptical eyebrow, but he was rattled despite himself. He looked back at the quartz. Brilm nodded.
“After listening to that song I’ll call her the Countess of Catchy Music. She’s growing in popularity. And these song-stones are hers. A [Merchant] brought some to me and I brought all three.”
“There are more?”
Ilvriss was interested. Brilm held his claw up, protecting his bag of holding.
“Not so fast! I have to show my guests something. You’ll like the last song. It’s good too. But I only have three of these crystals. They’re rare. Obviously; it’s a magical recording of a performance. I had to pay dearly for it. I gather it’s only really catching on around Terandria, where this Queen of Pop is based. But if she puts out more music like that—she’ll get my business.”
Ilvriss nodded absently. It might be good to look into. He eyed Brilm.
“You are a hawk for the newest trends, Human or not. You’re planning to back this Human financially, aren’t you?”
“You make your businesses prosper, Ilvriss. I respect that. I find new business and invest in it.”
The other Wall Lord studied his claws, looking pleased with himself. He gestured to the first crystal.
“Sure you don’t want to give the first song a try? I had the same reaction as you, but after a few more listens—I like it.”
“Have some taste.”
Ilvriss rolled his eyes good-naturedly as he reached for his reports. He skimmed through them as Brilm stowed the gemstones. And Ilvriss resolved to get a copy of the song if at all possible. It was why it was good to have Brilm as a close friend; if he invested in this [Singer], Ilvriss would be able to get any number of song-crystals from him.
It wasn’t a new concept, storing music in an artifact to be played later. Like the rat-catching flutes and so on. But storing it in a stone? That was somewhat novel. Could you record pictures in one? No—Ilvriss suspected that the quartz would lose the imprint of the music within a month. Even rocks forgot. He wondered if Brilm knew.
He was about to tell the Drake that when a report caught his eye. The [Secretary] had placed it near the top of the pile and Ilvriss saw why at once. Brilm looked up as Ilvriss laughed.
“Something catch your eye?”
“Ah. I don’t know if you know, but Liscor’s going through a democratic phase. They’re planning on having elections.”
“Hah. That is funny.”
Ilvriss shook his head.
“No. See here. One of the candidates, a Gnoll, is getting backed by the Antinium.”
Alarmed, Brilm sat up. He peered at the report.
“Hang on, this is a copy of a message. From that Olesm Swifttail my [Strategist] was ranting about the other day. Did you hear? He was apparently vouching for Goblins to be—”
“Brilm, just read.”
The Wall Lord fell silent for a second and skimmed Olesm’s introduction to his latest newsletter. Ilvriss laughed to himself as he read it upside down.
“You see? He’s apologizing. But—”
“The election in his city. I see. He’s warning us all. You know this Olesm Swifttail?”
Brilm slid the paper back, looking slightly respectful. Ilvriss nodded. He looked fondly at the letter, picturing Olesm in his mind.
“Clever lad. Bring up the Raskghar to make this an issue of security. And mix an apology with some astute commentary on the Antinium. Well done.”
“It’s more than astute. It’s essential! Dead gods, those idiots at Liscor—I knew they were touched to let Antinium build a Hive below their city, but they’ll let them expand their Hive? Allow more Antinium into the city? Madness! We have to back this Lism fellow.”
Brilm urgently flipped through the newsletter, his neck spines standing on end. Ilvriss frowned, reading another page himself.
“I see. It’s trickier than I thought. Gnolls vs Drakes. I can see why this Gnoll’s pushing for it. And at the same time, I’m certain that with young Swifttail at his back, this Lism could win any regular election. Especially given the campaign topic. But…”
He drummed his claws on the table. Brilm looked up. Ilvriss sighed. He thought of Liscor and wished he’d delayed his departure. If he’d known this would happen—but he had his own city to think of. Even so—he looked at Brilm.
“By all means, Salazsar will back such a proposal. Funding Liscor’s expansion and security is a matter the cities should be united upon. And I may, as a private individual, make a donation to young Swifttail’s cause. I imagine some of our peers might well do the same.”
The Drake pounded a fist on the table.
“Naturally! If it means keeping the Antinium from stealing more power, I’ll give that Drake a few hundred gold pieces myself. So long as it’s going to a good cause. Is that your worry? That this Olesm or Lism will pocket the gold?”
“Not at all. It’s simply that I don’t know if they’ll win.”
“What’s the problem? We fund Liscor’s expansion and the Antinium don’t have a leg to stand on. Surely Liscor’s citizens aren’t that far gone that they’d reject—”
“It’s not them. It’s her.”
Ilvriss stared out the window of his office. Gently, he traced his claws across the table and his claws went to one of his fingers. His…ring finger. And the groove of scales, slightly indented. Brilm looked down, noticing the gesture. And his eyes went round.
He grasped at a golden band on his own ring finger. Ilvriss looked up. He covered his hand discretely.
“It will find its way to me. And I gave it with purpose, Brilm.”
“You. Gave your ring. To who. Your future wife? Ancestors save me. Are you getting married?”
Ilvriss ignored the question. He looked thoughtfully at the report.
“Liscor is an interesting place, Brilm. You should visit it. And they need more security. More funding. And more space, by all means. All these things are pressing. But for donating to young Olesm’s campaign—I think I’ll wait. Until Liscor’s most dangerous Human makes her move.”
“Most dangerous Human. Liscor has Humans?”
“At least one. Erin Solstice. Say, Brilm, you wouldn’t happen to have more of those recorded songs, would you?”
The other Wall Lord smiled distractedly.
“I’ll put you on the list. But about this Human. What will she do? What can any Human do?”
“Liscor! Meet Pallass!”
Erin spread her arms and shouted. Hundreds of faces stared up at her through the magical door. And from four hundred miles away, Liscor’s people stared into Pallass.
“Ancestors. Is this Pallass?”
Wonderingly, a Drake poked his head out of the door. He stared at the crowd gathered on the street near one of the four central staircases of Pallass’ city. Stout Dullahans in armor, bright-feathered Garuda flying up off the ground for a better look, Drakes in every color of scales, and Gnolls, their fur less colorful but shaded in patterns of grey, brown, dark red to blonde, black—but never white—staring and perking up their ears.
And beyond them? Pallass. City of Inventions. It might not have been Salazsar, but that did not mean it was any less of a wonder. The city lay below the staircase, floor upon floor of buildings, each floor the size of a smaller Drake city or larger, home to a hundred thousand souls. Pallass, a city of millions.
It was the first time Selys Shivertail had ever laid eyes on it. Really seen it, rather. She had been to Pallass before. But that had been when she’d been searching for information on the Heartflame Breastplate with Pisces. And he had almost trivialized the event. And Selys herself hadn’t taken it in. But now?
Grimalkin stood in an opening in the crowd, lifting a weights bar over his shoulders. He lifted the bar loaded with weights in a perfect shoulder press. Watching him was a giant of a Dullahan, a blacksmith. Maughin, the famed [Armorer] of Pallass. And a dozen other [Smiths] had descended from their ninth floor to join the crowd. They were debating weights as Grimalkin did another press. The [Mage] nodded in satisfaction and handed the bar off to a Drake nearly as burly. Relc.
“It’s too light for me. These weights you’ve added are ten pounds each, Maughin? Can you add something heftier?”
The Dullahan frowned as he inspected the weights. He turned to Bealt, the Gnoll [Farrier].
“It shouldn’t be too hard to cast some iron weights. I can see twenty, even fifty pounds of iron going on this bar. It’s good steel.”
The Gnoll nodded.
“Not a problem. The only cost is in the actual iron—which is considerable. And while we can use weaker irons, the bar needs to be quality steel.”
“Exactly. But if Grimalkin’s correct and this is a business opportunity, the actual work is far simpler than, say, a breastplate. A single weight bar and rounded weights? We can do a sample set in a day.”
“Yeah! Give me three—no, four hundred pounds! Come on! I can take it!”
Relc roared happily as he did press ups with the bar. A pair of children, Garuda, and Gnoll, grabbed on to both ends as they descended. The weights bar wobbled, then Relc lifted it over his head to the delight of the shrieking children. He shouted, his muscles bulging.
“This is amazing! Lift! Lift! Hey, the rest of you runts grab on! I can—lift—it!”
He did another shoulder press as six more children latched onto the bar. The Drake had to work for the next shoulder press, but he managed it. His pectorals and biceps bulged and Grimalkin, watching, nodded approvingly.
“Simple. Safe. Efficient. So long as it’s done right. Maughin, forget the sample. I’ll take six sets. And here’s my gold deposit.”
He reached into his bag of holding and pulled out a handful of gold pieces and began counting them into the Dullahan’s hand. At that, the other [Smiths] crowded around, quoting prices.
“Hold on! I can do a weights bar for—eighteen gold pieces!”
“Eighteen? Hah! I’ll do it for fourteen!”
“You swindling—ignore him. I can do it for sixteen, pure steel, by evening! And I’ll throw in four of those weights.”
“The bar came from my forge! I’ll do a batch myself!”
Maughin elbowed the other [Smiths] back, shouting at them. Grimalkin looked around as Relc tried another shoulder press with eight kids handing on.
“Y-yeah! Yeah? No, wait, you’re too heavy! Let go! Let—”
And that was just the conversation with the [Smiths]. At the door, Erin stood as both crowds from Liscor and Pallass shouted questions at each other. The noise was chaotic at first, but after a few minutes, it began to resolve itself as they took turns shouting at each other.
“I saw this door! This was the one that the army went through! And where we saw those giant moths attacking the city! You can move it?”
A Gnoll demanded with an open-mouth, pointing at Erin’s inn through the door. He was one of the onlookers who’d noticed the door on Pallass’ side. On Liscor’s side, a veritable crowd of citizens, all poached from the election debate on the street, were staring back wonderingly. Erin laughed.
“Why not? It’s just a door! Hi! I’m Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper], and owner of The Wandering Inn! All of these people are from Liscor! Sorry—no entry—the door’ll run out of mana! But we can talk!”
“This is really Pallass?”
A Drake with pink-and-blue scales demanded on Liscor’s side, looking urgently at Erin. The young woman nodded, looking perplexed.
“Yup. It’s always been here. Did you hear?”
“I did. And I wanted to go through, maybe. Sometime. But—Ancestors. I’ve always dreamed of coming to a Walled City. But like this? I could just walk through and—”
She waved a claw at the door’s entrance and shuddered, looking pale. Erin’s face went blank. She didn’t get it. But Selys and Krshia and the other Liscorians, standing in the crowd, did.
Pallass. It was right in front of them. A Walled City, one of the six wonders of Izril, just like that. The Gnolls and Drakes stared, almost aghast by the sight. Selys was there, along with Krshia, Elirr, and the rest of the Gnolls on Krshia’s election campaign. But they’d forgotten their campaign for the moment—
“I’ve never seen it. The streets are beautiful.”
Someone whispered from Selys’ right. She looked down and saw an old Drake man blinking back tears. He pointed at the smooth blocks of stone that made up Pallass’ streets, so unlike the cobblestones of Liscor or Celum. Pallass’ citizens stared at their streets, looking nonplussed. One of them pointed at Erin.
“What was all this about you handing out that wet stuff? Ice cream?”
“Yup! We’re out for the moment—all the [Smiths] ate it. But we’re making more. Hey! You know you can come through, right? We can do like two people a day, but if you ask to go through, it’s free. It has been for ages.”
“Not in Pallass.”
One of the Dullahans folded her arms. Pallass’ citizens looked disgruntled. Liscor’s were still in a state of shock.
“I always wanted to visit all six Walled Cities. It was my dream.”
The old Drake murmured. Another Gnoll in his middle-ages shook his head.
“I didn’t. I always thought it was an exaggeration. When they told me stories about Pallass, I thought—their walls couldn’t really be that high. This is it?”
He looked down the grand staircase and blanched. The perspective of the door was unsettling. If you looked at it a certain way, it felt like you could fall down into the door and go flying into the heart of Pallass. Selys felt her stomach roiling at the thought. Erin looked exasperated.
“Well, why didn’t you ask to you through, sir? Or go earlier? You can travel.”
The old Drake looked at her as if she were mad.
“It’s not so easy to travel. I can’t just pack up my life like some [Wanderer]. I thought I’d never leave Liscor in my lifetime. It was my dream. This? This is too easy. And what would I do? Spend a fortune I don’t have on trinkets for my grandchildren? Pay for—for what?”
He waved a shaking claw at Pallass. Erin just shook her head. One of Pallass citizens laughed. A Garuda with a fiery red plume of feathers around her head that slowly shifted to orange raised her voice as she flew up a few feet, flapping her wings. The old Drake recoiled, staring.
“You needn’t spend money, sir! Pallass has any number of free places to visit. Our library, for instance! The Library of Pallass has tens of thousands of books! See?”
She pointed down at a lower floor. Liscor’s citizens craned their heads to see. Erin oohed—Selys stared down at the familiar building. She hadn’t been so blown away when she’d visited it, but then, she’d been with Pisces, and he was an expert at not seeming impressed by anything—she glanced over her shoulder. The Horns were at the back of the crowd, tiptoeing to see.
Pallass’ citizens agreed with the Garuda. More of them began calling out.
“By all means, visit! Even if you have only a few gold pieces, try the bazaar! First floor! Our markets on the first floor see hundreds of [Traders] and [Merchants] each day. We trade in countless thousands of goods.”
“Wow. Is that it?”
Erin pointed at a distant speck, far below. The crowd on Pallass’ side nodded.
“Or just ride a magical lift! Have any of you seen one?”
Agog, Liscor’s citizens shook their heads. The Garuda with the red feathers flew back and pointed a huge elevator out in the distance. Selys’ jaw dropped along with Krshia’s as she saw a small herd of cattle ascending at dizzying speeds thousands of feet away. One of the Drakes on Pallass’ side smirked in patriotic pride.
“Our main cargo lifts can carry goods across the city. That’s how we can have our forges on the ninth. And do you see the canals and water running up the sides of the walls? That would be our irrigation system. Note the water wheels? We’ve developed a system that can efficiently transport water up. We run a river through the entire city, from level to level. Anyone who wants drinking water can have it fresh.”
“You can make water run uphill? How? Magic?”
“Magic and engineering, sir. You see, it’s all about these water wheels one of our [Engineers] came up with. That, plus this system that allows us to convert magical energy into a pushing force that powers these gears—”
He launched into a technical explanation that Selys could only half-process. She was still staring. Then someone collided with her back and she nearly fell forwards.
“Whoops. Sorry. Can you move? I’m dying to see.”
An aggressive Gnoll pushed past Selys and stepped forwards. Too far—hands and claws pulled him back towards the semi-circle surrounding the magic door. Selys looked around. The crowd in Erin’s inn was hundred strong and growing by the second. She looked at Erin, who was beaming and nodding along with the explanation.
“Erin. Hey, Erin.”
The young woman looked up. She stepped back and Selys fought clear of the crowd. Panting, she joined up with Erin and looked back. Erin had moved her magical door to the side wall to allow as many people as possible to look through. But the inn was packed and Selys saw more people crowded by the door—and peeking through the windows! Erin looked miffed as she gazed at them.
“Oh, so now they want to check out Pallass. They didn’t all the other days it’s been here!”
“No one really took it seriously, I guess. I mean, walking through a door and going to Pallass? I didn’t know it was so huge. Even when I visited, we just took an elevator down. But this view—”
“Cool, isn’t it?”
Erin smiled. Selys gulped. That wasn’t her word for it. The sight was daunting. Terrifying. It made her feel insignificant. She had known Liscor all her life and thought of her home city as fairly big. But now—it would fit on one of the lower floors!
To distract herself, Selys pointed at the door as she looked at her friend.
“Erin, what’s all this? You said you’d help me with Krshia’s election! Is this part of your plan?”
Erin narrowed her eyes. She frowned at the crowd and shrugged.
“It’s a work in progress. We’re still waiting on two more parts, but it’ll do.”
“How? This isn’t helping us. I mean, it’s a distraction from Lism which is what we need, but what can Pallass offer us? That’s more of Lism’s campaign—they’re promising to help pay for the expansion instead of the Antinium.”
“I know, I know. But—trust me, I think it’ll work out. I just need to get some stuff from the kitchen.”
Erin grabbed Selys’ claws, smiling reassuringly. She turned as a harried young woman appeared.
“Lyonette! What’s the word?”
“Erin! How did you attract half of Liscor to the inn?”
The [Princess] looked delighted and close to baldness as she yanked at her hair. Behind her, Ishkr, Drassi, and a dozen of the inn’s staff were rushing in and out of the kitchen and behind the bar. Erin smiled.
“Don’t worry about it. No one’s hungry—yet. Just get that ice cream ready and have the ovens working, okay?”
“We need four more ovens and twenty more hands!”
Lyonette bit her lip. Erin just shrugged. Both Lyonette and Drassi eyed her and both had an incredible urge to poke the smiling [Innkeeper], if only to get rid of that relaxed grin.
“You have a plan.”
Selys folded her arms. Erin nodded seriously.
“I do. And—wait for it, Lyonette. You’ll get a chance to sell stuff. But wait. Are the Players of Celum here?”
She looked at the stage. Lyonette stood on her tiptoes, and then found a chair and stood on it to look over the crowd. Selys was the tallest of the three so she could see by craning her head that there was a bunch of very nervous [Actors] on the stage at the far end.
“They arrived this morning like you wanted, Erin. But I don’t think they’re ready to perform in front of a crowd like this.”
“They know Juliet and Romeo. If they can put on a play, it’s fine. I’ll talk to them. What I need from you, Lyonette, is one of our pizzas. Hot and fresh.”
“I have six in our two ovens baking—”
“The old ones are good. Can you warm one up? I’ll talk to Temile. That’s all I need. Selys, you just wait. I think I know what’s going down. Tell Krshia not to worry—I’ve got this on lock! I think.”
The Drake stared as Erin pushed through the crowd, who parted almost unconsciously for her. The [Receptionist] looked back at Lyonette. The [Princess] gave her a harried look.
“She says she knows what she’s doing.”
They stared at each other. Lyonette sighed.
“I’ve got healing potions and if we sold to just a tenth of the people here, we’d make a small fortune! Selys, if you see Mrsha, please make sure she stays back from the crowd. I don’t want her getting trampled. I warned her, but—”
Selys looked around and spotted a flash of white balancing on one table. Mrsha and Apista craned to see over the crowd. She pointed mutely and Lyonette frowned.
“I suppose that’s fine. Pallass, huh?”
She looked at Selys. The Drake nodded.
“It’s something. Compared to Liscor.”
The [Princess] gave her a look.
“Compared to anywhere. My home kin—my home isn’t as impressive in a lot of ways. A Walled City is impressive. I should visit. I took it for granted too, really.”
Selys looked back at the doorway. But not just the doorway. At the soaring Garuda, the Dullahans. Species she’d only heard of before, never seen in any numbers. And Grimalkin. Selys remembered his performance, and Maughin. Even Relc looked small beside Grimalkin as the [Mage] reclaimed the weight bar. And that bothered Selys more than she could say.
“I’ll get that pizza.”
Lyonette hurried off. Selys drifted back to the crowd. She looked to Krshia, thinking to reassure her, but the Gnoll was entranced by the conversation happening at the door. Pallass’ citizens were no less curious than Liscor’s, and now that a dialogue had been established, the questions were turning to Liscor as much as Pallass.
“So your city’s the furthest north. What do all of you do? I know your army fights abroad—we had them oh, three years back on contract for a nasty campaign against some Gnoll tribes who were raiding our trade routes. But what do the rest of you do?”
A Pallassian citizen dressed in casual velvet—which was a contradiction in terms—looked interestedly through the door. She looked and felt richer than anyone Selys knew. Saving herself, perhaps. A Drake volunteered the answer, patting at his somewhat stained jerkin.
“Well, there are a lot of regular crafts folk, [Farmers] in some of our villages, artisans—you know how it is. [Miners] too, since we do have some deposits. Come spring and the rains, we’re all [Fishers] of course. But I’m a [Hunter] by trade. I’d say there are at least a hundred or two of us in the city. There’s a lot of good game on the Floodplains.”
The rich Drake lady had a blank look on her face that said that she’d never picked up a bow, except of the ribbon variety. Some of Pallass’ Gnolls looked interested, as did some Garuda, though. A Pallassian Gnoll raised a paw and shouted to be heard.
“But I hear your city’s got lots of monsters about! How do you handle it? The area around Pallass is good for game and sport, but serious hunting?”
“Well, we do have Hollowstone Deceivers—”
“Rock Crabs? Big, scuttling monsters. But you can scare them off with a bit of luck, or outrun them in most cases. They’re not exactly stealthy. Sometimes I have to abandon a kill, but the real problem is Shield Spiders. We’re lousy with them—it’s actually our annual culling season for them. Prevents them from digging too many pit traps.”
Pallass’ citizens looked appalled. The Drake woman spoke slowly as she nervously fondled a velvet sleeve.
“Shield Spiders? You have actual monsters living that close to your city?”
“Well, not in it—”
There was a tentative laugh from both sides. Selys wanted to, but she felt a constricting feeling around her chest. The curious Pallass Gnoll folded his arms.
“Lots of spiders, huh? I wouldn’t mind coming through to Liscor. Bag a big one for my mantle, maybe. It’d be a unique…experience. Right?”
He looked around. Some of the people in the crowd nodded with grins. Liscor’s people looked mildly offended. The Drake [Hunter] coughed.
“There’s plenty to see. Not just our monsters. True, we don’t have uh, as much space as Pallass, but we have a few wonderful spots.”
“Well—we’ve got an indoor park. Terrific fun for the children. Enchanted of course by Wistram [Mages]. And we have public bathhouses—the best for a hundred miles! The Human cities like Esthelm and Wales don’t even have them. And we get [Merchants] from the north—”
“Really? We don’t see many Humans. A lot send goods by way of Zeres, but it’s generally Drakes or Gnolls who make the land route. And a public park? We just leave the city if we want to run around. There’s a lot of nice space to run.”
The Gnoll smiled. He gestured at the walls.
“It’s just a few minutes’ walk, tops. Our lifts are very efficient. As for bathhouses—well, Liscor might be the best in a hundred miles. You should come and try ours.”
“Thanks, but ours are fairly famous, you know?”
Another Drake chuckled in The Wandering Inn. The Gnoll on Pallass’ side just shook his head. He pointed down at a lower floor at a large, circular building.
“See that? That’s one of our bathhouses. We have five. Each one can hold thousands of people at any moment. We even have pools to swim in. Fed by our river.”
Pallass’ citizens nodded. On Liscor’s side, the Drakes and Gnolls fell uncomfortably silent. The Gnoll glanced over his shoulder.
“There’s the other one. They’re themed, you see. In the style of each continent? I personally like the Rhir architecture myself, and they’re all cheap—”
His pointing paw was blocked for a second by a flurry of movement in the air. Selys frowned. What was that?
“Are those birds?”
She pointed at a bunch of dark shapes, a flock or something, that had blocked the view for a second. The Gnoll glanced over his shoulder. The Drake in velvet laughed. She shook her head.
“Birds? No, no. Oldblood Drakes in training. We might not have Oteslia’s winged corps, but we do have hundreds of fliers in the city.”
Someone muttered behind Selys. Selys felt the same sentiment. But she refrained from saying it out loud. One look at the Drake lady’s face said too much. She smiled—politely—and stared back through the door at Liscor’s crowd.
“What else does your city have?”
And there it was again. That same wavering in the stomach and heart that Selys had felt looking upon Pallass’ forges the first time. Liscor’s citizens drew back a step, unconsciously. And no one spoke. Of course their city had lots of wonders. Tons! The—the dungeon for instance? True, that wasn’t exactly a plus. And it had lots to see. Wishdrink’s, for example. Great bar. Or how about Market Street? It was always bustling?
Or—or Stonesong Boulevard? That was where all the aspiring [Singers] or [Bards] were exiled. Liscor didn’t have many high-level musicians, but it was a good place if you wanted to hear some nice music and a few duds.
It had plenty, thanks. Only, it was hard to say that to Pallass’ expectant, almost—no, definitely patronizing—crowd. With their stupid five bathhouses. So what? Liscor wasn’t as big.
And that was it. That was the thing. Liscor wasn’t as big. And if you lined them up like this, with an open door so you could see their city and yours, it hurt. It might have hurt more if they were on Liscor’s cobblestone streets, wonderful, but—narrower. Humbler. Selys looked around desperately. Wouldn’t someone say something?
“Well, I’d like to visit. Just once or twice. I didn’t see the need, especially with that five gold entry fee. But maybe a visit or two? But later—I think your side should come through and have a look. Shame that you can only do, what, two per day? But come on over, by all means! It’s a wonderful thing, this door. For both cities.”
The Pallassian Gnoll looked around, to murmurs of agreement from Pallass’ crowd. Selys opened her mouth, but no words came out. She felt in her bones that she had to defend her home! But what could she say? What could she point to? The citizens of Liscor looked on as Pallass’ citizens started to drift away, looking so smug—
And then a cheerful voice rang out. A familiar scent caught Selys’ attention. Erin Solstice walked through the crowd, and they parted for her. The young woman beamed, stepped through the door, and lifted what was on a large serving platter.
“Hey! Anyone want a pizza?”
Pallass’ citizens turned. They blinked at the strange, round object that Erin was holding. A pizza. Selys recognized it at once. Just a pizza. She must have eaten at least ten already, so it was no surprise to her. Big, round crusts, warm, melted cheese and slices of salami—it looked good. Even if Selys wasn’t hungry. But for some reason, it stopped Pallass’ crowd in their tracks. The [Smiths] arguing over weights looked up. So did Grimalkin.
“Pizza? What’s that?”
Erin innocently raised it over her head, waving at Maughin and Bealt and the [Smiths].
“I thought I’d bring some out. As a thank-you. Come on over and have a slice! You don’t need a plate, but I do have napkins.”
The [Smiths] looked bemused, but some of them who knew what was what by now pushed forwards, including Bealt. Maughin had to edge forwards slowly so he wouldn’t crush any toes, but Relc wasn’t so restrained. He dropped the weight bar at once and punched a fist up in delight.
“Aw yeah, pizza! Grimalkin, buddy, get over here. You have to try this.”
He towed the [Mage] forwards. Erin offered the platter and Relc pulled off a gooey slice, crowing in satisfaction. He lifted it up and took a bite.
“So good! Erin, I love you. This is free, right?”
“Free for my friends! Don’t you dare take another slice! Grimalkin, want one?”
The [Mage] looked bemused as she watched Relc holding his slice on his scaled palm.
“You don’t use a plate? Ah—like Lizardfolk walking foods. I had something like this on Baleros, but they were skewers.”
“I’ve got a napkin if you don’t like greasy palms. Here.”
Erin expertly flipped a bit of cloth onto Grimalkin’s hand and offered him a slice. He took it, bit into it, and his eyes widened.
“Hm! Better than that sugary stuff! Fascinating. And quite good!”
“Right? Can I have another slice, Erin? Please? Please?”
“I’ve got one pizza! No! Maughin, here.”
Erin lifted her platter off, fending Relc’s claws back with her free hand. The Dullahan delicately took a slice with one huge hand and lifted it up. Erin lowered it and offered the pizza to Bealt and the other [Smiths]. Three [Smiths] and an apprentice snatched the last four slices. There was a moment as everyone watched the eight chewing and Selys felt a rumble in her stomach. Then Maughin smiled.
“Hot. Good food. Too much cheese for me, but its novel.”
“I like it.”
Bealt was wagging his tail hard. So was Relc, and the other [Smiths] all gave silent thumbs-up. The crowd, eying the wagging tails, looked at the empty platter. Someone—the supercilious Gnoll—coughed.
“You wouldn’t happen to have another one of those, would you, Miss? Where is that from? I’ve never heard of it. Some kind of local dish?”
“Nah. It’s just new. I mean, I haven’t seen anyone else selling it. And sure! I’ve got at least three more in the inn. Want to try them? Say, eight copper a slice?”
“One silver’s easier! One silver!”
Lyonette hissed at Erin as she rushed three more pizzas out of the kitchen. Liscor’s crowd watched, bemused, as Erin grabbed the pizzas and began doling them out on handkerchiefs.
Selys bit her tongue. One silver for a pizza slice? But Pallass’ citizens didn’t even object. They pulled out silver coins and practically tossed them at Erin, even fighting to get the pizza slices before they were consumed. And after the lucky twenty four had gotten their slices, a call went up for more.
“What is it? Good? I’ve never seen anything like it. And I was in Oteslia just last week!”
The velvet Drake lady complained as she watched the Gnoll devouring his. He was biting it cautiously. His brows shot up as he took a bite of the tip, then he peeled back the cheese on the rest of the pizza and studied it with a practiced eye.
“I detect a bread-like base. Clearly a tomato sauce. And…cheese on top? With those slices of salami of course. Not hard to replicate.”
He looked expertly at the crowd. Selys sensed at once that he was a [Cook] or [Chef] or [Baker] of some kind. He sniffed the pizza, took a huge bite, and swallowed. Then he looked at Erin.
“Miss? I’ll have another slice, if you don’t mind? To go?”
He had a cunning expression on his face. Erin turned to him and raised her eyebrows.
“Sorry. I’m out. We have six more on the way, people!”
Lyonette nodded rapidly from inside the inn. Pallass’ citizens looked discontented, but the Gnoll, his expression and fur around his mouth both oily, shook his head.
“No need. I can make some of these myself.”
The velvet female Drake looked intrigued. The Gnoll puffed himself up. He grinned, pointing at the remains of his pizza slice in his hand.
“Yes. And it’s hardly a hard recipe to follow. We could get this to our restaurants within an hour with some experimentation. Even improve it. Say—you Liscor folk.”
He pointed through the doorway. Erin put her hands on her hips, smiling with a glint in her eye, but the Gnoll didn’t notice. He pointed at the Drake [Hunter], and waved the slice of pizza at him.
“Sir, how would you like to have one of these ‘pizzas’ at a lower cost? With better ingredients? I’m sure we could shave at least a few coppers off the price. Imagine it, a new dish, served in my restaurant, the Wyvern Steakhouse—”
He was surprised by the chorus of laughter from Liscor’s side. Selys, grinned openly as the Gnoll blinked at them. The [Hunter] from Liscor shook his head, looking highly amused.
“I’m sorry sir. No discredit to your Skills, but even the most superior pizza wouldn’t tempt me. I had one just the other day, and it’s not new to us over here. We’ve been eating pizzas for months, Mister [Chef]. And we’ve had all different types. Fish pizzas, mushroom pizzas, Yellat pizzas…”
The elderly Drake nodded.
“They do a really nice all-meat pizza. Have you been to that Gnoll [Baker] down Cherile Walk? She makes this pizza with eight different cuts of meat—goat, Corusdeer, beef—all crispy and tender.”
A few of the others in Liscor’s crowd smacked their lips. The [Hunter] turned to the elderly Drake, intrigued.
“Really? I have to visit sometime. Myself, I enjoy a good soup, but I enjoy the novelty of this kind of food. It doesn’t sit as well in my stomach, mind—”
Pallass’ citizens just stared. Crestfallen, the Gnoll [Chef] looked around.
“This isn’t new? But we haven’t heard of it.”
“Probably because it came from Liscor. Or at least, this inn. Maybe Pallass just hasn’t gotten the latest recipes? Ice cream—Erin knew how to make that too.”
Selys called out, laughing with delight. The red-feathered Garuda exclaimed in excitement.
“That was what it was? But I heard it was from Terandria! It’s rare even in First Landing!”
“It’s okay. Too sugary for me. We’ve had it as long as the pizza.”
The [Hunter] waved a claw, looking at the others with an expression of deep pride. Selys saw the expressions go slack on Pallass’ side. Erin smiled and winked through the doorway.
“It’s not for everyone. But I have more! Lyonette! How’s our ice cream?”
“I’m selling a bowl at four silver!”
Selys and the crowd on Liscor’s side looked aghast. Pallass’ citizens stared at each other. Then they tried to rush the doorway. Erin had to hold them back, blocking the entrance and shouting as Lyonette exchanged money and bowls at the door. Ishkr, a long-suffering look on his face, held a bowl steady as Drassi scooped out the ice cream into bowls that Mrsha was holding up. And Selys felt that knot in her chest easing almost without her noticing it.
Then she saw Erin turn. Someone shouted, and the crowd’s press around the door broke up. A group of yellow-armored [Guards] fought through and formed a curtain around the door. Pallass’ City Watch. Selys stared as an angry Drake strode forwards, shouting the crowd back. He whirled, and Erin smiled.
“Hi Watch Captain Venim! How’s it going?”
The Drake took one look at Erin, the door, the crowd beyond, and closed his eyes. When he opened them, Erin was still there. He looked at her, half-furious, half with the resigned look that Zevara wore whenever she saw Erin. Still, it was only his fourth or fifth time, so he mustered some genuine outrage.
“Miss Solstice. What is the meaning of this? You’ve caused a blockage on the southern stairwell and my Watchman on duty claims you strong-armed him, absconded with two of our most prominent citizens—”
He broke off, eying Grimalkin and Maughin. The Dullahan winced, but Grimalkin just folded his arms.
“Absconded, Watch Captain Venim? What am I, a kidnapping victim? Master Maughin and I went through that door of our own free will. As we are allowed to do? And the last I checked, public gatherings aren’t considered a crime.”
Venim backed up a step. He worked his jaw, and then spoke civilly to Grimalkin.
“My apologies, Magus Grimalkin. However, this is a disturbance. What is—what’s going on?”
He only now seemed to realize exactly how many people were standing in Erin’s inn. Watching him. It was a mark of his experience that Venim only paused for a second before smoothly turning to Erin and pretending the crowd didn’t exist. Erin smiled a bit guiltily. She looked over Venim’s shoulder at the [Guardsmen], the fuming Kel, and shrugged.
“I’m sorry. I know I’m causing a fuss. But—I’m just having a fun conversation! Selling some food out of my inn.”
Venim passed a claw over his face.
“Selling food. You mean, like a street vendor? Miss Solstice, you need a permit, and you’re not allowed to sell outside of designated areas—”
“Nope! Out of my inn. Which is right there.”
For proof, Erin pointed. Venim turned and caught a few hundred pairs of eyes again. He wavered.
“Even so, it looks like—”
“I can move! If it’s illegal. Or is it just inconvenient?”
The young woman gave Watch Captain Venim another innocent stare. He wavered.
“And the crowd?”
He looked at Liscor’s citizens. Lyonette silently circulated their ranks, passing out bowls of popcorn and receiving copper coins in return. Erin beamed.
“They want to see what your awesome city looks like! Is that illegal?”
“No. Of course. I mean—it is a crowd. In Liscor. We have loitering laws, you know. But if it’s Liscor—”
The Drake Watch Captain was clearly struggling to keep up. He glanced over his shoulder and decided there was no help for it. He saluted smartly.
“Citizens of Liscor, a…pleasure. But Miss Solstice, this is blocking a major stairwell.”
He looked at Erin as a pleading note entered his voice. Erin was at once instantly reasonable.
“Is it? You’re right! I’m so sorry. We can move back to the old spot! Hey Grimalkin, Relc! Mind shifting the door a bit?”
The two Drakes looked up. Grimalkin shrugged and Relc grinned. The [Guardsmen] hesitated as the two burly Drakes walked at them. They looked at their Watch Captain, but Grimalkin just pushed aside a Dullahan in Pallass’ uniform and casually lifted a corner of the door. Venim bit his tongue as Relc cheerfully scooted past two Gnolls who didn’t quite want to bar his way.
“City Watch, we’ll give the door an escort. And—and maintain a presence to enforce the peace. Miss Solstice?”
Erin cheerfully nodded. She pointed and the two Drakes lifted the door with a grunt. Inside the inn, Selys experienced vertigo and a sense of movement as she watched the door proceed down the street—despite her not moving her feet. Elirr, standing next to Krshia, murmured.
“How odd. But fascinating! I would pay money to have someone walk this door around the city, yes?”
Someone else nodded.
On the other side of the door, Erin walked with Venim. And the crowd walked with the door. They were certainly not about to disperse when the fascinating doorway was leaving. Even Maughin was tromping after the door, holding the weights bar. Perhaps he smelled more opportunity for business in the air. Or perhaps, like Bealt and the other [Smiths], who’d doubled in number since Erin had last looked, they’d been caught.
All according to plan. Although—Erin looked around swiftly. She didn’t recognize the two faces she was really waiting for. Still, her plan was mostly going in the general direction she’d hoped for. And Venim was just a happy accident. She smiled at him and the Drake gave her a long-suffering look.
“What is this about, Miss Solstice?”
“I dunno. Just a bit of city-to-city sharing, Watch Captain. Say, can I offer you a bowl of ice cream? On the house? It’s that super-expensive stuff from Terandria, apparently.”
She proffered a melty bowl of ice cream. Venim opened his mouth and hesitated.
“Wh—ice—you know that bribing an officer is a cause for offense, Miss Solstice?”
“Who said anything about bribing? I just asked if you wanted ice cream. I’ll make you pay if you want. Four silver! No, wait, two silvers? Half-off for our boys in…yellow!”
Venim tried to object, but Erin thrust the bowl into his hands. He reluctantly took the wooden spoon, ate a bit of ice cream, and the rest was history. Erin watched the bowl disappear in moments—after an obligatory pause for brain freeze—and called into the inn.
“Lyonette! Ice cream or pizza for the [Guardsmen]! And two [Guardswomen]. Priority! And get me some hamburgers!”
She hadn’t missed the looks on the City Watch’s faces, especially the Gnolls. And as the [Princess] hurried back and the [Guards] dug at their pouches, Erin turned her head. She just had one more thing to do before Rufelt and Lasica arrived. She was interrupted from asking Venim if he liked the ice cream by the panting Gnoll [Chef]. He practically shoved Venim out of the way.
“Wait, what’s a hamburger?”
Lorent the [Sharpener] was honing the edge of a nearly-pristine knife with a whetting stone and eying his next potential customer on the somewhat empty street. He was trying to find someone whom he’d never seen before, and who looked like they needed a good knife.
Of course, everyone needed knives, but Lorent had to admit that his business had been slow today. Not that it was ever necessarily brisk; he was resigned to that. He got a lot of his money in repeat customers, really. Still, more business would be nice. With a sigh, the Dullahan put down his blade and adjusted his head in the comfy basket he’d set up.
And then he heard the crowd. They swept down the street like a carnival in progress, only Lorent had never seen a carnival and had no idea what it was. To him, the crowd was like a mob at first, and he was grabbing his wares urgently when he saw a familiar Human waving at him.
“Here he is! Stop the door! Lorent! It’s me!”
Erin Solstice, the young woman who he’d sharpened a particularly fine kitchen knife for just last week stopped in the street next to a…Lorent stared. He’d seen the magical door to Liscor, but the sight of a huge crowd and the inn’s floor hovering in the air, as two Drakes supported it made the Dullahan’s stomach turn. Slowly, he picked up his head and rubbed his eyes.
“That’s me! Hey! Hey everyone! Liscor especially! This is Lorent! He’s a cool dude. Lyonette, Selys, Krshia, I told you about him. Maughin, you know Lorent, right?”
Lorent blinked. He turned his head and saw Maughin walking behind the crowd. Maughin, who was practically the most important—Lorent was bowing his head hurriedly, flushing with embarrassment. How could he have missed the Dullahan, even in the crowd? Maughin nodded back, looking amused.
Lorent was speechless, but Erin was not. She turned and waved into the door filled with Drakes and Gnolls. A lot of them were seated near the door, munching on some food out of a bowl. The rest were standing and pointing, clearly enjoying the view.
“Lorent’s a [Sharpener]. Isn’t that’s so cool. This is what Pallass has. Libraries, bathhouses, [Sharpeners]. Amazing.”
Some of the people on Pallass’ side of the doorway sniggered. A Drake standing in the inn looked embarrassed. She called out, leaning down to address the young woman.
“We do have [Sharpeners], in Liscor, Erin. It’s not like we haven’t heard of them.”
“Oh. Well, Lorent’s the best. By far. Hey Lorent, do your thing! I told you I’d do something fun! Now’s your chance!”
Stunned, the Dullahan stared at her. But Lorent was too good at his job to miss an opportunity like this. He whipped out his best knife and his block of wood. He called out to the crowd.
“Lorent. Dullahan. You all need knives. Better knives than the ones you have in your city. You may think you have [Sharpeners], but can they do this?”
He raised the knife, tilted it so the edge was face-up, and dropped the wooden block on it. Lorent held his breath—this trick was risky even for his best work—but it worked. The knife split the block of wood in half as it fell. The crowd, Pallassian and Liscorian both gasped in surprise. And Lorent felt an inordinately pleased smile cross his face. He knew it was immodest to display that much emotion, but he couldn’t help it. And Erin’s beaming smile could have lit up Lorent’s shop for days.
“Anyone who wants a knife, grab ‘em and pass them through! Lorent, follow me! This door needs to go back, but you can move your shop, right?”
Lorent looked up. He took one look at the door, the Drakes and Gnolls eying his blade with the utmost appreciation, and sprinted back in his shop to grab his tools. He hurried out after Erin, part of her crowd. And it was still growing. And then one of the people Erin had been waiting for appeared. On Liscor’s side.
The crowd that surrounded Erin’s inn was beginning to shrink a bit. Not because of lack of interest, but rather because frustrated people who wanted to see and hear what was going on inside were squeezing into the inn, taking seats further up the common room rather than waste time standing outside. Perhaps that was why few of them reacted to the new group that appeared out of the Floodplains. Few exclaimed to see the band of Antinium, sixty workers and half as many Soldiers, tromping this way. True, it was an unnerving amount of Antinium to see in any one spot usually. But Liscor’s citizens had bigger things to attract their attention. And anyone who looked at the Antinium who lived in Liscor would know what they were about.
The Workers were armed with hammers, saws, nails, picks, buckets, shovels, and more tools. The Soldiers were carrying huge beams of lumber on their shoulders, or rocks. They proceeded up the hill, led by a pair of Workers. One of them paused when he saw the inn. The other, Belgrade, assumed it was normal and calmly turned to his Workers.
“The inn is currently occupied by a higher ratio of guests than normal. Begin earthworks. I will direct you to the building site in time. Eight Painted Soldiers, adopt a perimeter.”
The Workers and Soldiers spread out, placing their burdens on the ground. Eight Painted Soldiers broke off to watch for monsters as the rest grabbed digging instruments and tromped over to a smaller hill next to the one The Wandering Inn stood on. There was no hesitation, no milling about—they transitioned from walking to work in a heartbeat. Belgrade turned to Pawn.
“Perhaps we should confer with Miss Erin first?”
Pawn nodded slowly, eying the crowd around the inn.
“I think that would be wise. Lyonette did say today was the day. But maybe Erin is doing something. Let’s find out.”
The Antinium marched up to the door and saw it was blocked. The door was open, and filled with Gnolls and Drakes peering inside at…something. Pawn hesitated. Belgrade, with a [Tactician]’s quick thinking, raised his voice.
“Excuse me. We are here on business. Please make way. Excuse me. We are on the business of the Hive of the Free Antinium. Please make way—”
His call made those closest to the door turn. A Drake spotted the two Workers, jumped, and grabbed at his friend. A Gnoll looked around, saw Pawn and Belgrade, and laughed at his friend.
“Let them through. Hey! Move on! And now—quick! Follow them in! That’s our ticket!”
The duo enterprisingly pushed at the crowd ahead of them and were promptly rebuffed. But Pawn and Belgrade moved forwards and the Drakes and Gnolls, seeing them, moved aside. They didn’t quite want to stand next to a Worker, but Pawn didn’t see half as many looks of disgust or horror he sometimes recalled seeing. Still, the Antinium made progress where no one else could. Pawn stared around at the packed room, somewhat dizzy from all the body heat and voices.
“What is going on? What is—”
Belgrade grabbed his arm and pointed. Pawn saw a little Gnoll peering over one table, her tail wagging excitedly. Apista, perched on her head, took flight when Pawn and Belgrade approached and the Ashfire Bee, who had already been given her own bubble of space, further widened it as she flew around the Antinium.
“Hello Mrsha. We are looking for Lyonette. May we know where she is?”
Pawn greeted Mrsha. She peered at him, then pointed. Pawn saw a flash of red hair, and then, another familiar young woman. Erin. He pointed and Belgrade nodded. The two Antinium moved forwards again, towards Erin and Lyonette who stood at the magic door. They passed by the Horns of Hammerad, who were sitting at a table.
“Good morning, Ceria, Pisces, Yvlon. Ksmvr.”
Pawn stopped to greet them, and he barely stumbled on the last name. The Horns looked up. Yvlon waved. Ksmvr hesitantly nodded at Belgrade who paused, just looking at them. Ceria smiled.
“Hey Pawn. Some day, huh?”
“What is going on, Ceria?”
The half-Elf shrugged.
“Erin. She’s got the door open to Pallass and everyone’s coming to look. Something to do with the election? We’re just here in case something explodes with monsters or something amazing happens.”
“And to talk to that [Mage]. Grimalkin. You said he’s a big shot, didn’t you, Pisces?”
Yvlon looked pointedly at Pisces. The [Necromancer] sniffed and folded his arms.
“He is of some renown, but infamy is a closer descriptor for his level of fame. He might be an interesting personage to converse with—”
“I saw him throw a boulder twenty feet straight up. If he can teach you to cast that spell on me and Ksmvr, you’ll call him Sir Grimalkin and treat him like an Archmage.”
Yvlon jabbed a finger at Pisces. Ksmvr raised a hand.
“I will call him Sir Grimalkin for you, Comrade Pisces. However, it seems I am disliked by Grimalkin. If you would like, I will remove myself from this room, Captain Ceria, Yvlon.”
“No way. You’re part of the team, Ksmvr. And Pisces and I can play nice. Right, Pisces?”
Pawn heard a sigh as he and Belgrade proceeded. The crowd was especially thick around Erin and Lyonette, but the two Workers simply tapped people on the shoulder and waited for them to turn around. The sight of a Worker’s mandibles, even politely smiling—was enough to make most people step back hurriedly. It didn’t work on Krshia, but only because she was conferring with Elirr and Selys.
“I have no idea what Erin is up to, yes? This is welcome—Lism has barely anyone but his supporters to shout at in Liscor, but should I begin talking about the election now?”
Selys shook her head.
“Better not. It’s not the right mood and Erin’ll probably give you a signal. I have the you-know-what armor in my bag of holding and I’m not sure when I’ll show it to the [Smiths]. That Maughin guy? We just have to wait and see.”
Then she caught sight of Pawn and Belgrade. Selys paused, and then a smile came over her face. Elirr sniffed the air before he saw the Antinium. The [Beast Tamer] turned and grinned.
“I think I begin to see part of Miss Solstice’s plan, Krshia. Look.”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] turned around. Krshia paused. Then, silently, she pulled the Gnolls in front of her out of the way. Mystified, Pawn walked forwards. Belgrade just marched towards the door. Erin turned and saw them. She spread her arms, stepping around the door. Pawn stared, fascinated, through it. Was that Pallass on the other side? He’d never seen it. Erin walked in front of them and gave the two Workers a hug.
“Belgrade! Pawn! Just the Antinium I wanted to see!”
“Miss Erin. Miss Lyonette. We are here to begin construction on the inn and surrounding area as Revalantor Klbkch promised. However, the crowd around your inn will obstruct our building. We may even have to remove a substantial piece of the inn—the damage to the second floor is substantial, and the third floor likewise and we would like to remodel some key components of the structure—”
He got no further, because as he was turning and Erin stepped aside to let Lyonette come forwards and join the discussion, Pawn suddenly had an unobstructed view of Pallass and the crowd of people on the other side. And they had the same view of him. For a moment Pawn saw a bunch of curious faces, chatting, talking, sampling hamburgers, and for some reason, a Dullahan sharpening a bunch of knives on the ground—and then their faces all turned to horror.
“Antinium! Run for your lives!”
A Drake in a velvet dress recoiled and screamed. Half the crowd screamed with her. Several eyes rolled up in their heads and the Gnoll [Chef] fainted into Venim’s grasp. The rest of the crowd turned and tried to run. The Pallassian [Guardsmen] at the door whirled, spotted the Antinium, and grabbed their weapons. They formed a wall as Watch Captain Venim recoiled. But it was Erin who whirled, a gleam in her eye, and bellowed with her [Loud Voice] Skill.
The word had more force behind it than just volume. As one, the crowd halted in their tracks, shaking loose the almost primal fear that had gripped them. Erin clenched her fist.
“[Crowd Control]—Venim, don’t let them run! They’ll get hurt!”
The Watch Captain had the same thought. He turned and bellowed, thrusting an arm in front of Kel, who was about to make a run at Pawn and Belgrade through the door.
“Order! No one move! The situation is under control! Guardsmen, do not advance! Hold your ground!”
The panicked crowd stopped, held by both Venim and Erin’s Skills and authority. The Pallassian City Watch held their ground, staring at the two Workers and clutching their weapons with white-knuckled grips. The only people not frozen in this tableau were Maughin, who looked only mildly alarmed, Grimalkin, who looked mildly disgusted, and Lorent, who had looked up once warily and then went back to sharpening his knives.
And of course, everyone on Liscor’s side of the door. Bemused, Krshia, Selys, Elirr, and hundreds of Liscor’s citizens watched as Venim kept shouting for order. They stared at the Workers. Someone—the Gnoll [Hunter]—laughed nervously.
“It’s just two Workers. It’s not like it’s an army of Soldiers, right?”
Everyone in earshot nodded, including Selys. Her eyes flicked to Erin. The young woman was standing in front of Pawn and Belgrade, and only from behind could you see Erin’s hand was on her kitchen knife. But the smile she gave Venim as he rounded on her was saccharine.
“What is the meaning of—”
“They’re Workers, Venim. Antinium Workers. Pawn and Belgrade. They’ve come to work on my inn. Rebuild it after the Goblin Lord—no, those Human jerks—blew up the top of my inn. It’s completely legal. They’re in Liscor. They’re not trying to cross into Pallass. They’re just here. There’s no problem, except if Pallass’ citizens panic.”
Venim stared at Erin. His arm tensed—he was gripping his sword hilt.
“The Antinium have been under a non-aggression pact with the Walled Cities for ten years. However, their presence in any lands controlled by Pallass is an act of hostility—”
“Not Pallass. Liscor. You don’t like it? Close the door.”
Erin met Venim’s gaze, and hers was suddenly electric. She glared across four hundred miles and the look in her eyes was suddenly direct. Challenging. And scornful. The Drake’s jaw tightened. He put his hand on the door to do just that. He began to swing it closed, never looking away from Erin’s gaze. And to stop him, she spoke two words.
The door halted halfway. It opened and Venim’s eyes locked on Erin’s.
“What was that?”
Erin raised her hands, giving him a not-so-innocent roll of the eyes.
“Nothing. I just thought you were brave enough to look at a bunch of Antinium. They won’t cross through the door. But hey, if that’s too much for you, go ahead.”
If it were possible for Pallass’ City Watch to get even more hostile, they did. Venim’s claws tightened on the door’s edge. He clenched his teeth so hard that Erin could have sworn she heard a crack. He stared daggers at Pawn and Belgrade. Belgrade waved hesitantly. Venim glanced at Erin.
“If they so much as cross over the line—”
He was not prepared for the finger that came through the portal and grabbed the collar of his armor. Erin yanked and Venim stumbled forwards a step before he caught himself. She leaned forwards, glaring at him nose-to-nostrils.
“If they cross the line, it’s an accident. And if they do, you’d better think twice about stabbing them. Because until they do something wrong, they’re Liscor’s citizens. And if you stab them first, you’re breaking the law.”
She met Venim’s eyes, and then let go. He gaped at her as she pulled herself back. The crowd stared. The Drake to Venim’s left raised his spear.
“Assaulting a Watch Captain—”
“Shut up, Kel!”
Erin stepped back and folded her arms. She waited, daring Venim. But he didn’t take her up on it. He looked at the door, clearly regretting not slamming it, then whirled and marched back without another word. The [Guardsmen] looked at each other uncertainly. Erin glared.
They did not. Erin’s glare only went so far. But the scene had stemmed the flight of Pallass’ crowd. And they did come back, although this time it was to stare in disgust as Pawn and Belgrade moved backwards. Lyonette whispered to Pawn and Belgrade.
“Go do your construction. Don’t worry about this. We’ll handle it.”
Both Workers nodded. They pushed back through the crowd as a Dullahan spat on the ground in front of the door. She coldly lifted her head, making eye contact with everyone around her to prove just how offended she was. She pointed at the backs of the Workers.
“You let Antinium into your inn? This inn is foul. Disgusting. I regret eating any of the food there.”
One of the Drakes looked close to being sick. He gagged. On the other side of the door, Liscor’s citizens looked bemused. Even insulted. A Gnoll growled, shaking his head.
“Why are you panicking? There were two of them. There are hundreds of you. And us! They’re not even the scary Antinium, you know? Workers. And besides, the Free Antinium, they’re part of our city. You do know that, right?”
He peered at another Gnoll standing in the crowd. She sniffed the air and recoiled. She growled back.
“Well, of course we know that. It’s history, no? But—Ancestors, I’ve never seen one before.” She shuddered. The Drake lady wearing velvet nodded.
She held out a claw to demonstrate. Selys snorted at the slight tremor in her hands. She wasn’t alone. That needled the Pallassian Drake. She narrowed her eyes at Selys.
“How can you live with those things in your city? Are you all insane?”
That stung. The [Receptionist] lifted her head and retorted angrily.
“Just like you live with Gnolls—or Garuda or Dullahans! They’re not a threat!”
Her words provoked a ripple of incredulity, and outrage from the Garuda and Dullahans in the crowd. Someone actually shook a fist at Selys. The Gnoll [Chef], who’d been revived, got to his feet, shaking his head.
“Just as mad as I heard. Liscor. Really? Even those Drowned People that visit Zeres have to be better than Antinium. By far.”
“Madness. They’re touched in the head!”
Someone else agreed. Selys gasped. She looked around and saw Krshia had gone stiff. Elirr frowned, his normally-kind face turning dark. And they weren’t the only ones. Every Drake around Selys stiffened. And the Gnolls bared their teeth. And as one Liscor’s citizens they felt the same thing.
Outrage. A Drake with a scar on his chin leaned forwards, putting his head through the door to snap back.
“We’re mad? Says the lot who can’t tell a Worker apart from a Soldier and run screaming at the sight of two!”
“Who needs to tell them apart? Who would let them into a city? Or walk down the same street as one?”
“Anyone who has a Hive in theirs, that’s who! They don’t just attack people out of the blue! They’re our Antinium. And I’ll have you know that we haven’t had any incidents with ours in years. The last Aberration that appeared—”
“Aberration? Dead gods. What do they even do? Collect refuse? Dig?”
Selys snapped back. The Pallassians scoffed—Selys wanted to curse at them. She saw Belgrade moving back around the side of the crowd, and Lyonette hurrying over. The Worker bobbed his head deferentially.
“Excuse me, Miss Lyonette. We need to take down this wall to finish repairs on the side of the inn.”
“What? Really? Uh—”
Erin shouted over the heads of the crowd. Belgrade nodded. He turned his head and signaled with three of his four arms—and the far wall came down. Two dozen Antinium Workers pulled the wall out as Soldiers positioned pillars of wood and scaffolding under the ceiling, which creaked but didn’t fall in. The move was so sudden that even Liscor’s citizens recoiled.
Belgrade walked past the crowd as they drew back from the sudden opening. Selys blinked into the sunlight now shining into the building. Even Erin’s jaw dropped. But the Antinium didn’t hesitate. They took apart the far wall as if there was nothing to it. And of course—they’d built it. But it was incredible to see them just bring it down. But more Workers were already rushing forwards. Belgrade stood in front of the new construction area and raised his voice.
“Excuse me. Stand back, please. We are going to begin construction in this area. Anyone in this area may suffer the risk of death. Thank you.”
After one second to digest that, the Gnolls and Drakes on the perimeter moved back. Selys saw some of the people outside watching the Antinium work, or peering inside to finally get a glimpse of Pallass. And around the wall and inn, the Antinium began reconstructing the inn.
Temporary support beams were already in place, and the Antinium were swarming on the second and third floors. One of them was pulling up floorboards to get to a damaged beam with a few cracks in it, while another was already messing with the stone foundations of the inn below. And more—they were digging up earth in a huge flurry, Workers and Soldiers, and behind them, Antinium were laying stones down, creating a larger foundation.
Selys stared along with Krshia and Elirr. It was all so efficient. The Antinium had no concept of personal space, or the need to coordinate. They had Workers replacing floorboards, refitting a cracked windowpane, while below them their comrades began replacing parts of the ceiling of the common room, replacing a support beam.
And only when they needed to do the swap did the Antinium on the second floor disappear—and then only for a second while Soldiers held up the roof with temporary supports and their own strength and the Workers replaced the crucial pillar of the inn in a moment.
“It is just reconstruction of the existing inn template for now. We are performing foundational work, but the expansions you requested will not come until later. Revalantor Klbkch also mentioned the issue of payment in installations.”
Belgrade calmly informed Lyonette. She nodded, staring as a Worker emerged from a hole in the ground and another piled in with a crude cement and more stones. Selys saw the Antinium abandon the replaced support pillar and jumped.
“Ancestors. Are they building the wall back right there?”
Every head turned. The wall was going up piece by piece within seconds. The Antinium, having completed their work, were putting it back just as fast as it had gone down. Selys turned her head to stare through the door when she heard someone mutter an oath. The Gnoll [Chef] was staring in awe and fear at all the black and brown bodies.
“They can build that fast?”
The Liscorian [Hunter] snorted. He pointed at a Worker with a hammer striking nails into the wood with two or three strokes at most. Copper—Selys noted that with a frown.
“Of course. They’re our Antinium. Fastest builders in the world. I’ve seen them put a house up in the time it took me to have my lunch break. We have this plan you know, to expand Liscor. With Antinium Workers we could have a new section of the city done before next spring, and cheaply too!”
“What? You do?”
Selys jumped. She looked around and saw Krshia’s head turn fast enough to crick. The Drake nodded. A Gnoll by his side tapped him on the shoulder uncertainly. She coughed, and then growled, looking at the Antinium.
“That’s not all set in stone. If Lism wins, he’ll have us build the city ourselves. Jobs for everyone. And there’s what he’s said about the dangers of the Hive—”
The [Hunter] rolled his eyes. He pointed impatiently back at the wall, which was nearly completely whole again.
“Come on now. How many high-level [Builders] did we ever have in the city? How many does Pallass have? The Antinium are like thousands of Level 20 [Builders] who work for copper where most Drakes would charge silver. Look at that!”
The last part of the wall went into place and the Antinium Workers calmly walked out the door while more headed upstairs with boards of wood. A few people whistled—the Gnoll looked uncertain. Someone else in front of Selys leaned over and conferred to the Drake next to her.
“Makes you think, doesn’t it? But hey—I can tell this was planned. It doesn’t mean that Lism isn’t right—”
“Yeah, but look at them. You think we could get a crew of Gnolls and Drakes to build a bunch of houses that fast? The lazy slugs I work with? Not a chance. And I mean, they’ve been here in the city for ten years, right? When have they done anything, aside from the odd Aberration?”
“I’m just saying, I don’t trust the Grand Queen. They’re our Antinium, but—”
Heads turned back to Pallass. The velvet Drake was shaking her head.
“Appalling. Just appalling. Imagine living in a building built by one of them? I need to have a lie down.”
That was it. Selys opened her mouth to snap and someone beat her to it. The Drake with the chin scar.
“Aw, eat your tail. They’re better than any [Builders] you have, I’ll bet! And our Antinium work fast and cheap!”
Liscor’s citizens shouted agreement and insults through the door. Pallass’ people just looked incredulous, but Selys wasn’t the only one to proudly look over her shoulder at the Antinium. For the first time in her life, perhaps. But if there was any time to be proud, it was now. They might be Antinium. But they were Liscor’s Antinium, damn it!
Selys felt vindicated just watching the stunned looks on the faces of the Pallassians as three Soldiers carried a replacement support beam in and inserted it into place in less than a minute.
“Mad. Don’t keep talking to them, Miss Volpel, just leave them.”
The Gnoll [Chef] was urging those around him back. Already, the edges of the crowd were marching away, tails stiff with disgust. Selys welcomed that, but again, Erin slid in to the conversation from the side. She waved, smiling in that fake-innocent look she’d been putting on since this morning.
“See you! Come visit the inn if you want to! Don’t be strangers! Hey! Lorent! Why don’t you come into the inn to work on those knives? You can talk to your clients. And Maughin, Grimalkin, Relc, and Bealt! Get over here! I want you to watch one of our plays!”
Four heads turned in the crowd, against the flow of bodies away. And like stones in the way of a river, they halted the flow of traffic. Especially Maughin. He looked uncertainly at Erin. She waved at him.
“Come on! Hey, have you ever seen a play?”
The Dullahan [Armorer] frowned. Erin winked at Relc. The [Guardsman] was pulling Grimalkin forwards.
“No, a play. By the Players of Celum! Temile! You’re up! Go for it!”
Erin turned her head. And on stage, the Players of Celum, who had watched the drama while waiting for their own, sprang into action. It was Temile himself, dressed as Benvolio, who strutted out from behind the curtain and delivered the opening lines of an iconic play. One Selys had seen three times, incidentally. She could have recited the words by heart.
“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean!”
Perhaps it was nerves, or perhaps it was Temile’s own burgeoning sense as an [Actor] that made him bellow the lines. But it worked. The crowd in Pallass looked back. You could hear the Shakespearian verse, the iambic pentameter in the air. You could practically see it. Maughin stepped forwards, frowning.
“What was that?”
“From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Do with their death bury their parents’ strife!”
Temile shouted the second sentence, face somehow conspiring to be both red and white as the Dullahan stared at him. He delivered the rest of the prologue and turned, walked straight off the stage, and then a very nervous Sampson and Gregory, both Drakes, entered from stage left. Erin just smiled up at Maughin.
“It’s a play. A story told on the stage with [Actors]. Haven’t you seen something like it?”
“On Baleros. We have something similar. Among Dullahans. But I’ve never seen anything like it in a Drake city. What did he say? The language is—”
Maughin wavered at the entrance. Grimalkin had already gone through. Grimacing, the [Mage] put a hand on the door and grunted—Relc clambered through along with Bealt. Behind Maughin, all of the Dullahans paused and turned their heads back to look. The Drake lady paused.
“What? What about the language? And what did that Human shout?”
“He’s blocking the view. What is he looking at?”
Curiosity killed the cat. Or Drakes. And perhaps just Pallassians in general. They were residents of the City of Invention after all; if they didn’t love new and interesting things, they’d be Salazsar’s folk. A Drake woman called out loudly, waving a claw around Maughin’s armored body.
“Oh, that. Just a play. We have them all the time in the inn. My nephew’s one of the [Actors] you know. He’s playing Mercutio. But I’ve seen Juliet and Romeo about a dozen times now.”
“Playing? [Actors]? Wait, explain this.”
Erin teased Maughin. The Dullahan hesitated. He looked over at the crowd, who seemed to be wavering between staying or leaving as well. Erin pursed her lips, eyed them, and then grinned.
“It’s a great play. Promise. Oh. And Selys has the Heartflame Breastplate. You wanted to see it, right?”
Maughin froze. He stared down at Erin. She smiled at him, then glanced over her shoulder.
The Drake jumped. She’d nearly forgotten her role! But now was the time, and what a time for it! Selys reached into her bag of holding, felt the warm metal, pulled it out, and there it was. The glow prompted a gasp from the people around her.
Maughin’s head fell off his shoulders. He caught it before it hit the ground, gaping. Erin laughed.
“Don’t be surprised! I told you that you could see it! And I didn’t lie! Selys owns it. And if you want to see it—the Heartflame Breastplate—come on through!”
Her voice was perfectly pitched to be heard all down Pallass’ streets. And if there was any line to pull them back, it was that. The Pallassians—Drakes especially—flooded back around the door in a moment.
“Did she say—”
“Who’s that Drake? Does she know General Shivertail somehow? How would she have—”
“The Heartflame Breastplate.”
Someone pointed. Selys heard a gasp from the other side, and then a susurration. She held it up, her arms trembling with the weight of it. Maughin looked from side to size. Pallass’s City Watch still had their weapons ready. They gazed in awe at the armor, and then uncertainly at Maughin. The Dullahan bit his lip, but decided himself in an instant.
“Excuse me. I’m going through. I believe I was invited.”
He stepped through the doorway. Kel, the angry [Guardsman], half-tried to stop him, but no force on earth could have halted Maughin. And indeed, the glow of the legendary armor as Selys put it on a table was hypnotizing. Almost as much as the words rolling off the stage as the Players of Celum shouted their lines, vying for attention.
And Erin? She looked from Maughin, reverentially approaching the armor with his head under his arm, to the Pallassians, their objection about the Antinium forgotten for a second, and then to the people in the inn. She raised a hand and pointed.
“Hey! Can we move the door so they can see the play? If they want to, of course. Ishkr! Get some popcorn for the people of Pallass. Anyone who wants food? We’ve got food! We’ll put some chairs here so we can chat between Liscor and Pallass. And then—”
Relc bellowed at Erin. She winced. He was sitting at the front with Grimalkin, pointing at the [Actors]. She lowered her voice and stage-whispered to Pallass.
“Well? Anyone leaving or staying? Did I mention we have blue fruit juice? And I could make a milkshake!”
And she had them cold. The Drakes stared at the armor of their people. The Gnolls sniffed the air hungrily and eyed the stage. The Dullahans looked to Maughin and the armor. The Garuda looked at the blue fruit drinks. The residents of Pallass looked at the Antinium workers. At the stage. At Maughin, and the brilliant, flame-gold armor that was the center of attention from Liscor’s own crowd. Then the Gnoll [Chef] raised a tentative paw. He gulped as every eye turned towards him, but met Erin’s gaze. He grinned weakly.
“Can I come through?”
Half an hour had passed since someone got word to Rufelt that the young woman, the Human [Innkeeper] from Liscor was up to something. He didn’t get much from the Street Runner who’d been paid in silver to relay the gossip. Only that Erin had gone to Liscor with Maughin and Grimalkin, then returned, and she was causing a fuss.
Even with that heads up, it still took twenty minutes for Rufelt to grab his wife from her shopping the bazaar on the first floor and make the trip up to the eighth floor and the magic door. They took the elevators of course and Rufelt, mindful of what might be going on, urged Lasica into a run. But even then, the panting [Chef] and [Barkeep] duo were still far, far too late.
Or just in time. Because the furor around the door to Liscor hadn’t died down. If anything, it had grown larger. So large that it took five minutes just for the married couple to push into the crowd and see what was going on. And then? They stopped and listened awhile.
On a stage, a Gnoll dressed as Romeo stood with a Gnollish Mercutio. In the background, a fabled piece of armor was being inspected by a Dullahan who held it as carefully as a wounded dove. Gnolls and Drakes circulated the tables with food, all unknown even to Lasica. And some stopped by the door, exchanging it for coin with the audience. In the background, black-bodied Antinium occasionally trooped up and down the stairs, with tools in hand, or paused to stare at the play.
And in the center of it—Rufelt’s eyes found Erin Solstice at once. He could feel her, in an eddy of attention and emotion. She had caused this. He pointed her out to his wife. Lasica leaned on Rufelt’s shoulder, wondering.
“Is this really the same young woman we met, Rufelt?”
“She looks the same, dear. But she did this. I’ll bet my teeth on it.”
“By herself? No—look at that armor. Maughin, Grimalkin—I can see how, but even then—could you do this?”
“If I had to. But I would have to try hard. Look. She even has Watch Captain Venim eating at one table.”
Lasica shook her head as she saw Venim sitting at a table. He looked equal parts annoyed and confused, but he was there. Rufelt met his wife’s gaze. They both started for the door, but a spear blocked their path.
“No entry to the inn. The door’s nearly out of magic.”
A tired voice and surly Drake confronted them. Rufelt eyed Guardsman Kel, and instantly felt someone push at his back.
He turned, annoyed. A shorter Drake glared up at him.
“Hey yourself! Move! We’re trying to watch the play!”
The crowd voiced their annoyed agreement. Rufelt hesitated. He saw Erin’s head turn, and the young woman locked eyes with him. Her face lit up.
“Rufelt! Lasica! Just the last two people I need for my pl—er, my best friends! Come on through! Kel, they’re with me.”
“What? You can’t just—”
“Can and do! My door! My guests! Sorry folks, they’re VIP’s.”
“What’s? Can you eat that?”
“Let me through! I’ll pay! I’ll—”
Rufelt took Erin’s hand and stepped through the door. Lasica followed and the door suddenly went dark behind them. Erin sighed. There was a murmur of protest from the seats around her. Rufelt saw a group of Drakes and Gnolls were sitting with drinks and foods, staring through the doorway with as much intensity as the Pallassian citizens had been. Erin waved a hand in apology.
“Sorry, folks. We’ll get a [Mage] to fix it! Rufelt, Lasica, this way—hey Grimalkin?”
“I have it.”
The [Sinew Magus] pushed himself up from a table and walked over. He slapped the door tiredly and it flickered back to life. Grimalkin winced. He rubbed at his back, looking uncharacteristically tired. Rufelt just blinked at him. He knew Grimalkin of course, but what was he doing here? Erin’s smile of gratitude was accompanied by a slap on the back.
“Thank you! Sorry about asking for it so much.”
“This is for the weights. I’m not doing this twice. I have my limits, you know. You still need to show me these barbells.”
Grimalkin sighed. Erin nodded rapidly as he went back to sit down next to Relc. Rufelt turned around and saw a bunch of Pallass’ citizens arguing with Kel on the other side. Watch Captain Venim got up from his table.
“Everything alright, Guardsman Kel?”
“Can’t you get someone to add more magic to this door, Watch Captain?”
A Garuda demanded as she flapped up from the crowd. She pointed at the door as the crowd voiced their agreement.
“You’re a Watch Captain. Aren’t we allowed free passage into that city? We have hundreds of [Mages] in the army and City Watch! Call some over here! It’s a public service!”
“The door is extremely mana-intensive—”
“Well, we’re missing the play! And food! Miss Innkeeper! Why haven’t we been allowed to use the door before now?”
She glared at Erin, snapping her beak. Erin shrugged.
“Hey, you know, it’s not my fault. I was totally for people coming through. But no one wanted to, from Liscor or Pallass. Weird. And I had no idea you had to pay fifty gold or something to go through. But that’s what your Assembly of Crafts came up with, right?”
Erin winked at Rufelt. He blinked, amazed. Lasica was still just looking around. Erin led them away from the door and towards the kitchen, which had a steady stream of people coming in and out. She turned to them, her expression radiant.
“I’m so glad you guys made it! I was thinking you wouldn’t notice!”
“It’s fairly hard to miss when a Human spirits away our best [Blacksmith]. This is fairly incredible, Erin. But what’s this all about?”
“Oh, just helping out a few friends. Hey Lasica! Welcome to my inn! First time, huh? Like it? The Antinium just rebuilt part of it. Sit down, sit down! Anything you want’s on the house, for all the times you invited me to your inn!”
Lasica opened her mouth. She leaned back as Erin waved and a Gnoll scooted over with two bowls of…white, solidified cream? Rufelt took it and bit into it. His eyes went wide. Lasica took her bowl, put it down, and then looked at Erin.
“I take it back. You’re no magical innkeeper. You’re an expert on crowds. I feel silly treating you like an amateur. This is incredible.”
“Aw, Lasica! It’s good to see you too.”
Erin reached out to hug the [Chef]. Lasica blocked her with a claw. She looked at the bowl.
“And what is this?”
“Ice cream. Told you I could make it.”
Erin proudly puffed out her chest. Rufelt nearly choked on the sweets. Lasica just blinked.
“You made the dish from Terandria that we couldn’t get the recipe for? Just like that.”
“I told you I could.”
“And I didn’t believe you. Ancestors. Alright.”
Lasica blinked at the bowl, eyed the melted bit of ice cream at the bottom, then stuck a spoon into her mouth. She didn’t immediately scarf the sweet food down like Rufelt—he loved it and was trying not to lick his bowl clean. Lasica’s brows shot up with the clinical detachment of a food connoisseur.
“Geh. You Humans really do like sugar in everything. But it’s good. Yes. Hard to pair with most dishes, though. Definitely a desert. Rufelt?”
“I can put this with a drink. Or maybe in a drink.”
The Gnoll eyed Lasica’s bowl. Silently, she passed it over. He savored the next spoonful, but then grew thoughtful.
“It would make a fantastic mix-drink. With something spicy? No…something with some impact to counteract the powerful sweet and milk flavor. This is a milk product, right?”
“You two are so smart! And yeah! This would be a perfect root beer float! …Please tell me you have root beer.”
Erin beamed at Rufelt and Lasica. They caught themselves, looking at her. Rufelt let out a breath he felt like he’d been holding since he saw the inn through the door; Lasica blinked around and rubbed her eyes. Then they started over.
“Erin, this is simply incredible. Confusing, but incredible. You have to explain what happened. In order?”
“Well, I just decided I needed to help out my friend. So I thought—hey! If I grab Maughin and bring him to Liscor, something’s going to happen. I actually planned for you and Rufelt, but everything else is just me winging it.”
“Doing what exactly? And how can we help? You seem to have stirred up a huge amount of guests for your inn by yourself. Is that your bar? Mind if I have a look later?”
The Gnoll leaned over the table. Erin matched his grin.
“Be my guest! And I have some blue fruit juice I want you to take a look at! Lasica, you need to try my pizza, hamburger, uh, french fries…it’s not gourmet stuff like your cooking, but it’s good!”
“And you pulled in all these people with those plays you mentioned. And the Heartflame Breastplate. ”
Lasica looked at the radiant piece of armor that Maughin was still poring over with a crowd of [Smiths]. The young woman shrugged.
“I don’t do subtlety. I tossed everything I had—okay, nearly everything. Hey Lasica, want to try it on after Maughin looks at it?”
The [Chef] had been trying very hard not to be swept away. But this time her jaw dropped. Erin twinkled with delight. Rufelt looked at her, leaning back in his chair and got the definite impression this was payback for his first whirlwind tour of Pallass with her. He nudged Lasica.
“I’m sure she’d be delighted. But Erin, why is this happening? Don’t tell me this was a lark. I can feel your intention in this inn. From [Barkeeper] to [Innkeeper], what’s our place in this?”
He met Erin’s gaze over the tabletop. She paused. And then jerked her head.
“This way. I want you to listen to this.”
She led the Drake and Gnoll from their table at the back to the bar. It was overflowing with people along with the rest of the common room, but the crowd around the bar wasn’t one of the groups watching the play, the armor, or the door to Pallass. This group seemed intent on a cluster of Gnolls in the center. One of them, a female with a striking jawline, gave Rufelt the definite impression of command.
Joy. A Tribal Gnoll. Female too. Probably a local pack leader. Rufelt controlled his grimace and nudged Lasica, pointing out the speaking Gnoll. Lasica picked up on some of Rufelt’s unspoken commentary and turned her head to listen to the Gnoll as Erin led them through the crowd. The Gnoll’s voice reached them, half-shouting just to be heard over the background noise and the play.
“This is proof, yes? Proof that what Liscor has to offer is our bond with the Antinium! Do you really think anyone but them could build part of the city as quickly as we need it?”
“I hear you, Krshia, but I’m still not sure on the safety of the city. It seems like we’re making a lot of concessions to the Antinium we don’t need to. I admit, the sight of those Workers doing their job so well gave me something to think about. But don’t you feel bought and sold?”
A Drake was debating with Krshia at the bar. The Gnoll turned to him and Elirr jumped in, smooth as could be.
“Bought and sold, Mister Deik? How do you mean? The Antinium want something and we could use their gold. This is an exchange if anything. A transaction. And like any transaction, there is room to negotiate. What bothers you the most? Just the fact that the Antinium would get something for defending our city? Are we really exposing our city to that much danger by allowing a few guests in? Expanding the Hive? Allowing Painted Soldiers to serve on the Watch?”
“Huh. Well, I think expanding the Hive is my biggest problem—”
“If we curtailed their expansion to a few hundred feet, would that do? What’s the problem? The Antinium are willing to offer more for less. It’s good faith. Or is this just Lism’s paranoia we’re all believing here? What will satisfy? Or is it just fear that holds us back?”
Krshia looked around. The crowd murmured thoughtfully. There were just as many Drakes as Gnolls, but Rufelt, picking up on the dynamic, thought that the Gnolls were mainly on Krshia’s side. He saw her look up and bare her teeth at Erin as the young woman approached. Then she looked at him, sniffed, and lowered her head in an authoritative nod.
Definitely a Tribal Gnoll. Rufelt tried not to let that color his judgment. He waited as Erin introduced them.
“Krshia, these are two great people you have to meet. Rufelt and Lasica. They will want to hear what you’re saying.”
“Really? Oh, and pleased to meet you.”
Lasica raised her eyebrow at Erin as she held out a claw to shake. Krshia politely shook hers and then Rufelt’s.
“A pleasure. But these two are from Pallass unless my nose betrays me, Erin. What can I offer them?”
All three looked at Erin, perplexed. The [Innkeeper] shook her head as if were obvious.
“You’re all in the same boat, of course! Don’t you see? I figured it out when I was thinking of how to help you, Krshia. Think about it. Well, actually, I’ll explain. Lasica and Rufelt here are part of the uh, Unitail group. You know how Pallass has elections? They want to vote out the Protectorate and make Pallass more open and friendly.”
“Not necessarily friendly. But more open. We disagreed with how they handled the Siege of Liscor and they don’t support free trade. As businesspeople, we object to that.”
Lasica quickly clarified. Krshia nodded.
“I’m a [Shopkeeper] myself. I value goods sent Pallass’ way. But you two aren’t [Senators], are you?”
That made Rufelt and Lasica grin. He shook his head.
“Call us the people who back [Senators]. They get our support and we get them to vote the way we want. That’s how a democracy works.”
“And guess what Liscor’s going to have soon? An election for the Council.”
That threw Rufelt. He blinked at Erin, and then his gaze narrowed.
“I suggested the elections, yes. And if I win, which is not so likely, I might be the first Gnoll on Liscor’s Council.”
Krshia bared her teeth. Lasica’s eyes widened. She looked from Rufelt to Krshia, and then to Erin. Then she snapped her claws.
“The first Gnoll? Democracy in Liscor? Why haven’t we heard of this?”
“Probably because news is just spreading today. You’d hear of it later. But Krshia’s been having a hard time because the Antinium are backing her and there’s this jerk who’s running against her. He’s a Drake.”
“Lism. If it weren’t for Olesm joining him, he would have no platform. And his arguments make sense, yet they play on fear! And we’re tied to the Antinium now. He stole my platform, my ideas—I have a plan to make the city expand! And that tailless—”
Krshia uttered the word like a curse. Erin hurried to speak over her before the Gnoll could begin a rant.
“Sure, sure. And Lism totally loves Humans, Dullahans, and Garuda. And Pallass. Liscor should build itself and all that! You know what? He’s probably like the Protectorate, isn’t he? He went to Pallass to ask for funds to build Liscor. So you’re paying for it.”
She eyed the owners of Tails and Scales meaningfully. Lasica folded her arms.
“I didn’t hear about that. Liscor’s getting our tax money? When the Antinium would give the money instead? That’s not going to be popular when word gets out. And oh, it will get out. Believe me. Tonight it’ll be shouted from the rooftops.”
She gave Rufelt a significant glance. He felt a huge smile spreading from ear to ear. Erin was nodding.
“But that’s not all. Since Pallass is having an election, and Liscor is too—I was thinking, why not bring up that Pallass is backing the non-Gnoll candidate? I’m sure that’ll go over really well. Especially with that jerk [Senator].”
“Errif Jealwind? That would bother his voters.”
Lasica drummed her claws on the table, thinking fast. Rufelt meanwhile was catching onto more of what Erin wanted. He eyed Krshia.
“And what if the Unitail faction were to propose a trade deal with Liscor? Closer ties? With, say, the provision that Krshia Silverfang were on Liscor’s Council? Is that what you want, Erin?”
“Maybe…look, I’m just an innocent [Innkeeper]. I don’t know about politics. But it just occurs to me that Krshia might get a lot of support from Gnolls in Pallass. And Pallass might benefit from allies in Liscor.”
“From liking Liscor, you mean. And Liscor would certainly value its Humans and Antinium if they see how valuable our one Human is, yes? With pizza, ice cream, plays, and so forth.”
Krshia folded her arms. She looked at Erin and shook her head.
“This was your plan? It is cunning beyond belief.”
“Hey! I just thought it’d be nice to open up Pallass. Impress them with Liscor. And I knew Maughin was cool. I met Grimalkin…I forgot Belgrade was going to upgrade the inn, and I knew Lorent…our cities should like each other, right?”
Erin spread her hands. Then she looked around.
“It’s like playing two chess boards at once. Except I’m taking pieces off one side to use on the other. Simple, right?”
She waggled her eyebrows. Rufelt looked at Krshia. The Gnoll gave him a slight shake of the head. Lasica just laughed. She glanced at her husband and they shared an unspoken question. Rufelt broke the gaze by nodding slightly. Lasica stood up.
“I’m for it. Krshia, let’s have a talk. Tell me exactly about this plan and I’ll tell you about the Unitail [Senators] we know. Maybe we can have you visit Pallass tonight? Or send a few [Messages] at least. I need to know about your campaign—ah, Ancestors—how are you managing this election? I’m no expert, but I know experts. We’ve been doing this in Pallass forever.”
“I’ll help over here. Listen—sway a few minds.”
Rufelt got to his feet. He looked at the crowd as Lasica stepped to a free table with Krshia, and slid behind the bar in a moment. He checked the alcohol, found a glass—Erin had a very small variety of liquor. None of it particularly good!
He made a note to have a word with her about her selection and eyed his crowd. He saw Elirr and another Gnoll who looked like a [Blacksmith] were talking to the crowd. They turned as Erin trotted over and blinked at Rufelt. He raised a paw, smiling.
“Let me get you all a drink. Erin, I’ll borrow your bar. Hm. Blue fruit juice, huh?”
Rufelt filled a mug with the sweet juice and tasted it. He frowned, grabbed another cup, and filled it. He splashed a shot of rum into the blue fruit juice and swirled the drink.
“Not bad. But let’s add something to it. What’s it like cold? [Chill Paws].”
The glass frosted over as he touched it. Erin whistled—Rufelt just eyed the slushy. It needed a straw in his professional opinion. Or a spoon. Too much sweet as well; he’d normally cut something bitter with the sweet. This would be good for anyone with a sweet tooth. But it would do. Rufelt looked up at the admiring crowd, who’d stopped to watch him work. He winked.
“Barkeep from Tails and Scales of Pallass. Rufelt. If you have a drink, shout it out! I can mix anything—provided Miss Erin’s got the liquor. This is on the house for…”
He paused, searching the crowd. Let’s see. Who needed a shot of the silver tongue? Ah, of course. Rufelt muttered a word. Then he flicked the drink. The frozen slurry shot across the bar at Elirr, who blinked as it landed in his open paw. The [Beast Tamer] raised the glass almost unconsciously and Rufelt nodded to Erin. She nodded back. He winked.
“Not a bad plan, Miss Solstice, not a bad plan at all.”
“It was just vague. And it came together with luck. But I like to think I know people. It’s not about the plan. It’s about tossing the right people together. If you do that—hey! You never know what’ll happen next.”
Erin laughed. Rufelt just shook his head in amazement. He mixed another drink, casually doing a trick where he kept two different liquids separate with the aid of a spoon. No Skill there. Then he snapped his fingers and lit the top of the drink on fire. That was for the show.
Heads turned and the [Barkeep] saw the flow of the inn divert towards him, another eddy in the swirl of attention. And if Erin saw the ‘right people’ and how to mix them, he was a [Barkeep] who saw thirsty people and the right drinks to serve them…at the right time. You could do a lot with a drink made right or made wrong.
The [Barkeep] smiled. And as his hands blurred and he fixed drink after drink, weighing, assessing, and talking, he saw a small, white shape crawl behind the bar next to him. Rufelt paused in the middle of searching for Erin’s drinks and stared down at a small Gnoll cub, staring up with wide eyes at one of his flaming drinks with awe. She sat on her hindquarters and waved at him. He blinked.
“A white Gnoll?”
She froze. And Rufelt remembered what Erin had mentioned to him once. So he bent, smiled, and offered Mrsha a cup. Water mixed with blue fruit juice.
“Hello. My name’s Rufelt. Want to help me mix drinks?”
She nodded eagerly. So Rufelt lifted her up. And he looked at Elirr. The Gnoll was speaking with twice as much eloquence as he had been a few seconds ago, and it wasn’t all liquid courage. The [Beast Tamer] paused for a breath as the crowd around him applauded, and Rufelt gestured at the Gnoll child blowing on the flaming drink.
“Something tells me that you know her. Mind telling a [Bartender] a story?”
Elirr looked at the white Gnoll. She looked at him, and then Rufelt. And the [Barkeep] thought of all the old sayings. But he was a City Gnoll. And he’d always wanted a child. He and Lasica were thinking of one. So Elirr nodded and leaned forwards. And Rufelt found out the Gnoll’s name was Mrsha. Of course, Erin had told him that already. But suddenly he wanted to know more. All he could about this strange inn. When he got a chance to talk with his dear wife, he was sure Lasica would agree:
They’d underestimated this place.
Circumstance. Coincidence. And careful planning. These were the elements of Erin’s grand plan. Her improvised mess. But it had worked. She knew she could do it and she could.
Rufelt hadn’t called it a lucky event. He’d said it was because she had manipulated everything exactly as an [Innkeeper] did. As he could. Erin wasn’t sure if she believed that. Then again—she could sort of tell what he was talking about.
It wasn’t all intentional. It was just what she’d told him. People meeting people. That was all there was to it. When Erin had been mad at Olesm and searching for a way to kick his tailed behind and Lism’s, she hadn’t come up with one. But she’d had an inkling.
Maybe if Maughin were here, people might see that non-Drakes and non-Gnolls were cool. Grimalkin hadn’t been part of it, but Erin had wanted to meet him. And the weight-lifting? That was just being cool to a new friend. It tied in with Maughin too.
As for attracting attention in Pallass? Well, Erin had known they were snooty to Liscor for a while. So why not make Liscor look good? The real stroke had been getting Lasica and Rufelt here. And honestly, it was the least-involved bit of Erin’s plan.
She looked over and saw Krshia and Lasica still in conversation. Erin hadn’t had to do more than introduce them, make a few suggestions—it wasn’t nearly as hard as getting the people in Pallass to watch a play while Antinium worked in the background. But that was what would matter.
If Erin was only concerned with the election. But she wasn’t. If she could play two games of chess at once, well, she could also play three. The young woman smiled as she saw a green figure peering down the stairs. She beckoned, and Numbtongue hesitantly walked down into the crowded inn.
“Numbtongue! Great to see you. Don’t run off, please? I want you to meet Rufelt and Lasica at least.”
The Hobgoblin hesitated. But Erin grabbed his hand and towed him across the inn. Past Liscor’s citizens, who looked up at a Hobgoblin. Some recoiled, some didn’t. And Erin coincidentally passed by an open magical door and a huge crowd of people who broke out into a furor.
“Is that a Hobgoblin?”
“Dead gods, it’s—why is she holding its hand?”
“Hobgoblins in an inn? Bad as Antinium if you ask me.”
“What? Where? Move out of the way, I can’t see the play!”
“And do you have anything else to eat?”
Erin ignored the voices. She looked back at Numbtongue. He was peering at the door.
“Sorry. Just showing people my totally awesome Hobgoblin friend.”
She shouted back at the door. Numbtongue smiled. And that was all Erin wanted. She heard a clamoring from the door and pointed at a Gnoll rushing by.
“Popcorn! Ishkr, pass a bucket through. Anyone who wants it has to be okay with Hobgoblins.”
Lyonette grabbed a fresh bucket of buttery popcorn and shoved it through the door. The [Princess] shouted, practically beaming with how much gold she was making tonight.
“Two silver! Someone pay up!”
The Pallassian citizens looked appalled as Erin brought Numbtongue to Rufelt. The Gnoll nearly dropped his cup. Numbtongue eyed a flaming drink and reached for it.
“Disgusting. Is this really—”
“Shh! What’s going on stage now?”
One of the Dullahans on Pallass’ side refused to be budged. She folded her arms, glaring through the doorway at a few of Liscor’s citizens who were people-watching.
“So your city lets in Hobgoblins too, is that it?”
The citizens of Liscor looked at each other. They glanced at Numbtongue by the bar. And then at Erin. And the Antinium. And yes, at Grimalkin, chatting about weights with some interested Gnolls and Drakes. At Maughin, towering over the others. Lorent, selling his Skills. And back through the door to Pallass.
City of Inventions. A Walled City. And Liscor was tiny compared to it. But not inferior. Thanks to her.
This is what you have. And this is what we have. Who we have. So the Drakes and Gnolls smiled. One of them shrugged, toasted the group with a drink that seemed to appear in his claws at the right moment, and downed it.
“Hey, we’re open to fresh faces. What, you scared of a single Hobgoblin too?”
And for a second, they were proud of Numbtongue. Just for a second. And how was that for a day of work? Erin thought about it. And in her head, another few pieces clicked together.
They were travelling down a forest road when the door opened. Noise and light spilled out. The sudden outpouring of sound and energy nearly gave Jelaqua a heart attack. She flailed as she woke up from her nap, rolled reflexively, and would have fallen off the wagon had Moore not caught her. Seborn jerked to wakefulness, grabbing at his daggers. He looked up and into a smiling face.
An old friend. But perhaps—not so old. Erin Solstice looked up at Moore, who had been guiding the mule-pulled wagon.
“Moore! Seborn! Jelaqua! Hey! It’s been too long!”
The Halfseekers stared at Erin. The young woman had to shout; it sounded like there was a wild party going on behind her. Jelaqua sat up, brushing dirt off her scales. She was wearing a female Drake body. She blinked blearily at Erin.
“Wha—Erin? What’s this about? Is there trouble?”
“Nope! I just wanted to say hi! I knew you had the door! How’s it going? Are you at Invrisil yet?”
“Erin, we’re still nearly a hundred and fifty miles away yet. We don’t exactly run and we had this adventure that—are you having some kind of celebration?”
Was that a half-giant behind Erin? No—Jelaqua blinked.
“Wait. Is that a Dullahan behind you? Where did you meet a Dullahan? He’s half the size of a War Walker!”
Erin looked over her shoulder.
“Oh? That’s just Maughin. He’s an [Armorer]. And I know you’re not there yet. Buuuut—I am having a ton of festivities! Food, drinks—there’s this amazing [Barkeep] who’s helping me out, and a [Chef]! And there’s an election in Liscor. It’s this huge thing. Anyways, want to come through?”
Jelaqua looked at her companions. Moore scratched at his chin.
“But we’re so far away. And we are on the road…we said our goodbyes. Wouldn’t it be premature to come back?”
He said that, but Jelaqua saw him craning his neck, looking for Mrsha. Erin looked blankly at him.
“So? What’s stopping you? I have all kinds of new things. And I miss you. Come back, just for a little bit. We’ve got tons of [Mages]. And I’ve got blue juice. And some acid jars I’d love to sell you.”
She looked at Seborn. The Drowned Man pulled some hay out of his clothing and looked at her.
“Acid jars, Seborn. Really nasty. Perfect for a [Rogue]! Tell you what, come on through, and the first two drinks are on me. Please? I can’t keep this door open too long or the guys in Pallass will kill Kel. And that’s probably a bad thing.”
She held out a hand. Seborn looked at it. Jelaqua looked at Moore. He wavered. Seborn chose for them. He grasped Erin’s hand and let her pull him up. He looked at his teammates.
“I’m tired of sleeping on carts. We can say goodbye twice.”
Erin beamed. Jelaqua laughed. And Moore was just as fast to put the door on the ground and clamber through—after responsibly hitching the mules to a tree. They walked into the inn and stared around. Erin changed the door back to Pallass to hear a roar of fury from the door.
“What was that?”
“Door change! Sorry!”
“We missed part of the play!”
“Well, you can watch the rest! Look!”
Erin pointed at the stage, exasperated. One of the Gnolls on the other sides of the door drew in a breath to howl, and then he broke off. He pointed with one paw at a new group standing by the door.
“Is that—the Flamewarden’s Captain, Keldrass?”
“Maybe? Hey! Keldrass!”
Erin wandered away from the door. She laughed as she saw the Oldblood Drake talking with a few more adventurers. He looked up and his jaw dropped as he saw the Halfseekers. He immediately grabbed Bevussa and towed her over.
“Jelaqua! I thought your team had left!”
“You know how it is! Magical doors! Bevussa! Erin just appeared and dragged us through! What’s this about an election? And why’re you here?”
“Erin called us over. To talk about acid flasks. Not that I would have missed this for anything. In fact, we’re lucky she called for us; there’s a line outside the inn and no one can enter!”
Bevussa pointed a claw at the door. Jelaqua looked outside and did a double-take. Erin rubbed her hands together, and gestured to the three adventurers. Seborn was already sitting at the bar and Moore was sneaking up on Mrsha, who was sniffing the air with wide eyes.
“Hey! The more the merrier! And I called you all here today to unveil my latest product. Which is really my oldest product. Hey Lyonette! Acid flask?”
The [Princess] hurried over, albeit watching the green bottle in her hands very carefully. Erin took it from her and showed it to the adventurers.
“See this? Acid flasks. Or jars. We’re selling them at twelve silver coins a flask. Extremely cheap given what it can do. And the price is going up—”
“Wait, that’s all acid?”
Bevussa recoiled from the jar. Erin nodded.
“Pure, uncut, Acid fly juice. You know, the stuff they explode with when you swat them?”
“I’m not familiar. How corrosive is this? I’ve bought [Alchemist] acids before and I haven’t been too impressed. This stuff can’t be too potent or it would eat through the glass, right?”
Keldrass eyed the green liquid sloshing about inside. Lyonette smiled and took the bottle back from Bevussa, who was tossing it up and down experimentally in one claw.
“Well, I’m told one can kill a Ghoul in less than a minute. And Erin took down the boss of Liscor’s crypt with one. It melts through organic material in seconds. Not glass or metal. If you want me to demonstrate—”
Jelaqua recoiled when Lyonette dosed a sausage in it and the liquid practically melted the food. Lyonette turned a bit pale herself; Erin looked over and made a face.
“Ooh yeah. That’s as bad as I remember.”
“You let me toss that in the air? I could have killed myself!”
Bevussa was horrified and delighted. She looked at the melted remains of the sausage.
“That’s fast! You only have a few seconds to neutralize it before you’re dead, huh? Maybe water would stop it. But against a monster? One without hands? If my team had a dozen and threw them—”
“If you’re hit on the wing, you’re dead. Absolutely not.”
Keldrass was pale as he edged back from the acid. Jelaqua poked the sausage remains with one claw and frantically scrubbed it on her tunic. She eyed the damage to her claw and shrugged.
“Store it in a bag of holding and don’t drop it when you throw. Seborn! Look at this crap! You can stop moaning about your old acid dagger—this stuff is worth gold!”
Lyonette’s eyes gleamed. Erin laughed as she turned from the group to Rufelt at the bar. Seborn sighed and got up. As he passed Erin, she turned to him.
“You have to tell me all about your story, alright?”
“It’s not much of an adventure, but I’ll stop Jelaqua from exaggerating. Is there a room for us tonight? I’m sick of bugs eating me alive.”
“Sure! The third floor’s probably finished by now. I’ll get someone to make you a bed! And a bucket of water so you don’t get dehydrated!”
The Drowned Man smiled. Erin turned past him to Moore, who was hugging Mrsha very gently. Past him, Rufelt was serving drinks while talking to Lasica.
“…not sure about this Antinium thing, but definitely sounds better than this Lism fellow, yes? Why not? We can use tonight as proof that Liscor deserves our consideration. If we don’t have a few hundred people from Pallass clamoring for a visit—”
A voice bellowed in Erin’s ear. She yelped and spun. Grimalkin grabbed Erin by the shoulder. He looked down at her and nodded.
“Outstanding! I didn’t get a chance to thank you. But this weight bar? Your ideas about the smaller weights? This will revolutionize Pallass’ training regimen. No—the world! I can’t believe I never thought of it! It just never occurred to me. Weights? We’ve had training weapons and lead-filled objects forever—but who would think to make something so useless in any context but this?”
Erin smiled up at Grimalkin. The [Mage] shook his head.
“Thanks? Thanks? Give yourself more credit! This is the kind of tool that will go down in history. And you—you invented it. Or did you? You said it came from your homeland? Where in the world do you come from? I’ve never seen the like.”
“Uh—uh—well, you know. Terandria?”
“Where in Terandria? I’ve travelled across any number of kingdoms. And no one’s even breathed a word of this to me—and believe me, I would look! Is it something in your village? Some concept no one’s thought of in a military context?”
Erin panicked. Normally people left it alone when she hinted she was from Terandria, but Grimalkin was excited. And he had a death-grip on her shoulder. She looked around, searching for a lie.
“Well, my home town’s called Grand R—”
“Ah! Grimalkin. Just the Drake I was looking for.”
A smooth figure interposed himself between Erin and Grimalkin. The Drake let go as he turned to Pisces. The [Necromancer] gave Grimalkin an oily smile and Erin vowed to be nice to Pisces for at least a week. The muscular Drake raised one brow as he looked at Pisces.
“Ah. The [Necromancer]. Did you see my performance in Liscor?”
“I did indeed, sir. And I’d be delighted to learn the spell you cast. [Lion’s Strength]? I myself am something of a generalist [Mage] despite my main class being ah, [Necromancer]. If you’d care to exchange spells or perhaps I could offer you remuneration to learn that spell in particular—”
Grimalkin turned his back on Pisces with a snort. The [Necromancer]’s face fell.
“I assure you, I can fully compensate you for your time. I happen to be in possession of a large quantity of gold that—”
“I don’t train [Necromancers]. Or [Mages] I’m not personally training. If you were my apprentice, that would be another matter. How about it? I sign my students up for a year’s course. If you can meet my basic physical tests, I’ll teach you my basic repertoire of magics. As fine an education as you could find in Fissival, with an added physical core component!”
Grimalkin flexed one arm for proof. Pisces’ face fell.
“Ah, well, I happen to be a graduate of Wistram myself—”
“And? You think that qualifies you? I see a rapier at your hip, but can you use it?”
Grimalkin poked a claw at Pisces’ side. The [Necromancer] narrowed his eyes.
“I assure you, I was considered a very proficient dueler in the academy during my tenure there.”
The Drake rolled his eyes.
“Against other [Mages] with more body fat than bone? I don’t doubt it. But you don’t have a [Fencer]’s muscles. And believe me, a bit of skill won’t save you against anything with a stony hide. Muscle is the only thing that will pierce that! Or raw magical talent. Again, my classes train both.”
He folded his arms, and his disparaging gaze said it all. Pisces’ eyes flashed.
“And if I said that I had more magical talent in my left hand than all your muscles could possibly—”
“Okay! Pisces! My turn.”
A half-Elf slid into the [Necromancer], bumping him to one side. Ceria smiled up at Grimalkin as the rest of her team appeared. The Drake eyed Ksmvr, but didn’t comment—he was watching Erin slowly edge away with one eye. And worst, he was no idiot. Ceria offered her good hand, smiling nervously.
“Sorry about that. Pisces can be rude.”
“Arrogant is the word I’d use. The half-Elf [Cryomancer]. Want to join my school? You could both use the effort.”
“Well—I was hoping we could just learn some spells from you. I’m not one for uh, physical exercise—”
“I noticed. You’re lucky that half-Elves have strong metabolisms or you’d weigh more than you do. It’s not often I see overweight half-Elves, but give it five years at the offset and you’ll notice a change.”
Grimalkin pointedly eyed her stomach. Ceria turned beet-red.
“I—we’re adventurers. We can’t spend the time training. My team, Yvlon and Ksmvr, can’t wait for a year or even months.”
“I see that too. Worker. Missing an arm—funny, I heard your people could regenerate limbs.”
“Not without the right substances. Hello, Sir Grimalkin.”
The Drake ignored Ksmvr. He looked at Yvlon and then dropped his arms. He bent and stared at her arms.
“What in the name of the Walls did you do to your arms? I sense—”
His head spun towards Pisces. The [Necromancer] gulped. Yvlon jumped in.
“My arms were damaged by a fire elemental. My bones are fused with metal.”
The expletive made heads six tables over turn. Grimalkin struck his thigh, looking disgusted.
“That explains that. I’m sorry, Miss…?”
“Miss Yvlon. No wonder. And no wonder you’re paired with…”
Grimalkin thoughtfully looked at Pisces, then he shook his head.
“You know what? I take it back. Perhaps there are good uses for [Necromancers] in this world after all. Not that I’ve met one that wasn’t half-weasel or necrophiliac.”
Pisces’ outraged shout was stopped by Ceria’s hand. He tried to speak, but she gripped his mouth. His face turned slowly red as he tried to shout at Grimalkin. The Drake ignored him and went on.
“Still, I can see that my training won’t do you any good, Miss Yvlon. A shame. I was looking into bone-grafting and the like at one point, but I had no desire to be a [Flesh Mage] or dabble into real necromancy. That’s your best shot. I can help you regain your muscle mass if you were to find a way to regrow your bones—with these weights I’ll be able to do it twice as efficiently as ever! But I can’t help you until then.”
Yvlon smiled crookedly.
“That’s fine. Really. I’m searching for a cure, but I do have a backup until then. But about the spells. Are you certain you won’t think about teaching my companions one spell? We could pay you. I’m not sure what the going rate is, but a few thousand gold coins…?”
Grimalkin’s shake of the head was no less brisk.
“Truthfully, Miss Yvlon, that’s an insulting offer. [Lion’s Strength] is a Tier 4 spell, but it’s an enchantment, which you could call Tier 5 since it’s not as simple, as, say, [Grand Fireball]. If I were selling my knowledge of the spell and time it would take to train your companions—which I am not since I’m rich enough—I’d ask for at least nine thousand gold pieces. Minimum.”
“Nine thousand? For a spell? I could buy a good magic sword for that!”
Yvlon was aghast. Grimalkin just heaved his shoulders once.
“It’s a seller’s market. Spells that are rarer or harder to obtain deserve the cost. And my time is valuable. And your friends could tell you—most [Mages] burn through gold like a bonfire does wood. These weights are the most cost-efficient devices I’ve ever come across with. Non-magical. Just metal? Brilliant. I have my own inventions and concepts for training, but they’re not nearly so good.”
“Really? You dabble in magical theory yourself, Magus Grimalkin? I would have thought your pursuit of physical perfection consumes your time.”
Pisces, still flushed, sneered at Grimalkin. Ceria immediately slapped the back of his head. The [Sinew Magus] frowned down at Pisces.
“Wistram isn’t the sole bastion of magical knowledge. The last time I visited the academy, I presented a collaborative dimensional sphere—you’re aware of the ancient contained worlds, aren’t you? Wistram is technically one such area, albeit not portable… my fellow Drakes and I succeeded in creating a pocket dimension of fifteen feet by fifteen feet in a six-and-a-half foot sphere. Not ideal, but it was a prototype. If we just had access to the true magics of old, or we could call upon the world’s foremost experts in diverse fields like enchanting, dimensional magic, teleportation, and so on…”
Pisces and Ceria’s jaws dropped. Pisces, suddenly sounding much more respectful, stammered.
“You. Created a working sub-dimension artifact? In this era? Without relying on any sort of pre-existing blueprint or materials or relics of an older time…? Er, Sir Grimalkin?”
“For a training room. Why? Isn’t that what they teach you at Wistram? I could teach you. And if you take my class, I’ll waive your fees, boy! Now that I think about it, anyone who can mend all the broken bones my apprentices come down with would cut short their recovery time immensely! And ice is sovereign for bruises—healing potions just reverse muscle damage, which stunts muscle growth! Think on it—I’ll be sure to come back if only to talk to Miss Erin. Who has run off before she could answer me about her home town I see. Perhaps she’s…hm…”
Grimalkin looked around and spotted Erin. She’d made her escape and was being cornered by Keldrass and Bevussa. The Drake was distractedly addressing someone from Pallass.
“What? Support for Krshia Silverfang’s election? No!”
Heads turned to look at the Oldblood Drake. Keldrass hesitated.
“I mean, I’m not against it—I’m here to look into acid flasks. I uh, well, my team isn’t eligible to vote for Liscor’s new Council, obviously. But we do like the idea of an expanded Adventurer’s Guild. Which both candidates are offering as far as I understand.”
“Yeah! He’s just in my inn! To buy from me! A Human! Vote for Krshia! Lism’s a jerk!”
Erin cheered over Keldrass’ shoulder. The Drake bit his tongue and turned to her. Bevussa laughed.
“You walked into that, Keldrass! So Erin, how many acid flasks can we buy here? Lyonette says she only has forty three—can we have all forty three if we pay more per flask? What if I come out and endorse Krshia’s campaign?”
“Hold on, Bevussa, you can’t just take them all!”
Keldrass spluttered. Erin’s eyes went round.
“You want all of them?”
“It’s called storing up. Bags of holding don’t let most things go bad. And yeah, I want that acid stuff myself. Seborn will kill me. So—sorry guys, Erin and I go way back.”
Jelaqua elbowed in between the two captains. The Selphid smiled at Erin and the [Innkeeper] held up a hand.
“Hold on! I can’t give you all priority! I told Selys I’d sell them at the Adventurer’s Guild. I just wanted to advertise them here.”
“Aw, come on, Erin!”
“…What if I sold you all twelve?”
“I’ll take it!”
Jelaqua reached for her coin pouch at the same time as the other two Captains. Ceria, who’d missed the discussion entirely, only saw an acid jar as Erin began handing them over and practically froze her way across the room to get to Erin. Jelaqua was cackling as she stowed the jars in a bag.
“If this works well, Erin, you are going to be rich and I’m going to be one happy Selphid. Imagine using this on a Troll, guys?”
“I want to see if it works on Stone Starers myself.”
Bevussa nodded. Jelaqua grinned, turned her head towards Ceria to offer a teasing remark—although Erin had already set aside some of the jars for her friend—and froze. Her eyes locked on Grimalkin as Yvlon let him examine one arm. She fumbled with the acid jar and both Keldrass and Bevussa swore and leapt clear. Jelaqua caught the jar, absently put it in her bag of holding, and then grabbed Erin’s arm.
“That is the most muscular body I’ve ever seen in my life. Who is that? Erin, you have to introduce me.”
“To who? Grimalkin?”
“Is that his name? Please.”
Erin didn’t want to go back just yet, but Jelaqua practically towed her across the room. Grimalkin looked up from a cursory conversation with Pisces and blinked at Jelaqua.
“Hey Grimalkin! My friend really wants to meet you. She’s a—”
“Selphid. Of course. A pleasure to meet you, Miss.”
Grimalkin smiled and held out a hand. The Selphid shook it gently
Erin eyed her from the side. Was she—was she blushing? Jelaqua was staring at one of Grimalkin’s pectorals. The [Sinew Magus] sighed and whispered to Erin as he stepped back.
“I got a lot of stares on Baleros. And I have a number of bids for my body when I die. It’s flattering, I suppose.”
“Can—can I touch your arms?”
“By all means.”
Grimalkin struck a pose. Jelaqua sighed. Erin looked at her face, edged back, and then waved her friends over.
“Grimalkin, meet Keldrass and Bevussa! Hey Seborn! Moore! Get over here!”
“I know you two. Keldrass. Oldblood elites. Didn’t I train your unit once? You’re an adventurer now?”
The muscular Drake looked at Keldrass, who seemed to have inhaled his tongue. Bevussa shook his hand, laughing. And then Seborn appeared and stared up at Grimalkin. He looked at Jelaqua and towed her away without another word. She was still staring. Grimalkin looked around—and then he saw Moore.
“I’m very pleased to meet you. I apologize for my captain. She—”
“Dead gods, man!”
Grimalkin roared, making Moore jump as the half-Giant held out a hand to shake. Mrsha, perched on his shoulders, leapt free in alarm. Bevussa caught her. Grimalkin stared up at Moore and then strode around him.
“You! Sir! You! Do you understand what you could be doing with that body of yours? You should be turning it into a work of art! This is a criminal waste of your potential!”
He pointed at one of Moore’s arms, which, while large, didn’t ripple with muscle like Grimalkin’s. The Drake clenched a fist and leaned in to Moore, speaking urgently as the half-Giant backed up in alarm.
“You could be the finest [Mage] I’ve ever taught. What do you say? Join me, Magus Moore, and by the time we’re through, you could punch a hole in a Wyvern and rip out its heart!”
“I’m not one for exercise. I’m large enough as it is. Thank you, but I’m really—”
“You have talent! Young—half-Giant, you could be a legend! I’m past my prime, but you’re barely, what, in your thirties? Come with me, and I’ll pit you against Feor himself and watch that old half-Elf crumple under a single blow! First the Gecko, now you—this city is a breeding ground for unused potential! At least hear me out! Listen—I’ll sponsor your training. You want to learn magic? I happen to know a variety of Tier 5 spells, even a Tier 6 spell! Stick with me—”
Moore tried to retreat. Grimalkin pursued him. Pisces, wide-eyed, followed them both.
“Tier 6 did you say? Moore, hear Sir Grimalkin out. I happen to have newfound appreciation for his philosophy…”
He disappeared into the crowd after them. Erin, laughing, leaned on Ceria for support. The half-Elf whispered urgently to her.
“Can I get some of those acid jars too, Erin?”
“Sure, sure! Just let me check on my guests. I’ll save Moore from Grimalkin in a bit. Or—Mrsha, you do it! Protect him so he doesn’t turn into Grimalkin!”
The little Gnoll nodded and raced into the crowd. Erin turned around.
“Let’s see. Where’s Maughin? I want him to get on this thing Rufelt and Lasica are discussing. Is he still with the armor? There he is! Maughin! Hey! Maughin!”
Erin waved at the Dullahan. He was sitting alone, drinking from a large tankard and watching Hamlet, which was now being shown on stage. There were still [Smiths] gathered around the Heartflame Breastplate, trying to activate it, but he seemed to be done for a moment. The Dullahan looked over as Erin walked towards him. Bevussa however, looked shocked. She grabbed Erin with one wing-arm and steered her backwards. The Garuda opened her beak and whispered into Erin’s ear.
“Erin! That’s Maughin! Our best [Armorer]! In all of Pallass! His work is so good that you can buy his stuff, take it to an [Enchanter] and have it enchanted with practically anything you want! His metal is good! How in the name of the Ancestors do you know him?”
“Eh. We met? Hey Maughin, how’s it going? Are you bored? Do you need anything? How’s the armor?”
The Dullahan stared down at Erin. He shook his head slowly, and looked around. He hesitated, then shook his head again.
“I’m—fine, Miss Solstice. Truly. The armor is exquisite. I can’t even tell what metal it is, but the detailing, the craft—it’s magic and metal, seamlessly blended. Beyond my craft. I wish that I had the gift for magic. But perhaps if I were Level 40, or Level 50—Pelt might know what was made of. I am not that much of a master yet.”
He laughed, hollowly for a second. Then he bowed his head.
“But I am grateful. Truly, for this opportunity. And these sights. This food…I am simply enjoying myself.”
“That’s great. And oh—this is Bevussa. She says she’s a big fan or yours.”
Erin introduced Bevussa. The Garuda colored—although with her feathers, it was impossible to really see.
“Master Maughin? An honor. I bought my blades from you, do you recall?”
“Of course. The Wings of Pallass are an illustrious team. We share a common friend. I will remember that.”
Maughin inclined his head. Erin beamed, missing the Dullahan’s polite nuance, and Bevussa bowed.
“I am honored, sir. I don’t want to interrupt you, so I will remove myself.”
She tugged at Erin’s arm tactfully and the [Innkeeper] caught the message and decided to introduce Rufelt and Lasica to Bevussa and Lyonette instead. Maughin sat alone at his table, watching them go. After a moment, a Selphid staggered by, downing two shots of whiskey in quick succession. She was following a shadow in the air, which eluded her. Maughin watched with curiosity.
“I wasn’t going to insult him! I just wanted to touch that body! Seborn! You—you jerk! Do you know how amazing a body like that is? Even Level 30 [Warriors] aren’t that incredible. That’s Level 40 or something. Beautiful—come back here!”
Jelaqua sighed; she’d lost Seborn. She looked around and saw Maughin’s table was one of the only empty ones. The Selphid sat down and raised an unsteady hand.
“Sorry. Sir. I just need to catch my breath. I was blown away by—and I think I had five or six shots in the last few minutes to steady my nerves.”
“It is fine. Take your time.”
Maughin ducked his head politely. He thought about taking it off, but someone might knock his head to the floor by accident. People were everywhere. Jelaqua swayed, and then glanced up at Maughin. Her eyes widened.
“Oh sh—sorry, for the interruption, Mister uh, Dullahan. I’m not trying to be rude.”
Blushing, she stood up. Maughin held up a hand and Jelaqua stopped.
“No offense taken. Truly. Tell me, are you a regular? I saw you speaking with Erin Solstice.”
Maughin felt comfortable enough to use her name. Jelaqua sat with a smile.
“Me? I know her. I stayed at this inn for a long while. Sorry. Adventurer. Jelaqua Ivirith, Captain of the Halfseekers. My team was trying Liscor’s dungeon until we decided to stop. We were on the road, but Erin’s magical door…”
She waved an unsteady hand at the doorway. Maughin nodded.
“So you know her well. Tell me. Is it like this here every night? Is it always so…busy?”
His head still spun from all of the events of this morning. He had been in his forge. And now he’d been to another city, had a bunch of new orders for weights, had gotten involved in Liscor’s politics, seen Antinium and a friendly Hobgoblin…
And Raekea was married. Maughin sighed. Jelaqua shrugged as she looked around the room.
“Nah, but this is an Erin classic. Like it? I know it’s crazy, but no one gets hurt at one of her parties. Much. Erin’s great at throwing them; the only time I’ve seen more people just fill a room was back home. Lizardfolk.”
Maughin smiled nostalgically.
“They do enjoy their parties. But theirs are spontaneous. I cannot help but feel this was entirely organized by Miss Erin herself.”
“True! She’s cunning. But I swear, she could make a Centaur get off his high horse and laugh!”
Jelaqua punctuated that sentence with a laugh of her own, and Maughin chuckled with her. Even though she was a stranger. Then his brow furrowed. He leaned forwards suddenly.
“…Excuse me. Did I hear you say you were from Baleros?”
“Who? Me? Yeah! I’m a Baleros native! Born and raised! I haven’t been home in ages! What about you?”
“I’m from the north. One of our—that is to say, my people’s—capitals.”
Jelaqua held up a hand. She squinted at Maughin.
“Don’t tell me. The biggest one? Invinctel? No? Cephalium?”
“Of course! Your armor’s got that color pattern.”
Jelaqua drunkenly waved at Maughin’s armor, which did indeed look mostly white to the untrained eye. But it was the slight flashes of color on the armguards and parts of the armor that told you where to look. An old Dullahan tradition, so their warriors could hide in the snow. Maughin smiled.
“And you are? I didn’t think most Drakes came from Baleros.”
Jelaqua paused. She looked down at her body and laughed.
“That’s just because you see me like this! Sorry, scales hide the obvious.”
“Selphid. Of course.”
Maughin felt like a fool. In fairness, Jelaqua’s current body had dark, almost magenta scales. But if you looked at her eyes, the way she didn’t breathe as often as everyone else—he shook his head.
“My apologies, Miss Ivirith. It has been a while since I went home.”
“You and me both, Master…?”
“Maughin. Forgive me. That was an indiscretion.”
Now the Dullahan did turn red. Jelaqua just laughed good-naturedly.
“I insulted you by sitting down unwelcomed. We’ll call it even! And it’s great to meet another Balerosian! I suppose there are enough from Pallass—”
“Too few. Many lived in Pallass before I came here. We have a community. And those that came here didn’t live back home as long as I did. I spent nearly thirty years there, and not just in my city. Coming here I have made a life for myself for this last decade. But…”
“Home is home. Bugs and all.”
Jelaqua raised her empty glass. Maughin raised his half-filled tankard.
“From north to south, to frozen earth and humid soil. We call it home.”
They clinked glasses softly. Jelaqua laughed, but it was quieter, more pleasant. She leaned back in her chair, sobering a bit or perhaps just telling her liver to do some work. The orange flush in her cheeks died down a bit. She leaned forwards.
“Do you get much news from home? I’m starved myself.”
“A few [Messages]. Mainly politics from Invinctel and among my people. But the topic on every lip was Daquin. Did you hear about the latest game with the Titan?”
“Hear it? Dead gods, I would have paid a hundred gold pieces to see it! It had all the action you could want for, or so I heard. And Tulm the Mithril? The Iron Vanguard? Seriously? I couldn’t see a thing, but you bet I flipped every table in the inn when I heard it was being broadcast! Live of all things!”
Jelaqua slapped the table, groaning. Maughin smiled hugely.
“It was a sight to see. There were people of every species—Cameral of Lord Astoragon’s students, Yerranola—they teamed up together, you know. They might have won, but for Tulm the Mithril himself intervening at the last moment.”
“You mean the feint? What happened? Wait, how did you see?”
Agog, Jelaqua scooted forwards. Maughin took off his head so he could place it on the table and speak without having to lean all the way down.
“I have an acquaintance with a scrying orb. I was able to view all of it. Are you aware of how the game ended?”
“I heard it was a trick! And there were two winners!”
“Close. You see—actually, I think I could persuade my friend to lend you the scrying orb if you are in the area in the next few days. He bought a—a recording of the entire game. From Wistram. It was exceptionally expensive, but—”
“I could watch it? Really? I’ll pay you for that honor, Mister Maughin.”
“Maughin, please. But if you’re willing—”
“No, tell me more! I have to know. I’ll watch it again, hells, three times! Who won? And how? Hey—is that blue juice with rum? Two drinks for us! Don’t bother with shots. Just fill up that mug!”
Jelaqua turned and caught Ishkr as he hurried by. The Gnoll sighed and supplied both Selphid and Maughin with drinks. The Dullahan smiled and raised a mug. Then he leaned forwards to talk about the games at Daquin, which he’d been dying to talk to someone who really knew what it all meant in the context of home. Jelaqua grinned and they both felt a moment of elation. Pallass and Liscor weren’t the only places that had children who were proud of their homes.
And the night wore on. In The Wandering Inn, it passed slowly, and in sudden jumps, leaping from moment to moment. But in Liscor, it passed at a more even pace, if uncomfortably for many. Those who wanted to know what had happened but refused to go to the inn out of principle or commitment.
A furious Lism and a sleepless Olesm, whose worst fears couldn’t quite keep up with Erin herself. And those who didn’t know quite what they were doing. Not anymore.
“It’s her. I heard what she did at the inn. She opened the door to Pallass and started getting people interested in visiting the Walled City.”
“Mm. One would assume that isn’t very hard.”
“Hah. No. But you’d be surprised—no one wanted to go. I think they were all waiting for someone to be the first. And then it slipped out of memory and…well, she did it. She was the first. But she didn’t just open Pallass to Liscor. She opened Liscor to Pallass.”
“I don’t follow.”
“…I mean, she made us look good to them. To a Walled City. We’re a small, border city. I get that. But she impressed the Pallassians. She showed them what Liscor has to offer. And that’s the catch.”
“I still fail to follow.”
“What Liscor has to be proud of is—her, I suppose. That’s what’s so funny. Pallass may have its marvels, but it does not have Erin Solstice. Her pizza, her crazy ideas, her magic door and plays…and she showed them that today. Ancestors, I saw two of Pallass’ legends walking my streets today. Grimalkin and Maughin. Know them? Well, they’re important personages. The kind any Watch Captain remembers.”
“In case of siege? As valuable assets?”
“Or potential traitors. People who could be enticed away by another city. People who can’t be allowed to die. Important people. Over Level 30. But—at least Grimalkin, I know he’s over Level 40. I’m almost positive. Not sure about Maughin, but he’s probably Level 35? At least. The top [Armorer] in all of Pallass.”
“Ah. And Erin brought them here? She knows them? How?”
“…Because she’s her. And she walked around with them. As equals. And she treated with Pallass as equals. Do you know how that feels?”
“Yes. It’s something my…people have wanted ourselves.”
“Right. Well, it’s a great stunt. And she did make the Antinium look good, or so it seems. And it puts a dent in Lism’s arguments against Humans. Because she’s our best Human. And worst. It’s a fair point she made. It’s just that it doesn’t fit in the actual debate. This is about Antinium versus non-Antinium aid for the city.”
“And the popularity of said Antinium is meaningless compared to the very real dangers they present.”
“Exactly. So what does this mean? Nothing.”
“Hmf. Or perhaps everything. This is a democracy. The hearts and minds of people are won by deeds as much as rational debate.”
“But it doesn’t matter. If the Grand Queen orders an attack on Liscor, how much we like the Antinium or they like is—it’s meaningless. We all die, or we fight them off. That’s the only thing that matters.”
“Wrong. It matters. Because she, Erin Solstice, is a friend to the Antinium. They laid down their lives for her. Would you discredit her faith in them? Their sacrifice? If you believe they would not kill her even if the Grand Queen willed it, you must consider that they may hold Liscor by the same values. It is an argument by example.”
“One example isn’t much to stake a city’s survival on.”
“Of course not. But again, this is about Erin Solstice. And she moves hearts as well as minds. In an election, that may be enough to win Krshia Silverfang her votes, even if this Lism has more logical an argument.”
“Really? You think that will win a crowd more than the facts? Well, I was never a debater.”
“I was. It is a custom among my people. We appreciate both the spirit of one’s argument, the emotion and delivery of words, as well as the logical reasoning and impeccable structure of rhetoric. Both have merit. And if Erin Solstice cannot argue to the surety of logic, she can speak to the hearts and minds of those she meets. That is what I see in her.”
“…I see. So Krshia’s got a chance, is that what you’re saying?”
“As long as she has Erin Solstice? Yes. I have been thinking. And she is the leader I should have aspired to be. Rather than the one I was. She does not force or control in the way you or I do, Watch Captain. She brings out the best in us. I knew her so briefly. But when I listen to Ceria or you, I wish that I had spoken to her longer.”
Zevara looked up at the ceiling. She stared at the silent, hunched silhouetted illuminated by the cage door’s field stretching across the floor in front of her.
“She doesn’t visit you, then?”
Calruz shook his head once.
“Never. She has not forgotten what I have done. The lives I took. Or perhaps she has simply forgotten me.”
Zevara saw him sitting there, out of the corner of one eye. Huge, somber, his one arm resting on his knees. He sat there, his back to her, and each sentence came slowly, deliberately.
“You’re not forgotten by your team, you know. At least not by Ceria Springwalker. She has come to my office at least twice a week since you’ve been imprisoned here. She visits you at least four times each week. It’s an annoyance.”
There was a smile in Calruz’s voice.
“Ceria was always good at that. And we do…talk.”
“Her team’s latest missions. Current events. What Erin Solstice has done. Little else.”
“Not about your execution?”
“I have you for that. But you do not speak of it either. Don’t spare my feelings. When?”
Zevara sat up. Her back pressed against the cold wall and her tail coiled in on itself. She ignored the pit in her stomach.
“It’s a complicated business. Liscor has no dedicated [Executioner]. I have to negotiate for one to arrive. Set a date. Choose the…method of your execution. That’s not simple, but I can do it. The real problem is the matter of your people. They’ve expressed an…interest in your fate.”
One word. But it spoke volumes. Zevara turned her head.
Calruz’ shoulders rose and fell.
“I can guess what they’ve said. They would prefer to try and execute me on Minos. It would be less dishonorable to my kin and people to make it a public display. However, somehow, I doubt I will reach my home.”
Was he smiling. What did it look like? Zevara craned her head, but she couldn’t see. She sat cross-legged. Bowed her head over her knees.
“It’s my choice when you’re executed. This current Council seems to have forgotten about you too.”
“Everyone has. It makes sense; these politics, the affairs above, they matter. My fate is sealed. But your duty is to carry out my sentence. So. Again. When?”
The Watch Captain closed her eyes. She did not want this. This, of all her duties, she did not want. Exile was usually how it went—criminals seldom returned to Liscor, knowing that if they were caught, they would die. And perhaps if it had been a common murderer, a [Thug], this would be easy. But this?
“My job is to protect Liscor. Part of that is understanding whether you were affected by some component of the dungeon. The water that makes people blind to parts of the dungeon—the way the monsters don’t attack each other. It could be linked to your madness. That’s why…”
“Why you’ve been speaking to me?”
“Yes. I’m trying to ascertain whether what Ceria claims is true. Whether this is an enchantment, a hex of some kind that damaged you, even a Skill someone used, or—”
Silence. Calruz shifted. Zevara watched his one arm go up, disappear in the shadow on the floor.
“If it is an enchantment, I would be glad to know. But your [Mages] detected no magic on me or my possessions.”
“No. They did not. But Ceria claims to have seen you switch personalities. She believes something affected you in the dungeon. And you are…saner whenever I’ve talked to you.”
“I have had moments where I am not.”
“True. And you only vaguely remember them. And to me—you seem different.”
“Such is the nature of madness.”
“Or a spell. We haven’t detected it, but Springwalker claims that it could have been an artifact the Raskghar gave you. Or some function of the dungeon itself.”
“She has no proof. Without evidence, the logical conclusion points one way.”
“Well, say it was her emotional, continued pleas that swayed me. And I’m trusting the judgment of my own eyes. Calruz. Tell me again.”
There was a long pause. The Minotaur turned his head at last. Zevara searched his gaze for deceit. She clutched something in one claw. But all she saw was uncertainty, all she heard was his low voice.
“I…believe the me that was below is not who I am now. But I feel it, Watch Captain. Gnawing away inside of me. Calling me. Telling me to—to throw away pride and honor for glory. To seek the treasure at the heart of the dungeon.”
“Do you think this is all your madness? Do you think you yourself did all this? Abandoned your team? Hunted the Gnolls? Sacrificed them? Became the Raskghar Chieftain?”
Zevara waited. And Calruz rolled his eyes upwards. He closed them, clenched his one fist and seemed to struggle. But at last, the same answer came out again.
“No. But am I lying to myself?”
Zevara didn’t reply. She glanced down at her claw. Calruz stared past her.
“Even if it was not me, Watch Captain. What does it matter? I am going mad in this cell. Does anyone above remember me? Besides Ceria? I waste away.”
“I see you doing pushups and sit ups every time I come down here.”
“I am losing my mind.”
The Minotaur intoned the words with slow, steely calm. On the brink of snapping. He looked at her, and his eyes were clear, blue, deep.
“I may be innocent. But if I and you cannot prove it, so what? I still committed the crimes. Even if I were under a [Charm] spell, the blood remains. And besides. It is better to die than live like this forever.”
“Don’t tempt me. And don’t say that. I’m weighing my options. I’m not just stalling. You’re a waste of money. I have other options.”
“Getting a proper [Mage] to check you out. Not just one from our Mage’s Guild. Wistram-certified. Or finding a [Healer] who knows something about these sorts of things. Give me…well, less than a week.”
The Minotaur nodded heavily.
“I can wait that long. Especially if you keep telling me of the events in the city.”
He paused, and then managed a small smile.
“And I must confess. I want to know who wins this election.”
“I’ll keep you informed. Just…well, thanks for listening to me. I still don’t know if Lism winning would be for the best. I was sure of Klbkch. But some days…”
“You never know who will be your enemy. Even a trusted friend can turn.”
“You’re the last person I want to hear tell me that. I’ve got to sign off.”
She stood up. Troubled. Calruz watched her go. Zevara walked slowly down the line of cells, ignoring the calls from the two drunks and [Pickpocket] currently awake. She waved at the [Guardswomen] on duty, and then stopped outside. The night was calm. Quiet. Unless you counted The Wandering Inn, probably ablaze from the battlements with noise and light. But right now?
Zevara looked down again at the thing she was holding. A smooth gem, bright blue. She eyed it, shook it. She checked the truth stone for cracks. It glowed blue, without a hint of even violet.
The Watch Captain sighed. She looked back at the cell. He was uncertain. But she was certain that Ceria might just be right. And that was a certain uncertainty that had given her ulcers. If—if it was the dungeon. But if it wasn’t—
“Going mad in there. Every day in a box.”
Zevara shuddered. There were kinder fates, and those included slavery or death. Imagine living a year like that. He had been there for…she shook herself.
She still had to go to her office. Sign some papers. So Zevara did. She walked down the street, trying not to think of Calruz. But she did. And as she sat in her office, she thought about the fact that she was the only person in the city who really thought of him outside of Ceria and the guards who took him his food and emptied the waste bucket. The only one. Zevara drummed her claws on her desk.
If. She’d met murderers. She’d killed them, or watched them die by hanging or the axe. It wasn’t ever pleasant. But there had been a finality to those Gnolls and Drakes. A sense of guilt, even when they pleaded innocent or for leniency. The certainty, even over the hollow bitterness or vengeance that justice, in the letter of the law, had been carried out. But if Zevara watched Calruz dance on a hemp rope or lie down under the axe, she knew she wouldn’t feel that certainty.
She didn’t know. And how Zevara wished she could, one way or the other. Slowly, she looked around for the bottle of stout spirits she’d been given by Lism for ‘considering his platform’ just the other day. She’d been about to throw it away, but now she wanted it.
Zevara found the bottle. She eyed it, then cursed. She grabbed the bottle, stood up, and stormed back to the prison. There she uncorked it, took a drink, then checked the field of the cell. It was attuned to her. So she looked at the Minotaur sitting there, lifted the bottle, and rolled it into the cell. He stared at her. Zevara glared as she made herself comfortable on her seat.
“Well? What are you waiting for? Say Krshia does win. Am I throwing Liscor away? Tell me I’m not wrong to trust Klbkch. Or tell me I am. But if you don’t pass that bottle back in the next minute, I’ll call for a [Headsman] tomorrow. And I’ll make sure he has a rusty axe.”
She waited, impatient, uncertain. Terribly lonely. And the Minotaur smiled.
Coincidence was a funny thing. Anything could happen if you put two people who might never meet in the same room. And to the weary [Innkeeper] who went to bed well into next morning, she considered it a job well done. But even she didn’t know everything of what she’d done.
Even so, it was about connections. Rufelt and Lasica, who both went to their beds, smiling, delighted, and remembering the name of a Gnoll in Liscor. Krshia Silverfang, who slept reassured that victory wasn’t a pipe dream. The hundreds and thousands of citizens in Pallass and Liscor who thought of Goblins and Antinium in perhaps, perhaps a different light. And thought of another city as close by rather than far away.
But the effects ran deeper still. To Relc, and Grimalkin, who had struck up a friendship, if only beginning. To Temile of the Players of Celum, whose performance had attracted a Walled City’s attention. To the [Smiths] of Pallass, who lifted weights in their dreams. And to Watch Captain Zevara, who woke up with a hangover sitting next to the furthest cell in her dungeon and found there were worse places to be.
And lastly, to a Selphid. Jelaqua woke up with a hangover the next day, when the sunlight blasted her true body through the nerves of her eyes. They were fresh and she was connected, so she groaned in agony. The one good thing about rotten bodies was not feeling a hangover. But the pleasures of a new body were the ability to get drunk, feel—and of course, feel awful.
Right until she disconnected the hangover sensations to the rest of her body. Jelaqua sighed and rotated her neck. Strange. She felt larger. And furrier. What body was she wearing? That had been some drinking—
And then the Selphid remembered last night. She looked down at the large, beyond [King]-sized bed she was lying in. She whistled softly and half-grinned.
“Wow. I felt that.”
Then she rolled over and saw a head looking at her. Maughin’s face stared at Jelaqua from the bedside table. The Dullahan’s body was lying on his back in his bed. Next to her. Jelaqua’s stifled oath made the Dullahan blink. Once.
“Grandmother’s tits, I—sorry, I forgot that I—”
Jelaqua tried to move her legs, but she, the inner she, was still drunk. And she belatedly realized she was wearing a Raskghar body. Female. Which, given what had gone on last night…
“I’m sorry. I mean, uh—last night—”
She stared at Maughin. He was clearly awake. His head stared back. His body seemed content to lie on its back.
“I enjoyed last night.”
“Oh? M-me too.”
The cold cheeks of the Raskghar warmed a bit, and the pale skin beneath the fur turned slightly orange as Jelaqua blushed. She looked around for some clothes. No—wait—did this Raskghar even have clothes? She spotted something that looked like a loincloth and grabbed it. It would do.
“I’ll get out of your hair! Just give me a second—where’s my belt and bag of holding? Don’t worry, I can get out through a window unless there’s a drop. I’m an expert at covert exits—”
Flustered, she grabbed for her possessions. Maughin blinked at her.
Jelaqua turned, a host of things on her tongue. Because she was a Selphid. Because it would really look bad if she went out his door and people put two and two together. Or even one and one. Because she knew alcohol did things, and she really appreciated him not expelling her once he came to his senses—
“Because, you know? This?”
She gestured at her dead body. Maughin stared at Jelaqua. He stared up. He stared down. He blinked.
And Jelaqua stared. She looked back at Maughin, and then a huge smile spread across her face. And his lips moved slightly up in return. Jelaqua sat on the bed. This was a first. And then, well…
It was all about chance. People meeting people. You never knew what would happen next.
[Magical Innkeeper Level 38!]
[Skill – Inn: Partial Reconstruction obtained]