He returned on a quiet day. The rains that had poured from the sky after the day of fire had flooded the barren ground. So much so that the banks of Riverfarm’s river were overflowing. The water was actually a danger to the landscape; it was eroding the soil which wasn’t prepared for this much stored rain. There was a potential now for the fields of scorched plants to drown.
Another aspect of the Drake’s plans, if they’d thought so far ahead. But the heavy downpour had stopped in the morning, leaving only intermittent showers.
Ryoka stood in Riverfarm’s entrance with the others. Waiting. They knew he was coming. So they waited. [Witches]. Villagers. Her, Charlay. Silently.
They could have been working. The fields were half-ruined by fire. Parts of Riverfarm had been evacuated due to the fire damage. There were a hundred things to do. But all the people of Riverfarm had done yesterday was cremate and bury the dead, or rather, what remained of those they’d found.
No one had the spirit for anything else. Even the [Witches] were silent. Their hats still dripped with rainwater. They were motionless.
Five of them. Hedag. Eloise. Mavika. Alevica. Wiskeria. The one missing was Nanette. But no one had forced her to come outside. After yesterday, after the revelation that it had been Califor who had stopped the fire at the cost of her life, she hadn’t moved. Belavierr had fled. And Nanette was…gone.
Broken. Ryoka didn’t want to think of it like that. But that was what it looked like. Someone had taken Nanette’s heart, had taken that smiling, cheerful little [Witch] and removed her happiness. Belavierr had killed Califor, had forced her to her death. And Califor had been Nanette’s mother. Her true mother, by blood as well as parenthood. And she was dead.
There wasn’t anything else to say. Ryoka couldn’t even cry. She hated herself. Hated herself for ever believing Belavierr was more than a monster. Hated herself for trying to give her a chance. And she hated the Drake who had died.
She didn’t even know his name. But he had engineered this pointless death, spread the fire that had taken so many lives. He had done it so casually, too. Without even knowing Riverfarm. He was an agent of a foreign power. And he had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of people in this region for a war that few had taken part in.
Ryoka had never felt more like she was home than today. It was the same world, deep down. The same people, even if they wore different bodies. She hated it. But she couldn’t even be angry. So she stood there.
And there he came. Just before midmorning, the silence of the crowd was broken. A bright, blue bird took wing. She flew up, and Frostwing’s piercing scream made the people below start. The bird had sensed the grief in the air perhaps, but she was a simpler creature. And she had picked up on something before the others. She flew east, flapping her wings rapidly. Then she dove out of the skies, a blue bolt of feathers, shrieking.
On the ground, a Mossbear got up from where he had been napping besides Durene. Bismarck, his fur singed, looked up and roared. He lumbered forwards, people scattering around him. He raced after Frostwing, moving faster than Ryoka could remember seeing him. Ryoka stood taller, craning her neck with the others to see. It was Durene who exclaimed and pointed first.
And then Ryoka saw him. A distant figure, riding slowly towards them, one of two on the road. He didn’t lead the way. He was following another man, who was guiding both his horse and the young man’s. But the [Emperor]’s head was craning, following Frostwing as she flew down towards him. He raised an arm and she landed there, pecking and shrieking at him.
Eloise murmured. Durene ran forwards a few steps.
She was certain, even as far away as she was. Durene hesitated, and then began to trot, and then run. Prost watched her. And then he followed at a jog. Chimmy, Miss Yesel, and the rest of his family followed as well.
“It’s his Majesty!”
Jelov the [Carpenter] shouted, spraying people around him with spit. He crab-ran after the others. And then Riverfarm’s villagers were running, calling out his name. The others, who had never met Laken, watched. Startled. But then they followed, first at a quick walk, and then faster. Ryoka ran past them. Charlay galloped on her right.
“Why are we running? Why are we running?”
Ryoka had no answer. But everyone in Riverfarm was racing towards him. And he sensed them. He dismounted from the horse as the other rider stopped. He jumped back, shouting, laughing, as Bismarck nearly knocked him flat. And he hugged the Mossbear. His head rose. And his closed eyes turned. He urged Frostwing onto Bismarck’s back. And he turned as Durene thundered at him.
“You—you—you’ve been gone so—”
Laken Godart stood there as Durene skidded to a stop in front of him. Ryoka was third, Charlay second. She looked at the [Emperor]. He stood in front of his horse. And he seemed larger than she remembered. He filled the air, for all he was shorter than both her and Durene. He turned his head, his eyes still closed. Towards her. But it was to Durene he turned back to.
“I know. My dear Durene. I know. I’m sorry.”
He walked towards her. The half-Troll girl hesitated. And she moved forwards timidly. The two stopped in front of each other, awkwardly. Laken tilted his head up, as if to see her face. Durene hesitantly raised a hand.
They reached out. And Laken straightened and Durene’s head bent. And—she didn’t expect it, but he had intended it—they kissed there. Riverfarm’s folk stopped, panting. And waited. After a second, Laken turned towards them. The man on the horse slowly dismounted.
Mister Prost spoke slowly. Lady Rie panted as she caught up, having to push through the crowds. Laken turned his head. He didn’t speak at first. He just turned his head, his closed eyes passing over the faces in the crowd. Laken paused. And then he nodded.
“Mister Prost. My people. I’ve missed you so dearly. You and Riverfarm. I have been gone too long. At last, I have returned. Hear me. I am your [Emperor]. And I have come back.”
And he smiled slightly. Prost and the villagers of Riverfarm bowed their heads. And then they took a knee. In the muddy road. Lady Rie curtsied, ignoring the same muck. The people behind them hesitated. Lancrel’s folk, townsfolk and villagers from further off wavered. But something compelled them. Perhaps it was the way he stood. Or the way he fit in this place. Like a missing part of the village. Perhaps it was only his class, but Ryoka felt it too.
Slowly, they knelt. Men, women, children. Only Ryoka remained standing. Ryoka, Charlay, who wavered and then locked her legs. And the [Witches]. The man behind Laken looked disapproving. Laken himself just smiled.
“Thank you. You still find me worthy, then, Prost?”
“I have never doubted you for a moment, sire. Not since the day you found my family in the snow.”
Prost spoke, his head bowed. Laken nodded.
“Then I will answer that faith. Rise, my [Steward]. I am back. And though much grief has passed, I intend to begin mending my errors. Rise. And look: I did not return alone.”
He pointed. Ryoka saw, behind him, another procession travelling on foot. A few were mounted, but the majority of the [Engineers] and [Builders] walked. They too broke into a run when they saw the gathering. And one of the mounted men, Gamel, raced towards the crowd with Tessia riding behind him.
“It’s the [Engineers]! They’ve all returned!”
Some of the villagers exclaimed excitedly. Laken nodded, and those who knew the people running towards them broke out of the crowd and met them. The delighted laughter and exclamations felt odd to Ryoka’s ears. Unfamiliar after so long without hearing them. But oh, so welcome.
The young man on horseback, Gamel, dismounted. He bowed precisely towards Laken.
“Thank you, Gamel. Tessia, your parents are over that way.”
Laken pointed to his left. Tessia cried out and ran to an older couple fighting their way through the crowd. Gamel smiled. Laken turned his head.
“Do you have anyone you would like to see, Gamel?”
“No one not buried, your Majesty. And they can wait. Your orders?”
The [Emperor] paused. And then he nodded.
“Very well, Gamel, with me. Mister Prost, Lady Rie, Durene, and Lord Yitton, would you all walk with me?”
Laken turned his head. And Ryoka saw him nod once towards her. But then he set off, with the five people trailing after him. The crowd parted as Laken walked forwards. The [Emperor] turned his head.
“Lady Rie, a delight to hear your voice.”
“You flatter me, your Majesty. Was your return uneventful?”
“Besides witnessing the devastation? Quite. However, my delayed return has given me time to assess the damage. We have much to do.”
“Yes, sire. Only—”
Prost hesitated. Laken turned towards him.
“Yes, Mister Prost?”
The [Steward] wavered. Their conversation was being followed by everyone present. And the moment of Laken’s arrival was passing. Ryoka could see the others appraising him. Waiting on his words. Prost raked a hand through his greying hair.
“I don’t know where to begin. The fire that…Drake caused didn’t damage Riverfarm much. But there was a [Witch].”
“Belavierr. Yes. I understood most of what transpired from Lady Rie’s [Message].”
Laken’s word caused a shudder to run through those around him. The [Emperor] paused. And he looked around.
“Mister Prost, I understand. Riverfarm has been through so much. But, surely you haven’t reached the limits of your stamina the moment I return? Or am I overestimating you [Farmers] and village folk?”
He smiled at the slight flush on Prost’s face. Laken shook his head, forestalling the man’s reply.
“I know. Yet, we have been through worse, Prost. I remember a village covered in snow. A time when we fought in the streets of Riverfarm. We have seen times just as dark. And each time, Riverfarm rebuilt itself. This time, mercifully, there is more left. And I will replace the rest piece by piece. But I can’t do it alone. May I lean on you for help?”
“Of course. Of course, your Majesty.”
Prost’s voice cleared. And he looked around, assessing, a spark back in his eyes. Laken nodded.
“This is still a home. And it has weathered both ice and fire. And I am finally back. So, let us get to work! And then break open the stores and toast and mourn! Miss Yesel! Chimmy!”
He reached out, addressing the girl and woman in the crowd. Others gathered around. Laken turned, addressing people by their names. Smiling. Prost had to eventually shout for order, and help Laken extricate himself from the crowd. Laughing, the [Emperor] continued onwards.
“Very well, Mister Prost. I see that Riverfarm’s folk are hale and hearty. But the village is quite a bit bigger than I remember. Will you introduce me to the newcomers?”
He turned and faced the other folk. They shifted, a bit disconcerted by the stare that was not a stare with Laken’s closed eyes. Prost nodded.
“These are folk from other towns and villages, your Majesty. Some from small places like Fendele, others larger places like Tulntown. Most are from Lancrel, though.”
“Ah, yes. Lancrel.”
Laken murmured. A shadow crossed his brow. He nodded, turning his head to regard the crowd.
“I welcome you all. I regret that I was not here earlier. And I thank you for your efforts in building Riverfarm. I am Laken Godart. Riverfarm’s [Emperor]. I will meet with all of you in time and learn who each of you is. Today though, we have work to do. Riverfarm has endured a great disaster. But it stands. And it will become greater still.”
Murmuring. The people watched Laken, some wary, others disbelieving. Many hopeful. Because he was blind. But Laken was confident. He didn’t hesitate. He was turning back to Prost when a voice rang out.
“Excuse me! Excuse me! Make way!”
Ryoka, listening, winced as she saw a familiar face pushing through the crowd. And Councilwoman Beatica did have to push. Her metaphorical stocks were in the dumps after the disaster that had left her with some magically-healed burns and countless others dead in the river. But she still faced Laken, breathless.
“Pardon me. Your…Majesty.”
“Yes? Can I help you, Miss?”
Laken paused, turning back to Councilwoman Beatica with a bemused look on his face. Surely he had to know who she was—but his brows rose. Lady Rie glared and urgently whispered in his ear, but the [Emperor] stepped forwards.
Everyone was watching this too. Councilwoman Beatica smoothed her dress, straightened, and spoke with every shred of authority she had. She smiled ingratiatingly—until it occurred to her that was pointless on Laken.
“I am Councilwoman Beatica, your—your Majesty. And I am pleased to welcome you on behalf of—”
She got no further. Laken, with impeccable timing, raised his brows and exclaimed.
He whirled, cutting off Beatica’s flow and frowned at Lady Rie.
“I didn’t know Riverfarm had elected a council. Nor that my people were intending to replace my [Steward], Mister Prost. What is the meaning of this, Lady Rie?”
For a moment the [Lady] looked as surprised as anyone else. Then she smiled.
“Your pardon, Emperor Godart, but I’m afraid you misheard Councilwoman Beatica. She was not referring to Riverfarm’s council.”
“Not referring to…?”
Laken’s frown made the smile on Beatica’s face waver. She licked her lips.
“I am of Lancrel, your Majesty, but as I was saying—”
“Ah, Lancrel. Of course.”
Laken lightly tapped the heel of his palm on his forehead. He smiled, and nodded. Then, suddenly, he focused on Councilwoman Beatica.
“This is Riverfarm, Miss Beatica. You are aware of that?”
The woman spluttered.
The [Emperor] nodded happily. Then he walked right past her.
“I am delighted to meet you, Miss Beatica. However, I must attend to Riverfarm’s pressing needs at the moment. I look forwards to meeting you with the rest of my new subjects when time permits.”
“If you have an issue, you may address it to one of my subordinates if they have time for you, Miss Beatica. However, your former station does not grant you any authority here. Lancrel’s folk are welcome here—as citizens of the Unseen Empire.”
Ryoka enjoyed seeing the woman’s face go slack. She opened her mouth, but Laken was already ignoring her. He addressed the rest of the crowd, who had seen Councilwoman Beatica’s power evaporate like, well, an idea.
“If you have come here, you are my people. No less regardless from whence you came, but no more than that either. Any of you might be a leader. And you will have chances to rise to the occasion. But right now, in this moment, my [Steward] is Mister Prost. Lady Rie is his counterpart. The man who stands next to me is Gamel, my aide and [Knight]. Lord Yitton Byres has come to visit Riverfarm. Durene is my consort and [Paladin]. And I will rely on each of them to manage Riverfarm. Now, let us begin.”
Laken clapped his hands. And the air was suddenly brisk. He strode back to Riverfarm, and the five adjutants followed him. And everyone else thereafter. Laken spoke briskly, turning his head to Mister Prost.
“There are three main issues that need attending to now. Firstly, the fires and aftermath. I sense no remaining embers after the rain. The sacrifice of the…[Witch] must have caused that.”
He paused, and turned his head towards the five [Witches] watching him. Laken nodded and went on.
“However, there is much to do. Mister Prost, I am placing you in charge of the repair work. A number of buildings on the western and southern edges of Riverfarm are damaged. Begin pulling down any that can’t be repaired. Next, I want teams of sweepers removing all this ash and dust before we breathe it in. Wash it down the street with buckets if you have to.”
“At once, sire.”
Prost beamed. He looked ten years younger as Laken smiled. The [Emperor] nodded towards the distant river and the fields beyond it.
“Lastly, I want [Farmers] to begin replanting fields and every [Hunter] and [Archer] you can spare in another team. There’s a herd of deer—regular deer—who fled the fires. They’re north of us, about eight miles. Have wagons ready to bring back the carcasses.”
“Hunting, your Majesty?”
Prost exclaimed, but in the next moment he was nodding.
“Absolutely. It will be done, sire. Let me get—”
He began looking around, but Laken held up a hand.
“No need to deal with all of it yourself, Mister Prost. That does remind me. Before you set to work—excuse me, you, sir, and you, Miss, with the hammer in the belt. Step forwards please.”
Laken turned and unerringly pointed to two people in the crowd. There was a start, but the two he’d indicated came forwards slowly. Ryoka recognized both. Laken nodded to the man and the woman.
“Ram, isn’t it? And [Forewoman] Beycalt. I’ve heard of both of you.”
“You have? I mean, your Majesty?”
Beycalt stammered. Ram looked delighted.
“You remember me, Emperor Laken?”
“I do indeed. Ram from Windrest. How could I forget? And you, Miss Beycalt, I’ve heard good things of. Both of you.”
Both man and woman bowed their heads, flushing. Laken went on, speaking in a loud, carrying voice as he turned back to Mister Prost.
“Mister Prost, you’ve done a splendid job as [Steward], as has Lady Rie. But no man or woman can handle an entire village alone, let alone one of Riverfarm’s size. Thus, I am naming Mister Ram my [Head Farmer], and Forewoman Beycalt my [Construction Supervisor]. Both will be in charge of their respective fields and have the authority to issue orders and promote people below them to jobs such as [Foreman]. Or [Forewoman].”
Ram exclaimed. Beycalt’s eyes bulged.
“Of course. A [Forewoman] can’t handle Riverfarm’s construction, can she? Nor can Mister Prost manage everything himself. You’ve both held your positions of authority under him. I am simply confirming it. With a class change. Let me know if you don’t level up.”
Laken turned, smiling slightly. Then his voice sharpened again.
“Mister Prost, Supervisor Beycalt, Headman Ram, please take whomever you need! Mister Prost will confer with you.”
The [Steward] nodded, and, beaming, clapped Ram on the shoulder. The former [Rancher] pointed at Laken. So did Beycalt.
“But he just—a [Supervisor]?”
“To work, Beycalt! And you, Ram! It’s nothing you can’t handle, or his Majesty wouldn’t have chosen you. All you have to do is pick folks you know can do the job. Just like before. Beycalt, you know who can swing a hammer! We’ll start with the edges first, and Ram, how many hands do you need to replant and expand?”
The confused expression faded from both’s faces. They glanced back at Laken and he nodded. He looked sideways and addressed the young man walking beside him.
“Gamel. Please introduce Tessia and our [Engineers] to Supervisor Beycalt. They’ll be helpful in setting up those houses. And get me a big piece of parchment as well. Riverfarm’s layout is good, but I want to update it. I’ll need—”
“Drawing charcoal sire, I will have it in a minute. [Engineers], with me!”
Gamel’s call stirred the crowd. He turned and marched backwards, towards Tessia and the others. And then Prost, Ram, and Beycalt were calling names, and men and women, realizing they’d be called on, were halting. Meanwhile, the procession was continuing, heading into the village. Laken was glancing up at the sky, or rather, tilting his head up since he didn’t need to see.
“I feel like I’m going to be hit in the head with a raindrop any second. Let’s get ready for rain. And get some food ready! Have people had a filling meal, Lady Rie?”
“Some food, yes, Emperor Godart. I wouldn’t call it filling.”
“Then let’s have a rolling lunch. [Cooks] to their stations! We have a number of cookhouses now, don’t we? We’ll run food out to the [Farmers] if it’s not pouring. But that’s a smaller task. Now—the second issue. Beniar! Why are you hanging back there?”
He waved at the crowd. At his words, the armored [Cataphract] pushed his way forwards, beaming.
“Your Majesty! I didn’t want to presume!”
“And here I was expecting you to ride me down and hug me in that uncomfortable armor. Get over here! You’re needed! The Darksky Riders have been Riverfarm’s shield and sword—I’m going to have to expand your ranks as well as honor the lot of you!”
There was a whoop from behind Beniar. He strode forwards as Laken turned, taking the course around the village. He gestured at Lady Rie and Beniar next. Ryoka, hurrying to watch him, saw Lord Yitton watching with approval and fascination—Durene with pride.
“Lady Rie. I count seventeen groups on the road. Find me a map and take Beniar and his Darksky Riders. Once I’ve located them for you, send the [Riders] to them and invite them to join Riverfarm. Few villages remain standing. Two towns were half-destroyed. Send the [Riders] to those towns as well.”
Lady Rie looked worried. Laken’s face sobered.
“Yes. And too many were caught by the fire. But those who did make it are by and large homeless. I intend to do what Ryoka did and offer them Riverfarm’s security.”
He nodded in Ryoka’s direction. The City Runner jumped as every head swung towards her for a moment. That was another thing. In Invrisil, Laken had just been…blind. But here, it was like he had eyes in the back of his head as well as everywhere else! It was adding to the impression he made as he spoke. Lady Rie frowned.
“What if they decline, your Majesty?”
Laken shook his head.
“It is an offer they may refuse. Riverfarm can feed them and house them, but it is a choice, Lady Rie. Which is why we need to bring in food now. Which reminds me…”
He snapped his fingers, vexed. Then he turned as Gamel hurried back towards him.
“Gamel! I also have a list of bodies of water with fish in them! Anyone who knows how to fish will need to be transported to and from those spots—but not overharvest any one location! Get me two maps, one for Lady Rie, another for Prost! And that parchment!”
“Yes, your Majesty—”
Laken turned back to Lady Rie, nodding.
“Food, as I said. And if the groups do agree to enter Riverfarm, they must be found places to sleep, and heads counted, lists of their classes and useful Skills accounted for. Negotiations are in order as well; we will need to work with every town and city nearby to repair so much damage. Lady Rie, I am entrusting that role to you and whomever you would like to appoint. Perhaps you have a list of some of our more diplomatic members of Riverfarm?”
Lady Rie inhaled. And somewhere in the crowd, Beatica looked up eagerly. Laken’s smile was all too knowing.
“We may need managers to distribute goods, Lady Rie. To coordinate cooking, supplies—any number of roles! I will entrust their appointment to you, Lady Rie. They are under your authority, of course. Send whomever you please on horseback at once. And while you’re at it, about fifty eight totems have been burned. Jelov will need to replace them.”
The [Lady] could not have looked more pleased if Laken had told her she could hit Beatica with a broom. Her head turned and the [Councilwoman] paled as Lady Rie smiled ghoulishly at her. Ryoka guessed that the most distant city or town would soon be getting a newly-appointed diplomat visiting them. Probably riding the most ill-tempered mule Rie could find. The [Lady] curtseyed.
“At once, your Majesty. I will see to everything that needs doing. And confer with you as to the location of these groups in…thirty minutes? Very good, your Majesty. Oh, Miss Yesel? A word, if you would. And you too, Mister Tharei. I suppose you as well, Miss Beatica. Come along now!”
She strode off, taking more people with her. That was the trick to it, Ryoka realized. Laken was still moving. He hadn’t even paused when Rie took her leave. He was speaking to Jelov next. The [Carpenter] had somehow managed to get between Durene and Yitton and was now beam-spitting at Laken.
“Your Majesty, so glad to see you! Knew you’d be back, and hope you whooped those Goblins a second arse! You need new totems? Of course! They burned, didn’t they? Fire does that, ‘least, if we carve it of plain wood. We could make some out of fireproof stuff, but that costs the earth and’s hard to work, so it is! But you need more? Can do! Me and a few of the other, heh, [Carpenters]’ll be glad to do it! Of course, I’d be glad to lead them…”
He waggled his eyebrows in a way that made Ryoka vaguely nauseated, but Laken’s lack of sight meant he didn’t even pause. He smiled and patted Jelov on the shoulder as he wiped his face with a sleeve.
“Good work, Jelov. But I haven’t decided on a [Royal Carpenter] yet. I’d prefer you of course, but I understand Prost’s had words with you about selling trinkets. Please do something about the coins in the floorboard under your bed. It’s distracting me. Now, onto the third issue at hand.”
As the [Carpenter] choked on his own tongue, Laken turned to face the group still following him. More and more people were being called away, but a great number still watched Laken. Among them were the [Witches], who had made their way to the front. As well as Ryoka and Charlay. The Centauress was tugging on Ryoka’s arm.
“That’s Riverfarm’s [Emperor]! But he’s blind! And he can see everything? Is it a Skill! He’s pretty cool! Hey, you know him, Ryoka?”
“The last issue. Shut up, Charlay.”
Ryoka muttered back. She watched as the [Witches] straightened expectantly. Laken paused. Then he walked right past the [Witches] and stopped in front of Charlay and Ryoka. He looked up at them as all five [Witches] turned, looking peeved under their pointed hats. Laken nodded absently.
“The third task is Gralton. But first—Ryoka Griffin. It’s been a while.”
Ryoka didn’t know whether to smile or frown at Laken. Since it wouldn’t matter, she did neither. Laken paused. The two stood together, unsaid words spilling in the air. Laken nodded.
“I owe you a debt, Ryoka. And we have much to discuss. But later.”
“We are here as well, [Emperor] of men. Do not ignore us.”
A voice spoke menacingly from behind Laken. He paused, and then turned around. The [Witch] who had spoken, Mavika, received a blank not-a-stare.
“That was hardly my intention, Miss [Witch]. Ryoka Griffin is a friend of the throne. And you, my guests of whom I have heard so much. I greet you, and hope the hospitality you have been offered has suited you. To whom am I speaking?”
It was well done. Mavika paused. And it was Eloise who replied, with a curtsey as formal as Lady Rie’s.
“Your Majesty, Emperor Godart. I am Witch Eloise and this is Witch Mavika. We are [Witches] who have come to request an audience on behalf of the [Witches] of Izril. We five are part of a coven and we ask that you hear our petition when time may allow. We formally greet you and thank you for your hospitality—as well as forbearance for any incidents our number may have caused you during our stay.”
She tipped her hat, and stepped on Mavika’s foot while elbowing Hedag. The other [Witches] bowed or nodded. Mavika just glared, before jerking her head. Laken tilted his head in reply.
“I greet you, [Witches] of Riverfarm’s Coven. I am aware of the great debt I owe you, and the [Witch] known as Miss Califor especially. Your actions have saved Riverfarm and I will not forget that.”
The other [Witches] nodded approvingly. Laken went on with a slight frown.
“However, I understand that one of your number has brought death and strife to Riverfarm. She has slain a [Knight] and [Hunters] from Terandria’s guild on my lands, taken the life out of one of my subjects and—coerced others to their deaths. Tell me. Do you claim the Stitch Witch, Belavierr, as one of your own?”
The question went straight back towards Mavika. And all the [Witches], Ryoka, and everyone else paused to hear their response. Mavika bared her teeth.
“No. She has taken the life of her fellow [Witches] without cause. This coven has found her wanting. She is welcome among neither [Witches] nor men.”
“Very well. In that case, I bid you all welcome. Avail yourselves of my hospitality until we have the opportunity to meet. But as I mentioned, it is Lord Gralton that needs must attend to. Yitton, have we heard anything more from him?”
The man that had been accompanying Laken stepped forwards. Ryoka saw an older man’s face, lined and stern, but quite well-kept. European, like the landed nobility of Izril’s human population, turning to grey from the dark blonde. It was also somewhat familiar. Ryoka narrowed her eyes. Wait. Byres?
“Nothing yet, your Majesty.”
“Then it’s safe to say Gralton’s situation is unchanged. And he is in need.”
“Who’s Gralton, Laken?”
Durene whispered, and then turned red when everyone stared at her. Laken patted her arm reassuringly.
“Gralton is one of two [Lords] who accompanied me back, Durene. Remember, I wrote of them?”
“Oh, right. Where is he?”
“In his estates. Which is the problem. His lands were hit by a mysterious plague around the same time as Riverfarm was.”
Someone cursed. Laken nodded gravely.
“Exactly. But his ailment was sickness. It’s in his kennels. He’s falling apart over it. Which brings me to my issue.”
He turned back to the coven, who were all watching him like hawks, save for Mavika, who had a crowish glare. Laken nodded.
“Ladies, [Witches], first, how may I address you?”
Hedag laughed. She leaned on her axe, speaking at Laken under her wide, brown hat.
“Call us [Witches], you who call yourself [Emperor]. For that is what we are. And you.”
Laken nodded, turning his head left and right as if to catch Hedag’s voice and memorize it. He paused, and then went on.
“Very well. [Witches], I have a request for you as [Emperor] of Riverfarm and the Unseen Empire. At this moment, a friend of mine, a [Lord], is struck by disaster. The same Drakes who set fire to Riverfarm have engineered a plague in his lands. Or perhaps it is poison, a combination of both. As we speak, his dogs and people lie dying. Gralton’s [Healers] are stymied by the sickness. But [Witches] might have better luck. Have any of you the craft to heal Gralton’s sick?”
The request caught the entire coven off-guard. Ryoka saw them exchange looks, and then all turn to stare at Eloise. The tea [Witch] pursed her lips and answered after a moment.
“I may. It is a sudden request, your Majesty. But—several of us know the craft of poison or remedy thereof to some extent. Are you requesting us to come to this Lord Gralton’s aid?”
“If I asked it, would you agree? I would consider it a boon that would not go unrewarded.”
The coven paused. Mavika glared and replied waspishly.
“A boon to be repaid with words, or deeds, [Emperor] of men? If you would seek to ask for our deeds, do you have aught to offer or do you simply make a request.”
Laken raised an eyebrow.
“Witch Mavika, is it? I poorly phrased my statement. Of course, I offer payment for services rendered. But the question I wished to ask was whether you would consider doing it at all.”
“That depends on the offer.”
Eloise hissed. Mavika ignored her. Laken smiled, though. It almost looked like he was enjoying himself. But his tone was courteous as he nodded.
“Of course. Then, to cure Gralton’s lands, I offer you coin and an [Emperor]’s gratitude. Witch Eloise, do you desire gold?”
“It is always welcome, your Majesty.”
The [Witch] replied smoothly. Laken nodded thoughtfully.
“In that case—four hundred gold coins to each [Witch] who has the skill to heal Gralton’s ill.”
“I’ll do it!”
Alevica’s hand shot up before Laken had finished speaking. All the coven looked at her. Alevica was still pale, but the light of avarice had given her new energy. Eloise hesitated.
“I as well. As a favor to both his Majesty and for those in need. We shall set out at once, then. We may require horses. I may, at any rate, if Alevica is well enough to fly.”
“Excellent. I will provide you with directions and transport. Are there any among you who can cure poisons? Wiskeria?”
The [Witch] hesitated and then shook her head.
“Not me, Laken. I can do some, but Eloise and Alevica can do far more than I can. But maybe…”
She glanced at Hedag. The [Executioner] shook her head.
“Not I. And little Nanette—no. But Mavika might.”
Everyone looked at Mavika. The crow [Witch] folded her arms. Some of her crows were circling overhead, cawing. Frostwing flew through them, screaming, and they scattered.
“I have knowledge of poison and ills. But gold does not motivate this [Witch]’s will.”
She sounded like she was just being stubborn, if the look on Eloise’s face was anything to go by. But Laken was equal to the challenge. He bowed, very politely, which surprised Ryoka until she remembered. German folklore meant he was probably aware of the dangers of insulting as much as she. Or he just understood what Mavika was like.
“Witch Mavika, if gold does not suit you, what about food? Four hundred pounds of food for your flocks, whenever you ask it. Meat or grain. So long, of course, as you do all in your power to come to Gralton’s aide.”
In fact, he really understood her. Laken must have memorized the descriptions of each [Witch]. Mavika blinked. And the crow perched on a roof overhead cawed hungrily. She wavered, and then nodded grudgingly.
“Excellent. Then, I, Laken Godart, do swear to pay your price due if you swear to work to your utmost within the spirit of your vow and reason to bring aid to Gralton’s land.”
Laken held out his hand and Mavika shook it. He turned, nodding, and looked at the young man hurrying up towards him with his arms full.
“We may need to borrow a house. The throne room doesn’t have tables, as I recall, Gamel. Lady Rie is that way—we’ll convene with her. I require a larger map to show these [Witches] where Gralton’s lands are.”
“I will see to it at once, sire!”
Gamel wheezed. Laken led the way towards Lady Rie’s house as Gamel hurried inside. The [Emperor] was muttering to Yitton, and Ryoka edged forwards with Charlay to listen.
“Yitton, tell Gralton he’s going to have to put up the gold when they arrive. Eight hundred pieces. I think he’ll call that cheap for his dogs, don’t you?”
“I do indeed.”
Then the two City Runners jumped as Laken turned to them. Laken was smiling again. He paused as Charlay drew up, suddenly nervous.
“Ryoka, would you introduce me to your friend? Dustrider Charlay, I presume?”
“I—that’s right! You know my nickname?”
Charlay was thunderstruck. Laken charming.
“Of course. Dustrider Charlay, I must thank you for aiding Ryoka as well as coming to Riverfarm’s aid in its time of crisis. I will not forget it, but at this moment I have a request. Tell me, would you consent to a delivery? I would like to send a [Witch] straight to Lord Gralton’s lands. And a letter, from me, explaining the situation.”
The Centauress looked pleased, and then alarmed.
“I can do it! But—wait a second. I have to carry someone? On my back?”
He only smiled. Ryoka nearly did. But she was watching him. Hesitating. At last, Charlay nodded.
“Well—if it’s Eloise, sure! If it’s Alevica, forget about it!”
“Up yours, horse. I can fly!”
Laken ignored Alevica. He nodded.
“In that case, I would prevail on you to transport Witch Eloise and a letter. For a delivery fee of…twenty five gold pieces?”
Charlay hesitated. Ryoka nearly whistled, but in the face of the price he’d offered the two [Witches], it wasn’t that much. It was good for a delivery that would probably be safe, just fast, but…Charlay gave Ryoka a side-long look.
“Well…I could definitely do it. If I uh, was paid a bit more? You’re paying the [Witches] um…twelve times what you’re paying me!”
She looked hopeful as her tail swished back and forth. Laken frowned.
“Can you cure an entire province of poisoned dogs?”
“No…but I can run really fast.”
Charlay pouted. Laken paused.
“The distance is three days for someone on horseback without Skills. If you can make it in two, I’ll triple your fee.”
“Alright! In that case, get on Eloise! I’ll get you to this Gralton’s place in no time! Which way!”
Charlay reared and Laken dodged back, looking vaguely alarmed. He turned his head towards Ryoka and made a bemused face. Then Lady Rie was hurrying out with a map. The [Witches] crowded around. Mavika nodded.
“My flock and I can make the journey in two days as well. One, if the winds fly behind us.”
“I can make it in two days. Probably.”
Alevica gritted her teeth, poking her stomach. Laken looked around.
“Do so at all speed, please. Time is off the essence. Gralton’s dogs aren’t all dead, but many are dying by the hour. As are his people, to a lesser extent. I will send him a [Message] informing him you are arriving. He will give you all the aid you require. However, do you need anything prepared in advance?”
The [Witches] conferred briefly. Mavika looked up.
“If it is plague, Feverwort. If it is poison—easier. Eloise’s teas purge the body. I have other ways. Sage’s Grass if it is poison. Sage’s Grass, pure charcoal and the venoms of many creatures. Preferably the Drake who spat poison if it lives.”
“I’m told Gralton’s surviving dogs ripped it apart. But I’ll send a [Message] at once. Nesor!”
Laken called, and the young man standing at the table behind him jumped. Ryoka watched as Laken conferred, began working on a map with Lady Rie—and then Mister Prost entered the room to receive his own copy of a map with fishing spots. Ryoka’s hermit-fisher friend was one of the people he sent to collect the bounty. And Ryoka—just watched.
He needed Prost, Rie, and the others. Laken had a plan, one borne of time on the road and his [Emperor]’s sight, but he needed people he could trust to implement his plans. And what he had was an edge—the ability to see where animals were, or fish, pinpoint people exactly—and that was a huge advantage. But what he was really giving the people of Riverfarm was, was purpose. Prost had tried, but he wasn’t a leader in that way. Laken was. He had a vision, and the moment he’d returned, Riverfarm had begun moving and shaping itself around that vision.
In a way, he was like a [Witch]. But one who had made an empire his craft. And Ryoka saw, evaluated, and compared it to the Laken she had met in Invrisil, and the one she had heard about who had led Goblins to a siege at Liscor. This third Laken and the other two mixed and mingled. And she thought, until Durene burst through the doors with a panicked shout.
“Laken! There’s a caravan coming this way! A lot of wagons with bars! They’re filled with Goblins.”
Everyone in the room froze. And Ryoka looked up. Laken calmly raised his head.
“Yes. Yes they are. I told you I was bringing them back.”
“But—they’re coming here! Into the village!”
Laken paused. He frowned.
“That could be dangerous. I agree. Durene, with me. Prost, Rie, I won’t be long.”
He strode out of the room. Ryoka followed, her heart beating faster. Goblins? Could one of them be…?
The wagons were huge, and packed with Goblins. It was a huge procession of them! Dozens of wagons, all with bars, lurching slowly towards Riverfarm. The people had seen them and were crying out in shock. Laken walked towards the caravan, which had an escort of…it had to be at least a hundred [Guards]. Perhaps three times that many Goblins, or more.
Ryoka felt sick, watching them crammed together, staring out. Durene just shuddered with hatred, but Ryoka was scanning each face, for a familiar Goblin. She didn’t see Rags. And she could sense the hostility behind her.
“Everyone, back to your work! Emperor Laken has this in hand! Back to work, I say!”
Prost had followed Laken outside. He stood with the [Emperor], and Ryoka distinctly heard him and Laken exchanging some words.
“…will find a place later. [Guards], yes, but not one is to be—”
Laken broke off and raised a hand. A relieved-looking man was riding towards him, a sword at his side. Laken called out.
“[Caravan Master] Dintal! Thank you for your tireless work. I will commend your name to the Merchant’s Guild and issue you and your men a bonus for your efforts.”
“It’s a relief to be here, your Majesty! Where do you want these Goblins?”
The man called out, pulling to a stop before Laken. The [Emperor] smiled thinly, clearly aware of the stares he was getting.
“I have a spot picked out, Dintal. However, I have one last task for you. Move the caravan south, along the river. I have a spot picked out for you. Until I give you the word, guard the Goblins. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who attacks them, you will stop. Without killing, preferably. But if any Goblin dies, and I will regretfully withhold both your bonus and commendation. Thank you.”
And with that, Laken turned his back and kept speaking to Mister Prost. Dintal stared, but then he looked resigned. Ryoka saw him turn and whistle.
“You heard Emperor Godart! Move the Goblins! And stay clear of the wagons, everyone! These bastards’ll throw their shit at you! Throw a stone and don’t be surprised if they throw it back! Come on, move it!”
And the caravan moved, turning down the road. Ryoka saw the exclamations and fear and hatred on the people’s faces—but she was more curious about the resigned looks on the faces of the [Guards]. Not malice. And the Goblins just stared. They were watching Laken, looking around. Not with hostility, necessarily. But a keen intelligence. And Laken was watching them.
“I’ll have Gamel instruct Dintal. And I’ll need some of Beniar’s people and folk you can trust watching the wagons, Prost. No—I’ll make Dintal’s men stay another night. I’ll have to pay them well, too. But keep Riverfarm’s folk moving and they won’t be able to interfere until I settle matters with the Goblins.”
“Yes, your Majesty.”
Prost didn’t look happy as he kept staring at the wagons, but he did obey. That was a sign of loyalty alright. But Ryoka just stared at Laken. His head was still following the Goblin carts. And he eventually looked back at her. Laken didn’t smile this time. He just looked weary.
“Part of the road home, Ryoka. And there’s no road to redemption or forgiveness. But I have to do this.”
She didn’t reply. After a moment, Laken nodded back towards Riverfarm.
“Back to work. The Goblins will have to wait. They’ve waited for over two months; I’ll subject them to another day.”
He walked back towards the village. Ryoka saw him enter Lady Rie’s house, but she didn’t follow him. The City Runner looked around.
Riverfarm was in full bustle. And the three [Witches] had already left, along with Charlay. Only Wiskeria and Hedag remained. The [Executioner] was leaning on her axe, her eyes alight with interest as she watched people moving with a renewed sense of purpose.
“Some [Emperor] this is. I’d heard stories and I’ve met a [King], but this is a man like few others! Is it his class that does it, or him?”
She laughed. Ryoka would have liked to know that too. Wiskeria shook her head. She looked relieved. Relieved, and still heartbroken.
“He’s back. Finally.”
She made no move to follow Laken. Nor had he called for her among his advisors. But it was Hedag who pushed Wiskeria gently towards the house. She looked at the older [Witch].
“You’re the one who stayed here and forced us to come to you, Wiskeria-girl. Go and do what you must. I’ll stay with Nanette.”
The [Witches] exchanged a glance. And then Wiskeria nodded, squared her shoulders, and walked into Lady Rie’s house. Ryoka looked at Hedag. And the [Executioner] grinned.
“And where do you fit into this village now, Ryoka-girl?”
The City runner looked around. She looked at the hopeful faces, at the scorched land. At Hedag, and listened for Laken’s voice. Then she shook her head.
Hedag laughed. She slapped Ryoka on the back.
“You’d have made a fine [Witch], girl. A fine [Witch].”
Night fell. Laken Godart worked into it. Riverfarm had so much that needed doing, and he was finally back. He only stopped when Lady Rie and Mister Prost both stopped taking his orders. Then Laken realized he was exhausted and needed some sleep.
“There’s always tomorrow. I’ll sleep, I’ll sleep, Prost! Don’t threaten me with Yesel.”
Laken yawned. He looked around, intending to tell Gamel to prepare a bed. And then he stopped. Slowly, his head turned.
“Oh. I’m back, aren’t I?”
It was alone that Laken came to Durene’s cottage. Well, not alone; Gamel had walked him the entire way there, and the [Knight] was hovering by the gates. Laken had to throw rocks in his vague direction until the young man finally left him. And then Laken took a few minutes before he knocked on the door.
He didn’t know why he did that. Frostwing was already screeching inside, and Laken was pushing Bismarck’s head away from licking him when Durene opened the door. The [Paladin] stared at Laken. He stared back.
“It’s good to see you, Durene. May I…come in?”
“Oh. Sure. I mean, we saw each other just—”
“…Come in! Of course! It’s your…”
Laken walked inside. The house wasn’t exactly like he remembered, but he’d known that as soon as he focused on it. Durene was sleeping in the kitchen, and someone had occupied her bed. It was messier, with more work needed on the roof and some unwashed dishes in the counter—Frostwing’s nest was bigger and Bismarck had made his own den around back—but it was familiar.
And not. So was Durene. Laken awkwardly stood with her for a bit before they sat down at the kitchen table. Neither one knew where to begin, and when they did—
“You brought Goblins back. And you took months doing it.”
“I had to, Durene. I explained it. Goblins are people—”
“I thought you of all people would understand.”
“What’s that supposed to mean.”
“Durene, you’re half-Troll. Goblins are—”
“Trolls aren’t the same as Goblins!”
“No. But they’re both considered monsters. And neither are. Durene, Goblins—”
“Killed my friends! They killed the army and they burned and killed and hurt a bunch of people! You were there, Laken! Remember fighting them at Riverfarm?”
“I’d never forget. But—”
“But what? But what?”
“Listen to me! But they’re not all alike! Or are all Humans alike?”
“They’re evil. All of ‘em.”
“How can you say that?”
“How can you say there are good ones? Has anyone ever met a good Goblin? No one has!”
“Maybe because no one’s given them a chance. How many good Trolls can you name?”
“Don’t you dare—”
“If I let them die, the army would have hacked them to pieces. Goblins who’d surrendered. Goblins who couldn’t fight. Children.”
“Don’t give me that look.”
“I’m not giving you any look. You can’t even see it.”
“I can tell you’re giving me a look, Durene. I have an [Emperor]’s senses.”
“Well, why didn’t you sense how I felt about this!”
“Because it’s not about you, Durene.”
“How is it not about me when the Goblins killed my friends?”
“I—I’m sorry. You’re right, it affects you. But Durene—those Goblins are people. And if I killed them, or let them die, knowing what I do now, I’d never forgive myself. And I wouldn’t be an [Emperor]. Or at least, not one you’d like.”
“The Goblins stay, Durene. And they’ll be protected, given the same rights as anyone else. If they kill someone, they’ll be punished. If they steal, they’ll be punished. And if someone kills a Goblin, I will treat them like a murderer.”
“No one’s going to like it. And I bet you anything that people like Ram’ll go after the Goblins. If they don’t attack us in our sleep. Are you at least watching them?”
“I have a guard on them now. To protect them from Humans, among other things. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like them, Durene. In fact, it’s fine that way. I’ve got a plan. It may work. But it doesn’t matter if people hate the Goblin’s guts. I will show them…”
Laken trailed off. Their first fight hadn’t been the worst. No one had broken anything. But Laken was more upset by this than anything else this day. He stroked Frostwing’s head as the bird huddled in his lap. He could tell Durene was looking at him. At last, she burst out with it. The Goblins were only part.
“What happened? Laken, what happened when you left? Why was it so long? Why did…what happened?”
And he had no answer for that. He had a plan, an answer for everything else. But not that. Laken hung his head and shook it slowly.
“I made a huge mistake, Durene. And everything—all of this—is a result of it. I made a mistake. I’m so sorry it took me so long to return home.”
She didn’t reply. After a while, she got up and sat beside him. Laken turned his head. He could feel Durene there. But she didn’t embrace him. They just sat together. After a while, Durene wiped at her eyes.
“I thought it would be easier when you came back. I waited and waited.”
He reached for her hand. Durene pulled it away.
“Ryoka had to tell me you’re not perfect. That you make mistakes. I had to…I need to be a [Paladin], Laken. Or I need you to take it away. I can’t be half of it, though. I want to fight. And if you’re wrong about Goblins, maybe you were wrong about me.”
Laken whispered, but the half-Troll girl didn’t respond. So they sat there. Familiar strangers, sitting together in the cottage. Until the door opened.
Laken started. He heard a gasp, and then Ryoka’s voice.
“I’ll just uh, sleep outside. In the village, actually.”
The [Emperor] belatedly remembered the two other cots. Durene stood up hastily.
“No, no! Go back to whatever you were doing!”
The two began, but Ryoka had already shut the door. Laken could hear her retreating, and then a distant voice.
“Hey Wiskeria! You don’t want to go in there—”
Laken and Durene sat in silence after that. They paused, and then one of them began laughing and the other joined in. Somehow, that had helped. In the end, they sat on Durene’s bed. She listened as he told her of what had passed, of what had done. Trying to explain, or maybe justify. And then it was her turn.
“So much happened after I woke up. I can’t even explain…”
“Tell me. Tell me from the start. From the fever.”
And she did. Laken sat, listening to that familiar voice, willing himself not to interject too much, to listen. To understand. Durene sat there, so close it hurt. After a while, he found himself holding her hand. And she looked at him and tried to remember if it had felt like that before he’d left. They slept apart that night. Somehow…it just ended up that way.
[Emperor Level 20!]
[Skill – Group: Surge of Inspiration obtained!]
[Skill – Empire: Fields of Bounty obtained!]
Ryoka saw Laken’s new Skills the next day. The [Emperor] was up at dawn, raring to get to work. And Riverfarm was up with him. She caught him using the Skill on a group of [Woodcutters] who’d volunteered to see what the Skill was about.
“[Surge of Inspiration].”
The group jumped as one, and then patted their bodies and each other, laughing. One of them raised his axe, and uttered a loud yell.
“Dead gods, but I feel awake! I could chop down half a forest myself!”
“Well, it’s just burnt roots and stumps! Come on, let’s get to work! Your Majesty, that’s one Skill I wouldn’t mind you using on us every day! We’ll let you know how long it lasts!”
The leader laughed as he hefted the axe. The group moved off, practically jogging. Laken looked bemused.
“The instant I got back, I leveled up. It’s probably the world’s way of telling me I should never have left. And that Skill! That would have been so useful on the ride back. And the [Fields of Bounty] will allow me to feed all the people coming here.”
He nodded to Ram. The [Head Farmer] was practically bursting with delight, both from his new class that had replaced his [Rancher] class—it was apparently an upgrade—and Laken’s Skills. He indicated the fields which were being expanded again as he spoke to Laken.
“I reckon I can see some of the crops growing, Sire! What with all the Skills us [Farmers] have plus yours—even the grown plants look twice as good as they did yesterday! What do you think, Miss Griffin?”
Ryoka paused. She’d been offered some of the newest crop—corn—and was chewing on it. She gulped and nodded.
“Nice corn. Almost as good as Farmer Lupp’s. Well, half as good.”
Ram looked insulted. Laken just smiled.
“I’m sure that’s a compliment, Mister Ram. Or maybe encouragement. Keep up the good work! I need to attend to the Goblin situation and the refugees coming in. You’ll be fine?”
“Oh, uh, yes, your Majesty! I won’t let you down! Me and the [Farmer]’ll have your storehouses bursting in no time! Just so long as those filthy Goblins don’t slit our throats! But you have a plan for that! We’ll use them as monster bait or workers, right? Something only an [Emperor]’d think up!”
“Something like…well, nothing like that. But you’ll see, Mister Ram. Don’t worry about the Goblins. And keep people from thinking about going after them.”
Laken waved Ram off. Then he turned to Ryoka. Gamel was already waiting with a small horde of people who wanted Laken’s attention.
“Ryoka, I know I promised to talk, but I’m still in the middle of a thousand minor crises. Can you wait? I could use your help with Lady Rie and sending messages if you need something to do.”
Ryoka looked up, startled, and then shook her head.
“What? No. I’m fine. I’m just going to…sit here. If that’s alright.”
Laken nodded and vanished into a crowd. Ryoka barely noticed him go. Then she stood up and went to a house on the edge of Riverfarm. More houses were being built of course; and other buildings too. Laken was creating more than just houses and remodeling some that could become storefronts, other buildings. Even inns.
But the house Ryoka stopped at was just a house. Quiet. So quiet it hurt. And inside were two [Witches]. One was Hedag. The other was Nanette.
“Miss Runner-Girl. Miss Ryoka Griffin. How do you feel?”
Hedag greeted Ryoka. The City Runner paused, and then realized Hedag was indicating her slightly tender-footed gait. Ryoka shrugged.
“No calluses. I burned my feet off on that run. I still smell smoke.”
“Ah, when you led a tornado made of flame. You never said how you did it.”
Hedag’s eyes glinted as she sat next to Nanette. The [Witch] girl was sitting next to her on the ground. Just sitting there, her expression distant. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t…Ryoka forced herself to answer Hedag.
“How’d I know it would follow me? I didn’t. It’s the wind. It didn’t like being held. And tornados—well, I was pretty sure that it would move after me if I gave it a headwind.”
“I see. Well, however it was done, you have a Hedag’s thanks. And a village’s no doubt. Even Califor would have struggled to end that whirlwind and the rest of the fire. Perhaps she might have failed. And then, what a waste, eh?”
Hedag’s cheerful voice made Ryoka flinch. And Califor’s name made her look at Nanette. The girl had stirred once, in reply to the name. But Hedag didn’t look guilty at saying it out loud. The [Executioner] was tender as she combed Nanette’s hair. But she had made the girl eat and drink this morning when she’d refused to. In her way, Hedag was crueler than Mavika. She refused to let Nanette alone.
“I’m sorry. I never should have trusted her.”
That was all Ryoka could say to Nanette. She sat down, looking and not looking at the girl. Hedag watched the two as Ryoka sat there, hating herself more than any other day in her life.
Nanette didn’t respond. She lay there, motionless. Like a doll with its strings cut. Hedag drank. Ryoka spoke, haltingly. Nanette said nothing.
They had made it through the fire, Califor and Nanette. That was the story Wiskeria and the rest of the coven had heard from Nanette, before shattering grief had given way to this. The path of events that had led Califor to return to put out the fire at the cost of her life was simple.
They had met Belavierr. And in that meeting, she had stolen a bit of Nanette’s hair. Just a strand or two. But that was enough. Belavierr hadn’t ever lied. She’d told the truth; she couldn’t stop the wildfire with her craft. She might have if she used all her magic and her life, but she hadn’t wanted to die. And what she could do was kill Nanette. So she’d made Califor an offer. Her daughter or her life.
And to save her daughter from the Stitch Witch, Califor, the legendary [Witch] in her own right, had rode back and stopped the fire. She’d saved Wiskeria. And Belavierr had cheated her death again.
It was such a simple story. All of Belavierr’s stories of her evil were the same. Ryoka felt sick. But this had crossed a line. This hadn’t been a deal, or self-defense. This had been evil. As Nanette sat next to her, Hedag honed her axe.
“This blade’s never ended a [Witch]. Hedags don’t go after [Witches] much. And this Hedag is a [Witch], so there’s less point. In our covens, we look the other way for the sins a [Witch] does so long as it brings no grief upon our kind. We’ve little enough allies to peck each other apart. But when a [Witch] kills another [Witch]—then they are hunted. By other [Witches]. And if ever I meet Belavierr, I owe her a Hedag’s justice.”
Ryoka couldn’t care about that. Belavierr was gone. She had killed Califor. Killed her and left Nanette with nothing. That was what mattered. She had to ask.
Hedag’s voice was too loud. Ryoka and Nanette flinched. Hedag nodded.
“She was Nanette’s mother. If she pretended otherwise, it was to spare Nanette the attention she might have had otherwise. Or else other [Witches] would have looked to her like Wiskeria. Judged. You know how we are.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Ryoka said it again. Hedag snorted. She delicately moved the axe across the whetstone. And her gaze was merciless as she looked at Ryoka.
“Sorrys and regrets have never salved one wound, Wind-Girl. Go. And do what good you may elsewhere. Leave Nanette to herself. And say her name. Califor.”
Ryoka looked at the girl. She was crying, crying without moving. Hedag’s voice was implacable.
“She was Nanette’s mother. And she was named Califor. Don’t pretend she never existed. And you Nanette, let it hurt. Let it hurt or the wound will never heal.”
The girl wept. And Ryoka looked at her and Hedag. And she didn’t have the courage to stay.
It took Laken two days to deal with the Goblins. And when he did, Ryoka was there. She had to be. She didn’t know what Laken intended, but she was ready for…anything. She still had yet to talk to him. Riverfarm was still growing, as more shell-shocked folks made their way here, speaking of the fire. Laken was reorganizing, dealing with the problems of city folk versus villagers, people wanting special treatment because of their class, even petty thefts.
And the thing was, he was dealing with the problems, not patching them up for later. [Thieves] were evicted after a lashing or time in the stocks. People were told to live with their neighbors or politely informed they could leave. And two [Bandit] groups were smashed by Beniar and his [Riders] in night raids almost before they’d been formed.
The [Emperor] was back. And most people couldn’t be happier. But even the happiest, even people like Prost and Durene, feared the Goblins. Twice, people had come after the prisoners in their wagons, for vengeance, or out of fear.
Both times Laken had spotted the trouble coming, but the Goblins? Ryoka knew that Laken couldn’t have turned them loose along his trip without them being hunted down or potentially terrorizing some area, but she couldn’t imagine how he’d handle them now.
She didn’t have to wait any longer. The Goblins were being unloaded out of the wagons. They formed a huge mass, eying the caravan guards and the militia that Laken had recreated warily. The Humans were armed and roughly equal in number to the Goblins; only a few were Hobs. Even so, it felt like the Humans were more terrified than the Goblins at this moment.
They were wary. Oh yes, Ryoka could see some of them looking around, clearly seeking lines of escape. But the place Laken had put them—next to a river curving south from Riverfarm and too far away from a forest and a mountain to the west—wasn’t a good place for running. It was relatively flat, here at least. So the Goblins stayed put. At least, for the moment.
They were strange to Ryoka. She was no Goblin expert, but she could at least tell that they were from different…tribes. Some even had grey skin! Others, a few, were marked with red paint—practically covered with it. One even wore a chef’s hat. It was dirty, and had lost some of its floof, but the little Goblin had it on her head as she hid behind another Hobgoblin who was definitely female. Her entire body was covered in exotic paint and she looked around, warily, watching, listening.
“Well, so this is what you all look like. And you.”
Laken waited until the last Goblin left the carts. Then he addressed them. He didn’t get any closer, but he was speaking to one of the Hobgoblins who wore red paint. The Hobgoblin stared at Laken, but didn’t respond. In fact, the Goblins were eerily quiet and still. Laken sighed. He pointedly turned his head across the Goblin’s ranks.
“I know you can understand me. And I know you’re there. I can’t imagine what you must feel. But we’ve arrived at our destination. And you must know what comes next.”
There was a susurration among the Humans. A slow tensing among the Goblins. Laken nodded.
“A choice. Now, listen to me. And watch.”
He walked forwards. Gamel started and the Humans with weapons wavered, but Laken stopped a good two dozen paces short of the Goblins. He frowned at the ground and then stuck one shoe in the wet earth. It was barren, devoid of grass, but some new shoots were already blooming. Life even after fire. Laken ignored the burgeoning green and dragged his foot along the ground. Everyone stared as the [Emperor] drew a line, straight from the river past the Goblins. He stopped, kicked some mud off the tip of his shoe, and pointed at the line.
“You see this line? Beyond this line is my land. The land of Riverfarm. The Unseen Empire.”
He was addressing the Hobgoblin with the stripes. Laken stepped back. The Redfang Hob walked forwards and investigated the line. He eyed it, and then pointed at the land across the line. Laken nodded.
The Goblin instantly stepped over the line. Ryoka, Beniar—all of the Humans tensed. Laken just chuckled. The Hobgoblin watched, expectantly. Laken nodded.
“Well now, you’re on my land. So that means my laws apply. Steal, harm, or break the laws of Riverfarm and you will face the consequences. And I will tell you each of the laws if you ask. While you are on my land, you will be treated like people. If someone harms you, I will know. And I will punish the guilty. But I cannot promise you will be safe.”
The Hobgoblin stared at him. He looked at the other side of the line. Walked across it. Then he kicked some dirt over the line as if to say, ‘so what’? Laken nodded patiently.
“Beyond this line are Goblin lands. Your territory. And your rules. Perhaps someone will have need to cross this line. If, for instance, some Goblins took something that belonged to Humans. Someone shot a deer and it ran across this line. Sometimes, Humans may need to cross this line. But whether and how we do is up to you. How you act.”
He waited. The Goblins waited. Some of them began picking their noses. Laken continued, undeterred.
“The line isn’t just here. It continues. From here straight up to that mountain. I also warn you that I control much of the land to your south. But if you go south and west too far, you will run into lands claimed by Humans. This immediate area is my territory, for at least twenty miles south of here. And my people will patrol my borders while not stepping onto Goblin lands. You see? Along the river is how far it goes. We will put people down the river, and catch those who might try to hurt you if we can. But again—you know us Humans.”
The Goblins stirred. So did Ryoka. Laken wasn’t promising them much. You know Humans. It was practically a warning. But Laken was saying…Ryoka’s eyes narrowed. The [Emperor] continued, and both Humans and Goblins were listening, trying to figure out what his game was.
“I can see what happens on my land, by the way. I can see what you do. You can try taking vengeance. Or you can run off. I’ll stop you if you attack Humans. I won’t stop you if you run off, or protect you. And this is the only thing I will ever give you. This line. Oh—and this.”
He pointed casually to something behind the Goblins. They turned around and stared at the pile of objects and opened crates. One of them stared inside. A little Goblin poked his hand in and pulled something out. Laken nodded.
“Hammers. Nails. Hoses. Shovels. Etcetera. And food to last you a week, if you manage it. That’s all. Do with it as you will. And remember—my line. My territory. That’s yours.”
He turned and began to walk away. The Goblins stared at his back. Beniar’s jaw was practically falling off his face. Ryoka could feel the disbelief in the air from both sides. That was it? But Laken only stopped once.
“Oh, and one more thing.”
Hundreds of stomachs and butts instinctively clenched. This was it. The [Emperor] pointed back towards the crate.
“It’s right on top of the pillows. Try not to break it.”
The Goblins stared at the crates. The [Emperor] smiled once.
And then he walked away. Slowly, the Humans followed. Some of them were already arguing with the [Emperor].
“Your majesty! We have to set a guard!”
“Then set one.”
“They have weapons!”
“Well, if they use them, I’ll know. This is what an army’s for, Beniar. Speaking of which, we need to begin recruitment and training.”
“What else do you want, Beniar? I’ll let you have it. But no killing Goblins. Anything else I’m fine with.”
And then their voices trailed off. The female Human with bare feet stared at the Goblins a while longer before running off. And the Goblins of four tribes, the tribe of Tremborag, the Great Chieftain of the Mountain, the Redfang Warriors, the Flooded Waters tribe Goblins, and the Solstice Goblins, who had once been Cave Goblins, all stared at each other.
Ulvama was muttering to herself. Some of the Hobs were looking at each other. They had no chieftain. The chieftains might all be dead. Did they form a new tribe? What about the strange, blind Human’s words?
It was one of the Redfangs who made the first move. She was a Hob, and a Redfang, and she had her priorities straight. The first thing the Redfang Hob did was grab the shovel and lift it. She checked it for faults, and swung it once. Nodded.
Sharp. It was no sword, but she could kill something with it. The other Redfang Hobgoblin nodded. He checked the crates, looking at saws, nails, all kinds of things you could make useful weapons from. Or fortifications. He grunted, and two of the smaller Redfang Warriors began arming themselves, debating on how to get ahold of some armor.
And then the Redfang Hob paused. He remembered the [Emperor]’s words. Slowly, suspiciously, he looked for the crate filled with pillows, which some Goblins were already tearing apart for feathers which were good for all kinds of stuff, like toilet paper or arrow fletching. And the Redfang Hob stopped.
The other Goblins saw his posture, saw the shock. Not the alarm, so they crowded closer. And they all stopped, staring down into the crate. At the other thing the [Emperor] had left.
They stared at it. Ulvama blinked. Pebblesnatch came from behind her. The little Cave Goblin’s eyes were wide, because she recognized it too. They all did.
It was the iPhone.
“Emperor Laken wishes to see you, Miss Griffin.”
Three days after he’d arrived, Ryoka finally got the call to meet Laken. She couldn’t blame him, not really. He’d been fielding [Messages] left and right yesterday. Among housing thousands, designing a new village, gathering food and supplies and working out what was essentially a bureaucracy in the making, Laken had also had to deal with the Drakes.
Or rather, one Drake, whose body had been preserved in a coffin. Not out of respect, but necessity. Ryoka could only listen to a few reports, but it appeared that the Drake’s attack on other lands had gone off with mixed success. In places, they’d just done damage and left, like Lord Veltras’ estates. In others, they’d gone in personally and caused damage like Lord Pellmia’s home, where the Drakes had cut down notable figures before retreating—or dying.
However, there were few bodies. Fewer signs of proof. The Drakes had magical objects on them, but most had preferred to destroy their gear before dying. And none had anything that connected them to a city or organization.
It was a mess. But Laken was communicating with the other nobles who’d been affected. Tellingly, they were all wealthy or powerful individuals that had taken part in the siege of Liscor. Even smaller [Lords] like Yitton Byres hadn’t been hit, only the big ones. And Laken.
“Laken? Are you here?”
Ryoka pushed open the door. Gamel glared at the impropriety, but Laken looked up from the table. He’d converted one of the houses into a meeting room so people would stop borrowing Rie or Prost’s homes. Another thing the [Emperor] could do that stuck.
“Yes, come in, have a seat. Can Gamel get you anything?”
“Then that will be all, Gamel. Give us some room. And keep people away unless it’s an emergency.”
“Of course, your Majesty.”
The door closed. Gamel cast one curious look at Ryoka before the door closed. Laken sighed, sat back, and then spoke in a much more conversational tone of voice.
“I’m sorry it took so long to arrange a meeting. But I’ve been swamped—”
“So I see. It’s no problem. How’re things?”
Ryoka stretched out at the table, watching Laken closely. He didn’t turn his head to look at her. He was aware of where she was of course, but he didn’t react to her like someone with eyes would, and that was disconcerting. He was surer than she was of the locations of things around him, actually. Case in point, Laken reached to one side and lifted a cup without turning his head.
“They’ve been there a day. The [Witches], I mean. Your Centauress friend really did get there in two days. And apparently the [Witches] managed to figure out an antidote in record time.”
“According to who?”
Laken paused, and then he laughed.
“Ah, well, it was quick. Puts the [Healers] to shame, really. But apparently that [Witch]. Mavika? She’s experienced with Drake poisons and their venom. Apparently one of them was spitting it into the water supply and increasing the dosage.”
“Nasty. So the dogs are alright?”
“More or less. Lots of them died. And some people too, but Gralton cares more about dogs than…the rest are recovering. The [Witches] are headed back now. I’ll need to prepare Mavika’s reward if she wants it all at once. But you don’t need to hear about my issues.”
“Nope. We’re here to chat. Come on, take a load off.”
Ryoka gestured at the table. Laken smiled.
“Can I get you anything to eat? We’ve got snacks.”
“Huh. Well, maybe. Let me check. Oh—”
Ryoka got up and went to the cupboard. She frowned at what was inside. Then she motioned to Laken.
“Hey, uh, it’s not a snack, but—”
“What? Something wrong with the walnuts?”
Laken looked up with a frown. Ryoka motioned to him and he got up.
“I don’t know if you can see it with your [Emperor] vision. Come here.”
He walked over, past a chair, and straight into Ryoka’s fist. She hit him in the stomach as hard as she could—she didn’t feel like breaking a finger on his jaw.
Laken doubled over. He didn’t groan and he didn’t retch—he just fell over, clutching his stomach. Ryoka watched him doubled over on the floor in silent agony for a minute. She debated a kick, but thought better. After another minute, she heard a sound.
He was swearing in German. Ryoka listened a bit and stared at her hand. No good. She’d hoped it would feel different, but she still felt like she’d just sucker-punched a blind man. Not a great feeling.
Ryoka walked over and took a seat at the table again. Well, she did feel better now she’d gotten that out into the open. She addressed Laken on the floor.
“I hope you know why I did that.”
“—scheißkerl—I should have expected that.”
Laken tried to pull himself up on the chair. He winced, and decided to lie still for a second longer. Ryoka raised one eyebrow.
“You’re not going to call for Gamel and have me executed?”
“I’m not a tyrant.”
Laken pulled himself up. He sat, doubled over, and his entire face was one grimace.
“So that’s what you really think of me. Don’t hold back. Start naming names. Let me guess. It starts with an ‘H’—”
Ryoka glared at him. She raised a fist and Laken flinched. Ryoka slowly put her hands back on the table.
“I owed you a punch. And if you met my friend, she’d probably give you ten times that. If she didn’t try to stab you first. I heard about what happened to the Goblins at Liscor.”
“I bet you did. What do they say?”
“Oh, glorious praise about how Tyrion defeated the Goblin Lord while the Drakes hid behind their walls. Propaganda. But I know Goblins. Tell me. Do you know Goblins? You sounded like you knew them, a bit.”
Ryoka stared at the young man sitting across from her. Laken felt at his stomach.
“If I throw up, don’t tell Gamel. He’ll clean it up and probably try to stab you. Just help me find a rag. Yes. I think I know Goblins. But I didn’t back when I just got to this world. Listen. I don’t want to defend myself.”
“No, go ahead. The punch doesn’t judge what happened before. Just the end result.”
Laken glared. Then he spoke slowly, measuring his words.
“The first time I met Goblins, they were trying to kill everyone in Riverfarm. Perhaps I should have realized they weren’t all like that. But I was told monsters were monsters. That was my mistake. That, and giving Tyrion Veltras weapons to use against the Drakes.”
Ryoka paused. As explanations went, that was pretty good.
“So you know?”
“That’s they’re people? Yes. Listening to them scream at Liscor would have been enough. But I met a Goblin Chieftain the day my army attacked theirs at Lancrel. And she…spoke. She was a person. Ryoka, I know just what I did. And I wish I could turn back time. I just didn’t know until that moment. And after…the trebuchets brought me into a war.”
The young woman was silent. She nodded abruptly, closing her eyes.
“That was my fault as well. And look where it got us. Those Drakes were a direct result of the siege on Liscor, I’ll bet anything.”
“Yeah. Just like home. It’s a mess. And everyone’s telling me what monsters Drakes are. What awful things they’ve done. But—let me know if they’re any different than Goblins.”
“Nope. Bit scalier. Hot tempered. Stubborn. Pretty damn Human, really.”
“That’s what I thought. Gnolls?”
“Furry Humans. Pretty decent people. Don’t blow up their shops.”
Laken sighed. He massaged his stomach, and then put his head down on the table.
“I am in so much pain.”
“Do you feel like hitting me again? Because I can’t stop you and I’d like to get it over with. What do you think? How bad am I on the tyranny scale?”
“Give me a while and let me see. Honestly, aside from the Goblins, you haven’t done too bad.”
Ryoka shook her head.
“It doesn’t mean I trust you. I trusted you in Invrisil. And look what happened. Maybe you did what anyone would have done. But you’re an [Emperor]. And you’ve done terrible things. Some good things. But I don’t trust you.”
Laken paused. And the pain that crossed his face wasn’t all due to the punch.
“That’s fair. Can I earn your trust?”
“Maybe. But not today. You could start by telling me, truthfully, what you’re doing.”
“You saw what I was doing.”
“Rebuilding. What comes after that?”
The [Emperor] shrugged. He sat up, grabbed his cup, and drank.
“I have a few ideas. Mainly, it will be turning Riverfarm into an actual place. One that has goods to export, has a reason for people to pay attention to it. Besides the trebuchets. Deal with the [Witches]. Forge an alliance between Riverfarm, and Gralton and Yitton’s lands. Basic stuff like that.”
“Fair enough. So you don’t have a grand plan?”
“I have multiple plans. Whether they’re grand is debatable. You want me to get into detail?”
“Please. But first, talk to me about the Goblins. What the hell was that yesterday? Are you just going to let them form a tribe? Or what? What’s your angle with them?”
“They haven’t all run off, if that’s what you mean. But I didn’t lie to them. I will leave them alone. I have hopes for them. But it depends on what they do.”
Ryoka leaned forwards. Laken hesitated, and she waited. She wanted to trust him. But every conscious part of her pulled herself back. Trust had been given too freely of late. At last, Laken sighed.
“Well, for one thing, they’re occupying the only good mining spot on my lands. And they have my iPhone until it runs out of charge. And to judge from what I’m seeing—they’re preparing to be attacked. They’re building a base. And here’s what I predict happening if I tweak things right…”
He leaned forwards. Ryoka listened. She blinked.
“That might work. Historically, I mean, there are parallels.”
Laken rolled his closed eyes.
“Oh, lecture me on the parallels. Go ahead.”
Ryoka coughed, embarrassed.
“Sorry. I just meant—that could work. Okay. I believe you. It’s a good plan, at least. But it does depend on the Goblins.”
“They’re people. They might not do what I expect them to. But I’ve given them a chance. That’s all I can do.”
The two sat in silence after that. Ryoka hesitated. She bit her lip. Laken faced ahead. And then he raised his head.
The [Emperor] hesitated. He bit his lip, and looked rueful. And then focused on Ryoka.
“I forgot to tell you one thing, Ryoka. In the early spring, I summoned the fae. And I met one of them. She called herself Ivolethe. She wanted you to know she’s alive.”
Ryoka stared at Laken. He waited. She was frozen in place. After a minute, he coughed.
She didn’t respond. She’d turned into a statue. Worried, Laken reached out.
Ryoka leapt to her feet. She stared at Laken, white-faced, although he couldn’t have known that. He leaned back.
He got no further because Ryoka let out a shout that made Gamel open the door. He saw Ryoka dancing around inside, laughing hysterically. Laken shooed Gamel away and the door closed. Ryoka didn’t notice. She laughed and began to sob, and then lost her balance.
Laken waited, surprised. Ryoka was laughing and crying on the floor. She didn’t stop. Her laughter was relieved, wild, hysterical. And eventually, Laken began to laugh as well.
It took a long while for them to stop. At last, Ryoka returned to her seat. Her throat was raw. But she reached out and grabbed Laken’s hands, to his surprise. And he sensed the tears in her voice and eyes.
“You know, I’d forgive you for almost anything for telling me that. Thank you. Thank you. She’s…”
He wished he could see her face. Because every line of her he sensed—Ryoka sat down in the chair again.
Redemption. He didn’t know what had happened between her and Ivolethe. But the City Runner wiped tears from her eyes. So it hurt Laken to deliver the next part of the message.
“She’ll never see you in this world. It’s her punishment, or something.”
Ryoka froze. But after a moment, she replied, quietly unsurprised.
“That’s okay. Maybe I’ll see her in my next life. Or when I die. But at least she’s…alive.”
She sat there with him. Laken waited, but nothing more came from Ryoka. After a while, he began to chuckle again. When Ryoka made an inquiring sound, he shook his head.
“When did it all go so wrong, eh?”
“Yeah. What happened to the Laken I met?”
The [Emperor] paused.
“He was never perfect. Believe me, if I thought I could break away from Lord Tyrion’s army, I would have. I saved the few Goblins I could, Ryoka. And I left my people alone for too long. I need to regain their trust. Durene’s…everyone’s…”
He sagged in his chair. And Ryoka felt like he’d had enough. She reached out and touched his hand.
“You’ve got a bit of mine. And I saw what you did. Riverfarm needs you. I hope you’re good for it.”
Laken nodded, and straightened a bit.
“Me too. As you for you—I meant what I said, Ryoka. I owe you. You kept Riverfarm from being destroyed. I know it wasn’t easy. But you did it, even though you didn’t owe me anything. Thank you for that.”
“You could start by paying me.”
Laken chuckled. Ryoka didn’t.
“I’m serious. I have expenses.”
“I know. I’ll get the money to you. I’m not hurting for coin. Call it my first Skill or just luck; Gralton, one of my new allies, is one of the richer [Lords] in the area. And Yitton Byres has his silver mines, although he’s not hugely wealthy. I can borrow from them until I get Riverfarm an actual economy. That’s actually easier than the Goblins, by the way.”
“Really? In that case, a thousand gold coins—”
“Don’t be greedy.”
“I outran a tornado made of fire to save your damn village. And the [Witches]—”
The two fell silent again. Ryoka scrubbed at her face.
“You never met her. But Miss Califor was a hero, Laken. You owe them. I don’t know exactly what they’ll ask, but you owe them something large. As large as a life.”
“I know. Tell me just one thing, Ryoka. What was the other one like. Belavierr?”
Ryoka paused. She took a long, long time to reply.
“Like…a nightmare, Laken. A nightmare, at first. But a classic one. One you think you know. So it’s scary, but you expect it, in a way. Horrifying as it may be. And then you wake up. And you think it was just a dream. You think you know reality. But then you realize you’re still dreaming. That’s her.”
Laken shuddered. The two sat in silence for a while longer. At last, he cleared his throat.
“I don’t expect you to stay. I’d like you to. If you wanted it, I could find you a role in Riverfarm. For you and your friends. But I doubt you trust me that much.”
“Nope. And I’m a Runner. Born to run.”
“Will you keep in touch?”
“You bet I’ll check in now and again.”
Ryoka nodded. She stood up, and after a moment, hesitated.
“The traitor. The one who ordered the attack on the Goblins at Lancrel. I told you about my suspicions, didn’t I?”
Laken paused. Ryoka had, by [Message]. He spoke slowly.
“Tyrion Veltras was as good as his word back then. He asked every single noble under truth spell if they had committed the crime. His subordinate, Jericha, did it. And the traitor never showed up.”
“You can fool a [Detect Truth] spell. Not just with the wording. You can literally just ignore it if you have the right artifact. Or spell.”
Ryoka watched Laken’s expression. He swore under his breath.
“Alright. Who’s your guess?”
She told him and watched his face change. Laken got up to pace. Ryoka quietly spread her arms.
“It’s only a guess.”
Laken nodded, distractedly, but she saw how rattled he was.
“In storytelling logic, your first guess is always wrong. And it’s always the last person you expect. Like Durene, I suppose. Or Frostwing”
“If we were in a story. How many of them have Goblins that aren’t monsters?”
Laken paused at that. Then he sat back down.
“I’ll check it out. Even if you’re right, finding proof will be hard. Especially because everyone knows about my [Emperor] senses. Still. Lady Rie?”
“Damn. I’ll…she was loyal the entire time I was gone, Ryoka.”
“If she’s one of the Circle of Thorn’s members, she might want to turn you against Magnolia.”
Ryoka pointed out. Laken scrubbed his face.
“If she is. If she is, I’ll make my decision. Let’s…talk about something else. I’ll watch her, Ryoka. If you’re right, I’ll find out eventually.”
The young woman nodded. She sat in silence with Laken for a bit, and then thought of a topic.
“What are you going to do about the [Witches]?”
“I have a few thoughts. Would you like to talk about it?”
Laken smiled bleakly. Ryoka smiled too. The two sat across from each other, wary, trying to understand each other. Trying to be…friends. Ryoka laughed, forcing it a bit.
“Sure. But if you ask me how to make a ballista, I’m going to hit you again.”
“Don’t worry. I’m pretty sure I could work one out myself.”
And this time Ryoka’s laughter was genuine. She reached out and punched Laken.
And they sat there and talked, until Gamel brought dinner. And they might have been friends. Or they might have already been friends. Ryoka didn’t know.
She left that night. Before the other [Witches] returned. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to know what happened next. It was just that Ryoka had a fairly good idea of what Laken would do. And this was not her empire. Strangely, unsettlingly, and rightly, it was his. He belonged here. And she—
She had to go. She had friends in Reizmelt. She had a friend in Charlay. She would come back to see what he’d done. But Riverfarm—she’d done all she could here. So she left. And the [Emperor] sat and thought of all she’d talked to him about over that night.
He wished she’d stayed.
The coven met outside of the [Emperor]’s throne room and talked, quietly. They had come back. And they had been summoned not an hour after Eloise had flown back, riding on Alevica’s broom. Neither [Witch] had enjoyed the journey, but they gathered nonetheless. Mavika spoke, looking at the others in turn.
“He paid his promises due. I counsel caution, but remember that he has kept his words true.”
Eloise was next. Good advice came in threes, and the three oldest [Witches] gave it in turn.
“I counsel caution as well. [Emperors] have many tricks and Skills.”
“I counsel trust, then. For his people love him and the children too. And they have eyes that see through what adults do.”
Hedag laughed. The other [Witches] nodded. All but Nanette. She followed like a ghost. She had to be there, or the coven wouldn’t be whole. But it was already broken. Califor was gone. And Belavierr…
Wiskeria’s stomach clenched as she entered the throne room. She had spoken to Laken, about the events that had unfolded, but not in detail. And he had not told her how he felt about the other [Witches]. Nor could she promise the coven that they’d get what they wanted. But—here they were. And after all that had happened, Wiskeria stood with her fellow [Witches].
She could do nothing less.
“His Majesty, Emperor Godart, Protector of Durene’s Cottage, Ruler of Riverfarm and the surrounding area and sovereign lord of the Unseen Empire!”
Gamel cried the address as the [Witches] approached the throne. Alevica snorted. Hedag laughed. Wiskeria thought that Laken had intended it that way, but Eloise’s silent elbows made the other [Witches] bow slightly. And Laken nodded in reply.
“Approach, and speak freely.”
The coven did. They lined up, six [Witches], standing together. Wiskeria, Hedag, Mavika, Nanette, Alevica, Eloise. And they felt the absence of the other two. Laken stared down at them from his carved, wooden throne. And his voice was neither harsh, nor welcoming.
“So. A coven comes before me. A coven whose members have wrought great ill and good for my lands and that of my allies. And a coven comes to me today to strike a bargain.”
Wiskeria paused. Laken’s voice was distant and impartial. It wasn’t like the Laken she knew. Sitting on that throne, he looked like an [Emperor], though he had no crown and his garments were plain. It was Eloise who spoke for the others.
“Your Majesty, we speak for all [Witches] across Izril. And we make you a simple offer. Consider what you have seen us do. Consider our craft that you have witnessed or heard of. We are [Witches] and we bring good. Sometimes ill, yes, but often good. We provide magic, charms, our expertise. What we ask—all we ask—is that we be given freedom to practice our arts on your lands, free of persecution.”
“Sheltered by my empire.”
“If you would say it like that, yes, your Majesty. We would like you to guarantee that bounties on [Witches] be invalidated on your lands unless there were ample reason given. It is not a crime to be a [Witch].”
“But some [Witches] commit crimes, true?”
Eloise paused. Wiskeria stared up at the [Emperor]. What was he doing? The coven shifted, restlessly.
“Some do, your Majesty. But some [Carpenters] are monsters. Some are good workers. Often, a [Witch] is blamed for things she has not done. Or spells, bargains, undertook on behalf of another.”
“Cursing a cheating husband, your Majesty. Casting a hex that makes a well scream his name and the woman he slept with. Giving someone a boil. Petty crimes like that are things [Witches] do. It’s a service, like a [Mercenary].”
Wiskeria broke in, desperately. Laken stared at her.
“Or a [Thug] beating a man after being paid. Those are hostile magics, Witch Wiskeria.”
“They are not what all [Witches] do. Many do not cast such magics, your Majesty. In fact, many bring a positive change. Such as Witch Mavika, who eradicated pests from your fields.”
Eloise spoke quickly. Laken frowned.
“Yes, I have heard that from Prost. But that does not change the point, Witch Eloise. Under your pact, [Witches] would be free to practice their craft in my lands. Free from prejudice or their crimes of old. And part of that craft might harm my citizens.”
The coven paused and shuffled their feet. Well, if he wanted to get technical about it—Wiskeria’s heart was pounding. No one could deny that. But think of all the good they’d done! And then she thought of her mother and her heart sank.
Eloise was trying to choose her next words carefully. But it was Alevica who stepped up next. She spoke in her most charming voice possible. So charming that Wiskeria was positive she’d used some of her craft.
“It is true that [Witches] cannot be bound, your Majesty. But we are no group of criminals like [Bandits] or [Raiders]. We are a calling, and a class. Some of us do great evil. Others great good. We only ask that we not be treated as enemies without judgment.”
Wiskeria held her breath. Eloise was glaring—as was Mavika. They’d agreed not to use magic on Laken! If it went wrong—
The [Emperor] shook his head, and then replied sharply.
“You ask for more than that. You want this to become a gathering of [Witches]. A haven in case the rest of Izril turns against you. How many [Witches] would come here if they knew they could practice most of their craft without interference or judgment?”
Alevica floundered. She looked around. And it was Hedag who replied, with a broad smile.
“We would always be judged, [Emperor]-fellow. Here is just a place where many of us would like to pause. Or practice our craft without hired [Mercenaries] seeking our life. But that depends on the [Emperor]. Do you see a need for a Hedag? Or do you think the Hedag belongs beneath the axe she’s swung?”
Laken paused and Wiskeria winced. But it was the right direction. Because Laken nodded and relaxed on his throne.
“You, Witch Hedag, I see a need for. Because I would do the very same if I feared a man were abusing his child. Prost has told me of the man you executed. And I do not fault you for that either. I thank you.”
The coven relaxed. Laken went on.
“But if I were to catch a [Lord] or someone of similar power who had committed murder or worse, would you stride into my prison and behead him then and there?”
Every eye turned to Hedag. Wiskeria willed the old [Witch] to respond diplomatically, but Hedag just shrugged and drank from her flask.
“I suppose that’d lie in the justice I saw such as him receive, wouldn’t it? If it did not satisfy, then the old ways would come out, as surely as I stand here.”
The coven glared. Hedag was unmoved. Laken murmured on his throne.
“Old ways are not always the best ways.”
It was an echo of what Califor had said. Nanette jerked and looked up with lost eyes, stared around, before realizing and hanging her head. It silently broke the hearts of all who saw it. But Laken’s eyes were closed. He went on, debating with himself as much as the room.
“If I let Witch Hedag practice her craft and punish parents who abused children, spouses, and criminals, should I forbid [Witches] from casting curses? Making deals like Belavierr did with Rehanna?”
No one replied. Laken eventually paused. And when he looked down at the [Witches], he did look. His eyes opened a bit, as if he wanted to see them. And Wiskeria saw his faded eyes and wavered.
“There are no good answers. [Witches]. You may do what is best for Riverfarm. Or you may do ill, and perhaps I could judge you individually, and treat you like the people you are. Perhaps there is a place for [Witches] here, despite the potential for strife. If you agreed to hold the most basic rules of hospitality—to kill no one, cheat no one, and offer deals that the other side can clearly understand—perhaps I could allow your presence.”
He waved his arm, gesturing above.
“I have made a court of far stranger folk my vassals, and I considered that a fine deal. For the service one of your own has done Riverfarm, I acknowledge that this may be the least of the ways I can repay it.”
The coven waited. Everyone could hear the ‘but’. It came out differently, from the [Emperor].
“However, answer me one thing. If there are good among you, and those who do ill, who can hold [Witches] to account? Who will know when they commit a crime? I, alone? There is a saying where I come from, [Witches]. Who watches the watchers? In this case, who watches the [Witches] to see what they do? Who will hold them accountable if another Belavierr appears? Who will judge them, if I am unable?”
The coven paused. And each [Witch] looked at the other, seeking who had the best response. It was Mavika who spoke, forestalling the others. Wiskeria heard a laugh, high and mocking. And Mavika spoke for the first time in the throne room. She pointed a finger up at Laken as Wiskeria closed her eyes and tried to imagine how she was going to explain this to any angry [Witches] who came calling. But Mavika’s eyes never wavered as she met Laken’s.
“Haven’t you noticed, young man? Everyone watches us.”
Wiskeria waited. Laken paused. And then he laughed. And he leaned forwards.
“Very well then. We will hammer out this agreement. [Witches] should not be allowed to cast…permanent hexes. Perhaps there is a place to let them punish wrongdoers. But there must be limits. There must be accountability. And we will see how far I will stretch and how far you will. But…”
The coven held its breath. Laken nodded.
“[Witches] may roam Riverfarm. They may practice their craft. And they may come here safe from persecution unwarranted. I must obey the laws of hospitality. And more importantly—if Goblins are people, then [Witches] are too. And in the name of Witch Califor, who saved Riverfarm, they will be welcomed. Better to have great good and great evil than neither of either at all.”
He nodded down at the coven. At one [Witch]. And she didn’t look up at him. But Wiskeria realized that it was Nanette who had swayed Laken all along. The girl stood there, blank to the world. But as the [Witches] and the [Emperor] spoke and argued, Nanette slowly looked up. At the rising moons. Because there was one last thing left.
It was done. The coven had made a deal with the [Emperor] of Riverfarm. And it had been hard-won, too hard-won. It had come at far too high a price. But the cost of it hadn’t come from just Laken. It had come from the plots of Drakes, an order of [Knights]. And a [Witch] who had forsworn herself for her daughter.
Someday, Belavierr would face her punishment. Wiskeria had sworn it. She would never cease hunting her mother. And she would become stronger. She would put an end to her mother herself.
But tonight wasn’t about Belavierr. It had been seven days since the fire. Seven days since Miss Califor had died. And on this day, the coven of Riverfarm gathered for one last purpose.
The story of Califor had ended. Her thread had been cut, perhaps untimely short. The Stitch Witch had plucked it to trick her own death. And there the story ended for most. But [Witches] had always known a secret about stories. There was always the ending. And then there was what came after.
Six of them gathered. And it was a hexagram that they drew on the dark earth where her ashes had been buried. The ground was covered with flowers. And someone had spoken of raising a monument. But in the dark of the night, past midnight, the [Witch]’s hour made the plucked flowers look pale and strange. The two risen moons were close to full.
And the coven had a purpose to fulfill. They had argued over it. Eloise had almost refused to take part. Hedag had been wary. But Mavika insisted. And so had Nanette. Now, Mavika finished the hexagram and placed a catalyst in the center. A handkerchief.
Miss Califor’s. All her clothing had burnt away. Her possessions, such as they were, had mostly gone with her. But Nanette had her mother’s handkerchief. She scarified it now. And she cut herself—she called by blood.
The cut was deep. And the blood that trickled from Nanette’s arm made the girl’s face even paler. Her eyes were huge in her head. She shouldn’t have been here. But she had wanted it. She shouldn’t have known about the ritual. Eloise’s fury with Mavika had been frightening. But the crow [Witch] was unmoved.
“It has not been done successfully in years. Few ghosts remain. Few spirits to harness or summon or make deals with. But she was the most powerful in generations. And she died with a grudge. She surely remains.”
That was all Mavika said. She led the coven. And her low chant echoed across the scorched earth. The [Witches] walked, clockwise, then counter clockwise. And their steps traced a perfect circle. They stamped, and the light flickered.
The only light came from the moons. Everything else was dark. Wiskeria could feel the power. In the ground, in the air, in the time and place and other [Witches]. But they weren’t calling on any of these things.
They were calling on her. The bloody handkerchief shone in the faint moonlight. The blood seeped from Nanette’s hand onto the ground. It ran. It joined. It flowed.
And something was watching them. Something else was there. Wiskeria could feel it. It was gathering in the center of the circle. Mavika ordered the coven back.
“Do not cross the circle.”
It was the one they had walked. Wiskeria could feel it. They’d traced a barrier in the earth. And beyond that point reality had begun to melt. Slough away. Something else lay on the other side. You could fall into it.
But they were calling. And as the [Witches] waited, in silence, Wiskeria realized she couldn’t hear anything in the distance. No animals. Not even the rustle of wind. The silence grew and grew. Until it was so quiet that the heartbeat of all the [Witches] was deafening. And then that sound stopped. And something else spoke.
The child looked up. She grew pale. She raised her bloody hand. Something was in the center of the hexagram. Something had appeared. It wasn’t made of smoke or even magic. It was something even paler than moonlight. Almost invisible. But taking form. Wiskeria stared.
It did not look like Califor. But the voice was familiar. Nanette stumbled forwards.
She was caught by Mavika and Eloise. The young [Witch] fought, but Mavika dragged her back. The older [Witch] was triumphant and alarmed.
“Stay outside of the circle!”
They pulled Nanette back. The girl twisted, crying, and then shouted again.
“Mother! Miss Califor! Are you there?”
“It is me.”
And there she stood. It was Califor. Twisted, tattered. She looked—Wiskeria shuddered, and felt Alevica shudder beside her. She looked burned. Her form was partially destroyed. Twisted. But it was her. The face, the silhouette—or was it?
The coven looked to Mavika. The crow [Witch] paused. She looked up. A raven flew overhead. Mavika stared at the thing in the circle. And she slowly nodded.
“Califor Weishart. Your coven calls you. Your daughter beseeches you. She wishes to see your face. Do you know her name?”
“Nanette Weishart. My daughter.”
Even in death, Califor’s voice sounded a bit impatient. Mavika nodded. She and Eloise let go of Nanette a bit, and the girl rushed forwards. They held her from the edge of the circle, though. Nanette wept.
“Mother! I’m sorry! It’s my fault!”
“No. I curse the Stitch Witch. Belavierr. Blame no one but her, daughter.”
Her voice didn’t echo. And it was distinct, snappish, familiar in every syllable. But it was far away. Not distant in volume, but in…Wiskeria closed her eyes as tears sprang to them. Califor’s figure bent, her fingers reaching for her daughter.
“My daughter. You have lost your craft. You have lost your way. And you have lost me. I would give any of these back to you. But I am dead.”
“Come back! Please! I’ll be good! I’ll do anything!”
Nanette begged the ghost. She reached out and Eloise snatched her hand back. Slowly, regretfully, Califor stood.
“No. I cannot. You must be a [Witch], Nanette. That is my last lesson to you. In the end, we all must walk alone.”
“No! I want to go with you!”
Nanette struggled, screaming. This time Hedag helped hold her back. Wiskeria’s heart was breaking. Nanette should not have been here. But Mavika was speaking. She held up a pure crystal jar, beautifully carved. And the [Witch]’s eyes flashed.
“Come, Califor. Become your daughter’s strength. Return to the world of the living for a day. A year. Return and be bound.”
Wiskeria held her breath. Not for years had a spirit been summoned. Let alone—she looked at Nanette. But this was wrong. Wiskeria wanted to protest. Not like this. But Califor was shaking her head.
“No. Not for my daughter. I cannot.”
“Why? You hold the world with your grudge! Why do you not wish to return? What do you see, Califor? For centuries, [Witches] have lost what lies beyond! What has gone wrong?”
Mavika beseeched Califor. And the ghost’s voice was quiet.
“What do I see? Nothing. It is empty. Terribly empty. There is nothing here. They are all gone. I will not stay either. I will not be eaten.”
Wiskeria heard the faint voice come from Alevica. The Witch Runner was shivering. And Alevica felt it too. Something was leaking from the other side. A cold. A feeling that pulled at Wiskeria. She wanted to walk forwards. And it terrified her.
Califor turned. She stared past Nanette.
“Something walks this ground, sisters. Something older than us all. Something hungers. And it has devoured the land of death. It comes for you, the living. And it is strongest here. On these lands. Something—I know it. We all do. But it is nameless. It must be so. He must never return. I have seen the past in him. And yet I fear the future.”
She turned. Mavika was speechless. The crow [Witch] backed up as Califor stepped past her. The dead [Witch]’s eyes moved past her. Searching. And they found Wiskeria. Califor reached out, to the limits of the circle. Entreating.
“Wiskeria, daughter of Belavierr, who was my death. I crave a boon.”
“Don’t go, Wis. Don’t go. Remember the rules.”
Alevica’s teeth chattered. The ghost paused. And she became more firm. Realer. Her voice closer.
“I call you by your debt. Wiskeria. Come.”
“The ritual has gone on too long. We have made her an offer. Return her! Mavika!”
Eloise snapped. Mavika nodded. But then her head snapped up. Wiskeria was moving.
“Witch Wiskeria! Do not—”
“I have to.”
Wiskeria stared at Califor. The [Witch] was dead. Because of her. Alevica grabbed for her.
“No! Wiskeria, it’s a trick—”
But it was too late. Califor was realer by the second. The lines in her face, her eyes—the other side called to Wiskeria. She stepped forwards, dreamlike, as Califor beckoned to her.
Her foot went through the circle. Mavika hissed, but it was too late. Califor smiled. And then she reached out and seized Wiskeria. And suddenly, her form changed to fire.
Fire. The same fire that had burned her as she died. Her hands were living flame. They grabbed Wiskeria. And suddenly, the flame was real. Wiskeria felt the burning pain. She started to scream. The [Witches] struck at the hexagram, erasing it. Hedag kicked the ground and cursed as Nanette fought to get to her mother. And Califor’s voice echoed in Wiskeria’s ears as she grabbed the [Witch]’s arms.
“Wiskeria. For you, I have died. I curse your mother. I curse her. And I charge you. Keep my daughter safe. Swear it on your life!”
“I swear! I swear!”
Wiskeria screamed. She would have sworn anything to stop the pain! Califor didn’t relent. Her grip tightened. She drew Wiskeria closer. Mavika was shouting something, but Califor’s voice filled Wiskeria’s ears. The ghost sounded almost gentle over Wiskeria’s screams.
“Keep her safe, and beware. He is coming.”
The ghost paused. And she looked through Wiskeria. And even in death, Wiskeria saw Miss Califor was afraid.
“His name should end and never be spoken. But it will be spoken. So I say it and damn the world for my daughter. Just as Belavierr damned me. And when you hear his name, flee. And take Nanette far, far away. He is our enemy. [Witches] have sworn his death. We were there. We must honor our vows.”
Wiskeria screamed. Califor didn’t reply. Her grip squeezed and Wiskeria howled. Her flesh caught on fire.
“The ritual’s broken! Seize her!”
Eloise cried. The hexagram was snuffed out. And the portal was closing. Califor was drawn back, into the center of the circle. The other [Witches] leapt forwards, pulling Wiskeria back.
But Califor held on. And her lips whispered a word into Wiskeria’s ear. One word that burned into Wiskeria’s mind like the flames that seared her arms. And then the flames vanished. The presence disappeared.
Califor was gone.
Wiskeria lay on the ground, shuddering, screaming in pain as the word and burns marked her. The potion Alevica poured on her didn’t remove the raw handprints on her arm. Nor did Eloise’s charm. Nothing did. As the coven bent around Wiskeria, the last [Witch] stood in front of the circle.
Nanette looked around. But her mother had said nothing more. Not to her, her daughter. She hadn’t even looked at her. Nanette tore off her hat. She sank to her knees, weeping. She lay there, curled up. Until, so quietly that she thought she’d imagined it, she heard a voice.
The girl looked up. And then she saw it. Something, lying on the ground. In the center of the circle. It was a little burned. Charred near the tip. But it rested there, where it had burnt away to ash before. The other [Witches] turned and stared.
Eloise raised a hand. But the girl ignored her. She crawled forwards, eyes wide, disbelieving. And she reached out with a shaking hand. Slowly, the girl took Califor’s hat from the altar and hugged it to her. Tears ran down her cheeks.
She whispered the word. And then she screamed it. She sobbed, and wept fully. And she sat there, as the coven stood, shaken, as the marks on Wiskeria’s arms refused to heal. And the name burned in her mind. But it was Nanette who cried the name aloud. Who held her mother’s hat. Desperately, searching for a sign.
But nothing replied. The afterlife was full of nothing. Not even [Witches].
It was not so dark where Ryoka was. Stars shone overhead, and they, combined with the moon, gave her enough illumination to run by. And it was late, she knew. But she was close to her destination. So Ryoka Griffin risked the night run.
She ran north, towards Lord Gralton’s lands. Charlay was there, waiting. She hadn’t returned with the [Witches]—apparently she’d cracked a hoof on the run north. Ryoka was wondering what kind of joke she should tell—unless Charlay was really upset.
North, and then further still. Ryoka was going back to Reizmelt. She had gold, an [Emperor]’s favor for what it was worth, and she had more regrets. More sorrow. But part of her was forging it all into something which gave her the strength to continue.
Determination. Ryoka thought of her friends. Fierre, Levil, Erin.
She had to go back. And she had to run forwards. So she did. Ryoka Griffin ran down a forest road, alert for any sounds or light. And she was so focused on noticing one or the other it was only after a moment she realized there was neither.
Slowly, the City Runner stopped in the shadow of the trees. It was fitting. So when she turned, she knew who it was before the [Witch] was visible in the shadows.
“You. How dare you?”
“Good night to you, Ryoka Griffin. I have business with you.”
Belavierr stood, her hat wide, her robes darker than the shadows around her. Her eyes did not glow. But the orange eyes and black rings still terrified under the moonlight. She was no immortal. Not anymore.
But she was still Belavierr. Ryoka reached for the bag of holding at her side. The Stitch Witch didn’t reply. Ryoka drew a weapon, and then another. She shouted at the [Witch].
“I thought you were just—just different! Not evil. Not a monster. I’ve met immortals. And you’re the worst of them.”
“Indeed? Worse than Perril Chandler?”
“Who the hell is—”
Ryoka’s words died in her mouth. Belavierr smiled. She gestured to Ryoka’s face.
“You have met with him. I see the magic on your tongue. Faded. He is still alive. Good. He owes me a favor.”
The young woman paused. She stared at Belavierr. And then she shook her head.
“She will never forgive you. Wiskeria will hate you forever.”
The words were meant to hurt. But Belavierr’s smile just drank them in.
“Good? I thought you loved her! I thought she was your daughter?”
Ryoka howled at Belavierr. The Stitch Witch slowly shook her head. She watched as Ryoka circled her, tense. Belavierr replied calmly.
“I give my daughter purpose. I give her something.”
The City Runner spat.
“So that’s it. That’s all you want, isn’t it? Give your daughter something. And because she hates you—you can be whomever you want. Because you know your daughter cares.”
Ryoka didn’t waste any more words. She just attacked. She threw the silver knife and lunged with the cross-stake made of wood. Belavierr took one small step and went around Ryoka. The knife missed and Ryoka stumbled.
She whirled. Belavierr stood there, staring down at her. Ryoka raised the stake. And then she looked at Belavierr. She shook her head and walked past the Stitch Witch. She picked up the knife, stowed it and the cross. And she looked over her shoulder.
“I can’t kill you. Not even the wind wants to pick a fight with you. So forget it. Go fuck yourself. I’m out.”
Ryoka raised two fingers and began to back up. She turned—and Belavierr was standing in front of her.
This time Ryoka’s fist hit Belavierr in the chest. But it felt like she’d broken it. Ryoka bent over. The Stitch Witch’s robes were hard as steel! Belavierr calmly waited. Ryoka looked up, sweating, pale.
“How do you do that?”
“I am a master of stitchcraft. Once, I made Seven-League Boots. Shoes aren’t much harder.”
The Stitch Witch’s matter-of-fact voice made Ryoka stare at her. The City Runner backed up.
“What do you want?”
Belavierr didn’t reply. She just stared at Ryoka. And then she smiled again.
“Would you like to know how to meet your friend?”
This time Ryoka’s breath caught. And Belavierr’s smile widened.
“I heard you as he burned me. And you saw them. The strangers.”
Ryoka backed up. The fae. She’d heard her? She stammered.
“She’s gone. She’s been banished and she’ll never, ever see me again. Ever. There’s no way she can defy her ruler.”
Belavierr tilted her head. Still smiling.
“Even they have laws. Even they have a price. There is a way. And I know of it. Would you like to meet her again?”
See her again? Ryoka jerked her head, shook it rapidly.
“No. No, no, no—I won’t give you my life. Go away! Leave me alone!”
She turned to run. But there Belavierr stood. And the Stitch Witch stood over her. Her voice was inescapable. It whispered in Ryoka’s ear, ran through the forest.
“I don’t want your life. You are my daughter’s…friend. All I ask is something small. A little thing. Easy to pay.”
Ryoka knew she shouldn’t ask. She shouldn’t. But Belavierr wouldn’t let her go. So Ryoka asked.
“What is it?”
Belavierr told her. Ryoka went still.
“It won’t harm anyone?”
Belavierr only smiled. Ryoka looked at her. It was so simple. But it could hurt people. She was sure of it. Somehow. Some way.
“But just think. You could see her again. Maybe even take her with you. They have rules. You will never see her again but for my help.”
Ryoka wavered. And she looked up into that terrible, knowing smile. And she looked at Belavierr as she raised her arm. Ryoka knew.
A [Witch]’s deal. It was funny. Everyone knew what the right answer was. Everyone knew, even in those old days. But that was the thing. The thing people forgot. When the devil reached out, he always offered the most important thing to you in the world. Nothing less.
Ryoka looked up and wondered if this was how Tagil and Califor had felt. Standing before her, the Stitch Witch smiled. Her lips curved up and if Ryoka looked closely, between the rings in Belavierr’s eyes, she could see damnation laughing at her.
Belavierr slowly held out one hand. Ryoka stared at it and she thought of her dearest friend. Slowly, trembling, she raised her right hand and stared at the missing fingers. She looked into Belavierr’s eyes.
And she sighed.