It was a fact unbeknownst to anyone in the world that Liscor had a population of two intelligent skeletons living in the region. However, as facts went, those weren’t the ones that demanded the attention of the people of Liscor. Even if someone were to tell a pedestrian on the street that a skeleton named Ijvani had occupied a cave in the Floodplains, they would probably ask if it could wait until tomorrow.
Of course, if they were aware that Ijvani were a minion of Az’kerash, said pedestrian would probably have a lot more questions to ask and bump up the priority of undead dispatch on their list of priorities, but that was obviously extraneous detail to the example. Only one fact occupied the minds of Liscor’s inhabitants. And that was that it was election day.
And the election had come and gone. The polls, which were really just guarded booths where each citizen could, after swearing under truth spell, deposit a vote for a candidate of their choice in a box, were closed. The day had been full of note, from a certain [Innkeeper] organizing a group of Pallassian Garuda to fly a banner over Liscor to numerous fights over the candidates in the city.
It was all anyone could talk about. Krshia and her Gnoll candidates for a more open Liscor! How could you argue that the crazy Human and her inn hadn’t been good for the city? That the Antinium weren’t allies, especially the painted ones? What kind of close-minded scales-for-brains would say the city needed more army interferences, needed to close its walls?
At the same time, who could trust the Antinium, really trust them? Or Goblins? Or that crazy Human, who, let’s be fair, was behind half of the disturbances to the city? And why not kill that damned Minotaur in the prison? Those were the stakes, and they had divided Liscor—until today. The arguments, strife, and in one case an assault with a spatula, had been resolved. Some people were in jail. Some people had concussions. Some people were just rather upset.
The tense, nervous energy of the day had given way to a quiet sort of hush. Everyone was waiting. No one knew what the future held and as the Watch took the guarded bins of votes into city hall, a seldom-remembered spot except in times of crisis, everyone waited.
The [Scribes] would be counting, tallying up the votes. And soon, the current Council would announce who had won. Who had it been? Krshia? Lism? They had fought over one district. Would she win, but face a Council full of Drakes? Or would he take the victory? Would any Gnoll win? …Would they all win?
The people had no idea. So a crowd gathered, waiting outside the building in more or less silence. A line of [Guards] had been deployed outside the building to keep anyone from interfering. And so, everyone waited. First for an hour. And then two. They were restless. How long could it take to count all the votes? Then again—it was a big city. And everyone whom everyone asked said they’d voted. So…how long? What would the results be? The people waited, breathless, wondering what the future held and wondering, in the back of their minds, if they’d made the right choice.
Inside the city hall, the building was mostly quiet. It was not, as those outside imagined, a feverish mess of [Scribes] sorting through an imagined mountain of ballot votes. In fact, the [Scribes] were having a drink while they waited for the announcement. If there was any feverishness, it was in the meeting room of Liscor’s Council.
Liscor’s Council. An oft-overlooked body of leaders. Few people in the city could name even one of the Council members until the last month. That was because by and large, the Council kept Liscor running. It did not shake the boat. In fact, it didn’t even really pilot the boat. Liscor had a High Command in the form of the army. The Watch Captain secured the city.
Sometimes a crisis reared its head, but you had a [Strategist] for that. The Council’s modus operandi had been ‘don’t fix what isn’t broken’, or perhaps, ‘if it still sort of works, let’s just not bother fixing it.’ And it had worked. So the people inside the room were a bit peeved that no one seemed to appreciate the hard work they hadn’t done.
The eight Drakes sitting around the meeting room were reclining on their comfy chairs, scowling at each other. They were all rich. One of them, Stales Greenscale, was the current head of the Merchant’s Guild. The others were in the same sphere of affluence. That was who comprised Liscor’s Council, and each time they changed positions, the current Council traditionally nominated their replacements.
Again, until today. The outcry of the public had forced an election. And astoundingly, not one of Liscor’s damned, the ungrateful, er, wonderfully active citizenry had thought to consult the current Council on whether they thought this was a good idea, thank-you-very-much. But here they were.
“Elections. What has this city come to?”
Councilmember Yalla spat as she took a gulp of the fortified wine. She stared blankly around the table; the other Drakes were giving her more or less the same looks. One of them, Stales, cleared his throat. Someone had to say it. The Drake [Scribe] had been standing there for three minutes. He turned to her.
“The votes have been recounted?”
“Three times, Councilmember.”
The [Scribe] gave him a very put-upon look. It stopped Stales from suggesting another recount. He hesitated.
“And you’re sure…?”
“My [Scribes] and I were checked and the [Guards] who watched everyone put the votes in were checked. And the voters were checked. We all passed truth spells, Councilmembers. These are the results.”
The female Drake pointed to the list that lay in front of all of Liscor’s Council. Stales looked down at the neat tallies and winced. Clear as day. Every vote accounted for. Winners, losers—how many each candidate had got and who had won each district. He nodded slowly.
“Hm. Thank you, Miss. We’ll send word of the…results shortly. Have someone come back in—ten minutes?”
It was too short. Some of the Council stirred and looked at Stales. He slowly sipped at his cup and wished he had a puffer—one of those nice ones you could light up and smoke. It was all the rage in the south, especially if you could light it with magic or your own fire breath. Too expensive for him to import regularly though, especially at the Council meetings. Then everyone would have to have a few.
Not that that would be a problem now. He was out. Stales smiled bitterly. But this! He looked up and met the eyes of his fellow Council. Stales cleared his throat.
“Well. It’s not…bad. Two of our own won.”
The other Drakes nodded after a moment. By ‘our own’ they meant people that they thought of more or less like themselves. Councilmember Yalla tapped the list.
“Tismel and Zalaiss. I wouldn’t have made Tismel my first choice—the fellow’s a bit indecisive. But he’s a proper Guildmaster, has been for three years. There are worse picks. And Zalaiss is one of my [Merchants]. She can keep the helm steady.”
Another Drake grunted sourly.
“She’d need to. Look at this. They won two of the eight districts and these…others won the rest!”
“To be fair, there are two other Drakes that won. Er, this Jeiss fellow and Alonna.”
“I know him. A Senior Guardsman. A bit unconventional, but it wouldn’t be so bad if they were like him. He’s a decent fellow. I was one of the people who approved his nomination for Senior Guardsman, come to that.”
“Me as well. No, no problems here. Alonna…well, she is a Guildmistress in the end. That’s something.”
“Guildmistress? But you said—”
“Oh. I see.”
Another bout of silence. Obviously, [Mages] were a bit…different. A bit odd, a bit unconventional. And Stales happened to know that Alonna was new to her position. Still, they could have happily accepted her, or even Jeiss, for all the oddity of his position but for the other four new members of the Council. He stared at the list. Someone else cleared his throat.
“Four Gnolls on the Council? Not bad at all. Just…”
He trailed off. And what was not said spoke volumes. The other Drakes nodded. Yes, not bad! Not bad, but—and there it was. No one had a problem with Gnolls! Certainly not! My son married a lovely one—I have tea with so and so every other week! They add a bit of complexity to the city! Be tiring to look at scales all day. Lovely people. A bit annoying when they shed.
But this was Liscor. Their home. And Gnolls, having an equal distribution of power in the new Council? Not to mention…Stales looked at the list and sighed.
“Senior Guardswoman. [Armorer]. [Shopkeeper]. And [Beast Tamer].”
Not one a Guild leader. Although Stales was conveniently forgetting that exactly two Gnolls in the entire city held a rank equivalent to Guildmaster. The other Drakes were nodding. One sighed louder.
“They took four districts. How? I thought that other fellow, the…er, whatshisname, ran a good campaign. I voted for him. Or rather, his candidate. I was in Tismel’s district.”
She looked around, daring the others not to nod in agreement. In fact, they’d all been in Tismel’s district, which, come to that, was probably why they’d won. Stales buried his head in one claw as he saw why the districts had led to four Gnoll candidates winning. He muttered a reply.
“The Drake who lost was…Lism. Lism Swifttail. A [Shopkeeper], yes, but he’d be the one we wanted as opposed to this Krshia Silverfang and her lot. But he lost.”
The others fell silent.
“If he had won—”
Yalla leaned over towards Stales. She’d crumpled her bit of paper up, never mind it was a waste of good paper.
“How much did he lose by?”
“Not much. But he lost, Yalla.”
Stales snapped, shoving the paper at her. Yalla raised her brows.
Stales hesitated. Yalla looked around the table. The rest of Liscor’s Council sat up. Yalla narrowed her eyes.
“It’s just a number. And who knows who won, really? Just us and a few others?”
Silence. Liscor’s Council had not been looking forwards to posting the results of the election. They’d let it happen because they hadn’t figured out a way to stop it without getting in trouble. And they’d delayed their announcement because, well, they were unhappy with the results. Until now, they’d been doing what the Council did best: avoiding the problem. But now that they’d run into it, a few desperate minds started churning away.
Another Councilmember leaned back. He didn’t quite steeple his claws or give the others a conspiratorial look, but that was mostly due to inexperience. He slowly put out the thought everyone was thinking.
“How many [Scribes] did the counting?”
“Not many. But I’ll bet they all know the result.”
Stales nodded. He spoke, trying to feel out his thoughts verbally.
“We could…insist this was a Council affair. Persuade them to keep quiet.”
Silence. Everyone was trying to look at everyone now, for signs of doubt. No one was particularly adverse to the concept, it seemed. The plot began to thicken. Stales frowned.
“Right. But what are we threatening them with, exactly? The Watch?”
—And then it fell apart. The Councilmembers paused. They looked at each other, coughed. Somehow, getting Watch Captain Zevara to go along with threatening the [Scribes] didn’t quite…gel.
“If we made it a general threat…I mean, the Merchant’s Guild has guards, Stales.”
“Wait, my guards? But they voted!”
“Well, what if they were all Drakes who voted er, for the right candidates?”
“Okay, But what if the [Scribes] talk anyways?”
“We deny it. Obviously! And we burn the votes and these lists! Look, I have a match—”
“Careful where you wave that thing! I accidentally set my desk on fire with them!”
“Nifty, aren’t they! Shame they run out. But as I was saying, deny it! Simple!”
“What if they ask us to swear under truth spell?”
The Council paused. One of them coughed after a moment.
“…They wouldn’t do that. Would they?”
The Drakes thought about it for a second. Gloom immediately set in. They would absolutely do that. The losing party would howl it from the rooftops if the Council didn’t do it—purely as a formality—to ensure the truth had been upheld. The Council looked at each other and the half-burgeoned plot, barely formed, fell apart.
They were too late. If they wanted to meddle, they should have done it earlier. They should have been better at it. But they weren’t [Politicians]. This was a side job! It was just—Stales sighed.
“Four Gnolls? Two would have been fine. Really, even three…”
Gloomily, he stared at the list. You could even see who the most popular candidates were by numbers of votes. Krshia Silverfang had won, handily, but honestly, if you just looked at the numbers, there were more Drakes than…he caught his breath.
“I suppose we make the announcement. Soonest done, soonest over. We’ll convene the Council tomorrow. Try to get it into their heads how it works. And then? Out of our claws, really. And that’s a relief! This year has done havoc to my scales with all the stress…”
Yalla was standing up with the others, resigned. Stales waved a claw urgently and they all looked at him.
“Hold on! Hold on! I have a solution. Look at this. If you look at the list—”
“We can’t lie, Stales. They’ll find us out!”
The Merchant’s Guild’s leader shook his head rapidly, a bubble of delight forming in his chest. It wasn’t perfect, but it would work. He looked up, grinning at the other’s blank expressions.
“Who said anything about lying? This is perfectly legal! Look! Check the number of votes each candidate received. Do you see? Do you see?”
They scrambled for the lists. And they did see. There was murmuring, a hint of dissent. Stales overruled it.
“We said we’d consider the election. We didn’t say we’d do it. Did we?”
The Council looked up. Yalla hesitated, although Stales was sure she’d agree.
“We’d have to explain the decision somehow. If it goes ugly…if the losers object—it could be bad.”
The Council fell silent. The worst case scenario popped helpfully into Stales’ mind. What would happen if the people objected to this idea?
Riots in the streets. He gulped. The Drake wavered. He looked at the list, trying to decide.
“Four Gnolls on the Council. We could live with that. It’s not a majority.”
“But it’s half. And they could push through a lot of votes, especially since it’d be down to Zevara…”
“Two would be perfect.”
Yalla looked around the table.
“If we did it this way…what is it this time?”
“Three’s good. And it works! No one’s going to riot. And we never promised.”
“Exactly. So, all in favor?”
The Council of Liscor looked up. And they cast their last vote. It was unanimous. And they only felt a little guilty doing it.
It was late evening in Liscor. Election day. There was a crowd outside city hall. Thousands of Drakes and Gnolls, filling the plaza and going all the way up to the steps. A line of [Guards] kept anyone from entering. Erin Solstice stood near the front, peering on her tiptoes while Lyonette held Mrsha in her arms.
“You’re heavy, sweetie. If I’d have known it would take this long, I’d have brought a chair. Climb up and hold on, would you?”
Lyonette groaned to Mrsha. The Gnoll cub obligingly held onto Lyonette’s shoulders, taking the burden off the [Princess]’s arms. Erin glanced sideways at Lyonette. She was antsy with anticipation and nerves.
“Why not let Mrsha down?”
“And let her be stepped on?”
Lyonette looked reproving. The crowd was thick with bodies. Erin hesitated.
“Right. Well, I can hold her—”
“No, I have her. It’s good training for my arms, anyways. Although Mrsha’s a lot heavier than a sword.”
“You still practice?”
“Every day. Some days I forget, but I do try! Yvlon’s mentoring me.”
“Huh. How come I never notice this?”
“I do it in Liscor. Anyone can use the Adventurer’s Guild’s training courts.”
“Oh. That’s why you take so long to buy eggs.”
It was idle chatter. And their voices were one in thousands of conversations. Mrsha sighed and rubbed her face against Lyonette’s shirt, making an inarticulate sound of protest. Lyonette patted her on the head.
“Just a bit longer, honey. I promise. If they don’t finish in…twenty minutes, I’ll buy you a snack. Promise! But it’s a big day.”
Mrsha nodded. And Erin nodded. And everyone in earshot nodded. It was worth waiting for. Because everyone was here, or waiting for the news. Street Runners were poised to earn some tips delivering the message. Voters were ready to celebrate or maybe, riot.
Erin cast her gaze towards city hall’s steps. There they were at the head of the crowd. The main actors in this drama.
Krshia, Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, Elirr the [Beast Trainer], Raekea the [Armorer], and the other four Gnolls stood together in an anxious knot at the head of the crowd. Selys stood behind them, anxiously hopping up and down to see past the taller Gnolls.
Across from them, alternating between staring at the double doors and glaring daggers at Krshia’s side were Lism, Senior Guardsman Jeiss, Alonna the Guildmistress of the Mage’s Guild, and two Drakes and three Gnolls. Olesm stood next to his uncle, not a candidate, but a part of it all. Erin glared at the back of his head and he winced, as if feeling her stare.
“If that jerk Lism wins, I swear, Olesm’s banned from the inn.”
She wasn’t sure if she was serious. And she wasn’t sure what she would feel if Krshia lost. Erin clenched her sweaty hands. And then, just when she was turning to Lyonette to suggest getting Mrsha a snack—the doors opened.
The murmuring crowd went so quiet, it was as if someone had cast a [Silence] spell over them. It caught the eight Drakes off-guard. They paused, staring at the sea of faces.
It was, perhaps, one of the few times Liscor’s Council had ever been at the center of so much attention. Nervously, they came out, stopping just behind the line of [Guards] who obligingly made way for them. Then reformed as the Councilmembers hurriedly waved them back into place. Erin heard a voice, murmuring, and then someone cast a spell.
The voice that boomed across the plaza came from Stales Greenscale. Not that even a third of the crowd knew his name. He coughed, heard the echo and winced, and spoke.
“Excuse me. Good evening. Liscor’s Council has tallied the votes for this year’s election which will replace the current Council with a…democratically elected group of eight for the next two years. The votes have been checked and verified by magical spell, so I am pleased to announce total authenticity of the results!”
He waited. If it was for applause, it never came. Stales hesitated and then went on, tripping over his words.
“So, therefore, I’m pleased…again…to announce the results of the election!”
Another pause. There was some half-hearted applause. Someone shouted.
“Get on with it!”
Liscor’s Council turned and glared at Relc. The [Guardsman] pretended to be scanning the crowd for the shouter. Grudgingly, feeling as if there should have been…drums…yes, perhaps drums, or trumpets, Stales went on.
“Ahem. People of Liscor! By popular vote, we are pleased to announce the new Council is…”
In the crowd, Lyonette’s head rose and she narrowed her eyes with the senses of a [Princess] sensing a trap. Erin just looked blank.
“Popular—? Why’d he say—”
But then the words came, overriding the confusion.
“Raekea Silversmith, Elirr Fultpar, Krshia Silverfang—”
The roar of sound deafened Erin and made the Council flinch backwards. Gnolls were leaping for joy, literally! The Drakes in Lism’s camp were shouting—he was sagging against his nephew, and Selys was punching the air. Krshia was laughing, beaming as the other Gnolls hugged each other—
“—and Lism Swifttail, Alonna Swiftwing, Jeiss Sielmark, Tismel Lischscale, and Zalaiss Holmfyre!”
The noise of the celebrating crowd suddenly went still. Heads turned back to the stairs. Erin blinked.
“What? What did he say?”
Her words were echoed through the crowd. People were murmuring, staring.
“What? But some of them were running in the same district!”
“Lism and Krshia? What?”
Stales spoke up, his voice carrying across the plaza. The [Merchant] beamed at the staring crowd, sweating as he clasped his claws behind his back.
“The Council has decided to choose the most popular candidates to take the Council seats! No official backing was ever given to the proposed districts! Thus, this was deemed the fairest and most equitable distribution of seats! Based on the popular vote! Congratulations to the new Council!”
No one applauded. No one even moved. Stales’ smile faded. He hesitated. Councilmember Yalla stepped forwards.
“Thank you! You may disperse!”
Obviously, no one did. Okay, some of the Antinium Workers and Painted Soldiers gathered around Yellow Splatters to one side where he and Klbkch were watching began to walk off, but he called them back. And everyone else was still. Liscor’s Council held their breath. Erin exhaled hers. She looked at Lyonette, indignant.
“They can’t do that! That’s cheating!”
“They just did. It’s clever. And the only move they could make. It might be bad, though. Let’s get to the inn, Erin.”
Lyonette looked around. Erin was blank.
And then she sensed it. [Innkeepers] might not have been [Princesses], who had a healthy fear of mobs and an understanding of mob mentality, but the class was similar enough. Erin could sense and hear the confusion of the people around her. Silently, she pointed and she and Lyonette tried to move through the crowd, Mrsha clinging to Lyonette. And around her, people began muttering.
“Krshia and Lism?”
“Not by district? Then—who won each district?”
“Three versus five.”
“Who’s this Tismel guy?”
“Northwest side. Silvershine street and that area. Lots of [Merchants] living there.”
“Popular vote? But the election was by district!”
The crowd murmured. They weren’t sure how to feel. Was this a good thing or a bad thing? However, some of the people in the crowd, those who had voted for candidates who’d lost, like Beilmark, knew exactly how they felt. And like magnets in a sea of iron, they began polarizing everyone.
“Hey! I bet Gnolls took more than three districts! That’s why the Council made it a popular vote!”
“What? You’re insane.”
“Oh yeah? Why did Lism win and Krshia?”
“Maybe because he was the better candidate, you egg-sucking lizard!”
“Who said that? Who said that?”
Confusion turned to anger. The Council took one look at the crowd and retreated further behind the line of worried [Guards]. Relc started cracking his knuckles, looking happy.
“Everyone stay calm! Disperse! This is an order!”
And Councilwoman Yalla was only fanning the flames. Drakes and Gnolls began shouting questions at the Council. Some began picking fights in the crowd, doing the traditional foreplay to the actual fight in getting angry enough to take a swing at each other.
The audience was turning into a powder keg. Krshia looked around. Lism was already shouting at his supporters not to do anything rash—just yet! But into that moment anything could trigger the detonation. And that one thing came from the Human who would have been voted most likely to do just that. But she was also fairly good at what she did.
A voice exploded from the crowd. Erin shouted it, her [Loud Voice] skill drowning out an order from Councilwoman Yalla for the [Guards] to disperse the crowd. The [Innkeeper] waved her arms, shouting for attention.
“We did it! Krshia! Hey, Krshia! We won!”
Erin smiled around, beaming as if she couldn’t see the angry faces. She threw up her hands and did a little dance with Lyonette and Mrsha next to her.
“We did it! Lyonette, Mrsha! Selys! You won! We did it! Huzzah!”
She ran around in a circle, forcing people back. And then Erin turned. She tried to do a cartwheel and fell over.
“Ow! Lyonette, you do a cartwheel! Mrsha! Aren’t you proud! There are Gnolls on the Council!”
She grabbed Mrsha and tossed the Gnoll cub up. Mrsha stared at her. But then—she smiled. The Gnoll nodded. Erin caught her and looked around.
“We did it. Krshia won! And so did Raekea and Elirr! Mr. Cat-Gnoll Guy is on the Council!”
“Mister Cat Gnoll Guy?”
It was hard to throw a punch after hearing a line like that. And some people began to smile. Gnolls were nodding as Erin put Mrsha down. Yes. They had done it, hadn’t they? Forget numbers. There was a Gnoll, no, Gnolls on the Council.
And in the space she’d made, Erin smiled. Genuinely, shaking hands with Gnolls around her, and Drakes. Asking who they’d voted for.
“Did your guy win? No? Sorry! But hey, you voted! And that’s what counts! Who’d you vote for? Krshia? No way! Me? I can’t vote. Hey Mrsha, do a cartwheel!”
Laughing, she helped Mrsha do one, holding her stomach. And someone else did one, an older Gnoll, laughing with delight. Erin blinked at the woman, but then Gnolls were laughing, bounding forwards with commendable agility despite their age. And the Drakes began smiling too.
The tension in the crowd dissipated like static grounding itself amid genuine relief, happiness. It was over. You could cry foul, but was that a mature thing to do? People began shaking hands, smiling. The Gnoll who called one Drake an ‘egg-sucking lizard’ got punched in the face. But by and large, the anger was fading.
Erin breathed a sigh of relief. So did Liscor’s now-former Council. Relc just sighed and stared at his fist. Erin looked around and saw a group making their way towards her.
Everyone turned. Erin raised a hand and was engulfed in a huge hug. Krshia growled with delight, crushing Erin and laughing. Elirr swept Mrsha up and Lyonette smiled as Selys appeared, ruffling Mrsha’s fur. Erin was released finally and gasped for air, laughing. She looked up and Krshia was smiling at her.
“Miss Erin, you have helped us do it. We have won.”
“Yeah. Yeah! I mean…”
Erin’s face fell. She looked at the Council, tiptoeing back through the doors of city hall. Krshia smiled, and there was some reserve there.
“Yes. It seems it was not all it could have been, yes? But you said what was true. We won.”
Erin nodded. She wasn’t as happy as she’d acted; like Krshia, she felt stung by the ending. Even so—she waved at the crowd.
“I wasn’t about to let them start punching each other. Mrsha’s here. So. What happens now?”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] blinked at her. Then she looked around. Everyone was staring at her. Selys, Elirr, Raekea, Beilmark—and Krshia’s look of surprise told Erin she had no idea. But it only lasted a moment. Then she turned and beamed at Erin.
“We have a party at your inn, of course! We have some gold remaining from the funds—let us celebrate! And tomorrow—tomorrow, we shall see what being on the Council is.”
Erin smiled. Then she turned and waved.
“Alright! Celebration at my inn! First drink’s free!”
And the cheer to that came from everyone but Lyonette. People began leaving the plaza, exclaiming, hurrying to tell the news, upset or vindicated or looking for that drink. It didn’t matter. The results were the results and no one was going to burn down the city hall looking to change it. History had been made and the winners—
Krshia. Elirr. Raekea. The Gnoll [Armorer] looked dumbfounded by her position.
“Me. A Councilmember. I can’t believe it. I hammer metal. What will happen to my business?”
Elirr laughed, his grey fur blowing in a faint breeze as he carried Mrsha back towards the inn.
“You should have thought of that when you ran, Raekea!”
“Yes, but I didn’t really think I’d…I mean, I hoped, but—a Councilmember?”
The Gnoll smiled with delight and amazement, shaking her head. On the other side of the square, Olesm turned to his uncle. Lism was smiling, albeit with the same reserve Krshia had had. Olesm paused.
“Thank you, my boy. I think…no, thank you. We couldn’t have done it without you. I’m a Councilmember. I never thought I’d see the day. Me. A [Shopkeeper] on Liscor’s…”
Lism trailed off. Olesm blinked. There were tears in Lism’s eyes. The Drake turned and looked back at city hall. Then he wiped the tears away, turned back briskly to Olesm.
“Ancestors! We need to celebrate! Everyone, to the Tailless Thief! Peslas will have to open his stores for all of us! Where’s Wing Commander Embria? We have to talk! And—Jeiss! Alonna! Where are the other Councilmembers? We need to make a speech to all these people who helped us get this far! And—dead gods, I’ll have to share the Council with Silverfang?”
Lism uttered an oath. Olesm hesitated. He forbore pointing out that but for the Council, it was likely that Lism wouldn’t have been elected at all. His emotions were too mixed to let him celebrate. But he relaxed as he saw his uncle’s happiness.
The Drakes were celebrating, not as exuberantly as the Gnolls—it was hardly a landmark victory for them—but with good cheer nonetheless. Especially the ones who’d voted for Senior Guardsman Jeiss. The Drake was in the center of backslaps, handshakes, and a few unsolicited hugs. He was turning, smiling, when a furry paw reached out and people paused.
Senior Guardswoman Beilmark, his partner and opponent—if not by district, then by party, looked at Jeiss. He froze.
The two partners regarded each other for a moment. Jeiss bit his tongue. But it was Beilmark who smiled and shrugged slightly.
“You won, and I didn’t. I’m partners with a Councilmember now. Which means I’ll let you do all the paperwork, yes?”
Jeiss paused. And then he laughed. He reached out and they shook hands. The crowd sighed, and the two nodded to each other. If they had more they wanted to say, well, they’d do it later. Like adults.
“We won! We won! Celebration! Get the cake! Get the ice cream! Party!”
In her inn, Erin Solstice jumped on a table and the room erupted into cheers. Drassi was besieged at her bar, and the staff were taking orders like there was no tomorrow. The inn was heaving, Erin was beaming as she turned to Klbkch, who had come in with Yellow Splatters and Pawn—
But the story wasn’t about her. Tonight’s story was about the victors. Krshia could hardly drink but for all the people coming up to her, whom she thanked, or who wanted to ask when she’d do what she’d promised on the Council, or perhaps would she consider…? Elirr was similarly besieged, although Moore and Mrsha were keeping the worst at bay, Moore by his presence shielding the Gnoll, Mrsha by waving a fork when the crowd got too thick.
Raekea had disappeared with her husband, and the other Gnolls who hadn’t won were either getting drunk or joining the celebration, dancing, eating, or just talking. It was a night to remember. Which made it somewhat ironic that Erin found Selys sitting alone by the bar. The Drake had won, and she’d been an instrumental part of the victory. But it was the Gnoll’s night.
“Hey good looking! Mind if I buy you a drink?”
Erin slid into the seat next to Selys. The Drake stared at her.
“That’s the worst—no, wait, Hawk and Relc are worse. But that’s pretty bad, Erin.”
The young woman grinned and Selys edged her stool over. The two sat together and Drassi slid Erin a drink, Rufelt-style across the bar. She missed. Erin sighed. But the shattered cup reformed itself on the ground! The drink did not, and a shamefaced Drassi went over to refill it.
Erin looked at Selys, smiling. The Drake shrugged.
“Hey, work on it.”
“I mean, sorry that the Council were jerks. Do you think the Gnolls won more than three seats?”
“Honestly, Erin? I’d bet every gold piece on it. They’re all Drakes and…well, let’s just say I don’t think they wanted to help Krshia’s side. Maybe we took four seats. Or…five? Either way, it’s done. Krshia can argue against it, but the Council does get to choose! I guess. Maybe if there’d been a riot—”
“Sorry. But Mrsha was there.”
“Yeah. No, I think it’s fine. I mean, I wasn’t running. I’m just worried…”
“…That you don’t have enough seats?”
Erin looked worried. Selys nodded. She gestured at Krshia, who was toasting with a group of Gnolls.
“Krshia will obviously have to figure it out, but it’s three to five if you’re just going by species. And all the Drakes who were elected were in Lism’s camp. Well, more or less.”
“Which means they’ll vote against letting the Antinium help?”
Erin’s face fell. Selys paused.
“Probably. Maybe? I don’t know this Tismel and Zalaiss too well. They’re both wealthy, though; safe picks in their districts which is probably why they won their votes. Tismel’s head of the Cobbler’s Guild, and Zalaiss is a [Merchant] in the guild. Safe picks. But they’re both in Lism’s party. Jeiss and Alonna are actual friends of his, though. Either way, they’ll probably be against some of Krshia’s ideas. It’s—I don’t know, Erin. She’ll have to figure it out. I’m just a bit worried.”
The [Receptionist] sighed. Erin nodded. Then she paused as Drassi came back with her drink.
“[Cobblers] have a guild?”
“Of course they do, Erin. With two different species’ worth of feet in Liscor? I bet he doesn’t even make shoes anymore. He’s probably rich. And see, that’s the problem. There’s no way Tismel will be on Krshia’s side, right? So if Lism just overrules her, what was the point of all this? Did the Council steal a seat? Two seats?”
The Drake gripped her glass tightly, frustrated. Erin hesitated.
“But you did win, Selys. Be happy about that.”
She gestured at the inn. Selys just shook her head. Then she turned to look Erin in the eye.
“I don’t know. Did we win? Can we win if it’s not complete, Erin? If it’s just a little victory? How can I feel good about it when I know—we deserved more? We did, and they cheated.”
She had tears in her eyes from the pure frustration of it. Erin paused. And she took a long drink from her mug before replying slowly. She looked around the inn, at all the faces, at Numbtongue poking his head down the stairs and deciding to go back to his room, at Ceria making ice cubes, Yellow Splatters heading up with a small keg Erin had given him from the bar, Ishkr smiling as he went round the tables—and she smiled too.
“It wasn’t fair. And you can be mad. But tonight, Selys? Be happy. Because there wasn’t a Gnoll on Liscor’s Council yesterday. Tomorrow, there will be.”
She looked at the Drake. The [Heiress] paused. Then she looked up. She slowly raised her class and clinked it against Erin’s. And then Selys smiled.
“You’re right about that.”
She drank her cup down, ordered a Firebreath Whiskey, drank it, and kept smiling. Then she went to go cuddle Mrsha. Erin sighed. She took a sip of her drink at the bar and let the alcohol sting her mouth for a moment. Then she turned off her [Immunity: Alcohol] Skill. She sighed as she flushed with a bit of heat, and then raised her cup. She beamed at Lyonette, who’d come over.
“To victory! Now, let’s go tell everyone in Pallass the good news!”
The [Princess] smiled.
“Okay, Erin. You get to break the news. But then?”
Erin twinkled at her. Lyonette beamed back.
“You’re getting in the kitchen. We need more food.”
“Aw. But—but it’s a celebration.”
“Yup. Now, get cooking.”
The [Innkeeper]’s face fell. She sighed, looked around, and muttered as she finished her drink.
“I really need to hire a [Cook]. I wonder if Garry’s free?”
The party that engulfed Liscor that night was an event in itself. From Erin’s inn outside the city to the rest of it, there was drinking and delight, mayhem, a bit of madness, and happiness and sadness. Triumph and defeat, however fairly done.
But it was done. You could argue about the ethics of it all you wanted, but the legalese of it was that Liscor’s Council had made their decision and since no law actually decided the election process outside of their nomination of the candidates, it was all within the boundary of the law.
And it would be a fight uphill and downhill with a Rock Crab on your back to get the new Council to declare itself invalid. Especially because they were the only body who could do so, short of the High Command appearing outside of Liscor’s gates or a mob essentially overturning the government. Best to take the victory where you could and save your energy for another battle.
That was what Krshia and her supporters had reluctantly decided last night, and the former Council had heaved a sigh of relief when they heard it. The next day, everyone had a late day of it. People got back to work. Market Street finally unclogged of the persistent rallies and people got back to work. After all, the elections were done. And that day, the new Council met in Liscor’s city hall.
With the old one. It was a strange gathering, with eight Drakes sitting in chairs around the rounded conference table where the new Council sat. Especially because of how at odds they had been just a day ago.
There they sat, three Gnolls on one quadrant, Krshia, Elirr, and Raekea, and Lism exactly opposite Krshia, flanked by Jeiss and Alonna, with Tismel and Zalaiss occupying a safety wall between them. Krshia and Lism kept avoiding each other’s gaze—and then giving each other death-glares.
The former Council found it all quite amusing. Half of them were still somewhat drunk, Stales included. He felt a huge weight off his shoulders! He was done! And yes, the new Council wasn’t ideal, but they had to deal with dungeons and headaches about monsters and a war with the Humans! He felt ten years younger. The first thing he’d do now—
But there was one last thing to do. Reluctantly, the Drake pulled himself upright and coughed. Everyone in the room looked at him and Stales smiled cheerfully.
“Good morning everyone! I’m please, delighted, to welcome you all to your new positions!”
“We’re honored, Councilmember—erm, I mean, Guildmaster Greenscale.”
Tismel immediately ducked his head quite deferentially, and the Gnolls and Drakes all nodded. Stales grinned happily. Yes, this wasn’t so bad, was it? He’d feared the worse, but it had all worked out for the best. They might be Gnolls and Drakes now, but this Council would work just as well as the old one.
“Delighted, delighted, thank you, Guildmaster—no, pardon me, Councilmember Tismel. I’m sure you’re all ecstatic over winning the election. Now, I think you won’t see the rest of us, the former Council, unless you’ve need of advice—but it’s customary for the old Council to sit in on the new Council’s first meeting. Sometimes second or third if things have difficulty starting up.”
Stales was rewarded by a look of apprehension among the new Council. Yes, there they all were. New to the job and wet behind the…earholes. He remembered what it was like. And the old Council had seemed so wise! He suppressed a smirk as he looked at Yalla and the others and saw the same knowing expression on their faces. Lism coughed. He’d been staring around the rich room in between glaring at Krshia.
“Now we’re here. It feels rather…odd. We won the election. But the process of leading a city—”
He hesitated. Krshia made a sound in her throat and fidgeted in her chair. Elirr scratched at one arm. Raekea patted the belt buckle her husband had fashioned for her. Jeiss leaned back in his chair and Alonna rubbed her claws together, generating a magical spark. Tismel and Zalaiss looked at the old Council apprehensively.
Yes, that was the thing. They’d spent so long campaigning that none of them had ever stopped to think about how to run a city! Stales tsked internally. It wasn’t all fun and games, was it? He decided to show a bit of mercy and smiled.
“First things first! Please, direct your attention to the most important thing you’ll encounter today!”
He pointed to the far wall. Apprehensively, the Drakes and Gnolls turned. Stales beamed as he got up and strode over to the table. There was a pause. Jeiss frowned.
“Snacks! Please, help yourself. They’re very fine. They come by way of Invrisil. A Council meeting cannot run without snacks. We always have some sent up, although you’ll have to find your own sources. Candied nuts, anyone? I broke out the last of our stash.”
“Ooh, Stales. You [Rogue]! You’ve been holding out on us!”
Yalla exclaimed. She and the old Council got up and immediately began circulating the table, quarreling good-naturedly over the treats, which ranged from candied snacks to delicate little deviled eggs—goose, thank you, not chicken—filled with a poignant filling. The properly rich stuff; Stales wanted to treat the new Council. He noticed they weren’t getting up. Ah, yes, first-day jitters. He waved them over then decided they’d eat when they relaxed. After a bit, Jeiss got up and snagged a few items, along with Tismel and Zalaiss. When they were all seated, Stales went on.
“Now that’s settled. I suppose, we’d better get to the actual work of the day.”
The rest of the old Council groaned good-naturedly, but they put on a good face as former Councilmember Yalla rang the bell. All the Gnoll’s ears perked up and they looked towards the door exactly as it opened. Handy, that. Stales saw the Drake who’d been waiting on standby bustle into the room.
Olesm Swifttail’s first view of the room as he hurried in with his scrolls of parchment and stack of reports was eerily familiar. He’d forgotten the old Council would be there, so twice as many people in the room gave him a moment’s pause. But he’d done this for the last Council, so he bowed once, and then his eyes went to Lism’s face. The Drake [Shopkeeper] looked astonished, and then delighted.
“Councilmembers, good day to you. I am Olesm Swifttail. You may have met me before, but in this moment I’m acting in my capacity as [Strategist] of Liscor. I welcome you to your positions—”
“Young Swifttail is our [Strategist]. He delivers all our information and gives the morning briefing. He’s also the one who you’ll see the most of; I imagine Watch Captain Zevara might be here later as well, but Olesm is the one who handles most affairs.”
With dreadful timing and a poor whisper, Stales leaned over to confide in Lism. Olesm paused and Lism harrumphed proudly.
“Of course! A [Strategist] to the Council. He never told me he gives daily reports!”
“Told you? My word, you’re his uncle, aren’t you? I’d forgotten! And it’s hardly daily—it’s whenever we meet.”
Yalla leaned over, smiling at Lism. The [Shopkeeper] looked proudly at Olesm and the [Strategist] groaned. This could be terribly awkward. He cleared his throat, trying not to meet Krshia’s gaze. Or any of the Gnolls’. Oh yes, this could be a lot worse than he’d imagined.
“May I continue, Councilmembers?”
“Oh, very wel—”
Stales’ familiar, tired wave was cut off by Lism sitting upright in his chair. The [Shopkeeper] smiled widely.
“Of course! Go on, Nephew, er—I mean, [Strategist] Olesm.”
Lism beamed at Olesm. The [Strategist] cringed inwardly for only a moment before adopting his friendly, helpful expression and tone. He circulated the table, relieved that he always brought a number of copies so he could divide the reports among both former and new Council.
The old Council glanced over the reports and almost instantly passed it to the new Council, who began reading as they listened attentively. Stales smiled as he listened to Olesm, and then observing the new Council’s feverish attention. Hadn’t he been like that? Oh yes, they’d learn all right.
Olesm began with his rehearsed speech, the one he’d given to two Councils before this one. Well, one and a half since he’d taken over halfway through.
“Councilmembers, I traditionally begin each meeting with a small briefing if necessary. I’ll proceed as if the old Council were in session, ah, with your permission?”
“Go ahead! What’s the latest gossip this time?”
One of the old Councilmembers called out. Olesm hesitated, but went on as the new Council hesitated.
“Well then, my first piece of news is that it is more or less confirmed that Manus’ covert operation against the north has been a success. I have the report summarized in front of you, but the damages to Human lands are estimated at—”
“Wait. Manus did what?”
Raekea yelped as she finally caught up to Olesm. She stared at the parchment in horror. The old Council chuckled knowingly as Lism and the new Council sat up.
“There’s been an attack on the north, Olesm? When? Where?”
Krshia’s eyes flickered across the parchment. Olesm raised is claws hurriedly.
“Not an attack? Or rather, it’s not an act of direct war. I’m sorry, I should have prefaced this. Manus ordered dozens of its [Infiltrators] and [Saboteurs] to head north and cause havoc among Human lands. They started fires, engaged in covert assassinations of high-level targets, spread illnesses or simply sowed dissent—”
“I never heard of this! When was this?”
Guildmistress Alonna looked up sharply. The Drake [Mage] stared at Olesm. He winced.
“About one week ago was when I heard rumors of it, Councilmember. And I received confirmation—of sorts—only today. Please understand, all the information you hear here is classified. Not to be repeated as gossip.”
He looked pointedly at Stales and the old Council, who avoided his gaze. Yalla leaned over conspiratorially.
“You can be sure it’s accurate, too. Strategist Olesm is quite informative at these little updates. I will miss them.”
“How do you know this happened? I have people I talk to, but they do not mention an attack. There was talk of a drought and unseasonable weather, but an attack?”
Krshia demanded, looking up at Olesm sharply. He coughed, a bit proud at how astonished she looked.
“Your sources might relay that it was an attack, Krsh—Councilmember, or they might not. Think of me as a fact-checker with a bit more insight into current events. I have access to several lines of communication that allow me to make inferences, and I’m well-versed in Drake strategy. No doubt a lot of the attacks will be news or gossip, although it may be downplayed. Some of the events were quite large.”
“Wildfires. Lightning attacks. A Drake assassinating Humans on their land? How can this be rumor and gossip?”
Elirr’s fur stood up as he read the report. He looked up. Olesm shrugged.
“I don’t think the nobility will want to disclose the findings. But let me explain from the beginning. This is what I’ve put together, and the report isn’t wholly accurate, but—”
“It is reliable?”
Lism looked up quietly. He was reading the report, tracing each line with a claw. Olesm nodded solemnly.
“All the Drake cities get news updates from the other cities and any [Strategist] has their…sources, Uncle—I mean, Councilmember Lism! I’m not in touch with all the minutiae of what’s happening, but I do pick up on the big things. So, from the start.”
He took a deep breath. This time both old and new Councilmembers listened attentively.
“There’s been a lot of public chatter on the subject. The long of it is that Manus has launched several attacks on lands owned by the [Lords] and [Ladies] who participated in the siege of Liscor. Lord Tyrion Veltras, Lady Ieka Imarris, Lord Pellmia, Lord Gralton Radivaek…I have a list in front of you as well as estimated damages.”
“A heavy toll. Serves them right!”
Stales remarked with deep satisfaction. Krshia gave Raekea and Elirr a disturbed look. Lism was biting one lip. Jeiss raised a claw.
“How do you know it was Manus, Olesm? Er, Strategist?”
“Well, firstly, the nobles managed to fight off the attack and kill or wound some of the assailants. When they demanded an explanation from the Walled Cities, Manus, ah, replied to the allegations by claiming that the reports of Drakes were probably ‘unusually active Wyverns migrating north’. That’s a code. That means they sent True Oldbloods to launch the attacks. My estimates are that most returned safely, but there were about one in six casualties.”
There was a good-natured groan from the old Council. The new one just looked shocked.
“And they did all this without anyone knowing? Those are powerful nobles they attacked! Why were they not spotted?”
Alonna demanded. Olesm shrugged.
“Manus has a number of agents, Councilmember Alonna. They’re quite skilled and the Walled City can supply them with artifacts. If they’d tried to enter a populated city through the gates, they’d have been caught, but they worked from a distance. As it was, some of the nobles managed to fight off the attacks. As did the rumored [Emperor]…”
“[Emperor]? You mean, that’s not just rumors?”
Olesm took a deep breath. He’d forgotten how it worked. The new Council always had questions. He patiently explained the rumors about Laken Godart, and then gave everyone a summary of the factions supporting Tyrion Veltras—and the split between him and Magnolia Reinhart during the siege. He’d forgotten they hadn’t listened to the reports the old Council had. And the new Council was refreshingly serious; the old one kept eating, rolling their eyes at the explanations Olesm had hammered into their heads.
“All of this, and for what? Liscor? They never even got to the city in time, but they’re launching an attack that might have repercussions for us. Were we even consulted?”
Lism muttered angrily. Krshia was frowning too, looking worried. Olesm could only shrug, but Stales waved a claw.
“The Walled Cities take their own action, Councilmember Lism. Don’t worry. The main thing to ask is this. Strategist Olesm. Will it affect Liscor?”
“Well…no. Not immediately. I predict that the Humans will take offense and maybe seek to retaliate via sanctions or covert action of their own. Maybe hire [Pirates] or mercenaries or so on. But after Magnolia Reinhart’s schism with the other nobility, there’s not enough political consensus or will to launch a second attack, much less unprovoked.”
The new Council sighed in relief. The old one sat back, unconcerned.
“There. You see? It’s just news. No need to worry. This is usually just good for gossip—”
Stales hesitated as Olesm glared at him.
“—among family and personal friends. Highly confidential, of course.”
“I…see. Go on, then, Olesm.”
Krshia exchanged a glance with Elirr as Lism waved his nephew on. Her mind was already spinning. She’d had some idea that Liscor’s Council was well-informed, but this? She was wondering if she really had what it took to be on this Council. Let alone run a city. She listened as Olesm went on, trying to suppress the butterflies in her stomach.
“Let’s see…the army has concluded its defense contract with Oteslia and is moving west. They may be looking for work around Fissival—there’s a standing dispute between the cities of Grailhess and Veish that they might want to seek out, although both cities have fairly powerful armies, so the High Command may prefer work fighting against the Gnoll tribes in the plains. There has been a number of incidents between Gnoll tribes and Drake cities of late—”
Raekea muttered that. Olesm paused.
“Excuse me? Um, Councilmember Raekea?”
The Gnoll [Armorer] glanced up. Raekea hesitated, but Krshia and Elirr were nodding. Elirr broke in, growling softly.
“It’s the Woven Bladegrass tribe. Not tribes. Their new Chieftain is young and she’s fought against Drakes before. Her tribe is good at fighting too.”
Everyone blinked at the Gnolls. Krshia looked around, eyebrows raised.
“That is common knowledge, yes? Among Gnolls.”
She looked at Olesm for confirmation. He half-nodded and glanced at his parchment.
“I had no idea. I mean, yes, the incidents would make sense if it was a single tribe. Woven Bladegrass? Let me make a note…ah, ahem. I bring it up as a matter of security. Obviously some of this doesn’t affect Liscor, but it could lead to a larger conflict.”
Raekea looked darkly at Krshia. The Gnoll nodded, but raised a furry finger. Now wasn’t the time for Gnollish politics. Olesm continued, a bit off-kilter.
“Well, aside from the war with Tiqr, I have no notable news of immediate concern for the Council. As I’m sure you’ve heard, several nations from Chandrar have launched an attack on the King of Destruction’s allies, including the nation of Tiqr. The fighting has gone on for weeks now, and Tiqr has been forced back and back. They’ve held on well, but my estimate is that they’ll fall within the week if the King of Destruction doesn’t act in some way, which would violate his pledge not to do so. Er, that’s about it.”
He looked at Stales. The former Councilman nodded.
“The daily briefing is always about issues that concern Liscor as a whole. Apparently the King of Destruction is always pertinent news, which makes sense, I suppose. But the wretched fellow hasn’t done anything but conquer, one, two kingdoms? He’s hardly the threat he was. Still, better safe than sorry. That’s our [Strategist]. After that, we generally move to some conversation and the day’s decisions. Of course, the table is yours now…”
He chuckled and gestured towards the Council. They hesitated, but the time for hesitation was gone. Krshia nodded to herself. She’d fought for this seat. She had to earn it. She opened her mouth—and Lism beat her to the punch.
“Of course, we’ve a number of issues to discuss.”
He smirked at Krshia. She glared at him. There was going to be an unfortunate confrontation soon, and she’d readied herself for it. Lism went on, glancing at the old Council.
“However, I don’t know the uh, protocol for such things. So what do you do first?”
The old Council looked mildly surprised. One of the older Drakes rubbed his neck spines and chuckled.
“Oh yes, those issues. Well, Strategist Olesm usually has a list! We go through them and then leave. Olesm! What’s on today’s list?”
He waved a claw. Olesm sighed as he unfurled the rather long scroll of parchment. The old Council sighed and the new ones sat up.
“Well, Councilmembers, I do generally keep track of the Council’s issues by request. And I’ll note any future concerns. However, today’s list is substantial. The new Council must of course approve a budget for the Watch and issue an announcement to the city and so forth, but there are new concerns for this Council. Among them are the proposed changes to the city each er, party, has campaigned on.”
“Of course. Well, this is the heart of it.”
Stales sighed as he turned and looked around the room. He waved at Olesm.
“Strategist Swifttail will bring us an issue and we’ll debate it. Sometimes it’s as easy as voting to do something. Show of claws—excuse me, claws and paws—and we agree or not. Other times, we have to do some math. Agree on a budget—don’t worry, Swifttail will have the numbers. But there are a lot of new proposals you lot have campaigned on, haven’t you?”
He gave the Gnolls and Drakes a somewhat superior look.
“Well, we can discuss the issue now, but I think you’ll find it’s more complicated than just shelling out gold!”
Krshia’s ears perked up. She turned to stare around at the old Council. Elirr and Raekea looked up. And so did Lism. Stales waved an airy claw.
“Just a bit of advice from the old Council! Perspective. After all, we know the ins and outs of running the city. You agree?”
He looked around. Krshia nodded reluctantly. That was true. She hesitated, and then coughed.
“Well, it seems we must talk about the deal to expand the city—”
“Without Antinium help. As my campaign pledged.”
Lism finished the sentence and sat back, satisfied. Krshia stared at him. And then polite civility broke down.
“You mean, your campaign stole from mine, you thief, Lism, you!”
“Hah! I knew it! You couldn’t wait one hour before you had to accuse my campaign of improving on your ideas!”
“I was the one who suggested expanding the city! What did your campaign come up with?”
Krshia snarled across the table. Stales looked wide-eyed at Lism, who laughed loudly back at her.
“Removing the Antinium element of course! And the city voted our party into power.”
“Because you stole our seats!”
Krshia howled back at him. Lism raised his claws.
“By popular vote—”
Stales didn’t manage to outshout either Drake or Gnoll, but he did silence them. He looked around, flustered.
“Please! Councilmembers, this is not a street argument! This is a civilized discussion! And any issues can be discussed! Frankly, I don’t think this debate will get us anywhere, because as I was saying, the reality of Liscor’s financial situation is that we might not be able to pay for any expansions to the walls!”
Silence fell over the new Council. Stales sat back, and another Councilmember chortled.
“Don’t you wish you’d talked to us, first?”
Lism stared at Stales. So did Krshia. Did they know something the public didn’t? Krshia felt a pit in her stomach and saw Elirr looking at her, alarmed. Lism spoke up into the silence.
“What do you mean, Councilmembers? We have a proposal. Expand the walls. It will generate new jobs, new commerce—”
“Yes, Councilmember Lism, but who will pay for the walls?”
“Well, we could increase the taxes on the dungeon and—”
Yalla cut in, not-very-apologetically.
“I’m afraid, what Stales means is that we can’t just…move around some numbers and come up with gold we don’t have, Councilmember Lism. Perhaps we could raise revenues here, but that doesn’t create gold. Our yearly budget is comprised of a number of sources including revenue from the guilds, taxes, trade, and so on, but it mainly comes from—”
Yalla broke off. Krshia blinked at her.
“I am sorry. Was that not what you meant to say?”
The Drake narrowed her eyes and Krshia felt a bit better. She didn’t like the condescending tone Yalla or the old Council had. Yalla cleared her throat.
“What I mean to say was that yes, Liscor’s army does send back a good deal of funds in exchange for the support we give them. We tend to use it up on necessary products, because the money from the rest of our taxes and so on is…limited. It’s always been a fact of living around Liscor. This is not a rich city like Salazar or even Pallass.”
She shrugged. Lism frowned.
“Poor? But Liscor is the keystone city between north and south!”
Krshia rolled her eyes.
“Again, Lism? When the Council is saying to your face, that Liscor is not rich? Go travelling and you will understand! It is what I have been saying for years. Liscor is important. But not for the reasons you think. It is not economically strong!”
“Well, speaking as the Merchant’s Guild’s Guildmaster—”
“Be quiet, Silverfang. Liscor does have wealth! We export a vast amount of fish and fish-based products each spring. More than any other city, Human or Drake in a thousand miles!”
“That’s because they’re all landlocked. You idiot you, you wouldn’t know reality if someone hit you with a fish!”
Olesm watched in mild horror as Krshia stood up and leaned over the table and Elirr and Raekea dragged her back. Jeiss managed to do the same job on Lism’s end as Alonna shook her head. The rest of the Council looked horrified. But really, it was like watching Lism and Krshia got at it in the market. Their voices did echo a lot more in this room, though.
“Councilmember Lism! Councilmember Krshia! We do not shout! We debate issues.”
Stales held up his claws. Lism sat down with bad grace.
“I’m simply making the point to this Gnoll that Liscor has more sources of revenue than the army. Which she finds delight in deriding—”
“But how would you increase Liscor’s funds, Shopkeeper—er, Councilmember Lism? After all, we do have to fund the projects the city undertakes, and money is always tight. Please, some snacks will settle your mood. Pass the nuts, Stales? Oh, would you like some?”
Bowls of the sugar-coated nuts were passed around the table quickly. Olesm made a face at the rich food. Lism stared at the bowl and so did the Gnolls as they appeared in front of them. He glanced at Stales with a bit of irritation. This was the new Council after all. But he answered with forced politeness.
“Shield Spider silk, Councilwoman Yalla.”
He took a few nuts and popped them into his mouth. Instantly his expression changed for the worse. Olesm groaned. Lism hated sugary things.
“Shield Spider silk?”
The rest of the Council looked blank, except for Stales, who frowned. A bit worriedly. Krshia noticed that, as did Olesm. Lism exhaled as he crunched on some of the saccharine nuts. He frowned and spat his mouthful into the waste basket. Krshia lowered her nose directly over the bowl, gave it one deep sniff, and pushed it to one side. The other two Gnolls, Elirr and Raekea, did the same. The former Council watched in horror.
“Gah. Sorry. Too much sugar. Almost as bad as that Human makes in her inn. Anyways, where was I? Ah, right. Shield Spider silk. Liscor’s Floodplains are infested with Shield Spider nests. You can’t swing a dead rat for five seconds outside the walls without a spider climbing out of the ground and trying to eat you and it. And they’re worth money to the Adventurer’s Guild. Do you know how much you can get for a single Shield Spider corpse?”
Everyone except for Stales and Krshia shook their heads. Lism spread his claws.
“Eleven silver pieces for a fully-grown adult’s corpse if it’s unscratched and unmarked! Of course, that covers the hazard bounty on them, but it wouldn’t be that high if the corpse itself didn’t have value!”
Tismel gave Lism a very curious look. The [Cobbler] winced as Lism raised his voice. The [Shopkeeper] struck the table, as if he were railing against the injustices of the world in his stall. He had an outside voice. But for once, it wasn’t annoying Krshia because she saw his point and grudgingly, agreed with it.
“Of course not! You can use the body of a Shield Spider for any number of things! Silk and armor! They’re not called ‘Shield Spiders’ because they’re soft! Their hide—”
“—whatever is so tough you can use it as armor! But no one trades Shield Spider components in Liscor. It’s not worth the effort. Processing the damn silk takes classes and an industry we don’t have. But I’ve noticed that Shield Spider silk can make anything from thread to decent clothing if you can dye and weave it right. And Shield Spider chitin can be used to make a number of objects. About, oh, three decades back, I remember seeing Silver-rank adventurers wearing lamellar armor made out of chitin. What happened to that? Now it’s all iron, steel, and leather. So where do the Shield Spiders go?”
“Well, the Adventurer’s Guild sell to the [Merchants]. At a very reasonable price at our end.”
Stales replied carefully. Lism turned to frown at him.
“But how much of a markup do [Merchants] and [Traders] make when they take the cargo to, say, Invrisil? Even if you paid a gold coin per Shield Spider body, how much would that much chitin and armor be worth if you brought it in one piece?”
“Er—I don’t have the numbers in front of me.”
The Drake was hedging. Lism shook his head, ignoring Stales.
“The money goes straight to the [Merchants]. And the Adventurer’s Guild takes their cut since they ‘allow’ us to have a guild in their city. But where’s Liscor’s cut? We increase the price by one silver coin per Shield Spider body and that’s…how many Shield Spiders are killed in just the annual culling?”
“Oh, come now—”
“On average? About three or four thousand Shield Spiders. Not all adults of course, but I could estimate at least a two thousand and a half. This year it was about double that.”
Olesm piped up. Stales and the old Councilmembers gave him a glare, but Lism snapped his claws.
“There you have it. Raise the price by one silver coin—and that’s not even asking for a fair margin from either Adventurer’s Guild or [Merchants] and we’re up five thousand gold pieces after the culling alone. There. Five thousand shovels for the walls. How’s that?”
“You can’t just—”
Krshia spoke over the hot voice raised behind her.
“Or five thousand Workers, who can build without needing to hire [Builders].”
She and Lism stared daggers again, but Stales was coughing and trying to interrupt as he choked on a nut.
“See here, Councilmember Lism! You can’t just place a tariff on goods like that! It could damage trade! Shield Spider parts are one of the few things that keep a lot of [Merchants] coming this way! If you raise prices—”
“What will they do? Go elsewhere for their Shield Spiders? The last I heard, we were the only city with an enduring plague of the things.”
Lism folded his arms. Stales hesitated. He raised a single claw.
“As head of the Merchant’s Guild, I must warn you of the consequences. You may trigger a boycott of Liscor’s goods.”
“By whom? Wouldn’t they have to get the Guildmaster to agree to that?”
Jeiss leaned over the table. The room went silent as every eye fell on Stales. He wavered.
“Well—I er, the [Merchants] who trade with Liscor are exceptionally powerful. Some of them. I’d try to talk them out of it, but I can only do so much—”
He caught part of Lism’s stare and broke off. Stales had been a decently successful [Merchant] before he’d become a Guildmaster and employed people to do his job, and he remembered negotiating with lower-level [Traders], [Shopkeepers] and so on. Some of them were easy to bowl over, but sometimes you ran into one that had Lism’s look. You learned to avoid them or you had to fight like one of Rhir’s Demons to get anything like a good deal. He tried to lean out of the way of the stare.
Krshia broke into the silence with a thoughtful ‘hrm’. She looked around and nodded.
“As I have been saying from the beginning, the issue is one of space, yes? Tariffs are all very well, but Liscor needs more space. A city with walls is always held by the walls. More space will allow more business to flourish. And it will cut down on the rent that makes poorer families suffer.”
“Well, hold on now. That’s a bold claim to make.”
Yalla protested hotly, but Lism, Jeiss, Elirr, Raekea, and Alonna were all nodding. The old Council was frowning, but Lism tapped the table with one claw.
“That was second on my list, Silverfang. But if you want to jump from topic to topic, fine. Let’s talk about reducing the rent.”
“Another issue which I’m afraid we wanted to talk to you about.”
One of the old Councilmembers cut in. This time he received a glare from the new Council, Gnolls and the two Drakes sitting next to Lism. Tismel and Zalaiss were very quiet, glancing from old to new as if trying to figure out where the wind was blowing. Lism folded his arms.
“I don’t see what the issue is. Rent is too high. I can’t count how many families have been evicted or run out of their homes because they can’t pay to stay in the same homes they used to. All these new Humans and adventurers are crowding honest Drakes—and Gnolls—out of their homes! We lower the rent.”
“On that, we can agree, Lism. But it’s Drakes who own the land and apartments.”
Krshia growled at him. Yalla banged her bowl of candied nuts for attention. Her face was crimson with fury.
“Excuse me! You cannot force our landowners to adjust their prices! That is interference in business, which goes against the very heart of Drake traditions! We have a very amiable arrangement with the [Landowners] and guilds managing rent in the city.”
Lism stared at her. Yalla hesitated.
“The [Landowners] contribute an annual fund to Liscor’s funds, above what we owe in taxes.”
“What do you mean, how m—”
“Nine thousand, six hundred, and twelve gold pieces last year. Rounded up.”
The Drake turned with fury to look at Olesm. He smiled politely back at Yalla. He saw Lism look at him and went on.
“Yalla Aldrake, [Landlady]. You paid four hundred and eight gold pieces to the, ah, Land-Fund, which is an agreed-upon tax on the owners of real estate.”
“Interesting. But I happen to know you own at least four streets. And the prices on one of those streets was six silver coins and five copper per month.”
Lism stared at Yalla. She opened her mouth.
“That was due to—”
“Six silver and five copper per month is seventy eight silver pieces per year. If you multiply that by the number of people per apartment, that’s eight times that. At least. Which is…nephew?”
Olesm’s lips moved as he did a quick summation on his parchment.
“Six hundred and twenty four silver, Un—Councilmember. And converted to gold, that’s thirty one gold and four silver. If my math holds.”
“And that’s per house. In the poorest district of the city. Multiply that by what, eight houses on one street? Twenty? Thirty? And multiply that again because streets have two sides?”
Silence. Yalla’s face was pale. Jeiss was doing the math, a deep frown on his face. Olesm came up with the answer at last.
“If you assume sixteen houses per street—and it’s actually closer to twenty six—one street would earn around five hundred gold pieces per year. And uh, not all apartments have only eight rooms.”
“And that’s the poorest district! With widowers, old Drakes who can’t tie down a full job anymore and people who need a home! Where do they go if they can’t afford the rent?”
The [Shopkeeper]’s voice was too loud. Yalla winced.
“How should I know?”
It was the wrong answer, and the wrong indignant tone to take. Lism exploded as his fist came down and sent the bowl of nuts flying.
“They go to live with their families or friends or they sleep on the street! Six silver coins and five copper for a room on Welcaissel Street!? I’d be ashamed to rent that room to Humans!”
“How dare you! What I do with my apartments is my business!”
Yalla shouted back at Lism. He was not to be outdone, and she had made a mistake shouting at someone whose entire job was shouting.
“Really? In that case, you can explain to me what an old lady is supposed to do when she’s turned out onto the streets without two coppers to rub together and nowhere to go!”
“Councilmember Lism! Please stop shouting!”
One of the Drakes begged. Lism’s voice was echoing in the meeting room. All three Gnolls had covered their ears, but Elirr looked approving. So did Jeiss. Stales, shaken, looked around. The Drake, older, one of the old Council, pointed shakily at Lism.
“This is not the place for shouting. We have measured debates, not these—attacks on Councilmembers!”
He looked around for support. The old Council nodded. Stales broke in hurriedly.
“I agree! We’ve gotten completely off-track from our original discussion. Funding Liscor’s expansion might be possible if the Walled Cities and the Antinium are willing to contribute to Liscor’s funds, but suddenly levying fines or controlling the way business is done is not the purpose of this Council! I wish to make this very clear! As a Councilmember and Head of the Merchant’s Guild—”
Stales paused. Because only half of that sentence was true. He went on.
“I think we should take a recess for some further clarification of how things are done. We can all split up into pairs, old and new, and then get back to—”
He stopped, because at that moment Krshia Silverfang stood up. She didn’t do anything else. But it was the kind of movement that attracted attention. It wasn’t fast. But it was slow. And when she was done, she looked down at Stales.
She was the tallest person in the room, just a bit taller than Elirr. And she looked down at Stales very coolly. Somehow, the words froze in Stales’ mouth. Krshia looked at the old Council, from face to face. And then she looked around at the new Council. At Elirr and Raekea, and then Jeiss and Alonna, both of whom were frowning. Tismel and Zalaiss she ignored completely.
“I think we have learned much from the old Council. And I agree with former Councilmember Stales, yes? There is much this new Council does not do like the old one. We lack order. And Liscor’s Council must have order. Pointless shouting does little. We should be focused on what matters.”
She looked around, and then at last, met Lism’s eyes. The [Shopkeeper] didn’t look away and he and Krshia stopped, staring at each other. They began to glare. And then, suddenly, stopped. Olesm held his breath. Then, slowly, Lism looked sideways. And nodded.
“As much as I hate to admit it, Councilmember Silverfang, I have to agree.”
Stales exhaled. The former Councilmember issued a tentative smile. At last, they could get things back on track. The Gnolls were good for something after all! He clapped his claws briskly and looked around.
“Good. In that case, let’s all take a break.”
“Good idea. Feel free to take it outside. Councilmembers?”
He stood up. Jeiss, Alonna, Raekea, and Elirr all got up too. The old Council blinked. The next thing they knew, the eight Drakes found themselves outside the meeting room, balancing the snack platters in their claws. They turned as Lism pushed the last former Councilmember out and shoved the waste basket into her arms.
“You can’t do this! We haven’t finished telling you how things work! Don’t you dare—if you so much as try to enforce any rule on our class, we’ll—”
Yalla shouted at Lism. He smiled at her without an ounce of sincerity.
“Miss Yalla. I am a Councilmember. You are not. And the Council will decide on what’s appropriate for this city. If the Head of the Merchant’s Guild or the [Landlady] of Welcaissel have a complaint, you can write it down.”
He paused. After a moment, Yalla retorted.
Lism slammed the door in her face.
The Council of Liscor met for the first time, really, for the first time in a room covered with crushed candied nuts worked into the rich carpet. With an angry Drake [Landlady] pounding on the door until Olesm helped remove her. And they took stock of each other a second time then.
You had Krshia, Elirr, and Raekea on one side. Gnolls united by a common purpose. And Olesm, as he came back in wincing at a scratch on his arm—Yalla had sharp claws—looked at the Drakes. You might assume they were all the same, but they weren’t. Lism, Jeiss, and Alonna were all quite firmly together.
Tismel and Zalaiss on the other hand were in the same bed as the old Council. They looked appalled at the way the Drakes had been bundled out of the room and were staring at Lism and Krshia as the two sat back.
“Odious person, that. I should have known. [Landlady]. Pah. She inherited those apartments. They certainly haven’t been maintained since she was born. I doubt she’s even stepped into one.”
Lism was grumbling to himself. Krshia was murmuring to Raekea, who looked nervous. And Elirr? Elirr seemed calm. He was turning his head left and right, regarding the room in much the same way Olesm was. And then he caught the [Strategist]’s eye and smiled.
Almost secretively. As if Elirr had suddenly come across a good joke. Which told Olesm that the older Gnoll had seen something.
And then Olesm looked at the room. Really looked. And he saw something that Liscor’s Council had failed to notice until this very moment. The election for Liscor had been framed as a matter of Drakes vs Gnolls, old vs new, trust in the Antinium and non-Drakes and non-Gnolls versus the traditions of Liscor. But what the old Council really should have been worried about, what they’d failed to notice was this:
The new Council wasn’t rich. In fact, aside from the aforementioned Tismel and Zalaiss, they were all from working occupations. [Guardsman]. [Shopkeeper]. [Armorer]. [Mage]. Olesm knew for a fact that Alonna hadn’t inherited anything that had catapulted her into the Mage’s Guild’s leadership role. And he knew his uncle. And Krshia.
Suddenly, he felt better about this new Council. He hadn’t liked the old one. He hadn’t hated them, but they’d been rather like the Council before them. And the one before that. But this one?
This one was new. Lism finished brushing bits of nuts off his side of the table. He looked around and gestured at the now-empty snacks tray. Jeiss tossed his uneaten deviled eggs into the waste basket with a grimace.
“Not good. Too rich for my blood.”
Lism nodded. He reached for his belt and took out a water flask and drank.
“Next time I’ll bring some decent snacks from my stocks.”
That broke the ice. Krshia looked up from her conversation with Raekea and nodded.
“I know a [Cook] who does very fine work at catering to crowds, yes? He could put a small spread on the table for the cost of one of those other dishes. I could ask him to cater for us.”
Lism turned his head.
“I take it your friend’s a Gnoll?”
The [Shopkeeper] bristled.
“And if he is?”
“Oh, nothing. But will he be catering all our meals? Why not let some Drake [Cooks] provide the meals?”
“Why not? You may suggest a name. I did not hear any from you.”
“I have five.”
Lism snapped back. Raekea looked up as Krshia and Lism began to snap at each other. She caught Jeiss’ eye across the table. They gave each other a nod. Jeiss put a hand on Lism’s shoulder and the [Shopkeeper] paused. Raekea poked Krshia in the side. The Gnoll yelped and glared. But then she relaxed.
“I was simply saying, that if food was desired—”
“Maybe if you alternated species in who’s providing meals for the Council?”
Olesm broke in desperately to avoid another fight. Krshia and Lism stared at him. The [Shopkeeper] nodded.
“Well, obviously. I was just making the point that—never mind.”
He eyed Krshia warily. She looked at him for a second and then Raekea poked her. Olesm cleared his throat. Well, at least this was classic.
“If anyone has a further motion to pass regarding providing sustenance for Council meetings? That was actually on the docket, but we can move it up the timetable.”
The table stared at him. Krshia frowned.
“What did you say, Olesm? That is on today’s list of important topics? Snacks?”
The [Strategist] sighed as he consulted his notes.
“The former Council likes to sort out these matters right away. In years past, it can be a matter of…contention.”
Lism stared at his nephew, aghast. He cast a look towards the door.
“They quibble about—it’s just food for Ancestor’s sakes! We don’t need to discuss it! Do we?”
He looked around the table. Jeiss raised his brows.
“I don’t have an issue with what I eat so long as I’m not going to puke it out on patrol. Or have half the Gnoll kids ask me what I ate.”
“Did the Council actually debate over snacks, Olesm? And for how long? Are they always like…?”
Alonna waved a claw to indicate the show the old Council had been. Olesm hesitated. But that was the old Council. And if they got word that he was telling tales they might…never speak to him again.
“Well—there was a number of heated debates halfway through their first year. I think they devoted two sessions to arguing about nuts. The uh, deviled eggs were a compromise that went on for about four months. The old Drake, Councilmember—er, Mister Saish—really liked eggs.”
He looked around the room. There was just silence from Lism and Krshia’s camps. Again, Krshia and Lism traded glances. Lism raised one claw.
“All in favor of alternating food duties between members, if we need to eat at all? I’ll start.”
Krshia instantly raised her paw. Raekea thought about it for as long as it took to give the idea proper, measured thought. She was only a beat behind Krshia. Elirr’s paw was already in the air along with Jeiss’. Alonna waved a claw.
“I don’t do well with cilantro. That’s all from me.”
“Wait, are we voting?”
Tismel looked dismayed. Lism stared at him, and then at Zalaiss.
“What’s it look like we’re doing? That’s what the old Council said we do, right? Unless we have to do some kind of ceremony?”
“One of the Councilmembers liked to bang a little rock to call the vote. But no.”
“I see. Do we need to write anything down, Nephew?”
“…Not for an informal agreement on bringing food to the meetings, no. I shouldn’t think so.”
“Okay then. Vote.”
He glared at Tismel and Zalaiss. They hesitated, and then their claws came up. Lism nodded.
“Everyone’s in favor. So we’re agreed. Is that how it works?”
He looked at Olesm again. The [Strategist] coughed.
“Good! Cross that off your list, Olesm. What’s next?”
“Well, you were debating—”
“Not that. Let’s get the least important things out of the way first. Then onto the actual debates. Right?”
Lism looked across the table. Krshia cracked her knuckles.
Disconcerted at the sudden harmony between the two, Olesm looked at his list.
“There’s…the announcement you put out around the city. You see, traditionally—”
“We know what the announcement is. Alright, we have to say something. Thoughts?”
Elirr raised a paw. Lism stared at him.
“Well, spit it out!”
The Gnoll looked affronted.
“I thought we raised paws. No? Very well. For the announcement, just say what is needed. ‘There is no issue. We are all alive’. Simple, yes?”
“Hah! I like that!”
Jeiss snorted. Alonna looked dismayed.
“Perhaps something less direct, Elirr? I think Liscor’s citizens would prefer something with some…what’s the word? Ornamentation. What’d they write last year?”
Lism waved a claw.
“The new Council has assumed its role as leadership of Liscor, etc. etc…copy that and have someone shout it a few times.”
“Wait, but wouldn’t that be lazy?”
It was Zalaiss who raised her claw timidly. Lism’s eyes popped.
“Who cares if it is? And who cares what the Council has to say?”
She looked uncomfortable and glanced around. Jeiss was rubbing at one ear. Alonna shrugged. The Gnolls looked blank. They didn’t see the point either. Lism drawled.
“Next? Or do we vote on it? This isn’t important.”
“On that we agree.”
Krshia folded her arms. Helplessly, Zalaiss fell silent. Olesm went down the list. It would have taken the old Council ages to come up with a worded message. Wasn’t it important? Then he hesitated. Wait, who would listen to the announcement anyways? Not many people. How many would remember it was the same as the last one? He looked at his uncle. Lism had never had time for superfluous work.
“Another issue is when the Council meets.”
Raekea nodded. The [Armorer] was looking more reassured now the old Council was gone. This she could understand.
“Meeting times? What’s the tradition?”
“Once a week on a day chosen by the Council, unless a member convenes the Council due to an emergency or a situation of crisis demands meetings at more regular intervals.”
The Gnoll paused. She frowned.
“Once a week?”
There was a snort from Lism.
“That’s not work. That’s a vacation!“
“Let’s do three days a week at least. Try for five. That would work for me.”
Jeiss groaned. Lism looked at him, but the Senior Guardsman only held up a claw.
“Dawn? It’s the only time that would work for me. I want to see my family nights. I’ll change my schedule with the Watch.”
Lism nodded. Alonna yawned.
“Works for me. This isn’t far from the Guild anyways.”
“All in favor?”
“Er, do you mean right at dawn or…”
Zalaiss trailed off as the other five Council members stared at her. Lism blinked slowly.
“We do have to work, you know. Dawn’s simple. I’m up before it every day.”
“As am I.”
Raekea raised a paw.
“Sometimes I work through the night. On patrols. Dawn would actually give me a chance to get regular patrol times.”
“I can get up early.”
“My cats wake me up.”
Tismel didn’t say anything. He meekly raised his hand as the Council voted unanimously again. Olesm found himself crossing out item after item on the list. Meeting times? Check. Contact information? They would be here at these times. Just hire a Street Runner! Redecoration? Lism’s glare made Olesm’s quill cross that off the list, never mind the nutty carpet.
“Any more trivial decisions or can we debate the real issues? I see four. Or something. Antinium, walls, Minotaur, funding. Close enough.”
Lism looked around the table. He was met only with silence except from a slow stare from Krshia. Raekea sat up and Elirr leaned forwards. Jeiss took a deep breath and Alonna cricked her neck, looking at Lism. He nodded.
“Alright. Let’s get down to the real issue. All in favor of executing the Minotaur? Let’s get this done.”
Krshia snapped. Lism just looked at her.
“What? You know we’re all thinking it. That’s what I ran on. Let’s just see a show of claws!”
“You can’t just use a majority vote!”
“That’s how it works.”
“Wait, who are we voting to…execute? The Minotaur? You mean, the one in the dungeon?”
Tismel looked queasy. Jeiss frowned and then raised his hand. Alonna held up hers.
“I’m not voting yes. I just want to know why we have to kill him.”
“We don’t. We should, though. He led the Raskghar to attack Liscor. He’s responsible for deaths. Gnoll deaths as well as Drake.”
Lism looked pointedly at Krshia. She folded her arms. Raekea hesitated and her arm moved for a second. Then she looked at Krshia. Elirr coughed.
“We agreed not to. That is a fundamental issue we promised, Raekea.”
She sighed. Lism looked around. Alonna put her hand down.
She raised her hand. It was three against three. That left Tismel and Zalaiss undecided. The Drake [Cobbler] wavered.
“I just don’t know. This is a sudden commitment!”
“That’s what I promised people, or do you not recall?”
“But deciding it now? Can’t we debate the issue?”
“And waste time like that previous idiot Council did? Ancestors, I want to get things done today, people!”
Lism raised his voice, but Krshia’s growl made him stop. She looked at him across the table, arms folded.
“As do I. However, a life is not something you should casually dismiss. Let alone with a vote.”
The Drake stabbed the tabletop with one claw.
“We’ve been over this, Silverfang. You might have said a lot to get that Human on your side, but I meant every word. That monster killed people. He betrayed his team and put Liscor in danger. He might be crazy or he might not be. Either way, he should be killed.”
“And if he was under—”
“He isn’t under a spell. Alonna or another [Mage] would have detected it.”
“What if it’s something else?”
“Tell me what it is!”
Lism smacked one claw on the table. Olesm held his breath, wavering. Krshia and the Gnolls refused to raise their paws. Tismel raised his claw, lowered it. It was Zalaiss who raised hers.
“I vote for it.”
Lism’s voice was dangerous, but the [Cobbler]’s conscience had a hold of him. He hesitated.
“I’m not convinced that just executing a Minotaur—I mean, it’s my vote! That’s a lot to ask of me on the first day! Let me at least consider it—anyways, what if we’re split? There are eight Councilmembers; we could tie. What then?”
The Drake looked disgusted.
“You’re right. That is a tie.”
“Which means we don’t kill him.”
“That’s not how a tie works, Silverfang! A tie? Eight people on the Council? Who choose that number? We could deadlock any number of times! What happens then?”
“I break the vote. Not that it matters in this case.”
The doors swung open. Watch Captain Zevara strode into the room with perfect timing. She’d probably been listening at the door, to be fair, but it still turned every head. Olesm blinked as the Watch Captain strode towards the table. She stopped and placed her claws on the hardwood. She nodded to everyone, pausing for a moment on Krshia and Jeiss.
“Councilmembers. My apologies for the delay. I had to help escort the previous Council from the building. Watch Captain Zevara, reporting before Liscor’s Council.”
She straightened and gave them a perfect salute. Olesm was tickled by the performance, but it had always worked on the old Council. This new one was more relaxed. Lism just scowled at Zevara.
“Why doesn’t the vote of the Council matter where the Minotaur is concerned, Watch Captain?”
She returned his look unflappably.
“As part of my duties as Watch Captain, it is my job to inform this Council about certain laws that govern Liscor and all Drake cities. As a new Council, you have the authority to oversee a number of aspects of the Watch. You may give Watch orders, but I may choose not to obey a Council’s orders if I deem it necessary for the safety of the city. Similarly, the budget is in your control, as is my position.”
“You didn’t answer the—”
Zevara spoke over Lism. The trick was in not hesitating; he fell silent, glowering as she went on in a loud voice.
“Part of that decision is choosing a new Watch Captain. The Council is free to replace their Watch Captain, but the City Watch’s Senior Guards can oppose that decision and nominate a new candidate from within their ranks. In either case, a Watch Captain’s orders have precedence in times of military emergency and she or he has jurisdiction in Watch affairs. Prisoners are under my authority. I thought I made that clear during the election.”
She paused. Lism glared.
“And if we disagree?”
The Watch Captain returned his gaze steadily.
“You can overrule me. In which case you’ll need to select a new Watch Captain as well.”
And there it was. Jeiss whistled and sat back. He shook his head as Alonna, Tismel, and Zalaiss looked at him. Raekea was shaking her head too. Elirr smiled. So did Krshia.
“I consider the issue tabled, unless you wish to vote to replace Watch Captain Zevara, Lism?”
“No. I do not.”
Lism ground out. He looked frustrated. And then, surprisingly, he sighed.
“Fine. Second order of business. Funding the wall. Expanding Liscor. We won’t be taking Antinium money or aid—”
“We will, because it makes sense and you will debate this with me for all present to hear, Lism—”
“Furthermore, in my capacity as Watch Captain of Liscor, I have a second and crucial duty to impart to you!”
Zevara bellowed over Krshia and Lism. Olesm clapped a hand to his earholes. Zevara paused.
“I understand this Council plans to enact a number of changes to Liscor. I’m all for that, and the Watch will fully support your endeavors. Including, I hope, approving my budget requests for this year’s Watch. I don’t know how you’ll get the funds. That’s not my job. But this is. And it will inform your decision regarding the Antinium. Strategist Olesm, it’s time for the presentation.”
She looked coolly at Olesm. He hesitated.
“Now? But we usually wait for the first week before we give it to them—”
“I think they can handle it.”
Olesm hesitated. He saw Krshia perking up her ears, but ignored the quizzical look Elirr gave him. He nodded, and hurried out of the room and into his office. He took nearly five minutes getting back, because he had to use a magical key and then find the requisite files—he didn’t use them that much. When he did, Zevara was midway through her lecture.
Olesm knew it by heart. He’d given it to the other Councils, and the look of apprehension on the faces of the current Council was only compounded as he pulled out paper documents and began passing them around. Zevara tapped her piece of paper as Olesm handed her a copy.
“These are the real numbers we’ve projected for Liscor’s Hive. At any given moment, I estimate that they have at least nine thousand Soldiers and twenty four thousand Workers they could bring to bear on the city. The numbers fluctuate, but that puts their Hive at around thirty thousand fighting soldiers at any given time, with the understanding that Workers will fight if ordered to do so…”
“Dead gods, they could overrun us at any time!”
Tismel clutched the paper, staring at the projections of the Hive’s numbers. Olesm sighed. The Drake had a wide-eyed look in his face. And judging by the way even Krshia was on the edge of her seat, Zevara had begun the hardest part of any Councilmember’s job—realizing just how dangerous the Antinium were.
“Not so, Councilmember Tismel.”
Olesm hurried to reassure the Drake. He hoped Zevara hadn’t started recapping the Antinium Wars just yet. Or describing how dangerous a Soldier was in combat. Councilmembers had outright fainted or gone into panic attacks, and this wasn’t even the worst of it. He cleared his throat nervously. Zevara nodded at him and he took on his role.
“As Watch Captain Zevara has no doubt told you, Liscor considered the Hive of the Free Antinium a very valid threat. Not only do the Antinium have a reason for attacking Liscor, they have far more numbers than their allotted standing garrisons of six thousand Workers and three hundred Soldiers as agreed by the treaty. We are not saying they are likely to attack at this given moment! But our contingency plans extend to any scenario. And we have extensively prepared, so that even if their army currently outnumbers our Watch by a ratio of…”
Olesm hesitated and looked at Jeiss shaking his head past Tismel’s white scales.
“…er, by a significant ratio, we have any number of fallbacks designed to even the odds.”
“Enchantments no one knows about.”
Krshia said that as a fact, not a question. Zevara nodded.
“As Councilmembers, you are sworn to secrecy. But the nature and location of the traps is confidential even for Councilmembers. In case of…interrogation.”
Tismel shuddered. Lism just narrowed his eyes. Olesm winced.
“We’ve placed a number of enchantments on areas where the Antinium could invade from. Back when Liscor’s Council signed the deal with the Hives, we laid as many spells into the ground and city as we could. We cannot go into details, but some of the traps will render tunnels inhabitable, or seal parts of Liscor from being burrowed under. It would effectively—hopefully—damage the nest with the Soldiers and Workers in it. Possibly even wipe them out if all the traps work.”
He bit his tongue, remembering all the key-spells he had access to. It had kept him up for months when he’d first become [Strategist]. A select few could trigger the spells, including him. Lism stared down at the list of non-descriptive spell effects and locations.
“How did Liscor afford all this?”
“It didn’t. The Walled Cities all paid for extensive protective spells. And Wistram itself sent some of its best mages to do the work while giving us a discount. No one was taking the Antinium Hives lightly after the Second Antinium War. Rest assured, we don’t either, but you must understand, even with the spells, conflict with Liscor’s Hive is not something we want to risk.”
Zevara clasped her claws behind her back. Elirr frowned as he stroked his chin.
“If Liscor has so many emergency spells, why did we never use them when a Goblin Lord’s army was knocking at our door? Or when the moths attacked? It seems like those would be worthwhile emergencies, even if they must be remade or it tips our cards, yes?”
Zevara shook her head.
“Most of these spells are focused inwards, Councilmember Elirr. We can’t dismantle them or change where they’re aimed and, I think, neither can the Antinium. They’ve tried on some, or so we suspect. But we can circle back for questions. Strategist Olesm? The next papers.”
“Here you are, Councilmember Alonna.”
The Guildmistress leaned back and handed the papers to Lism as she stared at the dates and numbers. Olesm cleared his throat.
“Understanding the Hive also means understanding some of the subtleties of the Antinium, Councilmember. This is a short summary of the phenomenon known as Aberrations. You may be familiar with them?”
“The crazy ones? When you ask them their names?”
Lism looked up sharply. Zevara paused.
“Close. Aberrations are, as we understand them, some aspect of the Antinium gone wrong. Either they rebel or simply go…insane. They attack friend and foe until killed. The Antinium execute their own, but over time, some have gotten loose into the city and caused injuries or deaths. This is a list of all the casualties due to Aberrations over the years.”
“Damn. I remember this one. I killed that Worker. Nearly took my head off.”
Jeiss whistled as he ran his claw down the list. Olesm nodded.
“It’s not a substantial number, and I think most Aberrations occur within the Hive and are…disposed of there. But you can see a trend.”
Krshia looked up, her brows knitted together.
“They increase in number year by year. Until this year when…they stop.”
Zevara nodded and gave Olesm a significant look.
“That’s correct. And that’s also when the phenomenon known as the Painted Soldiers occurred. We don’t have a dossier on them yet, but Olesm and I are putting them at a Level 20 threat ranking as opposed to regular Soldiers, who are around as dangerous as a Level 15 threat. Don’t let the numbers fool you; that is a substantial upgrade in our appraisal of their combat abilities. On par with the other specialists the Antinium Hives can produce. This is the threat Liscor’s Hive presents apart from simply taking Liscor. The fact that they are—and now are successfully—creating their own specialists.”
She let that sink in. Olesm muttered as he found the next papers.
“Which is why trusting them—ow!”
He sidled away from Zevara. Olesm fell silent. He and Zevara hadn’t talked on this issue, but they clearly had different opinions. Like Erin. Why couldn’t they see the danger? Maybe they did, but it wasn’t what Olesm saw. If he thought about it some nights, he didn’t sleep at all.
“Excuse me, uh, Watch Captain. You said…other Antinium specialists?”
Tismel was breathing hard as he raised a claw again. Zevara nodded. She took the papers from Olesm and handed them out. This time everyone at the table recoiled from the image sketched there.
“What in the name of the Ancestors is this, Watch Captain?”
Lism held the parchment back from him. The hair had gone up on Raekea’s body and Krshia’s. Elirr just stared at the image grimly. Zevara tapped the dark, almost transparent form and angled body. Scythe-like limbs. Olesm shuddered.
“This is a sketch of the Silent Antinium’s covert spy-assassin. You may have heard rumors of them during the First and Second Antinium wars. Well, they exist, and one of the six Hives produces them. Not in number, thank the Ancestors, but Manus estimates they have six times the numbers they fielded during the last war. This is what we refer to as the specialized units the Antinium field. Until recently, we had classified five types. Armored Antinium—very similar to regular Soldiers but with armor, Twisted Antinium, radically different in size and shape, the assassin-type Silent Antinium, and the Flying Antinium’s…fliers. Here are [Artist]’s sketches of each. This is what the Antinium can field against us, and why keeping Liscor’s Hive in check is vital towards a possible future war.”
“Can we win it?”
Alonna looked up, her claws nervously moving back the pictures of the Twisted Antinium. Some of those would give you nightmares on the sleepless nights. All of the Council, Drakes and Gnolls, looked at Zevara. She paused.
“The Walled Cities have their own precautions, Councilmembers. However, this briefing is standard for every leadership position in a Drake city, and mandatory for Liscor’s Council. It’s not to frighten you, but to impress on you the seriousness of your duty.”
It was actually to frighten them, a bit. Olesm knew it was important for the Council to actually think on matters regarding the Antinium. He was just surprised Zevara was springing it on them now given how she’d tried to support the Antinium’s cause during the election. Lism threw down his sketch and looked around.
“Look at this. Do you see why trusting the Antinium is a fool’s game, Silverfang?”
Krshia was staring at her sketch. Slowly, she looked up.
“I see it. But I do not see much of Liscor’s Hive that alarms me. Everyone, even the most foolish cub, knew that the Antinium had more than three hundred Soldiers, yes? And they have fought for Liscor, sacrificed for the city. From Skinner to the moths to the siege with the Humans, their Soldiers have died fighting for us. Is that not so, Strategist Olesm?”
“I…have some reports archived in my office. I could bring them here if you’d like.”
Olesm went to get them. When he came back next, Zevara was speaking again, outlining evacuation protocols in case of emergencies. This Council was paying attention. The Gnolls were alert, and his Uncle was asking questions. Senior Guardsman Jeiss wasn’t paying as much attention—but that was because he probably knew the answers to each question given his role. They looked up as Olesm began passing around archived reports he’d written himself.
The contents were illuminating to the Council. They showed a side of the Antinium they’d only heard about, or heard about in gossip. Here it was confirmed; Olesm had done analysis after analysis of the Hive and written it all down. It made him feel good knowing someone was reading it. Of course, he sent the reports off to the Walled Cities too, but he never got a reply to those letters.
“Huh. So they were actually fighting during the Face-Eater Moth attacks?”
“They took at least a thousand casualties during that battle. Getting any other estimates is virtually impossible, but I saw how many Face-Eater Moth mothers they brought up. I have reason to believe that the Antinium…do endure the brunt of the assaults from the dungeon without us knowing a thing.”
Zevara nodded. Olesm shifted uncomfortably. This was painting the Antinium in a good light again. He tried edging the Twisted Antinium’s sketch to the top of the pile until Zevara glared at him.
“What about the undead attack with that…Skinner thing? The Antinium showed up at the last moment. What’s the reason for that?”
Alonna frowned at another report. Zevara sighed.
“A change in leadership, Councilmember. You may recall that Senior Guardsman Klbkch was thought dead during that time. His replacement elected to prioritize the Hive’s safety. When Klbkch was…returned, he immediately led the counterassault. Frankly, that situation was caused by the [Terror] effect by the Skinner guardian. If the Watch hadn’t fled the walls rather than raising the alarm or closing the gates, we would have held the undead attack off easily without them.”
“Why don’t we have enchantments or something to protect the [Guardsmen] on the walls from magical effects like that? There’s got to be amulets or something that stop that, right?”
Raekea frowned. Zevara’s bitter smile spoke volumes, as did Olesm’s.
“On my proposed budget list, Councilmember Raekea. It was rejected by the last Council, but I’m sure you can understand the necessity.”
“I can. And I’ll be damned if I’m facing that thing without gear this time around.”
Jeiss looked up with a toothy grin. Zevara’s lips quirked and she nodded to him. He gave her a tight nod back, and Olesm felt better. At least the Watch would be funded this year regardless of what else was decided today.
No one asked if it was a conflict of interest. As far as Drakes were concerned, everything was their interest, and Gnolls shared the opinion.
“So they’ve been protecting Liscor all this time? Is that what we’re to understand here?”
Lism looked up, unconvinced by the reports. Olesm hastily interjected, shooting a quick glance at Zevara.
“A counterpoint, Councilmember. It’s my opinion that they were hoping to claim the dungeon for themselves all this time and thus expand their Hive into it without our knowledge. However, due to years of failure, they elected to reveal the dungeon to reduce the damage to their own Hive.”
“Exactly. You see, Silverfang? They’re only in it for them. All these warnings, these types of Antinium—they’re preparing for war! We can’t aid them. Not one inch. And you, Watch Captain! How can you argue for giving the Antinium a lease on expanding their Hive if you knew all of this?”
Lism hurled one of the papers at Zevara. It floated past her and she snatched it out of the air and slapped it back on the pile on the table. The sound made everyone look at her.
“Because, Councilmember Lism, I have considered the facts as well as everything I personally know and believe about the Antinium. They may be warlike. And dangerous. And I will fully admit that the Grand Queen and the other Hives are a deadly threat to the safety of all of Izril. However, I know one of my [Guardsmen]. Senior Guardsman Klbkch. And we knew him only as Klbkch the Slayer.”
Olesm turned his head. Zevara walked back and forth in front of the Council.
“When he came to Liscor, he was every bit the impartial monster we thought of all Antinium as. But he’s changed. And when he tells me there is a chance that Liscor might not be swallowed by a war with the Hive under our feet, that we could change the Antinium by working with them—I believe it.”
She stopped and turned to face them.
“I believe in giving the Council all the facts before they make their decision. My opinion is that the Free Antinium of Liscor can be trusted more than the other Hives. It’s a gamble to give them aid or allow them more freedoms. But as it stands, they are already positioned to strike Liscor. It may be, however, that the existence of the Painted Antinium, of these new Antinium like Yellow Splatters or Pawn, might be able to change the Hive as a whole. Or throw the entire network into chaos.”
Her words were greeted with silence. Jeiss spoke up after a moment.
“You believe that, Watch Captain? The Ants seem pretty unified to me.”
“Antinium, Jeiss. And that’s because they’re one species even if they looked different. But Aberrations? Painted Soldiers? They’re different. And somehow, I don’t think the other Queens like different things.”
The Watch Captain smiled. And Olesm sighed inside. Because it was a good argument. Watch Captain Zevara saluted, Olesm gathered up the secret documents, and they left.
“Nice job swaying them with the mandatory explanation.”
He spoke to her as they walked down the hallway. Zevara glanced at him.
“I know Senior Guardsman Klbkch too. And he thinks of us…”
“…As expendable? So what?”
Zevara stopped by the bannister staircase looking down. Olesm stared at her.
“So what? That doesn’t frighten you? You don’t think he’d kill us all if the Grand Queen ordered it?”
Zevara paused. She looked past Olesm, straight through him, and then met his eyes as serious as he’d ever seen her.
“Of course it frightens me. And maybe he’d kill me, Olesm. And you. And this entire city. But you know the thing about traitors? It’s not all the times they obey that makes them a traitor. It’s the one time they disobey that does it. And I’m willing to bet on one. How about you?”
The [Strategist] opened his mouth, but never replied as Zevara strode down the staircase. And that, Olesm realized, was as close as Zevara would ever come to praising Erin Solstice. It made him really think as he put away the documents and locked them. When he came back to the Council room, the real debate had begun.
“Do you really think you can expand Liscor and rebuilt the walls higher without the Antinium, Lism? Liscor has not the [Builders] or [Architects] to do such a thing. Nor does it have the money to hire such workers in the numbers they would be needed.”
Krshia was arguing with Lism about the key thing that separated them. Raekea and Elirr were nodding along, but Lism was being backed by Jeiss and Alonna and to a lesser extent, Tismel and Zalaiss. The [Shopkeeper] snapped back.
“There is no way I’ll allow the Antinium to expand their Hive.”
“Well, it is what we promised. Antinium gold and Antinium aid! We must honor that vow!”
“You three must. But there are three of you. We have the majority.”
Lism pointed at the other Drakes sitting around the table. Jeiss winced a bit guiltily and Alonna sighed, but neither objected. Krshia opened her mouth. And then she smiled cunningly. And she glanced sideways.
At Tismel. And then at Zalaiss. Lism looked up.
“They won’t vote for an Antinium Hive expansion. There’s no use trying to sway them.”
“I must agree with Shopkeeper—er, with Councilmember Lism.”
Tismel nodded, still looking pale. Olesm saw Zalaiss inclining her head as well. But Krshia shook her head. She wagged a finger at Lism.
“In that case, we will vote against your proposals, yes? I do not believe you have the majority to enforce rules reducing the cost of rent without us.”
Krshia glanced pointedly at the two mercantile members of the Council. The Cobbler’s Guild’s Guildmaster looked up and Zalaiss paused.
“Hold on. The old Council told us—”
“What? That’s a separate issue from the Antinium and the walls, Silverfang! Don’t you dare pull innocent people’s lives into this!”
Lism barked at Krshia. The Gnoll just folded her arms and looked grim.
“Nothing for nothing, Lism. We get nothing, you get nothing. Liscor suffers either way.”
“Wait—wait. I’m sorry, Councilmembers, but changing the prices of rent really isn’t on the table to begin with. I’m friends with a number of the Council—not to mention I own a bit of land!”
Tismel’s protest went unheard. Lism cursed as he looked at Jeiss. The Senior Guardsman paused.
“Krshia, that’s not fair. The rent—”
“What’s wrong with hiring Antinium to build the walls, Jeiss? Give a bit and we give back. Let’s negotiate.”
Raekea retorted. Jeiss considered this and looked at Alonna and Lism. Alonna nodded.
“Sounds good. Lism, listen to Krshia. She’s serious.”
“About the rent—”
Tismel’s voice grew louder and more urgent. Lism looked sideways at him.
“I heard you.”
“Oh, thank you!”
Tismel smiled in relief. Zalaiss, who was a [Merchant] and at least knew when not to trust someone at their immediate word, looked sharply at Lism. But she had seen the same thing he, Krshia, and Olesm—well, the entire Council had by this point. Lism raked his claws through his neck spines, thinking. Jeiss leaned over.
“It’s not actually that bad. Believe me—if you take out the part about the Hive—”
Alonna was nodding. Lism listened, and then growled.
He looked at Krshia. The Gnoll raised an eyebrow and Lism glowered. He looked like he was pulling a tooth, but eventually he opened his mouth.
“Alright. Let’s bargain. No Antinium Hive expansion. I’ll trade diplomatic rights and increased Soldiers on the walls. They can also help build the city.”
Elirr whistled softly. He looked at Krshia. She was drumming her paws on the table.
“Hm. Klbkch might accept that. Would you allow—”
“Six hundred square feet?”
“That’s a lot of tunnel networks and barracks! The Antinium can burrow deep, Councilmember!”
Olesm had to protest. Krshia raised a brow.
“Four hundred then. Two hundred.”
“No, and no.”
“Fine then. My answer is no and no.”
“You can’t be serious! These are lives we’re talking about, Krshia!”
“I know. But give me something. Say, if Klbkch does not accept what you agreed on. Four hundred feet?”
“Fine. But we’re all negotiating with him! And believe me, we’ll be very precise about the deal we make.”
She reached out. Lism glared, and then slapped her paw with his claw. Raekea beamed and Elirr patted Krshia on the back, murmuring something too quiet for Olesm to hear. She relaxed, sighing.
Only Tismel didn’t seem to know what had happened. Lism was glowering as Jeiss patted him on the shoulder. Then the [Shopkeeper] looked up.
“Alright. Rent! First on our list.”
“What? Tismel, I hear you, what?”
“You just said—”
“I said, I hear you. And I’m ignoring you now. Let’s just agree on this now, Krshia. Are we on the same page?”
“Like a book, Lism. And for once I think I will enjoy this.”
Krshia gave Lism a predatory smile. And he almost smiled back. He steepled his claws.
“Very well. I motion to limit the rent prices on Liscor’s citizens.”
“Councilmember Lism, I object! That is not acceptable to me!”
And there Zalaiss stood. She might not have been the best [Merchant], or a Gnoll like Krshia Silverfang, but she still had a presence. Tismel was nodding frantically. But again, Zalaiss had underestimated her audience. She looked around. Raekea and Elirr stared up at her blankly. Jeiss sighed. Alonna shook her head. Krshia smiled. And Lism continued.
“As I was saying, a vote to agree to limit—”
“Councilmember Lism, we are all of the same rank here. I have a right to be heard!”
Zalaiss snapped at Lism. He glanced up at her. And there was a dispassionate look in his eyes. Dispassionate, until you saw the satisfaction lurking there. Slowly, Lism nodded.
“Councilwoman Zalaiss, I fully understand that you have a right to be heard. I only wonder if it will do you any good.”
“Excuse me? I think the Council should decide as a whole—”
“I think the Council has.”
Lism cut Zalaiss off. She froze. And he turned around to look at the Drakes across from him.
“Councilmember Jeiss. Councilmember Alonna. Your thoughts?”
The two Drakes regarded Lism. Jeiss, who had risen through the ranks to become a Senior Guardsman and who had lived in apartments in Liscor all his life. Alonna, who had been a [Mage] paying rent as well. They looked at him, smiling slightly.
“No objections, Councilmember Lism.”
“None on my end either. Let’s hear what you have to say.”
“Very good. And my…fellow Councilmembers. Councilmember Elirr?”
The elderly Gnoll beamed at Lism. After all, Elirr had family, friends in Liscor. Gnolls were not wealthy.
Raekea nodded. She might have been Liscor’s best [Armorer] but she wasn’t…Zalaiss paled. The [Merchant] looked at Tismel, the Guildmaster, and then at Krshia. Honored Krshia. Krshia the [Shopkeeper]. The Gnoll inclined her head. And she almost purred as she spoke.
“Councilmember Lism, I believe you have yet to ask for my opinion.”
“Don’t ruin the moment, Krshia Silverfang.”
Lism sighed. But then he looked at her.
Krshia took her time in replying. When she did speak, it was cheerfully.
“It’s always been interesting to me, yes? How majorities work. Gnolls do not have such things. We have our [Chieftains], and we respect authority in age and deed and in other ways. In the Gnollmoot, yes, we also gather and the [Chieftains] must debate of course, but even there, it is not simply a majority wins. This way is much simpler. One could overrule all other voices if they had, mm, five votes, yes? Let alone six. Then two voices do not matter. That is much like a…hrm. Tyranny. Which is not a Gnollish thing. Some might call it dangerous, yes?”
Zalaiss went dead white. Tismel caught on and choked. Lism looked up at the ceiling and then reconsidered. He stared down at the candied nuts embedded in the carpet and smiled.
“Perhaps it is. But [Kings] seem to do it well enough. Maybe it’s wrong for a democracy. But it strikes me that Liscor hasn’t been one. The old Council used to elect the new Council. So one turn is fair to me.”
He spread his claws on the table and nodded around.
“I motion to amend how the Council decides on issues. Later. So. As I was saying, the Antinium can have their visitors to the city. Under watch. And more Soldiers aboveground since they apparently have an army of them under our feet. No expansion of the Hive and I say we test to make sure they’re not expanding six times a year at minimum. In exchange, we hire them to do some of the rebuilding process. But to expand the city, we need funds. The third problem which we brought up at the start of that meeting.”
The others nodded. Zalaiss was making a faint noise in the back of her throat. Olesm was waiting with bated breath. This was better than a play because it was real. And it was happening. Krshia nodded, playing her role out with a broad smile.
“The Antinium will pay for a good deal of this, yes? They could begin work without a need for a down payment. And they have a good deal of materials, or so Senior Guardsman Klbkch has informed me. Quality stone, taken from the dungeon.”
“Yes, yes. We’ll also have funds from the army and the Walled Cities. They have pledged to aid Liscor.”
“But we’re striking a deal with the Antinium.”
Alonna pointed out, amused. Lism raised a claw.
“Only because that damned Krshia insists! We’re not allowing them to expand the Hive! Much! If at all. Otherwise we’d be forced to accept full Antinium aid. If the Walled Cities won’t pay. I believe that’s called ‘nothing for nothing’.”
He looked at Krshia. She smiled. Lism went on.
“But money has to come from somewhere. And we have to consider extra budgets for the Watch, upgrades to the Adventurer’s Guilds, and so on. I move to make a number of changes including prices on Shield Spider components. But given the current and severe population crisis in the city, I also move to reduce rents and raise a higher tax on [Landlords], which—”
Zalaiss shouted. Lism shouted over her, cheerfully bellowing.
“Two silver coins per month in lower-income districts! That’s as much as some families can afford to pay. Middle-income…as a cap, ten silver? Or one gold piece? Maybe a gold piece!”
Elirr choked on his cup of wine.
“A gold piece per month?”
“That’s the upper limit, obviously. We’re not going to regulate the prices. Too much. But—”
“Two silver coins per month? You can’t do that!”
Tismel was aghast. Lism looked around.
“I think we can. We have six votes. For everything I’ve just discussed, all in favor?”
Six hands went up. Zalaiss looked around, and then tried to yank Jeiss’ arm down. He kept it up. Tismel went over to Raekea to do the same and she made a fist. Lism grinned.
“Excellent! And we’ll review how every Guild is paying their dues to the city! Starting with the Merchant’s Guild, especially if they try to boycott! The Watch can enforce the issue of rent. Anyone who objects to the new prices can sit in the prison! With the Minotaur! With a fine!”
“This is a mutiny! A rebellion! Treachery! I’ll tell the Council!”
The [Merchant] shouted at the room.
“This is democracy! Tell the Council! They’re not in charge!”
Lism was on his feet. The Drake leapt onto the table and Zalaiss, turning, staring in horror, saw him point at her. The [Shopkeeper] laughed wildly.
“Run! Run and tell them!”
She stared up at him, stumbled for the door, and fled. Tismel was hot on her heels. Lism laughed wildly, and collapsed back into his chair as he got off of the table. Everyone was staring. Olesm’s uncle chuckled, and then he guffawed. And then he just sat there, chortling a bit.
It was Krshia who eventually got them back on track. The Gnoll cleared her throat, and Lism sat up, glaring at her. But strangely, then he nodded. As if all the enmity between them had dissipated for a moment. They nodded at each other. And Olesm remembered a proverb about Drakes.
If the end of the world came and only two Drakes were left, they’d fight over the dust that was left. But there was nothing that united two Drakes, even two mortal enemies…like a third Drake with more wealth than the other two combined. Jeiss chortled as he picked up a quill and ink.
“Two silver coins for the lowest-income districts. I can make a list. Wait, should I make a list?”
“Might as well. Or they’ll try claiming every district’s middle-income or higher. Right, back to work. Now, as I was saying about the Shield Spider parts—I think we want to insist on a cut of what’s being sold, don’t you?”
“A silver piece or two? The Merchant’s Guild has profited, but how would we know the numbers of what is sold or not?”
Alonna demurred as she and the others edged closer to the table. Elirr stroked his chin.
“Perhaps we could ask some Gnoll [Merchants]? There are few who go north, but they might tell us.”
“No need. Let’s just check the records. The Merchant’s Guild keeps them, after all.”
Lism snorted. Krshia frowned.
“Can we do that? They might defend it and it is Guild-rights.”
“Okay, fine. That might be going too far. In that case, let’s just say they owe us two silver pieces per Shield Spider corpse. They’ll figure out how to make a profit or they’ll eat the losses.”
“And if they don’t report the numbers?”
“That’s a job for Watch Captain Zevara and truth spells. Can we make it retroactive?”
“You’d scare away every [Merchant] in a thousand miles, Lism. The law doesn’t work like that, believe me. Just stick to two silver pieces. What else?”
There was a pause. And then the Council began speaking all at once. It was chaos as Olesm tried to keep up, listening to Krshia and Lism arguing, Jeiss talking law, Alonna offering magical solutions and Raekea and Elirr bringing in Gnollish ideas to a room that had only known Drakes. It was chaos, and probably inefficient. But it was also fresh and new. Olesm had to keep turning his head because if he kept it in one place too long, his smile would make one of the Councilmembers look up and ask what was so funny. And it wasn’t funny. It was wonderful.
The outraged former Council of Liscor took twenty minutes to convene back on the city hall like a swarm of bees. Slow bees, who had to pant because they’d run all the way back. But they’d brought reinforcements. Last year’s Council, plus Zalaiss and Tismel, plus the previous Council! And the Council before them! There weren’t actually twenty six of them—only twenty two—because some of them had served dual offices.
But they certainly outnumbered the six upstarts in that office! The Councilmembers stormed up the steps, ready to put an end to this madness by force if necessary. They got to the room where the current Council was meeting. But got no further because someone was blocking the way.
Just…someone. Not someones. But you only needed one. Relc looked up from where he was sitting on a stool. Of course, the Councilmembers recognized him. That pestilential, rude—er, large, very helpful Senior Guardsman. He looked larger than they remembered him. And when he stood up, you couldn’t help but notice he was in fine shape for his age and semi-retirement.
“Move aside! We demand to see the Council!”
Someone from the back of the mob shouted. After all, there were twenty tw—nineteen of them. Eighteen, now. Relc cracked his knuckles. Then his arms. Then his neck. And then his spine.
“Ooh! Bad posture. Hello everyone! Councilmember Zalaiss, Councilmember Tismel, you’re free to go back and listen if you promise not to interrupt too much. Everyone else, this is city hall.”
“You’re not the Council.”
Relc looked at them as if they were idiots. The Drakes hesitated, and then one of the group of fifteen blustered.
“We are all former Councilmembers! So if you know what’s good for you—”
She stopped as Relc held up a clawed hand.
“Damnit! Sorry, sorry. I made a mistake. Let me try again.”
He took a breath, and then he smiled and held up a hand. He slowly clenched it into a fist.
“Hi! I’m Relc. No one but the current Council goes through, got it? I’m allowed to hit you if you disagree. Please disagree.”
And strangely, no one disagreed. The Council hesitated, and thought about bodyguards and mercenaries and shady people. Then they looked at Relc’s fist. The Gecko of Liscor gave them a bright smile.
And that was that. The Council worked on ignorant of what was going outside. They were talking, debating. And it wasn’t just Krshia and Lism. They had held the floor to begin with; it had been their parties, their ideas. But after the first agreements had been struck, it was anyone’s floor. And contrary to what they’d expected—everyone had something to bring to the conversation.
“Can we agree to pass Watch Captain Zevara’s budget?”
Jeiss tapped a claw on the table, getting the attention away from a discussion of guild fees to the city. Olesm had circulated the proposed budget and Krshia took a moment to wince at the number underlined at the bottom. She hesitated.
“It’s a lot of gold. Gold we will have to ration between all the projects.”
Lism nodded sourly. They were doing calculations of how much they’d need for every project and Zevara’s wasn’t the biggest stone in the basket, but it certainly was large. Jeiss, however, was adamant.
“I am a Senior Guardsman and I know Watch business. I can tell all of you honestly that we could use all the gold we can get—and then some. If you want to defend against the dungeon, the Antinium, or anything else, we need the gold. Consider this an inescapable expense. No reducing the budget. No ‘cuts’ to make it work. That’s how we lost our [Mage] unit twenty four years back. And we could have used them against the Necromancer.”
The Council nodded reluctantly. But how did you make money out of nothing? Sometimes you shook it out of people who’d been hoarding it, but that didn’t work for everything. It was Raekea who raised her arm and grinned around her slightly sooty fur.
“I have an idea that came to me recently. Pallass has [Blacksmiths]. The best I’ve seen. Maughin alone could put all of Liscor’s best out of work, and as one of them, I must admit that.”
She grimaced. The admission hurt, but she went on.
“However, Pallass needs one thing as much as Liscor. Ore. They have mines they control and they import goods, but cheap and good-quality ore is always welcome. More than that, I think some of their smiths might come to Liscor, or teach us their tricks if there was a profit in it.”
“All I hear is how we’re spending more money. And we certainly don’t have any ore mines. We used to, but finding new ones would require [Prospectors]—another expense we don’t have gold for yet!”
Lism frowned. Alonna gave him a reproving look. Raekea rolled her eyes and went on.
“We don’t have ore. But there is a city nearby who does.”
Krshia’s eyes lit up.
“Esthelm? They have mines?”
“Hrm. Yes. I import what I need from them. Cheap. But there aren’t any areas to smelt on a large scale so all of Liscor’s [Smiths] cannot buy what Esthelm produces. However, Pallass…if we could export ore to them and import smelted goods cheaply—”
“On the list! Put it on the list, Olesm!”
Lism waved at his nephew frantically. And Olesm waved at one of the [Scribes] whom he’d brought in because his claw was really starting to hurt from all the writing. She dutifully wrote it down and it was Elirr’s turn. He cleared his throat when it came to the subject of the Adventurer’s Guild.
“I understand pets. Animals. Not much else. But…hrm. I think setting prices on monster parts from the Adventurer’s Guild is a good thing. Lism is correct, yes? Shield Spider parts have uses, but we do not earn much of a profit from them while [Merchants] do. And the adventurers, for all they do harvest monsters for their goods, do not use all of the monster they could because they do not know, yes? Just the other day, I heard that they had killed a nest of Blankipillers and left them to rot!”
Even Olesm looked blankly at Elirr. The Gnoll huffed.
“Have you never heard of them? Blankipillars. Giant caterpillars. They grow up into…hrm, well, good that they do not grow up. But they have sacs in them, yes? They are very numbing. They can kill in large doses, but [Healers] and [Alchemists] would pay much for them!”
“That’s what Selys has been saying all along. The Adventurer’s Guild can collect monster ingredients. But it will need a storehouse. More facilities.”
“Spend money to earn money! How does that help us now?”
Elirr gave Lism a reproving look.
“If we have a surplus of goods, we simply store them, yes? The city must own at least one warehouse with Runes of Preservation. Let us give one to the Adventurer’s Guild that we might start putting bounties on the monster parts and selling them at once. Pallass will surely demand rare ingredients.”
Alonna nodded excitedly.
“I could ask the [Mage]’s Guilds in other cities to go over the lists of monsters. Wistram Academy and Fissival’s College might pay for some parts if the creatures are rare. Is there a list of monsters discovered so far?”
“Selys would surely keep one, would she not?”
Lism nodded, drumming his claws excitedly on the table. Krshia was already going over how much the city would take from the Adventurer’s Guild’s as a fee. If [Shopkeepers] had one talent, it was shaving every copper penny they could out of a deal.
“Yes, let’s send for a list! And have it duplicated and sent out, by all means, Alonna. Ore as well, by all means! If we can see we’ll pull in more money, we could allocate Watch Captain Zevara her funds today and fund the rest as we go.”
“I’ll send a Street Runner, Uncle. I mean, Lism. Councilmember. It may take them a while especially if Selys is off-duty. But I’m sure they’ll be here within the hour at most! Will you be breaking before then?”
Flustered and excited, Olesm stumbled over his words. He saw the Council look at him.
“For lunch. Or adjourning for the day? The Council rarely—”
Lism smacked the table with one claw.
“What are you talking about? We’re staying in session until we see those rents lowered. And get construction underway! Or at least get someone with an [Architect] class working on it! Nephew—er, Strategist Olesm, who’s the best [Architect] in the world?”
“That would be Drevish the Architect. Er, no. Wait. He’s dead. Then it’s…”
“We’re not paying for a world-class [Architect]! What a waste of money, Lism! We don’t need fancy designs either! Hire someone from Pallass!”
Alonna was aghast. Lism shook his head adamantly.
“There are all sorts of things that go into city construction. Not just defensive placements, but sewer management. Aesthetics! It needs to be world-class! Pay for the best, especially if it comes to design. That’s how I do business.”
“What? I thought it was ‘undercut your competition by selling cheap products mixed in with your overpriced goods’, yes? Anyways, I have a better suggestion.”
Lism glared at Krshia. They kept sniping at each other, but neither broke flow. In fact, they were more trying to outdo each other rather than tear each other down. Lism gritted his teeth.
“As a matter of fact, there is someone I found when I was researching how much it would cost. They are willing to work—for a good price!—and can deliver the blueprints within the week! Moreover, they are excited by the idea and they are a specialist in cities that deal with water, such as ours.”
The Council looked at her. Lism frowned.
“And why, if this is so big, did you not shout it from the rooftops?”
“Besides the fact that you’d copy my idea? Er, the [Architect] is ah…”
She took a breath. Raekea paused and Elirr sighed, remembering the issue in question that had put even Selys against it. Krshia came out with it in a rush.
“Hexel Quithail, one of the best [Architects] in all of Baleros, perhaps the world! He designed a new palace in Terandria, a city for the Iron Vanguard, and three cities himself!”
She paused. Lism took a moment to digest this. Then he shouted.
“Lamia, technically, Uncle. They’re one of the smarter evolutions of their kind—”
“Never! You’ve gone too far this time, Silverfang!”
Olesm winced. Jeiss and Alonna both glared at Krshia. The Gnoll sighed.
“He is the best you will get for such a price!”
“Live in a city designed by one of those egg-headed idiots?”
The argument became a furious debate. Olesm was actually on Krshia’s side in this one, much to his uncle’s horror. Raekea paused and leaned over to Elirr. Very quietly she whispered to him.
“I never understood why Drakes hated Lizardpeople. Aren’t they…?”
“It’s the similarity, I think. Similarity among the differences.”
It took Krshia nearly an hour, and everyone had to stop for tea to soothe hoarse throats. But at last, Lism agreed with a look of disgust. He checked the list they’d made as the [Scribe] shook out her writing hand.
The list had ideas, numbers, concepts, and laws ready to go into effect yesterday. That should have gone into effect years ago. But the Drakes and Gnolls hit on a problem as they stared at the paper. Elirr cleared his throat as he looked around the meeting room.
“So. How do we get it all started?”
The Council looked at each other. Then they turned to Olesm. He looked up.
“What? Oh! Well, I can handle some of it. I suggest sending a Runner to Watch Captain Zevara. She’ll need to be consulted on some of this. And Guildmistress Tekshia as well. It would be polite to request her presence at her convenience. For the rest—you have [Secretaries], [Scribes], [Negotiators], and more at your disposal, Councilmembers. Just send word you need someone! We might need to expand the staff, actually. You’ll need to approve the budget!”
The Council paused as they took this in. Jeiss groaned as he imagined another budget. Raekea just blinked at Olesm.
“We have [Negotiators]?”
“Three. Would you…do you need one?”
He hesitated. Krshia looked at Lism who looked at Alonna who looked at Jeiss who looked at Elirr who didn’t bother looking at Raekea. The Gnoll just smiled.
The Drake who strode into the Council’s meeting room had black, glossy scales patterned with spots of yellow leading up from his tail. He was slim, thin, and he had a smile all charm and delight. He spread his arms and gave Olesm a hug.
“Olesm! Pal! And what a beautiful new Council! Councilmembers, a delight.”
He bowed to the bemused Council, sweeping a fancy bow to them. Bemused the Council watched him straighten.
“Teliv Witherscale, at your service. I’m a part-time [Host] working at Wishdrink’s—let me know, anytime, and I’ll be happy to work for any crowd, group, or smaller party! I do dinner-parties too, and I can even liven up a birthday or level-up party! I don’t do funerals.”
Olesm sighed, resigned. His old friend winked at him. Olesm hadn’t seen Teliv in a while, but the Drake hadn’t changed. He looked around, irrepressibly cheerful as ever.
“To what do I owe the honor? Actually, scratch that. I’m delighted to meet the new Council! But if there’s anything I can do for you, don’t hesitate to ask!”
“Mister…Teliv, we actually summoned you because we need a [Negotiator] to perform a variety of tasks. We have several Guildleaders who need to understand a variety of rules we’re about to put in place, a neighboring city we need to er, negotiate with for their trade goods, and more. Is that what your class does? Have you done this for the Council?”
Lism frowned at Teliv, glancing at Olesm. He vaguely remembered the younger Drake, but he didn’t remember someone so ostentatious. Teliv’s eyes widened.
“You have work for me? Actual work?”
“You didn’t aid the previous Council in your official capacity often?”
Nothing would have surprised Alonna anymore, but she managed to sound even more disapproving. No one had seen Tismel or Zalaiss so far, or the rest of the old Council. They were no doubt trying to figure something out, but Relc’s fist had kept everyone away so far. Teliv laughed until he realized she was serious.
“Well, yes. I’m part of Liscor’s very small, very underfunded diplomatic office. Normally, the Council just needs its Watch Captain, Olesm to boss about all the scribes and make sure all those tidy laws get enforced, and a few [Runners] to make sure the system keeps moving. But sometimes, very rarely, once in five blue moons, they need someone to negotiate a deal with the [Merchants], or talk over things with another city. Then they call for me! Or Mavei. Or Aless. Don’t call them. I’m the best.”
The Council looked at Olesm. Raekea coughed.
“Well…probably. Teliv’s the highest-level I think, and he’s good at his job, despite how he acts.”
The [Strategist] ignored Teliv’s hurt look.
“What? Olesm, that hurts! We’re old friends!”
“How do you know my nephew?”
Lism narrowed his eyes, but Teliv’s laugh made even the [Shopkeeper] relax.
“We met in Manus’ academies. Olesm was the studious one. I decided being a [Tactician] wasn’t for me! Manus trains [Diplomats] too. I uh, haven’t made it to that class, but if you’ve got work for me, maybe I’ll finally level up!”
“Why would Manus need to train [Diplomats]? Wouldn’t Fissival be better?”
“Oh, Fissival only trains [Scholars]. We [Diplomats] have to be a bit sterner! There are threats that come with the class! Assassination, poisoning, assault, intimidation, blackmail…”
Teliv trailed off as he saw the blank looks on the faces of the other Councilmembers.
“It’s more of a problem between other Drake cities. Liscor didn’t have anyone to talk to until recently. Except for the Humans. And do we talk to them? No, seriously, am I talking to them?”
Krshia smiled. She approved of Teliv’s attitude. She looked at Lism and held a thumbs up. He scowled as Jeiss, grinning, did the same. Alonna shrugged, Raekea nodded, Elirr scratched his head—it was only after looking at Olesm that Lism sighed.
“Very well, you’ll be present when we negotiate. First with Guardsman Klbkch—then we’ll send you to the Guildmasters. Then to Esthelm. Here’s what you need to know. We’re trying to strike a deal—”
Teliv’s face fell. He backed up slightly at Klbkch’s name.
“Antinium? I uh, don’t do Antinium. Now, Mavei…”
He turned to go. Olesm shut the door. Teliv looked at him and then patted him on the shoulder.
“So, how’s the new Council?”
“What do you think?”
Teliv looked behind him and saw three Drakes and three Gnolls staring at him. He hesitated, and then checked himself.
“If you’ll allow me, Councilmembers. I think I need to get my suit. And a protective amulet.”
Erin Solstice stopped and stared. For once, it was her stopping and staring at something else. And for once, the people gathered around City Hall weren’t there because of something they had done.
And they were gathered. It wasn’t that they were waiting for the Council or an election. It was just that the charge in the air was here. The excitement. And on the winds, the smell of change.
It was coming out of the Council with every Street Runner dashing to deliver a message. In bursts of gossip—and then pieces of parchment being distributed to sections of the city. Erin saw it hitting places like the Adventurer’s Guilds first. The adventuring teams looked up, crowded around the board of bounties and then exclaimed.
“They’re paying how much for a Blankipillar’s venom sac? Dead gods! Wings of Pallass, we’re getting right back in that dungeon! There’s a fortune rotting away down there! On me!”
Bevussa flew out of the mob and raced out of the door, faster than any of the other teams. Keldrass charged after her as Selys and another [Receptionist] tried to gather her scattered notes.
In the street, Drassi was gossiping with a bunch of Gnolls as she somehow had the latest news before anyone else.
“A mysterious [Architect] of note has agreed to design the expansion to the city? Does that mean they hired someone cheap or it’s a secret?”
“Hey, can I have some of those bulletin-things? You can put them up in my inn?”
Erin waylaid one of the Street Runners and got an armful of scrolls, the ink still drying. She hurried back to her inn and realized she didn’t have a board to put them on. So she stuck them to a wall with bits of sticky dough and the Horns of Hammerad got up from their table to read.
“Wanted. Adventurers to open a route around the Bloodfields. [Builders], [Miners], and other helpful classes also encouraged to apply. Pay is guaranteed per day and per monster slain?”
Ceria blinked as she soothed hot-tub burns on her back. Yvlon looked at Pisces. He frowned.
“Yes. I am intrigued.”
Ksmvr imitated Pisces, glancing sideways at him. Erin laughed. There was a freshness in the air she could feel. From the unhappy [Landlords] in the streets to those cheering the new jobs, the possibilities opening up, or just the fur now present in city hall.
It was also in the Watch. Zevara stared down at the letter hand-delivered by the Street Runner from the Merchant’s Guild. She held her breath as she unfurled the scroll. The new Council didn’t even bother stamping it with wax. And they’d finished a budget in the first day? They were fast, she had to give it to them. But was it—
The Watch Captain sighed and sat back down at her desk as she read. She reviewed the sums, looked at the final number, and clenched her claw into a fist and exhaled a plume of smoke.
It wasn’t everything she’d asked for. It never was. But it was a lot. Almost everything.
“You want to send a reply? Let me know and I’ll run it back!”
The Street Runner bounced on her feet, grinning. The young Gnoll was as excited as Zevara. The Watch Captain sat up and reached for her own parchment. She began writing. Then she thrust the note at the Gnoll girl.
“Send a [Message] to the Watch Captains on the list of cities I’ve written down here. Non-priority. Copy the contents to each one. Here. A tip.”
She fished out a silver piece and tossed it at the girl. She disappeared with a pleased yip. Zevara heard her thundering down the stairs. Then she sighed.
Watch Captain Zevara sat back in her chair. There was a lot you could do if you had an actual budget and more importantly, a way to get past the Bloodfields to other Drake cities. She’d dreamed of this before, but it had always been too far. But now? She glanced out one window, east, towards an inn she couldn’t see, but knew was there.
You could buy and sell between cities. Poach other promising recruits. Trade gold for needed supplies or weapons. Or lend aid where aid was needed. It was one of those archaic rules only people like Zevara ever read. In practice, it meant you could gather and call in favors. And oh, what favors…
Zevara heard something walking down the hallway. She poked her head out of her office and saw one of the senior officers. She nodded to the Gnoll.
The Senior Guardswoman smiled slightly.
“Jeiss is still at work. We’ll have to find another schedule around his job. I’m taking rookies on patrol.”
She looked…well, not exactly happy. But not bad either. Zevara nodded, an acknowledgement from one [Guard] to another. Beilmark returned the gesture. Zevara paused, and then snapped her claws.
“I’m going to talk to the prisoner. Do me a favor and stop by city hall at some point? This is for them. I forgot to send it with the Street Runner.”
She disappeared into her office and scribbled frantically. Beilmark came in and found Zevara reaching into a little cupboard behind her. The Gnoll’s brows rose as she saw Zevara pull out a slightly dusty bottle.
“Have you heard that they want to set up a permanent route along the Bloodfields? That will be a challenge and a half. But it’ll mean trade all year. If they can manage it. What’s the note say?”
“Read it. It’s just about the prisoner. I’m planning on putting him to use. That’s my notice for the Council. I don’t have to ask them, only notify them.”
Beilmark read the note. Her brows shot up.
“Well, I don’t think they’ll object to any of that.”
“I don’t either. Join me for a drink? I’m off-duty starting now.”
The Gnoll hesitated. But then she shook her head.
“I’ve got to work. Watch Captain.”
She saluted and left. Zevara returned to her desk. She sat on the edge for a moment, and then regarded the bottle as she found a glass. Aged Permere Wine, a vintage made of a magical flower along with an excellent grape. The wine was so pure and clear that it almost hurt the eyes to look at. Even the clean wine glass looked dirty as it held the liquid.
Zevara was planning to share the drink with a certain someone. He might be miserable—although he had those new pets—but her news would cheer him up. It might earn her criticism but right now Zevara was floating on clouds. She looked for another glass but then she couldn’t help it. The wine was a special treat, as rare as the smile on her face. She took a drink and felt a few dead scales fall off of her arm where she’d missed them. She spat out a bit of plaque and inhaled. The world felt new. Then she lifted her glass.
“Here’s to the future.”
And she laughed.
Erin Solstice stood in her inn, smiling. In the distance, Liscor stood. And it was the same old place. But it was changing. She could feel it. And that was almost upsetting. But also, wonderful.
Speaking of which…she looked around her inn. Workers trooped past her, holding buckets of copper nails and wood. Lyonette was shepherding them gently with Pawn.
“Erin, any problems with us getting to work?”
“Nope! You do that building thing, Lyonette!”
Erin gave Lyonette a thumbs-up. The [Princess] smiled and turned back to Pawn. After a moment, she came over to Erin.
“How are things?”
“Good! I mean, everyone’s super busy. But I bet Krshia and Selys will tell me about it tonight.”
“And Olesm? How about him and his uncle?”
Erin paused. She wavered, and then shrugged.
“Eh, I’ll wait until he comes crawling to me to make peace. I still think he’s a jerk for going after Calruz and Klbkch. But he’s still a friend. I’m gonna beat him at chess a lot, though!”
“Fair enough. Oh—someone’s calling you. I’ll get back to work. We’re going to build those hot tubs you mentioned! And a new wing of the inn! Pawn! Where did you go?”
Lyonette hurried off. Erin watched her leave the inn, and then turned. Someone was indeed calling her name. She saw a Drake hurry over, a wooden clipboard and bit of parchment neatly held in place at both ends.
“Excuse me, Miss. Are you Miss Erin Solstice?”
“That’s me! Hey! Are you from the new Council?”
Erin beamed at the Drake. He adjusted the clipboard and quill. He had a few splotches of ink on his pale orange scales. He nodded.
“I am! Geillsten. At your service.”
“How can I help you, Geillsten? If you’re looking for Klbkch—”
“No, Miss Solstice. You are just the person I’ve been looking for! I have a message from the Council.”
“Ooh! From Krshia? Or Lism.”
The Drake coughed reprovingly.
“All of the Council, Miss Solstice. They have enacted a number of reforms lately. Among them, they’ve seen fit to bestow upon you some honors for your efforts in aiding Liscor!”
“Wh—really? Well, about time!”
Erin beamed. Geillsten just gave her a slow nod.
“Yes. And for your efforts, and due to your inn’s proximity to the city of Liscor, they have decided that your inn, and you are defacto inhabitants of the city. As such, you are entitled to the rights and responsibilities of a citizen of Liscor and the protections of the Watch, as they note you have enjoyed since your initial stay at Liscor.”
The young woman slapped her forehead, scowling.
“What? I’m a citizen? Just like that? Couldn’t they have done it yesterday? And—”
Then the wording of the Drake’s message caught up with her. Erin paused.
“Wait, since the beginning? The rights and…”
“Responsibilities, yes. You aren’t in trouble, Miss Solstice. But I am here to ah, ensure your civic duty is carried out.”
Erin stared at the Drake.
“Say, Geillsten? What’s your class?”
“[Tax Collector], Miss Solstice.”
The penny dropped. Erin looked around, but Geillsten was standing neatly in front of her. And she couldn’t kill him and melt his body with acid fly juice! She’d sold all of it yesterday! She hesitated and scuffed one foot on the floorboards.
“I uh, haven’t been keeping a record of how much I make. And to be fair, I didn’t know I should, so…”
She looked hopefully at him. The Drake gave her an encouraging smile.
“Not to worry, Miss Solstice. Happily, as a [Tax Collector], I have a Skill which allows me to calculate exactly how much you owe. You can be sure that the number I produce is accurate and fair—I am routinely checked by the Watch under truth spell, and you may pay a nominal fee to ensure the accuracy yourself if you so choose!”
“Oh. Oh, that’s—er, do I have to do anything?”
“Not at all, Miss Solstice. If you’ll just wait here? I will conduct my inspection.”
Erin looked around for Lyonette. But it was no good. The Drake began walking around her, peering at her or through her at something. He began writing furiously on the parchment.
“Hmm…oh my. Well, there are a number of sources of income that the city does not count as viable taxation, so let me just note that all down here…and here…and here…er, did you really sell a flower for…pardon me, I shouldn’t ask…very well. With those incomes subtracted—please pardon me, the Council wishes to see a copy of this report—here is your owed tax, Miss Solstice!”
He finished and showed Erin a notation at the bottom of the parchment. Then he neatly tore the number off, handed it to her, and gave her an embarrassed smile.
“I am sorry. It is my job, and I do see that you can pay the indicated sum.”
“If you would require time, there are repayment options I can go over with you—”
Geillsten hesitated. He coughed again and cleared his throat. His was a thankless job.
“The Council also wished to inform you that they will be sending a delegation to negotiate with Esthelm, and given your previous aid to the city, they would consider it a personal favor if you aided the [Negotiator] in his task. I believed they phrased it as a ‘civic duty’, Miss Solstice.”
Erin jerked out of her stupor. Lyonette was going to kill her. As soon as she killed Krshia! How could she? Erin narrowed her eyes at the Drake.
“What? My ‘civic’—is that some kind of shady threat?”
The Drake looked appalled.
“Oh, you’re free to decline! However, the Council would also agree to discount your taxes by…this much if you accept. And put you in for a citizenship, along with your wards, Miss Lyonette and Miss Mrsha! And perhaps a provisional entry permit for your ah, employee? Mister Numbtongue?”
He showed Erin another number. Erin bit her tongue and stared at him. The Drake gave her a smile full of chagrin. She sighed.
“You’re really good at your job, Geillsten. Do people ever get mad at you?”
“More than one wishes, Miss Solstice. But it is a knack. And a Skill. The Council would like a reply by tonight—you may send a Street Runner to them free of charge or apply for a meeting in person, although I understand there is a queue—thank you for your time. And not throwing stones at me.”
He bowed and was gone. Erin watched him go. She thought of the new Council, full of vim, vigor, and cheap but filling sandwiches. She thought of change, and what Liscor could be.
Because that was what it was about. You could stay the same forever. Or you could…Erin looked around her inn. She looked out, at the city of Liscor in the distance.
Then she stared at the number on the parchment. Erin sighed.
“I hate progress.”