Erin Solstice’s inn was now an establishment. Not just a curio, an attraction, or simply a locus of unusual events. It was a home, a gathering spot. A place that people had made their habit to visit, for food, entertainment, and in that way, it became part of their lives. Like a local diner, or a library, or park, The Wandering Inn’s worth had taken on a value you couldn’t sum up in an arbitrary number.
Well, you could if you were paying taxes. Erin sat in her inn the next morning, feeling a bit grouchy. She’d paid the taxes. Since it wasn’t a small amount, the friendly tax-Drake, Geillsten, had even arranged for two ordinary [Guards] to pick the gold up in a bag of holding. And how polite they’d been, too!
She’d paid. But Erin had not had a good yesterday of it. First, Lyonette had scolded her for ten minutes and then gone off to see if she could renegotiate the terms. After all, it wasn’t fair! You couldn’t tax someone for before they were a citizen, right?
Well, the [Princess] had found out that you could and Liscor would do just that. Geillsten had referred her to the Council’s notes, which had pointed out that Erin had received the City Watch’s help on numerous occasions—an officer had even died protecting Erin’s inn. Klbkch.
Never mind the fact he had come back or that he and Relc had been helping her as friends. The fact was that Erin’s inn had benefited from the City Watch patrolling around Liscor to remove the majority of monster threats, the healing potion Klbkch had given her that was City Watch equipment, and the numerous occasions the City Watch had helped resolve crises threatening Erin’s inn.
“And to be clear, Miss Lyonette, the Council’s position on this is that a tax should be paid. And they have allowed Miss Solstice to claim a number of discounts, including a sizable one for aiding in the negotiations with Esthelm.”
And that was that. Lyonette had glumly returned to the inn empty-handed. Because, when you got down to it, Liscor’s new democracy only extended to electing the Council. In their seat of authority, the Council could enact whichever laws they pleased.
“It’s like a monarchy. Only, [Kings] are often balanced by a lot of forces. Their advisors, the nobility, public unrest—but some of them can simply order someone to be jailed or someone to pay more taxes. It’s all about having the right kind of power, Mrsha. Knowing how to use it and incur the least amount of pushback or mitigating it.”
Lyonette had balanced Mrsha on one knee as she explained why Erin was counting gold coins. The [Innkeeper] wasn’t sure that was a suitable lesson for Mrsha, but she didn’t have much to say. So she’d paid up the next day and now she glumly regarded the contents of her safe.
It was still quite a bit. But Lyonette’s not-quite-a-glare as she put out today’s breakfast for the inn’s morning crowd told Erin it wasn’t good.
“We’ve still got enough to pay the staff and buy food and stuff! Plenty! We could go for like, a month on this alone!”
Erin weakly pointed at the coins with a smile. Lyonette pursed her lips. As she passed by with a huge, fluffy roll of bread and a bread knife, she pointedly looked at four table’s worth of Antinium Soldiers and Workers.
“That money was supposed to be used for refurbishing the inn, Erin. I’ll have to talk with Klbkch about delaying the first payments. And I’ll need you to make more ice cream. That’s one of our best sellers. In those…”
“Cones. They’re good, right?”
Lyonette sighed. But she nodded. Erin’s latest little innovation had been recreating the hard-batter cones that made ice cream a thousand times better than eating them in bowls. Plus you could walk around with them!
“I’ll need as much as you can make. Ishkr will buy the ingredients if you need more. No buts! You’re in the kitchen at least for three hours! Then you can go to Pallass.”
Lyonette glared. Erin weakly smiled.
“But Lyonette, I have to go to Esthelm today! You know, to negotiate and stuff?”
The [Princess]’s brows crossed.
“Yup. For the discount?”
The [Innkeeper] watched as Lyonette tossed the fresh loaf of the bread on the table in disgust. Lyonette ground her teeth, and then nodded.
“Fine, I’ll get Ishkr to make the ice cream and have—how long will you be?”
At another table, the Horns of Hammerad were eating. Pisces, Ceria, Ksmvr, and Yvlon were having a rather nice meal of cereal grains flavored with a bit of sugar. Just a bit; the days of cheap honey were gone with the Ashfire Bee nest, which Ceria deeply regretted. Still—the food was really good. She noticed Ksmvr bouncing in his seat and watching Erin and Lyonette.
“What’s wrong, Ksmvr?”
“I am waiting for my sustenance, Captain Ceria.”
The half-Elf eyed Ksmvr. He alone wasn’t eating cereal.
“What, the bread? Is that all you’re eating for breakfast?”
The Antinium paused.
“Is that a bad thing?”
Ceria had no idea. She suspected it was, but Ksmvr couldn’t get enough of gluten after discovering the Amulet of Food Poison Resistance or whatever it was. It turned out lots of Antinium liked gluten—they were just hugely intolerant to it.
“Just eat your bugs for dinner or something.”
The [Ice Mage] finished lamely. She heard a snort, but Yvlon and Pisces’ faces were completely neutral when she looked over. After a moment, Yvlon glanced over.
“You might have to go and get the bread yourself, Ksmvr. Lyonette’s not looking too happy.”
“I will acquire my breakfast now, then, Yvlon. I must not be the weakest link. Miss Erin has informed me of the perils of being one.”
Ksmvr got up. Ceria blinked for a few seconds, and then decided it wasn’t worth commenting on. She looked at the rest of her team, and then at the diners the next table over.
“Hey, Bevussa, what’s your team doing today? You interested in the new missions being offered by Liscor’s Council?”
The Garuda sitting at the next table with her team looked up. She was having breakfast at the inn. Some of her team looked a bit annoyed at the question; Ceria was still Silver-rank. But Bevussa just smiled and shrugged.
“It’s interesting. They want to chew a regular trade route towards Pallass? It’s been tried before.”
Ceria frowned. Among the latest developments in Liscor, the decision to build a trade route to Pallass had been of most interest to her team. Bevussa nodded.
“Liscor had one, I think. Before the second Antinium War. Then—you know, the Necromancer—the city lost a lot of outlying villages in the Floodplains and trade stopped with the Antinium Hive. Not that it was doing well after the First Antinium War…”
“Wars tend to do that.”
One of the other Oldblood Drakes offered helpfully. Bevussa stared at him.
“Yeah. I guess they do, Zassil. Imagine that?”
“I’m just saying. Wars. Bad for the economy.”
“We get it, Zassil. That was Bevussa being sarcastic. This is me being mad.”
Issa, another Drake, snapped. Zassil looked hurt. Ceria bit her lip to keep from laughing.
“I’m just trying to contribute to the conversation.”
“How? What does that statement have to offer? Why would you even say that? Wars are bad for trade? Hey, you know what? When I flap my wings, I sometimes fly.”
“Not for much longer with how much you’re eating.”
Bevussa ignored her squabbling teammates. She turned back to Ceria and shook her head in response to the first question.
“Interesting, yeah. But not for us. We’re sticking with the dungeon. That’s where the real gold is.”
Her last teammate, the silent Kin, looked up and nodded, brushing crumbs off his—her?—scales as Zassil and Issa threw bread pieces at each other. Ceria made a face. The bounties on monster parts were now being made into a very attractive list in the Adventurer’s Guild. You could get two gold coins for an adult Blankipillar’s venom sac, intact.
It was going to drive even more interest to Liscor as adventurers came in looking for safe monster-hunting work as opposed to dungeon exploration which was far riskier and didn’t guarantee pay. But…she shook her head and nodded to her team.
“We have a thing about the dungeon. The Bloodfields sounds like good work until the door gets to Invrisil. Safer than the dungeon, too.”
Bevussa nodded understandingly. Then she frowned.
“Just remember, the Bloodfields aren’t much safer than the dungeon. If it was winter, well, that’s different. But the summer? Just stay clear of it, got it? Even the border! And watch out—even regular monsters might steer clear of the Bloodfields, but nasty types sometimes still hang about the area.”
The Horns of Hammerad nodded seriously. Ksmvr was trying to figure out how to eat his half of the loaf. Ceria bit her lip, and nodded.
“Hopefully we never get close. It’s to make a safe route around; but we’ll be careful.”
“So when’s the work start?”
Ceria had no idea. She looked at Yvlon, who’d signed them up at the Adventurer’s Guild. The [Wounded Warrior] raised her shoulders.
“In a day or two. It’s still being organized. We’re just recruiting teams today. The Council’s offering us a headhunter fee for every team in Celum we can get to work on the request. So we’re going to reach out to some teams we know. Hopefully they’ll listen.”
“Huh, what’s the fee?”
“Just a few silver—”
Everyone winced as someone dropped a plate with a crash of pottery. Ceria looked over and saw a white shape on the ground and a broken plate full of eggs. Mrsha got up and stared at the plate of breakfast she’d been trying to bring to Numbtongue’s table. She stared at it and her eyes filled up.
“Oh, Mrsha! Are you alright? Come here. It’s okay, it’s okay! Are you cut? Let me see.”
Erin, Lyonette, and several others immediately converged on the Gnoll. So did Numbtongue. He squatted down and investigated the plate of eggs mixed with shards. Mrsha wasn’t hurt; she’d just tripped. But she was staring at the broken plate and food and crying. Numbtongue watched as Lyonette and Erin cuddled Mrsha and tried to reassure her. He reached for the eggs and began to munch on them.
“Numbtongue! Stop that! You could swallow some shards! It’s all right, Mrsha. Eggs are cheap. I used to find them all the time. Those Dino Birds lay them in the ground. Here. Ishkr! Broom! And we’ll get new eggs…”
This was morning in The Wandering Inn. Everyone watched out of the corner of their eyes as Mrsha went into the kitchen with Erin and Lyonette and came back with another plate of eggs in a moment. She put it on the table in front of Numbtongue. He nodded, smiled, and began to eat. And Mrsha sat with him, wagging her tail as Erin and Lyonette helped Ishkr and the two Gnolls on morning duty pass out the rest of the food.
“Erin! Hey, Erin! Is my thing ready?”
A pale, scaly hand and unfamiliar voice waved at Erin as she passed by Numbtongue’s table. She looked over and recognized Jelaqua. Different body, same grin. Erin blinked.
“Not yet! Give them like, five minutes, Jelaqua?”
“Got it. Hey! All these adventurers in the inn, huh? Feels like a second Adventurer’s Guild!”
The Selphid grinned at the other teams eating around her. Bevussa called over to the Selphid.
“Jelaqua, is your team interested in the Bloodfields mission? I thought you were still going to Invrisil.”
“Yeah, well, the thing is…we’re getting there! A few miles a day. Sometimes more. I’m uh, on vacation. You know. With Maughin?”
Jelaqua grinned a bit nervously. Ceria exchanged glances with her team. Bevussa nodded slowly.
“Now that’s news. Wonder what it’s like in Pallass. A Dullahan and a Selphid? I wish I could hear the gossip.”
Zassil commented under his breath. Issa kicked him.
“Don’t be a lizard. It’s sweet!”
“I’m just saying. Maughin? Master Maughin? And…”
“It takes all kinds, Zassil.”
“Yeah, but how many kinds? And how many bodies? I mean, that’s a nice one. Objectively, right? If it was just that one, awesome, but what if—stop kicking me!”
Jelaqua was talking, oblivious to the side conversation.
“So I’m out. And my uh, team, is sort of on vacation too. At least, they’re either doing that or moving the door. I gotta make it up to them a bit.”
She grinned a bit wanly. Bevussa looked around, although Moore’s absence was conspicuous.
“Right. Where are they today?”
“Seborn and Moore? They’re in Pallass. Moore’s been getting depressed lately. Female company, you know? A lack of it. So Seborn finally got him to…er…”
Jelaqua caught Mrsha’s eye. She and Lyonette were both giving the Selphid expectant looks at the next table. So was Erin. Numbtongue, frowning and listening as he ate breakfast, paused, and then his expression cleared as Pyrite told him the answer.
“Well, they’re just going to look.”
“Look at what?”
“Well—hey, Erin! Are those cookies done?”
“Let me check. Uh…yep! One sec! Hey, is there a bag anywhere?”
“I’ve got one! Bag of holding. Right here!”
The Selphid hurried into the kitchen. Ceria saw her coming out, patting a bag. Erin had a smaller platter of the rest of the cookies.
“And I made a double batch! Who wants—”
Half the hands in the inn shot up. Lyonette cleared her throat.
“That’s extra, not breakfast.”
Only three hands went down. Mrsha waved hers eagerly. Pisces, who had hitherto been preoccupied with his cereal and reading a book at the table, flicked a finger. Erin yelped as a cookie tried to float off her plate. Then another.
“Hey! Whoever’s doing that, stop!”
Pisces, Ceria, and Kin all paused guiltily. Erin snatched the floating cookies back and counted.
“There’s enough for all of you! Now, Lyonette, here’s the cookies. You can make them pay. Jelaqua, that good?”
The Selphid was counting her custom-ordered cookies. She patted the bag again, and then looked at Erin. She smiled.
“I think so. Thanks for doing this, Erin. Really.”
“No problem! You could actually make them yourself, you know. Gonna share them with a certain, uh…Maughin?”
The Selphid blushed in an interesting way. Her cheeks stayed pale, but a lattice of what Ceria took to be her actual form appeared under the pale scales, faintly orange. It was even more distinctive when she wore a Human’s body. She waved a claw awkwardly.
“I don’t want to mess it up. Besides, I don’t even have [Basic Cooking]. I mean, I know I don’t need it, but I can’t make everything perfectly. And—dead hands, you know? Well, claws today.”
She was still a bit orange. Erin nodded, noticing how nervous the normally-cheerful Selphid was. She edged over with Jelaqua towards the magic door. It was currently open to Celum and you could see Octavia’s shop inside. Octavia too; the [Alchemist] had had a quick breakfast but she was working on something. She still glanced occasionally back towards Erin’s inn every now and then.
“So, what’re the cookies for? A date today?”
Erin teased Jelaqua, smiling. The Selphid hesitated.
“Well, nothing grand. But Maughin’s not working, so he invited me to visit some of Pallass’ attractions. They have this amazing display of these…interlockers is what they call them, I think. The things they use to make the elevators? Maughin’s made some parts, so the [Engineers] invited him for a new display.”
“Ooh! Sounds cool. I should visit Pallass more often myself. There’s so much I haven’t seen! I bet you’ve got lots to do, right? Have you visited Pallass before?”
“Oh, yeah. Nine years back? When the Halfseekers worked in the south. But…well, there’s not as much for a Selphid to do. Massages, bathhouses—no real good. I can adjust my body myself, and I need a really fresh one to enjoy a massage. And it creeps out anyone who’s not used to Selphids. And bathhouses? I’m just glad there’s other stuff to do.”
Jelaqua shook her head. Erin studied her.
“You’ve gone on a lotta dates. I think you’re serious about this.”
The Selphid squirmed.
“I am. At least, it’s been the first time in like, eight years since I met anyone I hit it off with this well. Hey, Erin. Between us. Maughin and me. Do you…think it’s a good fit?”
Erin took the question seriously. She nodded.
“I think he likes you. Maybe even more than hitting things with a hammer. And I think you’ll be fine. He likes you. And you like him. And you know that he likes you. And he knows that you like him. And you know that he knows that you know that…well, it’s good! Don’t worry! I’m sure he’ll like the cookies.”
The Selphid smiled at Erin, relieved.
“Thanks, Erin. You’re the best! Okay, I’m off! Mind changing the door…?”
“Oh, sure. Octavia! Just letting Jelaqua through to Pallass! Say, are you on the list? Hey guys! Jelaqua’s not on the list! Sorry!”
The door opened and closed after Erin argued with the Drakes on the other side for a bit. The rest of the inn’s breakfasters began finishing up. Ceria got up with a sigh.
“Time to head to Celum. Let’s talk to Crossbow Stan first. He’ll listen to us most. Yvlon and I will do the talking, Ksmvr. No asserting dominance.”
“I shall be meekly subordinate, Captain.”
“And I will study. I have been far too remiss as it is in keeping up my magical practice.”
The [Necromancer] sitting at the table didn’t move as Yvlon got up. Ceria snapped at him.
He just looked up and raised his brows sardonically.
“My presence is surely not needed negotiating with Celum’s adventuring teams, is it? In fact, I would consider it a hindrance. Wouldn’t you, oh glorious Captain?”
That was a good point. Pisces’ absence would be helpful. But—Ceria hesitated. Yvlon took over and slapped Pisces on the back. He winced and she frowned at him.
“You really have to stop making all your good points as obnoxiously as possible, Pisces. Fine. Stay. Right, Ceria?”
She looked at Ceria and the half-Elf reluctantly nodded.
“I suppose it’s for the best. But you’re not weaseling out of work, Pisces!”
“Perish the thought. I’m preparing myself for that very moment.”
Pisces looked up and nodded. He even seemed serious. Then he turned back to his breakfast, flipping open his personal spellbook and checking his notes. He reminded Ceria of his days as student, in fact. She paused, and then gave up and went towards the door.
“Mind if you send us to Liscor, Erin? I’d fly, but my stomach’s first.”
Bevussa was first in line. Erin shut the door, obligingly changed it, and sent the teams out to Liscor, and then the Horns to Celum.
The visitor arrived just after the flow of traffic ended. And he came through the actual, ordinary door which was a surprise. Erin turned as a Drake with black scales spotted with yellow swept into the room. Teliv Witherscale looked around warily, and then put a beaming smile on his face as soon as he saw Erin.
“Hello, hello! Are you by any chance the Erin Solstice? Teliv Witherscale, at your service! I’m the [Negotiator] in charge of the Esthelm diplomatic trip. We’re all ready to depart; the wagons are just rolling north with their escort! But we can catch up to them in an hour without issue if you need to wait!”
He strode over to Erin and she found herself shaking his claw. And it was the perfect handshake—firm, but not too strong—the kind that made you feel like you weren’t failing at the opening greeting. She liked Teliv instantly, and wasn’t sure if it was a Skill or just the Drake’s personality.
“Hi! I’m Erin! Sorry, did you say the wagons are going now? Am I late? That tax guy just said someone would pick me up!”
“Not late at all, not at all! The main convoy’s just moving at a different pace. There’s a Watch escort and not all the [Wagon Drivers] have movement Skills. I have one ready to go that can easily catch up—or, if you can ride, we can take horses! But where are my manners?”
So saying, he produced a bright green flower and offered it to Erin. She was tickled pink.
Teliv winked at her.
“I know it’s antiquated. Although they do teach us to give flowers at the academy! But it is a delight to meet the iconic, no, legendary owner of The Wandering Inn! Olesm has told me such tales—when he deigns to visit me. I’ll admit, we run in different circles these days, but I envy his company!”
“You know Olesm?”
Erin blinked. Teliv smiled.
“Why, of course I do! He’s never mentioned me? Not once? His handsome, charming friend?”
“Maybe—but why have I never seen you with Olesm, then? Or at my inn?”
Erin propped her hands on her hips. Teliv smiled apologetically.
“My dear Miss Solstice, I’m afraid that’s because I have a healthy regard for my life. I’m positively allergic to death or situations that cause it. Or trouble, for that matter. Hence my reluctant aversion to your inn!”
The Drake sighed. He turned, spreading the smile to Lyonette and Mrsha, who’d both come to stare at him. Erin was impressed; when Teliv saw Numbtongue he only froze up for a microsecond. Then he just smiled at the Hobgoblin. He was pretty good.
“I also spend altogether too much time in such establishments as it is. I work at Wishdrink’s, if you didn’t know. I also work as a [Host] and if you’d like to offer me competitive rates at your inn…”
“Uh—[Host]? And [Negotiator]? I didn’t know Liscor had either. Well, we can talk about it. I mean, we’ll be travelling for a day, right? Hey, we can take the magic door to Esthelm in back! We could even let the other people take it there! Lyonette, where are the extra mana stones? Or maybe I should go with you. To set it up properly.”
And to avoid making ice cream for four hours. Teliv blinked, but he let Erin lead him to the door and explain how it worked.
“I’d heard about this, Miss Solstice. Teleportation magic. Er, it’s completely safe?”
“Yeah, probably. Why?”
“No reason, no reason! It’s just that I’m familiar with Fissival’s network and ah, well, I suppose it would help. Not to mention, a door would definitely improve our negotiations! Bring it or those little stones, by all means! But please, Miss Solstice, the Council has asked me to tell you that this is a sensitive mission. Your presence is necessary due to the goodwill Esthelm’s people feel towards you, but I would appreciate it if you left the bargaining to me.”
Teliv eyed Erin. She put her hands on her hips, a bit miffed.
“So I’m just there as, what, entertainment? Goodwill? Krshia’s got a lotta nerve telling me to do this and do that! All the power’s gotten to her head! Or Lism has! Power corrupts! Anyways, if I’m so unpredictable and you’re so afraid of death, why are you going with me to Esthelm?”
The Drake sighed again.
“Duty calls, Miss Solstice. And to be fair, being paid to stick my tail into danger is quite different from seeking it out. Now, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to debate the Council and all manner of interesting topics on the road! But let’s keep things in order. I’d like to be on the road in twenty minutes just so we can stay with the wagons.”
He was brisk, for all he laid on the likeability! Erin nodded, waving at Lyonette who was bringing the extra mana stones over.
“Okay. I guess we can make a door at Esthelm to get back. So…I’ve got my knife, um—I’ll get a healing potion or two? Anything else I should bring?”
“Not much to defend yourself, I should think. It’s not far and we won’t be passing through any unpredictable wilderness. But if you have anything that would smooth our introduction to Esthelm—well, I was saving this for the road, but let me brief you on the mission.”
Teliv walked with Erin as she went into the kitchen, and then he was speaking rapidly, in a business-like tone that did remind Erin of Olesm a bit.
“Esthelm’s hit a poor patch of late. Of course, you helped repair their walls, but the city’s population was decimated. They’re poor, to put it frankly, and not a little traumatized from the Goblin Lord’s attack. A delicate touch is needed, hence our gift of dried fish from the spring’s harvest and your presence. Even so, I would appreciate it if you didn’t…do anything too extreme. Unless it helps the cause. And refraining from mentioning that Liscor is positively swimming with Gold-rank adventurers and so on might help. We are just two cities on the border trying to help each other, not a rich city looking down on a poor one.”
Erin nodded as she rummaged through her cupboards. She thought for a second and then found her special wing of the pantry marked ‘NOT FOR COOKING’ in huge letters.
“In that case, maybe I should bring some acid jars along. To give to them. And some chess sets? Everyone likes chess! And I should have made a third batch of cookies! Oh well. Here’s the jars…darn, I really should have a bag of holding for stuff like this! But it’s expensive, or so Selys says! What if I borrowed hers? Hey, Teliv, hold these?”
The Drake found himself holding two glass jars of green liquid. He stared at them and then recalled one of his notes on Erin Solstice. Gingerly, he backed out of the kitchen and put the jars on a table. He caught Lyonette pulling Mrsha well clear of the jars.
“Don’t let her drop those anywhere near you.”
The [Princess] pointed at the acid jars. Teliv shuddered as Erin came out with two more. To her credit, she was holding them very carefully herself.
“Maybe refrain from displays of wealth, Miss Solstice? We’ll stow your jars on the wagons without the bag of holding. Far from us.”
Erin nodded. She placed the jars on the table and looked around. Anything else? Nothing off the top of her head. Besides, she was just helping out. Then she studied her dress. She took her apron off after a second’s thought and regarded her attire.
“Huh. Okay. I’m not dressed too badly. But—oh! Should I take my ring off?”
Lyonette, keeping Mrsha back from the acid jars, looked up. Teliv, Pisces, still at his table, and even Mrsha and Numbtongue looked around. Erin waved her right hand.
Erin went to point to the ring on her finger. The golden ring that Ilvriss had given her. Then she realized what she was doing and hesitated, but it was too late.
“—ring. I wear it sometimes. It’s cool, huh?”
Lamely, she twisted it a bit so the golden letters weren’t visible. Lyonette frowned as she walked over. She stared at the ring on Erin’s finger, mystified.
“I have never seen you wear that ring in my life, Erin.”
“What? No, I wore it yesterday.”
Erin protested, blinking at Lyonette. The [Princess] raised her brows.
“Oh? Well, maybe. I must have forgotten it. Where’d you get it? You could buy something far nicer at the marketplace. That’s sort of…”
She looked around, hesitating, then went for it.
Erin frowned, hurt. And then she really frowned as she stared at the ring on her finger.
“What? I mean, it’s not full of jewels, but it is gold, right?”
Lyonette stared at the ring.
“That’s not gold, Erin.”
This time the [Innkeeper] really hesitated. She frowned at Lyonette, expecting a joke, but Lyonette didn’t do jokes that much. Slowly, Erin regarded the ring that bore the single word, ‘Salazsar’, on it. And on a hunch, she interjected a bit of incredulity into her voice.
“It’s not golden to you?”
Lyonette raised her eyebrows, surprised. She looked at the ring and shook her head. Mrsha did the same. Erin showed the ring to Teliv and he shrugged.
“Doesn’t look like gold to me, but I’m no expert.”
“I am. Show me.”
Pisces leaned over and narrowed his eyes as Erin took the ring off her ringer. He stared at Ilvriss’ ring in Erin’s palm dismissively for a second and shook his head.
Lyonette nodded, agreeing with a sigh.
“Polished well. Erin, you know what gold coins look like. You didn’t pay for it as if it were gold, did you? Never mind, I don’t want to know. If you like it’s that’s great.”
Erin looked at her. Then at the plain, copper ring on her hand. She put it on and stared again. Then she looked up with a guileless smile that was in fact, full of guile. But well-hidden.
“Oh. Well, right. I wear it sometimes. Don’t be jerks about it! I like copper.”
She put the ring back on her finger before anyone could see the faint indentation of flesh. And she looked at the ring thoughtfully for another second. But then Teliv was politely urging her towards the waiting wagon, and Erin had an adventure to attend to in Esthelm! Not a huge one if Teliv had his way, but Erin wanted to see how the city had fared since she’d helped it. So, it turned out, did Numbtongue.
Of course, that was a bad idea, at least, according to Teliv. But soon Erin was on the road and busy. She was always busy, but sometimes she remembered how quiet her inn had been. And all the old guests who had left or…gone.
Her old Antinium chess players. Halrac and his team. The original Horns of Hammerad. Once, Brunkr. Ryoka. And…Erin sat on the wagon, and looked at the ring on her finger. Sometimes she forgot it was there. It was comfortable; if she didn’t think of it, it felt like part of her finger. And no one remembered her wearing it? Come to that—Erin narrowed her eyes and then fished out a gold coin. She stared at it and at the ring.
She wanted to know what it meant, but Teliv wasn’t the person to ask. Like the special coin in her safe, it was something to ponder and ask the right people. And it did remind Erin of a certain jerk who hadn’t been completely a jerk. Sometimes she even missed him.
She wondered what he was doing now.
Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar was home. He had returned to his Walled City, the City of Gems, Salazsar, located in the mountainous eastern region of Izril. And had Erin Solstice wished it, she could have found out his whereabouts and what he was up to quite easily.
Anyone could. It was a fact of this world that thanks to [Message] spells and the changing nature of politics, information was power. And Ilvriss was a name. One of many, true. But a Wall Lord still merited enough attention that his actions were the talk of Salazsar.
They said he’d gone after Zel Shivertail even though a truce had been called between the Trisstal Alliance and Salazsar. Even though the Goblin Lord had been attacking Drake and Human cities, Ilvriss hadn’t let go of the grudge and dueled Zel Shivertail. The injuries of that duel had led to General Shivertail’s demise at the Goblin Lord’s claws.
No, it wasn’t vengeance. Wall Lord Ilvriss had gone with General Shivertail to raise another army! He’d balked at working with the Humans, obviously, but he’d been holding the walls while the Humans assailed Liscor.
Actually—and let’s be clear here—it was neither. If you wanted to know the real details of Ilvriss’ mysterious sojourn abroad, it was all to do with the rumored lover he had. He’d met her in Liscor and all the other incidents he’d been involved in were a result of that getaway! But they’d broken up, hence his abrupt return.
Those were the three biggest theories, and there were some other rumors, with everything from Ilvriss trying to become Liscor’s next Wall Lord, or that he’d taken some serious injury in the battle with Zel Shivertail or their following clash with the Goblin Lord and been forced to recover.
Rumors of a liaison with a Gnoll, or even more scandalous, a Human were never founded. But then again, no one who understood the significance of it took the absence of the plain, golden ring on Ilvriss’ claws lightly.
The sheer fact was that Ilvriss had everyone’s on him in the weeks after his return. And what had he done? Well—partied.
But in a refined way. What he’d done since returning home was throw a series of the most exquisite soirees and dinner parties that had Salazsar’s elites toasting him nightly. Of course, what else was a son of Salazsar to do when they’d been away from their home and thus, culture, for so long?
However, ironically, those actions were positively mundane compared to the aura of mystery Ilvriss had cultivated while abroad. So the well-received parties soon became of no interest to anyone but those invited and possibly an envious mention in passing. And that was just how Ilvriss intended it.
It was in fact, morning in Salazsar, albeit a cold and frosty one in the highest reaches of the towers of the Walled City. Of course, the nobility could pay for as much magical heating as they liked, and so it didn’t touch Ilvriss as he stood on a balcony and walkway leading to the private routes the Wall Lords and Ladies could use.
Like the rest of Salazsar, the towers and reaching structures of the Walled City were connected by walkways. The lower parts of the city were the most densely populated; wealth stood above. In fact, Ilvriss’s family owned this particular spire, from top to bottom. And his personal estates—more vertical than sprawling—occupied the top of the tower.
The Wall Lord suppressed the urge to yawn as he heard the door open behind him. He’d had a late night of refined debauchery. And the Drake responsible for about sixty percent of said debauchery was stumbling out, shrugging off the help of the few attendants Ilvriss employed.
It wasn’t Brilm. Or Hesalief. Or the six other Drakes who’d attended the private little party in Ilvriss’ estates. No, only one Drake could and would keep drinking even when the sun had come back up. And he came stumbling out of the door helped by the Drake [Housekeeper].
[Housekeeper]. It was an important distinction. Ilvriss employed a [Chef], [Cleaners], [Waiters]—no [Servants]. True, you could argue that [Housekeeper] was just a higher-ranking servant, but in the context of Drake society, a [Housekeeper], like a [Cleaner], was someone you employed. Not someone you were better than; and indeed, if you threw dirty clothes on the floor in front of a Drake [Housekeeper], they’d probably throw it right back.
Drakes believed in military discipline and ranks, but not servitude. So there was no [Butler] or [Manservant] to haul the Wall Lord who came stumbling out to stand next to Ilvriss to a waiting carriage and speed him back to his estates. You couldn’t fit a carriage on the walkways this high up anyways, and horses had a thing about heights. He’d have to walk, or failing that, stumble home.
Ilvriss winced at the sound of his own voice. He reached into a pocket of his robes and withdrew a small vial. He uncorked it and drank the hangover potion as Tasilt grinned blearily at him.
“What’s that? Hangover potion already? You’ve lost your step, Ilvriss.”
“And you’re taking far too many. For yourself?”
Ilvriss offered the vial to Tasilt. He normally didn’t drink that much, but Tasilt was a bad influence. The rest of the Wall Lords that Ilvriss had invited to the dinner that had turned into drinking had all needed one. But Tasilt just waved a claw vaguely.
“I’m still pleasantly, no, happily drunk. That was a fine repast! And the drinks afterwards! Just…”
He tried to blow a kiss with his claws.
“Now that is the Ilvriss Gemscale I know. A Drake of taste. Sophistication! And—and—”
Ilvriss raised his brows drily. Tasilt took two steps left, stumbling unsteadily. He had to lean on the balcony as he nodded.
“Exceedingly! Although, I will own, at some point it’s lost on me since I feel the point is to be happily drunk, not classily tipsy. A waste of a good vintage!”
“Some wines are meant to be shared. Or else why bother hoarding at all? It was only a Laile.”
“True! True! But generous, nevertheless. I’ve half a dozen bottles I’m terrified to open, do you know? They’re in my vaults under Preservation Runes along with everything else. I’d love to taste just one, but my heirs would kill me. As would my dear beloved. It’s inheritance.”
Tasilt heaved a huge sigh. He squinted out at the brightening skyline.
“Ancestors, it is dawn already, isn’t it? I should have been home ages. And I’m due a meeting with these [Merchants] in four hours! Dead gods, I wish we were young again, Ilvriss. Free of work!”
“We’ve certainly acted like it these last few days, haven’t we?”
Ilvriss smiled a bit. He stood very tall, not showing the effects of drinking. Tasilt on the other hand—well, he wore his drinks and some of his excesses.
Then again, he was the more cheerful of the two Drakes. Ilvriss had long considered that, and the fact that Tasilt, for all he’d never seemed to grow up like Ilvriss had, was still quite successful as a Wall Lord himself. And beloved; if Ilvriss was the model Drake in both bearing and appearance, a symbol of Salazsar’s elite, Tasilt was quite fondly regarded despite being a failure in those regards.
Now Ilvriss’ old friend was sighing. He still didn’t take the vial and instead straightened his clothing.
“No help for it. I’ll take a stamina potion, don’t worry, Ilvriss. And I’ll explain myself at home. Rhelika will understand. You’ve been away for so long and she did enjoy that dinner party. Just invite us all for a private meal next week, would you? That’ll unruffle her fur and I can bring the children over.”
“Very well. Give her my greetings.”
“Naturally! And er, I’ll convey your regrets for the late hour. Completely unavoidable. Old friends need to catch up.”
Ilvriss kept his face straight as Tasilt checked his breath. The Drake was still drunk, though. Ilvriss coughed.
“If a hangover potion isn’t enough, I can have someone fetch a sobering…”
Tasilt caught him with a claw, grinning toothily.
“No, no, let me enjoy this, Ilvriss. Or the wine will have been sacrificed for nothing! I’ll be fine. This is why handrails were invented. Rhelika won’t mind.”
“And the [Merchants]?”
Tasilt just laughed.
“Simple! I’ll provide them with suitable refreshments! That’s the trick of it, Ilvriss. Don’t rise; bring them down to your level! You’d be surprised at how many upper-class [Merchants] have forgotten how to barter while drunk! Just give me a second. Ah, what a sight, eh?”
Ilvriss nodded. He could feel the cold breeze on his scales, but the heat rising from the balcony’s tiles made the experience bracing, pleasant. And Salazsar by dawn was beautiful. The light caught the towers one by one, illuminating millennia of craft, wrought stone. Carved gems angled to split the light cast colorful reflections.
Salazsar was a jewel. And Ilvriss loved it as much as the first day he’d seen it from above. He glanced to one side and saw Tasilt’s eyes shining. Different they may be, but they were still sons of Salazsar.
And Tasilt? Ilvriss paused another moment, regarding his old friend. He was unlike Brilm, who was always on the cutting edge of the latest ‘thing’. And if Brilm was a traditionalist, even painfully so when it came to how he employed Gnolls, Tasilt was his opposite.
Everything the Drake did was new. Experimental. Three quarters of his enterprises tended to fail, but the remaining quarter made up for his failures. Everything from trying to use water to blast holes in mines to how he had married.
He was the only Wall Lord—or Lady—in forty six years to have married a non-Drake. And only one of eight in as many centuries. By now, it had been…what, seventeen years? Ilvriss felt it was only yesterday that Tasilt had been rowing with his friends and father about the very idea of marrying his Gnoll wife, Rhelika. And Ilvriss remembered vividly the way he’d acted back then.
It was the only time Tasilt had ever hit Ilvriss. Now of course, that day was over a decade past and Ilvriss and Tasilt were old friends who’d gotten back together for a night of relaxation after his long absence.
Ilvriss thought more of moments like that these days. And he looked at Tasilt differently. Of course, he’d never been Brilm, who still held Tasilt at a reserve, but Ilvriss had always regarded Tasilt’s decision as…odd. Now, though? Ilvriss wondered how difficult it had been for Rhelika. And he had never considered that before. Not once. But if it was difficult for a…Human, living just outside a Drake city. If a Goblin could be an adventurer—
Ilvriss shook his head. He looked at everything differently than when he’d left, come to that. It felt like the world hadn’t changed. But he had. And it was an uncomfortable feeling. Things that had mattered in the past didn’t now. While other things mattered more.
After a moment, the Drake cleared his throat. Ilvriss’ purples scales stood out next to Tasilt’s fair green mixed with brown.
“How are the children, Tasilt? I didn’t have the opportunity to ask.”
The other Wall Lord looked up, deeply surprised. He paused, and Ilvriss noticed Tasilt’s eyes flicking to his face for a moment. Tasilt visibly sobered a bit and replied, smiling a bit and staring over the balcony.
“What, the twins? Just grand. You’d never know they were different species. Both of them run about on all fours. Cecilla’s normal—she’s in her hoarding phase. We’re working with her on that. Not a problem there.”
“Ah, of course. And…is it Feldir?”
Tasilt heaved a sigh. He glanced at Ilvriss again, and then leaned over the balcony. And this time his voice was lower. Genuine concern flickered through his eyes.
“He’s unruly—you know? Won’t listen, always disappearing—and I have to watch that he doesn’t take anything from home! You know, the other day I found out he’d taken a Potion of Greater Invisibility out of our family vaults?”
“Really? And he used it?”
Ilvriss looked greatly concerned. Wall Lords had their inheritances of old. Some had squandered it of course, but Tasilt and Ilvriss’ families both possessed some treasures, even if the majority of it was just the wealth they owned. Tasilt was the one with legitimate heirlooms in his family, and that potion was one of them. Tasilt nodded.
“Just like that! I had to tell the guards not to let him in! And the damn potion. You know how he used it? Well, let’s just say Tielma was not happy about where she found her daughter, her daughter’s friends, Feldir, and half a dozen of his mates. I can’t imagine how it must have been. Obviously she saw nothing, but the sounds…”
He shuddered. Ilvriss stared at him and then he laughed. Tasilt stared at him. His lips quirked, and his tail swayed on the warm stone tiles.
“Don’t laugh! It was a disaster!”
“I’m sorry. But that really is a story that would only come from you, Tasilt.”
Ilvriss chuckled, shaking his head. He looked at his old friend.
“By all means, bring over your family next week, Tasilt. I’ll send the invitation. I should like to meet Feldir and the others. He sounds like a spitting image of you at your age.”
The other Wall Lord blinked. Then he grinned ruefully.
“Ancestors, I hope not! Otherwise he’ll be…”
He paused and then suddenly frowned.
“Damn it. He has been asking for more money. If he’s at those…I’d better send a Runner down to The Scarlet Tail and inquire tactfully…no, better if I go myself. Dead gods. I can’t have grandchildren running around yet! Well, Ancestors. I have to run. Ilvriss, this was a pleasure.”
He turned and held out a claw. Ilvriss took it, smiling.
“I quite enjoyed it, Tasilt. And we must talk later.”
“Oh, I’ll look forwards to it.”
Tasilt smiled, genuinely pleased. Then he adjusted his clothes a final time, walked out of the balcony and down the walkway across Salazar. Ilvriss watched him go. Then he turned and went inside.
The private sitting room wasn’t too messy. Not as if, say, Tasilt’s rebellious Gnoll son, Feldir and his friends had been drinking late here. It was mainly just empty cups and bottles. Ilvriss walked around them and sat in a chair by the fireplace. He rubbed at his temples. Now he was feeling tired. He’d need a stamina potion to function today as well. Absently, Ilvriss reached for something to drink and came up with a nearly empty bottle of fine wine. He stared at it, and then, carefully, put the bottle down.
Ilvriss left the sitting room and found one of his family’s staff waiting for him in the hall. The old Drake looked expectantly at him.
“I’m in need of some water. And a stamina potion.”
“I’ll have it to you at once, Wall Lord.”
Salisa nodded. The Wall Lord nodded and retired to the study. After a minute, a Drake returned with some water and a shot of a strong stamina potion in a glass. He took both and let them begin cleaning the room. The water and potion cleared his mind and Ilvriss sat back.
He felt guilty about drinking. But it had served its purpose and now he was back to non-alcoholic beverages again, just like in Liscor after…
Lost in thought, Ilvriss glanced up and saw Saliss returning. He looked up and she nodded towards the door. She wasn’t a servant, was she? But what else could you call her? She’d been employed by his family just like her father and mother for generations. But she wasn’t a ‘servant’. But that was just splitting hairs.
He hated thinking like this. But he couldn’t stop it. Ilvriss stood up and Saliss paused. She didn’t bow or curtsy or whatever Human servants did, but the rest of it was the same.
“Wall Lord. Wardmistress Geyasa awaits you in the dawn study.”
“I’ll see her at once. Thank you, Salisa.”
Ilvriss nodded. And then he strode towards the study facing the northeast. It was already illuminated by the rising sun, and Ilvriss saw that the waiting [Mage] was well attended to. She rose from a small meal and dabbed at her mouth.
“Wall Lord Ilvriss. Thank you for making time for me. I hope I’m not intruding?”
“Not at all, Wardmistress Geyasa. I just saw the last of my guests off today. May I ask how your work has gone?”
The Drake inclined her head.
“My team and I have swept your mansion and your properties, Wall Lord. We did uncover a few minor spells, but nothing of note. Nothing in your estate—your wards held.”
Ilvriss sighed, affecting relief. Internally he was skeptical, but the Drake standing in front of him was one of the best in all of Izril at her job. He nodded.
“Thank you for your understanding, Wardmistress, as well as the need for discretion and haste.”
The [Wardmistress] bowed her head slightly.
“Of course, Wall Lord. Rest assured, my team was thorough. Your friend’s impetuousness has thankfully not cost the security of your estate as far as we can discern. Nevertheless, we have updated all the wards and installed a more powerful enchantment at your request. Even an Archmage of Wistram would have great difficulty cracking these wards, and the enchantments I have installed will alert me the moment they are broken.”
She looked somewhat disapproving. Not at Ilvriss, but at his friend, the one who had been behind the drastic need for her arrival to begin with. She glanced at Ilvriss.
“Do you by any chance still have the offending object, Wall Lord? I could attempt to trace who placed the spying spell, or my colleagues at Fissival could undertake the task.”
Ilvriss smiled ruefully.
“I regret to say I disposed of it as soon as I was aware that it was at fault. Rest assured, I’ve informed Wall Lord Brilm of his mistake. It will not happen again.”
“Only prudent, Wall Lord.”
Wardmistress Geyasa nodded understandingly. Ilvriss felt a pang of guilt as she flashed a glare out of his study window, as if trying to find the culprit.
My apologies, Brilm.
His friend’s indiscretions were well known. No one who heard the tale would doubt that Brilm had inadvertently brought an object enchanted with some spying spell into Ilvriss’ home after being duped. And if Brilm himself heard the tale, he might well believe it himself. It had happened before. Thinking of that, Ilvriss went to his bag of holding and pulled out an apple-sized object and held it out to Geyasa.
“Would you check this bauble? A recording spell on quartz unless I miss my guess. Simple, but I would like to be certain.”
“It would be no issue. One moment.”
The Drake took the quartz sound recording and turned it over. Ilvriss waited, and she nodded after half a minute.
“It seems perfectly fine. The complexity of the sound contained within is somewhat above average, but for a conversation in numerous parts or music, I would expect it to be. Will there be anything else?”
“Nothing. You have my sincerest gratitude.”
Ilvriss nodded and Geyasa bowed.
“Our pleasure, Wall Lord. On behalf of Fissival’s Scholarium, we thank you for choosing our institution above all others.”
She smiled a bit smugly. Ilvriss smiled too, nodded, and forbade mentioning that she was the second [Mage] he’d hired to inspect his home.
“Only naturally. Drakes must work with other Drakes. Please tender my regards to Fissival’s Three when you return. May I offer you an escort…?”
“I will politely decline, Wall Lord. If you would be so good, though? My team’s equipment is somewhat cumbersome and affects our bags of holding as well as teleportation…”
“I will have it returned to Fissival at all haste.”
Ilvriss reassured the [Mage]. She nodded and excused herself. He made a note to send a gratuity fee; she had travelled through the night and it must have been a chore to transport the magical objects via wagon and not the customary methods.
Geyasa was of the nearest Walled City to Salazsar, the City of Magic, Fissival. It was known for its [Mage] presence, and the academy that had once rivaled Wistram in power. The City of Magic possessed its own unique traits as well, among them, well, teleportation.
There had been a reason why Ilvriss hadn’t been dying to get his hands on Erin Solstice’s door. It was valuable, but hardly unique. The world over, [Mages] could teleport small objects long-distance. It was larger objects across increasingly distant spans that posed the real problem. But some magical artifacts and technologies still existed.
Fissival’s teleportation network exceeded the magical door in Erin’s inn by several magnitudes. And yet, it was incredibly limited at the same time. They could move a thousand ton’s worth of goods in a day if need be, and regularly did between the cities linked to Fissival.
On the other hand, no one dared use the grid for transporting people anymore. There had been…incidents. And one in forty thousand deliveries went astray. Sometimes in a minor or amusing way. Sometimes never to be seen again. There was a reason only cheap, expendable goods were ever risked these days.
The past glories weighed on Ilvriss whenever he walked the towers of Salazar and saw what had passed before. And when he strode through his own home. He stood in the dawn study when Geyasa had left. It was only then that he realized she hadn’t finished the meal she’d been brought. Absently, he left the study and told Salisa it was there.
“Inquire if Wardmistress Geyasa or her team require refreshments before they leave. I will be in my personal study.”
It was a mark of how rich Ilvriss was that he had a personal study, as well as multiple other ones in case he wanted a change of pace. He retired to his room and sat in the chair, its rich fabric worn from years of use. But the wood was still beautiful. And there the Wall Lord reached into his pocket and pulled out the piece of quartz. The contained music. And he put it on the desk and tapped it once.
There was music. Ilvriss listened to a young woman singing. The first song made him frown. But he listened to it. There wasn’t an option to skip. The second song made him pause. Ilvriss listened, frowning. Because the music struck him more than the first time he had heard it. This time, he focused on one part of the song and realized something.
“That instrument. What is it?”
He had never heard a piano before. And he had no idea what it was. But then, the third song contained on the crystal began to play. And Ilvriss settled back, listening to it.
The music was by the ‘Queen of Pop’, the Singer of Terandria. The rising sensation of the continent, apparently. Ilvriss wasn’t sure who she was, but Brilm had bought a number of these…recordings of her music. And he had gifted one to Ilvriss after realizing how fond the Wall Lord was of this particular song.
Now Ilvriss listened. It was a song he’d played countless times already. He understood the author was…what was the name, again? Definitely Human. Ah, yes.
Frank Sinatra. And the song was called ‘My Way’. Ilvriss, listening to it, was sure at last of one thing. It was no song that had ever been made in this era. Perhaps in one long past, now rediscovered. Or…
Part of Ilvriss just wanted to listen. But hearing it again, he couldn’t help but wonder. That was the thing. Ilvriss was a Wall Lord. He had been educated in swordplay, tactics, knowledge of economy, warfare—a hundred different aspects of life. And one of those things he had picked up was music.
He understood music, even if certain styles didn’t appeal to him. And the composition of the music, the style, it was all unique in a way that shook him.
The song could not exist, in a way. That wasn’t how music worked. Yes, a culture could produce something like this. But Ilvriss would expect to see experimental pieces that began the process of understanding the medium before such a polished piece appeared. But this was finished. Perfect.
The young woman’s voice that echoed in his sitting room understood the song she was covering. She understood the emotion. It was impossible that he, let alone Tasilt, had not heard this kind of music before.
So where had it come from? Not Terandria’s halls. And not any other continent Ilvriss could name. A magical experimenter, a [Songwriter] or [Singer] of surpassing talent? This Sinatra…but no.
Ilvriss thought of Erin Solstice. And he felt certain there was a connection. But it slipped away from him. Some…leap of logic that Ilvriss couldn’t make.
He didn’t have wings. It didn’t matter. The Drake leaned back and listened. He still had time before he had to work. And the music flowed on. Ilvriss listened, in the privacy of his room. And when the music was done, he tapped the crystal again and it replayed the music obligingly. A song he didn’t care for, one he didn’t mind. And the song that spoke to him.
The fourth time he was playing the music, the door opened. Ilvriss sat up, opening his mouth furiously. But then he saw who was slowly walking in and sat back. And the old Drake, his scales grey, his steps slow, walked forwards. As if the music had summoned him. He looked around, and then focused on the music crystal. And when the music had stopped, he looked at Ilvriss. The Wall Lord stood up.
“Father. Is something wrong?”
Wall Lord Zail looked at his son for a moment. And then he saw the chair that Ilvriss was placing in front of his desk. Zail sat down slowly.
“No. No. Ilvriss. I was wondering—what was that song?”
“Music, father. From Terandria.”
“Really? It’s changed a lot since when I was younger. Better. Not all those flutes and…better.”
Zail sat back, murmuring to himself. He was very old. Drakes didn’t live past seventy or eighty years on average. Well, most who lived or battled monsters died far earlier. But most Drakes wouldn’t reach past those years. Still, with magic, one could live far longer. As long as a hundred and twenty years. Ilvriss had heard of Drakes reaching a hundred and forty, albeit by consuming numerous potions and using artifacts. But his father was simply eighty three. And tired. He sat in the chair, looking aimless. Blank.
“Father. Is something wrong? Have you lost something? Salisa can help you find it. Are you hungry?”
“I’m not hungry. I’m bored. There’s nothing for me to do. That damn Gnoll is managing everything and since I retired, there’s nothing to…do. Just read, pay social calls—and visit my son. When he returns from his jaunts abroad.”
The old Drake snapped back. Ilvriss sighed. So it was a social call. Zail must have slipped his attendants. They were probably worried, but an old Drake still kept all his levels and Skills.
It wasn’t too hard for his father to manage either. His quarters were right above Ilvriss’. The peak of the tower, as they always had been. Now he looked, well, confused.
“Where did you go this time? There was a mess with the Trisstal Alliance. Was that it? Someone mentioned…a Goblin?”
He looked worried for a moment. Ilvriss delicately avoided the subject.
“My duties take me far from home, father. I was in Liscor among other places. I visited Pallass—”
“Whatever brought you there?”
Zail looked affronted. Ilvriss sighed again. But he explained.
“It was unavoidable. I had to return by way of Liscor.”
“Oh. Its summer, isn’t it?”
“Yes. It is.”
Zail nodded a few times. He looked at Ilvriss and paused.
“There’s little for me to do these days. Boredom is worse than taking a lightning bolt to the chest. Your mother, now, she keeps herself busy. I should have done that. Never should have quit managing the mines. They’re in good shape?“
“Yes, father. As well as they ever have been. Would you like to see the reports…?”
Better than they ever had, actually. Zail shook his head. He looked at Ilvriss. And then he was lost again.
His son waited. He could see the scar on Zail’s chest, past his loose robes where he had been struck by lightning. And—a slight indentation along the Drake’s scull. The scales were almost gone there. Wall Lord Zail had sacrificed much for the city he loved. At last, Zail looked around.
“I came to ask you something. What was it? My…my tower. Is it finished?”
Ilvriss exhaled slowly.
“Yes. A decade past—”
He caught himself. Nodded slowly.
“Yes, father. Would you like to see it?”
The old Drake nodded. Slowly, he got up. Ilvriss escorted him out of the study. Back to the room he had spoken to Geyasa in. He waved away Salisa and the anxious Drakes who hurried towards him. Zail caught his breath as he stepped towards the window. He looked at the newest tower, one that Gemscale funds had helped build. Ilvriss watched, his eyes on Zail’s face. Once, the Drake had been taller. A towering presence. Zail murmured softly.
“Oh. Oh, it is beautiful. When I die, my ashes should be scattered from the tower. That’s the way of it, you know.”
Zail paused. Then he turned his head. Ilvriss was expecting him to ask for his promise again. But the old Drake frowned. His eyes focused on Ilvriss’ hand.
“I heard you gave your ring away. You did. Who are you marrying?”
Ilvriss jumped. Reflexively, he covered his claw, but Zail had seen its absence. The old Drake straightened, looking more awake suddenly.
“I do hear about it. The ring’s gone. So. Who is it? Some Gnoll? That’s what my people tell me. Or a Human? Some…Pallass? Dullahan? Garuda? Tell me if it’s going to happen. I might as well know now.”
“None of those! I’m not marrying, father!”
Ilvriss snapped. This was the last thing he’d expected his father to pester him about! His sister, perhaps! But those damn rumors—it didn’t help that he’d spread this one himself! He growled.
“It’s not a sign of marriage. You know that.”
“I know exactly what that ring means. I gave it to you. Trust. Who do you trust enough to give that ring away?”
Wall Lord Zail snapped back. Ilvriss sighed. He felt the ring’s absence. But he didn’t need it. And he had…he paused.
“I gave it to someone who did me a great service. Who…is unique. In her own way. Who may need it more than I. It was a gesture of respect.”
“Father! It’s none of your concern.”
Ilvriss glared at the old Drake. Zail walked around him. He looked at Ilvriss, looking him up and down as he had a thousand times before.
“They say you left your duty to play in a border city for months. Or that you lost your head. Chased someone and lost your ring. Tell me that’s not true.”
“It’s not true.”
Ilvriss held his gaze. Zail’s eyes narrowed.
“So you didn’t flee the Goblin Lord out of cowardice? You haven’t lost your way? General Shivertail died. You were there. Where were you?”
“I didn’t think he would die. I thought he would live.”
Ilvriss gritted his teeth. Zail shook his head.
“I don’t believe you. Tell me. Say it. Swear it.”
He twisted a ring. Truth spell. Ilvriss gritted his teeth. He was angry. Zail could rally that emotion in him. The two Drakes stalked each other in a slow circle, tails lashing the carpet. Ilvriss’ voice was low.
“I am a Lord of the Wall and a son of Salazsar. The walls of my city be my oath; my loyalty has never wavered! For Salazsar, I would bleed every drop of my blood dry! The walls stand!”
The stone glowed blue. Zail saw its light. Slowly, he relaxed. His voice echoed Ilvriss’, a shout.
“The walls stand! Forevermore.”
Then it was done. He slowly relaxed and looked around. He noticed the platter and wandered over to it.
“Breakfast. Hm. Looks good. Proper meat, not what they feed me up there. Damn [Healers] and their prescribed nonsense.”
He began plucking bits of meat off the tray. Ilvriss sighed. Wall Lord Zail loved testing him.
“Father. The [Healers] recommend their diet for your health.”
“Hah! They want me to live forever.”
Zail glanced back at his son and shook his head. He chewed as Ilvriss rubbed at his temples. He was going to be late for his meeting. He was looking at the door when Zail spoke up.
“Ilvriss. When will you bring a wife worthy of our line? There must be one, in all the cities.”
Ilvriss froze. He turned, his hand on the door to the study. And he wavered. But the truth stone was still shining on Zail’s claw. So he turned. And his back was straight. He looked past Zail, at the rising sun.
“There was, father. But I couldn’t even bury her.”
Wall Lord Zail stopped chewing. His head rose. He looked back at Ilvriss. And his expression changed.
“Did you avenge her?”
Ilvriss strode out of the room. He nodded to Salisa, waved away the apologies of Zail’s minders.
“Get me Captain Shieldscale.”
He strode towards his personal study, leaving his father behind. The sound stone went into Ilvriss’ bag of holding. He had work to do.
“Captain Asrira Shieldscale reporting, Wall Lord Ilvriss!”
The Drake with bright, almost unnaturally blue scales stopped in the center of Ilvriss’ study and saluted. The Wall Lord glanced up from the piece of paper he was writing on.
“Salisa, we’re not to be disturbed. Even by my father.”
“Yes, Wall Lord.”
The Drake [Housekeeper] nodded and shut the door. Ilvriss stood up.
“Lock it, Captain Shieldscale. Magical lock on the top.”
The Drake did so. She was an Oldblood Drake, a True Oldblood. That meant she could fly and spit acid. She locked the door, turning the key in the lock. And then the second key in the glowing lock. She heard a faint buzz of sound, just below the level of hearing.
“We’re secure, sir.”
“Good. Take a seat, Captain Blackwing.”
The Drake turned. And Asrira Shieldscale was suddenly Osthia Blackwing, [Captain] in service to Pallass’ army. Niece of the late Thrissiam Blackwing, famed [General] of Pallass. She had yellow scales underneath the dye Ilvriss had provided her. And she had been captive of the Goblin Lord, Reiss, before escaping during the hour of his death. She sat down in the chair and Wall Lord Ilvriss sat opposite her.
“I trust you’ve acclimated to Salazsar, Captain Osthia?”
“Yes, Wall Lord. It’s been exceedingly pleasant. I have nothing to want for here. I’m equally gratified for the lodgings in your personal estate.”
Osthia replied awkwardly. She was still in awe of Ilvriss. He was a Wall Lord, the nobility of the Drakes! Normally he’d command an army or huge division and she’d be far below his rank. But circumstances had thrown them together. For one thing, he and she both knew one thing that put them both in danger.
Az’kerash, the Necromancer, was alive. Osthia had seen him take over his minion, the Goblin Lord, Reiss. Ilvriss had learned from Zel Shivertail and Ryoka Griffin that Az’kerash was alive. The Necromancer had killed his soldiers, including his love, Periss, during a battle thanks to the inadvertent interference of Ryoka Griffin.
Ilvriss had found Osthia as she escaped the Goblin Lord, caught her before she could warn the Walled Cities. He had persuaded her to stay silent, to adopt a disguise and return with him to Salazsar. Osthia still wasn’t sure if she should have refused and spread word Az’kerash was alive. But here she was.
“It’s the least I can do. You are being awarded the lesser guest quarters, as befits my bodyguard. If it’s uncomfortable in any way…”
“Not at all, Wall Lord. The staff and Miss Salisa are exceedingly polite. But with respect, that isn’t a high concern of mine. The…”
Osthia glanced towards the doors. Ilvriss waved a claw.
“We’re clear. The wards have been reinforced and checked. Twice. Speak freely.”
Osthia nodded and relaxed.
“The Necromancer is my only worry, Wall Lord. I could sleep on rocks so long as it meant doing something. With respect, I’d like to know your plan of action. It’s been weeks.”
“It has. And I appreciate your forbearance, Captain Blackwing. But as I stated, I had to be sure. I’ve completed my deception as well as I can. As far as the city knows, I’ve finally returned home and embraced my former lifestyle. Banquets, socialization—and so forth. In that time, I’ve also ensured my home is not under any surveillance, physical or otherwise. That includes you.”
The [Captain] nodded, appreciatively. She’d been terrified to even say the word ‘necromancer’ lest Az’kerash catch on that she was alive. Ilvriss hadn’t even used her real name until this moment.
“We’re secure, then. But what is the plan, sir? Alert the ruling bodies of the Walled Cities? Rally an army and march on the Necromancer?”
Osthia was practically vibrating with the desire for vengeance. She remembered the Necromancer’s voice, the moment before he had conjured an army of undead to slay her uncle’s army to the last Drake and Gnoll. All but for her. She would personally lead the charge on his lair, even if it meant her death.
But Wall Lord Ilvriss just shook his head. He sat back in his chair and tapped his claws together.
“I’ve given the matter much thought, Captain Blackwing. And I’ve come to three conclusions. Hear me out before you reply.”
He raised one claw. Osthia sat back, listening. He was a Wall Lord, but she’d had poor [Commanders]. What had convinced her to listen was the fact that Ilvriss had a reputation for sharpness, even if he had been traditionally opposed to Pallass back when they’d both been part of their Walled Cities.
“Firstly, I am certain of this: Az’kerash, the Necromancer, the foe who brought war to Liscor and sent his armies ravaging south of Izril. That monster who plagued us during the Second Antinium War until he was brought death by Zel Shivertail. Is. Alive.”
Osthia nodded and clenched her claws into fists. There was no doubting it. He had made a puppet of the Goblin Lord, Reiss. He had turned a Goblin into a Goblin Lord as an experiment. She shuddered. Ilvriss went on.
“The second thing I know is this. He is as great a threat in his own way as the Antinium.”
This time, Osthia blinked.
Ilvriss stood up and walked over to a set of books in a shelf at the far side of the room. Few people could own a library, but Ilvriss had that, and extra copies for his study. He plucked a book from the shelves and tossed it at Osthia. She caught it and read the title: The Antinium Wars (Pt. 2), by Krsysl Wordsmith. She didn’t open it; it was standard reading in the academy. Ilvriss nodded at it.
“If one reads the history of Az’kerash only as it pertains to his end during the Second Antinium War, he was a lesser force. Between the Antinium and the Goblins, his presence was most keenly felt around Liscor. While his undead hordes did strike into the heart of Izril, they were but one of the plagues that assailed us. By that standard, he might be seen as weak. However, the opposite is true.”
Another book. This one—Necromancy, Its Rise and Fall, by Sir Hilten, [Autumn Knight] of the Order of Seasons. She hadn’t read it. Ilvriss went on.
“The history Drakes aren’t taught is Az’kerash’s legacy before he fell. Once, he was an Archmage of Terandria, a contemporary of Archmage Zelkyr, even. After he was deemed a monster and hunted, he turned on his homeland. For over a century he plagued Terandria and despite the best efforts of the [Knights], kingdoms, and other forces present on the continent, he escaped them every time. One could argue that he in fact won each conflict because no matter how many times his undead minions were slain and he was forced to flee, he himself was always alive, and came back stronger after biding his time.”
Osthia had found some books on Az’kerash, but she resolved to read this one as soon as possible. Ilvriss nodded and sat back down.
“So, my conclusion. Where the Antinium and even Goblins had their King and Goblin Lords, and the Antinium their Prognugators and Hives, Az’kerash is a force of one. And in that sense, he is most certainly far above the level of most beings on this planet. He may be the highest-level threat to Izril at this moment. And a handful of people know that he still lives.”
Osthia felt a chill. She got what Ilvriss was saying at. They had no idea about Az’kerash’s levels. In fact, he might have leveled up since the Second Antinium Wars. No—he surely had.
He’d killed Zel Shivertail, the same Drake who’d killed him during the first war. Who would stop him now? Osthia? Ilvriss? The Wall Lord saw Osthia’s pale face and nodded.
“We could stop him. But it would take an army. And the third thing I know is that Az’kerash is not alone. He has minions. Thinking, capable beings that can use magic to disguise themselves and walk among us. Worse still, there are traitors within Drake ranks. Highly-placed traitors at that.”
That was even more chilling than Ilvriss’ last statement. Osthia looked up, her claws sweaty.
Ilvriss nodded darkly. He reached for the papers on the desk and pulled a file out. It wasn’t large, but it was…Osthia blinked. A report on a Named Adventurer? She read as Ilvriss talked.
“Regrika Blackpaw. A Named Adventurer who was a minion of Az’kerash. I fought her and her escort. I did not witness…what…she was, but I put together the clues afterwards. Zel Shivertail informed me that she was sent after the runner, Ryoka Griffin, to silence her after she met the Necromancer.”
“I can’t believe it.”
Osthia stared at the hand-drawn illustration of the Gnoll. She glanced up.
“Was it an undead?”
“That, or some other puppet. The very fact she was able to use that cover means someone falsified documents certifying her rank, created the illusion of her accomplishments or at the very least, her origin. It may be a Guildmaster of the Adventurer’s Guild aided the Necromancer. Or someone of higher rank.”
Ilvriss drummed his claws on the table. He went on. He had another piece of paper, a list. He was so…organized. And the fact that he could find the information? Terrifying. The Wall Lord pointed down at the next list. Names. Dates. Levels.
“In many cities that Regrika visited, high-profile Drakes met with accidents, before or after their visit. [Mages]. Retired adventurers. [Scholars]. More. How many Drakes have been killed and their deaths disguised as accidents by his minions? How many of them are there? How many traitors does he command?”
Osthia could only shake her head. This was far deeper than she’d thought. Now she understood why Ilvriss had held her back.
“So we might be sabotaged by our own ranks? By fellow Drakes? It’s unbelievable. But if—Wall Lord, if we assail him, we’ll see who they are, surely. If we reveal Az’kerash lives, we can assail him; no one would deny that!”
Ilvriss was just shaking his head.
“I considered that, Captain. But I believe that it would be too dangerous to risk.”
Ilvriss sighed. He placed two lists of names in front of Osthia. One was short. It held her name, his, and a handful of others. All of them were Ilvriss’ personal staff, the ones that had accompanied him back from Liscor. Ilvriss tapped it with one claw.
“This is a list of people I regard as trustworthy beyond doubt. They alone are not puppets of Az’kerash, willingly or unwillingly. I hope to add to it from this list.”
The second list had names Osthia knew. Big names. Like the Dragonspeaker of Manus, Luciva Skybreath. Ilvriss nodded.
“This is a list of people I wish to alert by any means necessary if we can be sure they are true. I would have their aid in defeating the Necromancer because they possess some means of opposing him. But until I am sure, sure that they are not under the Necromancer’s control or one of his puppets in disguise, I will treat all of the names on this list as possible enemies that might turn on us if the Necromancer’s hand is forced.”
“But you don’t have anyone on the first list. Not even your fellow Wall Lords? Your family?”
Osthia was shocked. Ilvriss just looked at her.
“I do not trust my father, Captain Blackwing. There is no one I can be certain of. No one besides you, Zel Shivertail, and the young woman named Ryoka Griffin. And by now she may be compromised herself. I don’t believe you understand just how dangerous Az’kerash is.”
“I saw him wipe out an army—”
The Oldblood Drake protested hotly. Ilvriss held up a claw.
“I am not talking about his military abilities. I am talking about his ability to make puppets out of corpses as real as if they were alive. He has done so in the past. In Terandria, a [General] might be leading an army against Az’kerash only to make disastrous move after move. He would lose the battle, damning his troops and then return back in disgrace. And then lead a second army again and fail. And then, as he stood before his [King] in disgrace, reveal himself as an undead and assassinate the ruler and everyone else in the room.”
Osthia paled. Ilvriss went on.
“That has happened twice. In another case, the Necromancer replaced a sitting monarch and her family with puppets. And he manipulated one of his puppets into ousting the fake [Queen] as undead simply to continue the ruse. If we go to war, we may find our allies committing blunders, sabotaging our ranks. We cannot allow that.”
Ilvriss stood up and paced back and forth, restlessly.
“Az’kerash is a difficult enemy to face openly. We have no idea what his grand plan is. We may extrapolate, but the Necromancer’s motives—besides the obvious—are unknown to us. We know where he is vaguely, but we cannot move on him without alerting him that we are aware of him. We cannot alert the Drake cities without risking the same. And if it comes to war, we may well lose even without interference by traitors.”
“You mean…the Antinium?”
“The Antinium are the second threat. The Humans, third. If it were just Az’kerash, I would call on the Walled Cities to eradicate him and his plague once and for all. But should we try it with the Antinium at our backs, we might fight a war on two fronts, or even three if those damned Humans decide to take advantage of the situation. And we nearly lost a war against the Antinium the first time. No. We do not take that risk.”
“Then what can we do? We need to fight the [Necromancer] covertly? Or—no, create a force that can ambush him, take him by surprise. That’s what must be done. But who? Who can be trusted?”
The Oldblood [Captain] felt sick. How could they be certain their ranks wouldn’t be infiltrated? The task was daunting. Too much! But she saw Ilvriss smile grimly.
“Captain Blackwing. You have a Lord of the Wall on your side. I am not without my means. I’ve merely educated you on the reality of the issue as I see it. Now, here are some of my solutions.”
He returned to the desk and pulled out an object. Osthia stared at it. It was a hand mirror, inlaid with pearl and silver. Ilvriss regarded it and shook his head.
“During the investigation of a murder of a Gnoll in Liscor, Regrika Blackpaw was asked, under truth spell, whether she had committed the murder. Somehow, she fooled the spell.”
He waved the mirror at Osthia.
“This is a dreadfully gauche Mirror of True Seeing. See how many pearls are inlaid in..? Never mind. [True Seeing] is a Tier 6 spell capable of seeing through all but Tier 8 magics, and even they begin to fail in its presence. Az’kerash may be able to fool its power, but if he can, he should have been able to break Liscor in half rather than waste time assailing its walls. He is a [Necromancer]; he is not specialized in magics outside of his field. So we can regard this mirror as accurate.”
He held it up and Osthia saw it flash as he lifted a claw. Any number of complex auras were surrounding the magical rings on his fingers and she saw he was wearing an amulet or something in his clothing. His sword was enchanted too—by contrast, Osthia only had a faint aura about her. Ilvriss nodded.
The next item he pulled out he regarded with almost as much distaste. Osthia recognized it as similar to a crown, only lacking the rigid structure in parts.
“This is a Diadem of Inner Thoughts. Note the hanging jewels? It is the precursor to modern truth stones. They only reflect duplicity. Each stone on this diadem reflects a different state of mind.”
“Inner Thoughts? But what’s the point of wearing something that reveals how you yourself are thinking?”
Osthia was confused. Ilvriss looked a bit embarrassed.
“In times past, it was considered to be an essential tool of monarchs. Such that nobility wore it as well; to prove their actions were beyond repute. That fad went about as well as one might expect. Now, this is how we will test people. Put it on and hold the mirror up.”
He held out the diadem to Osthia. She dutifully put it on and saw the jewels lighting up. She couldn’t see all of them, but then she picked up the mirror and saw the enchantment around the diadem. And herself.
“That aura. Is it…?”
“Ah. That represents your natural aura. It seems legitimate. Oldblood Drakes have more magic about them. But the real test is if a spell activates when you try to lie, as well as the diadem’s reaction. Captain Osthia. Please state that you are not under the Necromancer’s control or working for him or anyone else in any way.”
Bemused, Osthia turned her head.
“Anyone else? But—”
She heard the sound of metal rasping in its sheath. She twisted—and held very still as a bitingly cold blade’s edge lay against the side of her neck. Ilvriss stared at her, quite calmly.
Osthia did. Ilvriss waited, stared at the diadem, and lowered his sword.
“You were serious about that. What if I’d been an agent of someone else?”
Osthia felt at the cold cut along her neck. Ilvriss shrugged fractionally as he sheathed his blade.
“I told you. I trust no one.”
The [Captain] thought about this. Then she offered the diadem and mirror to Ilvriss.
“Well then. Your turn.”
He blinked. But then he put on the diadem and raised the mirror. Osthia walked around him so she could see it and see the gems glow as he replied. They were the same colors, more or less, that had glowed when she’d spoken.
Both she and Ilvriss relaxed. They’d been sure, but the test made both feel better. Ilvriss went back to sitting down at the table. Osthia picked up the mirror and played with it.
“So, what’s the next step? Test everyone in your employ, and then the city? One by one?”
Ilvriss looked amused.
“If it were that easy…tell me, what do you think would happen if we discovered they were the Necromancer’s allies?”
“Kill them? Or interrogate them, keep them captive I suppose.”
Osthia didn’t blink. Ilvriss raised one brow.
“And then? What would Az’kerash do? When his minion failed to report in or suffered an ‘accident’?”
“Ah. Then what’s our next move? Wait…we…only test who we can.”
Osthia was getting the hang of this. Ilvriss nodded, smiling.
“And we adopt his strategy unto them. A few accidents would not rouse the Necromancer’s suspicion if it seems innocuous. Our goal is to reveal his minions and create a group we are certain of while avoiding alerting him.”
“But how can it be done?”
The complexity of the task was maddening Osthia. She was no [Infiltrator], no [Spy]! Ilvriss sighed.
“Simple. We engineer scenarios where the people we want to test are in the same room as us for reasons the Necromancer would believe are completely genuine. And there will be a reason for us to approach such people completely covertly. A reason that Az’kerash will accept as completely legitimate. This is for you. I intend to circulate it among my peers first; if there are any spies for other Walled Cities or Az’kerash, he will surely see it.”
Ilvriss passed a document to Osthia. She stared down at the neat handwriting, and his personal seal. And then she understood. She looked up and Ilvriss smiled at her. The Wall Lord tapped the copy in front of him.
“This is the secret force you and I are going to begin building, Captain Blackwing. I’m appointing you as its head. We’ll be securing allies, making deals with other Walled Cities—it will require travel, secrecy, and diplomacy. It may incur danger of its own. And any number of Drakes and Gnolls are going to learn of its existence. And it’s purpose will be…”
Osthia read from the page.
“A private army designed to destroy the Antinium. High-level [Soldiers], magical artifacts on par with a Gold-rank adventurer’s gear or better. Special forces from every Walled City…”
She looked up and inhaled. Ilvriss sat back.
“Exactly. This is how we fool Az’kerash, Captain Blackwing. A plan within a plan. Both are needed. The Antinium are a threat. Az’kerash is a threat. This way, we create a group capable of fighting both. People in my position, who are capable of fighting, leading, or financing actions as needed. High-level individuals. An elite strike force.”
“The same tactics that General Sserys used to fight the Antinium during the first Antinium War.”
“Undead are similar to Antinium. And an individual like Az’kerash will slaughter regular [Soldiers]. What do you think? If you have any objections, Captain Blackwing, I would like you to voice them now.”
Ilvriss waited. Osthia mulled over the document. Her wings fluttered and her breath was tinged with a hint of acrid acid. She looked up and her eyes were burning.
“I’m in. Where do I start?”
The Wall Lord bared his teeth.
“Firstly, I will put this proposition forwards within the week. Carefully. I’ll start with close friends. Gather support. In the meantime, I want you to headhunt Salaszar’s standing forces. I also have a list of individuals you and I are going to approach. But before that? We may be the targets of covert action ourselves. Other factions may see this as me grabbing power. Forming an army. Which I am, of course. So you will be my [Bodyguard] in fiction as well as reality. To that end…let’s pay a visit to my personal armory. I will need to acquire more artifacts, but right now I can equip you at something better than the average Gold-rank standard.”
Osthia inhaled sharply and got up. She was still daunted by the task ahead, but she felt better when she saw the racks of gleaming weapons. And the armor. And magical rings…she walked past them. Ilvriss sighed.
“Not one heirloom-class weapon like the Heartflame Breastplate. We’ll need to acquire that before the final assault. But I have a modest arsenal.”
“Beyond modest, Wall Lord! Do you have a spear with anything anti-magic? Naq-Alrama steel, maybe?”
Osthia looked up hopefully. Ilvriss pursed his lips.
“I could only but wish. I have an Adamantine-tipped spear enchanted with a [Piercing] spell. Will that do?”
“I think so.”
Ilvriss left Osthia to pick out as much gear as she wanted from his armory. He had no fear of her overloading the magical enchantments and causing a reaction; she knew to check for how much magical interference she was generating. But she would be as well-equipped as, well, he was.
The Wall Lord didn’t know Osthia’s complete capabilities, but he estimated that a [Captain] wearing magical items was around the rank of a Gold-rank adventurer. Decent, in short. She’d be a capable [Bodyguard] at least, and Ilvriss would find the best warriors to oppose the Necromancer.
Oh, the very best. Ilvriss returned to his study. He sat down in the familiar chair and leaned back. The first thing he’d do was reach out to one of the names on his list of potential recruits. Pallass had a named Adventurer, and Ilvriss had considered adding Saliss of Lights to his list, but the Drake was, by all accounts, extremely difficult to work with and Ilvriss had no need for anyone who couldn’t be trusted.
Besides, that was Pallass and he was their sole Named Adventurer. One, for an entire Walled City. Salazsar, in its wealth and opulence, had two. Two Named Adventurers, one an individual, one a Named team, which was more than Manus could boast of; there was little work in the City of War for adventurers. And that was different from the the transient groups that came in and out of Zeres’ ports with regularity.
The lone Named Adventurer would join Ilvriss. That wasn’t even a problem; money dictated who Shriekblade worked for. The real issue would be passing Ilvriss’ proposal among his fellow Wall Lords and Ladies. Many would oppose him forming a force to fight the Antinium. They’d see it as needlessly provocative, or even, as he’d told Osthia, a power grab.
But it had to be done. And Ilvriss would gather true allies he could tell about the Necromancer. The Drake stared at the list of names he’d come up with. So few! Even if they formed an army. It would be desperate work, keeping it all secret. Keeping up the charade.
The enormity of the task before him hit him only now. The scale of the opponent he had set himself against. Az’kerash. An immortal monster.
“No, not immortal. He’s only two hundred years old. Only. Hah!”
Ilvriss rubbed at his face, despairing.
“Two hundred years. Half-Elves can live longer. There are some beings in this world far older. Salazsar’s walls are ancient.”
But Az’kerash had been a man. That was what people forgot. He had lived in this world, not apart. Half-Elves in their villages could pass decades unchanging. But a man?
He had lived two and a half times as long as Ilvriss’ father. What level must he be? How could Ilvriss truly fight him? He’d seen how Osthia had paled, despite her own thirst for vengeance. Ilvriss couldn’t help but feel her doubt now. He’d had to reassure her. But he was…afraid.
Ilvriss was afraid of the future. The task ahead. He was tired. As tired as Zail. He thought of how, just a few weeks ago, he had sat in an inn, amid noise, crowds, the rudest Human he’d ever met. And he’d been annoyed there, or amused. Entertained. But it hadn’t been like this.
He wished he had never left that inn. But duty pulled him onwards. Duty. Vengeance. Terribly heavy things.
“A Lord of the Wall is loyal to his city unto death. He does not waver.”
But he was just a Drake. And he did not feel like a Lord of the Wall in that moment. Ilvriss bowed his head. And he sat at his desk and remembered how this had all started.
He was alone.
One last visitor stopped by Ilvriss’ home before he left it. And she changed where he went. Ilvriss had been intending to stop by his office, lower down, and talk to Alrric, his [Administrator]. He’d have to leave the work in Alrric’s hands, and the Gnoll would have to divert funds towards Ilvriss’ project. Alrric wouldn’t be happy, but he could be privy to the lesser secret about the Antinium task force.
However, the Drake with purple scales and long, pants and a fairly casual tunic reminiscent of Human fashion—even if it had been tailored with high-quality material—stopped Ilvriss. He blinked at her.
“Navine. I didn’t expect to see you today. To what do I owe this pleasure.”
Wall Lady Navine Gemscale pointedly glared at Ilvriss. She wasn’t smiling, nor did she seem pleased to greet her sibling. They were nearly of age, although he was the eldest by three years.
“Ilvriss. I’m not here on a social call. I heard you lost your ring.”
“Half the city knows. And I gave it away, not lost it.”
Ilvriss snapped, regretting spreading that rumor. Navine raised her brows.
“Really? You didn’t leave it on Periss’ grave?”
The Wall Lord stopped. He stared at Navine and felt a familiar headache coming on. She looked at him.
“Or was it Shivertail’s? You can’t do that, Ilvriss. Those rings need to stay with the family.”
She raised her own. He bit his tongue.
“I left it on no one’s grave.”
Her brows rose even higher.
“Really? Then you gave it to someone. Female?”
“Does it matter? It was my decision.”
He tried to step around her. Navine stepped over to block him.
“It matters because if you gave it away to some Drake, Gnoll, Human, or whomever you just met because you were trying to forget Periss, I’ll throw you off the tower myself. To stop father from doing it and straining his back. She deserved better.”
Ilvriss’ head jerked around. He stepped towards Navine and poked a claw at her chest.
“Don’t you dare insinuate that I would do that—”
“You didn’t care enough to marry her. Or keep her from getting killed! It was a skirmish between armies, Ilvriss! Who got her? Shivertail? I can’t believe he’d kill her in battle. She’d surrender! The Goblin Lord?”
“Yes. It was an accident. It has nothing—I gave the ring to someone I met. Someone worthy of trust. Not marriage.”
The Drake bristled at his sister. Navine stared at him. There was an accusatory look she always wore around him. And a familiar glower on his face. He tried to force it away.
“Mother would like to see you. I know father wanders in from time to time, but mother would like you to call instead of having to do it herself. You should visit her. You stopped by once when you came back.”
Abruptly, Navine changed the subject. Ilvriss blinked and growled, but she was right. She loved being right.
“I have to visit Alrric today—”
“Then do it after you visit mother. Business can wait.”
Navine pointed to the door. Ilvriss ground his teeth, but he followed her with bad grace.
The reason why it was harder for him to visit his mother at least, not as simple as walking upstairs—was that Helessia Gemscale lived in another tower. It saved her from constantly running into Zail, and that was for the best these days. Navine lived in the same home with her staff, and the two nobles made their way through the entrance in dire silence.
“Mother, Ilvriss has finally decided to come calling. Do you have time to see him?”
Navine called out as she pushed the door open to Helessia’s room. Ilvriss waited until Navine beckoned, and entered the room.
Helessia was sitting upright in her bed, tended to by a Gnoll [Healer]. The old Drake’s bed was a thing of magic—and that wasn’t just hyperbole. To reduce the aches on her bones, it had been fashioned of the softest materials available and could perform any number of functions. Including float. Ilvriss paused as the curtains were moved back by Navine.
He nodded to the old Drake peering up at him. Not without fondness. But he was prepared for a scolding and got it.
“Ilvriss. Where is your ring?”
“He says he gave it to someone trustworthy. Female.”
Navine interjected. Ilvriss glared at her.
“I think this is a private conversation, don’t you?”
“Not at all. But go on.”
Grinding his teeth, Ilvriss leaned forwards. Helessia caught him and kissed him. And he brushed his lips against her cheek.
“You do make me worry, Ilvriss. All that time in Liscor with the Goblin Lord. And then Shivertail’s death. And the Human army. It was a wretched mess.”
“I know, Mother. But as I told you, some of it was unavoidable. But for Shivertail…the rest went as well as I could have hoped.”
His sister snorted softly behind him. Helessia gave her a warning look.
“Tell me about the ring.”
“I gave it to someone I could trust, mother. I don’t wish to say more. You know the rings aren’t crucial.”
Helessia smiled quietly. Sickness had left her thin and pale, despite the [Healer]’s best efforts, but she was still the beauty Ilvriss remembered.
“No. Not crucial. But I would have never thought you would have given it to anyone but Periss. We didn’t discuss it when you visited.”
“I would prefer not to.”
Ilvriss avoided her gaze. Helessia sighed.
“If you insist. But then, tell me what else you are up to? You’ve been enjoying yourself. But I know that look.”
The Wall Lord sighed. He didn’t want to bring this up now. But Helessia would find out through Navine if Ilvriss had his way, and it would distract her from…Periss. So he told her.
“I’m planning to create a force to oppose the Antinium. A proper organization. Arms, equipment, individuals—Named Adventurers and notable figures from all the cities—”
Navine exclaimed. Helessia just frowned.
“Is that necessary? It’s been quiet, Ilvriss. We’ve made so many precautions.”
“I have been to Liscor, mother. They live with the Antinium. I saw Klbkch the Slayer myself. And Xrn. They are plotting something.”
It was the truth. Helessia inhaled and Ilvriss wished he hadn’t said it. He went on, choosing his words carefully, framing an argument anyone could accept.
“The force is necessary. Zel Shivertail’s death has left a hole in our ranks. It’s not enough to trust to our best individuals to rise up in times of crisis. Look at Thrissiam Blackwing, Garusa Weatherfur. Fine [Generals]. If they’d had a few more elite units supporting them, or one or two notable figures, they might have defeated the Goblin Lord themselves. We need organization. Not just against the Antinium. The Human’s aggression as well.”
“So a private army. You want to make one that can beat Humans and Antinium? That sounds like you’re preparing for an attack.”
Navine’s voice was sharp. Ilvriss looked up and glared at her.
“I’m prepared to be attacked. Unless you think the Humans weren’t prepared to take Liscor, Navine?”
“Some of them. Some of them didn’t.”
“And the ones who did are the ones I’m concerned about. I’m not here to argue with you, Navine. I’ll put it before our peers. I’m worried about the Antinium in any case.”
Ilvriss turned back to Helessia. His mother sighed.
“Schemes. Always schemes. You are your father’s son, Ilvriss. You’ve been gone back not one week. Tell me. Have you visited Periss’ grave?”
“I didn’t know one was made. I—we never recovered her body.”
“We held a funeral. You may find her cenotaph in the Gemscale mausoleum.”
The Wall Lord paused.
“You buried her there?”
“Privately. Yes. Do you disagree?”
“No. I…I will try to find the time to visit. But I am busy.”
The Wall Lord half-rose, distracted. Navine’s voice was bitter.
“Did you even shed a tear for her?”
Helessia turned her head. Navine looked away. But both Drakes were looking at Ilvriss. If he was like his father…Ilvriss was dry-eyed now. He paused, and then straightened.
“A Wall Lord weeps not for himself, but holds the walls first. Mother, I do have to go. I will stop by later this week. Perhaps later, when Navine is happily occupied elsewhere.”
He looked pointedly at Navine. She glared at him.
“Let the damn walls crumble to dust. They’re not the most important thing in this world, Ilvriss!”
Helessia saw Ilvriss pause as he bent to give her a farewell kiss. The Wall Lord looked up. But then he slowly bent down and kissed Helessia on the cheek again and stood up.
Ilvriss slowly left the room, not bothering to reply to Navine. Half a year ago he would have stormed away furiously or confronted her. This time? He felt a bit melancholy. What would Navine have done if she’d met Erin? They would have been a better match. Worse, still. It was hard to admit she might have been right about Humans.
“Mother. You saw that too, right?”
Navine turned to Helessia after Ilvriss had left. Her mother sighed and sat up in her bed. She gestured, and the bed slowly sank downwards. Then she sat up.
“I think I will walk, Gersa.”
The Gnoll [Healer] hrmed, but then gently helped Helessia up. The Drake struggled up after a moment and Gersa found her the pillow with the rings on it. Helessia put on one ring, and then another, and straightened. Strength-enhancing rings. Navine watched her mother slowly walk past her, and Helessia’s voice was focused, sharper than her husband’s.
“I saw. He’s changed. Whether it was Periss or this mysterious person he gave the ring to, Ilvriss is much different. Find out who it was, if you can. Someone in Liscor, most likely.”
“It’ll be hard. You know the rings are enchanted not to be noticed.”
“I know. But I want to know just what made Ilvriss change so. He was the spitting image of Zail when he left.”
“Do you think he’s actually concerned about the Antinium? Or is this about the Humans? My truth spells said he was lying about how Periss died, mother. But when he said he wasn’t as worried about the Humans, he was telling the truth. Mostly.”
Helessia paused. She shook her head.
“I don’t know. Either way, it’s still too risky to take him to the meeting in Oteslia. Let’s just hope this Magnolia Reinhart is everything they say she is.”
Navine nodded. She accompanied her mother to the dining room. Some things were secret. And there were Drakes who saw potential in an alliance with the Humans. And Drakes who did not. Even families sometimes were at odds with each other.
Ilvriss knew that. And it had been his life. The complicated web of politics, influence, working to advance his city at the cost of others. That was what he had known. It was why he had gone to war against other Drakes, fought Zel Shivertail. And now he was changed. The Wall Lord didn’t go to visit Alrric. Navine was right, damn her. There were more important things to do.
He descended. Through Salazsar’s towers, down walkways, travelling slowly, greeting people, accepting their welcomes back to the city. Down and down. Salazsar wasn’t all vertical. It had an underground component. Store houses. The ever-reaching mines.
Cemeteries, or rather, mausoleums. But Ilvriss didn’t go down that far. He stopped, a good two-thirds up the social echelons of Salazsar. And he walked a street hundreds of feet over the actual ground, past neat homes that were far smaller than his grand tower. It occurred to him he was empty-handed. But he hadn’t gone before. And if he turned back now, he wouldn’t come back.
So the Drake paused at a door like any other. Like no other. He had never been here; what a scandal. What an outrage. He wished for all of it now. He wished he’d been here with her before. But it was too late. All he knew was the location. He’d memorized it when Perris had told him.
Sometimes he forgot what her voice sounded like. Other nights he thought he could hear it. Ilvriss raised a claw, paused, and knocked softly. He waited there, ignoring the looks on the street.
After a while, a Gnoll opened the door. She stared at Ilvriss and gasped. Ilvriss bowed to her. He had expected a Gnoll. Or a Drake. But he knew there would be one of each.
“Excuse me. Miss Solicia Veldant? Mother of…Periss Veldant? I am—”
“Wall Lord Ilvriss?”
A stunned voice behind him. Ilvriss turned. A shorter Drake was standing behind him, looking dumbfounded. Ilvriss stepped to one side, looking between husband and wife.
“Mister Elkill Veldant? Miss Solicia Veldant? I hope I am not intruding. I—I have been away from Salazsar for quite some time. And on my return…I was hoping to speak to you two.”
The Gnoll looked at her husband. And then at Ilvriss.
“I see. Periss spoke of you. You were leading the army, weren’t you?”
Ilvriss bowed his head.
“I was. I—I regret that I could not bear news of her passing myself. If you would allow me, I would like to speak to you of the events that led to her…death. I am deeply sorry.”
Solicia looked at him. And Elkill cleared his throat, looking at his neighbors staring at the Wall Lord.
“Perhaps inside? Come in, Wall Lord.”
“Of course. Come in, yes?”
Solicia moved out of the doorway. Ilvriss paused as Elkill headed inside, murmuring urgently with his wife. He didn’t know if coming here had been correct. But something—maybe the thought of what a certain Human would have said, or Periss himself—had impelled him. He stared at the open door. And he recalled an old conversation.
“Did you know, Ilvriss? One of your [Lieutenants]—Periss, yes, that’s the one. Her parents are mixed. Gnoll and Drake. What? Of course it doesn’t have anything to do with how she does in the military. But you’re asking how Rhelika and I work? Ask her. She’d know…”
Ilvriss entered the home. And he sat at a small, comfortable couch as he was served some tea. And then into silence he spoke. He forgot the words almost as soon as he said them. But the feeling, the moment, it lasted forever. The faces of the two parents, tearing open a wound so it might heal a bit better. Listening to a confession.
Truth about a relationship. Lies about a death. But truth about pain. About loss. Promises—offers of wealth. Meaningless words mixed in with guilt. Ilvriss didn’t know when he ran out of words. But it was Solicia’s stare, the way Elkill leaned against her that made him just sit there. Waiting.
And all Elkill did in the end was put down his cup, untouched. He looked at his wife. And then at Ilvriss. And he looked at a painting on the far wall. And Ilvriss turned his head and saw her.
“She was special, wasn’t she?”
The quiet question shook Ilvriss. It cracked something. And he bowed his head.
Wall Lords wept not for themselves. So a Drake sat and shed the tears the Wall Lord could not. He wept. But he was not alone in his grief. For a while, Ilvriss put aside the vengeance in his chest. That could come later. He just sat there and remembered who he had loved. The way she laughed.
He missed her.