They called him the Titan of Baleros and not because of his tread. In truth, the man was as impressive, or at least, as short as a mouse. But say that to his face and you’d probably be dead. Say it to his [Soldiers] and they’d kick in your face. Say it to Fraerlings and you’d make an enemy of the whole damn race.
Say it to his students and you’d soon have medical needs. For Niers Astoragon’s tiny boots were those of the greatest [Strategist] in the world. Of that, his students were all agreed. And this is the tale of the question they asked. Two students, a Lizardgirl and a Human who won the right at Daquin, nearly a month past.
“And the results are in! You all had a week to outfit and supply one of my smaller divisions with food, equipment, potions, and whatever intelligence and directions you saw fit! The goal was to march them nearly two hundred miles through swamp terrain upon which they’d make camp for three days before joining an attack on a nearby city! And the results are…”
Niers Astoragon stood on his podium and his class tensed. [Tacticians], [Strategists], even [Commanders] and other classes who used strategy as a tool, were all gathered in his class. It was one of his joint classes and as such, competition was high.
Nerves were even higher. The Titan of Baleros waited, flipping through his page of notes as Perorn Sadiluc, another teacher who led such classes, shifted impatiently behind him. They could not be more different. Perorn, also known as Fleethoof, was a famous [Strategist], almost as famous as Niers Astoragon. But while she spoke in a crisp, no-nonsense tone and never wasted time…
Niers raised a hand and waited for the drumroll to die down. The [Drummers], all Dullahans, filled the lecture hall with sonorous thwooms of sound, probably echoing the heartbeats of his class. Perorn stared at Niers.
“You actually brought [Drummers]? What is wrong with you, Astoragon?”
“Let me have my fun, Perorn. I get old and cranky if I don’t get to do this. Ahem!”
Now there was silence. The [Drummers] packed up and left the room as Niers cleared his throat. He eyed the papers and announced to his students.
“…Of the eighty seven of you in my advanced class that were deemed capable of the challenge, I regret to say that my prized division of fourteen thousand [Soldiers] died, starved to death, got lost, or ran afoul of some malady or issue in their terrain that caused them to delay or miss the battle completely in sixty two percent of the cases!”
A groan ran through the classroom. The Titan cheerfully kicked off the painstakingly written budget reports off his desk. Each student had recorded food bought, supplies paid for, and information added from their own surveillance of the region or [Informants] and so on. Some had hired guides, others, adventuring teams.
It was all a front. None of them had actually bought anything. In truth, they’d gone to an entire town that Niers had painstakingly set up with actual [Merchants], [Informants], and so on, all selling goods that his students had bought with actual gold—but didn’t actually go to this hypothetical army. Still, the challenge had been real, or unreal. Niers bellowed at the class.
“Sixty two percent failure! Am I teaching the next generation of [Commanders] and [Strategists], or the next generation of Goblin-fodder? And don’t let my bright smile fool you; anyone who has failed this lesson will be going on the exact same march with an actual company of [Soldiers], who will take pleasure, great pleasure, in making sure you don’t fail them when you’re actually responsible for their lives!”
A second groan, but louder. Niers looked at his students, savoring their dismay. It was just a bit fun to do this. Even Perorn hid a smile as Niers went on.
“You’ve all gotten arrogant. A bit prideful. You think that you’re the cream of the crop, the best [Strategists] in the world because you’re all at the top of my classes here. Well, this is an actual scenario and most of you failed it. In fact, even the third of you that passed leave much to be desired. You hear that, my starry-eyed little pupils?”
He leaned over the podium and addressed a group of students in the front of the class. They were about…twenty six or so, and instantly, their smug smiles disappeared. Niers looked at his personal class, who were actually able to lay claim to being the best of the best. He practically purred as he looked from suddenly nervous face to face.
“Did you think you all passed, hm? I’m proud to say most of you did. But ah, a fifth of you did not. Shall we start naming names? Anyone care to volunteer to have me read their report out loud? Feshi? Cameral? Yerranola?”
He addressed three students, a Gnoll, a Dullahan, and a Selphid. All three instantly ducked their heads, shaking them furiously. Niers looked about as Perorn shuffled her papers.
“No one? No one at all?”
He was waiting for the inevitable response. And lo and behold, like the sun rising each morning, a huge, furred hand shot up.
“Sir! I volunteer!”
Venaz looked around proudly. Niers raised one eyebrow as his lecture hall erupted into a single, unified sigh.
“Venaz! You seem very confident.”
The Minotaur nodded. He sat up straight, his horns polished, his posture perfect. He met Niers’ eyes without flinching.
“Of course, Professor! I calculated each step of my division’s movements! Food, supplies, guides—all were accounted for! They were prepared for anything.”
He spoke as if there could be no doubt, and there wasn’t. Niers raised one eyebrow.
“And you’re sure?”
Venaz hesitated, then nodded.
“Absolutely, Professor. I’m confident in my own abilities. I will not fall for mind games.”
His bravado was almost infectious. A few of Niers’ students, like the officers who sat apart from the [Strategists], began to look hopeful. Niers smiled. And then, like a spider who has finally ensnared his biggest fly in a web, he pounced.
“Interesting, Venaz. Because, and I’m afraid to say this, your division never made it past the first three days.”
The word erupted from Venaz’ mouth along with a gale of laughter from above. He turned and glared upwards; a group of students were laughing their behinds off. Peki, a young Garuda from Chandrar, Merrik, a Dwarf [War Leader] from Terandria, Kelsa and Romin, two Centaur [Captains], and a group of the students from the officer class were enjoying his dismay. He turned back to Niers, looking furious and embarrassed.
“Professor, that can’t be right! I did the calculations! I’ve led soldiers before! I didn’t err—I must demand to see the math!”
“And you will! My fellow teachers and I have all gone over your budgets—checked and double checked them! We’ll be passing them out—er, someone will have to help unsort the reports I just kicked over—but if any of you have any reservations, you may argue your case!”
Niers waved at some of the other teachers. One of them, a Drake, shot Niers a look as he bent to tidy up the reports. The Fraerling went on, addressing the Minotaur.
“Unfortunately though, in your case, Venaz, the math isn’t even hard. Your company starved to death.”
“What? But I arranged more than enough supplies! I paid that [Merchant]—”
“You paid a fraud, Venaz! He was a [Swindler]! A good one! He ran off with your gold and your company got exactly nothing to march with. To be fair, we gave them thirty miles before starvation set in, but with your foraging order, it wasn’t enough. You get a few points for that, by the way, but your [Soldiers] deserted.”
The Minotaur’s jaw dropped and stayed dropped as Niers rifled through his reports. He fished Venaz’s out and tsked much to the amusement of most in the room. The sharper students were realizing that Venaz’s performance might extend to them.
“A real tragedy. I warned you all! Take this seriously. And you all swanned off to our glorious city to spend the gold you were given—a quarter of you never even managed to spend it all! It was stolen, you gave it to fraudulent [Merchants] or you were tricked into terrible deals with actual ones—a few of you never even made it out of the red-light district! And yes, we have records of it all.”
The class stared at the Titan. He casually flipped through another report. Then he looked up and he was grinning. His students had nightmares about that grin.
“Did you really think being a [Strategist] was about pure logistics? Have I taught all of you nothing? The entire town was bought out! My precious students—you can fight an army and supply it, but how will you do if you can’t manage people?”
“Wait—Professor! You mean everything that happened to us in that hellhole was scripted?”
At last, the students began reacting. Niers grinned. Merrik looked outraged. The Dwarf slammed a fist onto his desk.
“I was mugged in that town!”
“Not fatally. You fought them off, well done. But may I suggest that next time you don’t walk around with all your gold in your bag of holding? Well done on recovering it, though. Don’t worry; the [Thief] whose arm you broke was a Selphid.”
Merrik’s jaw dropped. From below, another student raised her hand and called out.
“They were all actors, Professor?”
Niers smiled at the Lizardgirl who’d spoken up.
“Every last one, Umina. Or rather, they were hired. [Prostitutes], [Merchants], [Thieves]—some of them quite high-level! I’m pleased to say that many of you navigated most of the threats well, but some of you…well, let’s just get to the analysis, shall we? And our first student is…”
Perorn snatched the reports out from under Niers and checked the name at the top of the page.
“Wil Kallinad, your report. Passed. Next! Marian Felthof. Passed! Venaz of Hammerad. Failed. Feshi Weatherfur. Passed! Yerranola—”
Niers folded his arms, a bit hurt, but Perorn’s efficiency and the other teachers beginning to call out names meant the students were soon reading their reports, most with deep dismay. Some were relieved—and yes, many from Niers’ special class. Venaz just stared at his report in a state of shock.
“He was an imposter? But he was so—so—trustworthy.”
“You idiot, Venaz. That’s how you know they’re fake!”
Marian trotted over to him and gleefully looked over his shoulder. The Minotaur began to angle his papers away from hers, but then gave up and slapped it on the desk for all to see. He folded his arms.
“He seemed military! He knew what he was talking about—he must have been truly high level!”
They all had been. Niers smiled as he watched his students debate and bicker over the results. In truth, the test had been hard. Niers had sent expert [War Merchants] used to haggling with company leaders to tear into his students and get the best deals they could. He’d also hired criminals versed in trickery and artifice to do the same.
They’d loved their roles. Niers had even hired some of the red-light district’s finest to tempt his students. You could tell who’d fallen for their wiles by the red faces. To be fair—many of them had used their charm or seduction Skills liberally, but that was a valid danger for [Strategists] to fall into. And not just because they might spend money unwisely.
“Ambushed? Oh, dead gods. My division got attacked because I—”
Merrik was groaning as he showed his report to his friends. He broke off, turning red and muttering into his beard. Peki just shook her head.
“You suck. Ha. Ha. I’m going to stay here while you march two hundred miles.”
The Garuda smiled. Merrik scowled at her.
“How the hell did you pass, Peki? I had to hold onto my bag of holding with both hands with all those damn [Thieves] about! Not to mention prying a good deal out of my [Merchant]!”
“I flew. Obviously. And I bought food from a trustworthy person.”
“How did you know they were trustworthy, Peki?”
Marian called up at the officers. Peki looked down and then leaned over her table to call down to them. Ever since the games at Daquin, the officers and strategist classes had gotten more friendly.
“I watched how they stood and talked to the others. I learned that from—”
“The Strongest of Pomle. Yeah, yeah. Dead gods, we got slaughtered. How’d you all do, you [Strategist] pricks?”
Merrik groaned. He looked down at the [Strategists]. Venaz’s head was bowed, but the rest looked fairly cheerful. Yerranola was covering her face, but most had passed.
“I could also smell some of them out as liars. I suppose I had an advantage there, yes?”
Feshi was grinning as she showed her report to the others. Wil smiled and covered his report as she glanced sideways at it. Not out of embarrassment; the [Lord] had gotten the third-highest marks out of everyone in the class and only lost points because he’d had a fourth of his gold stolen by one of the better [Pickpockets]. Umina sighed as she stared at her paper.
“I managed to pass too, Merrik. Barely. I got mugged too, so I just gave them some of my gold. Wil, how’d you do so well?”
“Uh—I’ve met [Merchants] so I had some experience with them. I could tell who wasn’t genuine. Venaz, there’s a number of signs, but you have to go through the Merchant’s Guild or some other form of verification to hold them responsible.”
“I thought I was buying directly from the source! And he had a certificate—it even tested positive at the Merchant’s Guild!”
“Fake. They can do that. You should have checked his name via the Mage’s Guild. The [Receptionist] at the desk was either blindsided or he bought her off.”
By now, the class was calming down. The students who’d failed were resigned to their fate. It wasn’t a disgrace to fail in the Titan’s academy. In fact, everyone in the class had failed at least a dozen times. It was a lesson Niers wanted to hammer into the students he was teaching: failure was inevitable. You failed, and you learned from your mistakes. They were also used to his unusual punishments, and while they were certain the march would be deeply unpleasant, it was also what they’d signed up for.
“Alright! That’s all for today, my lovely students! The losers will take part in march next week; don’t worry, you don’t have to do anything but follow our [Soldiers]! Although with that said, you might want to prepare yourselves…”
Groans followed the Titan’s statement and he smiled. Perorn was waiting by the door and the students were packing up their notes, quills, ink, parchment or for the richer ones, paper, and looking expectant. Also—a bit nervous.
“Let’s see. No homework for today. Just be prepared to discuss your reports in your individual classes tomorrow. Oh, and one last thing.”
Niers looked up. His students stared at him as one. The Professor’s eyes twinkled and Perorn sighed again. Loudly.
The Lizardgirl jumped. Behind her, Wil sat up in his chair. Suddenly, the attention of all the students in the room was fixed on Umina. She stuttered.
Niers looked at her. He could practically hear her heart beating. He held the moment, smiling, and then nodded.
“Congratulations on your passing! But please, next time remember to put your name on your report?”
She turned bright red across her scales. The class exhaled; a few laughed, but mostly everyone just sighed. Niers smiled, leapt off his desk, and strode up the Fraerling-ways, the tunnels that ran the length of his citadel and were small enough for only his kind to pass through. He called out as he reached the door built into the side of the wall.
The students dispersed in groups. They had circles of friends, or pairs, or some were alone, but most had groups. They ordered by age, personality, and class. This particular group were made up of Niers’ special class, his best students. They were varied in species, but they were friends.
More or less. Some, like Marian and Venaz, were more like rivals, or they didn’t get along, like Xelic and Kissilt. But they stayed together because they were friends of friends. Classmates. It was a powerful bond for all the time that they’d spent together.
It was another day in the Titan’s academy in the city of Elvallian, headquarters of the Forgotten Wing Company, one of the Four Great Companies. However, it wouldn’t be forever.
Summer was coming. And with it, a certain expectancy in the air. The students were groaning about the march, but not too hard. After all, soon most would leave for a while, and while it might seem odd, these students were passionate about their work. They liked being here, and they didn’t feel like leaving. But leave they would.
The Titan of Baleros believed in vacations. He gave his students time off to visit their families or return home during the summer and winter seasons—or when the Forgotten Wing Company was engaged in the business of war. His students enjoyed the breaks too by and large; it was good to go home. But the group leaving the hall now were quiet.
Wil walked next to Feshi and Cameral, Umina trailing him with Marian walking by her side and Venaz dejectedly bringing up the rear with Yerranola. Some of the other members of the group passed them by, but the rest were just looking at Umina and Wil.
They were all getting worried because the summer break was coming up and a huge question loomed over all their heads. Or rather, two. Umina’s heart was still pounding. She’d thought it would be today. She’d thought and—
Venaz was the first to break the silence. He looked up and spoke, gesturing back to the classroom.
“You have to ask! It’s a test of courage—no, self-worth! The Professor is testing you two. He wants you to ask when it will be! Mark my words!”
“I know. But I really thought it would be today!”
Umina shook her head. Marian sighed loudly.
“He’s teasing us! You know he’ll let you ask when it’s time, Umina! Ignore Venaz.”
“When I’m right?”
Venaz was outraged. Marian turned and glared at him. But the spark wasn’t there. She looked over at Wil. The young [Lord] was shaking his head.
“Maybe Venaz is right. This is just like the Professor. Maybe we should ask.”
“You should! Everyone from our class wants to know what you’ll ask!”
That came from behind and lower down. Everyone jumped and turned to look at Merrik. He wasn’t that short—he was five feet tall which still placed him well below everyone but Umina, but Dwarves weren’t actually super short. He stroked his beard as he stopped with Peki, a Dullahan, and one of the Centaurs in his class.
“We’re all waiting for the answer to the questions! You haven’t asked already? Everyone in our class would!”
They all fell into step, arguing as they went down the corridor. Marian was shaking her head.
“You mean, Umina and Wil should demand they have their question? You want to do that to the Professor? In front of everyone?”
“It’s a test. He’s checking your willpower.”
Venaz asserted. This time Peki and even Jekilt and Kissilt were nodding. The Drake glared at Wil.
“You need to march up to him and demand it! It’s clearly what he wants.”
“Maybe. Or maybe he really is busy. You know he’s been running around every day since Daquin.”
“…True. I haven’t seen the Professor so busy in a while. Everyone wants a piece of him after the game. But even so!”
The arguing students came to an abrupt halt as they descended from the second floor to the first. They had caught up with the teachers. Perorn, a Selphid wearing a Dullahan’s body, and Niers Astoragon were all conversing with…no one?
Wait. It took most of the students a moment to realize that they were all turned and speaking to someone. Even though they were used to her presence, it took them even longer to make out Foliana, head of the Forgotten Wing Company. Three-Color Stalker, famously hard to detect and even more famously odd.
The teachers didn’t even glance up at the students; after all, they often conducted business in the citadel that pertained to the company as well as instruction. Foliana on the other hand looked up, and gave the students an unblinking stare. Her multicolored eyes stopped the group in their tracks.
“Well? Go on! Do it!”
Kissilt hissed at Wil and Umina. But everyone had stopped. Three-Color Stalker was staring at them and everyone knew her reputation. If Niers was the legend of [Strategists], Foliana was the nightmare of everyone who commanded. She’d killed thousands, it was rumored. She’d eat your favorite food and then kill you. It was her sign. Umina prayed that Foliana would never eat squid.
“He’s right there. It’s a perfect opportunity.”
Merrik muttered, but he sounded intimidated. Perorn, Niers Astoragon, and Foliana were all standing together with [Commander] Isheil. Three legends plus a distinguished commander. Venaz cleared his throat.
Even Venaz’s courage failed him for a second. The students hesitated and Wil and Umina looked at each other. They burned with the desire to ask. But now?
It was the same thing that had kept them from asking the entire month. Umina was just about to suggest they bother the Professor when he wasn’t so clearly busy talking to his superior and one of the most important people in all of Baleros, but she was interrupted. Jekilt, looking from face to face, snorted and pawed the ground.
“If you two won’t do it, I’ll do it myself. Professor! A question!”
The Centaur [Captain] trotted forwards. Everyone, the other students and even teachers, turned to watch. Niers turned his head and raised an eyebrow.
“Jekilt. How can I help you?”
His tone was mildly reproving. Foliana and Perorn both looked at the Centaur, and Perorn’s narrowed eyes made Jekilt draw up. But it was too late to turn back. Jekilt gulped.
“Professor. My deepest apologies for the interruption. However, I have to ask. When might you be available to let Umina and Wil ask their question? The one they earned at Daquin?”
Dead silence followed his question. Everyone waited, breathless. Umina even saw some of the youngest [Tacticians] poking their head out of a classroom with a teacher. Niers raised his brows, but he didn’t look amused, as if Jekilt had found him out. He glanced at Foliana and she disappeared. With a sigh, Niers turned back to Jekilt, frowning.
“I couldn’t give you a solid date, Jekilt. My schedule’s beyond full. This very night I’m meeting with donors to the Forgotten Wing Company, and tomorrow I’m due to inspect some of our company’s cities—I’ll be travelling all day, so Perorn will be instructing you all. When my schedule clears, I’ll let you know. But until then—I have business to attend to. Foliana! You better not have run off!”
“My apologies, sir.”
Flushing, Jekilt retreated. Perorn gave him another reproving look as Niers, standing on her shoulder, hurled a quill like a javelin. It stopped in midair where Foliana had been and she grudgingly reappeared.
“Oh dead gods. You really made him mad! Fleethoof too!”
Marian squeaked as Jekilt trotted back towards them. The Centaur just shook his head, too mortified for words. Umina stared at Niers as he turned back to Foliana. The Fraerling was frowning. But—she felt a tug at her side.
Wil was looking at her. The Lizardgirl leaned over. He had sensed it too. The Titan had been unusually snappish. He had days like that, but he usually entertained questions. At least, intelligent questions. She hesitated and then leaned over towards him.
“Maybe he really is busy? Huh. My mistake.”
Venaz was scratching at his horns. Jekilt tried to kick him with one hoof. But Wil was looking at Umina.
“Maybe it’s worth a shot. But it would have to be…”
Umina nodded. She whispered with Wil, and then the two of them hesitated. Their classmates saw them raising their hands and quickly throw a sign. It was sword-wand-shield, or, as some other people called it, rock-parchment-knife. Or fist-palm-fingers. It was a universal game.
Wil threw sword, an open palm. Umina threw wand, her two claws pointed. Wil groaned. He turned, adjusted his clothes, and strode forwards.
This time the entire corridor was breathless. Niers looked up from his conversation a second time, a clear frown on his face. Wil paused as the teachers turned to stare at him. This time even Foliana stared.
“Yes, Wil? I’m a bit busy. Foliana, perhaps we should take this to a private room later.”
The Squirrel-woman’s response was unintelligible. Niers waited, folding his arms. Wil bowed slightly, and then came out with it.
“Professor, my apologies. However, I would like to ask you a question. During the games at Daquin, we did earn the right to a question of our choosing, didn’t we?”
Niers paused. He looked at Perorn, who shook her head. He turned back to Wil with a sigh.
“You did, Wil. Your memory does not deceive you. But as I just told Jekilt, I’ve been too busy to honor the bargain. I intended it to be right after I returned, but with that emergency regarding the Hydra—this really is inopportune, Wil.”
The young man paled at the criticism. But he raised his chin. Umina saw him straighten his back and clasp his hands behind him, the picture of a young Terandrian [Lord].
“I understand that, Professor. But, and I apologize in advance, your schedule seems unusually busy even for the summer. Given that we are about to enter our summer break, I request the right to ask the question, Professor. Today.”
Silent uproar. Marian’s mouth was a silent ‘o’ of horror, and she wasn’t the only one. Perorn’s eyes flashed. She opened her mouth, but Niers cut her off. He looked at Wil, and he did not seem amused by the request.
“You want it to be today, Wil Kallinad? And that is your…request?”
Silently, Wil nodded. Niers turned his head slowly.
“And you, Umina Caxical?”
Umina turned white. Niers was staring at her and she could see it on his face. This was not acceptable. But she had to trust to the same instinct Wil had had. So she nodded.
She could only croak that word. For a moment Niers paused, and Umina and Wil waited to be sentenced to some truly horrible punishment.
And then—Niers exhaled. He nudged Perorn’s cheek with one elbow. She smiled slightly and her frown disappeared.
“Told you they’d do it inside of a month.”
“Demand, not ask. Fine, you win, Perorn. Take your damn amulet. Wil, couldn’t you have been more straightforward two days later?”
Niers looked at Wil with an aggrieved expression. The young man paused. But the copper coin had dropped. Venaz exhaled hugely. Feshi stared at Niers as the Titan grinned. Jekilt was slapping his forehead with the palm of his hand.
“Was that a test, Professor?”
One of the Dullahans called out, scandalized. Niers turned his head, looking innocent.
“What? Me? Test my lovely student’s resolve? Never.”
He ignored the accusatory looks and turned back to Wil. He smiled slightly. And the pride outweighed even his amusement. He nodded to the young [Lord] and then to Umina.
“Very well. I’ll clear my schedule. My personal quarters—tonight. Sunset. Both of you be prepared with your questions. Now, I am busy—”
He dodged Perorn’s hand as she flicked at him with a finger. Foliana rolled her eyes and vanished. Laughing, Niers leapt onto Commander Isheil’s palm. He turned and the teachers, minus Foliana, turned and walked down the corridor, suddenly in good spirits. The students watched them go. And then they erupted into chaos.
“It was a test! You did it, Wil! Dead gods, I thought he was going to tear your head off!”
“Another trick? I thought I offended him! Who knew Fleethoof could act?”
“And with Three-Color Stalker? Dead gods—”
Students and teachers flooded out of the classrooms. Umina was blushing as Marian hugged her with glee. A month of waiting and it had all been another prank! He’d been so convincing, but—
Venaz was pounding Wil on the back with glee, ignoring the shouts of pain. Feshi was grinning as Peki and Merrik laughed at the entire spectacle of it. Jekilt, red-faced, was accepting congratulations from Kissilt, Yerranola, and Cameral for being the sacrifice. For five minutes, everyone was giddy on the victory.
And then the excitement faded a notch and the students all looked at each other. Cameral shook his head, raising it with both arms so everyone could see him.
“That was an unworthy prank. I truly thought the Professor was offended. And knowing him, he would have kept up the ruse. Do you think he intended to let us wait the entire summer break if Umina and Wil did not demand the right to a question?”
“Probably. He might have kept us waiting forever if we didn’t ask. But the guts to not just ask, but demand?”
Marian stamped her hooves, looking vexed and pleased. She looked at Umina. Still shaking with nervous energy, the Lizardgirl nodded.
“He does it every time. I still have nightmares about that test where every answer was in the same column!”
“Just absolutely out of his egg-headed mind. The worst teacher I’ve ever had that way. Even in Manus—”
Kissilt growled. He paused as the Lizardpeople around him stared at the Drake. Kelsa shook her head.
“Do you think he’s that bad to his opponents on the battlefield?”
“Oh, believe me. We were on campaign with him and he did a trick with the drums—remember, Venaz?”
The Minotaur nodded.
“He can be even worse, I heard. Imagine trying to fight a war against him?”
All the students shuddered. They tried to imagine facing off against their teacher. And it might one day happen. They were students for now, but they were training themselves to take positions of authority on the battlefield. It was a sobering reminder of the future.
But for now—Wil looked around. His cheeks were red with relief. They had done it. The Titan would answer any question Wil and Umina had. Any one question in the world. The excitement, that knowledge, was dawning on the other students. Umina felt dozens of eyes on her and trembled.
Any question within the Titan’s power to answer. Anything. And she would ask it tonight. She and Wil. The young man looked around. And then he raised his voice.
“Let’s get a drink. First round’s on me!”
Two tables had been pulled together in the bar for the students to sit together. It was a crowd even by the pub’s usual standard, and they were used to the students of Niers’ academy. But everyone was there to celebrate Umina and Wil getting to ask the question. All of their friends.
All of them. Jekilt and Marian, Centaurs, Yerranola the lone Selphid of the advanced class, Feshi the Gnoll who was sitting next to the grumpy Kissilt, a Drake with mild ice breath and pale white-purple scales, Venaz the Minotaur, Umina, two other Lizardfolk, Cameral and another Dullahan…and Foliana…
And now Merrik, Peki, Kelsa, Romin, and four more officers from their classes. They were one of the larger friend groups that had emerged from Daquin. Now Merrik raised his mug.
“A toast! To the Titan’s question!”
He downed his drink in one go as the others cheered. Venaz lowered his mug, looking put out that Merrik had beaten him to it. All the students drank and exhaled practically as one. They’d done it.
It was odd how the jealousy and resentment of the first few weeks had faded into a universal expectation, Umina reflected. A number of students had not been happy about her snatching victory at the last moment, or Wil being awarded a question for his daring maneuver in bringing a fleet into Daquin. But the long delay had solidified the student body’s sympathy for Wil and Umina. Perhaps, all as the Titan had planned. You had to admire him if that was the case.
“So, have you both thought of your question?”
Yerranola was the first to break the ice. She leaned over the appetizers and drinks, staring at Wil and Umina. The other students glanced up expectantly. Umina paused in eating some of the shrimp.
“I—um, I think so!”
Kissilt demanded after a second. Marian nudged him hard.
“Don’t be an ass, Kissilt. It’s private!”
“Is it? We won’t know the answer.”
“It could be! If Umina doesn’t want to say—what about you, Wil?”
Wil nodded. He didn’t look as happy as Umina would have expected. He sipped from his lighter ale, picking at his corn bread side, richly buttered.
“All sorted. I know what I have to ask. I don’t have much of a choice on my part.”
“Oh. You mean—you’re going to ask on behalf of your family?”
Yerranola exhaled slowly. Everyone leaned out of the way of her corpse breath. It wasn’t too bad with fresh bodies, but—the Selphid apologetically waved a scent-charm in the air. Wil was nodding.
“My family pulled a lot of strings to get that fleet to move into Daquin. I can’t exactly ask a question for myself, can I?”
“But it’s the question. You can’t just ask on their behalf! Don’t you have a burning question you have to know the answer to?”
Merrik protested over his mug. Peki punched him. Not in the side; the Dwarf’s head rocked.
“Dead gods damnit, Peki! Don’t punch me in the jaw!”
“Don’t be rude.”
The [Martial Artist] looked at Wil. He was shaking his head.
“I’d like to, Merrik. But I’m a [Lord]. I have duties to my family.”
The Dwarf grimaced. Some of the other students not from Terandria looked perplexed, including Venaz.
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“Loyalty to his family and kingdom, Venaz. Wil has to put his desires behind what’s good for his family.”
Merrik sighed. He looked sympathetic. Venaz looked perplexed.
“I understand that. But this is an individual reward. One cannot expect Wil to give up all his desires. Let him ask his own question. What benefits him ultimately benefits his family. Isn’t that so?”
He looked around for support. Cameral was nodding, as were the Centaurs and Kissilt, but Feshi, Yerranola, and one of the other Terandrians were shaking their head. The Lizardpeople students were predictably, split. Wil sighed again, and Marian patted him on the shoulder.
“House Kallinad’s a coastal duchy, isn’t it, Wil? I know that the Kallinad family’s wealthy. You didn’t spend too much, did you?”
“It’s about prestige, Marian. If I gave nothing back to my family, they’d suffer politically more than financially.”
Feshi frowned, wrinkling her furry face. The Gnoll looked around.
“Duke…duke…it means punching something, yes? But it’s also a rank. I forget Human nobility’s titles so easily. What position is [Duke]?”
“Just below a [Prince]. It’s pretty much the highest rank of the nobility. Wil’s important.”
Yerranola grinned as she ruffled Wil’s hair. He let it happen, resigned. They were good friends, like Marian, Umina, and Venaz’s odd friendship.
“Don’t exaggerate, Yerranola. I’m just a [Lord]. Kallinad’s a big family. I’m not even in the immediate line of succession. There are eight stronger heirs with a claim to the family head than me.”
“Really? I thought you were a third son.”
“Yes, but it’s about bloodline, Feshi. Technically, my father had my sister with his, uh, first wife. And I’m the product of the second. But that’s not how Terandrians choose their successors.”
The Gnoll [Strategist] looked confused. Cameral leaned forwards, feeding his head with a spoon.
“It’s first-born from each previous leader, isn’t it?”
“That’s a lineal descendant, Cameral. Direct inheritance. We used to do that in Terandria…a long time ago. Now though, it’s ichorial descendancy.”
The blank looks came from everyone this time, even Merrik, who was used to some of Terandrian politics. The [Lord] looked embarrassed as he tried to elaborate.
“The purest bloodlines lead each house, not the heir of each predecessor. If you marry into the nobility or even royalty of another family, your children are, uh, purer in descent. So that means my father’s sister—my Aunt Delicha—has the strongest claim because she’d married to a [Baron] of Ailendamus. Her children are first to inherit unless my sister, Talia, gets married to someone with a bloodline at least as pure as…”
Yerranola’s eyes rolled into the back of her head. Umina tried to follow the convoluted explanation, but gave up. So did Wil as he realized he was losing his audience. Foliana drank out of Xelic’s mug with a straw.
“It’s very complex. And houses can split or schism all the time when fighting over succession. Kallinad hasn’t had one for a few centuries, which means it’s probably time.”
“Dead gods. And I thought politics in Baleros were messy. What’s the point of all that?”
Xelic got up to refill his mug. Wil shrugged.
“Intermarriage between the noble houses prevents strife, in theory. It’s also hard to wipe out a house for that reason. Everyone of the peerage is distantly related to each other. Only a few bloodlines have been erased, sometimes due to war, or assassinations—the Goblin King, the Necromancer—”
Kissilt interjected that comment as an aside. Merrik laughed.
“A toast to dead undead!”
Everyone drank to that, although most of the other students didn’t share the same view of necromancy. The conversation circled right back to Wil. This time it was Venaz who was objecting to Wil’s decision.
“But you are beholden to your kingdom, aren’t you? House Kallinad is still under the domain of the Kingdom of…Pheislant. Hm. Cameral! Pheislant! What are the facts?”
He turned to the Dullahan quickly. Kissilt, Cameral, Venaz, and Yerranola were all fans of flash-facts about other nations. They loved quizzing each other at random. The Dullahan instantly sat up and his hands scratched the top of his head as he replied.
“Naval nation. Unit of specialty—aquatic [Knights]? Strong navy; weaker army but entrenched fortifications along borders. Largesse means strong connections with [Knight] orders, especially Order of Seasons. Last war—defeat. Against Ailendamus—”
“Yes, good! But that means Kallinad owes loyalty to Pheislant. If you’re asking a question on behalf of your house, shouldn’t you ask one on behalf of your kingdom? I’m just extending this logical train of thought. I still think you should ask your own question.”
“It’s not that simple, Venaz. [Dukes] can refuse royal orders if they have good reason. In fact, sometimes they can overthrow the [King].”
Kissilt looked as appalled as Venaz. The Drake shook his head, spilling his drink as he reached for a shrimp. Foliana shook the liquid off her fur as she stood next to him.
“You damned Human anarchists. What happened to the order of law?”
“Shut it, Kissilt. No one wants to hear about the superiority of Drakes. It’s as bad as listening to Venaz talk about Minotaurs.”
“I resent that!”
“As do I!”
The Drake and Minotaur glared at each other. Feshi cleared her throat.
“Speaking of bloodlines—how is it that the nobility don’t have funny heads and weird noses, Wil? I’ve seen bad inbreeding among Oldblood families back home. And it is not pretty, no?”
She looked at Kissilt and the Drake, glaring, nodded. Wil shrugged.
“We make sure to marry distant blood relatives. And lots of the nobility have Skills to help with children.”
“Skills? What, like fertility Skills?”
Cameral spat his drink out and glared at Yerranola. The Selphid cackled, greatly amused. The other Dullahans looked scandalized. Wil turned beet red.
“No! Inheritance Skills! You know, [Adroit Progeny]? Skills that allow you to pass on what the mother or father was good at—like if the father was a [Lord] who was excellent at warfare, his children have a better chance of being as good as he was with a sword, or as beautiful as their mother?”
He looked around. This time the side-eyes he got were deeply disturbed. Jekilt shook his head. His torso leaned over as his horse-half sat on the cushions.
“Let me get this straight. Terandrian nobility have Skills that…change their children?”
He looked appalled. Wil nodded.
“Wait. No one else has heard of it? It’s not rare. I mean—come on. Really? It makes sense! A Skill that passes down appearance, or talent? No one…?”
The other species looked at each other. And then they pushed themselves back from the table, leaving the Humans and Merrik alone. They huddled together, glancing over at Wil. Foliana was stealing Kissilt’s shrimp.
“Dead gods, that explains so much. Remember the other nobility we met? No wonder so many washed out!”
“That’s so freaky. Terandria is weird.”
“Don’t make fun of him! He’s got a great body! Do you know how much it costs to buy the body of the nobility on the black market? Let alone a good one? Look at that jaw!”
Yerranola objected, pointing back at Wil. Marian snorted.
“He probably got it from his father.”
Venaz nodded, looking deeply disgruntled.
“He was born with an advantage. Humans. Even with children, they have to put a finger on the scales—”
“Don’t drag scales into this, Venaz. We don’t do anything like that in the Walled Cities.”
“What about Oldblood breeding programs, Kissilt? I know Drakes do that!”
“It’s not the same as having Skills—hey! Who ate my shrimp? Marian!”
The Drake exclaimed as he saw his bowl was nearly empty. He turned and glared at the Centauress to his left. She folded her arms.
“Don’t look at me! I don’t like shrimp!”
Xelic, one of the Lizardmen, looked horrified. Umina sighed as she waved for another bowl of the delectable crustaceans. Alive. Drunken shrimp marinated in alcohol were the best. Marian just shuddered as half the table ordered a second round of snacks. Foliana took another from Kissilt’s bowl.
“I don’t know how you eat them. They’re awful! Fish, now, I like fish. But shrimp? They’re okay if they’re breaded, but raw? Moving?”
Marian pointed at the refill a Lizardgirl [Server] was bringing over. The drunk shrimp met a grisly fate as Venaz picked it up and bit the head off. He shrugged.
“Food is food, Marian. It’s not like this is a parasite or something. Now, some creatures have little eggs that if you eat them—”
“Dead gods, Venaz! Shut up! I’m eating!”
Someone threw a shrimp at Venaz. He threw the shrimp back, and the table was distracted for a few minutes. Wil endured more good-natured prodding at his ancestry and refused to answer which Skills his parents had used in the bedroom. But at last, someone raised his voice for everyone’s attention.
It was Jekilt. The serious [Captain] was older than the other students, and so commanded more or less silence as he rose to his hooves. He nodded, raising a mug to Wil and Umina.
“I know Daquin was your victory, Umina. You won, and there is nothing else to say. Wil, you earned your question likewise. And you’ll ask your question tonight.”
Everyone nodded. The good cheer faded and they all looked speculatively at the two. Wil met Umina’s eyes and both felt that tingle in their stomachs. Guilt too; the envy was clear on everyone’s face and Umina still felt bad about undercutting Marian. But Jekilt wasn’t done. He drank, and then came out with it.
“I’ve talked to the members of my old company, and they’ve all put in gold. If you ask the Professor a question on our behalf, we can pay you one thousand, two hundred, and eighty nine gold pieces.”
Umina turned to stare at Jekilt. And then Kissilt burst out furiously.
“Hey, Jekilt, you can’t do that!”
“Why not? It’s a fair trade. There’s no rule against it.”
Jekilt challenged Kissilt aggressively. The Drake shook his head as he got to his feet.
“No, you can’t do that! Because I was going to ask if they’d take my question instead!”
Laughter. Kissilt shouted, waving his claws and exhaling a plume of icy breath.
“Hear me out! Hear me out! It’s about classes.”
All the [Strategists] paused. The Drake went on, spreading his claws, looking at Wil and Umina.
“Listen. One of you can ask the Professor for this. It could be you, Umina! All you need to ask for is a list of every possible class consolidation the Professor knows about, and what Skills you get and the advantages and disadvantages. Think about it! We all stand to benefit. We could work towards our ideal class, and—and that information is worth gold if we sold it!”
He gestured around at the entire table. Marian blinked.
“That’s actually intelligent, Kissilt. But—every class? You think the Professor would really answer that?”
“Just [Strategists], then. Or commanding classes. Don’t you all want to know what your possibilities are?”
“But that’s such a general question. How does it benefit Umina and Wil more than you, Kissilt?”
“Well, it benefits us all, so we’d owe the asker a huge favor—”
“I’m offering gold. And my question is private. If Umina and Wil want to take it—”
Jekilt was looking meaningfully at Umina. She bit her tongue, but Marian shielded her.
“Umina can ask whatever she wants. She won the right to a question, Jekilt, not you.”
“No one’s denying that, Marian. But Jekilt’s right. She could stand to gain. Listen, I was going to bring this up later, but a [Merchant] friend of mine has similar offer—”
“Don’t pressure her, Xelic!”
Marian glared at the Lizardman. Merrik slammed his mug on the table.
“Aw, come on. Let’s at least float our questions! Peki’s got one about martial arts techniques, so that’s probably out, but mine—”
All the students were looking at Wil and Umina now. Uneasily, Umina got up, raising her claws.
“Look, I don’t want to make promises. I have my own question—”
“Just hear us out!”
Wil was fending off Yerranola and Feshi. Marian looked up, and then leaned over.
“Umina, I do have one of my own—”
“Enough! Wil, Umina, the door! Now! The rest of you, back off!”
Venaz shot to his feet. He pushed back the others as Wil and Umina backed towards the door. The Minotaur was impossible for even the Centaurs to move in the press, and he fended them off as the two students fled out the back door.
Venaz followed them out. He wrestled the door closed, pushing back the rest of their classmates who were shouting their own questions. He turned to Wil and Umina as the two panted.
“Idiots. You have a right to choose. And you would have accepted such offers beforehand if you had any intention of giving up your question, wouldn’t you?”
Umina nodded sheepishly. She’d gotten inquiries already. Some very generous. But…it was her question. Wil looked resigned as he nodded.
“I can’t ask anything else. And I bet you want to ask your question, right, Umina?”
“Yeah. I—well, it’s mine. I’m tempted by the gold and such, but I really want to know, you know?”
“Understandable. Clearly understandable. No one can force you. Um. However—”
Venaz nodded a few times. The Minotaur cleared his throat, looking embarrassed. Foliana watched him with interest as she chewed on a still-wriggling shrimp.
“—if you’d care to listen to my idea, there is some merit in it.”
Wil and Umina paused as they brushed down their clothing. It was nearly dusk; the time was coming on soon. Venaz held up his hands as they looked at him.
“Listen to me! My idea is very sound. The Professor is known to have a vast spy network. If you ask this question, riches are the least of what we might gain. To begin with—”
He looked around conspiratorially and lowered his voice.
“Of all the seafaring ships that sank in the last millennia, there are three that were known to have born relic-class artifacts that were never recovered. Just one would be worth a [King]’s ransom, not to mention that the three ships I have right here are all rich enough in other treasures to set all of us up for life. If you ask the Professor, I know a Minotaur crew that could take us anywhere in the world—”
He had a piece of paper with three names written on it. Umina stared at Venaz’s serious face, and then at Wil. He glanced at her, amused, embarrassed, and gave her a sheepish grin. She returned it. They both glanced at Venaz and then they ran for it.
It wasn’t hard to get back to her rooms, or evade the other students. They’d given up after the bar, and the few who saw her didn’t press the issue. Rather, Umina’s great challenge was drinking a bit of potion to sober up, and then picking a dress to wear.
She was nervous. Meeting the Professor in his personal quarters? That was a right few students had ever earned! She was so busy rummaging through her clothes she didn’t realize the sun was setting. Then she threw on her clothes and practically ran towards the citadel.
She met Wil at the gates. He was nearly as breathless as she, and the two slowed to walk up towards the personal quarters higher in the citadel. They were far from alone; the citadel’s [Servants] and regular occupants all waved at the two as they passed. Some called out good luck, others just laughed at the two nervous students. Wil kept adjusting his clothing. He glanced at Umina.
“You look good. Did you put on makeup?”
“Just a bit!”
Umina blushed. She’d chosen her best dress for the occasion. She had to! It didn’t feel right to just stroll into the Professor’s office otherwise. And Wil had clearly done the same. He was wearing a doublet and expensive-looking leggings that out priced Umina’s best wardrobe a few times over. He hadn’t applied scale polish like she had, though.
Wil tugged at the ruff nervously and coughed.
“This was all I had. I know it’s stuffy, but I thought…”
He gestured lamely at Umina’s dress and she nodded. It fit the occasion. The two climbed the stairs, ascending higher. The classrooms occupied the two bottom floors of the citadel. But higher were the quarters of the Forgotten Wing Company’s staff. Niers Astoragon and Foliana both lived here when they weren’t away.
There were guards too. Selphids, mainly. They let Wil and Umina pass; usually students were barred from the third floor or higher. One winked at Umina.
“Congratulations, you two!”
“Don’t let the Titan pull another prank on you!”
Wil tried to smile. But his walk was growing increasingly more disjointed, staccato. Umina felt just as rattled. He began to speak again distractedly as they climbed another staircase.
“You know, it really was kind of him to give me the right to ask a question. You won.”
“I—cheated. Really, you gave me the distraction.”
Wil shook his head adamantly.
“A win’s a win. That’s what the Professor teaches us. I’m just grateful I can ask—”
He broke off. The two paused on the seventh floor. The Titan’s quarters lay here. Wil looked seriously at Umina.
“I didn’t say it in the bar, but I really am grateful for the opportunity to ask, Umina. If I hadn’t won a question, I’d have embarrassed my family and all the effort they put into helping me. I’m glad both of us get to ask.”
Umina smiled at Wil. He wasn’t her closest friend, but she felt a strong sense of connection with him in this moment. His uncertainty and nerves reflected her own. They were birds of a feather, with respect to Peki.
The Titan’s door was very, very large. Or so it felt. It was large enough to accommodate a Centaur, so it had a towering impression. Umina and Wil stared up at it.
It was silly. Both knew that Niers didn’t even use this door, but a personal one through the Fraerling-ways. Even so, the door alone gave Umina butterflies. Slowly, she knocked.
“Professor? It’s us. Umina and Wil.”
She waited. There was no sound from within. After a moment, Umina knocked again.
No response. She glanced at Wil. Were they early? But the young man’s lips had compressed into a line.
He hesitated, and knocked louder. There wasn’t so much as a peep from inside. Wil glanced at Umina, pointed to the door, and mouthed silently. She groaned.
“He would absolutely do that. I’ll do it.”
Wil squared his shoulders and put one palm on the doorknob. He turned it and Umina held her breath.
Wil looked at Umina. Then, pale-faced, he pushed the door open. Umina saw only darkness beyond. She inhaled. Oh no, he really was gone—
And then there was a flare of light. A shimmering orb of [Light] filled a glass orb in the center of the room. And the soft radiance illuminated a table.
Just a table. On the far wall there were shelves, huge shelves but tiny papers. An archive meant for someone far smaller than Wil and Umina. A painting hung above a scrying orb; another wall held what looked like an armory in miniature.
But most of the room looked like an office. Scrolls of parchment, velum, sheaves of paper, were organized on the desks and tables meant for regular-sized people.
This was a private room. But the bed, the chairs, and all the comforts of home could fit on one single table in the center. They’d been pushed to one side today, however, the little magical chessboard, his wardrobe—everything neatly tidied to a corner. On the table sat large bowls full of snacks. Several bottles that were giant compared to the tiny furniture. The glowing light orb.
And standing amid the dishes, smiling, was the Titan of Baleros. He too was dressed for the occasion in colorful clothing. He even had a hat with a feather. He swept Umina and Wil a bow, taking the hat from his head.
Umina exhaled in exasperation and wonder. Wil just sighed in relief. Niers Astoragon’s eyes twinkled as he straightened.
“Come in, both of you. Sit, sit! And you can relax. That was the last test, I promise. Fraerling’s honor.”
Warily, not believing him for a moment, the two entered the room. They couldn’t help but stare around at the shelves full of documents, the tiny possessions next to the huge furniture. This was a Fraerling’s room. They had never seen one before; few of the small folk ever ventured into society at large. Fraerling villages were hidden. Umina almost wanted to giggle as she saw the Titan’s bed. She could pick it up, or hide it under a hat! But then she saw him sitting there and froze up.
Wil approached the table. There were two chairs at opposite ends. The Titan had one on the table itself. The [Lord] looked at the snacks and drinks.
“Is this—a meal, Professor?”
The Fraerling shrugged. He ushered Wil to one side, Umina to the other. He was smiling, looking as pleased and relaxed as they’d ever seen him.
“Drinks, really. But if you want anything else, I’ll have someone make it. Come now, sit! I told you, the tests are over.”
“Really, Professor? You had us ask you this morning. And now the door?”
Umina sat cautiously. The chair was lovely and comfortable and she practically sank into it. Wil did the same, but he sat upright, nervous. The Titan sighed, but his eyes twinkled.
“It was rather cruel of me. But I couldn’t help it. You do have to learn how to speak to your superiors. A [Strategist] must be able to overrule a [King] if need be. Nevertheless, I apologize. And I do promise that was the last of it. You’re here! Sit down. Take a bite of something. Relax. You’ve done it.”
So saying, he sat down and snagged a date. It was comically huge compared to him, but the Titan, undeterred, simply pulled out a sword and sliced off a hand-sized chunk. He laughed at the expression on Umina and Wil’s face.
“I seldom eat with you all. But believe me, Fraerlings can eat quite a lot! It still makes feeding us ludicrously cheap. Not to mention alcohol! Help yourselves. If you’d like a drink, you’ll have to pour. It makes me a poor host, but at least I can serve myself.”
He had a thimble-sized cup, and Umina was tickled beyond belief to see that each bottle had a tiny valve attached to it! Like a keg’s spigot! They were made of metal and the Titan strode over to one and casually filled his cup.
“Professor, is that…?”
The Titan’s eyes twinkled.
“Oh, this? Just a Fraerling invention. We drill holes into a bottle and attach the spigot. Far easier than having something custom-made, isn’t it? Help yourself! I think this wine is…ah, yes. Saverian Red, quite a good one. I have a few others; if you want a juice, there’s one in that bottle. Water’s—no, wait, that’s alcohol. Ah, there it is. Magically purified water. And spring water. Help yourselves! Come on, now!”
Bemused, Wil looked at Umina, before reaching for the Saverian Red. Umina helped herself to the magically purified water; she’d had a bit too much to drink already. Still, the snacks were calling to her and she gingerly picked up a few chips made of Yellats. The spicy chips were made even hotter by sprinkled pepper and there was a beautiful dip just waiting to help her with it…
“I thought we were asking a question, Professor. This seems more like a meal. If we’re taking up your time…”
Wil’s hesitation was waved away by Niers. He laughed as he settled back into his chair, munching on his date.
“Not at all. I cleared my schedule, just as I said. I’m free for the entire night. And you, Wil Kallinad and Umina Caxical, are my guests. We’ll sit and talk, so eat and drink to your heart’s content! Don’t worry about the question. While you’re here, you may ask me anything you wish and I’ll do my best to answer.”
The two students were astonished. Niers grinned.
“Within reason. Secrets are secrets. But if you ever had a burning desire, to, say, ask me about the inner workings of my company, or any of the rumors surrounding me—ask.”
“I believe I said that, Umina.”
“But you said we get one question!”
The Lizardgirl tried to control her tail and neck frills, both of which were trying to move in excitement. The Fraerling’s eyes twinkled and he winked.
“That’s just what I tell other students. Did you think I’d march you in here one at a time and you’d ask a question and leave after I answered?”
They had thought just that. Wil and Umina exchanged a glance. Niers laughed quietly as he got up to grab a chip and some dip. He carried it back over his head and tossed it next to his seat. It was hilarious to watch and he winked at Wil’s face.
“Laugh, Wil! I know it’s funny to see.”
“I wasn’t—then what is tonight, Professor?”
Niers sat back in his chair. He ran a hand through his beard. And he smiled faintly, looking up at his two much younger students.
“I know we’ve talked in class. But that’s a different setting than now. Here, we’re not student and teacher, but people. You ask me questions, I answer. We have a dialogue, not an examination. That’s the prize. You two and me, getting to know each other for a night. The question is just the end of our discussion.”
Umina and Wil exchanged a look. The Lizardgirl felt another flutter in her stomach, but it was fading. Niers sat back, looking from face to face on opposite side of the table. He lifted a cup.
“So, then. To your victories at Daquin. It has long been overdue. To you, Umina, and you, Wil. Congratulations!”
The two lifted their cups and drank. Niers drained his cup in one go. Umina did likewise and had to fill it with something stronger. The unabashed compliment had already put a fire in her cheeks. Wil likewise. Niers Astoragon was smiling as he got up to refill his drink. When he sat down again, he looked at them.
“Whenever I have a student in this room, it’s always a mixed feeling. On one hand, I couldn’t be prouder of you. Either of you. You did it. You defeated Tulm the Mithril and you won my game. Out of all your peers, you excelled. As a teacher, I’m delighted. But also melancholic.”
Niers smiled as he looked at Wil.
“Because it means your time at my academy, in my classes, is coming to a close. You two are nearing graduation. It might be in another year or two, or it could be sooner.”
The two inhaled sharply. Niers nodded.
“It’s a sign. Well, your class is all nearing that point. But this moment especially is significant. I may never have Venaz in this room, or Yerranola, or Feshi or any of the others. It’s not as though I offer the opportunity to win a question all the time. But I try to make time to have a one-on-one talk before each student goes. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, of course.”
“And this is it?”
Umina felt a pang in her stomach. Niers looked at her.
“Not just yet, Umina, my dear. And we might speak like this again. I hope so, in fact! So, let’s not drag down this discussion—you two aren’t graduates yet! Especially after your report! Failing to write your name—”
He laughed at the chagrin on Umina’s face.
“I’m joking, Umina. You and Wil did well! But we won’t talk about that. As I said, this is a conversation. I believe I don’t do all the talking, although I know I tend to dominate discussions.”
He looked meaningfully from side to side. Umina jumped and Wil cut in.
“Er—that means you’ve done this before, Professor?”
“Oh, countless times! With many students! The winners of my games, obviously. As far back as when I started offering them.”
The Titan waved a hand, smiling fondly at the memories only he could see. Umina was relaxing, or the strong liquid burning her forked tongue was.
“Then—you’ve had all your students in here, Professor? Or the best ones. That means—Professor Perorn? Fleethoof?”
“One of my first winners. I think she sat in your very chair, Umina.”
Niers winked at the Lizardgirl. Umina turned bright red. Wil coughed.
“She didn’t, Professor.”
“Oh, come now, Wil. Let Umina have her moment! No, she didn’t. Centaurs and chairs don’t mix. But she probably sat somewhere around where we are!”
Niers laughed and Umina exhaled, grinning sheepishly. Niers waved a hand.
“Yes. I’ve had conversations with many, many students here. Some for the question, others just because I wanted to talk to them before they left. As people, not in our usual relationship.”
“So—if I may ask—”
“Ask away! There are no bad questions here!”
Niers chuckled. Wil nodded.
“What about Tulm the Mithril?”
Umina coughed on her chips. Niers paused. Both Wil and Umina remembered Tulm, and his overpowering presence at Daquin. But he too had been one of the Titan’s students. Umina tried to imagine him in one of their classes. But Niers just nodded.
“Tulm, oh yes. And oh, no. I certainly taught him and had conversations with Tulm, but not ever here. Not after he won my game.”
The two younger [Strategists] leaned forwards. Niers grinned ruefully.
“You both know how he won my games? Yes? Well, do you think he sat in this room after burning down an entire city to win my game? I sent him his answer in letter form. If he and I had been here, it would have turned ugly. I was furious at him.”
“Really? But he won—”
“By burning down a city! And putting thousands of lives at risk! But he did win; I’ve just never seen eye-to-eye with him. I’ll admit, he got me, but Tulm was a troublesome student. Brilliant of course, but he could get under my skin! Still, he was as young as you two when I taught him.”
Niers frowned darkly, then brightened.
“Would you like to hear all about his embarrassing mistakes?”
Spellbound, Umina and Wil nodded. Niers chuckled.
“You think you made a bad mistake by not writing your name on your report, Umina? One time we had an assignment to lead a group of [Soldiers] like this last project—only in reality! Somehow, Tulm misheard the beach I wanted everyone to meet at and thought he was marching north. He made it three hundred miles and got hopelessly lost—it was two weeks before we found him! He thought the monsters, [Bandits], and everything he ran into was part of the test!”
He laughed. Umina giggled, trying to imagine that. Wil was trying not to, but he had to turn his head and chuckle. Niers went on.
“And he was hopelessly enamored with one of my other teachers. A Selphid.”
“Oh yes! He wrote a love letter and it got mixed up with my homework. It was—ah, poetic in that Dullahan fashion. I think he nearly hopped off the citadel’s highest tower when he realized he’d turned it in with his assignment. I still have a copy. Want me to find it?”
“No! I mean—”
Umina was aghast. Tulm the Mithril? Niers grinned.
“Just remember he’s a person too. And he was as young as you two! Of course, now he’s a legend. But no one’s perfect. Perorn—”
“Well, maybe I shouldn’t talk about her. She’d probably stomp on me if I told you her mistakes.”
“She made some?”
The Fraerling hesitated as he looked up at Wil, leaning down. Umina did likewise. The Titan wavered and then tapped one side of his nose.
“The fishing incident. I dare say no more. If you’ve brave, you’ll get someone else to ask Perorn about it.”
He chortled. And Umina and Wil laughed too. They were relaxed now. Suddenly, Umina found herself asking Niers, the Professor, the Titan questions. What was Perorn like as a student? And Wil was doing the same. They caught themselves, exchanged a glance.
It was a side of Niers they had never seen. And both of them felt it. This was a special moment. Something they’d earned. The Titan was speaking to them like equals. But neither could dwell on it; he was still talking.
And now Niers was speaking of Daquin. They’d gone over the game in detail in a number of lessons, but the Professor was speaking to Wil, looking up at him, smiling fondly.
“Brilliant work, Wil. Moving an entire strike force from Terandria to outside of Daquin by sea, unseen, and timing their attack? As logistics go, you’re already above most average [Strategists]. Hone that talent, lad. Don’t let it be your only trump card, but know that you have an advantage there and everyone will remember that fact.”
Niers held up a finger.
“With that said, you need work commanding a larger force. I don’t expect any of my students to beat Tulm in a city-wide brawl, even with the element of surprise and the Order of Seasons, but your command, while good, was too straightforward. Tulm was expecting more surprises which never came, and when he found your measure he began pushing you back hard. Still, you managed to make him use one of his better Skills—no, two of them. That’s something to be proud of.”
Wil nodded, breathless. The Fraerling turned to the Lizardgirl, and she felt a surge of apprehension. But Niers’ smile was kind.
“Umina, I confess you weren’t in the light as much as Wil, but your tactics were just as brilliant. Tunneling through a septic tank? That takes bravery! Especially to be able to create sappers and use them when everything was reaching the climax of the battle! Your coolness under pressure and the ability to think far outside your opponents is what I’ve seen you grow during your time as a student. A deserved win! You managed to outpace an entire force of [Knights] and every single one of your classmates!”
“Thank you, Professor.”
“Now, with that said, you didn’t do it alone. What you lack, Umina, is the daring Venaz and Marian demonstrated, the willingness to take huge risks. Wil showed that too, come to that. You’re acting like a [Tactician] among [Strategists] and while that means you cut deep with surprising maneuvers, you need to develop your own authority and presence as a commander, not a squad leader.”
It was fair. Umina felt a small sting to her pride, but she knew he was right. She took a gulp from her drink. Niers did likewise as he looked from student to student.
“Those are your strengths and weaknesses. As [Strategists], you two still have something to learn. But I’d still put you against any ordinary company-level [Strategist] and expect you to win handily! Functionally, you’re both at the level of any graduate of my regular classes. What I want to see is how high you’ll get to before you graduate. And that’s me in teaching mode. Back to conversation! I just had to tell you how proud I am of your victories.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Wil’s cheeks were red again. He reached for a few dates and ate them one at a time before taking some water. Umina had already finished her cup. She fidgeted.
“Professor—can I ask…?”
“I’d be offended if you didn’t. Go on, Umina!”
“Okay then. Professor, why do you give out the right to ask a question for winning your game? Any question? Will you really answer it truthfully? What do you have to gain from something like that?”
Wil looked up. And Niers’ eyes sharpened.
“Ah, now you’re asking the questions you really want to know the answer to. Don’t worry! That wasn’t your question. And I’m happy to answer it.”
So saying, he got up and began to pace around the table. He snagged a bit of cheese as he walked past a bunch of cubes, slicing a bit off to munch and eat. He looked up at last.
“I know I shouldn’t, but I have to make it a lesson. Old habits. Tell me, what’s the purpose of a secret, you two?”
They were back in class again, only the pressure wasn’t so high. Umina sipped from her drink, thinking.
“Knowledge, Professor? A potential advantage over someone else?”
“Good. Accurate, but not what I’m looking for. Wil, your thoughts?”
“Then—trust? Safety, perhaps?”
The Titan shook his head.
“All good answers. But to me, the answer is: constancy. The purpose of secrets is to prevent change. Because the secret is kept, the world remains the same. That’s why you keep a secret. When you use it is when things change.”
His students nodded, fascinated. Niers went on, walking up a wooden slope to slice a chunk out of a banana. His sword was enchanted, but he was using it like a table knife. And a fork.
“Why do I offer a question? Well, to explain that, I’ll talk about my world. I’m second-in-command to the Forgotten Wing Company, one of the most powerful forces in all of Baleros. But not the undisputed best, yes? We have the Four Great Companies of Baleros. And, why not? Let’s throw in Jungle Tails in as well. They were a Great Company and they’re still powerful.”
Umina flushed. Only a Lizardfolk Company would have such a playful name. Niers smiled, nodding.
“Not to mention other companies who are powerful, if not as large as the top four. All of us big players, well, we’re held by each other. No one wants one side to gain more power than we already have, so there’s an unofficial agreement to ally to defend against an aggressor. If the Forgotten Wing Company moves now, two Companies or more will move against it. Stalemate, you see? We’re too big, and all the alliances are too firmly entrenched. So we enjoy the luxuries of success without being able to break the status quo.”
“But you clash with other companies all the time, Professor.”
He waved that away.
“Border skirmishes, Umina. Wars by proxy. There hasn’t been a major battle between our companies with hundreds of thousands of [Soldiers] on the line in over a decade. Even eighty thousand soldiers isn’t much compared to what we can field.”
The Lizardgirl nodded. Niers went on, frowning.
“The trouble is, I don’t appreciate the stalemate. I’d like not to live the rest of my life like this. I’d like the Forgotten Wing Company to gain even more power! But we can’t. Not easily. We have too many enemies now. It might be different if it were easier to move abroad, forge alliances on other continents, even recruit and set up bases there. But the Iron Vanguard controls the seas and we have to negotiate hard to send armies to other continents. If we could expand—but I’ve tried making our own navies time and time again, and Tulm shuts down my attempts each time. You can’t keep a fleet that secret.”
Wil looked like he wanted to take notes. So did Umina. This was Niers Astoragon, talking about the challenges of his position candidly and openly. She had no idea that he’d tried to make a fleet. The Titan grimaced.
“So back to your question, Umina—secrets. Why do I offer them? The better question is: what’s stopping me? It’s just a secret. Yes, it’s valuable, but what’s that to me? I’m rich! What good are secrets if they’re kept forever? Maybe I want to give my students some help. Maybe I think it’s a worthwhile incentive. Maybe—I’m just tired of everything being so constant.”
He looked pointedly at Umina and Wil. They analyzed what he was saying.
“So you’re helping us to destabilize the balance of power?”
The thought was mind-boggling. Niers waved a hand, smiling.
“Don’t worry, I don’t intend for any one person to do that. I’m just explaining, Umina—I don’t care if giving out a secret messes with the established order. I don’t need to maintain it. In fact, I’m counting on you two. All of you young [Strategists] to generate some excitement for me. I’d hate to die of boredom.”
The compliment took the words out of both students for a moment. But then Wil asked a question next. He had to. This was their chance. And oh, they had so many questions, rumors among the students they needed answers to. Umina couldn’t imagine how much her classmates would kill to have been here. They’d be buying her drinks for weeks when she told them about this moment! And this wasn’t even the question!
“Is Three-Color Stalker—I mean, Lady Foliana really the head of the Forgotten Wing Company, Professor?”
“What, are you doubting the chain of command, Mister Kallinad?”
Niers looked mock-offended. Wil bit into a tiny fried fish, removing the bones before answering.
“Not at all, Professor. But it’s odd, given that she doesn’t um, command? Wouldn’t it make more sense for her to be second-in-command and you to lead?”
“I hear that all the time. But she’s been a leader for a long time and I have to say, it works.”
Niers shook his head. He spotted an ant and kicked it; Umina watched it fly away.
“Damn things. Must have come with the food; I have ward charms. Anyways, where was I? Oh, yes. Foliana.”
“She’s better at leading than I am, in a way. She’s unpredictable, disappears on me, has no social ability—but that’s fine in a leader so long as I’m here. She scares the flesh off of other rulers and company leaders and they can’t make her do anything she doesn’t want. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but yes, when she gives orders, I obey. Rare as that is, there have been times I’ve been grateful for it.”
“So she actually is in charge.”
Umina exhaled and looked at Wil. He winked at her, deadpan. Cameral owed Umina a gold coin! Niers laughed.
“Leadership comes in different forms. And Foliana being our head means no one can truly ever figure out how we’ll jump. Not even me! Besides, she and I have known each other for decades. Dead gods, over fifty years come to think of that.”
“In that case—that leads me into my question, Professor.”
Umina almost raised a hand before she caught herself. Niers and Wil both laughed quietly. The drink was loosening tongues as well. And Niers wasn’t using his bag of holding trick; his students had finally caught on to it.
“What made you decide to become a [Strategist], Professor? Everyone knows you were a Named Adventurer before you formed a mercenary company, but what made you—uh—”
Umina fell silent because she didn’t know how to say it without being offensive. Niers smiled.
“What made a tiny Fraerling decide he could take on the big, bad world? Don’t worry, Umina. I get that question all the time. The answer is…well, do either of you have cats?”
Umina looked blank. Wil nodded.
“We have some in the Kallinad household. Not many dogs; my mother’s allergic.”
“Huh. Remind me never to visit the Kallinad estates. I hate cats. I’m not keen on dogs either, or many ‘pets’. But cats I hate. You know why?”
Umina didn’t have to guess. The Titan was gesturing at his candle-sized height.
“They’re a danger to Fraerlings, right, sir?”
“Exactly. Cats love small objects. Even trained ones will kill anything as small as a mouse. Fraerlings are in danger around them. Cats are cruel, too. They kill things for fun. They’re banned anywhere a Fraerling village exists, and everywhere where the Forgotten Wing Company holds power. They can stay indoors, but those damn things don’t go outside.”
“What’s that got to do with you becoming an adventurer, sir? Or a [Strategist]?”
If he says his family was killed by a cat, don’t laugh. Umina repeated it twice and saw Wil doing the same. Niers smiled.
“I’m just bringing up cats because they’re a good example. Cats are deadly to Fraerlings. But uh, how many of your people do you know that have been killed by a cat?”
Niers and Umina both paused and looked at Wil. He looked embarrassed.
“Suffocation. I have a third-aunt who was suffocated in her sleep by all the cats she kept. And I heard about another death the same way.”
“That’s hilarious. Those damn furred monsters.”
Niers shook his head. He waved Wil’s statement away.
“Practically though, they don’t savage you to death, right? Umina, you’re no [Warrior] but I bet you could fight off a dozen cats if you had to. Fraerlings on the other hand? I know…dead gods, at least twenty eight people who died to cats. Imagine that.”
The statement was sobering. Umina paused as she reached for a drink. Niers went on, gesturing to his body.
“A Fraerling is strong. An adult can lift things many times their weight. I could toss that cup you’re holding, Umina, even lift it when it’s full. But that’s not much use when everything’s so big, is it?”
The Titan sighed. He sat back down in his chairs and stared upwards. When he spoke, it was distantly.
“I grew up in a Fraerling village. Like most Fraerlings. It’s rare we live elsewhere. Sure, some of us have that classic story where we live in a house unknown to the owners, but let’s be real: that’s dangerous. It’s too easy to be squished. And rats! You ever think about fighting rats? They don’t fight you, but to us they’re like bulls. Big, vicious, and smart. Cats terrify us. Now, imagine what it’s like for Fraerlings to fight a Troll.”
He shook his head.
“There’s no point to being a [Warrior] if you’re a Fraerling. Not if you want to do anything with the tall folk. Oh, you can turn the tides and we have ways of dealing with huge foes, but it’s just a waste of levels when you get down to it. A Level 60 Fraerling [Warrior] can kill even a Griffin, but they’ll still die if you stomp on them a few times.”
“What about magic?”
Umina offered that uncertainty. Niers snorted.
“Ever seen a [Fireball] cast by a Fraerling [Mage]? Size isn’t everything where magic is concerned, but it matters. There’s this book by a Drake that goes into body mass and magic. Grimalkin—I think there’s a copy in the library. Anyways, that can be better, but Fraerlings are still too small. It’s literally too hard for us to weave larger spells; we can throw tiny [Fireballs] all day, but that’s not exactly what you need, is it?”
He shook his head.
“No. Fraerlings have to hide because we’re in danger. We can protect ourselves from rats; our [Warriors] can hack through a colony at high levels, but those are small threats. Big ones? No Fraerling can match an adventurer from another species. I knew that, growing up. I couldn’t stand with other species as a [Warrior] or a [Mage]. I didn’t want to be a [Crafter]. But there was one class that didn’t care how big you were. And that was…”
Both his students exhaled. The Titan’s lessons were often circular, but they always came back to the point via story or example. He nodded, his eyes flashing.
“Exactly. It was my dream to leave my village. To be more than someone who had to hide from a stray housecat, or live in terror of an errant boot! And [Strategists] can affect any number of people! So I became one.”
“Just like that?”
Niers looked vaguely offended.
“We need [Strategists] in Fraerling villages too, Wil. Here, pass that bottle, will you? The Drake one. Thank you. Put it there. Yes, we need [Strategists]. And I was good at my job! I helped clear out this damn hornet’s nest on my first campaign, and I pushed back a boar herd.”
He saw his students chuckling and raised his brows.
“Oh, you laugh! But imagine fighting them with an army of people one foot tall at most? I was a higher-level [Strategist] than anyone else my age by the time I turned twenty! And when I left the village to go to an Adventurer’s Guild, I could have stood toe-to-toe with any of you in my classes now. Think of that!”
Umina did. She stopped laughing. Wil leaned forwards.
“You would have been an asset to a team, Professor. But I imagine it was difficult.”
“Oh yes! A [Strategist] buffing a team of adventurers? Giving them orders? I knew I could be invaluable. But no one wanted to take me on. They just laughed at the tiny Fraerling or tried to humor me. I spent three years going from team to team until I met a team that welcomed me. Foliana was a loner, then. We joined up and when I found a group that would actually listen to me—well, the rest is history.”
He spread his arms. Umina nodded. She’d read of the Titan’s adventuring days. She edged forwards, picking at the dates as Niers continued. He was good at storytelling; it suited his personality.
“First we were Bronze-rank. Bronze. I wasn’t, and neither was Foliana, but our companions were just starting out, hence them being willing to take orders from me. But we weren’t that way for long. I was leveling fast, using my abilities to make my team take on bigger challenges. We became Silver-rank within the month. And we hit Gold the next year! Before we knew it, we were Named Adventurers.”
“You were a Named Adventurer.”
You forgot that, sometimes. But the Titan had been one. Was he still one? His fame had eclipsed that rank, but there were so few Named Adventurers in the world. The Fraerling corrected Umina.
“A team, not individual ones of course; no one would ever make me a Named Adventurer on my own. But I dare say we were some of the best of our generation! Thirty strong!”
Wil paused, looking surprised. Niers grinned.
“Why not? It makes sense! Numbers, if used efficiently, is strength! True, most teams can’t sustain numbers higher than…a dozen at best. Most are around four to five. It’s not hard to understand why; maintaining a semblance of equality and balancing your income against maintaining families, gear, potions? Not to mention all the personalities you find in adventurers! Mine was different though; as a [Strategist], I could hold them together and get them to work on multiple missions at once. We were stronger than your average guild, in fact!”
“But why did you quit? What happened to the others?”
Umina had heard all sorts of rumors. And here, at least, the Titan’s openness wavered. He paused, and his expression grew bleak.
“Well, many joined the Forgotten Wing Company. If you’re asking where all of them are now…many passed away. On our final mission—or after we started our company. In battle, from disease, time…it’s been fifty years, as I said.”
He looked around, tired. Umina and Wil sobered. After a moment Niers shook his head.
“Not all of them died; some just quit. In the end, it was just a handful of us left, the Forgotten Wing Company’s original officers. And then…it was just Foliana and I from the adventuring days. So if you’re asking how I got from a Fraerling village to here—it was because I wanted to interact with the big people. And being a [Strategist] means I can order anyone about. The rest of it? It was just natural progression.”
He fell silent, and took another drink from his thimble-cup. Niers looked up.
“Any more questions? Remember, the floor’s open. Or table.”
Umina and Wil hesitated, looking at each other. They had another big one, but…Niers tapped one foot.
“Go on. I told you, nothing’s off-limits. If I don’t want to tell you, I just won’t.”
He smiled lightly, as if he could see right through them. And perhaps he could. Umina felt like the first day she’d ever sat in his class. Awestruck at meeting a legend in person. And he was so small. Until you looked at him and realized he was far larger than his actual body.
“If I may, Professor? I have to know this. Would you—tell us about your battle with Queravia?”
Wil broke the silence at last. Umina exhaled slowly. Yes. Of the big questions they had, that was the last one. Niers slowly raised his head. He stopped smiling.
“Ah. My famous battle with the King of Destruction’s [Strategist]. Queravia, the Gambler of Fates. You want to know how it went, I suppose?”
“You’ve never told us in class. I mean, about the battle, but never the specifics. Does everyone ask, Professor? Everyone who comes here?”
The Fraerling nodded, grinning.
“Of course they do! They want to hear it from me. And to be fair, it’s a tale worth telling. It’s just not one I care to tell to the public. You know all about it, of course?”
Umina nodded. She’d heard Foliana give her speech about the famous battle three years in a row. The Squirrel Beastkin didn’t even change her words, but it still got her applause each year with the retelling. But she had never heard the Titan telling his version of it.
“Was there something secret about the battle?”
“No. Yes—damn. Let’s go from the beginning.”
“Another lecture, Professor?”
Umina teased the Titan. He scowled, and then grinned.
“No, this isn’t a lecture. Well, perhaps it is. We’ve gone over the King of Destruction’s tactics and the way he was able to so effectively crush his opponents with grand strategy. Everyone knows that. But I want to tell you some of the information I don’t share about the end of the King of Destruction’s rampage.”
Umina and Wil exchanged another look. Secret information? They edged even closer, rocking the table. The Titan nearly lost his footing.
“Careful! My wardrobe’s over there! Yes, secret information. Alright, scoot in. This is what I don’t teach in my lessons. Part of it is due to caution; it could land me in trouble if I were accused of spreading rumors. And the other reason is because, frankly, there’s little to learn. First, let’s talk about the war. He’d taken Chandrar and was splitting up his armies to invade both Izril and Baleros at once.”
“And that’s where he failed, right, sir? The Minotaurs ambushed his fleets at sea and killed one of his Seven. The Blighted King sent an army from Rhir and defeated Takhatres while the Walled Cities stalemated his armies. And in Baleros—”
“I killed Queravia.”
Niers put his cup down. He stood, looking from face to face.
“Yes. And after that, the King of Destruction entered his slumber and his kingdom collapsed. But it wasn’t that simple. You see, we teach that he was overextending, overconfident, and naturally he lost. But in truth, he was close to winning. Or at least, his strategy might have let him throw two continents into war.”
“Really? But his decision to split his armies—”
“It was intelligent. Risky, but he knew the world was coming for him. And like the Goblin King in decades since then, we’ve seen that few people can fight every army at once. So the King of Destruction changed tactics. Rather than let Chandrar be invaded and fight a defensive war, he, or perhaps Queravia, devised a bold strategy. Occupy two continents in war and force the battles to happen there.”
“But how would he fight on two fronts?”
Wil was perplexed, trying to see ahead of the answer. So was Umina. She blinked.
“Wait—was it—the Gnolls?”
Wil and Niers looked at her. The Titan’s eyes glittered.
“Full marks. Yes. That’s what I believed at the time. The King of Destruction had declared war against the Drakes. But I thought—perhaps he would reach out to the Gnoll tribes. Ally with them. Izril is divided. He could have reached out to the Humans too. And on Baleros? Look at our divided continent! Who might he have reached out for here?”
Neither student had to think.
Niers Astoragon inclined his head.
“Exactly. All the species who don’t have power. Who are shunned, by most groups. I employ Selphids in the Forgotten Wing Company, but if Flos Reimarch offered them a chance to take back power? Their land? Gnolls. Selphids. Half-Gazers. Maybe even the Minotaurs, before they decided to oppose him. He would have been their champion. But you know what terrified Wistram and Rhir?”
Umina and Wil inhaled sharply. Wil finished the thought.
“Demons. But he wouldn’t have allied with the Demon King. Surely not!”
He looked appalled. Niers didn’t answer at once. He looked around, meeting both student’s gazes.
“This is why I don’t teach this openly. But yes, he might have. Who knows? It’s just speculation. But I’ll wager you diamonds to dust that Wistram used that to move the Blighted King to send an army against the King of Destruction.”
“So that’s why Rhir sent an army.”
“Wistram is dangerous.”
That was just a fact. Both students nodded. Niers went on.
“So that was his strategy. And it might have worked! You’ve heard Foliana’s speech. Queravia landed with one army, separated from the King of Destruction’s vanguard after the battle with the Minotaurs. She was cut off, but she made a stand and crushed an army sent by two Great Companies! She was waiting for reinforcements, daring all of Baleros to take her on. And she won.”
Umina watched Niers walking back and forth slowly. His eyes were bright and glittering in the room, lit only by mage light.
“If she had kept going, he could have won. He lost one of his Seven against the Minotaurs, yes. But six remained. Amerys was fighting on Izril, holding down an entire Walled City! The Gnolls might have rallied if the King of Destruction had landed more armies there. And on Baleros? With more time, how many companies would have embraced Flos for a chance to rise in power? He could have done it.”
“But for you.”
“I saw it coming. And I took an army. Queravia had crushed one, but there was still a chance to defeat her. I gathered every force I could in a thousand miles and marched on her. Even so—her army had leveled from her victories and she had his elites. His Dreamers as well. I was facing the best of Chandrar’s forces, and cut off as they were, I knew it was a gamble. But I had to risk it. And that day I put myself against the Gambler of Fates. [Strategist] vs [Strategist].”
And he won. But Niers didn’t look proud. He shook his head.
“You want to know what happened on that day, Umina, Wil? The truth was that when we joined battle, from the first twenty minutes, I knew I was losing.”
He nodded, staring backwards through time.
“Oh yes. Queravia was a genius. As gifted as I’ve ever seen. But it was her unique style that threw me. I realized in the first engagement why she had beaten two Great Companies. It was down to her Skills. Her…personality. Her luck. Let me give you an example.”
The Titan paced down the table. He came back with a chessboard Umina recognized. She inhaled as she saw the glowing magical pieces. They were in the middle of a game. The Titan carefully put it down and picked up two pawns. He showed them to her and Wil.
“Let’s say there was a matchup. Not a chess board; we know the outcome of each piece, but a real battle. Two units of…pikes, say, charging each other. The odds are incalculable who’ll win. You’re too busy as a [Strategist] to analyze their levels or makeup; you just see the opportunity to clash or withdraw. What do you do?”
“See if it benefits me to take the charge, distract the opponent. If not, retreat?”
It wasn’t really a good question for a hypothetical. Umina shrugged uncomfortably. Niers nodded.
“Fair enough. Wear them down if it’s strategic, force them to spread out and fight. But if you keep getting those encounters, do you keep committing?”
“No, sir. That’s too risky. I’d always want a scenario where I can win, or delay at acceptable…”
Umina trailed off. Niers nodded. He pointed to the two pawns, then put them back where they had been.
“Exactly. No sane [Strategist] gambles with an outcome. We take calculated risks, but we always try to create areas where we win, sometimes at the cost of others. Pull in here, sacrifice this unit, but hammer the opponent where it hurts here. Don’t risk a pivotal outcome to chance. But Queravia—she was a [Gambler]. And—remember her title? She wasn’t just a [Gambler]. She was lucky.”
“You mean in general, Professor? Or with dice…?”
The hair was rising on Wil’s neck. On Umina, her scales were tingling. Niers shook his head.
“No. I mean everything about her was lucky. If there was any scenario where it was up to the odds…sixty percent. Six out of ten. That’s what I think she had.”
“If every time you flipped a coin, the chances were half and half of it being either side, Queravia had a sixty percent chance of it going her way. And that extended to uncertain matchups. She just had more luck than me. So if we met with two equal units—”
He indicated the pawns.
“Six times out of ten, she won. And sometimes, against impossible odds, her tactics would work. And that created a huge difference over time.”
Slowly, the Titan sat. And now his students could almost see the battle, reflected in his voice, his eyes.
“She was winning. It was like I was playing against luck herself. She’d send in a group of swords to charge a flank I was sure they’d lose and they’d cut through. Arrows would miss taking out a [Captain]. She lost, yes, but she was winning. A unit of pikes would cut through an elite group. And suddenly they were heroes on the battlefield. That was how she fought. She made heroes out of ordinary [Soldiers]. And they leveled with each victory.”
“That’s not fair.”
It flew against everything Umina had been taught. Niers raised an eyebrow.
“Fair? She just had an advantage on her side, Umina. An extra factor called ‘luck’. And she used it.”
The Lizardgirl flushed. Wil just looked at Niers.
“Then how did you beat her, sir?”
“At first I didn’t. I had more soldiers, and resources and she was defensive. But her luck kept equalizing situations. I dare say I was better in pure strategy by a bit. I like to think so, or I would have lost outright. But neither of us could win. We just…hit each other. Again and again. It was a slaughter, but she was slowly overpowering my army. I knew it. So, in desperation, I changed tactics.”
“What did you do?”
Niers looked up. Umina expected a grand plan, a speech, a lesson of strategy. But all he did was shrug.
“I created a scenario where she couldn’t turn the odds. I charged her front, tied up all her forces in an all-or-nothing assault. And in the confusion, I found her command. And I killed her.”
Both Umina and Wil waited. But that was all Niers said. He looked around and filled his cup with the strongest alcohol there was. Wil croaked and reached for his own cup.
“That’s it. Nothing special. Remember when Cameral got you with an arrow in battle, Umina? He was losing the battle, but when you were removed, your force fell apart. That’s all I did. There’s nothing to teach; I just forced a confrontation and I won.”
It was anticlimactic. Umina saw at once how it made sense. But she knew why the Titan didn’t speak of it. There was something…Niers tossed his cup down bitterly. He looked past them and shook his head.
“I suppose I was the better [Strategist] since the attack on her command worked. It’s a valid tactic. The one that walks away wins. But that’s the irony of it. I teach you all that victory is what counts. But I can’t help but remember that battle with guilt. She outfought me, Umina, Wil. She had just one weakness and I hit it. To this day, I feel like I robbed the world of a truly great mind. I wish there had been another way. But I won. And the King of Destruction’s dreams fell apart there. That’s all there was to it.”
He sat down heavily and Umina and Wil looked at each other. Umina didn’t know what to say. She only had one thought. No, two. The Titan spoke of Queravia with regret. She had been his better, or at least, so he believed. He regretted killing her, because he was alone. Alone but for…her eyes lingered on the chessboard with the ghostly pieces. And then she thought of the second thing.
He had killed her. Himself. She wanted to ask how. But Niers was sitting still. He looked up, smiling faintly, and shook his head.
“I’m melancholy when drunk. Pass me some snacks, Umina?”
She did. Niers broke off a huge chip and began to eat it.
“Enough of that story. You have your answer. It’s not glorious, but it is a secret. The King of Destruction. Wistram—dead gods, I hate the Academy. My scrying orb is warded against them, but I know they have eyes and ears everywhere. Let’s talk of happier things. The night’s not over yet. A few more questions. I get to ask you a few, about you two! And then—well, we’ll have time for one last question, won’t we?”
He smiled. And Umina and Wil felt a surge of apprehension. They looked out the dark windows. It was nearly time.
Niers Astoragon sat alone in his room. On the table, in his chair. The bowls of snacks had been mostly depleted, and he himself felt stretched from all he’d consumed. Still, he wasn’t about to succumb to exhaustion or alcohol or food comas yet. The most important moment of the night had yet to come.
It was a knock on the door. The Titan looked up.
Wil Kallinad stepped into the room. The young man adjusted his clothing and walked towards his seat. He was more familiar now, but apprehension had returned his nerves. Niers chuckled softly.
“Sit down, lad. We were just talking.”
“Yes, sir. Professor. Excuse me.”
Red-faced, Wil sat. Niers raised an eyebrow.
“Did Umina win the contest, or did you?”
Wil blinked, and then smiled ruefully.
“I won, sir. I wanted to…”
“Get it over with?”
Niers looked kindly at the [Lord]. Wil hunched his shoulders, and then straightened. He met Niers’ eyes.
“Frankly, Professor? Yes. I truly enjoyed our conversation. My question—it’s not fascinating to me. Should I ask you now?”
Niers waited. Wil sat up and took a deep breath. Then another. He came out with it in a rush.
“Professor, what is the most valuable piece of information that will aid the Kallinad family at this moment?”
He looked at Niers. And the Titan stared back. He searched Wil’s unhappy face. And then he reached for his drink. Niers thought better of it at the last second and pushed it away. Then he just looked at Wil.
“That’s your question, is it, Wil Kallinad?”
Wil broke away from Niers’ gaze. The Titan nodded thoughtfully.
“A good question. One that will aid your family. Did your father choose it for you? One of your family members?”
“They had suggestions, sir. But I chose it myself. Do you think it’s a wise question?”
“Is that your question?”
Niers laughed softly and waved a hand.
“Sorry. No, to be frank, it’s a fine question. And I’ll answer to the spirit of it—I’m not some malicious monster, Wil. But let’s be honest a moment, before I answer. That’s not really what you wanted to ask, is it?”
“…No, sir. It’s not.”
Niers nodded softly. Wil hesitated, opened his mouth, and then shook his head. He rested his hands on his knees, squeezing them tight.
“I won’t change my mind, though, Professor. I owe my family a debt for the ships and all the effort they spent. Not to mention enrolling me here! I can’t ask another one.”
The Titan’s voice was sympathetic. He paused.
“Out of curiosity, Wil. If you could have asked, what would have been your question?”
The young man looked up. For a moment Niers thought he wouldn’t reply, but then the words spilled out of him in a rush.
“What is the greatest treasure or mystery of this world that you know of concretely that has yet to be uncovered, Professor? To clarify—how may it be found? What are the dangers? Where would one begin searching?”
He looked up, his eyes shining. And then he glanced down. Niers smiled wryly.
“Multiple questions in one. But the spirit is good.”
“I didn’t workshop the question, sir. I knew I wouldn’t ask.”
The [Lord] mumbled again. It was so at odds to the confidence the young man had shown at Daquin. Niers felt for him.
“Why that question, Wil? If you could have asked?”
“Well, the possibility, sir. I don’t know what the best thing to ask for is. A dungeon? A shipwreck? A…a Dragon’s horde? A riddle with an artifact? But you do. So I thought you would answer me fairly. And I have the means to attempt to find whatever you told me!”
Wil looked up, eagerly. He gestured to his clothes, only a bit stained by the night’s frivolities.
“The Kallinad family is wealthy, Professor. And if I made the request, my father might grant me the resources and even forces I asked for. We have ties to the Order of Seasons and to our kingdom, Pheislant. I could request [Knights] to join an expedition, ask for volunteers among my classmates with the summer break coming up—”
“The greatest opportunity of a lifetime. It’s romantic, sir, but even though I’m a [Strategist], I’d like to be a hero out of legends. Someone who found some great treasure, or did something truly amazing. Like Thivian Stormless. I know it’s childish, but…”
He looked at Niers. The Titan sat up.
“Childish? Wil, I had the same dream in that Fraerling village. I wanted to be a hero too. Why do you think I was an adventurer all those years? It’s not childish. It’s a dream.”
Wil nodded, eagerly, looking up, validation surging in his eyes. But then his face fell.
“It’s a risk, though, Professor. And it might not pan out. Even if it does, I could die. If it was just me asking, I would. But my family—”
“You won’t change your question? I could answer it, you know.”
That hurt him. Niers regretted saying it, but he had to ask. Wil hesitated, and then hunched down again.
“No, sir. My duty to House Kallinad comes first.”
“If you’re sure.”
Wil gritted his teeth.
“I am, Professor.”
The Fraerling watched him. And the he nodded.
“You have the right to ask me any question in the world, Wil. Any one at all. You chose, and so, to the best of my knowledge, I’ll reply. What aids House Kallinad the most at this moment? I’m honored they think I would know. The Forgotten Wing Company has no contracts with Terandria and I have visited the continent only a handful of times. However, somewhat ironically, I do know something of value. Worthy of the question.”
Wil looked up. Niers stood, and took his cup. He stared into the clear liquid before turning back to Wil, and his tone was brisk.
“Wil. Your half-brother—no, pardon me, your cousin, Girent, is engaged to a member of House…blast, I’m a bit drunk. House Havrington, isn’t that right?”
“The du Havrington family, yes, Professor.”
Wil sat up, suddenly alert. The Titan nodded.
“What do you think of them? Between us?”
Wil was cautious, but he relaxed as he looked around the Titan’s rooms, one of the most secure in the world.
“I—know some of them. I can’t say I’m fond of their family, Professor. They’re rather…”
“Human-centric? Bigoted? I’ve met them too, Wil. This is just between us.”
“All of the above, sir. But my father wants peace with them. Hence the marriage.”
“And he is marrying a girl. Thirteen. Lady Cassicel Havrington, who would be by bloodline next in line to the position of [Marquis] and fourth by blood to the Havrington’s own line of succession. Correct?”
Wil nodded slowly.
“Yes—yes. It’s just political. She’ll live in our household. Girent isn’t happy about it, but he doesn’t have to live with the du Havringtons, and this is a big concession for them to end the hostilities between our families, so we’re putting a lot into the marriage. What of it?”
Niers took a gulp from his cup. The fiery liquid burned his throat. The Titan sighed.
“It’s a sham. The marriage, I mean. The entire damn thing is fake.”
The [Lord] sat up, alarm written over his face. Niers held up a hand.
“Don’t panic! This isn’t an assassination at a wedding. Nothing so dramatic. Rather, it’s political. Messy. Lady Cassicel is not a pure-blood bloodline. In fact, her grandmother was a commoner. By marrying her, you’ll invalidate your offspring unless you induct her as a Kallinad. Either way, it will be a disaster politically.”
“Yes—but how do you know that, sir? That would be a scandal! If we married Girent and they revealed her blood wasn’t pure, it would be a scandal! And we gave them—would they reveal it now? No—in a decade!”
“Perhaps when your father passed or later still. It would be used at the most opportune time to embarrass the Kallinads, perhaps if your family were trying to leverage your ties against the du Havringtons. Either way, they gain a truce and a weapon to use against you.”
Wil nodded. He was aware of the politics, more so than Niers. He sat back, staring.
“This is huge. But how do you know this, Professor? This should be the most secret of information. Only the family of the du Havringtons would know this, unless there was a leak…?”
Niers shook his head.
“Not that I know of. And I only know this information by coincidence. You see, Wil—Lady Cassicel. I knew her grandfather.”
Wil leaned over. Niers gestured at him to take a drink. He returned to his seat, speaking crisply.
“It’s not a fantastic story. Back when I was first beginning the Forgotten Wing Company with Foliana, we were looking for officers. Recruiting anyone of talent, really. You know how it goes? Well, one of the people who enlisted was a [Lord]. Human. From Terandria, although he never said where.”
“Yes. Lady Cassicel’s grandfather. We didn’t know, of course. We just called him Bedil. Good old Bedil. He was a [Lord] and he had decent Skills so I entrusted him with the command. He did good work, but he was running from something. He only told me who he was when they caught up with him.”
Niers tipped the glass he was drinking, walked over to the water through the puddle. He looked back at Wil.
“I think he ran away from his family. He had a few artifacts—and it’s not uncommon. He was a decent man, Wil. And his family weren’t. He served with me for six years until they came for him. Then it was [Bounty Hunters] and mercenaries, and Foliana and I found ourselves fighting Terandrians! We didn’t want to give him up, but Bedil gave in when he realized his family wouldn’t stop.”
“Why did they want him back?”
Niers raised his eyebrows.
“Because he was theirs. Because he might embarrass them? Frankly, I think, because they wanted to marry him off. Either way, he gave in. His family took him—they never said who they were and he only ever told me his identity, so I think they assumed we were in the dark. Typical arrogance. But there was just one hitch. Can you imagine what that was?”
Wil was no fool. It took him only a second before his eyes widened.
“He had a child.”
“A wife and a child. Two, actually.”
Niers nodded. He sat down, recalling it.
“He was married, actually. It wasn’t a casual thing. She was—oh, a Lizardwoman.”
“Fertility spells. I think both their children were Human. Lucky for them. But Bedil did love her. And when they took him, they brought his family too. Can’t have their bloodlines running about.”
“But this is huge, sir. Other species marrying into a family like the du Havringtons? If it was Kallinad, it would be big enough, but—they covered it up. I never heard of a Lizardwoman in the du Havrington family. But their servants?”
Wil was pacing. Niers nodded.
“I can only speculate. I never heard from Bedil again; I don’t think he was allowed much freedom. If he still lives.”
“He does, Professor. I’ve never seen him except at a few gatherings, but…”
“Good. But regardless, I know what his children looked like. And I can count. He has four heirs, doesn’t he? And his current wife…”
“Human. They’re all from her, or that’s what the bloodlines say. But if two came from his first wife—”
“Then they’re not purebloods. In fact, they share Lizardperson ancestry. Maybe a few unobtrusive scales? Fertility spells have a few quirks. Either way, Lady Cassicel is descended from his firstborn son. So…”
“…All of his descendants are ineligible without having been inducted into the Havrington family. Which they might have been! His wife might well have been inducted by virtue of marriage. But—”
Wil caught himself and shook his head.
“Not in the Du Havrington family. It would be a huge scandal.”
The Fraerling nodded. He looked into his drink and concluded.
“It will be a huge scandal. A blow to the Kallinad family, although not so much I daresay. It really only benefits the Havringtons to invalidate your marriage and end the feud between your families; they’ve been getting the worst of it.”
“Yes. And if they revealed Lady Cassicel’s ancestry—it’ll be a feud again. But it will wreck our reputation as much as theirs. Damn them. This is low. And they’re using Lord Bedil’s children in other marriages! Their bloodlines are pure—no wonder the Havringtons have been accepting marriages for…”
Wil trailed off. It was a foreign political system to Niers, but he knew a backstab when he saw one. And this was a good one, if Wil’s expression was anything to go by. The [Lord] looked at Niers, hesitated, and nodded.
“It—that—it is very valuable, Professor. My father will appreciate the information greatly. Thank you.”
And he would, too. Wil could only imagine how that tidbit would be used. It would wreck the Havringtons if deployed correctly, and save his family some embarrassment. And yet…Wil sagged. Niers watched him.
“You don’t look too happy for someone who’s received the answer to his question.”
The young man couldn’t answer back. He just hung his head. Niers looked at him sympathetically.
“Duty is a hard thing, Wil. I can’t tell you it’s better to live for yourself; it’s something you have to weigh.”
Wil might have nodded. His head jerked and he looked up. He hesitated and bit his lip.
“If I hadn’t asked, would you have used the information yourself, Professor?”
“You mean to threaten the Havringtons or warn House Kallinad? No, Wil. Some secrets you just keep. I have enough trouble without getting into Terandrian politics. You can’t really ever get out once you put a foot in.”
Niers looked amused as he shook his head. That made Wil feel a bit better. Even so, he rose slowly.
“I’ve fulfilled my obligations to my family. The du Havringtons will pay for this. That’s some consolation. Professor, thank you. The question was worth it.”
Just not for him. Niers nodded. He watched Wil excuse himself, walk towards the door. Niers hesitated. And he looked at Foliana and she nodded.
The young man turned back. Niers paused, and then spoke slowly.
“Your dream of adventure. Don’t give it up. If you look for it, Wil, it will find you. When it does, reach out and grab it.”
Wil hesitated. Then he smiled and ducked his head.
“Thank you, Professor. I will.”
He left. Niers watched him go and then the door shut. He paused, and then sighed, and took another gulp of his drink. One down. Then the Titan of Baleros raised his voice.
Umina was nervous. Beyond nervous. Terrified, but so scared she was calm. She’d seen Wil leave, looking unhappy and relieved. Now it was her turn. Umina walked into the room. She sat down at the Titan’s bidding, and looked at him.
“Um. You answered Wil’s question, Professor?”
“I believe I did. Whether it is to his satisfaction, we will see. I can’t speak to you of it, but he has his answer.”
The Fraerling’s voice was neutral. Umina nodded, squirming. She looked towards the door as it closed. She’d left it open. Niers waved a hand.
“Automatically closing doors. Handy for Fraerlings.”
“Sorry, Professor. Um—I know this is my chance to ask my question. But—may I ask something before that?”
He smiled at her. Reassured, Umina took a breath. She hesitated, but she had been able to talk to Niers this night. So it was only with a bit of difficulty she spoke.
“I—um, Professor, this is a bit silly. But I wanted to ask about me. As a student.”
Niers’ eyes focused slightly.
“I—am I special, Professor? Do I stand out? As a student?”
The question exited Umina in a rush. The Titan blinked. He sat back slowly, as she looked at him. Then he smiled fondly.
“That’s an odd question. Of course you stand out! I’ve never had a student pop out of the ground covered in…sewer waste during my games! That was a surprise! You beat your fellow students!”
“Yes sir. But that was luck as much as strategy. I’m talking about me as a student.”
The Titan shrugged lightly. Umina watched him, her tail curled up.
“You’re gifted, sharp—you come up with the most unorthodox solutions most often, which is what I like to see. Of course you’re special!”
The Fraerling paused. Umina looked at him and spoke slowly.
“I think you’re lying to me. Or—telling half-truths. I need to know. What if I made it my question, Professor? Honestly, am I unique?”
Niers looked at her. Really looked at Umina. And she felt a pit in her stomach. She’d admired him. She wanted to be like him. She’d tried her best to excel, to be worthy of the legend of her teacher. So she knew the answer when he covered up his reply with his praise. And she knew the answer before he spoke now.
The word hit Umina like a brick. Niers sat up. He looked at her. A bit sadly.
“You did ask. And if you made it our question, Umina, I would say…no. Do you stand out? Yes. But are you…”
She looked at him. Niers shook his head slowly.
“I’m sorry. But if you’re asking if I see something I haven’t seen before? I don’t. I see a brilliant young [Strategist], Umina. But you have to understand. I taught Perorn, Umina. Perorn, Tulm—all of them. They were all my best students. And you know what? I didn’t even think they were the best at the time.”
The Professor sat back. He looked backwards and shook his head.
“Some of them stood out, like Tulm. Most surprised me. I can remember students I thought would change the world, replace me, who died. Or just never became anything. Some of them were so gifted I couldn’t believe it. Others had special talents, Skills, classes. That made them ‘special’. If you want to know if I see that spark—”
He shook his head. Umina bit her lip. She wasn’t going to cry. Niers was speaking to her like an adult, not a child. He looked up, kindly, but seriously.
“I’m sorry to tell you like that. But if you were asking if I saw a great spark in you—I don’t. And overconfidence—”
“—Kills. I know, Professor.”
Did you have to ask? His gaze looked pained. Umina only dipped her head once. She’d wanted to know. It was a bitter truth. It had soured the moment. After a moment, Niers sighed.
“It’s fine, Professor. Was—was that my question?”
“No. No, it wasn’t. Ask. By all means.”
He shook his head firmly. That relieved Umina. She sat up. And he looked at her.
“You have any question in the world, Umina. Any one within my power. Ask.”
She nodded. She looked him in the eye. And she channeled her pain, her disappointment, into a question that was the best she could ask.
“Professor, what is the identity of your mysterious chess opponent?”
Niers Astoragon blinked. He stared at Umina. And she rejoiced in the surprise on his face. He stared at her, smiled, and then grew serious. He shook his head.
“Ask me another question, Umina. Please.”
“That was my question, Professor. Can’t you answer it?”
She challenged him, shaking with nerves. The Titan laughed softly. He raked a hand through his hair.
“I’d forgotten there was a question I could be asked that would bother me! Sudden developments—to answer you, Umina. No. I don’t know for certain. I have a guess. And I could tell you a number of things. But let me speak.”
He held up a hand, forestalling Umina. The Titan got up, looked at her.
“I know what I promised. But I don’t want to tell you. I—sometimes I advise students on what question they should ask. Or guide them to the right answer. I’m doing the same now. Umina, ask me where some buried treasure is. I do actually know a cache or two. Ask me about something else. This answer won’t bring you anything of benefit, I promise you.”
“But it’s my question. Why don’t you want to answer it?”
The Lizardgirl persisted. Niers sighed again.
“It’s dangerous. Some questions my students have asked in this room, Umina? They’ve gotten them killed. Others are safer. This question? It’s very dangerous.”
“Why? Because of who your opponent is?”
She was fishing. Niers ignored her question.
“It’s a dangerous question because I’ll know that you know. And you might find yourself on the board against the deadliest of opponents. It touches my affairs, Umina. And that’s a precarious spot to be in, even if I’m trying to protect you. What would you do with the information? Use it? Sell it? Either way, you put a target on your back.”
That was true. But Umina was certain.
“I want to know, Professor. But if you want me to, I’ll ask another one.”
“Yes! Go on. Please.”
Niers looked relieved. Umina stared him right in the eye. Her neck-frills opened a bit. She felt powerful in this moment. She’d bothered the Titan, the Professor. Now she asked the second question on her mind.
“Okay then, Professor. Then here’s my second question. What was the answer to the question Tulm the Mithril was going to ask you if he won at Daquin?”
This time, the pause was even longer. Niers looked up at Umina. And she saw his indecision. At last, he turned and reached for his cup. He took a long drink, and then turned and grinned at her.
“Clever. I don’t want to answer that one either.”
“Really? Are these questions so hard, Professor?”
Umina almost felt like she was teasing him. It was a heady feeling. Niers waved one hand, shaking his head.
“Honestly? Yes, Umina. Not many of my students ask questions that are so…dangerous. It’s actually hard to ask that kind of question. But these two secrets?”
He waved a hand.
“Congratulations. Many of my students ask about secrets. Personal ones, like the identity of a father. The location of something. The truth about…well, I can’t say. And I find it for them, or I tell them. It’s students like you, who don’t have anything they want that trouble me. Are you sure I can’t offer you a question about gold? Personal power? An artifact?”
He looked at her hopelessly. Because he knew her, and he knew the answer before Umina shook her head. She smiled at him, delighting in the moment.
“One or the other, Professor. A classic chess fork.”
He blew out his cheeks.
“Did I hurt your feelings that much earlier?”
She nearly laughed at him.
“No, Professor. I’m just your student, and I chose the two questions I thought would bother you most in the world. Because they’re the most valuable to me.”
He laughed. And there was pride in that laughter. Umina laughed too. And her hurt heart soothed. She wasn’t special. And she had known that. She had wanted to be—just like Wil wanted to be a hero. But she was ordinary. And yet, this ordinary student had the Titan in a trap.
It was a moment she’d remember forever. Niers Astoragon saluted Umina with his mug and drained it. He stared at her, weighing both questions. She didn’t know which was worth more. But he did. And his decision told her just as much about the invisible weight of each question.
At last, Niers Astoragon spoke. He stepped forwards and Umina lowered her head. Niers smiled, sighed, and shrugged. As if to say, ‘what can you do’? Umina wished she’d asked him if he was really cursed by killing Queravia. But then he whispered towards her earhole.
“Alright. Listen carefully. Because I will only ever say this once. The answer to…”
Later. Umina walked through the streets of Elvallian. It was close to dawn; she’d been speaking with the Professor and Wil all night. And her question had come as the next day began. She was drunk, and her head was spinning. She was upset too, as she stumbled down the street. Regrets—oh, they piled on her.
She had her answer. But it was confusing. And it was—well, Umina felt like she’d made a mistake. She should have asked for gold, or the location of a magical artifact. Or made him tell her about his chess partner. That way Umina would at least be the most popular student in the academy…for months! Instead, all she had was a secret that belonged to someone else.
It was a big secret. Yes. But it put her in danger. Niers had bid Umina good night and she’d seen the worry in his eyes. For her. Not-special Umina. Why had she asked that? It was just—she’d always wanted to know—
It hurt. Umina stumbled into her apartment after eight tries. The door hadn’t been locked. She looked up and heard an exclamation.
The Lizardgirl lurched backwards. But it was only Marian. The Centauress got up from where she’d been resting.
“It’s so late! Are you drunk?”
Umina mumbled. Marian guided to her to her bed, fishing for a water canteen.
“You were out for ages! Wil got back—everyone’s pestering him and he says the Professor talked! About his past!”
“We did. And then we got our questions answered. Just like promised.”
Marian paused. She looked at Umina and the Lizardgirl saw her friend bite her lip.
“You don’t look happy. Was it something bad?”
“Maybe? I don’t know. It’s not that, Marian. I asked the Professor a question before that. I asked him—”
Umina broke off. But Marian was looking at her and the words spilled forth.
“I wanted to ask if I was, you know, special—”
Marian’s face fell. She trotted over and sank to her knees. Her upper body hugged Umina.
“Oh, Umina. You silly little lizard! Why’d you do that?”
That brought on the tears at last. She’d held them so well in the Titan’s office. Now though, with Marian hugging her, Umina let them spill out. That was the thing about good friends. Umina didn’t have to speak. She just let Marian hug her as she sniffled into her friend’s shirt. The Centauress sighed.
“I get it. I understand, Umina. Everyone wants to know. I mean, Yerranola, Feshi—I bet they’re curious too. But there’s a difference between knowing and knowing. Why did you ask?”
“I don’t know! But I had to ask! I wanted to be, Marian. And I was drunk and—he said no.”
Marian stroked Umina’s head softly.
“It’s okay. It’s okay, Umina. You had to know—but you knew the answer. We all do!”
Umina stiffened. The words hurt. But Marian was looking at her and Umina couldn’t escape the obvious. She sniffed. It was true. Look at Perorn! Or Tulm! It had been arrogance that made her think she was special, someone Niers hadn’t ever seen before. It was right that he’d taught her. Arrogance killed. But Marian was going on, patting Umina on the back.
“And it’d never work out, anyways. I mean, I had a huge crush on the Professor the first year, but when you think about it—his age is the least of the problems. He’s a teacher, we’re students. And Fraerlings just can’t have relationships with other species. It’s just unrealistic to assume…what?”
Umina stared up at her. The Centauress hesitated. Slowly, Umina shook her head.
“Marian. I asked him if I was a special student. If I stood out from the rest! What did you think I asked?”
The Centauress froze. Then she scrambled to her hooves. Suddenly, Marian was bright red. She stammered.
“Me? Nothing! That’s what I said! You’re not a special student! Of course you’re not! That’s hubris! I never—you didn’t hear—that’s a secret, understand? I’ve gotta go!”
She looked around, and then practically galloped out of Umina’s room. The Lizardgirl stared at the open door, listening to Marian clatter down the incline. She laughed, shakily, and wiped at her tears.
“Now that’s a secret.”
She felt calmer now, after crying a bit. And Umina did regret asking that question. It was stupid vanity. She crawled into bed. She shouldn’t have asked. But she could only add that to a list of her mistakes she’d remember forever.
And the night had been glorious. She still remembered the Titan’s face. Umina comforted herself with that. She had a secret, an answer to a question even one of the Titan’s best students couldn’t figure out. She had that.
The Lizardgirl wiped at her running nostrils and curled up into a ball in her covers to make herself feel better. As if she was in the very egg she’d hatched from. It was childish, but it made her feel better.
And as the warm coverlet engulfed her, providing a shield from the world, Umina thought. She remembered the Titan’s words. His answer. It was simple. Not like Wil’s long answer.
“The answer to Tulm’s question is this. What I would have said, verbatim: ‘No, you idiot. You got a young one. There are more. Perhaps on Baleros, but I know of two on Izril. They walk among us. Leave them alone.’”
“Leave them alone.”
Niers Astoragon sat in his room after Umina had left. He was drunk, but Fraerling metabolisms were so fast that he was sobering up again. He still had the remnants of his last drink, so he picked it up.
The Titan sighed as he downed the fiery remnants of his cup. Foliana was probably going to kill him for this. But a promise was a promise. He stood in front of the ajar door, staring at the light permeating into his room. He’d have to close the door too. He raised the empty cup.
“Umina. If you asked me now—I’d have to say yes. I’ll remember your question. Of all my students, you’ve been the hardest to predict. Two hard questions. A fork in the road. One answer might lead to war. The other? An entire world, perhaps.”
He shook his head. And he’d answered her. Niers thought of Tulm. He scowled. What might happen? What might Umina do with the information? But then he laughed.
“Change! It’s always hard! And to protect you—”
He stumbled over to the magical chessboard, staring at it. Then at the other board he’d had commissioned. The Go stones were neatly organized, but they hadn’t moved. Niers sat down, drunk, and stared at the board.
“I need to meet you soon. Let me find these Humans first. These children. Then—who are you? Male? Female? Drake? Human?”
He thought of the young woman. Of the inn. Liscor. The word, the knowledge burned in his mind. But he had work to do. If he left, his company might fall apart. It all hung on him. The Titan bowed his head.
“Responsibilities? Dead gods, I’m old. How did I ever get…?”
He looked around. The Titan wandered from bowl to bowl, looking for his cup. And then he realized it was in his hand. He filled it, and then stomped over to his wardrobe. His mirror. He stared into it, looking into his worn face. He toasted himself silently.
“You’re too old to think of romance, you idiot! Too old by decades! And too small. Look at you! You’re afraid of the change you’re trying to bring about! What will happen next? Better something than anything! You’re so old! But I want to be young forever!”
Niers Astoragon scowled. Then he kicked the mirror. He shook his head. And then, finally, he laughed. He raised the mug, drinking, and staring into the mirror, remembering a much younger face, dreaming of the future.
It still felt like yesterday.
Umina lay there in bed. Puzzling it over. She was still drunk, but the answer was obvious. It sank into her. Things she knew about Tulm. Reasons why he would ask a question with such a curious response. It was a mark of how drunk she was that it took her a few minutes to figure it out.
Who was Tulm? She didn’t know too much, but she knew the obvious. [Strategist]. Mithril. Dullahan. Iron Vanguard’s second-in-command. And there was that legend about him. The one people said was true.
And like that, the pieces fell into place. Umina sat up. Her eyes went wide. She breathed a word into the night, the name that legends were made of.
Dragons. A laughing Titan. Mystery and past and conversations and happiness and bittersweet tears. But that wasn’t the end of the night. There was one last thing.
Wil Kallinad thought it was over. He’d fended off his friends, and he was in his rooms, sobering up, preparing a [Message] of the highest confidentiality to his father. He was staring at the quill and ink drying on the tip. Unhappy, but he had his answer and there was some peace in it. Regrets? The drink was making it hard to push them away. Foliana stood behind him.
But it was over. Right up until it wasn’t. Wil sighed, reached over to dip his quill in the ink—
And Foliana cleared her throat. Wil looked up. Had he heard…?
He turned around. And Foliana was there, staring at him. Wil hesitated. Something was—he focused, blearily. He looked at Foliana. And she stared back.
And then she was there. Suddenly, without warning Foliana was there. It wasn’t that she had appeared or magically become not-invisible. It was just that Wil realized she had been standing next to him, sniffing his ink pot and peering at his letter the entire time. He turned, stared at her.
Then he screamed. Foliana immediately slapped him. The furry paw turned Wil’s head. She raised a finger.
“Shh. It’s late.”
“Lady Foliana! What are you—”
“I have something for you.”
Wil tried to scramble out of his seat. Foliana was reaching for something. A scroll. She unfurled it, frowned at the contents. And began to read it silently.
The [Lord] was used to magical scrolls. He saw the flash as the magical writing containing the spell lit up. His warning pendant began to shake, but it was too late. He opened his mouth.
“Lady Foliana! What are you—”
Foliana’s hands glowed with a pale nimbus as the scroll turned to dust in her hands. She reached out, her eyes glowing with magic and flicked Wil on the head. His mind went blank. He stumbled back, and she neatly snatched the paper and ink he’d been writing on. She peered at it, and then began to eat it, piece by piece.
Wil was stunned. He stared at Foliana. What had she done? She’d erased—frantically, he tried to recall his life’s details. And then today’s events. He remembered it all! At least, he thought he did. He remembered this morning, his lesson, even going to the Professor’s office with Umina. And the conversation about Niers’ past. But the question—
The young man went pale. He couldn’t remember! He could remember asking the Professor his question, remember the Titan walking back and forth, Wil’s own reactions and emotions, but the answer? It eluded him! Wil stared at Foliana. She was eating his message to his father!
“Lady Foliana! What did you do?”
“Hm. Erase your memory. Wasn’t it obvious?”
The Squirrel Beastkin [Rogue] looked at Wil. He was shaking.
“That was my answer to the Professor’s question! Why did—was it too great a secret? Why did you take it from me?”
His mind was a jumble. Was it something she had done herself? Her decision, overriding Niers’? Or—paranoia gripped Wil. Was this how the Titan safeguarded his secrets?
Foliana swallowed the rest of the paper. She looked at Wil as he tensed, aware she could kill him without any effort. She reached into her pocket—she was wearing clothing. Rather nice clothing, but all in dark grey. She pulled out a piece of paper, folded four times, and handed it to Wil.
“Mm. Here. Read this. It will explain.”
Then she turned and walked out of his room. Wil stared at Foliana’s bushy tail as the Squirrel-woman opened the door, nearly gave Venaz a heart-attack, and hopped off the balcony. Wil listened to Venaz shouting incoherently, and then at the bit of paper in his hands.
He felt a premonition. A stirring on his skin. His hands shook so hard he could barely unfold the paper. But then he looked at it.
It was a short missive. But it changed everything. Wil read it, rubbed at his eyes, and then read it again. In her room, Umina sat in silence, wondering, and the world changed for her. For Wil, it lit up. And he smiled and laughed.
A question asked on someone else’s behalf is no real question. Even one for family’s sake is a poor equal to the true desire I saw bursting out of you. If your father asks, you may direct his inquiries to me.
As to your truest question, and your little discussion in your bar, I don’t actually know the location of the most infamous shipwrecks like the Laleday’s Triumph with the Mooncaller’s Quiver, for instance. Even I would spare no effort to grab such an artifact.
However, I am aware of a number of sea-based locations that the Forgotten Wing company have never been able to explore thanks to those damn Dullahans and their sea superiority. Each one is a credible shipwreck or site where I am convinced something of value lurks, but has never been explored due to depth or danger. See the attached list.
PS: Oh, and when you form a crew, try to pick a trustworthy [Captain], would you? [Storm Sailors] can be just as bad as [Pirates]. Also, try to be back with whichever classmates you take before the summer break ends.