It had been a long time. And much had happened. But as always, the inn stood. The building had weathered grief and turmoil. And again, they returned. Rebuilding in a place that seemed filled with strife at times.
But that was the nature of the world. And many who had come here still saw this place as safety, comfort. And perhaps that was because the young woman who had built this place remembered what it meant to live in a place where danger was a still-more distant memory. If so, it was her ambition to bring that here. And she failed again and again, but never stopped trying.
Perhaps it was vainglorious to dream of it. Perhaps the lighting of a candle in the darkness just attracted things from the shadows. But he didn’t care. He had been so long from this place, his home.
And now he was back. Bird sat in his small, new tower on top of the inn and smiled. His tower was nothing more than a few planks nailed together; the inn had yet to be rebuilt. He could sense other Antinium burrowing around the base of the hill, enlarging the very foundation the inn would be constructed on first. But it didn’t matter. Bird had his tower. He was home.
And he was happy. Two days had passed since the [Mages] from Wistram had arrived. And the third day since passed like this: Bird sat in his tower. And he was not alone.
A Gnoll cub sat with him, watching the sun rise. Mrsha wagged her tail, keeping inside the confines of the ‘tower’. She had been warned very strictly about climbing out on the roof. Bird glanced at her.
Mrsha was not a bird. But she was small as some of them and she tended to attract some of them. He had hoped some of the Razorbeaks—what Erin called dino-birds and he called scale-birds—would try to carry her off. But they were afraid of him and stayed far from Liscor and the inn. Even so, he liked the young Gnoll’s company.
“La, la, la. Singing in the day makes birds happy. I am a peaceful Bird, and I like birds.”
The Antinium’s voice was soothing. He was Bird. And that meant he was both [Bird Hunter] and [Singer]. His voice carried out, across the Floodplains. And while the lyrics were nonsensical, silly, they were also soothing. Mrsha leaned against one leg, listening. She relaxed just listening to Bird. And he sang.
In the beautiful day, the cheerful little ditty lured movement towards the inn. Animals poked their head out of the grass. Squirrels, some grasshoppers hopping frantically away from said squirrels, and in time, birds. They were wary, but the singing didn’t bother them like most artificial sounds.
They knew, in a primal way, the danger of course, but the area around the inn was verdant with life. There were bugs and animals to feast on! The nearby city kept this place free of dangerous monsters, and for some reason, only birds were absent from the nearby environs. Which meant their prey tended to flourish in this region.
A few smaller birds flew about the inn, chirping warily. But the song continued, a happy tune. So the birds flew lower. Some began to hunt their breakfast. And others began to sing along.
Abruptly, the song stopped. There was a twang, a squawk, and the sound of desperate wings. More musical twangs. From her tower, Mrsha watched birds drop out of the sky. She looked up at Bird. He began humming happily.
[Lure Song]. [Prey Sense]. The Antinium Worker had leveled up in his unique specialization. So much so that it was now common for regular [Hunters] to go west out of Liscor because no one was going to catch much with Bird around the inn. The Antinium waited, but the birds, having seen their distant comrades disappear, decided not to come over again. Bird nodded to himself.
Mrsha stared at the ground. There were four dead birds, but Bird didn’t seem too interested in grabbing them just yet.
“Miss Erin tells me if I want them cooked, I must get them at once before other things eat them. Like bugs and little worms and other things. But I like keeping some in my room. They are nice when squishy.”
Bird looked at Mrsha. The little Gnoll wrinkled her nose and shook her head. Bird tilted his.
“No? But squishy is good. Sometimes they are runny.”
Mrsha mimed gagging. Bird shrugged.
“Runny can be good.”
He watched Mrsha make a complex and nuanced thought in sign language about getting sick. The Antinium paused.
“I will go pick them up later. But there are many birds and I do not want to miss one. See?”
He pointed. In the distance, Mrsha saw birds. But flying far, far out of bowshot, even for Bird. He aimed an arrow with two of his arms as he spoke conversationally to Mrsha. Two more were holding arrows. She had seen Bird fire and regular [Archers] couldn’t keep up with how fast he could shoot with four arms. And a good [Bowman] could shoot fast.
“Those birds are very far away. I have [Long Range Shot] and [Homing Shot], but sometimes they dodge. See?”
So saying, Bird casually drew back and loosed. Mrsha’s keen eyes saw an arrow speeding across the ground at a bird nearly three hundred feet distant. It was an impressive shot, even with a Skill! She lost track of it for a second, but the bird it was targeting dove and the homing missile flashed over its head.
“See? The arrow curves, but I missed to begin with. I asked Halrac and he said I needed to predict better. And shoot faster. So they must be closer. I am a poor [Archer]. Yes. Halrac is very good at shooting. So was Badarrow. I miss Badarrow.”
Bird complained cheerfully, as if missing a three-hundred foot target moving on the wing by barely a foot was something to be ashamed of. Perhaps it was, for him. The Worker watched the bird he’d shot at flee and pointed with an arrow.
“That is a red-bird.”
The red-crested robin flew low across the Floodplains, in fear for its life. Bird’s hands twitched, but it was too far away, too wary. Mrsha nodded. After a moment she patted Bird’s quiver. He handed her an arrow.
“I make them myself, see?”
Mrsha eyed the arrows. They were wood, pointed tips crudely sharpened. Some weren’t even straight. And they were fletched with beautiful feathers. She stared accusingly at Bird. It hurt the Gnoll to see. Bird happily took the arrow back.
“Miss Erin says I may buy arrows with my salary. That will be nice. I have many feathers, and sometimes the [Fletcher] asks to buy them. But I need feathers for my arrows and my new fortress of fluff, so I have not been able to sell them. If I may buy arrows, I can then sell feathers. And buy more arrows.”
Below, the little Gnoll opened her mouth. Bird’s logic made Mrsha long for the ability to speak—or to burrow her head into a pillow for a second. Instead, she peeked over the edge of the tower as Bird pointed. He was showing her distant birds; they had an excellent view from the roof of the inn.
“There are scale-birds in the air over there. They are hard to shoot with my arrows. Which is why I wish for new ones. I must use [Piercing Shot] or hit them in the eyes. That is hard. Ooh. There is a big-bird. See? That is a blue-bird. And another red-bird! That is a green-bird.”
Mrsha stared at the Cyprail Grasstalker, which she recognized by its camouflaged appearance, but also by the distinctive two pale white-yellow long tail feathers on its backside it would wiggle in the grass to attract smaller birds or insects—upon which it would turn and consume its prey. She looked up at Bird. The [Archer] nodded solemnly, watching it.
“It is a green bird. That is why I call it that. It tastes good. Sometimes there is a second lunch inside of it, still wriggling. It is a nice bird to shoot because it hides and holds still if you do not watch it. All you have to do is turn around and go pew. See?”
The Gnoll cub nodded as well. She was learning a lot today. Not about names, but watching Bird turn his back on the Grasstalker, wait for five minutes as the bird hid itself in the grass, and then whirl and nail it from eighty feet away with a perfect shot was an education in itself.
Mind you, he cheated; he had a little bit of glass which he’d stuck some black cloth to, to make a crude mirror. But that was a lesson in hunting every bit as good as a proper Stone Spears [Hunter] from her tribe! She watched as Bird hummed.
“That is a good bird. I will eat it. Let us go get birds!”
Mrsha nodded eagerly. But then Bird eyed her.
“I forget. You are not allowed to go running about. So I will go instead.”
Mrsha’s face fell. But Lyonette had given orders. And not even Bird would overrule her.
Carefully, the Antinium left his tower and walked over the inn’s roof. He had a little ladder he’d installed. He could have just gone down through the inn, but he claimed this was easier.
Mrsha privately thought he just didn’t want Erin fussing over his ‘squishy birds’ when he brought them into his room. And to be fair, it wasn’t as if his room was unclean! Bird was very meticulous in storing his things. And if the ‘squishy birds’ attracted bugs, well…Bird ate them.
The Antinium came back with five dead Birds. He pulled the arrows out and Mrsha sniffed his kills. Bird nodded and offered her a white tail feather.
“This is good. Everything is good. Should we eat now?”
Mrsha’s wagging tail made the Worker’s mandibles open and rise in a smile. They headed down into the inn. Mrsha listened to the hustle and bustle coming down from below. The inn was lively, the [Actors] were preparing for tonight—she hid behind Bird as they came down and she saw/smelled the set.
They had their new play all ready. It was The Shining, adapted for the stage. Mrsha had seen it once, despite it being shown at a time when all good Gnolls should be in bed. She’d snuck down to listen to the late-viewing, intrigued by Lyonette and Erin’s injunction against watching. The audience had been enthralled, and the [Actors] had done a good job.
Too good. Mrsha hadn’t been sleeping well. And she’d stared at her door all night, waiting for the crazy Human to batter it down with an axe and put her head through. Lyonette had noticed Mrsha’s sleeplessness of course, and Mrsha had got a scolding.
At least now the [Actors] were just setting up. But Mrsha hid behind Bird as he trundled into the living room. There were also more people than usual; word had gotten around and the morning crowd was lively, asking if they could get an earlier performance or if the Players of Celum would be putting on the show multiple times so they could show friends or family.
And in the inn, there was Erin Solstice. She was attending to the tables, or rather, relaxing with some of her guests while the staff did most of the attending. But she saw Bird and Mrsha and got up. The Worker waved at Erin and presented his somewhat gruesome armful of corpses.
“Hello, Erin. I have come down for food. I would like to eat this bird, please.”
Erin blinked as he waved the Cyprail Grasstalker at her. She looked down at Mrsha and the Gnoll immediately hid behind her legs; she’d spotted the [Actor] who played the crazy Human. She knew it was an act, but she still got nervous. Erin bent down and gave Mrsha a little cuddle, then she stood up.
“No problem, Bird. I’ll have it whipped up in no time! Fried? Maybe. I just have to prepare it. Ew.”
She sighed, eying the bird. Then she brightened.
“Oh, wait! Ishkr! I need you to pluck and gut the bird!”
Ishkr looked up. The Gnoll didn’t sigh or complain. He just trotted over.
“Yes, Miss Erin. Do you want the other birds prepared too?”
“No. I will put them in my room.”
“Bird. I told you about letting them rot!”
“I…won’t let them rot?”
The Worker turned his head, avoiding Erin’s narrowed eyes. The [Innkeeper] hesitated.
“Just the big, green one, Ishkr. Can you let me know when it’s ready to cook? And keep the feathers! For Bird.”
The Gnoll took the bird outside. Erin turned happily back to Bird.
“Come on, Bird. Sit down! And you too, Mrsha. Are you still afraid of Temile? I told you, he’s playing Jack! And you shouldn’t have watched! Do you want Temile to come over? No? Okay, then sit with me.”
She sat down at a table where a huge Drake was eating breakfast. He glanced up over the six eggs and rash of bacon he was eating by himself, but made no comment. He stared longer when Bird sat down. Mrsha patted the table, smelling the air, reassured in Erin’s arms.
The young woman shook her head as Ishkr trotted back in with the plucked bird and a pawful of feathers. He dropped the feathers off at the table and Bird sorted them into one of his belt pouches. Then Ishkr took the bird into the kitchen for further preparation. Erin looked around.
“Did you know that you have to remove the entrails from stuff? Otherwise you get what they ate. Like, bugs and stuff. I had no idea before I started cooking.”
Grimalkin looked up from his seat and gave Erin a look. So did half the Gnolls in the room, including Mrsha. Erin spread her arms innocently.
“I didn’t know! I had this horrible incident where—well, never mind.”
“Miss Solstice, you sound like a Drake from one of the Walled Cities at times. Where did you grow up, exactly?”
The [Sinew Magus] eyed Erin over his breakfast. She waggled a finger at him.
“Aha! Not telling! You’re not getting me so easily, Grimalkin! How’s the food?”
“Decent, thank you. I do appreciate quantity over quality given how much I eat, so your inn is helpful in this regard. And your refusal to answer questions about your home just proves how significant the information is. Thank you.”
Erin paused. Her jaw worked. Mrsha sniffed the eggs indignantly. Decent? Grimalkin noticed her glare.
“Miss Solstice is a good cook. But she’s hardly an expert. She can fry an egg almost perfectly. But I don’t believe she knows her way around seasonings. Stop giving me that look. Ask Miss Lasica for her eggs and you’ll know what I mean. I’m not being disparaging. Just honest.”
Mrsha turned up her nose. Erin winced. She patted Mrsha’s head soothingly.
“Don’t be upset, Mrsha. Grimalkin’s just honest. Like a pan across the back of the head.”
“I try not to twist the truth just to stroke other people’s ego. We should understand our capabilities and limitations realistically, Miss Solstice.”
“Miss Erin, the bird is ready for cooking.”
Ishkr poked his head out of the kitchen before Erin could reply. She looked up and turned to Bird.
“How much do you want, Bird?”
Bird waved a hand eagerly.
“I would like the bird, please, Erin. And two unborn birds.”
Grimalkin paused, his mouth full of a boiled egg. Erin blinked at Bird.
“But you already had breakfast, Bird. You want to eat the entire…bird?”
He nodded seriously.
“I desire to be spoiled greatly. Please assist me in this endeavor. I believe Mrsha would also like spoiling if there is enough to be shared.”
The Gnoll cub brightened up. Erin frowned.
“Well—maybe a bit for Mrsha. And I guess since you’re still back, you can have as much as you want. What am I saying? If you don’t throw it up, you can have all you can eat, Bird! I’ve never seen a fat Antinium. Except for your Queen.”
“She is very fat. Yay. Yay!”
Bird’s voice rose along with his hands as he threw all four up. Giggling, Mrsha copied him. Erin laughed in delight.
“Bird, you’re so silly! Even more than I remember! Were you always like this?”
“Yeah. Why’re you so silly and not serious like all the other Workers?”
Erin meant it as a joke, but Bird took it seriously. He tilted his head thoughtfully and then replied.
“Of course I am silly, Erin. And I must be silly, not seriously happy or fun, but dignified. If it was not good and fun to be silly, and if silly was not silly, I would not be.”
For a second Erin and Mrsha stared at him. That almost made sense this time. At last, Erin got up.
“Okay, you win. Bird for Bird! I’ll be back in a few minutes. Grimalkin—”
“I will be here. We’ll continue our conversation when you return. Will you send a pitcher of water to the table?”
Erin left. Grimalkin got his water and drank half the pitcher in one go, pouring it into a cup and downing it to Mrsha’s amazement. He was explaining the benefits of proper water consumption and the dangers of overconsumption when Erin came back out. She’d diced the bird into cubes and scrambled some eggs into the dish. And seasoned it! She pointed out the red pepper flakes, the onions, and other seasonings to Grimalkin. He just shrugged.
Mrsha wagged her tail as Erin gave her a teensy portion and Bird got the rest. He happily began shoveling the food into his mouth; it was a mound of meat. Mrsha tried to make her portion last; Bird let no one steal his food if it was made out of bird. She chewed one soft cube happily as Erin turned back to Grimalkin.
“Bird, I take it back. That’s a lot of meat. I left half of the bird in the kitchen if you’re still hungry, but I don’t want you spoiling lunch! You can eat it later if you want. Now, Grimalkin, you were talking about Wistram.”
“Right. As I said, I’m not helping you with the [Mages]. Wistram takes care of their own and weighing in on this bounty with Pisces is not in my interests. The Academy can put pressure on Pallass if they so choose. Which they will, and which is why I won’t entangle myself further in this mess than I already have.”
The Drake spoke crisply, patting his mouth with a napkin. Erin’s face fell.
“What? But come on, Grimalkin! You saw those jerks!”
“I told you. The Watch should have handled the situation. And legally, the Wistram team is now cleared of all charges. You can try to clear the bounty placed on your friend’s head, but I can tell you now: Wistram Academy won’t hear your request without a lot of internal support. Which you don’t have. And your unique brand of…persuasion is unlikely to work on the Academy.”
Erin folded her arms, frowning. Mrsha copied her.
“But they’re jerks!”
“Which means what, exactly, Miss Solstice? I’ve heard Miss Montressa’s complaint and it is valid. Your friend, Pisces Jealnet is a wanted criminal. A petty one, so Wistram is clearly biased, but they have legal right to pursue him, if not for the charges involving accidental slaughter, and false claims to being a Wistram [Mage] which I notice they’ve amended. But he has committed crimes.”
“Yeah, but they want to put him in a box and imprison him! Maybe kill him!”
“That is what foreign powers do, Miss Solstice. Walled Cities are the same. Realistically, the only way you’ll be able to force this team to abandon their pursuit is to convince the members to abandon the cause and retract the bounty—or put Wistram in a position where the public opinion is against their handling of the case. They’ve already offended Liscor, which does help you, but the Academy will weigh that against getting their way.”
Erin drummed her fingers on the table as Grimalkin reached for another egg. She passed him a saltshaker and he briskly salted and peppered the egg before eating half in a single bite.
“I don’t like it. And yeah, you’ve said that my feelings don’t matter! I got it! How can Wistram bully Zevara and Liscor, though? It bothers you, right?”
“Insofar as I dislike the practice. But Pallass has done the same. Do I believe it’s an overreach of Wistram’s powers that other nations and cities will take notice of, especially in light of Tiqr? Yes, of course. But right now, they can still do as they please.”
Mrsha fidgeted. This conversation was hard to follow, but she appreciated being able to listen to it. Erin absently patted her head. Bird was ignoring both as he hummed about bird meat under his breath and ate.
“How do they get away with it? I mean, being so powerful?”
“In general? Wistram is a powerful institution, Miss Solstice. They have a huge amount of magical talent, high-level individuals, artifacts, and a superior defensive position. They are a nation, albeit tiny in terms of landmass. But they have countless political allies, alliances, and respect for their position. Of course, they’ve amassed this by taking rare and powerful artifacts and spellbooks wherever they appear, buying, or…acquiring what they want. Usually they follow legal routes, but they won’t hesitate to use their influence, as in this case. You see?”
Erin frowned darkly.
“Seems shady. And no one’s stopped them?”
Grimalkin smiled, looking amused.
“Miss Solstice. Wistram Academy does what any nation does, as I said. It’s why they’re the premier magical school. Fissival does exactly the same sort of thing; it’s just that Wistram does it better.”
“So why’d Wistram beat Fissival? Is it older?”
“No, actually. But it eclipsed Fissival because…the Draconae Scholarium is a Drake institution, Miss Solstice. And it is also a Walled City, and geographically bound to Izril. Wistram is far more open, and while hardly apolitical, it doesn’t represent one species’ interests above others. With that said, the Academy is mostly invested in itself, but I’ve reflected on the benefits. I still prefer Fissival and I’ve no intention of becoming a member of Wistram, but there it is. Are your questions answered?”
“I guess. Thanks for giving it to me straight, Grimalkin. You sure you won’t…?”
Erin sighed again. She’d had Grimalkin in this morning for consultation, but not too fruitfully by the look of it. Mrsha looked at Bird, wondering if he had any thoughts. He whispered to Mrsha, but not too quietly.
“Do you think there are magic birds at Wistram?”
Grimalkin and Erin both looked at the Worker. The Drake glowered. He still didn’t like any of the Antinium. He reached for his last egg, checked himself, and spoke.
“Antinium. Are you as simple as you seem to be, or are you as deceptive as Miss Erin? Because I’m rapidly losing patience either way.”
Bird looked up at Grimalkin. Erin glowered, but the Worker replied cheerfully.
“I am as simple as I choose to be. I am a Bird and I am free to be me.”
Grimalkin stared at Bird. Then he rose and popped the last boiled egg into his mouth.
“Well, I’m done. Miss Solstice, I have to get back to work. I’m quite busy at the moment with the weights and my students.”
“Oh. Thanks. I mean—thanks for coming out here and explaining, after helping with Pisces’ bones and everything. I wish you could…never mind.”
Erin got to her feet. The [Sinew Magus] nodded at her as he walked over to the magic door. Mrsha followed her conversation from the table with her ears.
“Don’t take it the wrong way, Miss Solstice. But there is very little incentive for me to make an enemy out of the academy. Your leverage of friendship has limits and I’d caution you to avoid putting them in danger too.”
“I don’t—why do you help me, then? Are we friends?”
Grimalkin paused by the door as he reached for a cloak. It was raining in Pallass.
“You intrigue me, Miss Solstice, but we’re not friends. I hardly know you. But I am grateful for the information you’ve given me. And it’s in my interests to keep up a good relationship. I’m certain you have more to tell me that you’re holding onto. A better way to implement the treadmills you talked about, for instance. I’ve tried to make a magical one, but mass-production is different. Well, that only matters in places where mobility is restricted, so it’s low on my list. Nevertheless, if you’d present me with something worth taking on Wistram Academy for, I’m willing to do all I can.”
Erin blew out her cheeks.
“In that case, it’s a pleasure, Miss Solstice. I must be off. Grimalkin, entering Pallass!”
The Drake thrust open the door after nodding to Erin. The [Guards] on the other side shot to attention.
“Magus, sir! You’re cleared for entry!”
He left. Erin wandered back to the table and sat next to Mrsha. She sighed and the Gnoll patted her leg anxiously. Erin forced a smile.
“It’s okay, Mrsha. I didn’t expect Grimalkin to do too much. He said he wasn’t going to move the moon—moons—for me. Which is fair! I ask a lot. I still have to thank Seborn and Moore for getting hurt to help me; I’ll make them something tonight. Grimalkin has a point. I just wish…”
She hesitated. Mrsha looked around. There were a few Gnolls in the inn, but none seemed to be listening to their table. Adults had trouble focusing on individual conversations if there was a lot of background noise; Mrsha could generally tell if they were listening in. Her ears were still really good.
She covertly made a special sign; an orb with her paws. It meant ‘Earth’. She pointed at the door, flexed an arm, made her question-gesture, and waited. Erin took a second to unravel what Mrsha had said.
“Oh? Give him what he wants from…home? I thought about it, but I don’t know if I know—well, there are a few things. Monkey bars, burpies, all kindsa stuff. But I don’t want to give him too much. So I guess…I’m going to try other stuff first, okay Mrsha? But I’ll do it if I need to. The Horns can also deal with it; we’ll play it by ear.”
Mrsha nodded. Erin sighed and looked at Bird. He glanced up. The Worker stared at Mrsha and Erin as he chewed, then spoke.
“Garry wished to come to be employed as a [Cook], but the Queen refused. I am supposed to tell you, Erin.”
She blinked at him.
“Thank you, Bird.”
He nodded and went back to his meal. Mrsha pushed back her empty bowl. Now she wanted to run about! Maybe play in Liscor? She conveyed that to Erin and the young woman nodded.
“I can take you to the playground! We’ll do that, Mrsha! Or—darn. I have to cook. Lyonette wants those cookies done. Drat. Oh well; I’m banned from playing in the playground anyways. Drassi! Can you take Mrsha into Liscor to play?”
The Drake [Barmaid], [Gossip], and now [Bartender] looked up as she mopped up a spilled drink. She brightened and came over.
“Sure can, Erin! Hello, Mrsha! You want to go to the climbing playground? Ooh, or the flat one?”
Mrsha nodded eagerly and Erin smiled.
“Have her back by lunch, alright? And uh, can you find out what the Wistram [Mages] are doing? Keep asking about them?”
The [Gossip] laughed, amused.
“Erin, Erin…I’m already doing that! They’re the talk of the city! Do you want to know what they’re doing now?”
“Wait, you already know?”
Erin stared at Drassi. The Drake nodded.
“They’re doing business. They’ve set up—well, the Minotauress, Bezale, has. The others are going around to do their business.”
“In Liscor? Business like what? Don’t people know what they did? Why’re they giving them money?”
Erin was outraged. Drassi rolled her eyes.
“Erin, they’re [Mages]. From Wistram. And each one’s a specialist! They’re selling good stuff! Hey, I can get you something if you don’t want to talk to them. I just want to take a look.”
Erin paused. She looked at Mrsha and the Gnoll sat up with interest. Erin hesitated, and then looked at Drassi.
“…What kind of stuff?”
Montressa du Valeross inspected the walls from the battlements, trying to ignore the glares she was getting. It took a long time, but she did a thorough job and turned to the surly Drake [Strategist] at last.
“I don’t see much degradation of the spells, Strategist Olesm. As you said, the gates’ wards have been breached, and the spell’s frayed on the stonework there. I’ll recommend the [Enchanter] make an early visit this year to repair the damage done. I can give you an estimate if you’d like?”
“That would be welcome, Lady du Valeross.”
The [Aegiscaster] smiled at Olesm as she began to quote numbers. The Drake didn’t return it. He scribbled down the information on a bit of parchment without a word. Montressa bit her lip.
“Is there anything else?”
“Nothing, Miss Montressa. The city thanks you for your help.”
“In that case, I’ll continue my work. If you have any need of our assistance, let us know.”
Olesm nodded stiffly. He accompanied Montressa down the steps and saw her off at street-level. She knew he was watching her back as he left—and a few [Guards] were tailing her as she walked down the street. Montressa tried not to grimace as she rejoined her team. Isceil was there, wearing a surly look.
“I did the inspection. I made my recommendations. That’s it. They don’t like us, but at least we’re still allowed to do our consultation work.”
The [Oldblood Magus] growled as he walked with Montressa. The young woman sighed.
“We don’t charge for inspections, Isceil. We’re trying to generate some goodwill, which is why I didn’t take you on the walls. Are you done with business for the day?”
“Nearly. I’m preparing the gift now.”
“Did you do much business?”
“Some. A bit of gold. But there aren’t many Oldbloods in the city, so I don’t have much to earn. Bezale’s still down selling her scrolls. Ulinde’s gone off and Palt’s selling his…stuff.”
“I told him not to! The Watch will come down on him like—we’re not causing more trouble!”
Montressa glared. Isceil raised his claws.
“He says he’s just sticking to legal stuff. He checked with the Watch. Don’t bite my tail off!”
Glowering, Montressa kept walking.
“Let’s find Beza. I have to fix two wards today. If you help, I’ll give you a quarter of the fee.”
“I might. How bad is it?”
“Broken runes. Spell burnt through part of a matrix. It’ll take like an hour to fix both if we work together, I think.”
“Hmpf. How much do I get?”
“One gold coin and two silver?”
Montressa sighed again. That was good money! But not for a [Mage] from Wistram for an hour’s work. Today was business for the Wistram team, which meant they all had something to sell. Their services. If you were specialized—or just knew a bunch of spells most [Mages] were incapable of—you could make good money wherever you went.
Each had something to sell, but not all of Montressa’s team made the same amount of money. She was an expert in wards and protective spells, so her income was steady, low, and predictable. Montressa fixed things. Most spells, be they wards, runes, or any sort of enchantment, like the ones on Liscor’s very walls, would degrade over time.
Montressa wasn’t good enough to fix Liscor’s walls, but she could mend most common wards. It was a common practice for Wistram [Mages] stopping by a city, and people had sought her out as soon as they’d known she was offering the service; she might be the only able [Mage] they’d see in half a year, or the entire year.
“At least they’re going to see us, despite the incident with the Watch. Drakes take that seriously.”
Isceil offered the first positive comment in two days. Montressa glanced at him. She felt as annoyed and angry as he seemed. She tried to erase the expression from her face. Make a good impression.
That was part of the strictly-worded orders she’d had from the Revivalist faction. They’d bailed Montressa and her team out of their trouble, but the [Mages] were in hot water back at the academy. It was part of why Montressa was charging low for her services and trying to be pleasant to Liscor’s inhabitants. She nodded to Isceil gratefully.
“True. And your remedies for the Oldbloods have to help. How were your customers?”
The Drake’s indignant posture unstiffened a bit. He nodded at Montressa.
“Grateful. They always are. It was mainly just medication for their problems. A Frostling needed a warming tonic; scale rot on some of the old Drakes. A few have bad symptoms, like the Drake you met who kept wheezing. I sorted them out.”
Montressa nodded, genuinely curious. Isceil was an [Oldblood Magus], so his specialization was in the powers of his species. He had no wings, but he’d been born with the ability to breathe frost, a breath attack courtesy of his Dragon-heritage. She knew it made his body temperature lower than normal, and she’d seen him walking about in winter with barely any clothes on. But the same symptoms meant he couldn’t handle heat well without cooling himself. And other Drakes experienced even more drastic symptoms.
“Is it all due to them having Oldblood traits?”
“Some of it is. Shortness of breath, coughing—that’s generally some form of dragonbreath gone wrong. Some people don’t even know they have the problem. But scale rot’s general; you just get that when you get older. The really bad stuff is when dragonbreath goes out of control. That’s how you get Scorchlings or Frostlings like that kid. They heat up or get too cold and they don’t have the resistance you’re supposed to have.”
“So what happens?”
“They get frostbite. Or their scales burn off them. It’s better if there’s someone like me around, but we can’t fix too much. At my level, anyways.”
Isceil kicked across the street, looking upset and muttering. Montressa nodded.
“What happens if it’s lightning? Or acid? Sorry, am I asking…?”
“Yeah. What happens with lightning is they have heart attacks. Or they have fits. And acid? Their stomach melts. Best case is they have ulcers. Worst case is that the baby in the mother dissolves and takes her with it, Montressa.”
Isceil glared at her. The [Aegiscaster] raised her hands. She’d put her staff and lightning orb away; it seemed provocative.
“I’m sorry. I know it’s serious.”
The Drake calmed down after a few more seconds of walking. He muttered as he felt in his bag of holding.
“It’s fine. Non-Drakes don’t know about it. Sorry I snapped. Anyways, I got most of the bad ones; anyone who’s been alive this long knows to seek me out. I’ll see if anyone else is waiting. But I have that tonic for the Watch Captain.”
“Zevara. I’ll deliver it to her if you don’t want to.”
Isceil nodded and handed her the potion. It was sealed in a dark flask; it must be light-sensitive, Montressa guessed.
“She hates my guts. The instructions are right there; she’ll know how to use it.”
“What’s her problem? Coughing?”
“Bad lungs. She can breathe fire, but her lungs can’t take the smoke she’s generating.”
“Yeah. I’ll get it to her. Where’d Beza say she was setting up?”
“Trader’s End. This way.”
The two [Mages] found the Minotauress at work in the busy street full of [Merchants]. Unlike Ulinde and Montressa, the other three [Mages], Isceil, Beza, and Palt, were all specialists whose craft meant they had products they could sell.
By now, Montressa had stopped at a few dozen settlements while travelling to Liscor, and she knew how much all of her friends made. Isceil had been virtually cut off from any income while coming south, aside from doing generalist work, but Beza and Palt had made money. And of the two, Beza made the most.
“Twenty [Light] scrolls, then. Look, they’re cheap so I’m giving you them practically at a loss. They’re not worth the parchment they’re made on! This is what the light spell looks like—that’s what you get. I’ll have them by tonight. But I’m not making sixty of them!”
They could hear Beza’s impatient voice haggling with a [Merchant] before they even saw her. The Minotauress had been selling her products all day and yesterday—to [Merchants] and [Traders] more than pedestrians. She was a [Spellscribe] and her scrolls were in high-demand. They were single-use spells anyone could activate.
The only thing that kept everyone from having scrolls was how expensive even a single one was. Montressa eyed the gold the [Merchant] reluctantly passed over. Isceil snorted.
“A gold piece for a [Light] scroll? You’ve got to be pulling my tail!”
“It’s nearly that just to make one. Beza’s got to use magical ink and the parchment has to be the right quality too.”
“Even so, who’s buying one of those?”
“Anyone who wants a pretty [Light] like that.”
Montressa nodded to the [Light] spell that Beza was showing around. It was a pretty prism made up of different colors of light all joined together, slowly rotating around in the palm of her hand. Isceil raised his brows.
“What’s that for? Dinner parties?”
“Something for the rich. And it does look good. I wonder how she figured out that design?”
“Probably traded it for a few secrets back in Wistram. Hey, Beza! You done?”
The Minotauress was noting down the order on a piece of paper. She looked up and nodded to Montressa and Isceil.
“You two. I’m up to my horns in orders; I’ll be here a while still. Did the City Watch let you onto the walls, Montressa?”
“Barely. How’s business?”
“I’m making money. People don’t get many scrolls here, so my stock of low-level spells and convenience spells is all sold out and I’m backlogged for the next three days. My higher-tier scrolls on the other hand…I had a buyer, but he’s not taking any!”
Beza waved a disgusted hand at part of the stall she’d set up. There was a small rack of scrolls the Minotauress watched like a hawk, and a [Trader] perusing them with interest. A few adventurers were also present, murmuring and checking their coin purses as they debated.
Montressa recognized the different auras of bound magic in the scrolls. Few people were interested in the combat-variety of scrolls Beza had to offer, but that was what the [Spellscribe] specialized in.
“You seem like you have a good number of adventurers.”
“They buy one or two scrolls, tops. Even Gold-ranks. I sold a bit, but I want a big order. But the one [Merchant] who’ll buy from me, won’t. He’s over there.”
She pointed. Montressa looked past a wagon at a [Merchant] who was attending to his own wares. He was eying Beza’s selection, but he hadn’t come over.
“What’s the problem?”
“I don’t know. I’m going to ask. Watch my stall for me?”
“What if I have to sell something?”
Beza thrust her bag of holding at Isceil. He swore and pushed his own into her hands.
“Don’t do that! You know someone can’t have two bags of holding at the same time!”
“Quit whining. The holding enchantments won’t react that fast.”
“You want to risk it? Because every time you do that, we risk all imploding—”
Montressa slapped a hand over Isceil’s mouth as Beza strode away. The [Trader] gave her a wide-eyed look and edged backwards. Montressa followed Beza as the Minotauress strode over to the [Merchant].
Even in business, Beza was straightforward, but she adopted a somewhat humble manner. Which meant she didn’t grab the [Merchant] by the collar, but instead stopped and nodded brusquely at him.
“Merchant Farri Slightly? My name is Bezale of Maweil. I am a [Spellscribe], a graduate of Wistram. I notice you haven’t come over to inspect my wares. Is something holding you back?”
The [Merchant] looked up at Bezale and smiled. Politely, Montressa, thought. He held out a hand and took the Minotauress’ crushing grip with barely a wince.
“Miss Bezale! It is a pleasure. I regret to say that I’m not in the market for your scrolls at the moment. I do know of you; my contacts spoke of your scrolls, quite glowingly. One can never have too many [Stoneskin] and [Haste] scrolls and they sell like mad among adventurers.”
The Minotauress gave him a mystified nod. She was quite proud of the scrolls; even in Wistram, scroll scribing was a rarer specialization. And it was hard for most [Mages] to scribe a higher-Tier spell. Generally, the thought was that you had to be capable of casting two tiers higher than the spell you wanted to scribe; it was why Tier 5+ scrolls were rare as could be. Montressa was curious why this [Merchant] wouldn’t have jumped at the opportunity to do business as well.
“Exactly! And I have more spells on offer too. Tier 4 scrolls! You won’t have an opportunity like this any time soon. We can do business, unless there’s a problem?”
The man didn’t look poor if all the auras coming from his cart were any indication. Farri smiled, but again with that reserve and spread his hands apologetically.
“Mage Bezale, I must confess, I’m in a tricky position. I had every intention of placing a large order with you, but I’m afraid recent events have forced me to rethink the opportunity.”
Beza’s jaw worked for a second and she glanced at Montressa.
“May I ask why?”
“It really is a personal matter, Miss Bezale. I wouldn’t wish to—”
Farri caught himself.
“Actually, I think it would be fair to say. I’m certain my client would wish you to know. And it is a client that I don’t wish to offend, Miss Bezale. And Lady du Valeross, is it?”
He bowed to Montressa. She nodded at him, confused. But she had a sinking feeling.
“That’s correct. Who is your client?”
The [Merchant] gave her a larger grin.
“Ah, well, she’s new to her money, but I value my relationship with her. I have no doubt she’ll be a valuable customer in years to come, and I wouldn’t want to offend her in any way. And I’m led to believe she would be very upset at my doing business with Miss Bezale here.”
“And your client’s name is…?”
“Miss Selys Shivertail. Owner of the Heartflame Breastplate. I…understand you had an altercation with her?”
Farri leaned against the side of his wagon. It was a bit unprofessional, but there was a glint in his eyes that told Montressa that she wouldn’t be shopping at his cart. Beza wavered.
“Wait. She was the Drake…?”
“Did someone say the Heartflame Breastplate? I’ve been dying to take a look at it! It’s here, in Liscor, right?”
Isceil appeared next to them, tail wagging eagerly. Montressa felt a lump in her stomach. She turned to Isceil.
“Uh—Isceil. Remember the Drake that Palt uh—remember her? Turns out that was the owner of the Heartflame Breastplate.”
“And the niece of Zel Shivertail. And the granddaughter of the Guildmistress of the Adventurer’s Guild.”
Farri threw in helpfully. Beza closed her eyes. Isceil’s tail stopped wagging.
“Her? But she was with that bastard Human—”
“Merchant Farri, we had a reason for the incident in question. And we paid off our fine with the Watch. I am extremely sorry for Miss Shivertail’s involvement, but we were pursuing a wanted criminal. If we can still talk about the possibility of—”
Beza looked desperate, but Farri was just shaking his head.
“Miss Shivertail is a valued client. And I’m afraid I can’t consider the possibility of business, Miss Bezale. I do wish you a good day! But if you’ll excuse me…”
He ushered the three [Mages] away from his cart. Bezale stepped back. Isceil looked at Montressa, shock written across his face. The [Aegiscaster] felt it herself.
“The Heartflame Breastplate? And that—she had it? The one who was screaming at us?”
“I wanted to see it. I heard you could rent it! My faction wanted to see if she’d consider any offer for it…Archmage Naili is not going to be happy.”
“And I’m out hundreds of gold pieces! Possibly thousands! Damn, damn—”
Beza stomped back to her stall, furious. She whirled as her friends followed her.
“That [Necromancer] has been nothing but trouble, Montressa!”
“You knew we were going after him! Don’t blame me!”
“We should have contacted the Watch!”
“That’s what I—”
Isceil faltered as Beza and Montressa glared at him. He raised his claws in a conciliatory manner.
“Okay, look. We all made mistakes. But what are we going to do? We can’t go after that Pisces in the city—”
Montressa wove a [Hush] spell around them. She glared, turning her head in case one of the [Guards] could read lips.
“We’re going after him, Isceil. And we’ll get him. He won’t stay in Liscor forever. We grab him, and we get the door and Miss Solstice. Those are our orders.”
“We do that and the City Watch will be all over us. And that damn Drake with the spear’s dangerous. I don’t agree that kidnapping her is in our best interests, Montressa.”
Beza folded her arms. Montressa glared up at her.
“How would you do it?”
“Get the [Necromancer] outside the city. That’s simple. Liscor can’t force us to give him back. The Academy will back us on that. Convince Miss Solstice to come with us.”
“Fat chance of that. That damn Human fleshbag threw curry in my eyes! Do you have any idea how much it hurts? I’m with Montressa, let’s kidnap her.”
“You want to try that with Grimalkin of Pallass around?”
The [Mages] fell silent. Montressa glared, clenching her fists.
“We’re getting Pisces. Agreed?”
Beza and Isceil nodded. Montressa took a breath.
“In that case, we’ll debate how to go about Miss Solstice. But the Horns of Hammerad are easier. When they leave Liscor’s jurisdiction, they’re fair game. And guess what? I heard they’re working a job in the Bloodfields.”
Beza’s brows rose.
“Oh yes. In fact, they’re doing the job for Liscor.”
“We can’t go after them there! That’s just as bad, Montressa.”
Isceil argued. Montressa looked at him.
“Of course I agree with that. But they’ll be away from the inn. So if we had a plan—”
She looked at the other two. Beza frowned, eying her waiting customers.
“We’re debating this. Palt and Ulinde will have something to say. It’s all so damn complex. Excuse me! I’m sorry for the delay. One minute please!”
She poked her head out of the magical veil of silence. Isceil frowned.
“Beza’s right. It’s hard. The Bloodfields. Well, I’ve always wanted to see them. How dangerous is this job the adventurers are taking, Montressa?”
“Just escort. I’m going to ask more tonight. But I want to consider it. Or even…well, we’ll talk it over. Where’s Palt and Ulinde?”
“He ran off. Still blubbering about the Halfseekers. As for Palt? You know him. He finds his customers in alleyways.”
Montressa frowned, still worried.
“Just so long as he doesn’t get arrested.”
Palt had lost the [Guards] following him. It wasn’t hard. Just a few good illusion spells and he vanished, his scent disappeared, his tracks in the dirt disappeared, and the [Guards] who followed him found out they’d been tailing an illusion for the last three minutes. It would have been longer, but the fake Palt had walked through someone.
It didn’t matter. The Centaur was an [Illusionist] and he was good at his job. He was also considering the Erin problem. Not the Pisces one; he was done with being kicked in the face and he had no personal hoof in the [Necromancer] situation. But Erin? His faction was very interested in acquiring at least one Earther.
The Centaur considered the issue. He was part of Montressa’s team and she was a friend. He’d known Calvaron vaguely, and gotten to know Montressa when she and Beatrice formed their secret-broker duo. She was a good sort, but the Pisces incident had cast a shadow over her career. Being friends with two former students, one of whom had been a [Necromancer] and responsible for all those deaths had made her an outcast.
Well, Montressa was haunted, but Palt was still loyal to the Ullsinoi faction. And they wanted an Earther. If he, Palt, got her to join them on his own, that would be a huge feather in his cap.
“Or a cigar in mouth. Hey, you lot. Anyone want tobacco? Dreamleaf? Dreamleaf’s illegal here, right? I’ve got warded packets; smellproof.”
The Centaur looked around. He was not, contrary to what Isceil thought, in an alleyway. Who did business there? In a city full of Gnolls, that was a stupid, stupid idea. He couldn’t believe his team hadn’t even gotten rid of the blood smell. Palt had, and he’d assumed they’d been smart enough to do the same. But then, none of his teammates ever danced with the law. And Palt could do a jig, even with four hooves.
“Hey. I’ll take some of the dreamleaf. This is really, really good.”
A Gnoll drifted over to Palt. She looked really happy; she was trying one of his rolls of the potent stuff. It wasn’t marijuana, or whatever the Earthers called it. Palt had talked with some of them and apparently you smoked the buds of the plant they liked. With dreamleaf, you smoked the leaves; you could roll one up and smoke it. And you dreamed really nice things, hence the name.
“How much do you want?”
“How much for…for ten of these puffers?”
“Eight silver per. So that’s…four gold.”
“Four gold? I can’t afford that!”
The Gnoll looked dismayed. Palt sighed. It was sheer robbery, he knew. You could get like, ten dreamleaf leaves per silver piece in the right spots in Baleros. But he was far from Baleros and his supply was limited, so it was actually reasonable in that sense.
“You won’t get better prices anytime soon. Worse, in fact. And you can smoke one of them all day. If you make it last, one can do you for a week. Just smoke it before you sleep. How many?”
“…Two. For the pouches. My brother’ll smell it otherwise.”
The Gnoll fished in her money purse. Others drifted over. Drakes, Gnolls—rich and poor alike. Palt had a select clientele and they knew how to find him. The little apartment he’d convinced the owner to let him use for four joints was cramped, but that helped.
He was sharing his goods, giving free samples, and enjoying himself. In truth, most of his income came from people with coin, but Palt wasn’t about to let poor folks miss out on what he had to offer. He’d been poor, once.
Now the Centaur decided it was time to wrap things up. Before he announced he was leaving in fifteen minutes he took a huge drag on his spliff. He inhaled the smoke into his lungs, and then exhaled, thinking of a Skill. He blew a cloud of smoke and everyone in a fifteen foot radius shared his vibe. And they were good vibes.
Palt was a [Smoker]. Most people knew classes were more than a casual hobby; your class had to define you in some small way for you to obtain it. You had to want it. Even so, they would have doubted you could make your life revolve around smoking or imbibing substances.
They were wrong, of course. The Centaur did good business after that, waving away the pleas for him to stay. He trotted out of the apartment, telling his clients they had ten minutes before his spells wore off to make themselves scarce. He even used a spell to erase the odors and smoke clinging to fur and scales in the room. Nothing like getting half the people arrested to make a bad name for yourself.
“Let’s see. Nice gold profits. Wonder how Beza made out. I’ve got to get more stuff. I can get more for sure in…Oteslia. Damn. Drake cities suck.”
Palt trotted down the street, heading towards the western gates. His [Guards] still hadn’t caught up with him, and the [Illusionist] enjoyed imagining their irritation. Still, he was mostly thinking about good impressions. He had to make them. Palt was ambitious in his own way, and if he could…
It was a shame Erin Solstice didn’t smoke a thing. Not a thing! She’d refused the bag he’d tried to give to her, kicked him out of the inn for his role in abducting her friends. He couldn’t fault her for that, honestly. But a bit of help would have…helped a lot in making amends.
“Would it be a bad idea to accidentally blow some smoke around? Yes. Probably. That’s a good way to lose all your teeth, Palt.”
The Centaur wasn’t taking Erin Solstice lightly, either. Some of his customers had stories about her. So this time, Palt carefully entered Erin’s inn and watched, invisible and scentless and soundless.
She still noticed him. That was the fascinating thing; he saw her head turn as he followed a pair of laughing young Drakes into the inn. She had to be high-level. Higher than any other Earther. He trotted over to one side, watching.
“Nice inn. Friendly young Human. Why couldn’t we have stopped here first? Dead gods. Let’s see.”
Palt was timing how long it took Erin to locate him. She went back to speaking with the Antinium for a minute, an absent frown on her face. He shuddered, eying the Antinium, but Palt tried not to judge. Friendly. He wanted to be Erin’s friend. He fished in his belt pouch.
Two minutes. After two minutes, Erin Solstice got up and began wandering her inn. She definitely knew something was off. Palt knew he was teaching her to locate him a second time, but he just needed to know how good she was the first time. Just in case. After a minute, she began homing in on him. Before she could figure out more, Palt coughed and sent a [Whisper] towards her.
“Miss Solstice. It’s me. Palt. The Centaur. Can we chat?”
She jumped and her eyes narrowed. Palt appeared in a corner of the room and she stared at him.
“You! You can’t just—”
“Miss Solstice, please! I’m just trying not to be killed the instant I walk in. Which I understand is a possibility. Before you say anything—may I offer you this? It’s a gift, but a better one than last time.”
The Centaur came forwards with something in his hands. Erin blinked down at it.
“Saffron. Cinnamon. Nali-sticks. Some turmeric…I thought it’d be a small addition to your kitchen.”
“What? Saffron? What’s nali?”
Erin’s aggrieved expression turned to one of curiosity. Palt quickly explained, his heart beating faster. He finished with presenting the bundle to her in a flourish.
“It’s just a small gift. A small apology! From me, on behalf of my friends, but mainly me. May I at least stand in your inn?”
He looked entreatingly at Erin. She frowned, her mouth open.
“I—you can’t buy me off! I’m not forgiving you for what you did to Selys and the Horns—”
“Not at all, Miss Erin. Not at all. I take full responsibility. If they come in, I’ll leave. But can we speak? We’ve gotten off on the wrong hoof. I disagree with Montressa going after your friend without alerting the Watch or talking it over. She was sure he’d run for it—and she’s afraid of him. Terrified. We talked about the nightmares?”
“Yes. Yes we did.”
Erin narrowed her eyes at him. But Palt was hopeful; she’d sought him out the first time. After a moment, she jerked her head to the kitchen.
“Come on. You can put the spices in there. That’s a lot of saffron. Isn’t it expensive?”
It was a lot. Palt’s heart sank when he realized Erin had no idea how much the gift was worth. Then again, maybe that helped. He trotted after her, trying to be affable. He wished he could smoke, but she had a Gnoll cub and they were sensitive to smoke. She was sniffing at him with curiosity; she probably smelled all kinds of things on him, despite his spells.
“It’s a bit. But I know good spices are hard to get around Liscor. It’s from my own stash, Miss Solstice. I carry a lot of…herbs.”
“I bet you do. But you can’t smoke saffron, can you?”
Oh, my dear Human, if only you knew the things I’ll smoke. Palt kept his face straight.
“That’s not generally how I use it. But I’m a bit of a [Cook]—amateur, only six levels. Where should I put it?”
“Over there. And if you turn invisible again, I’m throwing a pan next time.”
“Duly noted. I apologize again.”
“And you are leaving if the Horns come in. Or Selys. Or Seborn and Moore. But you can sit at a table. Do you—do Centaurs have chairs?”
“Not generally, no. I’ll sit on cushions or the ground. Thank you for your hospitality, Miss Solstice.”
She eyed him up and down.
“I wouldn’t give you any, but Wistram’s trying to bully Pisces. Or get him killed. So we’ll talk. You’re the only [Mage] I’ll talk to out of your stupid team.”
The Centaur heaved a sigh of relief. Success! He followed Erin to a table and sat down with her. He was going to be the most charming, helpful, and friendly he could be. He spread his hands.
“Anything you want, Miss Solstice. I’d like to solve this myself. If you have any questions, to begin with—”
He stopped and stared as something buzzed past his head. Palt’s head ducked so fast he nearly slammed it on the table.
“Miss Solstice! There’s a huge bee in your inn!”
“What? Oh, that’s just Apista.”
“An Ashfire Bee?”
Palt stared at Erin in horror. He looked at the bee, noting the enhanced stinger on its backside. No one he’d talked to had warned him about that! He shouldn’t even be surprised, but he eyed it nervously.
“Don’t worry about it! She’s a pet. One of my [Barmaids] owns her. See?”
The Ashfire Bee landed by a window, on a box of flowers. Palt nodded shakily. He turned back to Erin, trying to collect himself—
And then his head slowly swung back around towards the box of flowers. They were yellow, golden, short. Palt would have dismissed them outright, but something in him took notice. An aspect of his class. Not the [Illusionist]. Not the [Cook]. But the [Smoker].
Palt stared at the flowers. Erin was saying something.
“So, look. About the bounty. Is there any way you can get it removed? It’s not fair, and it’ll get people going after Pisces. Hello? Hello. Are you listening to…”
The flowers. Palt stared, forgetting everything for a moment. He stared at the bright yellow buds, golden, watching the Ashfire Bee sip from one. Every instinct in Palt’s body was telling him to smoke it. Or maybe boil it in some peppermint oil extract. You could take it in droplets or—or maybe some goat’s butter. Yes, heat it up, and bake it into…
Erin poked Palt. He jumped.
“Don’t kill me! Yes! What? Oh!”
He stared at her. The [Innkeeper] stared at him, and followed his gaze. Palt grinned shakily.
“I apologize. I was distracted. But those…flowers. They wouldn’t happen to be interesting in any way, Miss Solstice?”
“Oh no. Oh no. Not again. Those are my flowers. You stay away from them! They’re mine!”
Erin shot to her feet. Some of her customers looked up, amused. A Gnoll sitting next to them glanced up as she shook a finger at Palt. He raised his hands.
“Miss Solstice! I’m just asking. I have no idea what they are. But…I er, would like to find out.”
She narrowed his eyes at him.
“Because you’re a stoner.”
He had no idea what the word meant—well, he was pretty sure—but she said it like it was an insult. Palt sighed.
“Miss Solstice, there’s nothing dangerous about what I do. I smoke good things.”
“You do drugs! Drugs are bad! Mostly!”
Erin looked uncertain about her own point, but Mrsha was watching. Palt spread his hands.
“Some. But the ones I smoke are usually just good. They make people feel better. And if some people do stronger stuff—well, it’s usually only them it affects. Is there anything wrong in making someone feel good?”
“Well—that’s not the point! I don’t want any in my inn—except for the flowers—and alcohol and—”
Erin hesitated. She looked at Palt.
“Those are my flowers. And dangerous. Actually dangerous, I think.”
“Miss Solstice, I am a [Smoker]. If you’d let me, I’ll take any risk. And I’ll pay you handsomely for the flowers. Beautifully, even.”
Erin stared at Palt as he looked at her, seriously as could be. She raked her hands through her hair. This is not the conversation she wanted! But she had to ask.
“There’s a [Smoker] class? Seriously?”
Palt nodded. He couldn’t take his eyes off the flowers.
“I knew a Lizardgirl, back in Baleros. She could take selpage—that’s a drug, pretty illegal and dangerous—and go for over an hour on one dose. And enhance the effects. Some even use it in battle or…I just smoke. There are some downsides to a few…a lot of the really good—strong ones. Whatever. I know what I thought. Miss Solstice, if I could buy—”
She folded her arms and shook her head.
“Two thousand gold pieces.”
“For one planter box!?”
Palt looked incredulous. Some of the patrons sniggered; they’d heard this before. Erin glared.
“For one bulb. Not the entire flower.”
“What? But that’s—fine.”
Dismayed, Palt realized there was a history here. He let it go, reluctantly, but he was determined to wear her down. If he could have just a few to try—but maybe another day. He turned back to Erin as she sat down.
“My apologies, Miss Solstice. I’m happy to talk about my classes and clear up any misconceptions you want. Or make you a small gift—it’s completely fine. I have something to chew if you—”
She gave him a long look.
“Let’s just talk about Pisces’ fine, okay?”
The two began talking, and the inn’s patrons went back to their drinks since the Centaur wasn’t going to explode or do anything interesting. But after the regular flow of the inn resumed, someone stood up.
The Gnoll sitting across from Erin and Palt. He wasn’t a regular and he was young. But he’d come to this inn twice now for a purpose. He’d been intending to go after something else, but Palt’s brief exchange with Erin had changed his mind.
In fairness, it was odd no one had come here already. But the inn held a lot of dangers, Relc being a big one. The Gnoll sidled over to the windows with the plant boxes, very casual about how he moved. He’d already paid for his drink, and he was loitering, waiting for a moment.
He was also afraid of Apista, so he went to one of the planter boxes away from where she was clinging to the glass of a window. The Gnoll [Thief] waited for his moment, and then swiftly, his hands blurring with speed, ripped out two pawful of the flowers and stuffed them into a belt pouch.
Apista saw him. He was quick, but she saw everything through her compound eyes. She might have stopped it, but she was experiencing a high that Palt would have failed to even see if he’d looked up on his best day. She wondered what a nose felt like.
The [Thief] hurried away from the box and towards the door, and then caught himself. He moved slowly, casually. And at her table, Erin’s head turned. She stared around, focused on the planter boxes, and her eyes narrowed. But then Erin made a mistake. She’d sensed the theft, but not the thief, so she came to the wrong conclusion. She turned and glared at Palt.
“You thief! You stole my flowers!”
“What? No I didn’t!”
At the table the Centaur leaned back as Erin made a fist. The Gnoll [Thief] jumped and hurried for the door. Erin was grabbing at Palt’s shirt and he was protesting—and then Mrsha sat up. She threw her cup, bouncing it off Erin’s arm. The [Innkeeper] turned and Mrsha pointed.
At the dirt trail and the Gnoll going for the door. Erin’s eyes went wide.
“[Thief]! Someone stop him!”
Her patrons looked up. A Drake—the [Veteran] with half a tail, Menolit, grabbed for him, but the [Thief] dodged around him. He scrambled for the door, setting it to Liscor. Erin was charging towards him with Ishkr and Lyonette had grabbed Mrsha as she ran out of the kitchen, but it was too late. The Gnoll disappeared through the door.
Lyonette du Marquin watched as Erin paced around the inn. She was talking fast, grabbing potions out of her emergency supply box and setting them on the table.
“We’re going to need Mrsha, Lyonette. I promise she’ll be safe! We’ll get the Horns to go with her when they get back. Or—or Moore and Seborn and me!”
“Then again, that’s way too long! We need to go now! But maybe—is Bevussa or anyone else at the Adventurer’s Guild?”
“Ishkr can’t fight, so it’ll be me. Bird, too—if we go now, it’s only him and Palt. But if it’s us three—”
Lyonette shouted. Erin stopped and turned back. The Centaur [Illusionist] blinked. Bird was flexing his bow, and Erin looked up. She opened her mouth as Lyonette held Mrsha, and the [Princess] glared at the young woman.
“Erin, what are you doing?”
“Going to catch that thief! I can’t let him get away, Lyonette!”
“Right. But why are you doing it?”
“Because I have to. Look, it’s fine. Palt says he’ll come—”
“If I can smoke one of the flowers. Just one.”
“—and Bird. And I’ll be safe! You can go to the Adventurer’s Guild—or Drassi. We’ll put the flower boxes upstairs for now and—”
“Just call the Watch. You don’t have to do this yourself and make a huge…”
Lyonette’s second shout stopped Erin again. Lyonette fixed Erin with a look as Erin looked up.
“Erin, this isn’t your job. Call the Watch. Don’t go out and start trouble with…this!”
The younger woman waved at the potions on the table, the frying pan, kitchen knives, acid jar…
The [Innkeeper] paused. She stared at Lyonette. And a metaphorical light bulb went off behind her eyes.
“Oh. I forgot I could do that.”
Lyonette sighed. But she nodded in relief.
“Okay. Ishkr? Go find a [Guard]. Everyone else? Back to your seats! I’ll move the flower beds upstairs.”
Everyone stared at her. The guests sighed. Someone muttered from the back.
“This inn’s no fun anymore.”
“I heard that!”
“There has been a crime committed in the establishment known as The Wandering Inn. A [Thief] has stolen an item of indeterminate value—golden flowers which are suspected of magical properties. Estimated value per flower may be as high as two hundred individual pieces. The [Thief] is Gnollish, young, male, light blonde fur. He has a seven minute lead and his threat rating is deemed negligible. As Senior Guardsman, you two will follow me, with additional reinforcement if necessary, is any of this unclear?”
Klbkch turned and regarded the two Gnoll [Guards] standing before him. Tkrn and a female Gnoll, both members of Liscor’s City Watch, shook their heads. Klbkch spoke crisply as Erin hovered behind him.
“In that case, we will begin our pursuit. Rest assured, Miss Solstice, we will do our utmost to recover your stolen goods.”
He nodded to the [Innkeeper]. She smiled, looking relieved.
“Thanks, Klbkch! Mrsha says she can smell the flowers. She thinks she can track the trail. If you need to—”
“Rest assured, Miss Erin. The Watch has ample ability to track the quarry ourselves. This is not a matter in which we would endanger civilians.”
Klbkch gestured at the two Gnolls. Erin nodded.
She looked like she wanted to follow the Watch as they marched out of the inn. Tkrn was just relieved she hadn’t noticed it was him. The Gnoll’s ears were flat; Mrsha had been staring at him when he’d reported to the scene of the crime. The worst part was that she’d looked afraid, not angry.
“This is your second week on the job, is it not, Junior Guardswoman Jerci?”
The Antinium addressed the female Gnoll as they emerged onto the street in Liscor’s city. The female Gnoll jumped and glanced up at the Antinium. Warily; that showed she was new. She had an earring in her right ear and she’d dyed her fur black, creating artful slashes down one arm.
None of that was against Watch regulations, but it definitely made her look young; no one who served in the Watch long bothered with dyes since it would just get messed up. And the earring would catch in a fight. Tkrn would have warned this female Gnoll, but—he hesitated as she snapped a salute.
“Yes, Senior Guardsman Klbkch. I just completed my mandatory training, sir!”
She stared down at the Antinium, clearly uneasy at working with him. Not afraid; Jerci was clearly a native of Liscor, but it was one thing to know the Antinium were in your city, and another to interact with one.
Until recently, Klbkch had been the only Antinium who had a name. Or spoke. And Tkrn still remembered the rules about Antinium he’d been taught. Don’t ask their names, tell them what to do—don’t go near the Hive entrance for any reason.
But the times were changing. Klbkch nodded briskly.
“In that case, I will attempt to educate you while we begin pursuit. Junior Guardsman Tkrn, will you begin locating the [Thief]!”
“Yes, Senior Guardsman!”
Tkrn snapped to attention. He flushed as Jerci glanced sideways at him. He inhaled, trying to find the [Thief]’s scent in the air. He could smell the soil from Erin’s pots, and the flowers, but he wasn’t as good as a Plains Gnoll, much less a child like Mrsha. Even so.
“The trail’s there, but faint, Senior Guardsman. This way.”
He pointed. Klbkch nodded.
“Junior Guardswoman Jerci, do you confirm the scent?”
“I do, Senior Guardsman.”
Jerci nodded, not glancing Tkrn’s way. If she was leery of Klbkch, she didn’t even acknowledge Tkrn’s presence. She was a fellow Gnoll, but she refused to so much as look at the other Gnoll. Tkrn lowered his head.
He was in disgrace. Most people didn’t know why; they wouldn’t have guessed it, looking at him, as he led the way down the street after the [Thief]’s smell. But Tkrn felt like his crime was written in paint on his face.
During the last days of Liscor’s election, Tkrn had been—he’d participated in, but tried to halt—he’d been party to the torture and attempted murder of a prisoner. Calruz, the Minotaur. The incident had been largely hushed up, but all the Gnolls knew. And so did the Watch. The [Guards] who had participated in the crime had all been fired—save for Tkrn. And the civilians had been jailed, ironically in the very prison that had held Calruz. It wasn’t the hardest sentence, but some [Guards] who’d served in the Watch for as many as eight years had been let go.
Tkrn was the one exception, and some days he felt like he’d have preferred to have been fired with the rest of them. But he’d tried to stop the torture and the execution at the end. And protect Mrsha when she’d appeared in the prison. When the [Guards] had resisted arrest, he’d helped take them down. That was the only reason he still had a job. The only reason, Captain Zevara had said.
Honored Krshia had appealed his case personally. Even so, Tkrn’s pay was almost nothing for the next month, he’d been demoted to the lowest-level of [Guardsman]—like he was a new recruit, and he was on his last chance. He couldn’t even resume his regular duties, hence being assigned to today’s patrol under Klbkch’s direction.
The Antinium strode down the street, following Tkrn. They were moving fast; not at a run, but almost. Tkrn shouted.
“Watch in pursuit! Clear the way!”
Pedestrians obligingly stepped out of his path. He scented the air—this time Jerci pointed.
She glared challengingly at him. Klbkch turned to Tkrn and the Gnoll nodded. He hurried down a side street, and glanced sideways at Jerci. The female Gnoll he was working with was new. She kept staring at Klbkch when she thought the Antinium wasn’t looking. And glaring at him. He wanted to say something, but she’d rebuffed him twice when he’d tried to talk.
Klbkch was the first to speak as they entered another street and headed left.
“Guardswoman Jerci, what is your combat rating?”
“Um, basic, Senior Guardsman. I have no classes outside of [Guard] and [Soldier] at Level 1.”
“Understood. If there is combat, place yourself behind Guardsman Tkrn or I.”
“Yes, Senior Guardsman. W-will there be fighting?”
She looked nervous as she put a paw on the baton she’d been issued. Tkrn had a sword and a club himself. He knew she had to be nervous; the Watch drilled their new recruits until they were decent enough to swing a baton, but until Jerci had a lot more training, she wouldn’t be ready to take on anything stronger than a Shield Spider. Hence why Junior Guards weren’t allowed to patrol outside of squads.
Klbkch shook his head briskly.
“Doubtful. The [Thief] is not likely to put up resistance.”
“Yes, Senior Guardsman. May I ask a question?”
Up another street. Tkrn’s eyes narrowed. They were heading southeast. And if he was right, the poorer area of Liscor.
“Why aren’t we running, Senior Guardsman? This [Thief] could be far away.”
“Yes, Junior Guardswoman Jerci. But Liscor is a finite space. We will not rush into a trap, nor exhaust ourselves if a chase is needed. The [Thief] will not flee out of any gate, and so they will eventually be found if the scent trail endures.”
“Yes, Senior Guardsman. I see. And if we find him? I’m not issued with a truth stone, and the [Guardswoman] who taught me said we needed—”
“I have the [Detect Guilt] Skill among a few others. It is useful in determining guilt. However, my ability is easily foiled by high-level criminals. Regardless, we are allowed to make arrests based on our judgment.”
“Yes, Senior Guardsman.”
They were all basic questions. Stupid ones, really, the kind that Tkrn had asked in his first year of training. He glanced back at Klbkch.
“This way, Senior Guardsman.”
The Gnolls moved fast, and Klbkch followed them with ease. He wore two silvery swords at his side and his movement was graceful. He stopped as Tkrn came to an alley and swore.
“The trail goes into here, Guardsman. But—”
Tkrn gestured. The alleyway had only one end. But no one was there. Tkrn advanced, paw on his club, but he knew what had happened already. Seeing the small mound of soil just confirmed it.
“The [Thief]’s scent-duped us, Senior Guardsman.”
“I see. Do you have any direct clues?”
“None. Not a bit of fur or anything.”
Frustrated, Tkrn studied the alleyway. Jerci looked confused as she stared at Tkrn and at Klbkch.
“Colloquial slang, Junior Guardswoman Jerci. Gnoll [Guards] use it to refer to a [Thief] who has dropped a scent-bomb or used some other trick to eradicate their smell. Or created a false trail.”
“This one wasn’t false. But he got rid of the soil and dropped something on him. Probably a smell-destroying potion.”
Tkrn rubbed his nose. Why did [Alchemists] sell them? Oh, right. Because living with horrible smells in a city would drive Gnolls crazy otherwise. Klbkch studied the alleyway and then walked out into the street. Some of the residents looked sideways at Tkrn and Klbkch and accelerated their pace.
Liscor was a fairly safe city, but there was always crime. And being a [Guardsman] meant you learned a lot about people. Tkrn could recognize faces and recite crimes, both petty and…not. It meant a lot of the Watch formed friendships within the Watch. And it also meant his disgrace cut deeper. Tkrn looked sideways at Klbkch, wondering if the Antinium would accept his opinion.
“Senior Guardsman, your orders?”
“Attempt to pick up the scent, Guardsman Tkrn, Guardswoman Jerci. I will canvass the street. Guardswoman Jerci, observe how I work.”
The Gnolls nodded. They listened and sniffed hard, but the [Thief] was canny. A fellow Gnoll knew how to disguise their scent. Meanwhile, Klbkch was stopping Drakes and Gnolls. His questions were short and polite.
“Good morning, sir. We are in pursuit of a criminal. Did you observe a Gnoll male, about nineteen years of age, blonde fur, exiting or entering this alley?”
“Good morning, ma’am. No, you are not in any trouble. I would simply like to ask—”
“Have you smelled any Gnoll bearing flowers in the last ten minutes, Miss?”
Gnolls and Drakes shook their heads. One had smelled flowers, but they’d been lilacs. Klbkch returned to the two [Guards].
“Very well, let us analyze the situation. I was lied to thrice in my questioning, but no incident pertains to the theft in my judgment. The [Thief]’s proximity to this area indicates to me that he is attempting to unload his items as quickly as possible, hence a [Fence] or other contact in the area. Given the nature of his goods, I believe there are four [Fences] in Liscor who would do business with him. We may pursue each [Fence] directly and follow any rumors of a [Theft], or attempt to locate nearby criminals; the Gnoll [Thief] may have made use of a safe house.”
Both Gnolls blinked at him. Tkrn was impressed, but used to it; Jerci looked amazed. Klbkch glanced at Tkrn.
“Guardsman Tkrn. Your opinion?”
“I—I think the Gnoll’s in hiding, Senior Guardsman. He knows Relc goes to The Wandering Inn and if he thinks Relc’s on his tail, he’s not going to try to sell quickly.”
“I agree. Guardswoman Jerci? State any thoughts you have without fear of judgment.”
“Um—um—is Relc with you, Senior Guardsman Klbkch? I thought you two were partners.”
Klbkch shook his head.
“Senior Guardsman Relc is enjoying his scheduled vacation due to scheduling conflicts. Very well. In that case, I accede to Guardsman Tkrn’s line of reasoning. One moment. Before we leave, let us conduct one last search of the alleyway. Tkrn, instruct Guardswoman Jerci about bolt hole and invisibility protocol.”
So saying, Klbkch’s antennae began to wave and he stepped back. Tkrn stared, but then he turned to Jerci. She gave him an unfriendly look. Tkrn tried to smile.
“Invisibility protocol is searching the alleyway in case we think our quarry is invisible, Guardswoman Jerci. We move so they can’t slip around us section by section. Like—”
“I know how to do it.”
Jerci ignored him trying to show her. Tkrn’s tail drooped. Silently, he moved like she did, keeping his arms outstretched, low to the ground so that he wouldn’t miss the [Thief] if they were crouching. He really doubted the [Thief] was stuck to a wall and above them, but he checked high too as he moved slowly down the alleyway.
“No sewer entrances. No disguised bolt holes I can see, or hidden doors.”
“There wouldn’t be any here. Right?”
Jerci looked scornful. It was Klbkch who spoke up; his antennae were still moving in an oddly rhythmic fashion.
“Advanced [Thieves] may make use of completely invisible rooms, trap doors, and so on, Guardswoman Jerci. The Watch actively pursues such hideouts, but they are known to exist. The suggestion is improbable given the estimated level of our [Thief], but not impossible.”
“Oh. Sorry, Senior Guardsman.”
“I am not the one you should be apologizing to.”
Tkrn glanced up at Klbkch. Jerci blushed beneath her fur and muttered something that sounded like an apology to Tkrn. The two Gnolls returned to the Antinium and he nodded.
“We will abandon direct pursuit of the [Thief] for the moment. Junior Guardswoman Jerci, if need be we would call for backup in the form of a [Guard] experienced in tracking at this stage, but there are other leads to follow. I have a lead. There is a meeting of…criminals two blocks southeast. Follow me.”
Tkrn and Jerci stared at Klbkch. Jerci glanced at Tkrn, and he shrugged, mystified. How had Klbkch known that? But then again, why not? Klbkch was a Senior Guardsman, and that meant he was the best the Watch had to offer.
He had information sources, experience, and a professional demeanor. He was also the fourth-best [Guardsman] in the city when it came to combat prowess. And that had been before he’d changed bodies! Tkrn had seldom worked with him, but now he saw why the Antinium was so well thought-of.
“How do you know about the criminals, Senior Guardsman Klbkch?”
“A [Guard] will cultivate their information sources and Skills, Guardswoman Jerci.”
That wasn’t an answer, Tkrn realized. But then Klbkch was raising a hand, slowing as he came to a series of older buildings. This was close as Liscor had to a slum; some abandoned buildings that hadn’t been repaired, owned by [Landlords] who didn’t care so much as long as they got something for their properties.
The door Klbkch had stopped at had no lights from beneath the cracks, nor sound from within that Tkrn could hear. Nevertheless, it was the one. Klbkch turned his head and drew a single finger across his mandibles. That was code for ‘silence’. Jerci and Tkrn fell silent. Tkrn tapped his side.
Ready for combat. But don’t draw. Tkrn grabbed Jerci’s paw and shook her head. She tried to glare, but she was suddenly nervous. Klbkch signed they should hold back. Then he turned the door, and knocked on it.
“Liscor’s City Watch. Senior Guardsman Klbkch, to investigate a crime. Open the door.”
His voice rang overly loud in the streets. Tkrn uneasily looked around. He realized this small street was empty; the residents had cleared out in front of the Watch. The hairs all over his body tried to stand up. The Watch ruled in Liscor, not crime, like in some cities. Even so, you could get jumped…
The door remained closed. Klbkch made a clicking sound.
“Refusal to cooperate with the Watch is a felony. We are aware of your presence. All six of you. Two Gnolls, four Drakes. If you do not open this door within five—”
The door opened. A big Gnoll appeared in the doorway. Not he—she. Tkrn gulped; he noticed the steel-clawed knuckles on one paw. A Gnoll wearing that could shred anything she swung at.
“We haven’t done anything.”
Klbkch didn’t’ step back. He pointed at the claw-knuckles.
“Open display of a weapon is forbidden. Please remove the knuckles now. You are not under arrest…Miss Bearclaw. Nor are your associates. I am inquiring into a theft unrelated to your activities.”
The Gnoll stared. She looked over her shoulder and Tkrn’s sharp ears heard a muffled curse from within. Bearclaw backed up. Her fur was dark brown, mixed with red. It wasn’t neatly combed, and Tkrn thought he saw long, uneven patches amid the fur. Scars, hidden by the fur. Lots of them. Tkrn was thinking fast as she narrowed her eyes.
Bearclaw. She looked like trouble, so she had to be a career criminal. Not some [Thug]. The Watch would remember someone like her—she had to be new to Liscor.
New indeed, because she looked like she might go for Klbkch rather than drop the knuckles. She sniffed and her eyes fell on Tkrn and Jerci. The presence of two other [Guards] didn’t seem to faze her, but she was wary of Klbkch. The Antinium watched her, hands on his waist.
“Miss Bearclaw, I will give you five seconds to comply. Remove the knuckles. Now.”
A voice from within. The Gnoll whirled, snarling.
She slammed the door. Tkrn exhaled, looking at Klbkch. The Antinium glanced back. He nodded at Jerci, who looked very nervous.
“My assumption was inaccurate. I would have called for backup if I was aware of Miss Bearclaw, Junior Guardswoman.”
“Yes, Senior Guardsman? Should we—”
The door thrust open. Bearclaw loomed again, but bereft of the metal knuckles. It didn’t fill Tkrn with comfort, but a Drake was standing behind her. Tkrn recognized the Drake.
Klbkch greeted one of the city’s more notorious [Fences]. The ashy-scaled Drake glared at him.
“Senior Guardsman Klbkch, we’ve done nothing wrong. We’re just having a civilized meeting. What do you want?”
“Simply an inquiry. Something was stolen at The Wandering Inn thirty minutes ago. A Gnoll [Thief], blonde fur, young. We would like to know where he is.”
“What’d he steal?”
Bearclaw grinned, exposing her teeth behind Mister Soot. The Drake nudged her, then he smiled unconvincingly at Klbkch.
“I’m certain I have no idea where the [Thief]—”
“Mister Soot. Any help you would be willing to give our investigation would be welcome. Lies are a waste of time.”
“If I am not satisfied with my answer, I may find a reason to enter your abode and look around. Purely on the grounds of furthering my investigation.”
Bearclaw’s grin turned into a snarl of alarm. Mister Soot paused. He stared at Klbkch and then at Tkrn and Jerci. The Antinium lowered his hands a tiny bit towards his sword hilts. The Drake inhaled, and then snapped.
“Alright, alright! You didn’t hear it from me. Where’d you lose him?”
Tkrn breathed. Mister Soot glared at him. His eyes lids flickered.
“Try Saucy’s Bar. That’s all I know. Is that enough?”
“Then get l—”
The huge Gnoll slammed the door before Tkrn heard the rest. Jerci and Tkrn winced, and Klbkch stepped back. He looked at them.
“Saucy, the Drake owner?”
“Ah, of course. Miss Saurisi. Very well, patrol, with me. Guardswoman Jerci, don’t look back over your shoulder.”
Klbkch strode down the street. Tkrn was only too happy to follow. His [Dangersense] was going off. Indeed, Klbkch wasted no time. When they were six streets away he paused and turned to them.
“That was an error on my part, Guardswoman Jerci. I did not intend to take you into such a dangerous encounter. I had assumed Mister Soot was meeting with his associates. I was unfamiliar with this Miss Bearclaw. Guardsman Tkrn, did you take note of her scent?”
“Yes, Senior Guardsman. I have it.”
Tkrn rubbed his nose. Klbkch nodded briskly. At this point the young Gnoll burst out.
“What was that back there, Senior Guardsman?”
She was shaking with nerves. Jerci looked at both [Guards]. Klbkch’s head turned to Tkrn.
“This is speculation, but I believe Mister Soot was welcoming Bearclaw into Liscor. I would mark her as a wanted criminal. Would you agree, Guardsman Tkrn?”
“Oh yes. She looks like a Plains Gnoll. Criminal. Did you see her scars?”
“Indeed. It was my miscalculation and I placed both of you in danger. Had Senior Guardsman Relc been with me, we would have attempted to question or apprehend Bearclaw over pursuit of the [Thief]. Given your presence, I decided to pursue the safer lead. We will begin investigation of Bearclaw at once, however, upon our return to the Watch barracks.”
Jerci gulped. She was beginning to realize how close they’d come to a fight.
“W—should we have called for backup?”
“Right there? With two Gnolls? They’d have gutted us before a patrol got here.”
“Even if we sounded an alarm after retreating, we would have no time to pursue Mister Soot and his associates. By now, they will have vacated the room and left us no trace.”
“How did you know they were there, Klbkch?”
Tkrn looked at Klbkch. The Antinium turned his head.
“I had a piece of information, Tkrn. But we are wasting time. To Miss Saucy’s. Relc and I will find Bearclaw another day.”
“Could you take her?”
The Gnolls followed Klbkch. The Antinium looked back at Tkrn and nodded.
“I would not wish to place you two in danger. Mister Soot is also armed. The situation did not favor us. That was all.”
Jerci’s eyes went wide. She stared as Klbkch walked faster, leading the way to Saucy’s Bar, a place Tkrn knew fairly well. The Gnoll whispered to Jerci.
“He’s the best [Swordsman] in the city. Even better than Jeiss is with his blade.”
“Guardsman Tkrn, gossip is frowned upon.”
Saucy’s Bar was another test for Klbkch’s patrol. It was a dive, and it could have held any number of people who wouldn’t be fans of the Watch. So Klbkch ordered the Gnolls to stay outside with instructions to blow their whistles if they heard a commotion.
“I can’t believe he’s going in alone. Is he crazy?”
“He normally goes into places with Relc. They could tear this bar apart together.”
But alone? Tkrn had to admit, he wasn’t sure if Klbkch was insane. He listened, hearing Klbkch’s voice from within and a flustered female Drake. Saucy herself. But there was no fight. Klbkch walked out five minutes later.
“I have a name and a location. Reric Feltpaw. He lives nearby. He entered this bar fifteen minutes ago and attempted to locate a buyer for the flowers he stole from Miss Solstice.”
“Wait, he did? But that’s so stupid.”
Klbkch shrugged slightly.
“It appeared to be a spur of the moment theft. This [Thief] was also unprepared to make his sale. Intriguingly, we may have prevented said sale by encountering Mister Soot; he is the nearest [Fence] capable of taking the goods.”
“And he sold this [Thief] out rather than get involved himself.”
Jerci’s eyes widened in comprehension. Tkrn nodded, spelling out the rest.
“Especially because Bearclaw would have started a fight and he’d have been arrested on attempted murder charges.”
“Exactly. Our fortune was in locating Mister Soot after losing the trail, Junior Guardswoman Jerci. Had Relc and I been in pursuit, he would have attempted to succeed in the foot chase and we would have confronted Bearclaw. But in regular patrols, I would caution you to avoid such situations without a superiority of force. This is a representation of Watch work, not an example to be followed. Is that clear?”
“As glass, Senior Guardsman. What do we do now?”
Jerci smiled, relaxing at last. Klbkch opened his mandibles and raised them slightly.
“Now? We apprehend the criminal.”
The door to Reric’s apartment was closed and locked. Tkrn shrugged; he could hear movement inside. No doubt he was being smelled and heard from within. He took a deep breath, then pounded on the door.
“This is the Watch! Open up!”
He heard a sound, an indrawn breath, and then flurried movement. Tkrn stepped back, ready for the door to burst open. But Reric didn’t come out the front.
He went out the window. There was no crash of glass. In fact the Gnoll quickly and quietly slipped out the window into the alleyway, neatly evading Tkrn—
And running into Jerci and Klbkch, who were poised at the alleyway. The [Thief] saw Jerci’s as she sprang out and dodged around her with an oath. Klbkch stuck out a foot and Reric went flying.
“Next time, Guardswoman Jerci, I would advise you to rush him. You may apprehend the [Thief] now.”
Jerci fell on the [Thief], tackling him and placing a knee in his back. By the time Tkrn had raced to the alleyway, the [Thief] was groaning and kneeling, Jerci on top. Klbkch nodded to Tkrn and addressed the fallen Gnoll.
“You are under arrest for petty theft. Junior Guardsman Tkrn, Junior Guardswoman Jerci. Are you confident in your ability to transport the prisoner to the barracks?”
“Yes, Senior Guardsman!”
Tkrn saluted as Jerci looked up. She stammered an affirmative and Klbkch stepped back.
“Then do so, with the correct protocol. From the beginning.”
He didn’t leave, but he watched without lifting a hand to help or saying a word, his arms crossed. Tkrn cuffed the Gnoll, showing Jerci how to make sure he didn’t get away before they could place his paws in manacles. He called out an explanation to the few citizens who wanted to know what had gone on, collected Erin’s flowers from Reric’s belt, and then Jerci and Tkrn marched the [Thief] towards the Watch house.
Klbkch watched, nodding as Jerci helped Tkrn. He only corrected them once.
“Junior Guardswoman Jerci, protocol for [Guards] in the City Watch is to allow as few [Guards] as necessary to accompany the prisoner. Your position should be back and to the side, to better react and watch for other possible crimes or interferences with Junior Guardsman Tkrn.”
“Oh. I—where do I go?”
Flustered, Jerci moved back. Klbkch pointed and she stood there, flushing. She reached for her baton, and then looked at Klbkch questioningly.
“Should I draw my weapon, Senior Guardsman?”
The Antinium shook his head patiently as Tkrn wrenched up the [Thief]’s arms, cutting off a whining protest.
“This is only a precaution. If you believe you are in any danger, Junior Guardswoman, you should immediately request backup and hold your position or secure a safer location depending on the threat presented.”
“I see, sir. Then…”
Jerci glanced at Tkrn. He stared at Klbkch, but the Antinium had gone back to observational mode. Well, Tkrn had handled arrests. He shot a glance at her over his shoulder as Reric whimpered; they were heading into populated streets and some of Liscor’s citizens were staring at the [Thief] as he was marched forwards.
“Guardswoman, will you clear the way?”
“Oh. Right. Um—Watch delivering a criminal! Stand aside, please!”
They made good progress after that. Tkrn watched with some satisfaction as Reric was thrown into the holding cell and he presented the flowers that had been the object of his desires. Klbkch was filling out paperwork with the [Guardswoman] in charge. Beilmark. She was on desk duty, which was rare for a Senior Guardswoman, but Tkrn supposed her partner, Jeiss, was on the Council duty.
“We are also reporting the presence of a possible career criminal known as Bearclaw. I estimate her to be anywhere from Level 20 to Level 30 and quite dangerous. She was armed with a claw-knuckle and meeting with Mister Soot down Greas street.”
Beilmark swore and growled.
“Soot’s got her? Dead gods, of all the times for Relc not to be your partner! What do you think, [Thug]?”
“Possibly. But she seemed to be a leader of sorts. She may be attempting to secure some item. Or form a gang. I did not wish to attempt to apprehend her with Guardsman Tkrn and Junior Guardsman Jerci present.”
“I’ll alert the patrols. Does one of you have her scent?”
“I do, Senior Guardswoman Beilmark.”
The Gnoll woman eyed Tkrn and his ears flattened. But Klbkch spoke crisply.
“Is that all, Beilmark? I must sign out; my shift is ending.”
“Oh, that’s all, Klbkch. I’ll take this to the Captain. She’s not going to be pleased about this.”
“Is her mood that much worse than usual?”
Klbkch was undoing his Watch armor. Beilmark grinned, familiar with him.
“One of the Wistram [Mages] came by. The Human, with a gift for the Watch Captain.”
“Ah. Well, perhaps the knowledge that this Bearclaw is linked to Mister Soot will calm her. He would be implicated with her crimes if the link can be found.”
“That’d make my day. What was the meeting about?”
“Arming his associates with wands. And some of the illicit substances imported by Palt the Centaur. Dreamleaf. Not worth pursuing.”
“You sure we can’t get him for that?”
Klbkch paused and shook his head.
“The Watch Captain will not wish to fight Wistram over the issue. I would keep it between us.”
“Go on, then.”
Klbkch returned to Jerci and Tkrn. The female Gnoll was staring at him, and she jumped to attention as he addressed her.
“Guardswoman Jerci, do you believe this patrol was instructional?”
“Yes, sir! I learned a lot!”
She bared her teeth in a Gnoll’s grin. Klbkch smiled slightly, then looked past her.
“Good. And in the future, Junior Guardswoman Jerci, your companion, Junior Guardsman Tkrn, would be more competent than I in law enforcement as it pertains to Gnolls. He has served in the Watch for over a year and two months. You may ask him about such details on your patrol. The Market Street patrol, Guardsman Tkrn.”
It was one of the easier patrols, where the worst was [Pickpockets], arguments, and petty theft. But Tkrn stared at Klbkch along with Jerci.
“Patrol? But Senior Guardsman, two Junior Guards can’t patrol by themselves…”
The Antinium shook his head. Beilmark was looking up from her desk, and Klbkch raised his voice, addressing the Watch in the barracks as he stared at Tkrn.
“Junior Guardsman Tkrn. Your demotion does not affect your competence. Watch Captain Zevara had found issue with your understanding of the ethics of your duties, not your ability to carry out orders. Continue your patrol. I must sign out.”
Tkrn whispered the word. Klbkch nodded at him and returned to the desk to fill out his name and time. Tkrn stepped back and looked at Beilmark. She raised her eyebrows and waved him out.
Klbkch strode out of the Watch barracks, done with his shift. Jerci and Tkrn followed. And that was it. He hadn’t said a word about the jail incident like Beilmark and Jeiss had. Or…anyone else. Tkrn stared longingly at Klbkch’s back. He’d even stood up for Tkrn.
Jerci looked just as impressed. She followed Tkrn as he walked down the street, nodding to people who called out to him. She was so distracted she forgot herself and spoke to him.
“Wow. I thought he was supposed to be part of the worst Senior Guard pairing in the city.”
Tkrn grinned absently.
“That’s Relc you’re thinking of. It’s because Klbkch is his partner that they work. And to be fair, they’re the best at taking down dangerous problems. That’s normally how they’re assigned. Relc’s like…the Watch’s not-so-secret weapon.”
He saw her glance sideways at him, and then bare her teeth in a challenge. Tkrn’s heart sank, but then Jerci jerked her head towards the street.
“Well? You’re my senior. Explain things since we have to patrol together.”
They began to walk together. Tkrn found himself talking to Jerci. She was still snappish, but she was asking questions now, all the ones he remembered wanting to ask. Most were familiar and she ended up taking her ear piercing out, but then she threw a new one at him.
“What about the inn? The inn. Everyone tells me there’s special protocols I should follow.”
Tkrn blinked. Then he grinned. He shook his head. Jerci looked suspiciously at him.
“What’s so funny?”
“That’s just a joke they play on the rookies. There’s no special protocol. She’s just…Erin, yeah? You see that Human do anything, you call it in. And no one goes to the inn without a full squad’s worth of support if there’s trouble. Usually we just send Relc in. With that said, there’s lots of competition for patrolling the area around the inn so we won’t be able to get that slot.”
“You and I should go to the inn after your patrol ends. You’re new, so she’ll give you something on the house. If you ask right, and it’s not Lyonette, she might even give you something to take back and share with your friends or family.”
“Really? I hear it’s expensive.”
“For some of it, like ice cream, yeah. But regular food is good and cheap. And there are plays. Want to go?”
“I—sure. Hey. Listen. Everyone’s talking about it, but no one has the full story. So—can I ask what really happened in the prison?”
Tkrn hesitated and his stomach twisted as Jerci looked at him. But it was the question he had to answer. No, one he wanted to answer. And no one had asked until now. He took a deep breath.
“What really happened? Short is I screwed up, no? I mean, yeah? Long of it is hard.”
“Well, we’ve got a patrol. Tell me. It was about the Minotaur, right? And the Raskghar.”
“Yeah. All the old Gnolls are really upset about them. And I—I made a mistake. Because I was listening to them and I didn’t behave like a [Guardsman] should. What happened was this.”
Tkrn began to speak as they walked along. It hurt, like plucking a thorn, but the pain was cathartic. He saw Jerci glancing at him, listening. Judging, but listening. Tkrn walked through Liscor, listening to the city about him, and wondered what crazy thing that Human would do next. But then, Erin wasn’t all of Liscor. Bearclaw, Klbkch, the Watch—there was more to life than her. She just made things even more interesting.
Tkrn exhaled. And he felt a bit better.