It should surprise no one to learn that Niers Astoragon did not cook his own meals. Oh, he dabbled on occasion, but generally he let other people take over that task. He was a busy man. Or rather, Fraerling man. And that was the point, wasn’t it? Living among the tall folk meant that even cooking could be a challenge.
Who wanted to have to risk needing a bath every time you cracked an egg? Let alone cooking the darned thing and not wasting food or wrestling with a pan many times heavier than you were? You’d need a dedicated team. And that wasn’t even taking into account shopping! No, cooking was out of the question. So Niers Astoragon did what anyone with a surplus of money and a deficit of time did.
He’d hired a [Cook]. Or rather, a [Chef]. Or rather, a [Pictorial Chef de Entremetier], for this specific chef who prepared his breakfasts. As one of the leaders of the Forgotten Wing Company, Niers obviously had any number of [Chefs] he could call upon. But this particular [Chef] was amiable, willing to improvise despite his class, and cooked his dishes himself despite his senior rank and level.
In fact, he was first to bustle up towards Niers as the Fraerling strode down the Fraerling-ways into the dining room he shared with Foliana. The enthusiastic Garuda, who, in his youth, had picked the very ingredients he needed himself from Baleros’ jungles, bowed as he took the serving platter which Niers hopped on and escorted him to the table.
“Good morning, Lord Astoragon! You are the picture of health again!”
The [Chef] beamed, the picture of good nature in the morning. Niers was not smiling. He looked irked. His hair was also a mess, unusual for the Fraerling who paid attention to his own particular style. Still, Selentierre made no comment. The Garuda had been breakfast-chef for nearly two years now and he had learned to weather the moods of the rich and powerful long before that. He strode towards the apparently empty table already set with dishes, but no food.
“And what is your preference today, Lord Astoragon? I can bring you your usual in moments—”
The Garuda paused. He stared at Niers’ expression, and then looked around the room.
The dining room was actually attached to a small kitchen, so as to hasten any actual cooking for Niers and whatever guests he chose to bring in. There was a dumbwaiter attached as well, which ran down to the larger kitchens in the citadel in case more ingredients were needed.
Today, Selentierre was doing attendance with his apprentice, a [Sous Chef]. Which technically meant she outranked him, but only where classes were concerned. Her name was Mixasa; she was a Dullahan and poked her head out anxiously through the kitchen’s entryway.
Squirrel? To his credit, Selentierre only wavered a second. Then he bowed effusively as he set the tray down on the dining table. One did not gainsay the Titan of Baleros in any way.
“Would that be ah, braised? Or perhaps in a stew? Mixasa, go check the stocks and see if we have a common tree squirrel. If not, we may have to delay breakfast by, oh, fifteen minutes? I shall have a [Hunter]—”
Niers ignored the [Chef]. He strode off the serving platter as Selentierre whisked it away and looked around, scowling. The dining table was empty. The plates were waiting to be filled—and Selentierre could fill them within minutes even cooking from scratch—and no one was there.
No one at all. Except for the Squirrel-woman, of course, sitting in her chair, hunched over the table and poking holes in the delicate tablecloth with a fork. But even Niers Astoragon couldn’t see Foliana, Three-Color Stalker and head of the Forgotten Wing Company. Even he needed a ring, or enchantment when the [Rogue] wanted to hide.
But he knew she was there. Niers’ eyes narrowed as he focused on the pulled-out chair. He pointed at it.
“Foliana! I know you’re here! Stop hiding or I’ll burn down your rooms!”
With effort, Selentierre and Mixasa focused on the chair. If they tried, really tried, they could notice it was pulled out. And that, combined with their experience with Lady Foliana, told them she might be there. But they still jumped when she reappeared.
Suddenly, Foliana was there. The Squirrel-woman, her bushy tail sticking out the open-ended back of the chair, her knees drawn up on the padded seat, looked up with fork in hand. Her fur was greying, the stripes of color running down her sides dark, her fur brown where it was not faded. Nondescript. Even now, she seemed unobtrusive, her clothes as unremarkable as she was despite her station.
But her eyes stood out. Three colors, not one, made up her irises. A clear, calm green. Dreamy and deep yellow, and piercing red-pink. They made up a single iris out of three parts. And they fixed on Niers as he strode towards her.
The Fraerling [Strategist], considered to be one of, if not the best in the world, stomped towards Foliana across the table. He pointed at her.
“I know you have it! Give it back, you damn thief! This is the eighth time! I have a class in thirty minutes!”
“Don’t play games, Foliana. Or I’ll have Selentierre roast one of your ancestors and eat it in front of you!”
Roast. The Garuda [Chef] mouthed at his apprentice and she hurried into the kitchen, already writing an order down. The threat didn’t seem to faze Foliana. She poked another hole in the tablecloth.
“And stop that! That’s expensive! Hand-sewn!”
“It’s my tablecloth. I own this company.”
“Don’t pull that card on me, you nut-hoarding furball! It’s a waste of—dead gods! You’ve poked hundreds of holes in it! We’ll have to repair it before its fit for use among company!”
“You and I eat here every day. I like it.”
Niers pulled at his untidy hair. He gave up on the tablecloth, stomped on the lip of Foliana’s teaspoon, and caught the handle as it flipped into the air. He threw the huge spoon at her with commendable speed and accuracy. Foliana blocked it with her fork.
“No! Give me back my comb!”
From the kitchen, Selentierre mouthed an ‘oh’ at his apprentice. He hesitated, then signaled that squirrel was off the menu. They hurried into the kitchen as the two leaders of one of the Four Great Companies of Baleros argued. In many respects, this was a typical breakfast. And this was Foliana’s day. She’d sat in the dining room after waking up. Niers had been the first person who’d addressed her directly; of course, the staff had cautiously entered the room and asked if she was there.
They had a tendency to do that if they noticed ajar doors or pulled-out chairs. A fun fact about employment in the Forgotten Wing company was that those personally assigned to wait on Niers and Foliana, were screened for phobias and heart defects. They had to have sturdy nerves to deal with Foliana. Three previous members of staff had died of heart attacks.
Foliana had a habit of vanishing, and since she was an exceptionally high-level [Rogue], she could be invisible at will. She didn’t appear around most people and she only appeared for people she liked, generally speaking. And even then, she was difficult. The Squirrel-woman watched as Niers stomped over her plate to stand right in front of her.
“What if you lost it? Your comb.”
Niers glared. He stared up at Foliana’s blank, unreadable face.
“It’s missing. I know exactly where I put it yesterday and it’s not there. Did you take my comb?”
“Are the Fraerling-ways full of rat poop still?”
“Don’t evade the question, damn it! This isn’t funny! You can’t collect everything you want! Remember when you stole Peclir’s seal? If you want something, ask. We can make duplicates! Now, did you steal it or not?”
“You kept complaining about rat poo the other day. Is it on your boots? You’re on my plate. That’s…mm. Unhygienic. Shame on you.”
Foliana poked at Niers with her fork, inspecting his tiny boots. The Fraerling snarled and grabbed the tines of the fork as she pushed him off the plate. He was a lot stronger than he looked for his size, but Foliana was about five times his height and many times more his weight. He slid off the plate.
“I cleared those damn rats out months back! And I’ve had it cleaned much more often these days! The worst was a colony of black ants. We had to kick those damn things out of the Fraerling-ways. Happy?”
Even ants were dangerous to Fraerlings. Some were only the size of dogs, or large rats, but others could be huge. Foliana nodded.
“Mm. Yes. Maybe. But it’s very nice.”
She was talking about the comb this time. She tended to do that. Niers was used to it. He shoved the fork aside and glared up at her, pointing a tiny finger.
“Give it back.”
“Give. It. Back. I don’t have time for this! I’ll buy you a new one!”
“Buy it for yourself. I like it.”
So saying, Foliana produced a tiny comb, wood and gold decorated with a Drathian ornamentation and made by a Fraerling artisan. It was so tiny that she had to hold it delicately between two furry fingers on her paw. Niers’ eyes bulged.
“Give it back! You can’t even use it!”
“No. Make me.”
Foliana held it over his head, teasingly. The Titan made an unintelligible sound. From the kitchen as he slaved over a tiny pan of food, Selentierre the Garuda winced.
“Chef Selentierre? What should we do about Lady Foliana?”
Mixasa whispered at him as they listened to Niers swearing. The Garuda paused, adjusting his hat.
“She hasn’t asked for a specific meal. So we’ll go with Breakfast Course #8. I’ll arrange the salad. You handle the sauté. I want it out in four minutes!”
She nodded. The [Chefs] turned into a blur of motion. They were professionals, after all, and their Skills meant that they could put together a meal ten times as fast as other [Cooks]. Some [Chefs] took their time, but one of the reasons Selentierre had been hired was because he could do fancy and speed.
The hardest part was arranging a tiny plate meant for a Fraerling. The Garuda used delicate tines attached to claw-hooks to manipulate the food into place. A nice, filling breakfast of quail egg—still far too large—rendered into an omelette, a few artfully fried and added vegetables, and a tiny bit of fresh bread, having literally just been baked. A Terandrian style today. Selentierre sighed, but carefully so as not to blow the tiny meal off the plate and put it on a platter. Then he turned his attention to Foliana’s meal.
Outside, Niers was throwing silverware and Foliana was blocking them. She refused to give up the comb—until Niers pointed one of his rings at her.
“Last chance. Give me the comb or I’ll singe your fur off.”
“I’ll dodge. You’ll damage the walls.”
The Squirrel-woman hesitated. She eyed the charging spell in Niers’ ring and realized he was about to fire it at her. After a long pause, Foliana grudgingly placed the comb on the table. Three feet away from Niers. He stared at her and stomped over to it, swearing. He reached for the comb—
Foliana snatched it. Niers swore. From his kitchen, Selentierre winced as he heard something explode. He turned to Mixasa.
“I’ll finish the sauté. Tell the guards Lord Astoragon is…discussing an issue with Lady Foliana.”
Wide-eyed, the Dullahan grabbed her head and scurried out a side-door. Selentierre finished Foliana’s breakfast, arranged it onto the platter, and hurried out of the kitchen.
“Breakfast is served! Apologies for the delay!”
Foliana and Niers looked up from a war that had set a corner of the table ablaze. Silently, they both returned to their places. Niers had a chair on the table. Foliana blew on the blue fire engulfing part of the table and seemed miffed when the fire didn’t’ go out.
“Ah, Lord Astoragon, should I change the tables…?”
“No need. It won’t burn more than the wood and tablecloth where it’s stuck to. The table’s gone anyways.”
Glumly, Niers watched the blue fire slowly eating away at the part of the table he’d hit with his ring. Foliana silently passed him his comb. Niers stared at her. The [Rogue] nodded at him.
“Your hair is awful. Mm. Disgraceful. You’re a professor. Use my comb.”
Niers twitched. Selentierre hurriedly placed his breakfast down on the tiny dining table on top of the larger dining table.
“Your breakfast, Lord Astoragon.”
“Ah, thank you, Selentierre. Although I would have eaten a squirrel. Today. Wonderfully arranged, as always.”
The Fraerling smiled a bit as he combed his hair at last. Selentierre brightened; he was a master of presentation and few [Chefs] in the world could arrange food on a miniature scale. He’d won an award in Fraerling-circles for that. Delighted, he swept across the table and bowed low.
“And for you, Lady Foliana.”
“Mm. Thanks. Niers, give my comb back.”
She held out a paw. Niers stared as she crooked a finger, demanding the comb back. He stared at Selentierre, resigned, as he threw the comb back and Foliana took it. The Garuda gave his employer a sympathetic nod as Niers picked up a fork and shook his head, sighing loudly. They were both used to her unique personality.
Foliana. What people forgot was that she was a [Rogue]. More than Three-Color Stalker, more than the leader of the Forgotten Wing Company and one of the most feared assassins in the world. Foliana was a [Rogue]. She hid, she stole things, and she had no sense of personal privacy.
“I hate you so much. You’ve cost me my morning’s prep time. I have a full day, you know!”
Niers addressed Foliana as he dug into his breakfast. He dined efficiently, savoring bites, but aware that time was running out before he had to get to classwork. And then the business of running one of the Four Great Companies. Even if you delegated, there was work to do. Well, if you were anyone but Foliana.
She was in charge, but she didn’t manage the company. That was Niers’ job. Foliana eyed her breakfast and poked at it with one paw. Selentierre, retreating to the kitchen, held his breath.
If Niers was hard to cook for on a technical level, Foliana was a nightmare. She had unique demands if she was on the job. If she wasn’t…
“Breakfast. You’re not on contract. Which reminds me, I do have something for you. Here.”
Niers growled and produced a huge piece of parchment from his bag of holding. He kicked it across the table and Foliana picked it up. It was only a small roll for her, with neat, small handwriting. She read it.
“Mm. I see. Mm.”
“I need it done today, Foliana. This one’s serious.”
“Sounds like an amateur.”
“An amateur with a dangerous artifact. And they’re ‘apparently’ from Magnolia Reinhart. I haven’t figured out who he’s really from, but it’s definitely some idiot in Izril who wants to stir things up. Deal with it.”
Niers and Selentierre watched as she read. Foliana sighed, but grudgingly nodded. Then she popped the parchment into her mouth and chewed it. Niers paused as he cut up his omelette. He took a tiny sliver of fried tomato and bit into it.
“That wasn’t necessary.”
They turned to food. For breakfast, Foliana had a lightly sautéed plate of cashew-like nuts and a bowl of yoghurt filled with six types of fruit in miniature. To finish it, there was a small salad gently sprinkled with a piquant dressing that did what all salad dressing was supposed to do: make the salad not taste like leaves.
It was a fine repast in that sense, designed for a Squirrel Beastkin’s diet. Of course, that was without mentioning the difference in the quality of [Chef] that the Forgotten Wing Company employed and lesser mortals of cuisine. And there was a difference, oh my, yes.
For instance, each berry in the yoghurt Foliana had been served was at the peak of freshness and exploded with taste with each bite. After eating a pawful of nuts, she could feel energy surging through her while more banked itself away, leaving her with reserves to last her all day. And taste was only half of it. The presentation was exquisite, art in itself! The salad’s arrangement—
Foliana dumped the salad out of the bowl onto her plate, poured her yoghurt on top, and dropped the cashews on the rest of the mix. She looked at the mess of ruined cuisine, and stirred it together with one paw. Then she grabbed a pawful—still forgoing utensils—and took a huge bite.
There was a sob from the kitchens. Niers stared as Foliana’s cheeks bulged and she chewed. She took another huge bite, packing it into her mouth, and proceeded to chew throughout the rest of the meal. He finished his omelette. Foliana eventually swallowed and pushed her plate back. She was done with breakfast! It hadn’t been an important meal. Not like…a meal.
When Foliana nibbled on a snack or filched food, she did it for sustenance, or enjoyment. When she ate food—when she ate the same kind of food for days on end, Baleros took notice. Three-Color Stalker marked her prey by food. She would eat their favorite foods until the contract was finished.
Sometimes it could be a single meal, other times weeks or months of consuming the same variety of meals that her target enjoyed. Muffins, spaghetti, oysters…but she did not insist on such specific diets often. This meal was just a meal and Foliana had gnoshed it.
“You know, Sir Selentierre was given an honorary title for his ability with cuisine. He’s served the Forgotten Wing Company for nearly a decade and hosted some of our best events.”
Niers stared at Foliana and the mess she’d left on the plate. The Squirrel-woman shrugged.
“Mm. I probably knew that.”
The Fraerling looked towards the kitchen. Mixasa was back, comforting the heartbroken [Chef]. It wasn’t exactly a unique scene.
“And you decided to destroy the arrangement he’s so proud of, why?”
“Wanted to know if it would taste good all together.”
The Fraerling waited for a moment.
She smacked her lips.
It wasn’t a yes or a no. After a while, Niers sighed.
“Selentierre? Foliana needs a jam biscuit. Izrilian-style. Foliana, what kind of jam?”
Foliana looked up. The gentle sobbing from the kitchen stopped. And the atmosphere in the room sharpened just a hair. Slowly, the absent look in the Squirrel-woman’s eyes turned to one of concentration. She frowned. And then she looked towards the kitchen.
“I will have it to you directly, Lady Foliana.”
The Garuda sniffed. And indeed, by the time Niers had finished breakfast and cleaned his plate, Selentierre hurried out with two perfect jam biscuits. Just…jam. On a biscuit. The Garuda nervously presented them to Foliana. Niers waited. Mixasa, her head poking out of the kitchen, turned it to stare.
Everyone watched as Foliana inspected the hot snacks. The jam was just below the point where it would sear the mouth, and the biscuits were fresh. This was a different meal. When it was consumed, it would matter.
But not just yet. After a moment, Foliana tucked them into her bag of holding. Selentierre relaxed and backed away, bowing. Niers sighed.
“Today, Foliana. Now, I have to run. Do you mind?”
Obligingly, Foliana picked him up and hopped out of her chair. She carried Niers over to the entrance to the Fraerling-ways and he marched up the ramp, disappearing into the small tunnels that led all over the citadel. Foliana watched him slam the tiny door, then turned. From the kitchen, Selentierre and Mixasa watched.
The Squirrel-woman vanished. They hesitated, and stared around the room. They looked at the door, but Mixasa had forgotten to close it when she’d gone outside. After a minute, Selentierre walked out of the kitchen and looked around the table. He tried to see if any of the dishes were moving. Gingerly, he reached for a fork and hesitated.
“Lady Foliana, will there be anything else?”
He waited for a response. Warily, he motioned and Mixasa came out. They began to tidy the room; the table would have to be replaced, and the chairs. That wasn’t their job, so the [Chefs] just collected the utensils and dishes. But every few seconds one would look up and call out warily.
“Lady Foliana, if you would like anything else. More biscuits? We can prepare them for lunch if you will be eating them all day.”
“Lady Foliana, is that you there? I’m picking up this fork…”
Foliana had left the dining room almost as soon as Niers had. Now, she descended through the citadel. Unnoticed. Few people in the world could catch Foliana when she wanted. Of course, that only went for them. Foliana’s world was helpfully open.
She hopped around a pair of [Servants] who’d been told they needed to replace the furniture in the dining room, walked past a pair of Selphid [Guards] on patrol, and shadowed Peclir Im as he walked down the corridor. When he got to the stairs, Foliana hopped down them, avoiding a Dullahan coming up with a replacement tablecloth.
No one noticed. And indeed, the only trouble Foliana had was navigating through the increasingly-busy citadel that housed the students coming to learn strategy, the servants, teachers, staff, members of the Forgotten Wing Company, and so on. Because no one stopped for her. No one tried to avoid her; they didn’t know she was there. So the [Rogue] slipped from spot to spot, deftly avoiding people, watching them stop and greet each other. Listening. Watching.
She was a ghost. So much so that she could lean on a shoulder and someone might not notice until she was gone. She could use an object and only someone with keen awareness would notice it was moving. It wasn’t just [Invisibility]. It was why Foliana was so feared. If she ate your favorite food, she was coming for you. And you’d never see her before she got you.
But she didn’t kill that often. Indeed, Foliana’s day looked more like this. After breakfast, she descended the citadel, following the students. She lined up as they did in front of a classroom, staring up at the big Minotaur, idly poking the Human [Lord] chatting to him. When the door opened, she followed them inside.
Wil Kallinad’s back was itching today for some reason. He kept scratching at it as he talked to Venaz, and then filed into the classroom where he and a large number of advanced students were reporting today.
Niers Astoragon’s classes were always different and exciting. They were seldom easy, but that was the point. You could get to Level 30 just by taking his classes and learning from the master of strategy himself. That was why he was so popular. It wasn’t as fast as fighting, but it was far safer. So [Lieutenants], [Generals], [Strategists], [Commanders], and any class that owed anything to the art of strategy came here to learn how to improve.
Today’s was a joint lecture class. Which meant that the Titan’s special [Strategist] class was combined with the officer classes and other classes. Wil sat down next to Venaz and Yerranola, sighing. He was not having a good day.
“Do you have fleas or something?”
Venaz grumbled warily. Wil shrugged as he scratched at his back.
“I don’t know! I feel like something’s biting me, or tickling. You ever have that feeling?”
Yerranola looked at her classmates. Venaz rolled his eyes.
“Phantom feelings, Yerranola. You wouldn’t know because you’re a Selphid.”
“Hey! My nerves are connected. This body’s fresh.”
The Selphid poked her Human body. Wil and Venaz didn’t look convinced. Yerranola folded her arms.
“I can feel things. It’s great! Although I do disconnect my nerves if I think there’s something funky going on. So yeah, maybe you have poor nerves.”
“It’s just a feeling. It’s gone now.”
Wil sighed. Foliana stopped poking his back and watched with interest as Venaz edged sideways, closer to Kissilt.
“If you have fleas—”
“I don’t have fleas. I don’t have that much hair!”
“Fleas can get everywhere. Kissilt, switch places with me.”
“Shut up, Venaz. I’m having a bad day.”
The Drake raised his head, looking annoyed. He rummaged in his bag, growling.
“Ancestors—my inkpot’s gone! I swore I had it—will one of you lend me yours?”
Venaz checked his bag. Foliana sniffed the inkpot she’d opened and tasted the ink. She paused, then corked it and put it back in Kissilt’s bag.
“I only have mine.”
“Let me use it, then.”
“You’ve been rude to me, Kissilt. I won’t do you favors for unpleasantness in return. Amend your ways, and we’ll talk.”
The Drake half-rose, furiously, as the last students hurried into the room.
“You damn—oh, wait. Here it is.”
“Always in the last place you look, huh?”
Yerranola grinned from the side. Kissilt glared at her. Foliana sat down on top of the desk next to Yerranola, watching.
Class was starting. And the students looked up as the Fraerling of the hour, Niers Astoragon, marched down towards his podium. His vexation of the morning was gone, and he smiled as some of the students called out greetings. The Titan, or perhaps the Professor in this room, nodded, and took a small wand out. He tapped it on the lecturn and the room fell silent.
“Good morning, class! Well, the summer is almost upon us and some of you will be heading home. But that sad day isn’t upon us yet, and I have one last torment—er, project for us to undertake! A [Strategist] learns from variety after all!”
A good-natured groan filled the room, but a lot of students sat up. They thrived on adversity, after all, and many would level if they did their homework right. A few were even [Students], having made learning their vocation. The rest simply wanted to advance in their class.
Foliana edged past Merrik and Peki, taking a feather as a souvenir. Alarmed, the [Martial Artist] whipped around, feeling at her back. She stared blankly at Foliana and the Squirrel-woman inspected the feather. She put it behind Merrik’s ear. Peki, staring behind her, looked around, mystified, then saw Merrik’s ear. She punched the Dwarf.
“One last project! No complaints! And Peki, stop punching Merrik!”
Niers frowned slightly at Peki and the Dwarf. Merrik swore at Peki.
“Why’d you do that, you bird-brain!? What feather? I don’t know how it got there—”
“A project or a competition, Professor?”
Marian raised her hand from her seat next to Umina and Feshi. Niers laughed, but he absently twisted a ring on his finger. Few people could have seen the motion as Foliana edged past them, peering at Kesla’s notes as the Centauress absently doodled in the side margins. Niers paused, then turned to the Centauress and smiled.
“Well, everything is a competition, Marian. However, this particular one will be a small test. Only four days long! You will all form teams and write up a plan of engagement for one of our practice battles. The trick is that none of you will be allowed to use Skills or even witness the battle. We will assemble two, or even three or four practice armies on the field and have our Selphid-volunteers happily hack each other to bits following your directives! When it is over, we will have each team evaluated on the number of opponents ‘killed’, surviving forces, and efficacy of their orders! We’ll do—three battles for each team, and you’ll be allowed to prepare three sets of orders and choose one for each scenario.”
The students sat up, murmuring. That did sound interesting. Foliana hopped down a row and listened as Marian whispered to Umina and Feshi.
“It’s like when the Professor sends orders to a [Commander] on the field.”
“We can prepare three different battles? So each one will be different. And our opponents will select their best strategy to deal with us. Like sword-scroll-catapult.”
“You mean, knife-rock-paper, yes?”
Feshi blinked at Umina. The Lizardgirl hesitated.
“Is that what Gnolls call it? Sort of! Except that we’ll be preparing each strategy, so there’s a lot more variety.”
Foliana saw Feshi and Marian nod. The Squirrel-woman peered at Umina’s side. There was something magical about her belt. Foliana vaguely recognized it. The Lizardgirl hadn’t owned it last week. Foliana vaguely remembered something about a prize that Umina had won. She inspected the belt, nudging Umina over in her seat. The Lizardgirl realized she was about to fall over and corrected herself. Foliana had seen what she wanted, though.
Belt of Acrobats. Umina seemed nimbler on her feet. She’d even been turning cartwheels this morning. Feshi looked enviously at Umina as the Lizardgirl adjusted her belt; it had come a bit loose for some reason.
Merrik was speaking now, rubbing his jaw and glaring at Peki.
“Professor! Can we give items to our army? Do we know what we’ll get?”
“Absolutely no aiding your armies! But I will let you customize your practice armies. Not the terrain or other variables! Remember our point-buy system for the practice-battles? We’re using that. Let’s call it twelve thousand points per team! Now, with that said, you’re not choosing teams. I’ll select them and you’re all working together! Together, meaning that no one’s taking charge and doing all the work, Venaz, Kissilt. And no one’s slacking off! I’ll just fail teams outright if I hear of that.”
“Why does he always single us out?”
Kissilt grumbled. Venaz nodded. Wil and Yerranola rolled their eyes and Cameral turned his head all the way around to stare incredulously at the Drake and Minotaur. From his podium, Niers waited as the buzz of anticipation grew louder. Foliana was searching through Feshi’s bag. She’d found a snack and began nibbling some grapes.
Niers kicked a small bell on the podium and the ding of noise made all his students look up. The Titan smiled.
“Take note. Here are my teams. Sillk! You, Peki, and Yerranola will be our first group.”
A Lizardboy, still too young to be fully grown, sat up in his seat. He looked across the room and his face fell as Peki stared at him. Yerranola groaned, but good-naturedly.
“Aw. I wanted to team up with Wil! Peki? Well, she’s cool.”
She waved at the Garuda. Niers went on.
“Sillk, Peki, Yerranola. I know, you’ve been assigned to this team before, but no complaints! This is about advanced teamwork, not managing personalities. I also want Kissilt as our resident Drake to partner with…yes, Illial. And Leondir; two Humans in one team, but different continents. And—put Laiz in your team as well. We’ll change the sizes of teams to make it unfair.”
Yerranola blinked. Venaz opened his mouth, but Wil and Kissilt both nudged him. The Drake growled.
“Don’t be an ass, Venaz. And don’t interrupt or we’ll waste time! Ancestors, I’m stuck with two Humans?”
Wil was writing down the names, frowning up at Sillk. Venaz growled back, distractedly looking at Wil.
“If he’s wrong, he’s wrong. Wil, why are you writing names down?”
“Tactical advantage. We’re competing, remember?”
The Drake and Minotaur paused, and then scrambled for their quills. Kissilt muttered as he frantically wrote down the teams Niers was listing out. He hissed sideways.
“Good point. Damn. Yerranola, you’re in trouble. You have two [Commanders].”
“Better than two junior [Tacticians] and a [Strategist]! Peki and Sillk actually know their way around a battlefield! You think your written orders will translate into a victory?”
“Hah! Want to put money on it?”
“I will. I’ll win.”
“You don’t even know your team, Venaz!”
Behind him, Foliana nodded and stuck a grape on the end of Venaz’ left horn. The Minotaur snorted.
“I know we’ll win.”
“Attention! Stop chattering up there!”
Niers roared. The students jumped. Foliana wandered off, investigating Kissilt’s bags next. The Drake raised one claw.
“Professor, why is one team made up of four students and one made up of three? Isn’t that unfair?”
“Of course, Kissilt! I’m not making up the teams to be fair. Take notes of your opponents, students! This is a game about triumph by any means necessary. It’s not meant to be fair. Everything goes. Romin, Umina, you two partner up with Nishelt. Two officers and one [Strategist] sounds balanced. But for our fourth team—how about we create an unfair advantage?”
In her seat, Umina looked up sharply. She glanced at Marian and nudged her. The Centauress blinked as Umina showed her something. Romin, three rows up, was smiling good-naturedly.
“Looks like we get the practice-battle champion on our team. Tough luck, you all!”
Merrik paused as he stared down at his notes. Slowly, he nudged Peki and underlined something. She blinked down at his papers.
Some of the students were calling out. At their seats, Wil, Venaz, and Yerranola were intent, staring down at Niers. The Minotaur’s eyes flicked to his two friends, and then to Kissilt—the Drake was still grumbling about Humans. Yerranola nodded and Wil kicked Venaz once under the table. The Minotaur kicked him back. Not hard. Wil repeated the process with Yerranola.
“Unfair is fair! And we’ll even change the points-buy system. Team four will have fifteen thousand points! And they’ll be made up of five members! Stop screaming at me! Now, who shall they be made up of? Let’s try…”
Niers looked amused as he waved his arms. He looked around and his eyes narrowed.
“Hm. Angelica from Terandria, Lishelle of Chandrar—I want no infighting, you two! Miss Angelica, your stated issues with other species do not carry you far here.”
The young [Princess] from Terandria turned pale. She was new to the academy, having come too late in spring to be a regular student. Instead, she was slated for a summer course of personal instruction to catch her up to the fall classes. She might have protested more, but she bit her lip on the reply. Niers looked at her sternly.
“I will brook no objections, Princess Angelica. Now, since your team is full of two first-year students, how about a senior student? Alvaik, you are a second-year student, but your [Mage] classes provide interesting synergy. But we want this to be an unfairly advantaged team! So let’s make them a team of five. Who should I add? Who indeed…”
Marian looked down at her friends. Feshi was writing on a scroll, her quill urgently flicking down the parchment as she sniffed a few times. Foliana was across the room, but she turned her head at the flare of magic. She chewed on another grape. Marian hesitated, then raised her hand.
“What about Reniz and I, Professor?”
“Excellent suggestion, Marian. I’ll allow it.”
The Titan smiled at her and Marian smiled back tightly. One student, a Dullahan sitting next to Cameral, couldn’t bear it any longer. She raised her head and hand in protest.
“Professor, I must object. Two advanced students and three juniors and a three-thousand point buy lead? How are the other teams supposed to compete?”
Niers pointed at her, smiling cheerfully.
“That’s the exact question [Strategists] must be asking themselves when they face the King of Destruction, Elicia. And the answer is: you have to be better, luckier, or more cunning. We’re here to level, not to be balanced! So why don’t we give your team eight thousand points, and four members?”
The Dullahan girl paled as some of the other students looked sympathetic or laughed. Venaz stood up abruptly.
“Professor, please excuse me. I have to use the restroom.”
“If you want to, Venaz. Now, for Elicia’s team—Feshi first, then Lellint. From Professor Perorn’s class, why not? Then Elicia and…”
Niers waved a hand absently. Venaz got up and Foliana followed him down the rows as he walked down the amphitheater towards the door. She was nearing the door, looking at Venaz’s tense back and preparing to poke when Niers called out. He pointed at Venaz and raised his voice.
“Alright, that’s enough. Venaz, back to your seat.”
The Minotaur turned. The rest of the class looked up. Wil, Marian, Yerranola, and Umina tensed, as did half the officer classes. Feshi just looked up, saw Niers’ smile, and groaned into her paws.
Niers Astoragon was smiling. As Foliana eyed Venaz and put another grape on his second horn, the Titan spoke.
“Venaz, while I admire your straightforward approach, I would have left raising the alarm to a more covert classmate. Some points deducted since no one asks to use the toilet.”
The Minotaur’s jaw dropped. He stared at Niers and relaxed suddenly. Wil sat back, exhaling hard. Kissilt looked blank.
“What is he talking about? The Professor? Will? Yerranola?”
The Selphid shook her head, pointing down as Niers went on.
“Points to Marian for adding to my warning! Points off to Umina, sadly. And you too, Merrik! Our invisible spy could have been standing behind you. Unless you wrote the warning in code? And congratulations to Miss Feshi! An excellent use of a [Message] scroll. But we’ll need to cancel the alarm. One moment, class—Foliana, stop putting grapes on Venaz’ horns!”
He roared at the Squirrel-woman. She looked up. Venaz jumped, leapt backwards when she appeared, and felt at his horns with an oath. The class of students all jerked backwards as Foliana suddenly became visible. She stared up at Niers. He glared at her.
“Do you have to bother my class too? Give back Kissilt’s lunch. And Feshi’s grapes, and in the name of reason, stop stealing my student’s inkpots!”
Foliana blinked up at Niers. She looked around, at the room full of students staring wide-eyed at the infamous [Rogue], and grudgingly pulled out an inkpot. Kissilt, at his desk, swore as he realized his was missing again.
It took Niers ten full minutes to return to the classroom. He had to step outside to quell the alarm Feshi had raised, and she had well and truly done so. Prompted by her [Message] spell, the entire citadel was now convinced there was an [Assassin] or other intruders in the Titan’s classroom and converging on the spot.
And not with one or two [Guards] either. The Forgotten Wing Company did not play games. Perorn herself was leading a squad of the company’s elite Selphids down the corridor and Peclir Im was waiting on the other side with a group of [Mages]. They stared and cursed when Niers, carried by Venaz, informed them it was Foliana.
The Squirrel-woman was eating the rest of Feshi’s grapes as Perorn, Niers and Peclir all converged around her. She didn’t look concerned at the fuss. She stared at Venaz as the Minotaur eyed her, wide-eyed. He tried to return her stare, but after three minutes he had to blink and glance away. Niers was growling.
“You can’t just bother my students all the time! First the comb, now this—”
“So we may cancel the alarm, Lord Astoragon?”
Peclir Im, the [Chamberlain] to the citadel, looked resigned. Perorn, also known as Perorn Sadiluc, Fleethoof and one of the best [Strategists] in the company outside of Niers himself, was furious. She glared at both leaders of the company, but her ire was reserved for one of them alone.
“Lady Foliana—no, Niers. Why did you decide to make Lady Foliana’s presence an issue? Much less call in a full alarm? There are dozens of alerts spreading at this moment! Peclir—”
“I will issue an immediate explanation. However, some of the officers may insist on personally ensuring the all-clear is not a ruse…”
“What? Why is it my fault? Foliana has been harassing my students all throughout my lesson—”
Niers blinked as Perorn poked a finger at him. The Centauress bent and glared at the Titan balanced on Venaz’ palm.
“You knew full well that Lady Foliana would remain hidden. Instead, you decided to alarm your students and issue a full alert!”
The Titan spluttered indignantly.
“That was Feshi! Which, let’s be fair, was excellent work from her! I decided to turn Foliana into an exercise! And we can observe how fast our company reacts to alarms—”
“Don’t make excuses! I don’t care what silly issues you have with Lady Foliana. This is unacceptable, Niers.”
“She stole my comb! Which—I grant you isn’t proportional to this—er—”
The Titan wore a rare look of chagrin as Perorn chewed him out for five minutes. Foliana had vanished again. Venaz kept feeling at his horns warily with his other hand and looking around. Both Perorn and Niers were watching Foliana, though, as she nibbled on some grapes in more or less the same spot. At last, Perorn turned to her.
Foliana appeared next to Perorn. The Squirrel-woman paused and waved slightly at the Centauress.
“Perorn. Mm. Hello.”
The Centauress smiled slightly. She inclined her head to Foliana.
“I apologize on behalf of Lord Astoragon’s behavior.”
“Me? But she’s the one lurking around in my class!”
Perorn shot Niers a look. Then she hesitated and turned to Foliana.
“Which she’s done before now. Although—Lady Foliana, may I request that our students study uninterrupted?”
The Squirrel-woman hesitated. Foliana grudgingly nibbled on a grape.
“Maybe. How’d they know I was there?”
She blinked at Venaz. Niers rolled his eyes.
“I alerted them, of course.”
“Makes sense. How?”
Perorn sighed. She rubbed at her forehead and turned around.
“Enough. I’m going to reassure half our [Commanders] that we’re not under attack. Lady Foliana, a good morning to you. Lord Astoragon.”
She trotted off. Niers glowered after Perorn. Foliana smiled and addressed Venaz, who was watching her warily.
“She likes me more than him. Mm. Grape?”
“No thank you, er, Lady Stalker.”
The Minotaur bowed stiffly. He was very ill-at-ease around Foliana. Most people were. Niers sighed.
“Well, back inside. Let’s explain what happened, shall we? Foliana, please don’t vanish until after I finish my explanation. Then stay out of my classroom and you can keep the comb. Deal?”
Foliana followed Niers and Venaz back inside the classroom. The students stared at her with wide-eyes. And not like they looked at Niers. He was famous, but he was also a renowned figure, known, celebrated. But Foliana was the shadow of the Titan’s legend. Few of them had seen her, even after years of staying at the academy.
And they knew what she did. Every eye focused on the grapes Foliana was holding. Niers sighed as he took his place on the lectern.
“My apologies, class! I had intended this only to be a short lesson, but it has become something of an incident. May I present Foliana of the Squirrel Beastkin tribes? Also known as Three-Color Stalker, our company’s illustrious leader. She was indeed lurking around the classroom, hence our little exercise.”
The students stared at Foliana. She waved absently. Feshi stood up, looking deeply embarrassed.
“Professor, I apologize for sending the [Message].”
“Not at all, Feshi. It was my fault for prompting the lesson.”
Niers’ cheeks were a bit flushed. He looked around and shook his head. Some of the students still didn’t understand what was happening. Niers rapped the podium, cutting short the whispers.
“I am certain some of my new students are confused at what just happened. Well, to be brief, I noticed Foliana’s presence in my classroom and decided to covertly warn you all there was someone lurking amongst us. That was how they raised the alarm, Foliana. I began to use a code and some of my students figured it out. May I have a show of hands as to who picked up on the clues?”
About half the class raised their hands obediently. Foliana blinked around. She turned transparent, then reappeared as Niers glared at her. She looked blankly at him.
“Mm. I don’t get it.”
“It was quite simple. I used a code as I assigned team names. And I referenced events that hadn’t ever happened, like Miss Yerranola partnering with Peki and Sillk. And accused other students of transgressions, like Miss Angelica. I do apologize.”
The [Princess] nodded, her eyes wide. Niers picked up his wand and began writing in the air, spelling out the four teams he’d listed.
Sillk, Peki, and Yerranola.
Kissilt, Illial, Leondir, and Laiz.
Romin, Umina, and Nishalt.
Angelica, Lishelle, Alvaik, Reniz, and Marian.
Foliana watched, chewing the last grapes. She tiled her head, confused. The students in the lecture hall were nodding, and now the students who hadn’t gotten the coded message were groaning. Kissilt covered his face.
“Ancestors. How’d I miss—”
Foliana just scratched her side.
“Still don’t get it. Is it clever?”
Niers sighed. He underlined the first letter of each name. It took Foliana another minute, then she blinked.
“Oh. ‘Spy’. ‘Kill.’ Mm. Good idea. Or bad. Smart [Assassins] would probably figure it out. Mm. Risky. Probably a stupid idea for the Titan of Baleros.”
Niers paused and turned to her, an aggrieved look on his face. There was a strangled giggle from the students. The Titan nearly threw his pointer at her head, but decided against. He turned to address the class, ignoring Foliana.
“If this was an emergency, I’d have just activated one of my warning spells. This exercise was to see how the class would react, knowing there was some kind of danger among us. And we did see a number of approaches, from trying to spread word, raising the alarm themselves, and trying to locate Foliana! Miss Feshi, I noticed you sniffing before you sent the [Message]. It was quite covert, but I take it you were unable to locate her?”
“Well, that’s quite common. When a high-level infiltrator threatens a command group, it can be exceptionally difficult to root them out. I’d like to thank Foliana for her demonstration. And apologize for her interference. It will not happen again. I’m sure she has work to do.”
Niers glared at Foliana. The Squirrel-woman shrugged. She disappeared and Niers turned with a sigh. He massaged his temples for a moment, and then looked up.
“Well, let’s continue. We might as well keep the teams for the assignment—and yes, we will be doing exactly what I said, imbalanced teams and all. Let’s sort out the rest of the teams, and then we’ll go through some examples of how to thwart unseen attacks in this very scenario, including how to alert your comrades through less-obvious methods. As I’ve taught you all, establishing code-phrases and a system of command is essential…now, for team five. Thirteen thousand points. Venaz, team up with….”
The classroom slowly returned back to normalcy. The students stared at where Foliana had been, but she never reappeared. They got out their notes, began listening again. But they still looked around, some, like the Gnolls, sniffing the air now and then.
Foliana watched as the students looked around furtively every few seconds, some going as far as to wave their arms behind them to make sure she wasn’t standing there. But she hadn’t really moved. She watched the class with interest, seeing Niers glance irritably at her from time to time. At last, she left the room and stood outside in the corridor.
Foliana made a soft noise as she reached into her bag of holding. She felt quite contented. Her bushy tail was raised as she sat on the ground, pulling out a small, now-cooled object and sniffing it a few times. She’d enjoyed herself. She often did. But now, she studied the jam-coated biscuit in her paws. She sniffed it a few times, studied it, licked the sauce and smacked her lips. But this was a different sort of food. A different kind of experience.
Three-Color Stalker lifted the jam biscuit to her mouth. She paused for a moment.
Later that day, three students left the academy. Umina, Feshi, and Marian, were chatting about today’s lessons. The appearance of Three-Color Stalker herself had been the exciting part; the rest had been preparing for the skirmishes in their teams, learning about how to counter invisible spies and the basics of creating casual code-phrases—
“Everything and anything is a weapon. You could prepare for hundreds of eventualities, yes? Do you really think the Professor has a way to communicate that he believes there is an invisible spy in the room in casual conversation?”
Feshi was complaining and massaging her head as they walked down the streets of Elvallian. Marian shrugged.
“I believe it. But as he said, we don’t need to go that far all the time. But I’m definitely going to buy a ring or amulet that lets me see invisible people when I have enough coin. You should have gotten that instead of your Belt of Acrobats, Umina.”
“Hah! I’d rather be able to dodge arrows and an [Assassin] than see it all coming. And it looks beautiful, doesn’t it?”
Umina pointed at her new belt rather proudly. As the complete victor of the Titan’s Games, she’d been allowed to take an artifact as well from the armory, and after much thought she’d taken this. She’d been tempted to ask for an artifact just to see if the Titan would give it to her, but that was probably a good way to get her throat slit in the night.
Feshi and Marian both looked enviously at Umina’s belt. It was indeed fine, and the Lizardgirl, who’d never been exactly agile, could now do backflips.
“I would’ve asked for a bow, myself.”
“Well, I’m not a [Fighter], Marian.”
“She’s a [Lover], yes? I always knew it.”
The Gnoll [Strategist] grinned as Umina turned red under her scales. Marian and Feshi both laughed. They were walking down Ellavian’s streets. The city was large, built up around the front of the citadel, one of Baleros’ trading hubs. It was bustling, and the three students took in the sights as they chattered about the day’s events. They paused by a parked wagon.
And Foliana. She was staring at an anthill, but she glanced up as the students stopped near her. They didn’t notice the Beastkin as she crouched by the side of the street. They were chatting about classwork, but they paused to watch a little Centaur foal stumble past them, clutching at her mother’s hand.
Umina watched the foal stare wide-eyed at them, then hurry to stay by her mother’s side. Marian looked fond as well; Centaurs were extremely protective of their young.
“How old is she?”
“She might only be a week old.”
“A week? But she looks like a year, at least! She can walk, yes? And upright! Gnoll children, they prefer all fours for a long time!”
Feshi looked astonished. Umina and Marian just shook their heads. Unlike Human babies, which were incapable of doing much, Centaur foals were capable of walking within an hour of being born. They were also far more capable than their Human counterparts, despite being half-Human.
“Centaur babies—foals, Feshi—come out really developed. They can walk the same day as they’re born. The same hour, right Marian? And they learn to speak really fast. Some within eight months! It’s got to be convenient, not having to carry them around.”
She nodded down the street. There was another baby, a Lizardfolk boy, squalling as his mother hurried past them. The Lizardboy was in a sling. Foliana looked up from the anthill she’d been staring at and followed the little baby with her head. The piercing shriek made Umina wince. Marian just pursued her lips, nodding after the Centaur foal.
“You think it’s fun, Umina? Try carrying one of them around in your stomach for twelve months or more! Centaurs have the longest pregnancies in the world. Humans and Lizardfolk have it easy. Dullahans…well, I honestly have no idea.”
Umina looked a bit indignant at the comparison.
“That’s not fair, Marian. We have shorter pregnancies, it’s true, but then we lay eggs and we take care of them. Which is inconvenient because then you’re up all night with a rolling pin, looking for rats and snakes! And insects! And—”
The two friends began arguing as Feshi watched. Foliana drifted over, brushing ants out of her fur. The Gnoll growled, grinning with all her teeth.
“Neither of you have ever been pregnant, yes?”
Umina and Marian turned and shook their heads. Feshi shrugged.
“Then how would you know, yes? Besides, pregnancy is one thing, but newborns are worse. At least Centaur children learn to speak within the first year! My tribe’s cubs, they made my life a misery when I was applying to come to the academy. They whine, steal things, get under your paws…”
“Lizardfolk babies do the same! All babies do that, Feshi.”
“I hear Drake children are the worst. They go through hoarding phases, apparently. Steal everything in sight. Some never grow up. Imagine an army of little Kissilts…”
“Perish the thought.”
The three students laughed. Foliana smiled. She sat on Marian’s back, listening to the students as they trotted further into the city. Marian didn’t notice. Umina was grousing, having been brought up in a family of six.
“Hah! Lizardbabies bite. They get mad, or scared, or hungry? They’ll take a chunk out of your arm! They have sharp teeth!”
Feshi looked appalled.
“That sharp at birth? But how do you breastfeed?”
“We don’t. We’re lizards, not Drakes! Which is a considerable relief, let me tell you. I don’t know how you two…”
Umina trailed off, eying Feshi and Marian. They stared right back. Foliana stared too. It was true. Umina wore clothes much like a Human did, but under her tunic, the strip of cloth tied around her chest was only there to make other species feel less uncomfortable. In fact, Umina was only too willing to take it off along with her top to prove the point to her friends. This provoked a fierce debate among the three.
“I’m telling you two, it’s unnatural. Why do you produce…milk and give it to babies? And you have to deal with those things your entire life? Eugh! It’s your bodies, but it must interfere so much with running, swimming…”
Umina shook her head. Feshi and Marina looked affronted.
“It’s weirder not to have any, Umina. And isn’t it a bit unfair for you to criticize us? I’ve seen other types of Lizardfolk. Nagas have breasts!”
“Yeah, but Nagas are more like…Centaurs. They just have a tail instead of legs.”
“That’s not true!”
Marian stamped a hoof. Foliana nodded absently and patted her shoulder. Marian blinked, turning her head, and then glared at Umina.
“Nagas aren’t like Centaurs. Take that back.”
“They’re sort of like Centaurs, yes? Both are fairly arrogant. And they are half-Human.”
Feshi grinned. Marian gave her a side-eye.
“We’re not half of anything. We’re Centaurs!”
“And Nagas are different than regular Lizardfolk. Normal Lizardfolk are lizards. We have cold blood. When we turn into Quexas, or Gorgons, or Medusae, Lamia, Nagas, and so on—we take on different aspects. Some of us even gain warm blood! Imagine that!”
Umina shuddered. Feshi and Marian exchanged glances. The Gnoll nodded.
“Seems smart to me, yes? Lizardfolk would not live well on Izril, Umina. If the room is even slightly cold, you curl up and refuse to move out of a pile of blankets.”
“Because it’s cold. We don’t have fur! And we don’t need to! Baleros is hot and it never snows. Well, except in the far north.”
“And that’s why you don’t see many Lizardfolk up there. Face it, Umina. It just makes sense to be warm-blooded like Feshi and me. Drakes, Humans, Centaurs, Minotaurs—more species than not have warm blood. And breasts.”
Marian nodded. Foliana nodded too. They were heading back to the apartments the three females lived in. Umina grumbled under her breath, her neck-frills inflating slightly with vexation.
“That’s speciesist! Cold blood is fine! Besides, if we’re talking about weird features—I still don’t get why Centaurs have fur on their horse-halves and not their upper half. How does that make sense? Isn’t it like, the worst of both worlds?”
This time Feshi nodded. Marian looked affronted and drew up. Foliana stroked the fur on Marian’s side, eying it.
“It’s not! Centaurs have the best of both worlds. We can gallop and we have hands. We can wear clothing or survive in warm weather! And—”
She yelped as Foliana plucked a hair. Instantly, Marian swatted at the spot and Foliana avoided her hand. Umina and Feshi looked back, startled.
“What’s the matter?”
“Fly. I think.”
Marian scowled at the spot. Foliana inspected the hair she’d yanked. She saw the young Gnoll woman look at Marian’s back. Feshi began to sniff the air. She paused, and then trotted over to Marian.
“Hold still, Marian. For a moment, please.”
“What? Is it a bug? If it is, swat it!”
Marian looked alarmed. She nearly trotted around, turning her head, but then she held still. Feshi eyed Marian’s back, looking straight through Foliana. The Squirrel-woman held still. Feshi slowly reached out—and Foliana leaned back. Feshi waved a paw, and Foliana rolled across Marina’s back.
“What are you doing? That tickles!”
Marian giggled, and then scowled at Feshi. The Gnoll blinked. She stared around, patting Marina’s back, then she finally noticed the flattened fur near Marian’s rear. She pointed at it to Umina. The Lizardgirl’s eyes went wide.
The Squirrel-woman reappeared grudgingly. Feshi jumped, her brown-eyes going wide with surprise. Marian yelped and immediately began to buck.
“Get off! Get off!”
Her reaction was instinctual, but the Squirrel-woman held on, like a tick, easily riding Marian around. Umina was shouting.
“Marian, stop! It’s Lady Foliana! It’s—”
Marian caught herself and froze. She stared at Foliana with the other two students. The [Rogue] blinked up at her. Then she patted Marian’s back.
“Squirrels are born deaf and blind. Mm. It’s not easy to take care of them. Probably. I’d be a poor mother.”
Umina, Marian, and Feshi exchanged a long glance. After a moment, Umina bowed.
“Lady Foliana, good day to you. Can we—help you in any way?”
“Mm. No? I’m just listening.”
The Squirrel Beastkin idly swung her legs. Marian stared at Feshi, her eyes wide with nerves. She mouthed silently. She’s on my back. The Gnoll girl nodded. Marian spoke in a high-pitched voice.
“Lady Foliana, are you tired? If so, I can transport you wherever you wish to go.”
“No. I want to be here. Babies are funny. I saw a foal once. It was lost. Mm. It grew up after a while.”
“Oh. Um. That’s—they do grow up.”
The Centauress paused. It was Feshi who broke the silence. She bared her teeth in a wary grin.
“Lady Stalker. Have we offended you in any way?”
Foliana was staring idly down the street. Pedestrians were staring at her. Marian hesitated. She looked at Umina and Feshi, but none of them could quite suggest the obvious. At last, Umina opened her mouth.
“Lady Foliana. Do you—what do you want from us?”
She flinched as the three-colored gaze found her. Foliana stared at Umina unblinking, and all three students held their breath. They were sure, intellectually, that they were safe. They were the students of Niers Astoragon!
Three-Color Stalker might be a mysterious person, but she wasn’t some random killer. They knew that—but they weren’t sure. If Foliana had been eating shrimp, Umina would have been running for the gates already.
Absently, Foliana spoke. She looked around blankly, and then pointed in the direction the foal and Lizardbaby had been.
“Babies. Mm. Let’s go find babies.”
The students stared at her. Umina’s jaw worked.
“You mean—find some babies, Lady Foliana? We—we can do that.”
“Yes. Let’s go. Find babies.”
“We can do that. I know a mother down Spicesel Street that—”
Marian babbled, turning around. But then Foliana’s paw pointed.
“No. That way.”
The three female students blinked. Foliana was pointing away from the citadel, into the heart of the city. The Squirrel-woman nodded sagely.
“I know where to find babies. Go that way.”
Marian looked at her friends. But then she began trotting forwards, obediently turning as Foliana instructed her. It wasn’t what she’d had in mind for her day. But she was far too nervous to say no.
“Here we are.”
Foliana gestured up at the fancy frontage of the…shop they’d come to. Umina’s mouth opened. Feshi blinked up at the sign. Marian just stared.
“This is a brothel.”
“Mhm. Babies come from here. Sometimes.”
“Uh—but they won’t be here right now, Lady Foliana. And this—this is a rather—”
Umina trailed off. She was staring around. It wasn’t that this was a seedy part of Elvallian. Far from it. It was rather upscale. And this brothel—because it most certainly was not a daycare—was elaborately decorated. Umina stared up at the frontage. By her side, Wil mouthed the name of the establishment.
“The Scaleless Sight. What does that mean?”
He looked around. Venaz blinked at the sign. Cameral’s face was bright-red and he kept looking around to see if anyone he knew was in sight. Yerranola was just grinning, and so was Kissilt. The Selphid leaned over.
“It means, Wil—”
She whispered in his ear. Venaz bent to listen and jerked back, grunting. Wil turned bright red.
He jerked backwards, flushing. Yerranola just laughed in delight.
“Wil, you’re a treasure! Haven’t you ever been to a proper brothel?”
“No! They’re banned in my kingdom!”
“And you’ve never visited one before?”
Even Marian looked incredulous. But Umina, Cameral, and Wil were all turning various shades of red. Venaz glanced over at Marian and Feshi. The Gnoll shook her head too.
“I never wanted to, yes?”
“I’m surprised. Not at you, Feshi, but certainly at Cameral and Umina. You’re all of Baleros.”
“Why does that mean we should be familiar with brothels? Marian, you’ve been to one?”
“Not so loud, Umina. And it’s not strange! Dullahans are the ones who’re strange about sex. It’s perfectly natural! Don’t look at me like that!”
The Centauress turned red. Yerranola nodded.
“That’s right. Everyone else has been there. Right, Venaz?”
She nudged the Minotaur. He paused.
“Well, I’ve never needed to myself. Minos doesn’t have them either.”
“What? You hypocrite! Is it just Marian, Kissilt and me? Then this is a great opportunity!”
The Centauress looked very uncomfortable as the Selphid slung an arm around her shoulder. Venaz tried to clarify as the others looked uncomfortably at each other.
“It’s simply that I haven’t had the need to. I find ample company on my own. Paying for it is demeaning. If you can’t find a suitable partner, then what are you?”
Wil turned even redder and Yerranola smacked Venaz’s arm.
“Don’t be a lout.”
“Wait, you mean—”
The Minotaur looked incredulous. He opened his mouth and Foliana poked him. She was still riding Marian.
“He’s never had sex. [Lords] don’t. Mm. Dullahans wait too. And that one.”
She pointed at Umina. Cameral and Wil both looked like they wanted to sink into the ground. There was an explosive laugh from the side. Kissilt clutched at his sides, guffawing loudly.
“Damn it, Kissilt! Don’t be a Drake!”
Marian scowled at him. Venaz opened his mouth to retort as well, glanced at Foliana, and hesitated. After a moment, with all the tact he had, he turned away from his classmates and bowed to her.
“Lady Foliana. This is—not a place where babies will be found.”
“They come from here. Sometimes.”
The students looked at each other. Cameral scratched his head. None of them could quite follow Foliana’s logic, but she’d dragged Umina, Marian, and Feshi there. And Yerranola, Venaz, Kissilt, and Cameral had all been walking down the street when Foliana’s group had come across them. They’d followed her and she’d led them here.
To a brothel. It was…very inviting. There was the smell of strawberries in the air, and but for the name, Umina could have imagined this was some high-class bar or other establishment. But…she knew it was a brothel. Feshi kept sniffing the air, and she looked almost as embarrassed.
“This is not exactly where babies may be found, Lady Stalker.”
“There might be. Go in. Mm.”
The Squirrel-woman was insistent. The students looked at each other. At this point, Marian felt compelled to put her hoof down. She turned her torso to address Foliana politely.
“Lady Foliana, not to disagree, but there won’t be any babies inside this…brothel. It’s not a place for that. As I’m sure you’re aware?”
That last was a question. It was impossible to read Foliana’s face. She stared at Marian and the tri-colored gaze made the Centauress shiver.
“Odds of babies being within are low. True. But go in anyways. Mm.”
“Why not? If you three haven’t ever gotten your scales wet, it’s beyond time!”
Kissilt was enjoying the moment. He put an arm around Wil and Cameral and both Dullahan and Human edged away. Venaz frowned.
“Surely it would be better for them to find their own company, Kissilt. After all, what can one expect from a…place like this?”
Yerranola rolled her eyes.
“Quality, Venaz? Don’t be so dismissive! What we have here are experts in the field of sex. With levels! And Skills! Dead gods, you’ve never heard [Sailors] sing about going to brothels?”
Venaz folded his arms.
“Minotaur crews don’t sing bawdy songs. But I suppose we could go inside.”
He looked around. Marian shifted her hooves, but Foliana was urging her forwards. Umina’s mouth was dry.
“I—I don’t know. This is sudden! Why are we here? And Wil and Cameral shouldn’t go in if they don’t want to! Dullahans wait until they’re married. Right, Cameral?”
“Traditionally. But if everyone else is going…”
The Dullahan shifted his feet. He wasn’t saying ‘no’. Umina looked at Wil.
“Do you have to…?”
“Well, it’s not like there’s an actual rule. And I’m not going to run away.”
The [Lord] turned his head, coughing as he flushed further. Umina realized both he and Cameral were waiting. Kissilt grinned.
“See? We should have gone here ages ago! They need someone to take them in first. You too, Venaz. We’ll all go in—”
“With Lady Foliana?”
Marian glared at Kissilt. The Drake paused. Everyone stared at the Squirrel-woman. She hadn’t gotten off Marian’s back.
“You want to go in here, Lady Foliana?”
The students hesitated. Then, carefully, Venaz cleared his throat.
“The Professor always has us expanding our worldview. Very well. It’s not as if we have to do anything. After me.”
He marched up to the doors and swung them open. Umina groaned, jumping from foot to foot as Kissilt dragged Wil and Cameral forwards, chortling. Yerranola looked at her.
“You don’t have to come, Umina.”
“No—I—I want to take a look, I guess. But I’m not a Lizardboy!”
“They have services for females too, Umina.”
“Yeah, but—well, are they good?”
Yerranola and Marian exchanged a glance. Feshi sneezed and grinned.
“Probably very good, yes? Let’s go inside at least.”
Foliana patted Marian’s back. The Centauress sighed.
“Lady Foliana wants us to go. Is everyone…? Alright, then.”
The party entered the brothel. It was not, as Umina expected, a covert place with all kinds of veils and drapes and secrets. A [Receptionist] was at the desk, a Lizardman dressed in a very smart suit.
“I’m afraid this is reservation-only, sirs. Unless you have a prior one, I can only schedule you for…”
He was speaking to Venaz, but he dropped his quill when he saw Foliana.
He stuttered, backing up. Foliana put a paw to her lips as she hopped off Marian’s back.
“Secret. Mm. No one knows I’m here.”
She glanced up corridor behind the [Receptionist]. They led into a number of side corridors. There was also a second floor. Umina heard nothing, which meant the walls were soundproof. Everyone watched as Foliana pulled something out of her bag of holding.
A jam biscuit. She nibbled it, paused, and nodded. She looked at the Lizardman at the desk.
“No one knows I’m here. So. Shh.”
“Y—of course! Lady Stalker, it is an honor to have you here. I’ll inform the manager at once—”
The [Receptionist] stuttered. He froze as Foliana held up another paw.
“No. We want a room. So they can all have sex. Or something. Mm. Maybe have sex. Witness professionals.”
The Lizardman’s mouth moved. He opened his neck-frills slightly, glancing at Venaz. The Minotaur shrugged.
“As Lady Stalker says.”
“W-well, we can open a room. For Lady Stalker, anything! A…private setting? With males and females for…”
“Eight? I’ll see to it.”
Foliana nodded. She was fishing in Wil’s bag of holding. The young [Lord] jerked back when he realized, but Foliana already had a few salted crackers. She began munching on them as the [Receptionist] consulted his ledger.
“I—I’ll see to it at once. It won’t be a moment! If the illustrious company will wait?”
He looked around. The students stared back; Kissilt was nodding, grinning, and Yerranola was chortling with amusement. Foliana stopped the Lizardman as he tried to back away towards one of the rooms. He froze as she fixed him with a stare, reappearing next to him.
“Shh. No telling. Just guests. Seven students. And no female Nagas. Mm. Jiggle too much.”
The Lizardman’s mouth worked. Marian’s jaw dropped. The [Receptionist] actually looked relieved, though.
“Of course. We have all manner of employees, if Lady Stalker had any other preferences in gender, species…?”
“No. Female. Nagas.”
She poked him, emphasizing each word. The [Receptionist] nodded and hurried off. The students stared as Foliana sat down on the rich hardwood floor and kept nibbling her crackers. At last, Marian snapped her fingers. She leaned down to Umina and Feshi and whispered.
“Do you think Lady Foliana just wants to visit a brothel and dragged us along?”
“I don’t know why I’m here.”
Umina groaned. Feshi shrugged. She was watching Foliana.
“Merrik, he would love this, yes? Let’s just go along, Umina. It will be a story to tell.”
The other students agreed. They looked at each other, most apprehensively. Yerranola was rubbing her hands together.
“This is going to be hilarious.”
Kissilt clearly agreed. But then he nodded at the [Receptionist], who was hurrying back and gesturing towards them.
“I’m just glad there aren’t female Nagas. I’m not interested, thanks.”
The [Receptionist] and Umina glared at Kissilt. He smirked at them and tripped on Foliana’s extended foot.
Another thing Umina learned in her time in the brothel was that there were all kinds of…brothels. Some were simple, and to the point. You went in, you paid for sex, and you went out. There were all kinds of reasons why you’d do that—and why you wouldn’t. Venaz was listing them off as the party waited in a very pleasant room for their escorts to arrive.
“It can spread diseases. It promotes crime. It’s not an honorable profession—”
“Oh, get stuffed, Venaz. Don’t be a prude.”
Yerranola threw a pillow at him. Half the group was reclining on couches. The room was…plush. Kissilt was investigating a set of alcohol, snacks—anything one might want set upon the tables. There were curtains too, to cordon off the area, but Umina had noticed the doors that led to private rooms. She felt flushed, uncertain—but Marian was next to her and kept patting her on the shoulders.
“You don’t have to do anything, Umina. You can just…look.”
“Will there be anything to see?”
“Definitely. It’s uh—well, I’ve never been anywhere as nice as this, but I know we’re getting a show.”
Yerranola grinned at Umina. And she was right. The magical lighting in the room dimmed, and Umina caught a whiff of perfume. She froze, and the other students looked up. And then? Well, the first person to walk in was a Gnoll. He was bare-chested. Bare-legged. And an earthy smell hung about him. But he was far from unkempt. In fact, he looked like the most attractive Gnoll Umina had ever met. He grinned, his eyes alighting on the company.
He was professional, too. Unlike the [Receptionist], the Gnoll took no notice of Foliana individually. He just bowed.
“Ladies. Gentlemen. I’m delighted to make your acquaintance. I and my companions were told we had some significant guests. And beautiful ones too. My name is Herrsk. I’d like to get to know you, yes?”
He looked around. Umina saw him bow to Foliana, slightly. The Squirrel-woman was sitting up on a coach. She blinked at him.
“Would you care for a drink, Lady Foliana? Or may we address you more…casually?”
The word casually rolled off his tongue, suggesting all kinds of things. Foliana blinked at him.
“Mm. No drinks. Casual is good.”
The Gnoll nodded. He turned, and smiled her way. A second person entered the room from behind the drapes. A female Lizardwoman. She had fiery red scales and tossed her head.
She presented herself to Foliana. The Squirrel-woman gave her a long look. So long that the Lizardwoman’s fiery façade wavered under the stare.
Meanwhile, the Gnoll, Herrsk, was approaching the other females in the group. He bent, growling a greeting towards Feshi.
“Greetings, sister. It’s rare to see another Gnoll so far from home. What tribe are you from?”
“Weatherfur. I’m not interested, thank you.”
Feshi grinned warily at Herrsk. He nodded. Umina realized this was a choice being made. She jumped; her heart thudding even louder. Kissilt was fending off the female Lizardwoman, but with difficulty.
“I’m not interested in lizards.”
“Oh? And here I thought Drakes were more than talk. But I suppose if I scare you, I can find another friend.”
The Lizardwoman poked Kissilt in the chest. He flushed with outrage as Venaz laughed.
“I never said—”
“Ladies. Would you mind me keeping you company?”
Herrsk slid into a seat next to Umina and Marian. The two students looked at each other. Marian, clearly embarrassed, shook her head. Herrsk chuckled.
“We may have to split up the group setting. I think our [Receptionist], Seik, made a mistake. It’s not for everyone, yes? And you, Miss? Would you like to share a drink?”
He looked right at Umina. She stared at him, and stammered.
“I—no—we—we’re just with her. And I’m not here to do anything else!”
She flushed violently. Herrsk looked at Foliana. The Squirrel-woman was staring at another one of the escorts and absently shaking her head.
“Oh, yes. Lady Stalker herself. But don’t worry, Miss…?”
“Ah, a good name! We’re not to do anything you don’t care for. If you’d like conversation, we provide that. Anything else is fine too. But I prefer to talk. Are you one of the Titan’s students? Do you play chess?”
Umina’s jaw dropped. Feshi and Marian both looked up.
“You play chess?”
“I play chess, I keep up with politics—I dance too. I take interests. And I can talk. If you’d like to make this a conversation, we can by all means sit together. I’d like to imagine I can hold my own, even with a student of the Titan of Baleros. But I don’t think all of your classmates will do that. So, a drink? Or would you like to meet my coworkers?”
The Gnoll grinned at Umina. She stammered.
“I—uh—well, I wouldn’t mind. But I’m definitely staying here! With Marian!”
“Oh? Well, that’s fine too.”
The Gnoll arched an eyebrow and Umina was so flustered she took the first drink he poured for her and downed half of it. Which turned out to be interesting indeed.
An hour later. Foliana sat on the couch, munching on Wil’s crackers. She was alone. Everyone else in the group of students had either gone off with one of the very charming, very beautiful people, alone, or in smaller groups. Umina had been clinging to a very embarrassed Marian, insisting they go with Herrsk together, a proposition only the Centauress seemed bothered by. Kissilt was long gone with the Lizardwoman, and that was the least scandalous pairing.
But Foliana just sat there. Staring. The thirty third of the brothel’s [Prostitutes]—although that was a lower-level class than whatever this Naga had—came forwards. He came forwards without a word. His scales shone, and his smile was wicked and enticing.
He gyrated forwards, his snake-like abdomen and tail moving in slow, hypnotic trails.
“Do I meet with any approval, Miss?”
He looked at Foliana, grinning around sharp teeth. This Naga had on a vest. And little else. There was also a veil. The veil inched downwards, revealing, enticing. Foliana’s expression never changed.
The Naga’s face fell. He un-gyrated and backed away. Foliana kept staring. Then she hopped off the couch and picked up a pillow. She lounged on it. Peeking in on her from a one-way mirror, the [Receptionist] turned to the Naga as he slithered back in.
“What do we do? She’s refused everyone! Male, female—we’ve put every species in front of her!”
“All but female Nagas. I did my best, but my [Seduction Dance] doesn’t work on her. Which is good, frankly. I don’t think I’d perform well without a tonic. She scares me.”
The male Naga grumbled. The Lizardman groaned.
“But she’s Three-Color Stalker! We can’t turn her away! Are her companions happy, at least?”
“Happy as can be. Three of them are still around here. The rest are occupied.”
The Lizardman nodded distractedly. He stared at Foliana. She was ignoring a female Dullahan who’d placed her head on the table, and a male Human who was trying to slide in next to her. The [Rogue] appeared to be trying to count how many dates were within a bowl.
“Is—maybe it’s a test? We have three female Nagas.”
“She said she doesn’t want any Nagas. Policy is we don’t give them to her. Who’ve we got?”
“Miss Slendasia, Eshilx, and the new one.”
The male Naga grimaced.
“Eugh. The new girl’s charming, but Slendasia will get herself knifed if she goes out. Besides, I think she means it when she says no Nagas. We have a history with Squirrel Beastkin. Snakes and rodents, you know?”
The Lizardman nodded, eyeing the Naga. He gestured hopelessly at the Squirrel-woman.
“Well—what do we do? She doesn’t want any of our best.”
“Send out for help?”
The Lizardman hesitated. Then he shook his head.
“No—no, this is private. That’s our watchword. Just get everyone who’s not working and find out who has the best [Host] Skills. If she’s not interested, entertain her!”
“Would you like me to comb your fur, Miss Foliana?”
Fifteen minutes later, a Centauress sat next to Foliana. She lifted a comb. Foliana peered at a mirror as another [Harpist] played a lilting melody. She paused, then shook her head.
The Centauress’ smile wavered and she looked to her left. A Drake with azure-emerald scales in a skyburst pattern leaned forwards. His tail snaked along the couch.
“Then, may I feed you some dates? Or shall we play chess?”
Foliana slapped the tail before it could curl around her side. The Drake yelped and the Squirrel-woman stared at him. And her stare made even the seasoned [Consort] falter. She swept her gaze left and the Centauress shuddered.
She leaned back and kept tossing dates into the air and trying to catch them with her mouth. The Centauress looked hopelessly at the Drake. They were two of the best escorts in The Scaleless Sight, probably all of Elvallian. But the Squirrel-woman wasn’t reacting to any gender or species. At last, the Centauress threw caution to the wind.
“Lady Foliana, may I ask if you’re here for your…companions? Because the students are well in hand. We’d hate to think we were boring you. Or wasting your time.”
Foliana looked up. She focused on the Centauress and a date bounced off her forehead. The [Rogue] paused. She took a nibble from her jam biscuit that she’d been eating along with the other snacks—none of the [Escorts] had dared point out it wasn’t exactly fitting with the rich, sumptuous setting—and paused.
“I’m not bored. See?”
She threw a date up and absently opened her mouth. It bounced off the couch cushion instead. The Centauress hesitated, and the Drake leaned over.
“But can we do anything for you, Lady Foliana? It is an honor to be in the presence of…of Three-Color Stalker herself.”
Foliana stopped, a date in her furry paw. She looked at the Drake. And again, her gaze cut through his charm-Skills, his ability to act. She stared at him and the Drake shivered. Because he thought he saw his death in her eyes.
“Is it really? You seem afraid to me.”
“No, of course not! We’re just—”
The Centauress fell silent as Foliana stared at her. Slowly, the Squirrel-woman put down the bowl of dates. She looked around. Then she stared at one of the one-way mirrors.
“People are afraid of me. Mm. It’s not bad to tell the truth. Because of what I do. Fair. It’s fine. I do what I like. I like what I like. And I like this.”
She gestured around vaguely. The two [Escorts] looked at each other.
“What, Lady Stalker?”
The Squirrel-woman smiled.
“Watching. Peace. This is mine. And this is mine. And this.”
She poked the Drake, the cushion, and then pointed around the room. Uncertainly, the Drake looked at her, but the [Rogue] wasn’t finished.
“Not as a [Slave]. Mm. And not my cushion. But this is mine. Peace. My city. My company. It is good to see.”
She paused, and they waited. But that was it. Foliana nibbled at another date. And she had grey in her fur. In fact—the Centauress stared at her. Foliana was older than her two companions, as old as Niers. She sat, pleasantly nibbling, looking around the room. Watching the Centauress and the Drake.
And it occurred to the Centauress, at last, that she was doing this the entirely wrong way. She was a [Seductress]. An expert in her class. But sometimes there wasn’t much to seduce. So she sat up, out of her languorous sprawl. And gestured for her companion to do the same. The Centauress smiled, and took a breath.
“Well, Miss Foliana. May I call you Foliana? I think we have nothing to offer you.”
“Mm. Not right now.”
The Squirrel-woman smiled. The Centauress nodded.
“Then if we can oblige you, let us know. But what can we do for you? Anything at all?”
Foliana paused. She looked at the Centauress, and for once her gaze didn’t provoke that moment of fear, that flutter of uncertainty as it did in so many people. The Squirrel-woman smiled slightly.
“Maybe. Do you have a bucket of water?”
The Centauress eyed Foliana. Then she listened to the Squirrel-woman speak. The Drake was aghast.
“We can’t do that!”
“Oh yes we can. For Lady Stalker? Anything at all.”
Later, the The Scaleless Sight was filled with screams. It came from various rooms as Foliana, aided by the Centauress and Drake, opened the door catching people in flagrante delicto. No, wait—just having sex. They then tossed the buckets inside, and ran for it.
Foliana was smiling as outraged and dripping duos—trios—and in one case a group of eight charged out into the hallways. She hopped out of the brothel as the angry guests milled about—realized that their anonymity was being threatened—and instantly fled back into their rooms. She laughed, a soft chuckle. The Centauress smiled down at her.
“Lady Foliana, was that at least worth the visit?”
The Squirrel-woman smiled. She turned as the [Manager], finally aware of the situation, charged down the corridor, apologizing profusely to the naked guests still in the hallway.
“Yes. I think so. Now, I have to go. Mm. Thank you. This was fun.”
She pulled out the jam biscuit, mostly-eaten, and inspected it. Then she lifted it to her mouth and ate it.
That evening, Foliana dined with Niers. He eyed her over the table as she consumed her regular dinner. It wasn’t a jam biscuit, at least. He cleared his throat.
“I hear you’ve been causing trouble. First my class, then my students. At a brothel.”
“Mm. They had fun. Probably. You should visit one.”
“I’m a Fraerling.”
“Do something about that first. They’re very nice. They cooked me an egg later. Mm. I probably owe them money. For the mess.”
“I’ll handle it.”
The Titan sighed. He rested his head on one hand and looked at Foliana. She glanced up at him.
“Did you enjoy yourself today?”
Foliana paused. She chewed on her plate of muffins, spaghetti, piled on top of one another and shrugged. It was not a classy meal. It had been made by a master, but Foliana insisted on mixing the two together. She shrugged, and slurped up a noodle.
“I enjoyed myself. Watching. Saw a baby. Did what you wanted. Had an egg.”
“Bothered my students. Do you ever want to quit?”
“That’s your job.”
The [Rogue] smiled at the [Strategist]. He smiled back, ruefully.
“But do you ever dream about it? Having children? A different life? You’re unnoticed by so many. Which is how you prefer it, I suppose. But do you want something else?”
It was a question he’d asked her in different ways, over the years. Foliana paused. And she looked around, speculatively. But at last she shook her head.
“No. Because this is mine. This. And this. And this.”
She poked the new tablecloth, her food, and at Niers. He knew what she meant. Few people saw Three-Color Stalker. She was a myth, a dark shadow cast by the Titan. But that was fine. Foliana didn’t want any of it. Because she wanted all of it. This citadel, this city—the Forgotten Wing Company—it was all hers. In a way, the Squirrel Beastkin was far greedier than Niers could ever be. She had claimed this, her world. And that was what made her happy.
He smiled to think about it. And then his eyes narrowed. He looked down at his plate, checked both sides of it. Then he scowled up at Foliana.
“Give me my fork.”