It had been a long time. Long, for her. But oh, so short as well.
She had been newly formed when she left Rhir. And though decades had passed since that fateful day, when the hope of the Antinium had died at sea, she was still…how old?
Antinium did not care. Nor did the Free Queen of the Antinium measure such things. Time, for Antinium, should not matter. They had discovered a way to break free of age, even of death itself. Antinium bodies could be rejuvenated, and even their spirits put into new vessels.
At least, if they remembered it. The Free Queen felt every inch of her aging, expanded form some days. Experimental techniques, half-remembered, applied incorrectly to allow the Queens to manually birth once more, to accommodate their straining flesh and chitin. All of it had taken its toll.
She was…the Free Queen calculated. At least four decades old.
At least. But also, ‘only’. The Free Queen could remember Queens who had left Rhir twice as old, and they hadn’t even been as old as Bessachidia, the Shaper Queen who had been oldest and greatest of the living Antinium at creation.
If she had been alive, the Antinium would have taken Izril. Even if she alone had been there. She would have overrun the Walled Cities within a decade at most. No, to be fair—two decades. And even if she’d stumbled, she’d have brought at least one Walled City down already.
But after three decades, the Antinium were stalemated. And the Queens were aging, and no more were being made. Age, the issue of reforming bodies, creating new Queens, all of it would have been easy to Bessachidia. The Free Queen knew this, because she had learned from Bessachidia, along with the Silent Queen.
But she had died in the water. Along with so many Centenium. And those who had remained, the other Queens—they had died too, establishing a foothold in this continent. Three Centenium had perished, unable to be revived. Nine Queens as well. Each one a loss that could not be recovered from. Klbkch had lost his form.
Now six remained. Six, and three Centenium, one weakened from his days of glory. This is what the Free Queen dwelled on, when she did not eat, or when she was not busy. The haunting, clawing thoughts.
She was old. Despite being young. For she had labored in ways the Antinium of Rhir would have never imagined. And—the Free Queen could see it now. How she had despaired. How the other Queens despaired, had fragmented into their old Hives as if they were the primitive Antinium, in the days before the First Queen had unified them, forged them into what the Antinium were.
Despair, decay. Despondence. Something else that started with ‘D’. The Free Queen even thought in the language of the other races of the world, not in the pure clicking tones the Antinium used. There was no one to speak it with, besides Klbkch anyways. The new Workers and Soldiers had been created with the language of this continent.
So she despaired. An eternal tale, in Liscor, pursuing a dream even the other Queens had abandoned. That was how it was and had been.
Until today. The Free Queen had seen a dream. The Antinium she’d let go, that could have saved their race if she had the strength to tear him apart and kill the closest thing to True Antinium—Bird. She had seen him standing on the walls of Pallass.
What shock! What horror. And—what glory. The Free Queen still remembered it. And it had changed everything. Now, she sat in her chambers and heard the tones of the Antinium language again.
“You disobeyed my orders! There were to be no Prognugators made! This is a violation of my command! Xevccha! Free Queen, an explanation is demanded!”
The invective in their language—it contained elements no Human could even write, clicks and piercing sounds only an Antinium voice could make—made the Free Queen look up.
The Grand Queen stared at her from the mirror. The huge Antinium Queen who led the remaining Hives on Izril was shaking with fury. The Free Queen gathered her thoughts.
“Bird is not a Prognugator, my Queen. That was a tactical lie used—”
“It has a name! So it names itself! It threatened war, war! Am I understanding you correctly? One of your Antinium lied to start a war? Insolence! Madness!”
The other Queen was shouting at the Free Queen in their language. That meant she didn’t use the royal ‘we’ and ‘our’ she had adopted. She was doing it to chastise the Free Queen, but all it did was make the other Antinium nostalgic. She bowed her head slightly, another learned gesture. Her antennae waved, signaling with her voice.
“It is a grave mistake, my Queen. But I repeat: Bird is not a Prognugator. He is part of the experimental Antinium program—”
“It sounds like the Prognugator-creation system! My authority—”
The Free Queen’s mandibles twitched. She had been harangued for the last hour and she was growing tired of it.
“My Queen. The Individual and Autonomous Antinium are not Prognugators. They do not require the expenditure of Antinium lives for formation.”
Unlike your wasteful creations. The Free Queen could see them lined up. Nearly two dozen Prognugators, or as the Grand Queen had styled them, the Custodium. As if they were as good as Centenium.
What a waste of resources. Each one wore the long swords on each hip, copies of Klbkch’s fighting style. But it was just enhanced chitin, not Klbkch’s swords which had been made in Rhir. And perhaps they could fight like no other Antinium—and level. But the waste. Even in Rhir, Prognugators were expensive to make.
The Free Queen saw the Grand Queen shifting restlessly. Her antennae, feelers, posture, and mandibles all spoke her ire to the Free Queen. But the Grand Queen was far too far away to discipline the Free Queen. And—the Free Queen looked at the one speck of color amid the brown and black shells.
Blue, azure, beautiful as the day she’d been made. And from her eyes shone pure, dancing colors. Xrn, the Small Queen, the last of the three Centenium of Izril, was smiling. Her eyes shone with dancing pink and yellow—and a hint of orange mischief. But they shone.
“My Queen. The Free Queen has given her response. This was clearly an error. An appraisal should be made of the Free Hive, but I am sure the Free Queen must explain the incident to the Liscorian government.”
Xrn’s voice reached the Grand Queen. The huge Antinium stared down at Xrn, then glared at the Free Queen. She switched back to the common tongue.
“The Drakes and Gnolls must be negotiated with? Why did you not inform us earlier?”
“My duty is to you, my Queen. I shall begin negotiations immediately if you have no further words for me.”
The Free Queen lied smoothly, grateful for Xrn’s lie. The Grand Queen didn’t understand other species. None of the other Queens did. At least the Free Queen had Klbkch to explain to her. She could see through his eyes and she understood a bit more. Liscor’s Council had demanded nothing of her—Klbkch had no doubt taken care of it. But the Grand Queen believed.
“Very well. Go. Placate this other ruling body. But your actions will have consequences! The—”
She broke off. The Grand Queen had probably been intending to censure the supply of resources sent to the Free Hive. Or demand a higher tribute. But the Free Antinium had been in exile for nearly a decade. The Free Queen almost raised her mandibles in a smile. Almost. The long struggle alone with Klbkch had been worth it for this moment.
“—This matter is not over. Xrn, we shall discuss.”
“Yes my Queen. Thank you for your—”
The Grand Queen turned away and the magical image of her in the mirror disappeared. The Free Queen stared at the blank mirror.
“Krxsching…Grand Queen? Undeserved, now. Garry.”
“On the way, my Queen.”
An Antinium Worker was already hurrying out of his kitchen with a serving cart filled with morsels. The Free Queen sighed, happy her encounter with the Grand Queen was over. Honestly, the other Antinium’s rage wasn’t entirely misplaced. It had been near-disastrous, Bird’s incident. The Hives had nearly gone to war over his lie. The Free Queen wondered if Klbkch was disciplining Bird. She wondered if he had been hurt.
What strange new emotions! What a strange change had come over the Hive. The Queen stared down as Garry offered her up a bowl. It was tiny to her, but huge, a giant serving bowl he needed all four arms for.
“What is this?”
“Acid flies, my Queen. I have purchased them from Miss Lyonette.”
The Free Queen’s mandibles opened wide in delight. She took the bowl and crunched the tiny little morsels, savoring the taste. She nodded as Garry stepped back.
“You have done well, Garry.”
“Thank you, my Queen!”
The [Cook] was ecstatic. The Free Queen stared at him for a second. She would never have deigned to acknowledge his presence a little while ago. But now—she talked with him. Even thanked him.
“…Are there more?”
“Yes, my Queen. But there is a limited supply. I have been attempting to secure more, but acid-flies are difficult to acquire. In the meantime, I have stretched what I have—this is a pot of noodles. I have hand-crafted the dough and noodles extra-large. I recall you expressing the desire to eat them, rather than the much smaller variety—they are infused with an acid-fly broth and I have done some work with the presentation—”
Another platter. The Free Queen stared at the pasta, seeing how Garry had arranged it with all his toppings to create a colorful masterpiece, rather than the huge vats he fed her. She was growing fond of this appreciation of food before it was imbibed.
“Good. Good. This is good, Garry. The…noodles…are larger.”
“And they will not bother you, my Queen?”
“The Queens are not susceptible to products of wheat. That was an error in the process of creating Antinium. If I had the time, I would correct it, but it was unnecessary until now. Did you say a broth? How is it in these noodles?”
“Ah, they were boiled in it. The broth is very flavorful, my Queen. I did not think it fit for you, but it has received good reviews among my taste testers—it is not nourishing, but it is tasty.”
The Free Queen saw Garry hurry into her kitchen. She relaxed, regarding the plate of spaghetti. And the large, large pots Garry had made to sate her appetite. Now, this was better. Yes—
“The issue of wheat-based nutrition was deemed a sufficient oversight in the creation of the first Soldier/Worker prototypes. You yourself agreed. It was not a flaw at the time.”
The Free Queen jumped. Well, not literally. But she did drop her plate. Garry hurried out at the crash and faltered.
The magical mirror that the Free Queen had recently been delivered was glowing again. But instead of the Grand Queen—Garry and the Free Queen saw a shadowed cavern. A dark form, moving amid the shade of her hive.
The Silent Queen had always been quiet. But now she had embraced her Hive’s perceived role. And she’d scared the daylights out of the Free Queen—who had not seen daylight herself in over a decade. The Free Queen looked around. Put out, she stared at her food lying in the dirt that Garry had worked so hard on, then at the Silent Queen.
“Silent Queen. Greetings. What is the meaning of your communication? I have not received one since the siege at Liscor.”
The Silent Queen ignored the question. Her antennae waved restlessly as she opened and closed her mandibles. She was smallest of the Queens, and most timid, despite her genius at shaping Antinium. Normally she was quiet, except in matters that regarded shaping Antinium. But today she was agitated.
“Lack of proper digestive fluids was not an oversight. You claimed to be redesigning the Soldier/Worker forms. Is this another aberrative innovation you have not shared with the other Hives? That is in violation of the Grand Queen’s orders.”
“I do not understand—”
The Free Queen stared blankly at the Silent Queen. Then she realized the other Queen had been listening in.
“—That was a passing thought. Silent Queen, as the Grand Queen ordered, I have been forbidden from experimenting with new Antinium forms.”
But she’d done it anyways, with Klbkch and Yellow Splatters. She’d just lacked the resources the other Queens had to engineer their new Antinium. The Silent Queen stared at the Free Queen.
“I have witnessed your new Prognugator. Optical enhancements? Muscular coordination? You did not communicate your breakthrough. I have shared all—all improvements to base Worker/Soldier forms.”
“Bird? He is not a Prognugator. Silent Queen, I have been chastised by the Grand Queen, but that incident was an accident—”
The Silent Queen stared at the Free Queen. She glanced around and the Free Queen saw the darkness rustle. The Silent Queen’s camouflaged attendants moved, and the darkness shifted.
“If you do not wish to share the designs of your new Bird-Prognugator, perhaps a trade can be effected? I did not wish to offend with the delegation. Now a passageway has been effected, I will send a Prognugator. Two. We must communicate. The evolution of the Antinium cannot be personal, Free Queen. Infighting has only weakened the other Hives.”
The Free Queen was very confused. And she was certain the Silent Queen was misunderstanding basically everything.
“Infighting? Silent Queen, as I said to the Grand Queen—”
The other Queen twitched.
“Yes. Yes. Your communication of ordinary Worker slaying Wyverns with physical manipulation of a bow is understood. I will send a Prognugator. Would that be acceptable?”
She was very agitated. The Free Queen remembered—they had been the students of Bessachidia, and thus responsible for remaking the Antinium Workers and Soldiers. The Silent Queen had been better, which was hard to admit, but she had been as conscious of her inability as the Free Queen compared to a proper Shaper Queen. Now…what was she thinking?
The Free Queen was still a Queen. Her mind could perform on multiple levels, manage a Hive and thousands of Antinium at once. She had been designed for it. Now, her multiple levels of consideration made her open her mandibles slowly.
“I…will accept an envoy. And I regard the advancement of the Antinium as vital, Silent Queen. Let us discuss advancements.”
The other Queen relaxed visibly.
“Yes. This conversation is private, of course. Your Bird-Individual is not a Prognugator.”
“He is not.”
“I shall send a Prognugator. And put forward your case before the Grand Queen. She is angry. Let us converse then.”
The link cut. The Free Queen stared at the mirror, then at Garry. She wanted to ask, what was that? Infighting? But she felt like she knew. It had been a decade since she’d left the Hives, and even then she’d been the outcast. Without her…the Silent Queen thought she was withholding some new experimental designs that had allowed Bird to hit the Wyverns? And she’d implied that she had—
Before the Free Queen could analyze the situation, the mirror glowed again. Garry, trying to put the noodles onto another plate, scurried back. The Free Queen saw another Queen sitting and staring at her.
“Is this a challenge, Free Queen? My Flying Antinium are designed for aerial superiority. What is the purpose of your Bird-creation?”
The Flying Queen was agitated. Her Hive, always a chaos of Antinium moving around her, was in uproar. The Free Queen saw her winged attendants and Antinium buzzing, moving around the Queen at breakneck pace. The Free Queen stared as the Flying Queen restlessly rubbed her feelers together.
“It is my work you are jeopardizing. What is the purpose? No—ranged Antinium? Is this an overture to the Armored Antinium? The Grand Queen is attempting to punish you, you know. We are in communication. Please explain. Also—what is that? That is food. Why is it so colorful? Are you attempting a new nutritional mix?”
Her words spilled over each other. The Free Queen didn’t even have a chance to get in a word edgewise until the Flying Queen stopped. But that was good. It gave the Free Queen a chance to think.
Unlike the Silent Queen’s conversation, this time the Free Queen sat back in her chambers. She waved at Garry to bring her more food. And she controlled her antennae, waving them intentionally as she spoke.
“Ah, yes. Bird. He is one Individual, Flying Queen. Not an attempt to jeopardize your Hive at all. This? This is food, developed by another Individual. Garry, present yourself.”
“My—I greet you, Flying Queen.”
Garry shivered forwards. The Flying Queen stared at him.
“Not an attempt to replace my Hive’s capabilities? Intellectual. But the purpose of your defiance to the Grand Queen?”
The other Queen’s antennae were beginning to wave in sync with the Free Queen as she calmed down. The Free Queen was thinking faster and faster. Three of six. They were probably waiting for the mirrors to stop being used. What should she say to…the Armored Queen was one thing, but the Twisted Queen disturbed the Free Queen. Even so—
“Let us discuss my Individual project, Flying Queen. The Grand Queen has declared some merit. But if you would consider discussing the matter further…”
“The tunnel is completed, or so Pivr tells me. Let us talk. The Armored Queen has sent Prognugators? Why were more not sent from the Flying Antinium first? We will bring resources. Tell me about your new capabilities. More. I was not told of your Hive’s superiority in my report.”
“Well, there have been advancements. By the way, Garry’s food has taste. It is better than even raw food for taste. Far better than celdes-paste. If you send a Prognugator, I will deliver some to you.”
The Free Queen looked at Garry. He stared up at her, mandibles agape. The Free Queen wanted to open her mandibles wider and higher than she had in recent memory.
“What do the Flying Antinium wish to discuss, Flying Queen? Privately. The Free Hive has something to offer. If the discussion is amiable.”
Now, the Free Queen understood. The other Queens were waiting to talk to her. And they’d all seen Bird. And misunderstood. But she didn’t need to correct them, even if they believed. After a decade of suffering in neglect, the other Hives were sitting up and looking at the Free Antinium. Some warily, some approving.
Either way, if the Free Antinium’s value were a stock, it had broken through the glass ceiling, through the roof of the Antinium stock exchange, and was now busy constructing a satellite bombardment laser in orbit.
The two Queens began to chat. And the Free Queen was focused—and despairing still. This was good for her Hive. Terrible for her people. The Antinium were not united any longer. If Bessachidia had lived—
The Grand Queen was not the same as the First Queen had been. Disloyalty in the other Queens was a sign. She had to speak to Klbkch.
The Walled City of Manus was quiet after this morning. The citizenry still didn’t know what had caused a silent but perceptible panic in the ranks of their elite. The inner keep in the heart of Manus had been filled with officers and commanders. But—ironically—news was just spreading.
There had been an attack in Pallass? And it had been fought off? What had gone on? Many had just heard the [Messages] being sent from Pallass, and there had only been a few, briefly reporting the battle.
They hadn’t seen the spectacle. And word was only now trickling down to them. The world hadn’t yet faced full-on mass media consumption. Anyways, it had been the inner war councils of Manus who called the shots, not some democracy.
They were already finished for the day when the Drake with beautiful teal scales strode out of the inner keep. She sighed, flexing her wings and turning her head in the sunlight. Those who saw her, Gnolls or Drakes, had to pause to stare.
Wall Lady Rafaema was young, in the prime of her life, and beautiful. She stuck in the memory of anyone who saw her. She was as famous in her way as Spearmaster Lulv. Not in experience; she was young, and she’d grown up in Manus. Well, she’d come from abroad—she’d entered the city when she was what, sixteen? No one quite knew where she hailed from, but her ancestry had been certified. She was an inheritor of the original founders of Manus. That was obvious.
Rafaema had both wings and the ability to breathe magical energy. Her power was lightning, and people said her manifestation of the Oldblood was the strongest in living memory. As strong as Luciva Skybreath, the Dragonspeaker of Manus. Everyone knew that Rafaema was going to be a [General], or a [Commander] when she enlisted. She certainly trained enough in the practice courts each day.
Oh, and she was being courted by half of Manus’ eligible males. The other half had been rejected soundly, and Rafaema swatted suitors like flies each week. Now, the Drake sighed as she looked about.
She was a Dragon, by the way. Although that was the kind of secret that only a few people knew. Like Manus’ inner war council. Even some of the [Generals] and trusted commanders had no idea of whom Rafaema was. Like everyone else, they thought she was a gifted young Drake, politically kept from fighting on the front lines due to a complicated family dynamic.
And that was what they’d continue to believe, as Rafaema got older. Until she died or—had an accident in her forties. And then some new, young Drake, probably with different features, an entirely different backstory, would appear.
Probably not as beautiful this time. And she’d have to remove her wings. Rafaema sighed. If she could, she’d make the next ‘her’ be male. It would at least keep one kind of suitor away. And that pest. She sighed. As she walked across Manus’ inner walls—the Walled City had two layers of walls—she felt someone coming up behind her.
“Then again, pests accumulate no matter what I do.”
“Lady Rafaema. Pest number one, at your service.”
A Gnoll caught up to Rafaema. He wore casual clothes—but full-body, not the light clothing Gnolls usually preferred, that left their fur exposed. He walked with an easy stroll, unlike the military [Soldiers] that Manus was famous for. He was offering Rafaema a flower, much to the disgust of the other males who were planning on the same. Rafaema eyed the green petals, took the flower—and tossed it over the wall.
It fell, and Rafaema stared across Manus. The inner walls of Manus contained a city, but the outer walls lay distant.
And below. Manus had been built so that anyone who finally claimed the star-shaped city’s walls, which provided overlapping fire, combined with outward slanting walls that made putting a ladder up impossible—machicolations—every conceivable defense designed to give an attacking force a bad time, they’d celebrate…
Only to realize Manus had a set of inner walls and it had been built such that the inner walls had both height and positioning on the outer walls. Manus could literally bombard anyone who took the outer walls into oblivion and then retake their defenses. And if, if you took the inner walls, you still had a city full of choke points and fortifications designed to favor the defender against impossible odds.
It was the kind of city that begged people to attack it. And sure enough, Manus was called the City of War not because it had a strong economy or agriculture or industry, but because it was good at one thing. And it bordered the Antinium Hives—in fact, it was one of the reasons they’d failed to expand in both wars.
But as a result, Manus had to use space wisely. Rafaema threw the suitor’s flower over the inner walls and watched it fall down the hill on which the inner city was built. Terraced farms were being worked there, and Rafaema watched the flower fall amid the crops being busily tended to.
“Miss Rafaema, you wound my heart! I searched for that for ages. Won’t you at least consider it a moment?”
The Gnoll clutched at his heart, gesturing imploringly at Rafaema. She ignored him; he was a picture of one of the many suitors she got. This one was particularly insistent, one of the ones who refused to give up after she rebuffed him. She looked around. No one was within earshot and anyone watching them would assume this was another suitor wasting Rafaema’s time.
“You can drop the act now.”
The Gnoll paused halfway down towards bending a knee. He straightened; he’d already known they were alone, Rafaema guessed. The Gnoll nodded at her.
“Don’t call me that. I barely remember my last names anymore.”
Rafaema snapped. The Gnoll nodded.
“As you wish, Lady Rafaema.”
He’d dropped his act. Now, he stood like a [Soldier]. Rafaema had chosen an empty stretch of Manus to walk through; she knew the patrol routes by heart, and which parts of the city got empty when. This was her city after all. She had lived here all her life.
“Stop following me.”
“You know I can’t do that, Lady Rafaema.”
The Gnoll walked after Rafaema. He turned his head now and then, just as if he were looking around, but Rafaema knew he saw everything. The Gnoll wasn’t tall or short, and he had a terribly nondescript way about him. Rafaema was sure it was a Skill. When he wasn’t acting, he was just…bland.
And terribly efficient. Terribly so. Rafaema was used to the efficient people who followed her around wherever she went. At least he was open about it. And he was the latest in the line of her…protectors.
“And you spotted me within a second of me meeting you. My disguise needs work. I apologize, Lady.”
No rank, no affiliation. Rafaema didn’t ask further. She knew what he was. People liked to joke that Manus was full of war-minded idiots, but the training schools in the City of War produced more than just officers and [Strategists]. Some, like Ferris, performed duties in secret. But he had to be good, if he knew who she was.
The Gnoll looked sideways at Rafaema. He still looked innocuous as any Gnoll. Except for one thing.
“May I ask how you picked up on my identity, Lady Rafaema?”
She snorted and opened her wings restlessly, feeling the breeze catch on them. She enjoyed having wings. Other Drake forms were so…restrictive.
“You all look the same to me. Your eyes give you away. Your lot always stares the first time you see me.”
“Ah. Not in a love struck way?”
“Love struck suitors stare at other things.”
Ferris had to grin at that. He bowed, slightly.
“At your service then, Lady Rafaema. If you want me to present myself some other way—”
“What happened to the last one? The female Drake.”
“Reassigned, Lady Rafaema. If you have an issue with my presence—”
“They’ll get me a new one. Anyways, I wanted you to talk to me which is why I left the note. So—talk. Do you know what’s going on?”
The Gnoll who called himself Ferris paused. He was smart, because he didn’t waste time.
“I’m not aware of the full scope of Manus’ decisions, but I’m aware of the Pallass situation. May I ask what the war council decided?”
“They’re going to approach the other Walled Cities for joint funding on some operations against the Hives. And they want to look into Liscor. Some of your friends will be heading there. They’re probably already being briefed.”
That was all Ferris said. No ‘is that wise?’ or ‘what do you think?’. He was trained not to ask those questions. If he had an opinion…
“And you wished to see me, Lady Rafaema, because…?”
“How much do you report to your superiors, Ferris? I remember one of your people said you have to make a weekly report on how I’m feeling. And of course, you’re the one responsible for me. Rather than a team. Because I’m old enough not to need one.”
Rafaema’s tone was pleasant, but if you looked at her eyes, you would notice two things. That Rafaema had two differently-colored pupils. Heterochromia, the phenomenon was called. Also—that said eyes were glinting dangerously.
Ferris paused. He thought about his reply and went for the truth. Which was wise—Rafaema could cast spells as well as many [Mages] and she’d mastered [Detect Lies] long ago.
“I’m trusted enough to make my own decisions, Lady Rafaema. I do make a weekly report. If you have any desires…you need only ask me.”
“And you’ll pass it along.”
“Not if it’s an easy request. I am here to serve, Lady Rafaema.”
“And if I said I wanted to leave Manus today?”
Ferris’ gaze flickered.
“I’d have to ask my superiors, Lady Rafaema. That’s not within my power to grant.”
Silence. He was eying her. Rafaema, like many of Manus’ officers, wore a sword at her side. But the Gnoll didn’t look frightened, and Rafaema guessed he was as dangerous without weapons as with whatever secret weapons he had on him. But she was unique.
“But you are new. How much did they tell you about me? Everything? Did they tell you about Kelis? Or Amessia?”
The Gnoll didn’t blink. He smiled politely.
“They are mandatory case-studies now, Lady Rafaema. If you have an objection to me—”
“I haven’t decided yet. Some of you annoy me. Like your predecessor.”
Rafaema’s eyes glinted. Ferris nodded. Keeping her happy was an important job. He’d been chosen for it.
“So how much do you know? Have you read my file? All of it? It’s not that well hidden. If you know to look for it.”
Ferris sighed through his nose. He straightened, adopting a military pose for a moment as he clasped his paws behind his back.
“I know everything, Lady Rafaema.”
She paused. Rafaema went to the battlements overlooking Manus. She stood there, on the inner walls. Then she looked suddenly at Ferris.
“How old am I? I forget.”
“A hundred and twenty three, Lady Rafaema.”
She hadn’t known that. She’d thought she was around a hundred and eighteen. But there it was.
Rafaema was over a hundred years old. Old, for any species in the world. Only half-Elves could face that so easily. But Rafaema had lived it. A hundred and twenty three years of…growing up.
“It doesn’t feel so long. But I’ve stopped taking naps. When was the last one?”
“Twenty seven years ago, Lady Rafaema. If you are feeling—”
“No. Shut up.”
The Gnoll fell silent obediently. Rafaema stared over her city. And for a moment, the young, vibrant Drake looked a bit lost. She looked like someone in her early twenties. And that was accurate. She liked looking how she felt. Well, she might be old, even for this appearance.
“Sleeping…bothers me. Not regular sleep. I—didn’t I sleep for seventeen years one time? And—how long was the other time?”
“Nine years. Among other periods. Your latest periods of slumber have grown shorter, Lady Rafaema. It is a natural—”
He shut up as Rafaema looked at him.
“Do your books tell you about Dragonspeaker Telimer, Ferris?”
“Yes, Lady Rafaema.”
She was in a bad mood. Ferris’ fur tried to stand up on end. Rafaema stared across her city, moodily. There was an outer city as well; Manus’ outer walls had only been taken twice. The Walled City was huge. But it felt small to her.
“It took me four decades to figure it out. Four decades. I know I was a fool when I was that small, but I didn’t understand. They kept putting me back to sleep, and I kept waking up and wondering where everyone went. I didn’t understand it until I was—forty. I kept thinking they were out there somewhere. In another Walled City.”
“The…records indicate that it was a mistake to do so, Lady Rafaema. The Dragonspeaker thought—”
Rafaema looked at Ferris and he went quiet. She was the image of a Drake. If you stared at her shadow, it was just her. She wasn’t concealing anything. Her body was the size of a Drake. But the magic only went so far. Her eyes sparked.
“I didn’t step outside the keep until I was fifty years old. And when I did, they put an entire army on watching me. I like Manus, Ferris. I really do. I know how much I owe the city…did they tell you what I did for my eightieth birthday?”
Ferris was watching her now. Rafaema grinned. She had a toothy, perfect smile.
“How good are you, Ferris? Exact level and class?”
“I couldn’t say, Lady.”
“Do you think that if you tried, you could get away before I threw you off the walls? I don’t have levels, but I’m still me.”
The Gnoll wasn’t sweating. Which was really impressive at this point. He looked past Rafaema.
“I believe I’d survive that. Lady Rafaema, if you dislike my presence—”
“I’m thinking about it.”
Moodily, Rafaema turned back to the view. Her tail was lashing the stones. Ferris wondered if the transformation magic was bothering her. He looked at Rafaema.
In previous generations, the Dragonspeakers had dealt with their sacred charge in different ways. Some had made mistakes. Others had done well. But the growing Dragon entrusted to them had never been an easy charge. She had been a child. Intelligent, but a child for decades. And her wrath on finding she’d been deceived was written in the history books.
But that was the thing. At age eighty, Rafaema had thrown what could only be described as the worst case of adolescence in Manus’ entire history. But she had been…a teen.
Dragons were considered young adults, able to strike out on their own when they were two hundred years old. They were immortal, able to live forever, gifted with more innate magical ability than any [Mage], far beyond that of even half-Elves. Their scales could deflect arrows. They could fly, transform, and had a diversity of abilities second to no species in this world.
But they paid a price for their power. And it was only in one thing: they gave birth to precious few. And their young aged so, so very slowly. And for that reason alone, there were almost no Dragons left. There were rumors, and people knew there were Dragons. Somewhere.
That was what they said. But if you were trusted, trusted beyond reproach, you could go into a vault only the Dragonspeaker and a handful of others knew about. Like Ferris, who was the best out of every graduate in his academy and whose loyalty and ability had been tested to a degree not even Manus’ [Generals] were expected to meet. He had read the document.
There were only two in all of Izril. Only two left. And one of them was a moody young…woman. After a century and a quarter of waiting.
Part of that century, actually, a lot, had been sleeping. It had terrified the scales off the first Dragonspeaker when the baby Dragon had slept for a decade the first time. But apparently Dragons slept for long periods if they needed to.
Their bodies were masterworks of perfection. Rafaema might have been transformed, but she kept her strength, speed, and toughness. She could probably throw Ferris a long ways if he let her catch him. She didn’t need Skills, and in fact, it was just as well that she couldn’t level. If Dragons had been able to level, they’d have ruled the world forever.
Whatever was bothering Rafaema, she hadn’t shown it in the war council. Ferris was aware of the decisions that Dragonspeaker Luciva and the others had settled on. Rafaema had been part of those discussions, and a respected voice since the war council knew who she was. They listened to her now. But when all was said and done, Rafaema was still their ward, their charge that they had faithfully kept safe for generations until she was ready.
The hope of Dragons and Drakes, known only to two Walled Cities, was staring blankly ahead. Ferris waited. One of the reasons he’d been chosen was because he was very good at his job. The other was his personality. No one wanted a disaster like Kelis, or Amessia again. Those two agents who’d been assigned to Rafaema fifty and thirty years ago had nearly caused disaster.
Managing Rafaema’s mood was…tricky. She’d been angry ever since her friend, Dragonspeaker Luciva’s daughter had died. Rafaema made few friends to begin with. She had once been a social child, apparently. But Ferris had read that she’d made fewer and fewer friends with each decade.
That too, had concerned previous Dragonspeakers. Ferris had read their thoughts and the times when Rafaema had reacted to the deaths of her friends over decades. Her entire history was in a book in the vault where she had been protected as an egg.
“You know, even though I didn’t think about it for a long time, Izril doesn’t really change. It’s been over a hundred years and I’ve seen the Humans attack, lose, win, the Walled Cities fight—they nearly took Fissival one time, you know? Pallass. We had wars with the Gnolls, a war with Baleros—I think. Even the King of Destruction. But it never really changed to me.”
Ferris was silent. Rafaema went on.
“The King of Destruction never made it past Zeres. The Goblin King scared everyone, but there was the other one. The Hundred Days one, in Terandria. All of that was the same. To me. I’ve seen it all before. But the Antinium? They’re new.”
She glanced at the Gnoll. Rafaema did train in the practice courts. She was rated highly with a blade, even if she pretended to use Skills. Ferris had heard that Spearmaster Lulv was teaching her to use a spear against the others, who wanted Rafaema to use a sword.
A Dragon with a sword. But since she wore her transformed body, it made sense to let Rafaema learn to use a weapon. The young Dragon shook her head.
“Does your book talk about when I was…ninety, Ferris? Right up until the Antinium arrived?”
“Yes, Lady Rafaema.”
The Dragonspeaker at that time had not been happy. Rafaema had, among other things, entered into a number of relationships, tried almost every illicit substance she could find, and caused a lot of trouble for her wardens. But Dragons couldn’t mate with lesser species. Well—bear offspring.
Rafaema must have read the unspoken words crossing Ferris’ mind. Her eyes narrowed.
“I was lazy. But when the Antinium attacked—they sieged Manus. Even Manus. I wasn’t allowed to fight. Not in the first war, or the second. So I started training. Do you know how long it’s been?”
“Yes. But I don’t level. But I trained because I realized the Antinium are a threat. The war council decided to send spies to Liscor. To figure out what’s going on. We thought the Hive there was planning to take over Liscor. But instead—there was that one. Bird. The Hunter. But that’s not what I care about. I want to know about the Human.”
Ah. She’d gotten to the same topic Ferris had seen underlined in a dozen reports. The Human.
“If you want me to find you a summary—”
“I’ve read the summary. It’s all Wyvern crap. A Human who appeared in Liscor. No one knows her nation of origin. She employs Hobgoblins. She’s an [Innkeeper] who led a Goblin army against the Goblin Lord. She’s got ties to the Antinium. She has bear teeth. She can spit blood, arm-wrestle Minotaurs, and she runs about barefoot! I saw her in the battle with the moths. Why doesn’t anyone know about her?”
The Gnoll nodded slightly.
“It’s an oversight, Lady Rafaema. I assume that the [Strategists] didn’t place a high level of credence on the rumors about her. And she was located at Liscor—”
“Our border city with the Humans! Does everyone forget they stopped the Antinium twice?”
“I believe the Walled Cities disagreed strongly with the decision to place a Hive under Liscor. That decision went against all the Walled Cities at the time. And since the trade road was overtaken by the Bloodfields—”
“I told them to figure out a way to burn it. But they thought it was fine. And the war council and the Dragonspeaker make the decisions. I’ve only been allowed into the war council recently, because I’m responsible now.”
Rafaema snorted and the air grew charged. Ferris felt his fur standing up on end. He’d have to buy an anti-shock ring if he was going to work this job. But Gnolls had been rare attendants of Rafaema. Few were trusted with this much knowledge. He coughed lightly.
“The Dragonspeaker and the war council respect your opinion greatly, Lady Rafaema.”
“But they look at me like I’m still a child. And I’m older than any of them by decades.”
The Dragon’s eyes were flashing. Oh yes, she was a Dragon, even if she had only ever met one other of her kind. And she did not like condescension, among other things. Part of Ferris’ job was to clean up after…problems. Or prevent them.
“Lady Rafaema, I’m sure the war council doesn’t mean any disrespect. If you have an issue, Dragonspeaker—”
And he was. Rafaema drew herself up. Dragon. Secret hope of the Drakes, if they didn’t know it yet. She still had time, over half a century to go. But look—
She was real. Rafaema looked at her home, the only city she had ever known. A pleasant cage. She had gone beyond the walls before, but never long. And since the Antinium—
“I want to go on a trip.”
“We can arrange a visit to another Walled City—”
“Not another Walled City. I want to go to Liscor.”
“I’m afraid that’s impossible, Lady Rafaema.”
“Oh really? Because of the Antinium?”
“Among other considerations, yes.”
“So, I can’t protect myself? Is that why I still can’t leave Manus?”
A delicate pause. Ferris didn’t feel like flying today. He bowed his head.
“I am only doing my duties, Lady Rafaema. And I have clear instructions. The Dragonspeaker—”
Rafaema turned away. Ferris blinked. And then immediately grew wary. The young Dragon looked back at Ferris.
“I understand. I’m not a child. And I can understand Manus’ need for security. But I’m also older than I was. And I want authority. This is my city. And I’m going to do what should be done. The war council is making their decisions. And I’m making mine. So if I can’t go to Liscor—I want that Human to come here.”
The young Dragon smiled.
“Yes. Bring her here. Manus is going to send her an invitation. And you’re going to help bring her here. Tell your [Infiltrators] or [Spies] or whomever else is going to make that happen too.”
She stared at him. Rafaema’s tone never grew less pleasant.
“I want to meet her. She’s an asset to the Antinium or she knows about them. I want to meet her. You’re going to get her to come here so I can appraise her. She’s just an [Innkeeper], right? I’ll make her an asset.”
“It might be difficult. We cannot kidnap a Human—”
“Who said kidnap? Just get her here. Offer her gold. I don’t care. But bring her here so I can make plans. This is my operation, by the way. Which no one is going to know about. You’re assigned to me, so you’re under my authority.”
Ferris paused. Each generation, and each handler had their struggles. He was sure his would be an eventful entry. Even if it was…short.
“What if, hypothetically, I found reason to take issue with your request, Lady Rafaema?”
She shrugged, smiling.
“Then the Dragonspeaker will be finding a new minder for me. Because the old one went flying with all his fur burnt off by lightning and his bones broken. Before he landed.”
Ferris stared at Rafaema. The beautiful, old and young, gifted and levelless, experienced and sheltered Dragon of Manus looked back at him. The Gnoll considered his options and sighed.
“I’m part of a rotation of your security detail, Lady Rafaema.”
“I know. But you’re in charge. Tell the other three they can cover for you. By the way, I know who’s on my detail. I have access to everything. I also know where you live. My 80th birthday isn’t anything compared to the trouble I can make now. And if I really don’t like what I hear, I’ll fly over those walls right now.”
The Gnoll paused, but there wasn’t really an option. And Rafaema and he both knew that. He looked pretty competent. Manus didn’t assign idiots to her, and the Gnoll was a [Soldier]. Rafaema watched him hurry off. And then she turned back.
Her city was a cage. But she was tired of it. She wasn’t about to wait eighty more years, not with the Antinium. Not when she knew her duty. Yes, duty. Investigating the Antinium and making the right decisions was something Rafaema could do. After all, she was a Dragon. And she could wait, at least until it was time to make her move.
She had forever, after all.
“Alright! We’re not in trouble! There’s no war! And I am back! Cheers!”
There was a lot of plotting in the world. Lots of big, dramatic speeches, underhanded ploys, schemes—and you know what? It was all stupid. Erin Solstice knew what mattered. Sometimes it was about preparing for the future. Sometimes you had to think ahead.
But if you did that too long, you forgot to smile. And she had stared into the depths of her guilt and sadness. And she had seen her happiness. One was preferable to the other.
Erin Solstice raised her mug filled with apple juice and stood on a table. The inn cheered as her friends and family raised their mugs. The [Innkeeper] raised it and drank the sweet juice.
Lest the present slip away and be lost, smile. That was what she did on her first real day back. Erin drank the juice, sighed—and grinned. Around her, people drank deeply. But Erin wasn’t an alcohol drinker, mostly. Not only did she have [Immunity: Alcohol] until she turned it off, she didn’t really need it.
After all, she liked being in the moment. Erin climbed down from her table as Mrsha finished her cup of milk and smacked it onto the table. Next to her, Relc finished his substantially stronger drink and slammed it down.
“Hah! That’s right! This is how it should be! Whoo!”
The Drake was in good spirits. He cheered and Erin stared at his broken mug.
“Hey! Stop that! Restore!”
She waved her hands and her [Partial Restoration] Skill activated. Relc went cross-eyed as the mug in his hand fixed itself. He grinned.
“I love this place. Hey Erin, can I break a chair? Just for fun?”
“No! Stop that! Put it down!”
Erin Solstice laughed. And that was it. She was back. And the long-delayed celebration was happening at her inn. Relc paused in picking up a chair.
“Aw, come on. For old time’s sake.”
“No! Put it down!”
“Break it, Relc!”
Jelaqua shouted across the inn. The Halfseekers had come through the door to Pallass at the promise of parties and cake. She was sitting next to Maughin. The Drake raised it over his head.
“No! Stop it! Don’t encourage him!”
Erin pointed at Relc. She could have used her aura—but she wouldn’t. She saw people ducking as Relc turned. Then—Mrsha leapt at him.
“Ow! Hey! Stop that!”
Relc yelped at Mrsha climbed onto his shoulders. She hung onto a neck spine and began energetically beating him with one paw. He tried to get her off—gently despite his curses—and the laughter intensified.
“Mrsha, stop that!”
Lyonette scolded. But Mrsha hung on. Relc eventually pried her off and handed her to Lyonette.
“Hah! Ow. That little kid’s got some good muscle!”
“I’m sorry about that—Mrsha, apologize! You’re not a [Thug]!”
“What? No way. She’s like Embria at that age. You’ve gotta teach them to fight.”
Relc waved off the apology. Lyonette was angrier than he was. She scolded Mrsha, who fled behind Relc. Erin laughed. She looked around her inn.
Not everyone was here. The Players were still absent, having yet to appear through Celum’s door. Klbkch and the Antinium had left, save for Bird, who was in his room, punished. Erin didn’t see Numbtongue, but the Goblin didn’t like crowds. Olesm and the Council were still missing—
But Selys was here. She was chatting with Drassi. Yet—the Horns of Hammerad were gone. They’d left. Erin felt a pang.
Yet new came with the old. Palt, Montressa, and Beza were all present, all of whom wanted Erin to discuss matters of import with them. Erin wasn’t sure she liked the trade-off in guests, but she smiled as she saw a new crowd.
The Halfseekers, Rufelt, Lasica, Maughin, and Pelt were all present. They’d come through the door, although Moore had been forced to charge it up. The tired half-Giant was being plied with a large vessel of wine at this moment by his friends for his hard work. And indeed, today was a celebration of the heroics in Pallass as much as anything else.
“To the Halfseekers, for their hard work!”
Erin raised her apple juice and everyone toasted the Gold-rank team. Jelaqua got up and took a bow. Seborn just grunted as he drank from his cup. Moore smiled and Mrsha bounded over and leapt on his lap.
“Cheers! And to not having a war!”
Relc laughed, ignoring the moment of silence his words caused. Erin sighed, but then grinned.
“Cheers to that too. And to Relc, who’s a hero!”
“What? Hey, stop that—”
Relc turned red, much to Erin’s delight as she got another cheer. The Drake [Guardsman] covered it with a long drink. But it was true.
In Liscor, the city was toasting more than just the aversion of war. They’d heard or seen the battle—mostly heard, since scrying orbs were expensive and rare—but those who had seen the battle had seen Relc and Olesm defending Pallass. Lism, in between arguing in the Council’s meeting room and sending [Messages] to other cities, had an incredibly smug look on his face. Undeserved, but proud.
As for Wing Commander Embria, she was smiling widely for no reason whatsoever. The High Command had gotten on her tail hard about Bird, but you wouldn’t know it. And indeed—nothing could dent Embria’s mood.
Because 4th Company was being bought drinks, or being stopped on the street as they patrolled or as they relaxed off-duty. And all the questions were about Relc. Relc, whom everyone knew as Senior Guardsman, that idiot Relc. But also as Relc, the Gecko of Liscor and former [Sergeant] in the army.
Normally, his name was mud and dum in 4th Company’s books as someone who’d quit the army. But at this moment, the Drake who’d gone into Pallass and faced the Wyvern Lord was a hero. And the [Soldiers] had been faced with the same choice as Liscor’s Army. Embrace Relc or…not.
“Sergeant Relc? Of course. We heard all the stories about him. He was actually 4th Company’s secret weapon. Back in the day he’d take out the enemy officer. Even a [Commander]-class once or twice! Just charge in, cut his way through, get away. Hit and run. Classic tactics. Of course, Captain Wikir served with him. Credit to the army. [Spearmaster]. Just like Wing Commander Embria. She learned it from him.”
Captain Pielt was speaking loudly to a crowd of listeners. Embria smiled as she finished her drink—she was getting countless requests for war stories about Relc. And reluctantly—reluctantly answering them. She…couldn’t stop smiling.
There was time to laugh. Erin found herself sitting at a table with Rufelt, Lasica, Selys, Relc, and a handful of others. Pelt was happily getting drunk—Erin had promised him maximum discount and the Dwarf seemed content as Erin had ever seen him. Right now, though, Erin was just smiling.
She’d deal with the rest later. Including her [Garden of Sanctuary] which hadn’t appeared, even outside. Maybe she needed actual dirt and stuff? Lyonette had the flower pots in her room upstairs. And they were blooming well—half had been lost in the inn’s destruction, but Mrsha had helped bring them back.
“So we’re not in trouble? Promise? You’re sure?”
Lasica nodded. She was having a juice, like Erin. Rufelt had provided drinks for the others. Lasica took a few fries from the bowl and dipped them into Erin’s ketchup.
“The Assembly is hopping mad, but no one’s calling for your head. Or—Bird. Really, if the Walled Cities were organized, they’d probably do something, but they’re all fighting. Half are blaming Pallass for the attack.”
“It wasn’t their fault. I could have told you—Wyverns can do nasty tricks like that frost attack.”
Jelaqua sighed. She was chewing happily, and feeding Maughin’s head fries. It was a funny sight. Lasica shrugged.
“You know the cities. Erin, those are decent fries.”
“But why is it so salty? Do we need to have another cooking lesson?”
“Hey! Maybe! But this is fun food.”
“Greasy, is what I call it. Come to the bar later and I’ll give you another lesson.”
“And I’ll teach your [Bartender] more tricks. We owe you, Erin. I’m sorry about, er, everything during the battle.”
Rufelt looked embarrassed as he hugged his wife. Erin smiled.
“Hey! No problem. And congratulations! How do you know?”
Both husband and wife coughed. Relc looked blank as he drank from a mix of Antinium Rxlvn and a very sweet syrup. It was apparently the only thing that could make it flavorful. Also—Relc was one of the few people it wouldn’t knock out instantly.
“Well, it’s not a matter of knowing, Erin. We ah, you know interspecies couples have to purchase specific charms? It’s…effective.”
“If you buy the right ones. And I’m only a few weeks into it, so someone can stop treating me as if I’m glass!”
Lasica glared at her husband. He blushed again under his fur. You could tell by the way it rose. Erin laughed in delight.
“It’s still so great! But you’re so sure? When—”
“Well, we had a conversation—”
“Oh. You two had sex.”
Relc burped, finally catching on. The table exploded into laughter as Jelaqua leaned back, howling. Maughin had turned bright red. The Dullahan cleared his throat.
“That may be an inappropriate topic with children around.”
He looked at Mrsha, who was wandering the tables. Jelaqua nudged Maughin cheerfully.
“Don’t worry, Maughin. It’s just sex. You don’t have a problem with it normally.”
The Dullahan turned even redder at her wink. Erin felt a bit hot around the ears. She looked at Mrsha—but Mrsha was a Plains Gnoll. And she was totally uninterested. She hopped up onto a bar stool and stared at the Dwarf.
Pelt was older than Dawil. He was also grumpier than Dawil. Drassi leaned over the bar as Pelt motioned for another whiskey.
“Hey, Pelt, right? Do you know Dawil by any chance? He’s the only Dwarf I’ve ever met. Member of the Silver Swords?”
The [Smith] paused in reaching for another drink. He stared at Drassi and his eyes widened.
“Dawil? You mean, the Dawil? The adventurer? The one who won the axe-throwing competition in the mountains back at home?”
“You know him?”
“Of course I do. Listen up. Dawil is—”
He waited until Drassi leaned over, then shouted in her earhole.
“Another damn Dwarf! What do I care? Serve me my drinks and fuck off!”
Drassi recoiled. She glared at Pelt as he downed another drink. The Dwarf laughed to himself as Drassi huffed over to Selys. Then he turned his head. A pair of brown eyes in a white-furred face stared at him.
Pelt recoiled from Mrsha. He stared at her. The Gnoll cub stared silently back. At Pelt. Then at the complimentary bowl of peanuts. Roasted with a bit of sugar and then salted. The Dwarf stared at Mrsha. He vaguely tried to shoo her off.
“I don’t like brats. Get lost.”
Mrsha stared at him. Pelt noticed her looking at the bowl.
“You want this? Take it and go away.”
He shoved it towards her. Mrsha grabbed the bowl and vanished. Pelt was clearly a good Dwarf. Best Dwarf. Mrsha scampered over to Seborn and Moore to share her prize. Apista flew over and grabbed a peanut. Because even a bee wanted a beer snack.
“It’s random if you don’t have a charm to ward against pregnancy or buy one that encourages it. Mine was random. Gotta be careful!”
Relc was talking to the table about sex. A conversation that would have probably done the impossible and wiped Embria’s smile off her face if she’d been here. Erin was laughing. Maughin looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.
“Don’t tell me, Relc! At least we’re safe! The other cities are really fighting?”
“Oh yes. Pallass embarrassing itself by letting an Antinium and the Wyverns onto its walls are just as important as the rest. Why do you think the Wings and Grimalkin and everyone else are nowhere to be seen? They’ll argue about it, but I think you’re fine. At least for now.”
Lasica rolled her eyes, exasperated. Rufelt had to nod along.
“The Walled Cities are always competing. But then—Drakes. You know the saying, surely?”
Erin glanced around the table as Lasica elbowed her husband. Maughin, Jelaqua, and Beilmark, who’d come over since she wasn’t part of the Council, all laughed.
“Wait, what saying?”
Rufelt looked at Erin, eyes twinkling as his wife glared. Relc was just laughing.
“There’s a saying about Drakes. If the entire world was reduced to dust and there were two Drakes left, they’d fight over who had the most dust, yes?”
The [Chef] glared, but Erin laughed with everyone else. Then she frowned.
“I’ve heard that one, actually!”
“Wait—wait, I know another!”
An eager voice rang out. Erin saw a female Gnoll waving a paw. Only—it wasn’t a Gnoll. It was Ulinde! The newest member of the Halfseekers was happier than Erin had ever seen her. She spoke, laughter in her voice.
“Okay. Do you know how to tell the difference between a Drake and a Lizardperson?”
Relc glared. Erin pushed him in the shoulder.
“Drakes are the ones who complain about being asked!”
More laughed. Relc and Lasica glared around the table. Selys, who came over with a mug in one hand, caught the last of the joke. She pulled a chair up.
“Oh, very funny.”
“But it’s true!”
“There’s tons of saying about Drakes. Any about other species?”
Erin was genuinely curious. The others nodded. Beilmark grinned. Erin didn’t know her well, but the Senior Guardswoman was friendly.
“Tons! I know one about Gnolls yes? It is a bit of an inside joke—but shall I tell it?”
The others nodded. Beilmark took a grin, and then began.
“Hrr. Okay, a Plains Gnoll and a City Gnoll walk into a bar. The Plains Gnoll says she’s never seen so much alcohol in her life. She asks how something like this can come to be.”
She nodded at Rufelt. The Gnoll smiled, a rueful look on his face. Erin stopped laughing. Beilmark went on.
“The City Gnoll says it’s because she worked hard all day and night and distilled the liquor and built the bar they’re standing in. The Plains Gnoll says that’s all very well, but the City Gnoll’s forgotten her roots. And both are arguing so loudly they don’t notice the Human [Thief] stealing all the alcohol.”
The silent table erupted into guffaws. Even Erin, who’d been worried the saying was getting pretty political. But Beilmark and Rufelt were laughing harder.
“Definitely a Gnoll joke.”
Selys smiled over her cup. Erin laughed.
“But Humans are the punch line! Hey! We’re not all like that?”
Lasica raised her eyebrow. The Drake put down her cup of juice and looked around.
“Oh yeah? How about this, then? If someone drops a gold coin on the ground, a Drake will take it and never give it back. A Gnoll will bring it to his tribe. And a Human will plant a flag on the ground and claim this was their land forever and that they’ve always lived there.
This time Relc choked on his drink he was laughing so hard. Jelaqua pounded the table, and even Maughin chuckled. Erin put her hands on her hips. Some of the Gnolls sitting at another table were chuckling.
She wanted to say inaccurate, but knowing the history of Izril made it a tiny bit hard. Selys was laughing next to Erin. She raised her claw.
“I’m sorry, Erin. But really—okay. Here’s one. The only thing a Human won’t mate with is a Creler, and that’s only because the ones who tried got eaten!”
“Hey! That’s not funny!”
Erin protested. Some of the others agreed, but even Seborn started laughing. Erin looked around. As one of two Humans in the room—discounting Moore, and maybe Seborn who both seemed to find it funny—she felt a bit hurt. More people began calling in jokes. Erin stared as Seborn shouted.
“My turn. What’s the only difference between a Human and a Selphid?”
“One of them only steals bodies.”
Jelaqua sprayed her drink out. She began hitting the table as she and Ulinde howled with laughter. Erin glared.
“Hey! Hey! I don’t have to stand for this!”
“How many Humans does it take to conquer a Walled City?”
Half the inn shouted.
“I don’t know! They’re still counting!”
Relc was howling with laugher. He bellowed for attention as Erin shouted around her inn, glaring and laughing.
“Classics! My turn! The only good feature about Humans is that they’re edible! And even then, they taste like crap!”
The room fell silent. Relc paused. He saw everyone staring at him.
“Hey. It’s just a joke. I don’t know myself. It’s sort of funny. Right?”
Just a moment in the sun. Erin Solstice went upstairs for a break. Mainly because even after Relc’s joke, the entire room had decided to roast Humans. And they had a lot of jokes. Mainly, she wanted to check on Bird.
“Bird? Hello? Are you okay? You can come down to eat food. Not birds.”
She wanted to make sure he wasn’t too upset. As Erin knocked on the door, she heard a clatter and an oath.
Erin opened the door and saw Numbtongue getting up from Bird’s Fortress of Fluff. The Hobgoblin had a bottle of whiskey in his claws. Bird was sitting still in his Fortress.
“I am not doing anything bad!”
The Worker looked at Erin. She blinked at him. And then the cups.
She looked at the Hobgoblin. Numbtongue gave her a shrug.
“No, it’s fine! I didn’t know where you were either Numbtongue—I was just going to check! Hey! It’s fine! Great, actually! If you want, I can bring you something—”
“No, no. Too many people. I ate enough.”
The Hobgoblin reassured Erin. He looked uncomfortable—Erin knew he didn’t like crowds. She smiled at him.
“Sure! Hey—you might like the jokes they’re telling downstairs. It’s all about Humans! But that’s fine. I’m gonna check on the Workers on the roof—they’re still working, although all the other Antinium are gone. Maybe some sausages. On a stick! You two have fun!”
She closed the door. Numbtongue and Bird waited a beat, and then Bird pulled out the half-eaten Wyvern wing from out of his Fortress. Numbtongue let out a sigh of relief. He gestured at Bird and the Antinium handed him a piece.
“We are being very bad. Which is good. I may be drunk.”
Erin Solstice wandered over to the Workers with some sausages on sticks. It was easy for the Workers to eat that way, and she passed a basket to the Worker who silently took it and bowed. Erin smiled at him, and then went back down to endure her roasting.
“Jerks. I’m gonna come up with a joke about Gnolls. Gnolls—if you shave them—no, wait. Gnolls…Selphids! No.”
But she was smiling. Erin treasured this moment, jokes or not. She almost felt like she could conjure fire—but she didn’t want a memory. She wanted to experience this. This was home.
Only one thing stopped her as she walked to the stairs. Erin turned to her door. Her nameplate was on it. And—she hesitated.
Then she entered her room.
Two boards sat on the table. Erin stared at them. The ghostly chess pieces. And the Go board. It probably hadn’t been enough t—
The pieces had moved. Erin stared. The Go board was the largest version of the ones she’d shown Olesm. Not a 9 by 9 for beginners, but a proper 19 square by 19 square design. You could play games on that one. She had spelled out a message to her opponent on it.
who r u?
Just a message. A sign of something new. Erin had spelled it in the black Go stones, arranging them to form the words. She hadn’t known if her opponent would respond. Or when.
But they had. Now, Erin saw white stone shimmering on the board. Her breath caught. They had seen. And replied. She stepped over to the board. She was shaking with nerves. She looked at the board—realized she was reading it the wrong way—
That was all. That was all the board said. Erin’s breath came loose. But even then—she felt shocked. She stared at the board. Then looked around. The sun had barely moved. Whoever had seen the message had seen it fast.
Maybe—they were still staring at the board. Erin didn’t know. But slowly, hesitantly, she approached the board.
This time she moved black stones. Arranging the pieces to form a…line below the first one. Like a primitive message board. Or some kind of alternative messaging system. No, that was exactly what it was. Erin placed the pieces. Stepped back. Her new message was longer, but abbreviated out of necessity; the Go board wasn’t exactly easy to spell on.
She hesitated as she looked at her response. But it was the only one she could give. What could you say, to someone you’d never met? Yet—one that Erin knew, through the game. She knew what the boards must cost, knew…but her message was still simple. Honest.
wnt to b frnds?
She looked at the pieces. That was all. Somewhere, someone was reading it. Erin couldn’t know who, or what they thought. But the reply suddenly came. Erin jumped as white pieces move. Left the board. Then they floated back. She stared, but she read the message before it had finished. A single reply.
That was it. Erin sighed. And then she smiled. And somewhere, she thought, someone was smiling as well. She saw the white pieces tremble. And then move.
The board cleared itself. Black stones floated back into the container. So did white stones. Then, gently, a single black stone was selected. It appeared on the same spot Erin had placed it to begin with. 4-4, upper left corner. Then a white stone floated to face it diagonally.
A game. It was a message, as much as anything else. And Erin saw her chess board waiting. She looked at both. Some things never changed, or if they did, it was subtly, slowly.
Erin Solstice smiled, as her inn relaxed. Normality. She looked at the chess board, the go board. And then she flicked both stones off the board.
Erin Solstice dragged the chess board over. She knocked the chess pieces off it. And then she laid chess pieces on the chess board, sideways. And the Go stones clattered onto their board. Black, for Erin. Spelling messages across both surfaces. Creating words.
nce 2 meet u! I lke chss. hv u plyed 6-way chss?
She couldn’t know how fast the other person read. But she knew they were there. So Erin spelled and destroyed her messages, trusting that her opponent had read them.
evr plyed Shogi? hw abt Tafl? cn teach!
Erin Solstice waited. And then, shakily, someone replied. She watched as a message came back, across the world. And Erin smiled as she began writing, and the people downstairs wondered if they’d told too many Human jokes. But it was fine.
When the world moved, it danced.