“Let’s make chocolate!”
That was the declaration Erin made on a sunny morning. Mrsha’s ears perked up from across the inn and she raced over. It had been one day since Erin had discovered the existence of the cacao tree in her garden. And she had been talking up chocolate all of last night.
Mrsha’s reaction was understandable; she liked tasty things. And sweets. But the rest of the inn’s denizens were a bit…blasé. Because they didn’t really know what chocolate was.
“It’s this dark stuff that’s like sugar, but not, right? Do we really need to make it a priority, Erin? Wailant is going to start planting, Octavia needs her shop, and…”
Lyonette had a list. The [Princess] was the effective day-to-day manager and Erin, despite being superior in rank, was like the trusted subordinate Lyonette sent out when Erin was needed. But in this case the [Innkeeper] was adamant.
“Chocolate is tasty. Chocolate is good. It’s not just sugar, Lyonette. You don’t even know.”
The [Princess] paused and leaned over with a scowl.
“Apparently not. And would you mind shutting up about things I don’t know? You have people watching you.”
Erin looked around. She noted Montressa and Beza here today; Palt was out. But the two Wistram [Mages] might soon be joined by Grimalkin, or Chaldion, or Saliss.
“Oh. Sorry. But it really is good, Lyonette. You can use chocolate with everything. Ice cream! Popcorn! Um—waffles? Cakes! Uh…chocolate milk!”
Her enthusiasm sold Lyonette on it. The [Princess] sighed.
“I suppose it’s alright. Do you need anything?”
“Um…no? But I might need your help. And…um…”
Lyonette paused. She stared at Erin.
“You don’t know how to make it.”
Erin Solstice paused.
“Well…I mean…if you want to be technical, no. But I’ve seen like, shows. About chocolate and stuff. And I know what goes into it. Sort of. And I have [Advanced Cooking].”
Lyonette sighed. But Mrsha was happy. She leapt about! Chocolate! Chocolate! She was going to eat whatever it was!
“At least we have a fairly free day. Mrsha, remember? You’re going with Selys.”
Mrsha paused. And then she perked up. That was right! Selys was coming to the inn! The Drake had promised to look after Mrsha all morning since she had been so busy of late.
And indeed, it seemed like the world was conspiring for chocolate to occur. Because not only was Selys scheduled, but Numbtongue appeared in the kitchen as Erin and Lyonette set up what they’d probably need—butter, eggs—wait, chocolate didn’t have eggs—sugar, and pots and pans.
“Erin. We’re going out, all morning. Probably. Can you set the door for us to come back?”
The [Bard] saw the two young women look up. Erin blinked.
“Oh! Numbtongue! You’re going out mining? Wait—we?”
She did a double take as an Antinium hand waved past Numbtongue.
“It is me, Bird. I am going too.”
Lyonette’s first thought was instant skepticism. She looked Bird up and down for a bow, but he wasn’t carrying one. He and Numbtongue did have shovels and picks, though, and a sack. Erin blinked.
“You’re going with Numbtongue, Bird?”
The Antinium nodded happily.
“I am going to hit rocks. Which Numbtongue has assured me is fun. Yay.”
“I’m going too. I want to see where all this gemstone stuff is coming from.”
Octavia sidled out from behind the other two. Numbtongue nodded.
“Good rocks higher up. I—Pyrite—thinks there are opals. Maybe. We’ll go. Probably be safe. I have potions, guitar, sword—and Pyrite.”
He tapped his chest. Erin looked at him. Then at Bird and Octavia. She blinked at the unlikely team, but then smiled.
“Sure! I’ll let the staff know to check in!”
Smooth as butter. Which again, chocolate probably contained. Erin wasn’t sure, but within twenty minutes Selys appeared.
“Mrsha! Where’s my favorite little Gnoll? Hi, Erin! Lyonette! What are you doing?”
“We’re making chocolate!”
Erin pointed to the pods of cacao fruits that they’d gathered from the tree. Lyonette was poking the rough, fairly unappetizing exteriors of the shells. But Erin had confidence. She knew chocolate existed; Lasica had said it did and Palt was sure about the name. She stepped out of the kitchen as Selys bent to greet Mrsha.
And stopped. Selys Shivertail had changed a bit. Her scales looked—glossy. And she was wearing a rather nice set of clothes. Not your plain cotton, but a glossier, more vibrant fabric. Not a dress; she was in casual, walk-around clothes.
But it was better than Erin’s normal clothes. The [Innkeeper] blinked.
“Wow, you’ve got new clothes. And jewelry?”
“Magical artifacts, actually. I have a small collection. It’s a bit haphazard, but I’m buying for quality. Speaking of which, how are you?”
“Oh, you know—”
The two sat for a brief chat as Mrsha leapt up to the table. Erin told Selys about the garden, her plans for the day—but the Drake [Heiress] was far more exciting. Because Erin’s big events had been witnessed by Selys. But Erin had no idea how Selys was doing herself.
“You remember I was telling you about how I’m getting into the landowning business? Well, with the money the Heartflame Breastplate is earning me, I’ve bought some of the new parts of the city. And hired [Builders] and people to start making apartments.”
“Whoa! So you’re going to be an actual [Landlady]?”
Selys waved a claw dismissively.
“I don’t know if I want that class. But maybe it’ll fold into my [Receptionist] class? It’s really just to put the gold to work. I mean, I can’t spend it all on myself. And renting space would be a good way to make money besides the breastplate.”
Erin had heard about the new construction of the city but she hadn’t gone out to look with all that was going on. She made a note to do just that. But for now—she listened to Selys talking about her big plans.
“I’m going to own apartments for any species. But mainly Humans. The other [Landowners] don’t want to cater to Humans, although I bet they will. But I’ll make a better place. Your Players of Celum will be my first clients, the ones who don’t want to stay at your inn.”
“Hey, that’s great! Thanks so much for putting them up temporarily, Selys.”
The Drake waved a hand as if finding places for nearly forty people—[Actors] and families—was no big deal. She’d managed it in a single night, though. Selys had money and money talked and walked and also poked people in the head. So did Tekshia.
“It’s to my advantage, Erin. I’m going to give Humans an opportunity. Hire them along with Gnolls and Drakes. And I’m in a minority there. Speaking of which, the apartments should be profitable if I can fund it all with the money I have.”
“Really? But it’ll take a long time to earn all that money back, right?”
“With Antinium labor? Not that much. Besides, I can charge a fair price.”
“But I thought the rent was low.”
Selys smiled smugly.
“It is. Which the other [Landowners] are not happy about, and these new homes will drive prices down further. Well, that’s their problem. I’ll ask Krshia and Elirr and Raekea to do something about the rent pricing when the first buildings go up, though. Lism and the others on the Council will probably agree and if they don’t, they can get the other two Councilmembers to back them.”
“Wait, but I thought they were doing that for poor people. Selys, don’t you think low rent’s good?”
Erin had to object here. But Selys waved that away.
“Once we have enough space, rent won’t be as big of an issue. It is expensive to build and maintain apartments, Erin. And if there’s no rent, people won’t renovate. What we lacked was just—competition.”
“Huh. I didn’t think about it like that.”
“Trust me. I’ve learned a lot and I’m going to make nice places. I’ll have Human apartments, ones for Gnolls—”
“What makes those different?”
“Come by later. No—let’s make a plan to get together, okay Erin? Just the two of us.”
Mrsha pounded the table indignantly. Selys smiled.
“And maybe Mrsha. But we’ll go around Liscor! Maybe Pallass too! I’m thinking of going there, like you said. For the armor, you know? It’s how I’m making money and I do want to see the Walled City after all. But I need to get the construction taken care of first. And Mrsha gets her day with me! Speaking of which, I have a present for you, Mrsha. Want to see it?”
Mrsha went round-eyed with excitement. The present was at Selys’ home and she was going to see her two best friends, Ekirra and Visma. Erin was thanking Selys when the Drake remembered something and stopped.
“Oh, that’s right. Erin, about the Sage’s Grass. Are you able to pay that [Farmer] his price?”
Erin’s face fell.
“I dunno. Between that and paying for the new inn, Lyonette says we’ll have to juggle some money. But we’re earning again. So…I hope this chocolate will also help with that.”
She saw Selys nodding. The Drake paused, and then looked a bit awkward. She coughed.
“I don’t know how to say this, so I’m just going to come out with it. Erin, if it’s just a few hundred gold, I can at least help pay for a bit. Did you say six hundred gold pieces? Half of that.”
Erin blinked. Selys was reaching into her personal bag of holding.
“Wait, what? Selys!”
“It’s nothing. Well, it’s not nothing, but I can help you out.”
“No, wait—Selys, thank you! I’ll talk it over with Lyonette, but that’s way too much!”
The young Human woman had to stop Selys for a moment as the Drake began fishing into her money pouch. The Drake paused.
“Erin, relax. I can afford that. Do you know how much I spent on dresses this month alone? Keldrass is paying me for the armor and he’s not the only one. Someone will pay a hundred gold to wear it for a week. The rich Drakes, that is. And that’s low compared to what I can get. I owe you a lot. If you need help—”
She was prepared to pay Erin there and then. The [Innkeeper] waved her hands.
“Let me see how much I need. I can’t take a loan—”
“Who said it was a loan?”
Selys smiled at Erin’s face. She waved a finger.
“Erin, I can afford it. Just give me free access to Pallass whenever I want. That would actually be worth three hundred gold. More than worth it. You need to monetize that door, Erin. Even if it’s only for travel to Pallass. Think about it. One silver coin to visit the Walled City or vice-versa. That’s a steal.”
Erin blinked. Selys was getting so—mercantile! But Erin had to smile.
“Thanks, Selys. I’ll ask Lyonette what we need.”
“Let me know. But I want to help. And, Ancestors, if I start earning money from rent, I’ll be able to do a lot more. By the way, I’m getting you new clothes. I had some made, but the [Clothier] thought it was for a Drake. So there’s a hole in the back. I’ll get it to you when it’s done!”
The [Innkeeper] blinked. But Selys was already taking Mrsha out of the door. She stared after Selys.
A few more visitors stopped by before Erin’s chocolate project could get underway. And they had a similar…theme to them. The first was Jelaqua, who came from Pallass. By herself; Moore had charged up the door, but since she was going back quickly, it made no sense for him to come with.
“Chocolate? Hey, send up a [Message] and I’ll be over! My taste buds are fresh. But I’m actually going on a mission.”
“Really? You found work?”
The Selphid laughed. She was in exceptional humor of late.
“That’s right! Just a minor mission. There’s a locust swarm and guess who gets to clear it out? Adventurers! It’s well-paying, even if it sounds like it’ll be a day or two of hard work.”
“Sounds difficult. Wouldn’t it be better to get someone to burn them?”
“Probably. But you need a bit of muscle for this and a lot of the Gold-ranks are in the dungeon. So we’re handling it.”
“But tiny bugs—”
Erin wasn’t sure how it was going to work. Jelaqua slapped her forehead.
“Ah, I didn’t say. Giant locusts. Anyways, it’s not that hard. We have tactics from fighting all those damned spiders and moths. But here I am, talking about boring work—Erin, I’m just here to pay for that field of Sage’s Grass.”
Erin nearly dropped the bag of sugar she was hauling to the kitchen. Jelaqua casually placed hers there—they were bringing it up from the cellar storage, now rat-free.
The Selphid forestalled Erin’s objections.
“We heard about the Sage’s Grass plan. And look—we owe our fortunes partly to you and the Redfangs. So let us cover the door. It’s not much as adventurers count coin, and you know we can pay for it.”
Erin blinked. But in a trice, Jelaqua was handing her a slip.
“The Merchant’s Guild in Liscor will give you the money. They have a system if you put in money to them—they’ll confirm it with me, but you’ll get the gold. That’s all. Gotta run! The locusts are eating farms and animals, apparently.”
She dashed off.
The next visitor was Teliv Witherscale, whom Erin had a special connection with due to the time they overthrew a burgeoning dictatorship in Esthelm. It was this entire thing, and the [Negotiator] poked his head into the inn and stared around for a long moment before making his way over to her. Erin suspected he was looking out for Crelers, Hobgoblins, monsters, or anything else that might kill him in the next few seconds.
“Good evening, Miss Solstice! I’m on official city business. The Council’s heard about your plan to upgrade your magical door with a…field of grass? Something like that.”
Teliv rubbed his claws together, smiling at Erin as she served him a cup of tea. She stared at him.
“Does everyone know what I’m doing?”
“It’s wise to keep abreast of things. Anyways, Miss Erin, I understand the price of this project is concerning? Well, I am here to make you an offer. Liscor’s Council and Pallass will subsidize the costs, for a bit of negotiation in regards to the door’s usage. I hear you’re planning on using it to let [Merchants] and [Farmers] sell their goods?”
“How do you know that?”
Erin began to glare at Teliv and around the inn. He smiled politely, and Erin felt him trying to soothe her. Unfortunately, it was something like an aura-effect and this was her inn. She just glared.
“Well, Liscor sees this as a positive for the city, but since the inn has access directly to Liscor and Pallass—we may have to talk about shipment oversight. Just a [Guardsman] or two who can see it done! And if you’re charging a transportation fee, well, you are a citizen, so we can roll that into your annual taxes. Or…”
Erin stared at Teliv. She wanted to say ‘get out’, but instead, she just wanted to have a lie down. Teliv saw her expression and coughed again.
“Also, I’m coming on behalf of Liscor. Pallass says they’ll go over any transportation into their city at the checkpoint. Er…Miss Solstice?”
A bit later, Erin Solstice stood in the kitchen over a seed pod. She had dealt with the obstacles lying between her and chocolate. Mainly by saying ‘chocolate’ until they went away.
“I’ll negotiate with Teliv. I’m used to it.”
Erin saw Lyonette glare at her. The [Innkeeper] turned.
“Thanks, Lyonette. Look, let’s just make the stuff. Huh?”
“Okay. What’s the first step.”
And the young woman from Earth smiled. This was what she liked. Cooking—for fun, hanging out with friends, none of this deal making nonsense. She gestured at the dark pods lying on her table.
“Well, cacao is unprocessed chocolate, right? I know it’s a bean, so I bet you have to…get the beans from inside. Then squish them into chocolate. Probably…um…melt them?”
She faltered under Lyonette’s flat stare. Erin drew her special Pelt-made knife and hovered over the seed pod.
“First things first! We just cut open the pod, easy, and—ew!”
Erin recoiled. The inside of the pod was filled with a fleshy, white…fruit. Not a bunch of dark beans like she’d assumed! It was, in fact, like a bunch of misshapen…she stared at the white rind on the cacao fruits.
“What is this?”
“Cacao seeds. They don’t look good. I thought they were beans?”
“They are! They’re supposed to be—hang on.”
Erin was thrown for a loop. Clearly, in her memory of how chocolate was made, someone had skipped a few crucial steps. She stared at the fruity white things and closed her eyes.
“You have no idea how to make them, do you.”
“Silence! I am at work, Lyonette! I’ve tackled bigger challenges before!”
The [Innkeeper] tuned out the [Princess]’ voice. Her eyes snapped open and she pointed dramatically at the seeds in the pod.
“My [Advanced Cooking] instincts are telling me—they need to be dry first! Huh? Huh?”
She turned to Lyonette with a proud look on her face. The [Princess] stared back.
Erin paused. Her eyes narrowed as she thought for another minute and then it came to her. Intuition mixed with memory, her Skill at work.
“We’ll dry this stuff out! And then—well, I don’t know, but that’s probably where you—roast them.”
Yes. That sounded right. Roasting! Like coffee! Did this world have coffee? Erin’s mind was racing. She smiled at Lyonette—and the [Princess] looked up from writing a note on a bit of parchment.
“Yeah. Um, Erin—I’m going to go ask Lasica for advice. Drassi? Can you push this note through to Pallass? Just throw it through the door and shout at someone to pick it up.”
“What? But hold on! I can figure it out!”
Erin hurried after Lyonette. The [Princess] turned and looked at Erin.
“I’m sure you can, Erin. But we don’t have time to mess about all day. Lasica had chocolate, right? We’ll ask her. She’s a [Chef], anyways.”
It made sense. But Erin didn’t like that it made sense. She deflated as Drassi took the note. Within twenty minutes, a reply came back that Lasica would ask one of her friends in Baleros and come over with the recipe. Lyonette, satisfied, walked off to confer with Teliv. And Erin sat in the kitchen, staring down at the open seed pod.
“This isn’t as fun anymore. What happened to everyone’s sense of adventure? Creativity? Figuring it out for themselves?”
Erin shook a fist in general anger at the efficiency and pragmatism of the world in general. Then, she had to pause and be real with herself.
“Well, it was never fun, trying to figure out how to make pasta. And breaking those preservation runes…and slicing my hand open…”
Erin paused. No, the bad old days of wondering how she’d find food tomorrow weren’t actually that great, except if you omitted details and put on rosy nostalgia-shades. Even so, she would have liked to try for herself.
Erin comforted herself with that idea. Chocolate. It was really good. Actually, Erin wasn’t a huge fan of milk chocolate. Dark was where it was at. And white chocolate was good too. She didn’t know why people got down on it.
…Wait, was white chocolate even made with chocolate? Erin really wished Ryoka were here. She probably knew how to make chocolate.
As it turned out, chocolate was a hard thing to make. Not just ‘hard’ as in mayonnaise-hard, or even hard like hand-churning butter. But hard, hard. In fact—it was actually impossible for Erin to make in her inn. Lasica had come over, intrigued at the free garden she’d heard about. She had to stare at the garden and then at Erin. When she stopped muttering about strange [Innkeeper] Skills, she told Erin the flaw in Erin’s attempts.
“It’s an involved process, Erin. It takes weeks, apparently if you do it normally. Listen. The first step is to let it all ferment. At least two days. Then you roast it, take off the shell which is apparently a pain, my friend told me, and press what’s left. And that’s a problem for you because you can’t even do step one.”
“Why not? I’ll just toss them in a tray and let them rot. Yuck.”
Erin made a face. Lasica pursed her lips.
“Right. And—Erin. Exactly when will they begin to rot?”
“Well, you said…oh.”
The [Field of Preservation]. For the first time, it was becoming an obstacle. Not just to chocolate.
“It’s a good Skill, Erin. But you need to turn it off or you won’t be able to make anything fermented.”
“I don’t need pickles or…stinking stuff. Kimchi? Well, I don’t know how to make that. I can put the seeds somewhere else! Um…like the Antinium Hive! Or Selys’ house!”
Erin folded her arms, annoyed. Lasica rolled her eyes.
“Why don’t you take all the pods that are ripe and come with me into Liscor, Erin.”
“No. Your door will run out of magic and I’m not paying for you to go back. Or having you at the bar overnight. Come on.”
With her chivvying them, the pods were collected and Erin, Lyonette, and Lasica went into the city. There, the Drake, with no prior knowledge of the city or having ever visited it properly, walked up to the nearest restaurant, and asked a question. Erin saw her conferring with the [Cook] and [Manager], and then she led them to another shop. Someone there pointed her in the right direction.
“Aha. This is the Gnoll who makes some of that delicious Liscorian fish paste I import. I can buy it directly.”
Twenty minutes later, Lasica pointed Erin to a rather large shop run by a single, fairly hermit-like Gnoll. He smelled. He sort of stank. And he was also a [Fermenter]. He shook Lasica’s claw gingerly and gave Erin a slightly bug-eyed look.
“The Human. How can I help you and Miss [Chef] here?”
He perched on his stool, listening as Lasica explained about chocolate.
“We’d like to purchase a space with your fastest Skills at work. Preferably anything that preserves the quality of the pods. Can you give us a quote and let us know how fast the process is?”
“Mm. Not too expensive. I have a three-to-one ratio of time in my average spaces. Eight-to-one in my special projects. I will give you the eight-to-one for gold, the others for silver.”
“Silver works for us. Now, it should take two to ten days regularly. So if you could let us know—”
“What am I looking for?”
The Gnoll listened as Lasica told him what the process should look like. Erin and Lyonette exchanged glances as she shook hands. Erin paid for the berth and the Gnoll let them see themselves out. Lasica had also bought eight jars of fish sauce. And she seemed contented by the entire affair.
“Before we leave, I’ll help you find some [Millers], or someone in the city willing to shell your cacao seeds. Assuming it isn’t insanely tricky, they should be able to do the lot for silver.”
Erin and Lyonette looked at Lasica. The [Princess] was approving, but Erin was confused.
“Pay someone else?”
“Of course. You don’t have to do it yourself, Erin. You can get good, reliable results. Mister—well, he never told me his name—Mister Sauce is a good example of that. I mean, you can brew your own alcohol, or make your own pickles, but why would you when you can hire a specialist?”
Erin opened and closed her mouth. She looked back into the shop; the Gnoll was carefully clearing a berth.
“But you don’t even know his name! What’s he like? Why does he make fish sauce and paste all the time? What’s a [Fermenter]?”
The Drake [Chef] gave Erin a strange look.
“Erin, I don’t have to know his life story to hire him. It’s a business deal. He probably prefers being left alone; I can’t imagine many Gnolls could stand the smell.”
And that was when Erin realized this was Lasica, and Erin was Erin. And because Erin was Erin…
The Gnoll [Fermenter] in the shop was humming to himself as he checked his pots and different containers where the usually very salty liquids or substances were, well, fermenting at speed. His was a substantially more cleanly and upscale operation than Holdnose’s, but the two would have respected each other as fellow members of the craft.
The Gnoll, whose name was Ushel, turned back to his counter. He really had a good job, in his estimation. He just had to take care of his pots, move around substances, make sure nothing was eaten—and it was a rare rat or bug who immediately went for the salty substances—and then he had a lot of time off.
He jumped as he saw a young woman peeking around the door to his inner laboratory. Erin waved.
“Hi. I’m Erin. Erin Solstice. What’s your name?”
Across the city, Selys Shivertail opened the door to her new home. And Mrsha stared.
This was a bigger place than Selys’ small, almost cramped apartment had been. Selys had moved up in the world! Which meant she’d geographically actually moved down; she’d lived on the third floor of her old apartment.
But this new place was nice. And Selys had already begun buying everything she could want. Which was a sofa for lounging on, charms like the cooling charm that kept out the summer’s heat, clothing, snacks—
All of this was strewn about the apartment, by the way. Selys had many talents, and she was a good [Receptionist], but her clutter had built up faster than she could sort it. The Drake was a bit embarrassed and somewhat glad Erin and Lyonette hadn’t seen. She began tossing things into drawers and cupboards as Mrsha roamed around.
The Gnoll was just poking her nose into a drawer and finding bootleg, cheap copies of the cookies Erin had pioneered—the [Cooks] and [Bakers] of the city were trying to copy Erin with mixed success—when Selys called out.
“Aha! Found it, Mrsha! Here!”
Mrsha rushed over and found Selys holding…a ball.
It was a lovely ball. Mrsha had three of them now, to catch, or throw, or chew—and they were very different, thank you! Gifts from Krshia, Elirr, and Lyonette. But this ball—
Oh, this one was special. It was bright red, already special because red dyes were expensive, like purple, and it was the perfect size for throwing by small Gnoll paws. Bouncy—you could even see the way it squished slightly in Selys’ grip. It was made to be thrown and chased after. And it had a magical pattern stitched into the outside.
It looked fancy. Mrsha stared at it. She stared at Selys. Slowly, she pointed at her chest.
Is that for me?
Selys beamed at Mrsha’s expression.
“I got it from a travelling sales-Human. What do you think? Is it good?”
Mrsha nodded up and down rapidly and then ran over to hug Selys’ legs. The Drake laughed.
“Don’t thank me yet, Mrsha! Wait till you see what it can do!”
And with that, she pressed one of the sections on the ball and the magical stitching glowed. Mrsha gaped as Selys threw the ball. It hit the wooded floorboards—and then rolled off, shooting away from Mrsha.
The little Gnoll had seen many things in life. Many glorious things, terrible things. But she had never seen this. The ball shot away, and then stopped, quivering. And Mrsha realized it was magic.
It rolled…by itself. In awe, Mrsha stared up at Selys. The [Heiress] beamed.
Mrsha took one look at the ball. It seemed to be staring at her. Mrsha tensed. The ball wobbled. Mrsha charged and the ball shot off.
“Whoa! Careful! That’s a vase! Don’t run into that—watch out for—”
Selys instantly realized her mistake. Unlike Drake children, who could be hoarding, biting little demons, Gnoll children were more prone to race about and hit something. And Mrsha was on the chase. The little ball appealed to every instinct in her, and it had been enchanted to give a Gnoll child a fun time.
No one, not even grown up Gnolls, not even Bird or Numbtongue, could outrun a Gnoll child in a game of tag. They were all adults, and big and slow. And Apista refused to play since Mrsha might squash her accidentally. But this ball had speed. It dodged and wove, and Mrsha shot around Selys’ apartment, laughing and leaping at it.
It even grew tired, like a real quarry. Mrsha eventually snatched up the ball and Selys, panting with anxiety, stuffed the fragile objects she’d bought in her room and closed the door.
“Well! I think that was fun enough for now! Let’s—let’s go to the park instead, shall we? And wait—I think I hear two little friends coming!”
Indeed, Ekirra and Visma were both coming. Mrsha couldn’t smell them, but Selys had a spy-hole in her door and a magical stone you could activate for a brief look at whomever was outside. Mrsha held the little ball in her hands, delighted.
“Mrsha! Mrsha, we’re here!”
Ekirra shouted as soon as Selys opened the door. He and Visma had come with Visma’s older brother. He was a young Drake—around fourteen? And he’d walked them over, since he wasn’t apprenticing under the [Fletcher] he was working at today.
Visma’s older brother bowed low as Ekirra raced into the apartment. Visma stared about the apartment, and then raced after Ekirra as Mrsha waved a hand. The Drake tried sniffing Mrsha back, then she stared at a scrying orb Selys had left precariously near a table. Her eyes went wide.
Selys had everything from the five books that had been written this year, to a map of Izril. She couldn’t afford the big stuff yet, but everything within a normal family’s disposable budget Selys could buy, and more.
The little Drake girl instantly grabbed the dress, put the scrying orb in it, and hugged it to her. Her brother tried to scold her.
“Visma, no! Put it down! I am so sorry, Miss Shivertail—”
“Call me Selys. And it’s fine. I should’ve thought of that. I’ll be fine with the kids. Feiss, is it?”
“That’s right. Um, my parents say they’ll be happy to help out if you get tired. Um—”
“If I need to, I’ll call for help. But it’s just down to the park, right? I’ve done it before. Thank you! Oh, and how’s your mother doing…?”
Mrsha ignored Selys. She had noticed how polite people were to Selys these days. She’d taken Mrsha to the public bathhouse, and the attendants had given Selys a lot of attention! Well, Selys had paid for a private bath for her and Mrsha. One with nice-smelling water, and you got your fur groomed afterwards!
Selys was so nice. Mrsha waved at Ekirra as he completed a lap of the house. Like her, he’d been sniffing everything. Visma was busy trying to find a spot to stash the items she deemed most Visma-worthy, but the two Gnolls met up in the living room. They hopped onto a sofa.
“Mrsha, are we going to play? I brought my ball!”
Ekirra had indeed brought his special ball with stars on it. Mrsha’s tail wagged as she held the crimson, magical ball behind her back. She proudly brought it out and Ekirra’s eyes went round.
He choked as he saw how special it looked. Selys smiled fondly as Mrsha slowly touched one of the magical sigils and then tossed it onto the ground. The ball shot off and Ekirra—
Went nuts. He and Mrsha chased after the ball, nearly running into Visma. She nearly grabbed the ball but it swerved and juked! It was the ball of a century, a magic ball!
“It has other functions too, Mrsha! It can come back to you—you can play catch with it that way. And it lights up in the dark! Some [Magical Craftsman] made it, I think.”
Selys demonstrated more of the ball’s functions. Mrsha was leaping around, rolling on the floor, unable to contain her excitement! She was going to have so much fun showing it off to the other Gnoll children in the park! No, any child would love this ball!
Mrsha leapt up as Selys pointed towards the door.
“Want to go to the park, kids? I’ll be one second! I just need to get Visma. Visma! I know you like all the nice things, but they’re mine! You know what they say! Hoarders don’t get to keep nice things! You don’t want to turn into some old Drake with a pile of trash, do you? Come on!”
She went off, looking for Visma to find her things, promising the little Drake girl a treat and maybe a little toy if she came out. Mrsha knew Visma probably would come out; she was getting better about hoarding. She raced about excitedly as she held the ball in her paws. Mrsha only stopped when she realized Ekirra had gone still.
Excitable, happy Ekirra was looking at his lovely new ball. The one with stars that glowed in the dark. Only—Mrsha’s ball glowed in the dark. And it was red. And it could move and even come back on its own. And somehow, that meant Ekirra’s super-special birthday present wasn’t as special as it had been a few days ago.
His ears drooped as Mrsha looked at him. Mrsha’s tail stopped wagging and she looked at Ekirra. Really looked. And she remembered how excited Ekirra had been for his birthday, how long he’d waited and waited for a new ball to replace his old, ratty, leather one that his sister had owned. And—she looked at the magical ball in her paws.
She’d gotten this as a present from Selys. It wasn’t even her birthday. It was more expensive than anything Ekirra’s family could afford, Mrsha was certain. More than Lyonette or Erin could afford.
And—for the first time, Mrsha’s delight in having rich Auntie Selys faltered. She saw Selys gently tugging at her silk dress as Visma held onto it, promising a toy if the Drake would let go. And Mrsha realized something.
Selys was rich. Only—she’d known that. It was just that now, Mrsha knew what that meant. It was more than Selys having money. It was how Visma’s brother had walked Visma over, and how people were always nice to Selys, and how she could give Erin lots of money that Erin couldn’t afford, but Selys…could.
The [Heiress] was a nice person. So nice, and brave, and kind. But—unintentionally or not—she had managed to make Ekirra sad. She could, just by being nice, ruin other people’s gifts, or prized things.
Mrsha understood all of this in a flash. She looked at her ball, and then Ekirra, sitting on the sofa, staring at his ball. Mrsha looked at her present, and then dashed off.
Mrsha hid the ball in a corner of Selys’ big house. Ekirra looked at her, staring, as Mrsha put the ball in a pan, then shoved the pan into a cupboard, where Selys probably wouldn’t find it. She ran back over and leapt into the sofa.
“Mrsha? What about your ball? It’s nicer.”
The little Gnoll stared as Mrsha signed with her paws. She pointed at his ball. She didn’t want that ball! She wanted to play with his! What good was a ball that ran away, anyways? Only if you were by yourself. Visma or someone else might steal it, anyways.
Slowly, Ekirra’s tail began to wag. He smiled as Selys came back, with Visma under one arm.
“I think we’d better go, you two. Before Visma decides she wants my entire house. Everyone ready? Off to the park we go! Where’s your ball, Mrsha?”
Mrsha refused to answer. And Selys, sighing, concluded the ball must have hid itself. They’d find it later when she got back. So she and the three kids went out to the park.
And Mrsha would get her lovely ball again. She would. It was perfect for the inn; she could play in the garden with it, and it was great because it was special, and expensive, and Selys had given it to her. But when she was around Ekirra and Visma, she’d leave her ball behind.
That was a new experience for Mrsha. Thinking—no, understanding something about others. The lesson of the little ball stuck with Mrsha throughout the day. It was the kind of lesson she remembered. Aunt Selys was rich. But Mrsha wondered, for the first time, if that was a good thing or not.