Interlude – Chocolate Alchemy

Erin Solstice stood over a sack of recently fermented, dry…cocoa beans. The very essence of the stuff that would become chocolate. She spoke to her audience.

“There’s a saying about chocolate. Chocolate waits for no one. Except when it does. Because it’s sort of a pain to make, y’know?”

There was a pause. Palt shuffled his hooves.

“…I’m going to say you’re lying, Miss Erin.”

“Hey. I said there’s a saying. I said it. And I’m mostly right, aren’t I?”

The Centaur opened his mouth. Even for someone versed in Wistram politics and the Ullsinoi faction’s tendency towards creative madness, that was a lot to parse. He looked at Lyonette.

“She’s being dramatic. Or what she thinks is dramatic. Let her have this moment.”

The [Princess] whispered. Palt nodded. Erin glared at them.

“Look at it. Look at it! It looks like cocoa beans!”

Lyonette and Palt stared at the sack that had just arrived after three days of fermentation. It was filled with dark, fat beans. Lyonette nodded slowly.

“Yes. Those are beans. They don’t look like when we pulled them out of the fruits, that’s for sure.”

Erin nodded proudly.

“We’re a step closer to chocolate. Actually, just so you know, I’m not a huge fan of chocolate. I like it dark, but hey, that’s because my parents do. But chocolate’s okay. I mean, I’m not into alcohol or coffee either.”

The [Princess] and [Illusionist] stared askance at Erin.

“You’ve been talking about chocolate nonstop for the last three days, Erin! Every time someone asks you to do something you don’t want, you say ‘chocolate’ until they leave!”

“Well, yeah. Because it works.”

Erin smiled faintly. Lyonette threw up her hands.

It should have been pointed out before now that Erin, for all her sterling qualities in forgiveness, trust in the essential goodness and soul of people, and her ability to play chess and bring people together—was not always easy to work with. As Lyonette would happily tell anyone who asked. In detail. But then—no one was. Lyonette was bossy, thought Gnolls were overweight, and had a real avarice for gold. Like most Drakes, actually.

“I mean, chocolate’s okay. And I really want to use it in cakes and stuff. Vanilla cake is a crime. It’ll be great to share it with Relc, the Antinium…Relc…and see their faces. Okay, so what’s the next step?”

Erin rubbed her hands together. Indeed, chocolate to her was more about seeing people eat it. Lyonette consulted the recipe Lasica had written up for her.

“We need to dry it. For…ooh. You’re not going to like this. It says for about a week or more.”

The [Innkeeper]’s face fell.

“What? No.”

“Yup. They’re way too wet. See?”

Lyonette prodded some of the beans in the sack. They were indeed unduly moist. Erin threw up her hands.

I hate chocolate!

“If you’ll allow me, I think I can deal with that.”

Palt interrupted hurriedly. The Centaur had volunteered to help with the chocolate making. Just the other day he’d been making more Balerosian dishes. He really was cooking his way into Erin and Lyonette’s good graces. Now, he trotted around the sack of beans.

“I’ll handle drying. You don’t need to wait a week; I can use magic. I’ve done this before with other products.”

“Really?”

Erin and Lyonette looked at Palt. He smugly put a cigarette-sized puffer in his mouth.

“Oh yes. Dreamleaf’s just as bad with that. Drying spells and light spells do the trick if you know enough of them. [Light] isn’t powerful enough, but if you’ll give me some room and help me spread the beans out, I’ll draw a little containment circle and dry them. It won’t take more than an hour, tops.”

He flicked a finger and a bit of flame shot from his fingertips—and missed the cigarette as Erin snatched it out of his mouth.

“No smoking. It probably ruins the flavor.”

Palt blew out his cheeks. But he gave up and switched to his vapor-less puffers. Erin and Lyonette found a table in the common room and dumped the beans onto it. Palt produced a piece of chalk—it looked laced with some kind of clear material—and drew a lazy ring around the beans as they were laid out.

Lyonette frowned at how many beans there were. Not a bad quantity, but Erin had only been able to harvest one tree.

“We’re already spending a bit for this chocolate, Erin. It—doesn’t look like much.”

“Well—it’s a lot of beans. Chocolate isn’t something you eat in quantity, Lyonette.”

“Really? From the way you talked about it, it sounded like you put it in everything.

“No! It’s like sugar, or cookies!”

“Erin, is everything you know how to make bad for you? Hamburgers, your fries, which you submerge in oil, mayonnaise, milkshakes, cake—”

Erin Solstice looked around. She leaned over and whispered to Palt and Lyonette.

“Hey! My country back on Earth has tons of sweet stuff! It’s not my fault that I don’t know how to do other things! I never cooked before I came here! A lot of foods are premade, y’know. Frozen, or preserved. Sort of like magic, but less nice. Also, you can order pizzas. But you’ll get fat if you do that.”

She leaned back over. Palt and Lyonette gave each other looks. Erin smiled.

“It’s great I can tell people that.”

“Well, I never knew how to cook either. So I guess that’s fair.”

“Hm. Well, I like to cook.”

Palt trotted around the cocoa beans on the table, flicking his wand at them. Erin saw a shimmering ball of light coalesce. It was bright—until Palt did something and the light angled downwards, bathing the table in a harsh glow. At the same time, Erin saw him point and murmur.

“…And there we go.”

“Wait, is it working?”

Palt nodded as Erin craned her neck. She didn’t see much besides the light pouring down. The Centaur pointed at the table.

“Put your hand in there. Don’t worry, it’s not dangerous.”

Erin put her hand over the crude chalk outline Palt had drawn. Instantly, she felt her hand drying up. The outer layer of her skin felt like it was cracking and losing moisture in real time. She yanked her hand free.

“Whoa! That’s powerful!”

“Well, you tend to learn for—”

“Dreamleaf.”

Erin and Lyonette chorused. Lyonette put her hand in there and exclaimed.

“That is powerful. You know, there are um, scenarios where I could see using this spell to harass other people. OR rather, I know of them.”

Palt grinned.

“Oh, you’ve heard of dramas between [Ladies] and nobility as well? Yes indeed, drying a competitor’s skin the night before a ball and whatnot. Hilarious. Unless you kill them by accident.”

“Yes.”

The [Princess] coughed. Erin was fairly impressed that Palt didn’t seem to need to actively maintain the spell. The [Illusionist] just shrugged.

“Letting a spell work in a confined boundary like this isn’t simple—unless you’ve been taught the theory. Then it’s simple. It’s the kind of thing your friends from Wistram would have learned in oh, year five or so. I’ll keep an eye on the beans.”

Erin nodded. She wandered off as Lyonette managed the inn. It had been three days since her outing with Lasica to get the beans fermented. In that time, Erin had only had a few interesting incidents.

A Rock Crab trying to eat the Workers building the second floor, Ekirra learning bad words, oh, and another playground incident. Erin had been banned from Liscor’s playgrounds after she’d once rallied the children in a day-long siege against the adults.

This time, it had been Mrsha and her two little friends who’d attacked anyone within throwing range with their balls. An entire army of Gnoll children pelting adults with leather balls was a sight Erin wished she could have seen.

Normal incidents. And as it so happened, Ekirra and Visma were coming again today. Erin greeted Visma’s older brother, who was once again on child-escort duty.

“Hey! Um—Feiss, right?”

The young Drake boy stared up at the infamous Human. He nodded as Visma hid behind him and Ekirra stared up at Erin. She smiled at them.

“You were here just the other day. Hi Ekirra, hi Visma. Would you like some lemonade?”

Lemonade was a cool thing for kids. Erin had drunk it and thus she associated that with summer and outdoors. Ekirra’s ears perked up. Visma appeared.

“Hello. Ekirra learned a bad word. His mom got mad when he said it.”

Erin’s face fell a bit. Ekirra and Visma were Mrsha’s best friends. New friends, but they were so close. Erin was trying to make these playdates a regular thing. And getting on the parent’s good sides helped.

The ‘damn’ incident had been a bad one. And frankly, getting any parents to let their kids come to the inn had been a hurdle and a half. The inn had a reputation. But the Garden of Sanctuary, along with some testimonials from Krshia, Elirr, and Selys, had really helped. Feiss left Erin with the two kids after a cup of lemonade himself. No one turned down Erin’s free food, even if Lyonette said it was unhealthy.

“Mrsha!”

The little Gnoll had been on the roof. She raced down, having smelled her two friends. Bird followed, with a bow. Erin stared at it and the Worker lifted his arms innocently.

“I was letting Mrsha shoot the bow.”

“What?”

“It was very safe. She nearly hit a bird.”

Erin paused for a second as she considered all the ways Mrsha could hurt herself and then weighed Bird’s actions on a beratement scale. Eventually, she decided it was probably safe. Bird was an expert at shooting things. And he had really gotten out of his…shell, or rather, tower, since he’d been banned from killing birds.

Heck, he was practically going on little trips with Numbtongue and sometimes Octavia every day. Erin suspected he was also hoping they’d be attacked by Wyverns or something, but she appreciated that side of Bird.

“Well, just so long as Mrsha’s very safe.”

“She is very safe. I did not even let her climb out onto the roof.”

Mrsha gave Erin a wide-eyed, innocent look as Erin turned to look at her. She tugged at Visma and Ekirra’s arms and they ran over to the door.

“Just remember, you stay inside the inn and garden! And if I catch you trying to use it to sneak into the kitchen—

Erin’s injunction sent all three children fleeing, giggling. Erin crossed her arms and closed her eyes. It had been quiet. Pleasantly so, of late. She hadn’t seen Pawn or the other Antinium yet, and she was beginning to be a bit…worried about them. Or rather, Klbkch. Erin needed to have a chat, when she figured out what they were going to chat about.

But Erin hadn’t been inactive either. She had yet to really dive into experimenting with her fire—it was all about the Sage’s Grass field and her magical garden at the moment. Already, part of the meadow had been uprooted and all the lovely flowers replanted so Wailant could plant his grass.

And with Ekirra and Visma popping in, and after the [Pirate] had so effectively beaten Erin’s aura with a drink to the face, she’d been…practicing.

Now, Erin closed her eyes. She concentrated, spreading out an awareness she hand’t known she had. If people had six senses, this was like a seventh sense that sort of felt like the sixth. Erin hadn’t even known she could feel with her inn-sense until recently.

“Hm. Garden. Pond.”

Erin opened her eyes. She headed towards a wall and the door to the garden appeared.

Hey! Remember, towels, you three! Rolling in the grass doesn’t count and it makes you dirty! Towels before you come into the inn, okay?”

Mrsha, Visma, and Ekirra jumped as Erin appeared in the doorway. She smiled, pleased with herself. They nodded obediently as Mrsha did a breaststroke through the water and grabbed Ekirra’s tail. Apista buzzed around the garden as Erin closed the door.

“It must be a relief, having that garden. When I was a colt, I’d run off and my parents would find me miles from our village.”

Palt commented as Erin wandered over. She looked at him.

“I can’t imagine that. I was a kid and I used to get in trouble for wandering off while looking at chess notations. Uh…that’s sort of normal. The wandering off part. What are Centaur kids like?”

The [Illusionist] grinned.

“Prone to running about a lot. And we get spooked easily. Centaurs are actually fairly nervous as a people. We do not like loud noises, so thunderstorms have us up all night.”

Really? Well, Humans…uh…uh….we have a thing about eating sugar.”

“So does most of the world.”

Erin paused.

“We…like sitting around and eating?”

“Many a time I’ve done that.”

“You know, Humans are really unique. Because we have this unique feature of…gossiping about people behind their backs.”

“Having lived around the Lizardfolk, I cannot imagine what that’s like.”

Palt grinned as Erin glared at him.

“Don’t worry. Humans are unique. Well, your people have inbred with a lot of species. You’re like the common clay of a lot of people. Centaurs have Human torsos, after all. Or as my people would put it, Humans have odd legs and Centaur torsos.”

The young woman had to smile at that.

“Sounds familiar. So—what do Humans have?”

“An obsession with climbing things. You people see a mountain and you climb it. Centaurs, Lizardfolk, Dullahans—we leave it alone.”

“Huh. But you never wonder…?”

“No.”

 

—-

 

After about an hour, the beans were done drying. It surprised Erin, but Palt’s spell was powerful and air-drying was, well, air-drying. Palt assured Erin his little trick could dry wet clothing, and Erin knew from experience how long a pile of wet clothing could take.

She prodded the beans in the tray, pulling a few out with tongs.

“I think they’re dry! Yup! That’s dry! Know it anywhere. Lyonette, we’ve got dry beans! What’s next?”

The [Princess] indicated the recipe lying next to the table. Erin sighed. She had to read it herself? She checked the neat Drake script and frowned.

“Huh. Roasting ‘em. Like coffee! Which I assume you roast. I mean, that’s all I hear about it.”

“What’s coffee?”

“Something not in my garden. But it’s another bean. Wakes you up. I never really saw the point. I’ll do a tea if I need to.”

“Hm. You know, the Elusive Lot…”

“You’re already getting chocolate, buddy. Don’t pretend that you’re not memorizing this.”

Palt jumped and to Erin’s gratification, blushed. She smiled. Old Erin wasn’t that oblivious! Or that old!

“Well, I can do the roasting too. How hot should I make them? I even have the boundary set up…”

The Centaur cleared his throat. Erin shrugged.

“Hot as an oven? But not super hot. Let’s see what happens.”

Palt did just that. Erin walked off to say hi to Relc, who’d come in with his daughter on their weekly father-daughter get-togethers.

“Hi, Relc. What’s happening? Hi, Embria.”

“Miss Solstice.”

“Hey Erin. I just got paid, and I heard you have something to eat. Will it be done by tonight? Also—I got two new puzzles from the [Traders] so this week’s great. See? See?”

Relc was excitedly showing Erin a…lock. Well, it looked like a lock, but apparently you could take it apart and put it back together without picking the lock. As she fiddled with it and Relc gave her hints, Embria turned to her father.

“The 4th is getting restless, you know. We haven’t gotten word we’re going back to the rest of the army. We might stay here on semi-permanent duty.”

Her face said she was torn on the issue. Relc paused as he reached for his drink of blue fruit juice.

“Hey, if that’s what High Command says, the [Captains] and [Lieutenants] can tell the regular idiots to shut up. No use yanking your tail. And—well, you’re not fighting, but this is Liscor. Another group of Raskghar emerge, or the Crelers—they saw action.”

His words were unusually careful. The [Innkeeper] glanced up as Embria nodded. Her shoulders firmed.

“Right, right. Obviously. Those idiots are complaining when we nearly went up against an Adult Creler.”

“Not to mention the dungeon. Heck, I bet the Council will start ordering your company to kill threats, like extra Rock Crabs or something.”

“You think so?”

Relc shrugged as Erin blew on the lock and shook it.

“That’s right. I mean, maybe if you offer? Back when I was in 4th, we sometimes did that when we were on guard duty. Slay a monster here and there. But our [Wing Commander], old Splinterscale, had to offer.”

“Right. Well, the Council hasn’t offered, but maybe they haven’t considered it. Only a matter of time.”

Wing Commander Embria’s eyes flickered. She nodded at her father. And Erin gave Relc an approving look. She turned back to the lock. What was this new, helpful Relc? It was almost like he was listening to her advice when he sometimes came in to chat about issues, Embria being one of them.

“Hey, Relc. How do you solve this thing? Give me a first step.”

“Maybe there’s something on the lock you can use, Erin. Like…a long pointy thing?”

Erin had just figured out there was a camouflaged pin in the lock and was trying to get it out when Palt called her back. She waved at Relc and Embria, and trotted over.

“I think we’re nearly done. Take a sniff.”

The Centaur waved at the beans. Erin leaned forwards.

Ooh!

They had begun to smell nice. And as Palt carefully picked out a bean and offered it to her with a warning that it was hot, Erin inhaled something like…chocolate. Then she saw one of the beans jump a bit.

“Oh! They’re beginning to crack! Lasica said that’s nearly done!”

Excitedly, Erin waved at Lyonette. The [Princess] came over and sniffed approvingly. She checked the list—and Erin groaned again at the look at her face.

“What now?

“Remember those [Millers] that Lasica introduced us to? I’ll have them winnow the beans now. The husks are apparently good for something, but the inside—the ‘nibs’ are what we want.”

Aw!

Erin glared. Lyonette calmly helped Palt push the beans back into a sack. Then she called for Ishkr.

“They’ll probably be done within an hour or two. They have a Skill. But we’ll process the nibs ourselves since that’s apparently when you add sugar. Or nali-sticks.”

“Ooh! I saw some in the garden! You do that! I’ll find them!”

Erin ran into the garden. Mrsha, Ekirra, and Visma all started as they saw Erin appear. They had been creeping up the hill towards a [Farmer] with tattoos who was carefully replanting glowing, crimson Sage’s Grass into the ready earth.

Hey, Solstice! Can you keep your kids off my back? They keep bothering me!

Wailant hollered at Erin. She paused.

“Bothering how?”

“Pelting me with mud balls, stealing my crops—the next time one of them does it, I’ll tan their backsides!”

Erin pointed at the kids.

“He means it. Also, Wailant, if you smack their bottoms, I’ll smack you!”

The [Pirate] gave her a grin. Then he grunted.

“Viceria here yet?”

“She said she’s selling stuff to a guest.”

“Must be some [Trader] stopping by. Won’t they be surprised? Prices on Sage’s Grass just went up since we have a seller’s market.”

The [Farmer] had a [Pirate]’s smile. Erin sighed.

“Mrsha! I’m going to find those nali-sticks! Wanna come? They’re really sweet!”

Erin had tried nali-sticks before. Then, they had been very thin pieces of what she assumed sugarcane looked like on the inside. Of course, she’d seen sugarcane too—bamboo-like sticks. But in her jungle biome, the nali-sticks were actually really hard to find.

“Darn! I thought they’d be obvious. Hey, you three find them?”

“No.”

Visma called out and Mrsha shook her head. Ekirra sniffed around.

“Someone pooed here.”

Erin sighed.

“Yeah. It sucks. You have a garden and someone poos in it, y’know? Hey? Was it you?

She pointed at Ekirra. The young Gnoll looked up, alarmed. Then he saw Erin’s expression of mock fury and giggled.

“No! Not me! Uh—Visma did it!”

“Liar!”

The Drake girl shrieked. Erin whirled.

“Aha! Punishment for the pooers! Get over here! No, wait, was it you, Mrsha?”

She chased the kids around, yelling scatological questions as they giggled and fled. Erin was smiling and panting after a few minutes, but the kids were very pleased. She gave up on looking for the nali-sticks—and just then saw the thin, brown tube growing in the soil.

It was rather like a stick, only—when you pulled it out, you noticed the brown casing was just an exterior, hiding a terribly sweet, sweet, white interior.

Woo! Sugar! No, wait. This is super sweet!”

Erin tasted the fresh nali-stick and her mouth nearly went numb with that much sweet. In fact, it was so scarily sweet she was afraid you could get addicted to it. She only let the kids have a little piece before she harvested a few and headed back into the inn.

The kids could play. Erin sat at a table with Relc, Embria, and Palt, sampling the sweet nali and speculating how best to use it. Relc was happy enough to eat a fresh nali-stick raw, but according to Palt, they were addictive.

“And you say smoking’s bad. There are people who can’t live without a nali­-stick a day. Fresh ones are far sweeter than dry, by the way.”

“I can see why. This stuff is great.

Relc was subtly vibrating. Embria’s eyes widened as she sampled hers.

“This is good. Say, Miss Erin, you wouldn’t mind if I took the rest of this back to share at the barracks? A pity they only grow in Baleros; I could see using these in our field rations.”

“Hey, take these. I’ve got more growing there and I can always plant more.”

Erin smiled and offered Embria eight. The Wing Commander nodded a bit stiffly at Erin, but managed a smile.

“See? I told you coming here has perks.”

Relc grinned at her. Palt nodded as he puffed away.

“Funny you thought of them for combat, Wing Commander. [Soldiers] like using them for the rush they give you.”

“Really?”

Embria looked pleased. Palt was good at being part of the table. He nodded and began telling everyone about Balerosian armies and fighting. And Erin experienced her first pleasant conversation with Embria. That was the first time, right?

 

—-

 

The processed cocoa beans arrived at last. Erin threw up her hands and danced around as she saw the sack of shells, and the glorious little nibs that would become chocolate. Then she paused.

“Uh oh. That’s not a lot.”

Indeed, cocoa beans were the inner part of the cacao fruit, and they shrunk during fermentation. And drying…and the nibs themselves were um…small. The dried beans were mostly shell.

Still, there was a decently large sack Ishkr had brought back and Erin was all-in so far. Lyonette was prepared too. She had a stone bowl and a new device she’d bought for this very occasion.

“A stone grinder from Pallass. See? You put the nibs in the bowl and you just rotate this handle and the stone wheel spins.”

“Oh hey, that’s like a big grinder [Alchemists] use. I was thinking of buying one. Mind if I borrow it from time to time?”

Octavia had come out of her room at last. The [Alchemist] had been going mining with Numbtongue from time to time, but she’d also been supervising her new shop. But mainly, she was just lazing about; Erin gathered it was a new experience for Octavia. She certainly ate a lot whenever it was time for food. Apparently she sometimes missed breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

“You can buy your own. I’m not having bugs in my grinder.”

Lyonette stared at Octavia. The [Alchemist] opened her mouth, and nodded.

“Right. Er, I do mulch roaches and stuff. So—how’s this chocolate being made?”

The last step of chocolate was simple. And hard. What you did with the little nibs you’d acquired after all that work was…grind them up. Grind them up, add some sugar, cinnamon, other stuff to give chocolate that taste and you had chocolate.

But even this single process out of all the steps was labor-intensive. Erin and Lyonette began rotating the stone grinder, pulverizing the little nibs in the bowl. They had a wooden handle they took turns rotating—but it was tiring and they soon began calling in the staff to help.

“Wow, this is hard work! And we paid for fermentation, winnowing, and we’d have had to have dried it and roasted it without Palt.”

“Happy to help.”

The Centaur was idly pointing at the wheel and making it spin as Ishkr took a break. Erin stared at him.

“Can you do that all the time? Or make a spell?”

Palt pursed his lips.

“…Give me a table’s worth of space for a magical diagram and I could probably make it work. Although you’d have to have a trigger mechanism to make it stop spinning if it’s drawing in ambient mana. And if you moved the bowl at all, it would break my circuit. Now, an [Enchanter] could reduce the diagram down, make it smoother—”

“Or I could pay Ishkr to grind it. Gotcha.”

Palt nodded. Erin watched as the nibs began to become…chocolate.

First it was a mash, a semi-solid pulp of the ground mixture. But it was already chocolate, just rough, not yet purely one thing. But with each run through the grinder—and it was a slow process—the chocolate kept getting more and more smooth as it blended.

“Look! It’s getting liquidy! Chocolate! We have chocolate!

Erin danced about excitedly. Lyonette smiled. She took a bit of chocolate from the edge of the bowl and tasted it. She made a face.

“That’s fairly bitter.”

“Well, yeah, it’s dark. We need to add sugar. Keep grinding, Ishkr! Switch out with someone else in uh, ten minutes?”

The three [Cooks], that was to say, Erin, Lyonette, and Palt, began adding in sugar and the other ingredients Erin had been given. Butter and milk powder too! They weren’t making a dark chocolate, even if Erin liked it more than milk chocolate. Also, Erin realized it was definitely necessary to thicken the chocolate they had. Because it was a lot of work to make and darn it, Erin wanted as much for her money as possible!

And with effort, and time, the liquid chocolate began to develop the proper taste. Erin was just about to pour it into some molds to be frozen via Palt when she heard a disturbance.

Not everything had gone smoothly as the chocolate. Visma appeared in the garden. She stomped through with tears in her eyes and shouted.

“I hate Mrsha!”

“What? What happened? Oh no! You have a bloody…nostril!”

Visma was indeed bleeding a bit. She cried as Erin saw Mrsha, tail and ears lowered, appear in the doorway, holding Apista. It took a few minutes to get the story out of the neutral party—Ekirra, but the event was simple. Erin summed it up.

“She pulled Apista’s wings, so Mrsha hit her. Which was bad, even if Apista was in pain, Mrsha!”

She looked sternly at Mrsha. The Gnoll child turned away. Visma refused to look at Mrsha. Erin modulated her tone.

“But Visma, Apista is also a living thing. And she gets hurt too. Violence is not the answer—”

“Sometimes it’s the answer. I mean, let’s be fair.”

Relc waved from his corner. Erin glared at the unwanted dad-parenting, especially since Embria was nodding. She turned back to Mrsha.

“—Violence is okay against Crelers. But you’re friends, right?”

“And friends sometimes hurt each other. But they should say sorry. And you’re sorry, right Mrsha?”

Lyonette gave Mrsha a cuddle. The Gnoll hugged her, and then went over to Visma. The Drake refused to look at her.

“Go away. I hate you.”

It was a little fight. But—it mattered. Erin and Lyonette watched anxiously as Mrsha recoiled. She tried to go around and sign her apology to Visma, but the little Drake kept turning around. Ekirra kept watching them, pacing around them anxiously. But Visma refused to accept the apology.

In the end, Mrsha curled up into a ball of misery. Only then did Visma look at her. She saw how sad Mrsha was and she began to cry. Mrsha looked up, saw Visma crying, and started crying as well.

Both of them started crying. And Ekirra joined in because his two friends were upset. Erin hugged them all.

“No punching each other! And we have chocolate! Okay? Let’s say sorry and make up.”

Sorry.

“Sorry.”

Visma and Mrsha looked at each other. Mrsha nuzzled Visma’s face and the Drake girl copied the gesture. Erin quickly brought down some of the flash-frozen chocolate.

It wasn’t as…perfect as a chocolate bar from her world. And Erin couldn’t make those fancy patterns in the chocolate; she’d just used a quick mold in the shape of a bar. But she broke it into three little pieces now. Visma stared at her chocolate and Ekirra and Mrsha sniffed theirs.

“And it’s okay for Gnolls?”

Lyonette looked anxious. Erin had told her chocolate was bad for dogs, and the [Princess] had objected to giving it to Mrsha on that ground. But Erin was calm.

“Rufelt told me Gnolls have no problem. He eats it, and so does Lasica. It’s fine, Lyonette. Lasica’s a [Cook],”

The [Princess] nodded, a bit relieved. Mrsha was the first to bite into her chocolate, with Visma. Ekirra was more cautious; Erin suspected he thought it was poo after their silly game.

Visma’s eyes went wide as she tasted her first bite of chocolate. It was properly sweet; not overpoweringly so since the point of this chocolate was to be chocolate first, sugar second, but it was a taste. Like ice cream for the first time. The Drake girl began to gobble her small bite.

“Careful! It’s a treat! Eat it slow! Mrsha, what do you think?”

The little Gnoll was chewing her bite with her eyes closed. She smiled up at Erin and Lyonette—and then her face grew confused. Mrsha paused, and then began coughing in the throat.

She froze. So did Erin and Lyonette.

“Mrsha? What’s wrong? If it’s bad, spit it out.”

The little Gnoll clutched at her throat. Erin looked at Lyonette.

“Mrsha, honey, spit it out—”

The Gnoll began to shake. Then, all of a sudden, and Lyonette tried to pry her mouth open, her eyes went wide. She fell onto her back and rolled over.

She wasn’t breathing.

Octavia! Get over here!”

Erin shouted. Octavia came running as Relc and Embria shot to their feet. The [Princess] yanked open Mrsha’s mouth, shouting for a potion. Erin spun, desperately. Rufelt had said—were there antihistamines in this world? Healing potions? Something—

As the entire inn converged on Mrsha, the Gnoll’s open eyes swiveled around. She paused, and then waved all four paws urgently. She sat up.

Kidding! Joke!

She signed worriedly. Erin turned around. Lyonette fell back, the color returning to her face.

“A prank?”

Palt had knocked over a trio of chairs. He stared at Mrsha. Erin’s jaw dropped. Mrsha looked around worriedly. She hadn’t expected the adult’s reaction.

Don’t do that! You scared us so much!”

Lyonette was so furious she was shouting and hugging Mrsha. The Gnoll child nearly cried again as she saw how worried everyone had been. But—not everyone was angry.

Relc was laughing his tail off. So was Palt, and Wailant, who’d come running at the shouting. They had a twisted sense of humor.

The [Innkeeper] herself was well and truly shaken. Rufelt had indeed told her that chocolate was fine for Gnolls; they were not dogs and could process it. In theory they might get sicker than Humans if they ate it like, for breakfast and lunch in quantities, but everyone did.

“Mrsha’s the best. Embria used to pull stuff like that all the time. Kids do it. Stop scolding her, Lyonette!”

The Senior Guardsman advised Lyonette as she scolded Mrsha about bad pranks. Wailant was grinning too. The older adults began reminiscing about their children’s escapades. Embria looked like she wanted to leave.

“It was sorta funny. But don’t scare us, Mrsha!”

Erin conceded as she hugged Mrsha. Lyonette scowled at her.

“It wasn’t funny at all!”

Erin’s lips quirked. Mrsha was much chastised, but Erin had to admit—it had worked.

“Sorta funny. I did the same kind of thing when I was a kid. Like—hiding in a closet all day. Um, my parents thought I was kidnapped. They called the poli—I mean, the Watch.”

She scratched the back of her head, embarrassed. Now she knew what that felt like. Mrsha brightened up as Relc chortled. Lyonette pulled both Mrsha and Erin over and hissed at them.

I ran away from home. Don’t talk to me about pranks.”

Erin blinked at her. Mrsha looked up. Oh. Right. They stared at Lyonette. When it came to biggest child renegades, there was one clear victor.

A sideways look at Palt confirmed he was occupied, but Erin sidled into the Garden with Lyonette, pretending she was having an adult-talk for a second. Then she turned to Lyonette.

“Don’t they miss you, Lyonette? Shouldn’t you let your parents know you’re okay? I mean, if we were this worried about Mrsha…”

It was a thought Erin had never had before now. She’d been so busy on everything else, she sometimes forgot about stuff like Lyonette running away. It was not a priority when people were in danger or big events were taking place. But now, Erin wondered.

Lyonette only shrugged slowly. She didn’t have a fond expression on her face. Or even a terribly guilty one. Just…melancholy.

“Frankly? Calanfer can live without me or half of its [Princesses]. We’re just assets. I wouldn’t be surprised if my family has one of my doubles standing in for me all the time. And I don’t think my father cares beyond that. Or my mother, really.”

Erin’s heart sank. Mrsha looked up at Lyonette and gave her a hug. The [Princess] smiled.

“Thanks, Mrsha. My sisters are better. Well, some of them. But sending a [Message] would just be trouble, believe me, Erin.”

“So they don’t even know you’re gone? Wait, you have a body double? Like, a literal clone?”

Erin was shocked. Lyonette raised her eyebrows.

“Not a [Clone Person] spell. How do you know about…oh, one of your Earth terms. Anyways, why wouldn’t royalty have a body double, Erin? Public events, even receptions at state events, and especially security.”

The young woman from Michigan opened and closed her mouth. She had never been to a state event, unless you counted like, attending a New Year’s Eve celebration or something.

“Point taken. Um…let’s go back inside the inn. So…does this double look exactly like you, Lyonette?”

“She’s got the class, Erin. If she didn’t look like me, what’s the point?”

“But how much like—”

 

—-

 

After the chocolate scare, Erin and Lyonette went back to analyzing the fruits or rather, chocolate of their labor. There were…problems, even as Erin poured the rest of the chocolate out for use later.

Not just that it wasn’t perfect; that was fine. Chocolate was chocolate and Erin wasn’t going to sell it in bar form. Actually, that was also the problem.

“There really isn’t a lot, Erin.”

For how much work they’d put in, and so many cacao pods, it was true that the amount of actual chocolate harvested was disappointingly low. Erin hesitated. She felt guilty as she turned to Lyonette, trying to put a good face on it.

“Yeah. I…guess we need more trees, huh? We only had one. But—we can use this. Not for chocolate pieces, but we’ll make a cake. And cookies! Chocolate chip cookies, chocolate milk—”

The [Princess] nodded, flipping out a piece of paper to do some sums on.

“I suppose we can up the prices and attract people tonight. But we’ll have to charge a bit more for them, even more than the sugary foods. I don’t doubt we’ll sell out; I’d love to see anyone copy the recipes without chocolate. But…”

They weren’t going to earn much of a return on it, even with higher prices. Erin bit her lip.

“Sorry, Lyonette. I thought we’d get more out of it. And I didn’t realize how hard it was to make.”

The [Princess] raised her brows and shook her head.

“Don’t worry about that, Erin. We figured out the process and that’s what matters. And this is worth the effort—so long as we’re not doing it. And this will pull in a larger crowd tonight.”

Erin smiled and nodded, relieved. Lyonette went on, frowning at the chocolate they’d made.

“The expenses are worth it, if we have a large enough supply to do it in bulk. We should have kept some of the seeds so we could grow…well, a dozen trees at least. Mrsha can help. It’ll just take a while.”

Erin licked her fingers and agreed. The rest of her guests were having little bites of chocolate, but the majority of it was now in solid form, ready to be stored.

“Let’s save the rest. We’ll have this much for chocolate milk—we can make at least a few gallons. And this much for the cake—four of them? It’s strong, so we don’t need much. Chocolate cookies will take this much—and I’ll need this much. I’m gonna cut them up into pieces. Can I get a bag, Lyonette? With a ribbon or something?”

The [Princess] frowned. All of Erin’s other uses for the chocolate were fine, but she narrowed her eyes as Erin looked around for a suitable container for a good amount of chocolate she’d chopped up—enough to fill a hand-sized bag to the brim.

“Who’re you giving it to? The Halfseekers? Relc? The Antinium? They can pay for it, Erin.”

“Nope. I’m not giving it to any of them. It’s a bribe.”

Lyonette paused. Her expression cleared and she pointed.

“Oh, well then. Here you are. Let me know if you need more.”

Erin Solstice paused as she took the bag. Sometimes she wondered about Lyonette’s values and how she was teaching Mrsha about the world. But then—Mrsha’s other teachers included Bird, and Numbtongue. Erin was the sane, guiding influence.

It was hard being the responsible parent, sometimes.

 

—-

 

Halt! You’re not authorized to come through at this time! Identify yourself!

“Hey! I own this door! Don’t tell me I can’t come through! You know who I am!”

Hands in the air! Don’t move! What’s in that bag?

“Chocolate! Hey! Hey, that’s a br—that’s a gift! It’s food! Not poo! Eat one, go on! Don’t give me that look! And don’t you dare throw me in jail! I’ve been there! It sucks!”

The checkpoint that now held the door from Pallass to Liscor had gotten a lot harder to bluster through these days. There was no Guardsman Kel that Erin could walk past. Instead, there was a gate, [Guards] who got really mad if you came through unannounced, and other levels of security.

Even so, Erin got through with her new magic catchphrase.

“Chocolate. You take. Chocolate. Chocolate.”

Each time a [Guard] protested, she reminded them they knew who she was, she wasn’t bringing Bird in the little sack of treats, and she gave them a bit of chocolate and told them she was selling it at the inn tonight.

It worked. Erin fought her way out of the checkpoint and realized it was still on the eighth floor. Only, it was located closer to the Watch House on the floor, and Pallass had repurposed a building to act as the new containment for the inn.

“Huh. Wow. They cleaned this place up.”

Erin stared about the city. It was indeed restored to how she remembered it, before the Wyvern attack. She looked around. People were walking about—it seemed like Pallass had gotten back to normal.

Well, aside from that very large poster tacked onto a wall. Erin stared at it. Noass and Sir Relz grinned down at the pedestrians.

 

Presenting Noass and Sir Relz! Pallass’ [Commentators]! Have an issue worthy of worldwide discussion? Write in now! Now accepting applications for assistant positions and other staffing opportunities! Inquire on the 3rd Floor!

 

“…Noass.”

Erin chuckled to herself. But the poster made her vaguely uneasy for various reasons. What she objected to was how proud people seemed to be of it, and the two [Commentators]. Erin still remembered them commentating over the moth attack.

But she wasn’t here to bribe them. No, Erin had loftier goals. So she stopped the first person she saw on the street, a Drake.

“Excuse me, can you tell me where I can find an [Alchemist]? Saliss of Lights?”

The Drake gave Erin a tired look, the kind of look anyone in a big city gave to the tourist who had to ask you a question they were too stupid not to know the obvious answer to.

“9th Floor, Miss Human. Wait. Did you say Saliss of Lights? What do you want with him? If it’s a potion you want, you’re out of luck. He doesn’t sell directly. And he’s insane. A good adventurer, but insane. Er—a credit to the city, but totally mad.”

It seemed Saliss hadn’t lost his goodwill from the battle with the Wyverns, although it was clearly a bit faded. Erin nodded, smiling.

“9th? Sorry, I thought he had a house somewhere else. And I know he doesn’t sell. But I need to find him.”

The Drake clarified himself.

“Well, all the alchemist buildings are on the 9th. He probably has a house lower. But the 9th is the place to ask.”

He paused as he stared at Erin. And then his eyes widened.

“Ancestors, it’s you! The Human with the Antinium!”

“Who, me?”

The Drake stared. Some of the other pedestrians were staring at Erin and recognizing her as well.

“I saw you! You were in the scrying orb—and that Antinium, Bird the Hunter—do you know it? And Magus Grimalkin? Wait, you have an inn—”

Erin looked around. A crowd was forming and this was not the moment for an Erin-scenario. She waved and shouted urgently.

Hi, everyone, the door to Liscor will soon be allowing more than two people a day! Visit The Wandering Inn! We have chocolate tonight, if you can get there! Gotta run!

She made tracks for the nearest elevator. In it, the attendant gave her the same look. Erin panted.

“9th Floor! And yes, I’m that Human. Hi. Erin Solstice. What’s your name?”

“Sikay.”

The attendant was a Garuda. Erin smiled.

“Hey. So, do you do this job all day?”

 

—-

 

Talking to people got you places. Sometimes they thought you were flirting with them when you really wanted just to chat. But that was a guy thing, in Erin’s experience. And talking to people got you directions.

Saliss’ shop on the 9th Floor was a rather large building. Erin gathered that he had a private home and even a workshop on another floor, but this was where he had most of his most expensive ingredients. A rather noxious-smelling [Alchemist] had told her that Saliss would probably be there.

The building was large, and, surprisingly, worn down. Erin stared up at it. For the best [Alchemist] in Pallass, or a Named Adventurer, she’d expected Saliss would have a fancy lab. But this looked like a dump.

An old dump. Something had blown out a window three times, in one case so hard that the brickwork had to be boarded up along with the window. The door looked cheap, and old, and the entire place stank to Erin more of what she imagined some illicit drug lab would look like.

It was even in a poorer section of the 9th, away from the high-end [Alchemists] with their fancy shops and glass windows and multicolored smoke coming out of the chimneys. Erin hesitated, but she assumed the directions were good. So she walked up and knocked.

No one replied. Erin knocked again after a beat, and then pounded on the door.

“Hello? Saliss? Anyone home?

No reply. But Erin was sure the place was occupied. She could see some smoke coming out of the chimney. She narrowed her eyes.

And perhaps it was Relc’s puzzle-solving skills that rubbed off on Erin. Because she noticed the tiny little bell hidden around the side of the large doorway. Literally, to the side—she had to walk off the steps to see it. Erin eyed the little silver bell and gingerly rang it.

I’m not interested!

A voice instantly bellowed back at Erin. It was quite, quite familiar. And disturbingly clear. Erin jumped. She hurried around to the main door.

“Hello?”

The door was decrepit. Old wood, flaking in places—heck, Erin even thought she could see through it into a dark interior in spots. It looked awful. But the angry voice kept speaking, as clear as if Saliss was right in front of her.

“Is this Xif? Go away! I’m not sharing my flame! If you’re a [Merchant], I’ll hit you. With a rock or something!”

It wasn’t coming from the actual door itself. Erin’s eyes narrowed as she turned. She walked around to where she’d found the bell again and stared.

Down low against the dirty wall was a little…Erin bent and scuffed at a patch of dirt. It revealed a shining opal, shimmering multiple colors. It swirled as Saliss’ voice projected from it.

“Hello? Hello? Darn, if it’s kids I’ll melt their tails off. Where’s the seeing stone? Argh! No! Don’t go out, little flame! Happy flame! Happy flame!”

Erin heard some panicked crashing in the background. She narrowed her eyes.

“Saliss?”

“What? Hello? Is that a familiar voice I hear?”

“Um. Hi. It’s me, Erin.”

“Erin?”

“The Human?”

“Ah! The one with the flame! Did Xif send you?”

“No.”

“Chaldion?”

“No. Look, I just came by because—”

Say no more! Literally, don’t! This sounds great! I’ll be out in a second!

Erin heard more rapid movement, some clinking in the background, an oath—then running feet. She stared at the door to the house and looked around.

There was even a bad garden, with some dried up bushes. The small walkway towards the main door had a gate, but it had been open when Erin had walked through. This really did look like a terrible place. But that stone in the wall and concealed bell. Maybe—

The main door did not swing open. But the hidden, concealed section of wall did open. The grimy brickwork swung open and Saliss appeared, inches from Erin. The [Innkeeper] nearly jumped out of her boots.

“Aah!”

“Oh, hey. Sorry. I thought someone told you about the bell. It’s you! Come in, come in, before someone sees!”

Saliss grinned and spread his arms wide. He was, of course, naked. Erin stared at him, and then the fake door.

“But that—”

“Fake door. Fake house, really. The door’s rigged. I don’t remember with what, but it does something if you bust on through. And the rest of the house is spelled. People kept trying to break into the old place and this is more fun than a fancy house. It’s a secret laboratory. Cool, right? Come on in!”

Erin Solstice paused. Her first instincts, in order, were to ask Saliss to put something on. Not to stare at his nudity. And third, to say that yes, a secret laboratory was awesome. But she didn’t. It disturbed her, mildly, that people kept comparing her to Saliss. They were not alike. Not at all.

For one thing, the Drake was a nudist. And Erin was not. He was also an [Alchemist] and hurried Erin into a rather comfy laboratory. It even had a carpet, a fireplace—a library—Erin realized this was more like a research room. The real place where the alchemy happened was through an enchanted magic door.

And that room was built like a testing area. Saliss had metal barricades, stands with glassware out—but very little. Erin saw cupboards made of steel, shining with what looked like various protective runes. One was open and she saw it was filled with any number of ingredients, ordered with neat little notes.

But the rest were closed. And some looked—scorched. Others were dented, but the room itself was unnaturally clean and spartan. Erin gazed about.

“Whoa.”

“Gets them every time. Can I get you a chair? Sorry, I don’t have a chair in here. They tend to get destroyed. Well, everything does. Oop! My mixture’s nearly ready! One second!”

Saliss dashed back to the few objects on a steel counter. Erin saw a glowing liquid swirling under a purple flame…

“Hey! Is that my fire?”

“Yup! Happy fire! Don’t go out! Don’t go out! I just need a bit of heat!”

Saliss urgently prodded more tiny bits of charcoal into the purple flame. It was bubbling the flask on a stand. Erin looked about as Saliss thrust open a cupboard.

“Where’s my Wyvern eyes? Where are they? I have jars of them now, and there’s not one—aha! Gotcha!”

He yanked out a jar of…well, preserved Wyvern eyes. Erin stared as Saliss slammed the cupboard shut.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to have it all out in the open?”

“You think that, but no!”

Saliss pointed at Erin as he pulled an eye out of the jar. He grabbed a pair of tweezers and before Erin could process what he was doing, ripped the irises out. Erin made a sound as Saliss repeated the process.

“Oops, sorry. Might want to look away. It’s going to get gooey. I need a jar for the stuff. Can you open that cupboard—”

Erin did. Saliss took the jar and poured the rest of the eyes into it. Then he began to mash the pupils up. Just the Wyvern pupils. He swiftly added it to the glowing flask. Rather than change colors, Erin saw the liquid steam and begin to reduce at an alarming rate. Saliss cleaned the rest of the eyes up and returned to staring at the mixture. He was like a blur around Erin, never missing a beat even when juggling slippery eyes.

“Where was I? Oh yeah. Got to keep everything contained. When something explodes or turns into poison gas—and it does—anything that can react also does the same. I keep everything sorted and take out what I need. Don’t worry; this room could survive even that Wyvern Lord blasting it with frost! Probably! It can definitely withstand a [Siege Fireball], no problem. I had that tested.”

“What about us?”

Saliss glanced up.

“Well, I’m fine.”

Erin threw her hands up, alarmed.

“What about me?

The Drake grinned.

“Don’t worry. This mixture won’t ever explode. The worst that’ll happen is that I have to toss it out. I wouldn’t put you at risk.”

That actually sounded reassuring. Erin relaxed as Saliss gestured to the shrinking liquid.

“Give me one second and I can bottle this. I just have to—yes! It’s doing it! You stupid little potion! Reduce! Reduce!

He danced about, waving his arms and shouting at the potion. He looked—tired. For all he was dancing. And relieved, too. As the potion reduced, it stopped changing colors and became a bright silver. Like mercury, but clear, and with a faint aquamarine trace of color to it.

“Wonderful.”

Saliss had a little vial ready. He poured the liquid into it, stoppered it, and wiped at his brow. Without a word, he put the vial on the counter. And then he snatched it up and hurled it into one of the enchanted drawers.

Take that! You do not get the best of me!

Erin stared as the Drake ran over. The vial had landed, undamaged, and now the Drake began stomping on it. It didn’t shatter despite his blows, and Saliss threw it a few more times across the laboratory until he was satisfied. Then he picked up the enchanted glass vial and turned to Erin.

“Okay, I’m done. Let’s chat in the study room. I have a chair there.”

He ushered Erin out of the laboratory. Erin found herself sitting in a chair as Saliss lay on his back on the carpeted floor. Only then did she find her voice.

“What was that?

“Alchemy. I know, I know. It’s a complex process. I don’t expect you to get the nuance.”

“Throwing it against the wall? Stomping on it?”

“I was mad. Also, shouting at your potions helps. That’s obvious.”

Saliss sat up and grinned at Erin. She stared at him. The [Alchemist] shook his head wearily.

“I’ve been working on that potion for eight hours. And I failed six times. I get to be mad! Hi. You’re Erin. I’m Saliss. How can I help you? Also—how did you find my bell? Did Xif tell you?”

“No. I saw it.”

“What? But no one ever looks. Ooh. Clever. So what did you come here for, Miss Erin Solstice with the interesting inn?”

The Drake grinned at her. Now he was done, he seemed to be returning to his normal self. He’d always been, well, Saliss, but Erin had seen him focused like a laser on the potion. Now, he was relaxed and cheerful. She only remembered the bag of chocolate when he began sniffing.

“Is that food? I haven’t eaten in…day…days.”

Erin slowly held out the bag. It was time to engage obfuscation mode.

“Chocolate.”

“Hm?”

“Chocolate.”

Erin stared at Saliss. He stared back. For a second she thought she saw him frown, then he gave her the same look. He stared at the bag, and nodded.

“Chocolate.”

Erin hesitated. That wasn’t what he was supposed to do. She tried again.

“Chocolate.”

“Chocolate.”

“Chocolate.”

“Chocolate?”

“Chocolate!”

Chocolate.

“Chocolate.”

“Chocolate-chocolate.”

“Alright, fine, it’s chocolate. It’s a food! I brought it to you. I was sort of hoping we could talk.”

Erin threw her hands up. Saliss grinned. He sprang to his feet from the ground with incredible athleticism.

“Great! I was just about to visit you, actually! I’d like more fire, or the flowers. Or just entertainment. Can I get all three?”

Erin blinked at him. She opened her mouth.

“Wait, I came to you to get help! I mean, this is a bribe.”

“Ooh. Can I have some? Hey, this looks like poo! No, wait, I tell a lie. Not what comes out of me. Sugary.

Saliss closed his eyes. He savored one piece, gobbled three more in quick succession. Erin began to have regrets.

First, coming here. Second, how this conversation had begun. Third—she was wondering what Saliss of Lights would look like on a sugar-high.

Erin caught the Drake looking at her sidelong. Saliss grinned on his fourth piece of chocolate, biting it in half. Then he offered Erin the bag.

“Want a piece yourself? This is really good. I don’t remember having this. Is it completely new?”

“Sort of. It’s from Baleros. But I have a tree in my garden—I’m fine, thanks.”

“Sure. This is really good, but I’ll save it. So this is a bribe?”

Erin hesitated. That had slipped out. She nodded slowly.

“That’s right. I’m bribing you. Uh…can I have some of your potions?”

She gave him a big smile. Saliss paused.

“Why? You want to blow someone up. Trust me, you could just hire a Gold-rank adventurer to do that for less than what my potions cost.”

The young woman squirmed in her seat. And she realized Saliss had sat in this very spot buck-naked probably thousands of times. She wondered if that was actually horrible. Seats were seats.

“Uh, well, I was hoping I’d get some for free.”

“Why?”

“Because…I asked nicely? And because I’ll give you more chocolate?”

The Named Adventurer paused. He looked at the chocolate. Erin was ready for him to ask if a potion was worth a bag of chocolate. But he just grinned at her.

“Ooh, then, can I have some flowers? Please?”

He fluttered his eyes at Erin. She glared.

“Well played.”

The two took another measure of each other. This was not how Erin’s plan had been supposed to go. She’d been wavering between using the chocolate on Chaldion, Grimalkin, and Saliss, but she’d settled on Saliss because he seemed like he had the most of what Erin wanted/needed. But she’d forgotten what Saliss was like, incredible as it was.

Or perhaps, she’d underestimated him. Erin nodded at the vial in his claws.

“What did you make? Some new exploding potion? And why do you need my fire? I know Xif wants to experiment, but is my fire that useful?”

The Drake shook his head.

“It’s a youth potion, actually. And your fire is helping cut one of my processes and save me, oh, a good amount of gold. The happy flame, you see? The heat isn’t just physical. It makes you feel all warm inside, and that works on an alchemical level too…”

Erin’s mouth dropped. She barely caught the rest of his explanation.

“Youth potion? You mean—it makes you younger? As in, eternal youth?”

Saliss blinked. He waved a claw, laughing.

“What? No, no…just for like, a week. Anti-aging potions are the other thing and they’re a pain to make.”

“But for a week? Wait, go back. You can make anti-aging potions? Really?”

The [Alchemist] grinned.

“You don’t need one. And the best I can do is about two years. And trust me—those are harder to make than these. But this infernal brew—which I can make one in ten times on a good day—will sell for more gold than you can imagine. All the old people scramble for it. Who wouldn’t want to be young for a day, right?”

Erin could just imagine. She looked at Saliss and felt—unprepared. She knew he was good, but a youth potion? He flipped it up into the air and caught it.

“I’m going to run it down to the Merchant’s Guild after this. They’ll auction it off and stuff. Don’t tell anyone I can make them. Or if you do—tell rich people. But I hate being bothered about it.”

He nodded casually at Erin. She just looked at him.

“Why can you make one of those potions? Wait—is it that easy?”

The Drake paused.

“No. It’s not. But I can make them because I’m one of the best in the world at my job. Old Xif goes wide. But I do battle mixes and the kind of stuff that earns real money. And you came to get my potions because you want to blow something up. What, exactly?”

He looked at Erin, grinning. And Erin—hesitated. She could pretend, or she could trust the instinct that said he was onto her.

“I don’t know what I’m blowing up. It could be monsters. Or just something nasty. An Adult Creler, for instance. I have these um, acid jars. Made out of acid fly acid.”

“Nasty! Wait, do you have a source? I’d love to buy that. You can intensify the effects, although containing the substance is hard. Okay, for monsters. And what were you going to pay me with?”

The Drake sat cross-legged. Erin pointed at the bag.

“Um. I have chocolate? And I can make more. Like—cakes. Ice cream. Chocolate milk. I was going to invite you to my inn for food if you want?”

Saliss’ eyes widened. He shot to his feet.

“Food? You had me at food! I’m starving. Let’s go. I’ll leave this here.”

He tossed the vial onto the carpet, turned, and then ran back to stomp on it again. He really seemed to be holding a grudge over the precious liquid. But then again—did he say eight hours and six failures? Erin hesitated.

“I can’t pay you much. But if I could get a few potions…uh—”

She was embarrassed by the way she was asking. She had a different vision of how this would go, hopefully with Saliss having a huge sweet tooth. Which he clearly had, but this was different. To her surprise though, Saliss turned.

“What? Oh, no, food’s different. I pay for food. As for the chocolate—I accept your offer. And I’ll trade you for this.”

He reached for his bag of holding and produced something. Erin blinked as a swirling mixture of separate bands of color appeared in her palms. Saliss pointed at it.

“That’s a Potion of Speed. You need to get away fast? Drink that. You can probably outrun most people. Take an Invisibility Potion too. You can split it several ways; it’ll just last a minute or two if you do.”

He handed another bottle of…nothing. It didn’t even look full, but something sloshed about when Erin took it. She stared at Saliss.

“Wait. What?

“Chocolate.”

He winked at her and lifted the bag. Erin’s jaw dropped. Saliss of Lights shrugged.

“I’m rich. I’ll trade you more for chocolate. Or buy it. I’ll buy all of it. Do you have more?”

And he winked at Erin. And something in her said that he was serious. And lying to her as well. Part of Erin calmly looked at Saliss.

If she had come with nothing, he might have given her the potions anyways.

 

—-

 

Saliss and Erin made a strange pair going back to the door to Pallass. The [Guards] certainly didn’t stop him, although they gave Erin a strange look for associating with him. But Erin was too busy focusing on Saliss, or rather, inspecting him.

When the Drake appeared in the inn, it was a busy time, heading towards evening. Chocolate-mania was in full swing, but the entire inn still stopped when Saliss strode into the common room and posed.

Gah! What is that?

A Gnoll choked on his food. Saliss turned, waving his arms.

“Hello, everyone! What a lovely crowd!”

Put some clothes on, you freak!

“A pervert! Relc, get him!”

“Hold on, isn’t that—”

Amid the chaos, Lyonette pushed forwards. She had the finger of authority, twice as angry because Ekirra and Visma’s family were here and staring.

“No clothes, no service!”

“But I heard you have chocolate. I have gold.”

Saliss had spotted the chocolate cake, cookies, and other treats on display. He reached out and started dropping gold coins onto the counter. Lyonette stared at him. The Named Adventurer grinned. Lyonette looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] shrugged.

“He’s got gold. You gonna kick him out?”

“Yeah.”

Saliss leaned on the counter. He grinned and looked sideways at Erin. Lyonette spluttered.

“I’m happy to serve you, um, Mister Oliwing. But could you at least wear a towel? We’ll provide the towel. But—”

“Chocolate.”

“Excuse me?”

Chocolate.

Erin echoed Saliss, solemnly.

“Chocolate.”

 

—-

 

Octavia Cotton emerged from her room late to dinner. Like usual, she obeyed her stomach, wondering why it was so empty and hungry. She’d been doing a bit of experimenting in her room since it was fairly blast proof.

She was lightheaded with hunger, so she went to the first spot at the bar. The staff knew her, so Octavia soon had a plate of beef stroganoff in front of her. She ate hungrily—and only noticed the naked Drake after a few minutes.

He was naked. Completely. Octavia paused mid-chew and stared at Saliss. The Named Adventurer was eating a blue fruit salad; he’d already had a bit of pizza.

“Uh—”

“Don’t mind me. Just grabbing some pepper. Adds to the taste, you know? The tongue gets old after tasting ingredients.”

The Drake tossed a few flakes onto his salad. Octavia blinked at him. She eyed the Drake and caught on to the last word.

“Wait, you do [Alchemy]?”

“That’s right.”

Instantly, he made sense to Octavia and she relaxed. She was wondering why Erin would have let someone like this in here, but [Alchemists] were a different kind of mad. Some were legitimately addled from what they inhaled or touched, but others were just insane. It was a quirk of the job. Octavia glanced around for Erin, but the [Innkeeper] was rushing about with chocolate foods. It was a busy night. So Octavia just nodded at the Drake.

“I am an [Alchemist].”

“Oh, hey, that’s excellent! Saliss Oliwing. How long have you been in the alchemy game?”

“About a decade, if you count apprenticing young. Less than half that if you don’t. Octavia Cotton, owner, [Alchemist] of Stitchworks. I’m from Chandrar. Are you new in Liscor, or a resident? Sorry, I just got here.”

His name was somewhat familiar, but Octavia found herself shaking the Drake’s claw. She supposed Erin had mentioned him? She was so hungry she went back to eating as the two spoke. Like many who shared the same class, they had an instant camaraderie.

“I’ve been at it, oh, a bit. But I’m definitely new to Liscor. Would you say you’re the best in the city? Also, anything interesting I should know about? I could use pointers.”

The Drake grinned. Octavia nodded. Ah, an immigrating [Alchemist]. Not uncommon given how you could wear out your welcome even without gang wars. One bad accident was enough. She eyed him up and down. Competition? Well, he certainly had at least a decade on her.

“Actually, I’m from Celum. I’m new to Liscor too, but I hear there’s good materials here. Shield Spiders, acid flies…say, where’d you learn your trade?”

“Oh, everywhere. But I was born and raised in Pallass. That’s where I work, actually.”

Pallass?

Octavia paused. That was the big-leagues. When she’d come from Chandrar she hadn’t even considered settling in Pallass. Competing with all the good [Alchemists] there? No way. She had somewhat regretted her choice; Pallas might have been competitive, but it had a good market and a thriving economy. Celum had been a fight to be the biggest fish in a puddle.

“Wow. Pallass. I’m uh, from Nerrhavia Fallen myself.”

“Oh really? I’ve been there! How’s Nerrhavia doing? Still having honor-duels between [Alchemists] in the streets? Good times, that. I tried practicing it in Pallass, but no one would accept. Old Xif’s no fun.”

Xif. Octavia stiffened, recalling the name of Pallass’ best…and then Saliss’ name hit her again. It was familiar. Even starved as she was, she knew it. And—he’d been to Nerrhavia? If he knew about the duels [Alchemists] got into…

“Hey Octavia! Have you met Saliss? I should’ve known you’d meet. Hey Saliss. Do you need more food? Are you sure I can keep—”

Saliss waved as Erin stopped at their table. Octavia looked at Erin as the Drake replied.

“It’s all fine. Keep ‘em! I got a lot of chocolate. Boy, it’ll be fun eating it.”

He grinned with pure delight. Octavia caught Erin’s sleeve.

“Erin—who is that?”

She gestured at Saliss. The Drake was grinning ahead, but she had the feeling he was looking at her out of the corner of her eyes. Erin paused. She looked Octavia up and down.

“Um, Saliss Oliwing? Also—Saliss of Lights?”

The copper penny dropped. Octavia nearly bolted out of her chair. Saliss, laughing, waved her back over.

“Hi! I’m Saliss!”

“I am a huge admirer. I am so sorry I did not recognize you, Honored Saliss. No wait, Sir Saliss—I was hungry, and I was just working on something upstairs and—”

Octavia stumbled over her words. Saliss winked at her.

“It’s fine. Hey, so you’re an [Alchemist]? Erin said she had one. What’s your specialty?”

Octavia gulped. But Erin had already run off. In awe, shaking with nerves, Octavia sat at the bar and tried to answer Saliss’ questions.

Of course she knew him now she’d remembered. He was a legend. Xif, now, Xif was famous. But Saliss was a Named Adventurer. He’d fought his way into the ranks of the best with only alchemy. She found herself stammering replies and realizing she was far too rattled to hold up a conversation.

It would have been better if she’d been in ignorance of who he was. Octavia kept biting her lip, hearing her incoherent replies. Saliss was clearly being patient, but he kept glancing about, and she realized she was boring him. Of course she was.

“Great to meet you, Miss Cotton. But I’m gonna go turn that little Gnoll invisible. Or something. Good luck with your potions!”

Saliss winked at Octavia. The Stitch-Girl gulped. She had to say it.

“Wait! Master Saliss—is there anything I can do? Anything to—to apprentice under you? I’d settle for cleaning your shop, doing errands! Without even instruction!”

It would be worth it just to see what his shop was like. Saliss paused. He had a familiar look to Xif’s on his face instantly. Octavia knew it was a long shot.

“I don’t take apprentices, sorry! The last ones died horribly! So horribly I can’t even tell you how they died! Besides, you’re clothed. I can’t work with that.”

He gestured at Octavia’s clothing, grinning. The Stitch-Girl looked down at herself.

“I’ll take my clothes off. Anything you want.”

Saliss blinked.

“What, now?”

“Absolutely.”

Octavia put her fingers under her shirt. She was incredibly serious. Relc’s head slowly swiveled around. Embria looked disgusted as she stomped on her father’s tail.

Some of the other people who’d heard were staring Octavia’s way. But she would absolutely do it. Saliss gave her a long look. Then he grinned and flapped an airy claw.

“Nah, I’m fine. Nakedness is a way of life, not a bargaining chip! And I’m naked enough for everyone!”

The Stitch-Girl sagged. But she’d known how that would go. A real master would get every male or female [Alchemist] to strip in a heartbeat to learn from them. Well, Octavia would have hesitated at sexual favors, like some of Nerrhavia’s masters demanded. That was one of the reasons why she’d left. But Saliss of Lights…

The Drake was looking at her in a kindly way, as if he could read her mind. Then he glanced around at the inn.

“So you came from Celum? Erin caught me up on being banned. What got you going with her?”

“Oh—well, I owe Erin a lot. She and her friends helped me with my own breakthroughs. I’m not a good [Alchemist]—I owe most of my big discoveries to her.”

Octavia was so deflated she managed a coherent reply. Saliss eyed her. And something lit up in his eyes.

“Really? What did you discover?”

Octavia looked up. She thought of her matches and baking soda. But Xif hadn’t been that impressed. Even so—Saliss was looking at her. To prolong that moment she dashed upstairs to her room where her things were stored.

“Ooh. What’s this? And that?”

Saliss exclaimed as he stared at the match and baking soda. When Octavia lit one he clapped his claws together.

“Ah, like a flint! And this?”

“Erin made the bread out of it, actually. It makes it rise.”

Really?

Saliss had to eat the bread himself. He ate it with some butter, happily, and then investigated the white baking soda. He took a pinch and smacked his lips as he tasted.

“Hm. Oh, I know what this is. Trona ore. You’ve cleansed it and done something with it—something wrong?”

Octavia’s jaw had dropped. In a moment Saliss had found the ingredient it had taken her so long to synthesize from Erin’s description. But then he looked at the matches.

“Interesting. Phosphorus molded with…something. Can I eat this too?”

“It’s flammable—”

“Oh, no. I just want to know if it’s alright with you. I’m just tasting it, actually.”

Octavia had to nod. Saliss tasted it.

“Charcoal, obviously. And—I see. You’ve also pasted it on the box. Neat! Hey, these two things aren’t bad!”

The [Alchemist] tried not to glow under Saliss’ praise. But she was also deflated. Saliss could instantly tell what her creations were made of by tasting it? The Drake was talking about selling it, now.

“Right, I can see making some of those. The [Engineers] will love the match-thing, and if it makes fluffy bread, the younger [Alchemists] will be making this all day.”

“Well, if you’d like to, I uh—it would be an honor, coming from your shop, Master Saliss.”

Octavia mumbled. There went her big sales. She’d have to rely on Numbtongue’s findings. And he had to fight monsters to get his jewels.

The Drake, who’d been smiling, paused as he looked sideways at Octavia. And his eyes flickered.

“Oh. Hey. You think I’m going to walk off with the recipes?”

Octavia jumped.

“What? No! That is, if a master like you were to—”

“Hey.”

Saliss’ smiled faded. His playful tone vanished. He leaned over and grasped Octavia’s arms, just above the stitching on her elbow. She saw him smile at her, without the teeth.

“Calm down, Miss Octavia. I’m not stealing anything. I don’t steal. This isn’t Nerrhavia. Also, I don’t really need either creation.”

“Of course. I didn’t mean to—”

“Hey. I’m not done. And I’m not being mean. Did old Xif come by? Bet he did. Did he try to walk off with the recipes? Don’t answer that. Listen, I’m not stealing it. I’m telling you to sell it.”

Octavia shut up. She looked at Saliss. He nodded.

“Sell it to Pallass’ [Alchemists].”

“But how…?”

The Drake shrugged.

“We don’t have a Guild. Those go ‘boom’, and most of us don’t bother with regular meet ups anyways. But we do have a group. We’ll buy the recipe.”

“Buy it?”

Buying a recipe? Octavia had heard of it being done, but [Alchemists] preferred to usually steal each other’s work. That was how it worked in Nerrhavia and Celum. But Saliss was nodding.

“Fair’s fair in Pallass. The [Engineers] used to have the same problem, but the Assembly of Crafts passed a law. Original inventions need to be credited—there’s actually a registry of who made what. But in practice, we’ll just pay you once to let us use your recipe and you give us your notes. I’ll run it by Xif and the other [Alchemists] I know. We like it, we’ll all chip in and the younger ones can get the recipe. Well, we might make them work for it.”

He winked at Octavia. She felt something warm returning to her cloth heart, currently flesh and beating in her chest. Saliss eyed the matches and baking soda.

“And you say Miss Erin helped you make it? Interesting. Do you have anything else like that? If you do, I’d love to see. Not stealing, again! Just as one [Alchemist] to another.”

Octavia Cotton looked at Saliss. He was the kindliest master of alchemy she’d met. And Octavia Cotton, who had missed friendship for gold and made bad mistakes before, saw an opportunity. So her mouth took over for her shocked brain.

“I have a room upstairs. With stuff in it!”

 

—-

 

“Interesting. Not bad. That’s awful. That’s worse. Nice molds. Are you using them?”

A little while later, Saliss inspected the mess in Octavia’s room. Most of her non-volatile ingredients were piled up, ready to be put into the shop. He was staring at her molds, which had still failed to produce the mysterious penicillin Ryoka and Erin wanted so badly. They were in many colors, and the [Alchemist] poked at a few.

“You study molds too, Master Saliss?”

Octavia hovered behind him, trying not to get in the way and instantly provide anything the Drake wanted. The nudist shrugged.

“Well, I make poisons. You know that one’s really toxic? You should probably keep that away from the kitchens.”

He pointed at a fluffy spore mold. Octavia winced. She had not known. She made a note to never tell Lyonette and dispose of that one.

“Saliss? Octavia? Lyonette said you were up here. Hey.”

Erin appeared as Octavia began telling Saliss about her various mold cultures. That was almost a relief. Erin could take some of the Drakes’ attention from Octavia; she felt like her threads were coming undone just talking to him. Erin didn’t seem to realize what a legend Saliss was.

But she had some notion. She eyed Saliss and Octavia.

“Hey. Um, I just wanted to say thanks, Saliss. For the potions.”

Octavia’s head swiveled around. Potions? Saliss had given Erin potions? You couldn’t buy potions made by Saliss of Lights on the open market! When he sold, it was to an exclusive clientele who bid on his goods!

Erin seemed to get all that from Octavia’s bug-eyed stare. And the fact that the Stitch-Girl was resewing an ear onto her head to make sure everything was right. She shuffled her feet as she looked at the Drake.

“Thanks for doing it. I know I was bothering you, and uh—I’m being pushy. But I just need things to protect the inn, so I bug people and—”

“Sure, sure, lay it on me. I’m not Xif. And I’m currying favor.”

Saliss stretched, yawning. Erin and Octavia looked at him.

“Huh?”

The Named Adventurer grinned at Erin.

I’m currying favor. How much do I have? How am I doing? I get points for helping with Mrsha, right? And giving you that ring?”

He indicated the ring on Erin’s fingers. The [Innkeeper] started.

“Yeah. You did do that. And it’s—expensive?”

She saw Octavia’s expression. Erin looked at Saliss.

“…Very expensive? Why are you doing this?”

Saliss of Lights went for a shrug. Then he eyed Erin and smiled. And it was an enigmatic smile, of all his grins and taunting smirks.

“Because you have something I want. And this place looks really entertaining. Say, I’ll trade you a really nice potion for a faerie flower.”

Erin blinked at the sudden offer. She bit her lip, staring at the ring.

“No. I—sorry. Look, I can think about—”

“Okay. How about four potions? Of invisibility?”

Erin froze.

“I—”

Saliss spoke over her.

“Eight potions.”

Erin and Octavia traded glances. The Drake pursed his lips.

“Sixteen? Blast potions, poison gas clouds. The arsenal I use. How about it?”

Erin hesitated. She looked at Saliss. And Octavia saw her mind racing. She was screaming ‘yes, give him the flowers for that!’ But Erin hesitated.

She could be incredibly stubborn, Octavia knew. Beyond stubborn. And Saliss—knew it. Because he laughed and slapped Octavia on the shoulder.

“It’s not working. See, Miss Cotton? I knew it wouldn’t work. I’ll have to try another way. Maybe begging. I’m good at that.”

He winked at her. Erin looked at Saliss. He returned her gaze.

“Bear in mind it’s not that expensive for me, Miss Erin. And I just gave you the ring to bother old Chaldion and Grimalkin. Chocolate for the potions. You don’t owe me. Yet. But I hope you’ll look kindly on an impoverished [Alchemist]—wait, I’m rich. Well, I hope you keep entertaining me and giving me the occasional nice thing.”

He winked at Erin. And the [Innkeeper] nodded.

“I uh—no. No, you really did—thank you. I’m…no, thanks. There’s just this thing with the flowers and—I’m sorry. But also, thank you.”

She looked…embarrassed. Which was a new look for her. Octavia stared as Erin backed away, turning red. And Saliss just laughed.

“It’s fine! Uh oh, she’s running.”

He turned back to Octavia, as if vanquishing Erin Solstice was nothing in particular. She stared at him. And the Drake leaned against her wall.

“It’s a heck of an inn, isn’t it? I knew that the instant I saw Erin Solstice.”

“It is.”

Octavia was certain of that. The Drake nodded.

“A magical garden. The door. A white Gnoll, oh, a few more interesting things here and there…and she wonders why I take an interest. Well, I like it. And she also has stuff that really interests me. Why shouldn’t I appear?”

He looked at Octavia, but the soliloquy had been meant for more than just her, she felt. Then he nodded, slowly. And his eyes were sharp on the Stitch-Girl’s face.

“Let me give you some advice, Octavia. There’s no real secret to success I figured out. I experiment, blow stuff up, nearly die, and count my gold pieces like every other [Alchemist]. But the key to alchemy is new ingredients. Rare things. And when you find something rare? Something unique? You go after it.”

He paused. Octavia’s heart was beating fast as Saliss looked around Octavia’s room. He smiled again.

“Xif came here. I know he did. But that old Gnoll made one mistake. He thought Erin only had one special thing. And he’s hung around Drakes too long. He’s a bit greedy; looks at cost and gains. He’s better at being a Drake than I am. Well—so are most people. Your [Princess], for one.”

He smiled and winked. Octavia was nodding, then she paused.

“My what?”

Saliss paused. His calm smile flickered, and then reappeared.

“[Princess]? You know, your…slightly stuck up Human who loves gold and bossing people about? Sorry, Drake joke about Humans.”

He laughed, lightly, and Octavia laughed too, embarrassed.

“Oh, right. Sorry. I’m from Chandrar; we have royalty too.”

“Right, right.”

The Drake relaxed slightly as Octavia nodded, her expression clearing. He sighed, and then fixed Octavia with a sudden, quick look.

“Tell you what, Miss Octavia. I have a recipe for an invisibility potion, which always sells. It eats ruby dust like nothing else, but I see you have access to gemstones. And I’ve got other gem-based recipes. I’ll share my notes if you match it. Deal?”

Octavia’s eyes went wide. Saliss went on, looking at her.

“I like to gamble. And I just bet Xif played his paw far too early. If Erin’s got a flower and a flame, what do you have, Miss Cotton?”

She hesitated. And she thought of becoming famous alone. But—what she hadn’t offered or shown to Xif was different. Saliss was different. He could be faking. But if he was, Octavia would pull out her life-thread herself.

Slowly, Octavia went over to a spot under her bed, where she’d hidden her most precious objects. She cleared away some magicore, gemstones, gold, and came out with a little jar with a tiny bit of liquid in it. It sloshed around as she held it up and turned to face Saliss.

The liquid shone, with a vibrancy and magic that made the other [Alchemist] stop. Instantly. Saliss focused on the jar as Octavia offered it to him. The younger [Alchemist] was trembling as she spoke.

“I think this is a Potion of Haste. Master Saliss—what do you have to trade me for it?”

She waited. And on this moment, all things turned. Saliss stared at the magical potion Octavia had gotten from Ryoka, that she’d never duplicated. He stared at it, in silence, and then at Octavia. And then he exhaled.

Slowly.

“I don’t take apprentices. But I guess I could show you some stuff, when I’m not adventuring. Let me get some of my recipes from my shop and we’ll haggle. Word to the wise? Haggle with me.

He reached out and carefully patted Octavia on the shoulder. Her eyes went wide. Saliss turned. He walked towards the door and paused.

“Well?”

She stared at his back. Saliss winked at her. And he grinned.

“Are you coming? My shop has all the cool things. Yours is nonexistent right now. Let me show you how to make invisibility potions. The trick is watching out when the potion itself becomes invisible. Don’t forget it’s there. Also, you can mix it with water and it’s hilarious. Come on.”

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice and Lyonette stared as Saliss came down the steps to the inn. Octavia was following him, clutching a little glass jar filled with a glowing liquid. And she had a staring expression.

Erin had seen it a few times. But she was looking at Saliss much the same way. The Drake stretched.

“It’s been fun, everyone! But I’m going back to Pallass real quick. I’m borrowing your [Alchemist], Erin. I’ll bring her back! But I’m going to trade for some of her rare stuff. Darn, I guess I’ve gotta pay for that door to recharge.”

He snapped his claws.

“Hey, you know what that door to Pallass needs? More rechargability! I bet you’d get a lot more guests if they could come through without having to wait or pay for a [Mage]. Huh? What do you think?”

Saliss of Lights look around. The others just stared at him.

“No? Well, what do I know? I’m not an [Innkeeper].”

He shrugged, and then strolled towards the double doors leading to the hallway. Saliss paused and looked back at the inn.

“I’ll drop by another time, huh?”

“Sure. And when you do—put on a towel?”

Erin mustered a reply. She saw Saliss grin, and laugh.

“Is that a ‘never’, then?”

The young woman put her hands on her hips.

“Maybe just a splash of invisibility potion?”

Saliss guffawed. He beckoned to Octavia, waved at Erin, and turned. He laughed as he walked towards the door.

“I really like this place. Tonight I’m gonna dance on Xif’s rooftop. He might actually cry.”

And then he was gone. Octavia babbled something about the opportunity of a lifetime and ran after him. And Erin saw Lyonette looking at her.

“That is a Named Adventurer. Erin, I know Grimalkin and Chaldion are one thing, but do you think he’s…sane?”

Erin paused. She looked after Saliss. And she didn’t have Lyonette’s reservations. No, something else rose in Erin, then.

It was a stirring feeling in her chest. And she spoke automatically.

“I like him. I want to be best friends.”

Lyonette stared at Erin. She opened her mouth—and then closed it. Because…the words were frivolous at first. A joke. But then you had to look at Erin. And think.

How many people had she said that about? How many people called themselves Erin’s friends? So many. But how many had she ever said—that about?

Erin Solstice slowly leaned on the counter of her bar, in her inn. It wasn’t that Saliss was funny that made her like him. Or that he was strong, or kind. Or even his quirks which did not resemble her that much. No, she had met other people who were just as brave or strong, or kind.

No, what spoke to Erin was something else. A familiarity that she had felt. That she had seen through him and he through her. A…sense that there was an inner-Saliss, carefully watching him laugh and dance about in the nude.

Like a little Erin, who was sometimes genuinely forgetful, or random or silly. But sometimes calculated. But where that inner-Saliss—or inner-Erin began to calculate and where they were genuine, you’d never know. Not even them.

But what she saw in the inner-Saliss and the outer was something familiar. A strange, crazy thing in a person in this world. A desire to help people. Without getting something in return all the time. To make someone’s life better. To reach out and grab a flailing hand.

To not be a jerk.

Kindred spirits. Erin wondered if it was just her imagination. By her side, Lyonette exhaled.

“You would like him. He’s a bit like you, I suppose. Maybe. But please tell me you won’t strip and walk around nude.”

“Mrsha does it.”

“…True. We really need to buy her pants.”

Mrsha looked up as the two young women stared down at her. She folded her arms.

You and what armies?

 


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59 thoughts on “Interlude – Chocolate Alchemy

  1. I keep coughing. My house is dusty. Guess I gotta vacuum and dust and wash stuff. It feels like I just did it, but…not so recently? Hm.

    I’m allergic to dust, and I hate it. And that is the only problem in my life. I think the fact that I can come out with a chapter like this in the middle of a writing week proves my visit to the physical therapist is really helping. Certainly, you haven’t heard me complain about hand pain, have you?

    But er, this chapter got away from me. Apparently I was in high form when I wrote it, and I nearly forgot to write a chapter today! But I did, and this is what came out.

    Yes, it’s long. So I’m revising my plans. We are absolutely, 100% writing a chapter a day and ending on SUNDAY. There will be a chapter all week!

    …But I will skip my regular Tuesday update to recover. That seems like my best solution. heck, I’m even enjoying this style. Would you like a week of writing and then a week of no TWI now and then? Let me know.

    Well, I suppose it’s also a good time to mention that starting the first week of April, I’m taking another 2-week-ish break. I told you it would be every 3 months, and this is to preserve me from burning out. Even if I can have really good days or weeks, resting that long recharges my writing batteries.

    That’s all from me! I enjoyed writing this! Thanks for reading and hope you enjoyed it; I’ll remind you about my breaks with a bit notification at the top of the chapter when they occur. But get ready for…3 more days of chapters!

    • Saliss is so cool. Is Erin getting a little crush on our naked drake?

      If you want to try writing like this more often pirate, that’d be awesome. These short-but-frequent updates have been a blast. More importantly, do whatever keeps you happy and healthy!

    • This chapter – and all the ones this week – have been fantastic! Getting to focus on on quieter, more personal moments with characters that you’ve made us come to love and admire has been wonderful and such a nice balance with the hard times that lead here.

      I’d say fitting the chapter frequency to whatever you feel the story needs sounds like a great idea – and fitting it to what *you* need sounds even better!

    • This is a perfect week after the emotionally charged Flo’s chapters. And more Wandering Inn content is always welcome 🙂

      Maybe you can do these sort of weeks at the end of each quarter and then take the 2 week leave as you are already planning to?

      TWI has made a wish for a time machine for the first time in my life so that I can go 6-9 months in the future and read the entire Volume 7 at once. It’s been wonderful to read!

      Take care!

    • I think that you should do what makes you happy in your writing and the health of yourself.
      I am saying this as I have seen too many web comics/ stories/ serials that whither and die off or just fade away. You being happy with yourself and your writing will hopefully keep the Wandering Inn story flowing. Which will make many people happy.
      While two weeks off will seem like forever to me and catch me off guard each time…probably with wailing and gnashing of teeth. :^)
      I will probably just reread favourite chapters or a different book…BTW thank you for getting me back into reading, Netflix makes it too easy to vegetate.

      Kind regards,

    • Hey pirateaba!
      Thank you for this lovely chapter. It was lovely! and sweet! and tasty! and spicy!

      Please do try to keep up with your house upkeep! Being selfish jerks, we would be heartbroken if something was to happen to out favoritest web-crack pusher!

      Also, in regards to the scheduling;
      Ladypirate, you be you!
      My advice is, put a large note up with your guesstimates of “the minimum” and “THE MAXIMUM” that is suitable for your output per week to remind yourself some guesstimates for the number of chapters, total word count, total hours you should spend writing per week to give you a rough target output.

      That way, if you ever feel the Muse riding you to go wordaholic again, you can remind yourself that you might be harming yourself by burning out (or skipping your IRL needs) as well as not feel guilty for not writing a lot in your extremely rare off-weeks.

      Sorry to remind you but, do take care of yourself apple connoisseur. Keep writing as much as you need to satisfy the need but do please take care of yourself too.

    • 100% approval for this update schedule! Can’t get enough of this story and getting a new chapter every day is almost as good as binge reading the story the first time I came across it a few years ago. Love the story, love the characters, and even if nothing epic happened for the rest of the volume, I would honestly be satisfied! That being said, I know we’re in for some craziness, and I’m excited to see where you take us. Lastly, happy birthday!

    • While I was a bit sceptic of this daily release for non birthday weeks, you got me convinced now! If writing like that is fun too you and not too stressful, I’d love to see more of these shorter chapters. They are kind of like the interludes in that they introduce character much deeper and give a more roundabout view over all characters. Maybe fit them in when the plot is going slowly?
      Anyway I really appreciated the chapters and love your work! Cheers!

    • It depends on what is currently happening in the story, with chapters semi-weekly or every day of the week and then skip a few. If there’s a big battle or very long “scene” then those longer chapters where you can write about one plot point would be the best, because I’ve seen chapters that can expand the story into several different plot points in a single chapter, which feels like I’m reading different chapters in the same one. Short chapters should have the feel of being complete by themselves, like the one’s we’ve been having, or made to have a cliff hanger. longer chapters would be better for continuous story, like the battle of Liscor.

    • I hire a person to clean my house every 2 weeks. 24 pounds for two hours the whole house.

      I hire through an app. So no trust issues, the person is vetted.

      I hate cleaning, this is a great investment for me ^_^

    • I really enjoy these for the slice-of-life bits. It’s obviously not suitable for every single chapter, probably especially the more story-progressing ones, but I’d love to see weeks like these in the future.
      A dose of Wandering Inn every day, it’s like daily Christmas! It has made my entire week great.
      You’re awesome.

  2. Leave a typo for naked Drakes! Ooh, should I write a chapter about that? …No, probably not. Silly idea.

    (Naked readers: Gorexn, Iking, belthanyl, Aoxz, Grimmend, afkcuzbookiscool, MrWiggles, Ingo, vudude, afkcuzbookiscool, Grimmend, dradford, CarpDM, Ross, James Walsh, Maladal)

    • Erin Solstice stood over a sack of recently fermented, dry…cocoa beans.

      Lyonette prodded some of the beans in the sack. They were indeed unduly moist.

      So not dry then?

      hand’t
      hadn’t

    • “You’ve been talking about chocolate nonstop for the last three days, Erin! Every time someone asks you to do something you don’t want, you say ‘chocolate’ until they leave!”

      “Well, yeah. Because it works.”

      That is SUCH an Erin thing to do XD

    • “And getting on the parent’s good sides helped.”
      Either “parent’s good side” or “parents’ good sides”, depending on how many parental units Erin is trying to appease.

      “an awareness she hand’t known she had”
      hand’t -> hadn’t

  3. I have to confess, i am an addict, thank you! 🙂
    It took me 1 1/2 months to catch up and yours is the first Patreon i support, it is well worth it.
    As for naked drakes, there has to be an interesting story behind Sallis, i love interesting stories 🙂

  4. I am amazed I stayed up late enough for this midnight chapter, but it was well worth the wait. Glad Erin finally has her chocolate, i thought you were gonna sting her along for a few more chapters. Saliss is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine, with his great attitude, and matching a certain inkeeper in craziness. His serious moment with Octavia was wonderfully sweet too, sweeter even than the chocolate. I do agree with his statement on Xif. Erin is the gift that keeps on giving and Saliss is gonna keep that in mind

    • MILK CHOCOLATE, take chocolate powder, add CONDENSED MILK, a little sugar and you have what everyone ACTUALLY refers to when they talk of chocolate, also makes it P ROFIT ABLE…..

      Also all that chemistry will hopefully be recognized as nonmagical so people can do things they couldn’t because MAGIC INTERFERES WITH MAGIC, aka cheap matches that have magical childproofing or waterburning effects

      Also the magic of Pasteurization, that does 4 WHOLE THINGS that everyone will like, especially walled cities and towns on the wrong side of trade wars!!

  5. I think I would prefer a week of short ones each day, and a week off rather than the super long ones twice a week. Maybe do the small chapters before you go on breaks if it lessens the load?

  6. I think this style of writing really suited the interludes and side stories and I wouldn’t be adverse to having them written like this in the future even if it means a week off for you to recover.

  7. Thanks for the chapter!
    The break sounds like a very good idea.
    For me it’s actually a struggle to decide between getting TWI chapters every week or sometimes TWI chapters all week followed by a break. But the TWI chapters all week are just too good to pass up on, they are not something you could write otherwise. And they are precious. 😀

    • We could have the twice a week for chapters and the short weeklong chapters for interludes, kinda like whats happening around the world chapters. Would make advancing the actions of people easier to visualize without long absenses like ryoka/UN/doctor chapters currently at.

  8. You’re really bad at this whole “short interlude” week, these are full chapters! And really good ones too!

    “I really like this place. Tonight I’m gonna dance on Xif’s rooftop. He might actually cry.”

    Saliss is the best. I’m enjoying the way you write him, I feel like that’s exactly how someone who is the fantasy world equivalent of a self made billionaire would act. He’s inhumanly powerful both personally and politically, and uses it to be a benevolent whirlwind. I appreciate how up front he’s being too, he’s currying favor by genuinely being a good helpful person and getting on Erin’s wavelength.

    Erin: “I’m bribing you.”
    Saliss: “*reverse uno card* I’m bribing you!”
    Erin: “Heck.”

  9. Saliss is what you get when you get a high level Erin. Still loved the happy flame bit with him trying to keep it lit.

    Ironically i think the flowers need to be GIFTED in order for them to be grown since they can from the Fae instead of from Inn World. So growing logic is a bit different from regular logic.

    The flowers did grow when Erin lacked the door and magical inn pool of mana and Erin seems to have a “never trade” aspect when it comes to the flowers… So giving them as a gift might work which means Saliss might be the second closest alchemists who might get a shot at them.

    • I really like that idea! It seems more fairy-like in an odd way. The frost fairies are tricksters who wanted something special for nothing, only to leave something very valuable behind. A true fairy gift, like true friendship as with Ryoka and her frost fairy was so much more profound. I think a true gift from Erin to Saliss of the fairy flowers would make them much more powerful than being somewhat tricked by Xif into selling them. A true gift between Erin and Saliss would greatly further their friendship and the depth of it. Sorry being a bit redundant!

  10. “It should have been pointed out before now that”

    lmao this sentence structure is one really common in Chinese but it’s really awkward in English.

  11. I could swear that Erin would stop Saliss when he was offering all his potions and just give him a flower for free. For friendship. It would have been a very nice move imo. Guess it’s still a possibility with how the chapter ended.

    I’m loving this week with chapters everyday!

    • Exactly this. I really hope she will. Maybe tell him the flowers were a gift so she cannot share, but give him a new type of flame. Or share a secret, something from her world. Or just tell him she wants to gift him something because she wants to be friends.

  12. I’m torn. I love getting a chapter a day. And these chapters have been excellent as always. However I think the 2 long chapters a week might be better. Quality over quantity for me I guess. I tried other web novels, a few from China and S. Korea, and found that the ones that operated on daily chapters kept declining in quality over time. Better to space it out and give your brain some time to get inspiration or time to plan things through if you have charts, documentations, etc for story/world building. I’m also fine with getting 10k word chapters twice a week as long as the quality remains the same as always. In fact the length doesn’t really matter as long as it’s the same quality as it’s always been for 7 volumes now.

    Good luck and hope you enjoy your birthday week. Belated happy birthday pirateaba who is not a Pirate nor a [pirate]!

  13. Hi! Great chapter — your story is my favorite thing on the internet!! One thing that kind of bugs me whenever it comes up though is that Erin somehow has access to vanilla when chocolate and coffee are theoretically unobtainable thanks to climate/geography. Vanilla, like other spices like cinnamon, come from the same regions as cacao and is even harder to cultivate than chocolate since the plants have to be hand pollinated (at least on Earth, nowadays). I don’t really understand how vanilla and chocolate are not both either common or rare.

  14. I love the short frequent chapters! It’s actually easier for me to read with my schedule.

    On a separate note I had a very vivid dream about Sargent yellow splatters being sent to Rhir as the Antinium contingent (to show they were people cooperating with other nations) and to spy and fine the Antinium hold outs!

  15. OH MY GOD IT’S A PUN. THE NAME OF THE INN IS A PUN!

    The Wandering Inn, as in *wandering in*. Oh my god! Even before the portal door I was so focused on the possibility that her inn wood start moving one day or something, I never realized it was a pun from the beginning!!!

    Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhgghh

  16. Unrelated to the chapter, but I just had a crazy theory: what if the Goblins used to be Elves? We know that the Elves used to be very powerful and achieved impressive feats like space travel, only to suddenly disappear. And we know that Goblins were subject to some ancient betrayal, the memory of which pushes their Kings into a genocidal fury. So, what if the betrayal involved some curse that turned the elegant, long-lived Elves into ugly, short-lived Goblins, perhaps as an attempt by the departing gods to keep Elves from dominating the other species when they were no longer around? This would imply that the plans by the Goblin Lords and by Velan involved looking for a way to reverse the curse.

    Overall, it’s a lot of conjecture, but it feels like it could fit.

  17. Maybe Erin can´t give the flowers to Salys, but what about the scale soup and her other magical foods. Octavia couldn´t duplicate it, because she was to low level, but i think Salyss would be verry interested.

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