(MouthyMaven (Andrea Parsneau) is recording The Wandering Inn’s Volume 2 audiobook on her server! You can check her out, but be warned–it’s live recording, mistakes, swearing, and all! You can find her server here, as well as times when she records!)
It turned out that summer was hot. Not just in temperature, but…hot. The sun could scorch at times and while Izril wasn’t…Baleros, or at least, what people imagined Baleros to be, an endless, humid, jungle, it was true that parts of Baleros had that swampy, oppressive heat that went into your lungs and dehydrated you to death.
But then—Chandrar’s weather could freeze and scorch you in Zeikhal, and yet there were wonderful coasts full of verdant greenery too. It was rude to generalize.
All of that didn’t really matter to the young woman lying in a puddle of her own sweat in a dry patch of land. She looked around, vaguely.
She mumbled as she looked around. Then her head flopped down. You could die like this. She might die like this. So—Erin Solstice rolled over. Once, twice, doing full-rotations. She stopped next to a glass pitcher.
Lovely glass, beaded with condensation from the cool liquid within. Erin Solstice stared at the lemonade and licked her lips.
It would be deliciously sour and sweet. Perfect for the dry mouth she had. Erin reached for it. And someone lifted the pitcher up and poured himself a drink.
Numbtongue stared down at Erin as he paused with a glass raised to his lips. Erin paused and corrected herself.
“Sorry, Numbtongue. I thought it was some monster. Like Lyonette.”
“Oh. Right. Want some?”
He found another glass lying in the dry, arid ground and filled it. Erin reached up.
She drank, gratefully. Numbtongue casually sat down. He too was covered in sweat. And dirt. He stared at Erin. She waved the glass at him and he obligingly refilled it. This time with the water pitcher. There were actually three—the third had apple juice. Because…why not?
Erin mumbled as she found the hydration in her to sit up. She had been miserably hot, she realized. Dehydrated. But now, the liquid was doing her a world of good.
The Goblin shrugged. He stared at Erin, and then the dry landscape around them. An acacia tree, arid, tall grass yellowed and scarcely green—he peered at Erin.
“Why are you sitting here?”
Here, as in—the driest part of her Garden of Sanctuary. The arid-section, to be precise. Erin wiped her forehead.
“It was cooler! And I was digging a hole. See?”
She pointed to the left. Numbtongue looked. Erin had abandoned her shovel to flop onto the ground. But she’d been working hard; there were several holes in the ground. Erin nodded proudly as she pointed.
“See? I cleared the ground! Got rid of the weeds, made some space…how’s your end going?”
“Mm. Chopped down a tree. Well, kicked.”
“Awesome. Well—wait, what?”
Numbtongue pointed. Erin saw…a tree. In the jungle-section. Someone had ripped the roots out of the ground, and with Bird’s help, literally pushed it over. She stared at Numbtongue.
He had also dug every hole he’d been assigned. And weeded the entire area. The [Bard] was sweaty and dirty, but he wasn’t dead. Erin stared at her cup of water and then at her friend.
“You have a green thumb, Numbtongue. You know that?”
The Hobgoblin grinned. He got the reference and joke. He waggled his thumbs at Erin.
“Can plant now? Bird is chopping tree up.”
“Sure. Just give me a second to stand up?”
Numbtongue waited for seven seconds. Then he stood and pulled Erin up without effort. She sighed, standing. And she saw Bird was hard at work.
“La, la. Chop, chop. I am helping chop wood. Which is good. This song has rhymes. I will think more up in time.”
The Antinium [Bird Hunter] was holding an axe. He was chopping at the tree, removing limbs with eager, if inexperienced, effort. Erin saw a little white shape grabbing each branch he tossed to the side and pulling it away. A young woman with red hair was putting the branches to one side with the little Gnoll. They’d be good firewood once they dried.
Five people stood in the Garden of Sanctuary. Just five. An [Innkeeper], a Hobgoblin, a [Princess], a white Gnoll child, and an Antinium Worker. If you wanted to reduce them to the basics.
They were planting things. Erin was no [Gardener] or…[Horticulturist], but she reckoned that it was time. She nodded around as Bird looked up from his task.
“Hello, Erin. Are you done melting?”
“I am, Bird. And no thanks to you all! I could have died there! Of dehydration!”
Erin waved her arms, smiling. Lyonette sighed as she wiped sweat from her forehead.
“Mrsha would have smelled you dying, Erin. And you didn’t dehydrate. You fell asleep.”
“…No I didn’t.”
“You laid down and slept for twenty minutes. I saw you.”
Erin opened her mouth and looked around for confirmation. She saw Numbtongue nodding.
“Huh. Really? Well—I worked hard!”
“Numbtongue uprooted a tree.”
“Wasn’t hard. Weak tree.”
The Hobgoblin pounded his chest as Mrsha flexed her biceps and waved her paws to show she had helped! Erin smiled.
“Well—that ground is harder! This is nice soil. Lush. Fertile. I think. Let’s plant stuff. Where’s the seeds?”
“Here. And here. Are we really doing this?”
Lyonette had a handful of round…seed cores. She handled them very gingerly; they’d break if you squeezed hard. They’d been mostly denuded of the blue flesh, the sweet fruit they resided in. Erin nodded.
“Yup. Let’s put four of them here…four over in the arid spot, and four…”
“In every biome. I get it, Erin. Numbtongue?”
Lyonette tossed him the cores. The Hobgoblin caught them and walked off. Lyonette looked at Erin.
“Do you really think they’ll grow in the dry spots?”
“I have no idea where they grow. What do I look like, a gardener?”
“Absolutely not. But they do grow in…Liscor. So why not put them in the temperate section?”
“Well, they get submerged by water once a year for like, a month. So I don’t know where they’d grow.”
“And your answer is to put them in every section?”
Erin Solstice smiled triumphantly. It was her logic, which was why Lyonette and Mrsha were giving her skeptical looks.
“It’s an experiment. We’ve got ground to spare! Anyways, we’re planting more cocoa seeds. And all the vegetables.”
She pointed to the side. In another section filled with friendly grass, the kind you could wiggle your toes in, some space had been cleared near the vine-covered walls. Lyonette nodded; they’d planted hundreds of little seeds with some fertilizer earlier this morning. Carrots, cucumbers, potatoes, even some wheat and other plants.
“I hope it grows well. It would certainly cut down on costs. Especially if someone makes them grow, isn’t that right, Mrsha?”
The little Gnoll nodded her head proudly. The [Druid] produced her wand and waved it about. She’d make the garden grow!
“And all the plants? Not just the ones you like? That means not just garlic and squashes and wheat, Mrsha. Cucumbers too. And potatoes.”
The little Gnoll stuck out her tongue.
Bleh. Potatoes? Cucumbers? They were both Terandrian foods Lyonette loved to feed her. The [Princess] picked Mrsha up and cuddled her.
“If we get good crops, I might make you a treat, Mrsha. Fresh food!”
“And blue fruits! And chocolate! All free! Mountains of chocolate! And faerie flowers growing on the hill! And—and apple trees! Although those might take a while.”
Erin threw up her hands excitedly. This was it! Free food! She saw Bird throw a seed core into a hole, kick the pile of dirt over it, and smack the ground a few times with a shovel.
“I am done planting, Erin.”
“May I go back to the tower now?”
Lyonette and Erin chorused. Bird waved at them. Lyonette sighed as she flicked hair out of her face.
“Well, I’m sweaty and dirty and I think we all need a bath. But we also have work. Ishkr’s about to get off-duty, Erin. I’ll take over for him—will you take Mrsha to the public baths?”
The private little bathing room Lyonette wanted made wasn’t done yet. There would be a hot tub in it—a big one, as well as other, convenient cleaning places. And thanks to Erin’s Garden, water wouldn’t be a huge issue—although Lyonette wanted to divert the local stream to run by the inn so they’d avoid draining the pond.
Divert a stream. She had the Antinium working on it. And the inn was coming together. The 2nd floor was done, there were new tenants in the inn—the [Mages], the Players of Celum, and more. Erin nodded as Mrsha edged backwards.
“We can take a bath. It’ll be fun, right, Mrsha?”
The little Gnoll wrinkled her nose. She didn’t see the point. Nor did she want to sit in a public bath while Erin—who could be slow—splished about and got clean for half an hour. Or longer! She shook her head and pointed towards the pond. Erin frowned.
“Mrsha, no. We can get clean with soap! It’s fun, right? Mrsha? Come back here. Mrsha—”
The white Gnoll raced off. Erin ran after her, shouting. But she didn’t realize that her attempt to stop Mrsha from taking her own bath was actually…a trap.
Numbtongue, walking back from his finished planting, saw Mrsha waving her paws at him and signaling frantically. He paused, grinned, and obligingly stuck out a foot as Erin ran past him. She tripped and saw the pond.
“Mm. I have nothing. Damn. Three Archmages again, Palt? What’re the odds?”
Montressa threw down her hand of cards and glared. She was sitting at a table. Gambling. She saw the Centaur smirk and reach for the pot.
“Good ones, Montressa. Especially if you know when to fold. Which you don’t.”
“I nearly had a straight.”
Beza grumbled. Palt rolled his eyes. He reached for his cigar and lit it with a snap of his fingers. Montressa and Beza saw him take a puff, and sigh. Then the Centaur looked around. But Erin wasn’t here.
“She’s still planting in the garden. You’re clear, Palt.”
The [Illusionist] sighed and puffed away. Erin Solstice still had a ban on him smoking in her inn. It was the one sour note in an otherwise quite pleasant experience. The three [Mages] were guests of The Wandering Inn.
And right now, they were gambling. With cards.
New cards. Montressa peered at the little deck Palt was shuffling. Cards. They were hardly unknown to her. Although this particular deck and configuration were.
“I don’t like this game. Palt’s winning far too often. If you’re cheating Palt, I’ll pull out your tail hairs one by one.”
Beza gave Palt a suspicious look, as was somewhat appropriate for a [Mage] specializing in illusion spells. Palt smirked at her.
“Not at all, Beza. Stay away from my tail. I just understand the rules of the game better than you. I told you, it’s about odds.”
“And luck. Do you have any luck-Skills?”
“I wish. Another hand?”
“Sure. But we’re going down in the ante.”
Montressa grumbled as she slid four copper coins over the table. Palt gave her a flat look.
“Come now, Montressa—”
“I’m not losing silver to you while I’m playing the game. Anyways, this game’s decent. Not sure it’s that great. And Wistram already knows about it.”
The Centaur puffed on his cigar.
“True, but Miss Solstice is introducing it. ‘Poker’. I’m a decent fan; I played with some of the…guests, though. Thoughts?”
“I object to these cards. They’re all Drakes. Even the Archmages.”
Beza held up one playing card. Montressa and Palt nodded. They were playing cards, from this world. Card games existed—if not the specific ones Erin knew. There were four Archmages that Palt was shuffling into his deck—the equivalent of Aces, Erin had decided.
“Well, she ordered some cards from Liscor. Drakes being Drakes, of course they’d make all the cards Drakes. Archmage Zelkyr, Archmage Salindeca…not speciesist at all. Oh, look. A Gnoll [Soldier]. I don’t see any of them on the face-cards.”
The Minotaur held up another card with a lowly Gnoll [Soldier] and a symbol marking it as ‘3’. Montressa looked for some chips.
“Are you making a point, Beza?”
“I’m making chatter because I’m tired of losing to Palt. And I’m bored. We’re banned from the garden—”
“To be fair, so am I.”
“Shut it, Palt. We’re banned, so why don’t we do something?”
“Something other than wasting money playing cards!”
Beza put down her fist on the table and the cards and drinks jumped. Palt sighed. He puffed on his cigar and gestured around the inn.
It was a quiet day. A few days since the…incident with Klbkch. And the dozy morning had brought cards to the inn—and gardening. But not in any big way.
“Beza, Beza. You have to be patient. Just wait until Erin gets back. Then, we can let her know how we feel about the cards. Proving once again we’re not weasels from Wistram—”
“So you can get in her good graces. I don’t think telling her how her playing cards idea is going will earn us many points, Palt.”
Montressa sighed. But it was that sort of morning. She reached for more chips and wondered if she was eating too much. It reminded her of Wistram, actually. Good food, drinks, time on your hands…
And a bee. In the quiet morning, a large bee detached herself from the ceiling. She flew downwards, like a stealthy…giant…bee. Bright yellow and black. Buzzing. A colossus compared to most insects.
Apista alighted on the Centaur’s cigar. Palt went cross-eyed and stopped smoking. Montressa and Beza stared. After a second, Montressa whispered at him.
“Palt, you have a bee.”
The Centaur didn’t move. Probably because he was aware of this fact. Apista’s wings beat hard. She lifted, and the cigar dropped out of Palt’s mouth as he leaned back.
The bee flew away, carrying her prize. The Wistram [Mages] stared. And Apista buzzed through an open door and into her little nest that Lyonette and Mrsha had made for her in the Garden of Sanctuary.
With the cigar, which she lit as her wings beat sparks and the air burst into fire around her. And the cigar smoked and Apista was happy.
After all, what was a bee if she could not fly as high as could be? A bee was high as she could be. And she was free.
But not her comrades in the dark. So the bee went higher in her head. For the hive fought valiantly. But one day, if not rescued, they’d be dead.
Those were the bee’s thoughts. But who could hear them? No one. At least—no one listening. Not even the [Mages]. They just stared after Apista. Palt slowly fumbled out another cigar from his belt pouch.
“…Do you think Erin’s trained the bee to smell you, Palt? Can they smell?”
“She hasn’t. That bee just wants my cigar. It—she—has good taste.”
Palt glowered after the bee, from one smoker to another. Apista didn’t hear or care. She was high in the sky of her head—rather than in reality, which could be cold and dark and dead. She could do nothing to save the others.
And the one person who could have heard her was busy. A sopping wet Gnoll hung under one arm as Erin Solstice, dripping, stomped through the open door to the Garden of Sanctuary.
Heads rose. They stared at Erin as she put Mrsha down. Ishkr looked up from his job waiting a table. He looked at another Gnoll, a new hire. The rookie stared at Erin.
The other Gnoll, the veteran of The Wandering Inn, didn’t even look up as he went back to taking an order. The guest didn’t bat an eyelid as he requested a smoked fish. Nor did the other guests, after a quick look to make sure Erin didn’t explode or start spitting blood. Ishkr nodded to the new Gnoll [Waiter].
“Get a towel, Rkhi. Better make it two.”
“Erin. Trouble with water? Need a drying spell? How’s the planting going? Care for a round of cards?”
Palt tried to smile and hide his lit cigar as Erin turned her head to stare at him. The [Innkeeper] narrowed her eyes. She stomped over as Mrsha, quite proud of herself, walked over to the fire to get dry.
And that was the day. Erin sat down, taking a towel from Rkhi, grumbling about evil Gnolls and jerk-Goblins. Eying Palt’s cigar pointedly as he winced, and getting dealt into the hand of cards as Montressa and Beza leaned over, relieved to have someone to beat. After all—they weren’t bad at cards.
Palt was just too good. Lyonette came through, ready to relieve Ishkr, as the second shift began to replace the first one and the lunch crowd arrived in trickles from different locations. Mrsha sat by the fire, wondering why Apista had suddenly gone cloudy after being sad—she did that a lot. Bird sat in his tower and the Workers building the 3rd Floor got free bird samples, gratis.
Numbtongue was wondering if he could steal Apista’s cigar while he practiced fishing in the pond. He rather liked fishing. He might go mining later.
It was that kind of day. Nothing much was happening in The Wandering Inn, by the inn’s standards. The most that might happen was a conversation about thieving bees, which was just…boring.
In Liscor, Relc returned to work after two days off due to injuries. Senior Guardsman Klbkch was on indefinite leave. The Free Antinium had guests.
Small events and large. Boring and consequential in Liscor.
As morning rose in Pallass, Grand Strategist Chaldion fell.
In the way of things, Grand Strategist Chaldion fell down the steps. He was walking with General Edellein Blackwing of 4th Army when he tripped. One moment, he was arguing over the distribution of funds and recruits. The next, falling.
It was just the accidental slip of his walking cane. And he, overbalanced, was unable to catch himself. And the other Drakes around him realized what was happening too late. They had amazing reflexes, boosted by training and Skills. But surprise was surprise.
They were a bit too slow to catch him. And he tumbled down eight steps on the Northern Grand Staircase before General Edellein and his [Strike Commander] leapt after him and stopped him from falling further.
That was all. Eight steps. But it was a poor tumble. And Pallass’ citizenry who saw the incident stopped and stared. When they didn’t see the Grand Strategist immediately rising, they had a thought. And when General Edellein called for a [Healer] and a stretcher—the Walled City worried.
All the Walled Cities worried. Over a single moment. An accident that had nothing to do with Wyverns, the machinations of Humans or other foreign powers like the King of Destruction. Of course, they demanded answers as word spread—too quickly, as it now did by way of [Messages].
Oteslia. Inquiring about the state of Grand Strategist Chaldion.
Manus. Is this information confidential? Requesting lockdown of unnecessary gossip.
Fissival. And how did you find out about it, Manus?
Zeres. Seconds Oteslia’s request.
Salazsar. Seconds both requests.
Manus. Pallass, confirmation?
Zeres. Ancestors, not again. Pallass, CONFIRMATION?
Pallass. ‘Go to Rhir’s hell and stop spreading gossip.’ From Grand Strategist Chaldion, verbatim. Exiting shared [Message] spell.
He wasn’t dead. But neither was he alright. And—despite his words, there was worry. About thirty minutes later, Grand Strategist Chaldion lay in a bed in the best [Healer]’s personal treatment clinic. And the [Healer] was fending off queries from a hundred different people, including several [Senators] and General Edellein and more.
She was, somewhat ironically, a Gnoll. And they were mostly Drakes; Pallass’ leadership. The Gnoll woman, a City-Gnoll born and raised in Pallass, was trying not to growl her replies. But she did snap with a bit of a hiss in her voice.
“He is fine. Fine as can be expected for someone of his age falling down the stairs! It would have been worse if he hadn’t been caught. But he needs rest, which means no visitors. None!”
“But we applied healing potions on the spot! Are you sure he’s…”
General Edellein Blackwing, a relation to the late Thrissiam Blackwing and Osthia Blackwing, two family members who’d been lost recently, was not having a good day. First the Wyvern attack that his army had failed to fight because they’d laid the ineffective ambush, next, this. Right next to him. He was thus very concerned, for his reputation as well as Pallass’ military leadership. He peered past the [Healer] into the room.
Chaldion lay in a bed lined with stones enchanted with healing properties. The very fabric of the bed itself was a composite fabric-gel that he was not happy about lying in. One of his legs was raised and in a sling. For all that, the Drake looked healthily annoyed. He was conscious. But his old scales, grey and flaked off in places, were mottled with bruises. His left leg had a fractured bone.
The female Gnoll [Healer] propped her paws on her hips and sighed.
“General Blackwing, you did everything you could. However, Grand Strategist Chaldion is too old for potions to work perfectly. I told the Grand Strategist as much last time. He should have a personal [Healer] or [Bodyguard] with the appropriate specialization on him at all times. A [Minder], at the very least. He’ll be sitting on that broken leg for at least two days, even with my best crystals and recovery Skills. And he’ll have to take more care.”
“Two days? But I was in and out of here in sixteen hours when I broke my claw—”
“You are half the Grand Strategist’s age. Bodies develop resistances to healing potions, General. You know this.”
The Drake flushed at the tone in the [Healer]’s voice. But it was basic knowledge any [Warrior] knew. He cleared his throat.
“Well—obviously, yes. Then in that case—what about another [Healer]? No disrespect, Healer Demerra, but perhaps the Healer of Tenbault might…?”
The Gnoll woman laughed.
“If you could get her to make a visit to Pallass, that would be the miracle, General. And even if she were able to restore the Grand Strategist’s health, the fact remains that any fall could have done this. He needs an aide. And he has to have one. No arguments. Someone has to order him to have one.”
The Drakes standing around in conference looked uncomfortable. They exchanged glances. One of the [Senators] coughed.
“Healer Demerra, one does not order…Grand Strategist Chaldion.”
He was the Grand Strategist of Pallass. Older and more experienced than any Drake…here. Perhaps anywhere. None of them, any of them, had been serving in their positions when he had first been appointed head [Strategist] of Pallass. Some of them hadn’t even been born, back then.
“Someone must. He has fallen before. If this was in his quarters, or somewhere out of the public eye…”
Demerra let her voice trail off. The others looked at each other. Senator Errif winced. The Gnoll adjusted his skullcap.
“It’s bad enough in the public eye. We can’t have another lapse in confidence. As for, erm, ordering Grand Strategist Chaldion, we could put it to a vote in the Assembly…”
“He’ll just ignore it.”
[Strike Commander] Bes, known as ‘Lighthouse Bes’ for reasons that were entirely uninteresting, predicted glumly. The others paused, and nodded. What were they going to do? Relieve Chaldion of his post? He was the best [Strategist] they had, the best and highest-leveled of all the Walled Cities. And oldest.
And yet. General Edellein searched for ideas.
“What—what about a Ring of Stonescales? We have Barkscales-level enchantments in our army. Any number of artifacts. Surely that might…”
The [Healer] glowered. People loved to tell her how to do her job.
“Stone skin, fur, or what have you isn’t much good if your bones are glass, General! Grand Strategist Chaldion could use a high-grade artifact, like a Ring of Health. But that is relic-class. If the Walled City could source one, I would be happier. Even so—he’d quickly be dependent on it.”
“Do we have anything like that in our treasuries…?”
Senator Errif looked around. Healer Demerra snapped.
“We do not. Ladies and gentledrakes, I remind you that this is age. And there is little anyone can do…”
She paused. And reconsidered her words because they were patently—wrong.
“…There are options. Many of which I have explored, and so has the Grand Strategist. Even so, few options are cheap, let alone convenient, even for Pallass. I would like to remind you all of one thing: Grand Strategist Chaldion is one hundred and six years old.”
Everyone stopped. General Edellein opened his mouth and closed it a few times. But then he nodded.
In the face of that, no one had anything to say. Demerra sniffed and ushered them into the waiting room, sealing her clinic against intruders. A squad of 4th Army’s elites were blocking the doorway as well; no one would assassinate the Grand Strategist.
The others talked outside the clinic. Edellein paused.
“I forget how old he is. He’s as spry as someone three decades younger.”
Lighthouse Bes chuckled, and prismatic light lit up the inside of her throat for a second. But then she realized no one else was laughing. She adjusted her armor, blushing.
“I think we all take Grand Strategist Chaldion’s youth for granted. At least…his health. But he is aging.”
The others nodded. It was moments like this, moments like when you heard Zel Shivertail was dead, that you feared for the worst. If Grand Strategist Chaldion were to pass away suddenly, or Dragonspeaker Luciva, or…Captain Waiss—the Sharkcaptain of Zeres—any one of the Drake heroes, their bulwark against the Antinium suddenly grew weaker.
But what could be done? Replace him? Maybe in three decades. But today? The high command of Pallass shuddered and argued and made very little in the way of concrete plans. And that was what they did the last time Chaldion had fallen, or snapped his wrist, or taken ill with a common cold.
And while they worried—someone else heard the news.
He listened. Nodded. It was news he’d heard before. So—without worrying, or rushing about, or getting into an insults-match via [Message] spell, he went into his home, pulled out a few of his possessions, and made an arrangement or two.
A while later, Octavia Cotton went back to The Wandering Inn to find a little Gnoll passed out by the fireplace. Mrsha was snoring and giggling after warming herself back up. Erin was playing cards. Her opponents—were not happy about it.
“How did you do that?”
Palt threw his hand down in disgust. Erin smirked as she pulled the hefty pot over.
“I told you not to gamble. Wait, do I get to keep all of this?”
“Gambling makes it fun. But how—”
“I count cards. I mean—I learned to. It’s like chess, except not. But I had these friends who loved to…well, they stopped playing. Which is good, because gambling’s bad. Like smoking!”
The Stitch-Girl saw Erin poking the stacks of coins. The [Innkeeper] looked up vaguely.
“I didn’t know there were actual [Gamblers] in this world. But it’s just a strategy. I don’t play much, but…oh, hey Octavia. I thought you were going to study with Saliss?”
The [Alchemist] frowned. Something about what Erin had just said…but then she smiled ruefully and shrugged.
“Saliss had to cancel. What’s that? Cards? Can I play?”
“Oh, really? Why? And you know how to play cards, Octavia?”
The Stitch-Girl gave Erin a curious look.
“Everywhere has card games, Erin. Even Nerrhavia and Chandrar. What game is this?”
“Poke…? Well, I’ll learn. I didn’t catch why Saliss was busy. Where’s Numbtongue?”
Montressa was on her third bowl of chips. She couldn’t stop herself. And she was sure she shouldn’t be eating this much ketchup and mayonnaise. But she kept crunching. Chips, fries…it went well with drinks. Too well.
“You have fish?”
“We tossed some in the pond. Not the huge, jumpy, bitey ones. Those are jerks. Okay, you play like this, Octavia…”
Erin began to explain. Octavia listened as Beza grumbled and demanded to be dealt in; she was on a losing streak and convinced her luck would turn! The [Alchemist] wasn’t upset about the cancelled lesson. She still woke up and pinched herself that she was being taught at all by a living legend.
She didn’t think much of it; after all, Saliss was an important Named Adventurer and [Alchemist]. He had any number of things that could keep him busy.
Healer Demerra’s clinic wasn’t exactly besieged by crowds. But there were people keeping tabs on the place. [Informants], the kind of fences for information like Fierre, busybodies, well-wishers, for any number of reasons. But they were not allowed in.
4th Company’s Elites were a mix of Drakes and Dullahans. A pair of Gnolls—no Garuda. The kind of elites who took after Relc, rather than, say, Bevussa’s old squadron, or Keldrass’. That meant they were quick, rather than burly. True, Relc was both, but the Gecko of Liscor was famed for speed over brawn, ironically.
“No one’s allowed entrance. Don’t block the street!”
The Drake [Major] was snapping at people asking questions. And he was not in a mood to share details, even if he’d been privy to them. He put his hand on the hilt of the mace he carried when words weren’t enough.
Not that many people tried. That was—until a rather familiar voice and figure caused a disturbance in the crowd.
“Coming through! Hey! Whoops. Where are you going? The street’s big enough for all of us. Hey! Hey. Do I know you?”
A Drake with dusky yellow scales, rather slimmer than the [Soldiers] in their armor, was navigating through the crowd—although no one really stood in his way. In fact, they got out of his way rather quickly.
Because he was naked. The squad recognized him on sight of course; anyone living in Pallass for any amount of time would.
Saliss of Lights, Saliss Oliwing, Named Adventurer, famous [Alchemist] and even more infamous nudist, walked out of the crowds, holding up a claw for people to high-five. No one did. He didn’t look put out by this. And he strolled towards 4th Army’s squad and the doors.
“Halt. No one’s allowed in. General Edelleim’s orders.”
The [Major] called out weakly. The two elites, a Dullahan and Drake, crossed the blades they carried—long glaive-type weapons—in front of the doors. Saliss paused.
“What? Oh, hey. Do I know you? Don’t mind me. I’m just going to both—I mean, say hi. I’ll just slip in and…”
He tried to limbo under the spears. The Drake [Major] stared at Saliss. Like a true Pallassian, he almost forgot Saliss was naked, even though it was…obvious.
“Adventurer Saliss, no one is allowed in. Not even a [Senator].”
“What? No one? Come on, make an exception. I know you, you know me, I know Edellein. You’re, uh, Qune, right?”
“No, sir. And I can’t open the doors—”
Saliss was edging around the spears. The [Soldiers] were looking at the [Major] for guidance. By all rights, they should have already picked Saliss up, slammed him onto the street, and proceeded to kick him hard enough to justify his visit to another [Healer].
For someone else they might have. But Saliss just leaned on the two spears the [Soldiers] were keeping crossed. He gave the Drake [Major] a cheerful grin.
“It’ll just be a little bit. Promise! I won’t get old Chaldion too riled up. Anyways, I brought lunch. Chocolates. And this nice pie I got from this inn in Liscor. Have you heard…?”
“Adventurer Saliss, I can’t—”
“Let me just slip under the spears…hey. Nice armor. The door…oh, it’s locked? Well, I’ll just…”
The elite [Soldiers] of 4th Army stood to stiff attention as the naked Drake did something to the lock. There was a click, and he slipped inside. They did not stop him. They did shout ten kinds of obscenities at the young Garuda who tried to copy Saliss and raised their weapons.
But not towards Saliss. They let him in, embarrassing as it was for their pride. Because it was that or Saliss would walk in, through 4th Army’s best and brightest if he wanted to. And both groups knew it. And the affable, liked, tolerated, Named Adventurer, Saliss of Pallass, who was always cheerful and annoyingly friendly, would walk through those doors today. And anyone who got in his way. He’d done so before.
Word got around.
Chaldion was staring at the ceiling when he heard the familiar voice arguing with the [Healer]. The old [Strategist] sighed and glowered, but he knew even Demerra wouldn’t keep Saliss out for long.
Nor did she. Because soon, a figure poked his head through the doorway.
“Heeeey Chaldion. You’re looking terrible!”
Saliss waved cheerfully. The old Drake glanced up and gestured with one claw. The magical projection of Noass and Sir Relz vanished; he’d been watching a scrying broadcast. At least he had entertainment. Scrying, books, correspondence…no chess, though.
“Saliss. I’m not in the mood for you. Go. Away.”
The old Drake turned his head. Saliss spread his arms. He edged around the bed. Gyrated, rather.
“Aw. Come on, Chaldion. Here I am, to cheer you up! Look! I even brought you lunch. Since I bet no one thought of that! Tada! Pie! And chocolate. Want some? I’ll feed you. Say ‘ah’.”
“I will have you thrown off the walls first before I let you feed me. Get out.”
The Drake watched Saliss busy himself around the bed. Saliss had a floating tray in front of Chaldion with the pie and a fork propped in the center.
Demerra’s clinic had a lot of expensive treatment options. Like healing crystals placed around the bed which naturally boosted a body’s recovery. Floating trays, options that relieved stress on an injured patient…it was a far cry from a simple cot and some poultices.
But as she said—she couldn’t cure old age. And a [Healer] was a…[Healer]. At some point, Demerra did rely on magical objects. Tinctures to aid natural healing potions—which could do a lot.
Saliss was an [Alchemist]. And Chaldion, eying the cake and half-melted chocolates that Saliss put on the tray, glowered at Saliss. His one good eye flashed.
“I. Fell. It was perfectly natural. I do not want or require your sympathy, Saliss.”
“Aw, don’t say that. What would the Walled Cities do without ‘Chaldion the Great and Powerful?’ The Grand Strategist of Pallass! Oh, heavens! I swoon just imagining it!”
The Named Adventurer pretended to do so by the bedside. Chaldion looked around for his stick. He swiped irritably at Saliss with his claws and winced.
“I. Am. Fine. I do not need a minder or—or a bodyguard!”
“Aw, come on, Chaldion. It’s only a matter of time before someone hires a killer to off you. Or the Antinium get you. Frankly, if they asked me, and I was an [Assassin], I’d do it at a discount. They don’t even need a knife, just a staircase. It would be the perfect assassination.”
Saliss spread his claws past Chaldion’s head. The old Drake just stared at him. Then he flipped up his eye patch with commendable speed for someone his age.
The naked Drake ducked. There was a flash—the blast and flash of light wasn’t too strong since Chaldion didn’t have his good eye in, the ones that could do nasty things, but it still blasted around the enclosed room.
Demerra came running.
“No casting spells! Saliss! If you can’t avoid provoking Chaldion, you’re leaving!”
“I didn’t do anything! He’s touchy! And old! And he smells like…ew.”
Saliss protested as Chaldion swore and looked for his bag of holding, which carried more deadly weapons. It was missing, on the nightstand. Demerra pointed at Saliss.
“Stop provoking him.”
“Fine, fine. Don’t ruin your pie, old man. Or the chocolates! Mm. These are great. Have you had any? Say ‘ah’.”
Chaldion stared at Saliss. It was the kind of stare that couldn’t kill, but only for lack of trying. The fact that he’d actually had his missing eye replaced with magical gemstones that could kill with a look proved Chaldion’s commitment to the art of the death-glare.
But it didn’t work on Saliss, who was giving him a smarmy smile. The Named Adventurer leaned on the gel-bed Chaldion was resting on.
“If you’re good, I’ll bring you entertainment. Like Erin. Or Olesm. Or we can get Grimalkin in here to teach you how to lift! Yeah! So you’ll have strong bones that don’t break whenever you sneeze!”
Saliss posed, flexing his slim physique. And Chaldion, turning redder behind his grey, flaking scales—paused. And abruptly, the anger went out of him. He didn’t give up per se…he just put it away.
The old [Strategist] eyed the pie and mangled chocolates. Saliss had helped himself to some of the melted chocolates. And it wasn’t as though Saliss had brought an oversized pie; it was actually closer to tart-size, given Chaldion’s stomach capacity. He looked at the pie, chocolates, and then Saliss. And he spoke, in a quiet voice.
“Can I assume you put the age potion in the pie, rather than the chocolates? I’ve had my fill of them.”
Saliss stopped, mid-smile. The younger Drake looked at Chaldion. And his smile slipped. For a second, the two Drakes met gazes. And the anger and annoyance of Chaldion, Saliss’ insincere taunts. It vanished. Saliss took a breath, and heaved a sigh.
“It doesn’t fit in chocolates. I don’t even want to think how I’d manage that. At what process in making it? And if I poured it on top…? Nah. It’s in the pie. Eat the entire thing. I think it’s a mincemeat pie. Erin made it.”
He held up a claw.
“And before you think it’s something else, it’s just a meat pie. She told me she was trying to figure it out. I thought it was self-explanatory, but apparently it’s different. Anyways, it’s good.”
“Hmf. At least you got me something I can stomach. What kind of meat?”
The old [Strategist] nodded. He picked up the fork and began to eat. In silence, Saliss watched Chaldion take bite after bite. It was a decent pie. And the potion added did little to take away from it. Well—it did a bit.
“It still tastes foul. I don’t suppose that youth potion is in here too?”
The [Alchemist] laughed. He produced a little vial. And Chaldion saw a vibrant, viridian glow. He put his fork down for a moment and saw…magic.
A potion, held in Saliss’ claw. And it shone like what it was. Pure, magic. A Potion of Youth. Something that could make even the oldest of people young. For a moment, a week.
“Hmf. So you did make one. I got the report, but I know how often you fail. The world’s already abuzz with people ready to pay far too much for it. How was making it?”
Saliss shrugged, tiredly. He spoke conversationally as he found a little stool and sat. Chaldion kept eating.
“You know how it is. Actually…no, nah.”
He waved it away, but it was too late. Chaldion’s good eye snapped towards him.
“Erin Solstice. Something in her inn helped you improve the process. Her fire. Or was it the flowers mentioned? Something else?”
Saliss laughed innocently, waving it off.
“What? Why would you…”
He fell silent. Then he looked at Chaldion.
“Go rot yourself, Chaldion. Why do you have to bother her?”
The unexpected aggression would have caught anyone off-guard. But Chaldion just grinned. Victoriously.
“For the same reason you’re interested in her, you brat. So. Something helped with your process?”
Saliss swore under his breath. But eventually, he nodded.
“It helped in the refining process. No ingredients, which would be massive. But I’ve got…another 6% chance of making the potion rather than it exploding.”
“Useful. Very useful. And you won’t tell me what her level is? You know I will find out.”
“Leave her alone. She’s not your anything.”
“She’s not a bystander either. You may stay out of it. This is my decision as a [Strategist]. You are a busybody that Pallass deigns to call on and suffer.”
The two Drakes glowered at each other. Saliss turned his head and saw his tail was moving snappishly over the floor. He took a few breaths.
“…Well, I’m going to sell my Youth Potion on the market. You can pay me for it, Chaldion. I’ll give it to you for the same price the last one went for. How about it? You can dance around for a week like when you were young. The duration’s a week now, by the way.”
“Congratulations. I’m sure any number of petty idiots would like to sire a new generation of fools. I wish you the best of luck selling it.”
“Oh, not me. I have an apprentice now. And I have someone to sell it for me. Sales skills, you know? You going to eat the chocolates?”
“After the pie. Don’t touch—”
Saliss swiped a chocolate. Chaldion hissed at him. He settled back as Saliss smirked and moved his head back out of smacking range. Then—Chaldion was quiet again. He looked at Saliss, seriously.
“Tell me. Honestly. How much does the Potion of Youth earn you?”
“What? Trying to outbid the competition already? I told you—”
“And how much do you spend on the Potion of Reverse Aging in this pie each time?”
Chaldion pointed at the pie on the tray. Saliss froze, mid-cavort. He looked at Chaldion. And shrugged, as innocently as could be. A perfect shrug. Like an Erin-shrug. And his voice was as good as Erin’s. Better.
“Eh. You know how it is. You make money, you don’t make money.”
The old Drake looked at Saliss steadily. He looked at the pie, and gestured with his loaded fork.
“…If I didn’t eat the pie?”
“I’d probably feed it to you with a funnel. Anyways, I can’t just spike your drink. It’s best eaten with food.”
Saliss’ voice was perfectly serious for a second. Chaldion nodded.
“I’m not turning it down. Put the funnel away or I’ll shove it somewhere we’ll both regret.”
“Is that an offer or a threat?”
The [Alchemist] chuckled as he put away the metal funnel. But the two of them…Chaldion chewed, swallowed.
“I don’t count numbers, old man.”
“Liar. I’ve never met an [Alchemist] who didn’t. It’s that much, is it?”
Saliss turned his back abruptly. He rested his elbows on the bed as he leaned against it.
“I’m getting better. It’s two years now. If I get to four, or higher? That’s a real savings. I’m still leveling up. And I don’t depend on levels. Who knows, maybe I will find something amazing at that inn?”
The Drake regarded his grey scales on one arm. As he chewed, he thought he saw them brighten a bit, turn colorful. Some of the places where dead scales had flaked off…were they starting to regrow? Was it just his imagination?
“And until then? No—even if you master it. How many Potions of Reverse Aging will you give me? How much of the profits of your adventuring work, your Potions of Temporary Youth—everything else—goes into this pie?”
“Eh. I’d charge Pallass for it, but the Walled City can’t pay all my bills. Enjoy your pie, old lizard. I liked it.”
The other Drake’s head never moved. Chaldion poked the back of it with his fork.
“Be serious for once in your life. When will you stop, Saliss?”
Silence. Just pure silence. And then, Saliss replied, without turning his head.
“When you dance naked with me in the middle of Pallass.”
Chaldion snorted, despite himself. He looked at the pie, finished but for a quarter and put the fork down for a second. He chewed on a bit of chocolate.
“Hmph. Then, I suppose I’d better prepare to live forever.”
Laughter from Saliss. Chaldion enjoyed the sweetness for a moment. He felt better already.
Two years. It hadn’t always been two years. He still remembered when it was one. And the cost…
People often said it was amazing that Chaldion had lived as long as he had. A hundred and six years. But he looked like he was in his seventies, at the latest. And—in a way—he was. How many potions was that? More than just twenty. How much gold…? Even the old [Strategist] feared that number’s truth.
Chaldion just looked at Saliss. Eventually, he went back to eating. He cleaned the pie tin, carefully, wasting not a crumb. He put down the fork, saw Saliss turn, about to make some smart comment and leave. And the old Drake couldn’t bear it. He spoke to Saliss’ naked back.
“You can’t keep me in this world forever, Saliss. I’m too old for it. And I am no hero. Just a [Strategist]. Someday, even your age potions will stop working, just like the healing potions.”
The [Alchemist] paused. He sat back down and kept facing the opposite wall. The two Drakes weren’t alone. There was a little fly, buzzing around. Saliss must have let it in when he’d walked in—Demerra allowed no pests in her clinic.
“I’m doing pretty well, aren’t I, Chaldion? You’re younger than when I started.”
“By three years.”
“That’s three years on time itself! What do you want? Fine, I’ll brag when I get you to fifty.”
The fly buzzed as Saliss raised his voice. It was just a fly. Although—if it ate some of Saliss’ healing potion in the pie, would it turn into a larvae? Chaldion wondered. What would someone else, like, say, the Blighted King, or even the King of Destruction pay for a service Chaldion got for free? Even against his wishes?
“What was it you told me once, Saliss? Four [Alchemists] in the world can make Potions of Temporary Youth? How many can reverse age?”
“We don’t brag about it. That’s how you get captured forever. Temporary Youth’s one thing. Reverse Aging? That makes people go crazy. No sane [Alchemist] advertises that, and we’re all a bit sane if we make it this far. Hazard of the job.”
Saliss pointed that out. Chaldion nodded.
“So you might be the only one who’s able to create them.”
“Rediscovered. No one makes anything new in our line of work. But yes, I am better than Xif. He thinks we’re equals. I laugh about that, when I’m in a bad mood. Praise me more.”
Saliss raised his claw and made a beckoning motion. Chaldion snorted.
“You didn’t bring me any wine, did you?”
“What, and ruin your good mood? I’ve got some shots of that filth Rufelt makes. Your ‘Chaldion’s Eye’, minus the sweet. Not that you mind. But I think Demerra will kill me if I give you any.”
“…Put it in my bag of holding and pass it to me.”
Saliss did. Chaldion sighed as he took a covert draft. [Healers]. Tyrants every one. After a moment, he spoke again.
“It’s a waste on me. How much gold? What kind of [Alchemist] would you be if you weren’t making these potions and giving all your profits to me?”
“Everyone needs a hobby, Chald. Can I call you that? Besides, it’s kept me busy. And you’re the ‘Grand Strategist’ now. It’s a public service.”
Chaldion looked at Saliss. The Drake still hadn’t turned to face him. It was easier for the both of them.
“I’m the Grand Strategist because I’m old. I’m no Niers Astoragon.”
“Yeah, you’re taller. So what?”
“Listen to me.”
The old Drake swiped at Saliss’ head in genuine anger. Saliss ducked without even looking and the claw missed him. In a way—that reassured Chaldion most of all. He calmed down again.
“I’m not the Titan of Baleros. I’m only a Grand Strategist, and that’s after I had twice the time most [Strategists] have. I’m not a hero like Zel Shivertail.”
“Yeah, you’re not dead yet.”
This time Chaldion tossed the pie tin. The fly and Saliss dodged. The Grand Strategist went on.
“We need a hero. The Antinium will attack a third time. And an eighth. They won’t stop. They overpowered the Blighted Kingdom and the only reason it survived was because they wanted to leave Rhir. Listen to me, Saliss. I am not that hero. Zel Shivertail was. And he was killed.”
“By a Goblin Lord.”
“That practiced necromancy. A single Goblin Lord spellcaster, who beat the Tidebreaker in single combat, out of sight from everyone. That’s not strange to you?”
Saliss was silent. So was Chaldion. He paused, looking around the room. But the two Drakes spoke no further on a hunch that Chaldion might have had. The Grand Strategist took another breath. He did feel better, truly. Not only had he received another two years of life—or rather, de-aged by two years, the effects of the potion would last with him for as long as a month.
What a waste.
“Saliss. I can’t rally the cities against the Antinium. Or the Humans. I couldn’t even convince the Assembly to reinforce Liscor. And I pushed for that.”
“You’re just not bossy enough. But yeah. You failed. Feel ashamed.”
Chaldion inhaled and exhaled.
“You think they’ll listen to me more after today? All of Pallass saw me carried here. I don’t blame them for pulling back. We need a hero. Someone younger. Someone who can inspire. Bring together our squabbling, idiotic species.”
“Don’t forget the Gnolls. They hate that. Also, this is sort of their continent too.”
“I’m not forgetting anything you insolent little lizard!”
The [Strategist] turned purple in the face. He gulped for air and tried to go on. Convince Saliss. He had to try again.
“You could be one. You are one. A hero. Pallass’ greatest child. You could bring us together. You and your potions—you could do it. No one else in the city has the will.”
Chaldion waited for a response. After a moment, Saliss shrugged.
“He could barely stall the Greater Wyvern. You could have beaten it.”
No answer. They both knew it was true.
“Who could replace you? One of the Gold-rank adventurers? General Edellein?”
Both of them laughed at that. Edellein was no Thrissiam. And Thrissiam Blackwing was dead too.
“Thrissiam might have. But he’s dead. We have too many dead hopes, Saliss. But you could do it. Become Pallass’ hero, even now.”
Chaldion’s voice was pleading. But—he saw Saliss’ head turn. The [Alchemist] looked back at Chaldion once. Then he gestured towards the wall. Towards the fly, picking over the tin.
“Everyone’s a hero, Chaldion. That fly on the wall? That’s a hero if it dies in battle. Drakes, Gnolls—we have too many heroes in our culture. It’s not for me. I don’t want to be one.”
The Grand Strategist exhaled, tiredly. Furiously, exhausted. No good. It was the same argument and both of them knew it.
“If you weren’t…”
Chaldion’s head rose, wrathful. But he contained it. He stared at Saliss, and his eyes narrowed.
“So stubborn. I’ve met Turnscales. If Shivertail was one—the Walled Cities abandoned him, ignored him because of his politics. That was our fault. But you? I know enough about Turnscales. That’s not a choice. You don’t have to…be like what you are.”
This time it was Saliss’ turn for his head to snap around. He stared at Chaldion, wide-eyed. With the same fury of a thousand conversations. He opened his mouth, stopped himself, and then spoke. Slowly.
“You’re right; I could pretend. I’m good at it. I could be the great hero you all want me to be. Put on pants and armor, strut around talking about how amazing Pallass is and how superior Drakes are.”
“I don’t want that.”
A fly buzzed past Saliss’ face. He clapped his claws together without missing a beat. Then he wiped the guts on Chaldion’s bed.
The two Drakes didn’t break eye-contact, although Chaldion resolved to get that cleaned. Saliss went on.
“I could. And maybe it would be for the good of all Drakes. I doubt it. But guess what? I want to choose, Chaldion. And I choose this.”
He jabbed a thumb-claw at his chest. Chaldion stared at him. Then he put his head back on the bed and stared at the ceiling.
“What did I do wrong? What made you turn out like this?”
Saliss stared at the old Drake. He spoke slowly.
“You gave me everything I needed. Look at me. I’m a Named Adventurer. The best [Alchemist] in all of Izril. Isn’t that enough? I found who I was. Your mistake? It wasn’t turning me into a [Slave] to Pallass, a blind idiot like the ones you complain about.”
Chaldion stared straight up.
“So you say. But all I see is a disgrace.”
“You can’t even look at me, old man.”
Painful words. The two of them tore chunks out of each other with words alone. Saliss turned and walked towards the door. He—both Drakes shared a thought. They should have known it would turn out like this.
“The Antinium are coming. We need a hero to lead us. Can you be that hero?”
Chaldion stopped Saliss at the door. The Named Adventurer turned, claw on the doorknob.
“No. I’m just me.”
“Then who will lead us back?”
The quavering question struck Saliss harder than any of the old arguments. He looked at Chaldion, turned away.
“Enjoy your medicine, Chaldion. And stop falling down stairs.”
Then he walked out the door and shut it softly behind him. Not slammed; that wasn’t really Saliss. The Drake teased Healer Demerra as he walked out and she gave him that look. Envy, annoyance—because she knew what he could do. Or guessed. But she was wise enough to keep that to herself.
Gnolls often were. Saliss left the clinic, bothering the [Soldiers] on guard duty, and gyrated up the steps. People stared. They pointed. But they didn’t see through him. Chaldion, for all he had one good eye, had more vision than all of them.
And…Erin Solstice, for that matter. Saliss only dropped the mask when he was in his alchemy lab on the 9th floor. He had a home. But in some ways, he was safest here. Certainly, most of his protections and such were built into this place.
The Drake leaned against the wall as he entered his laboratory. He covered his eyes with one arm and sagged. For a single second. And then ten. Then a minute.
Stay alive, Chaldion. Stay alive.
That was all he really wanted to say. A fall? Damn it. Ancestors take it. After the Wyverns? After who knew how many wars and conflicts and ancient? Saliss had the urge to explode staircases everywhere in the world.
But he just rested there. Hurt, furious. And…unable to be with himself, alone, like this. For any number of reasons.
Chaldion wanted a hero? Saliss fished in his belt pouch. And he pulled out two items. He stared at one of them dully. The Potion of Youth, which would earn him hundreds of thousands of gold coins? Tens of thousands at least. It depended on the market. A coveted item.
“Temporary Youth. The real thing? That was alchemy, Octavia.”
Saliss murmured to himself. But he put the Potion of Youth away for a moment. And the other potion…Saliss looked at it. Then he turned. He put his clawed hand back on the door, and then he uncorked a vial. He paused, for just one moment. And wished there was a potion to change Chaldion’s mind, rather than his body.
But [Alchemists] weren’t miracle workers. So Saliss lifted the vial to his lips.
He drank a potion and changed.
In Liscor, a Drake sat at an outdoor café which was pioneering a new treat. Sweet cream tea. Or, as the Drake owner was advertising it…Cream Tea.
The name brand could use some work. But the point was that someone had made it and in the way of fads, every tea-lover had to try it out, critique it, and tell all their friends they’d tried it.
The idea for the tea was actually based on ice cream; people had been innovating, but they’d failed to crack Erin’s mysterious recipe.
(Ice cream is now permanently on sale at The Wandering Inn! 2 silver a bowl! Ludicrously expensive, but who else is selling it? Huh? Huh? Also—free ice cubes. And depressing fire!)
Nevertheless, they’d made progress. And this new tea brand was…decent. Too sweet by half, but it had something to it. The café was close to crowded, but each table had a decent remove and most patrons were being cycled in and out. You had to wait for a table and your turn.
Unless you were one of the two Drakes sitting there. One of them had light green scales, wearing a very stylish cut of clothing made of high-quality cotton. The other, bright yellow scales and was dressed for work.
Selys had not waited for a table. One had been procured for her when the owner saw her coming. And Drassi, as her friend, was also free to enjoy her tea as long as she wanted.
“Mm. Nice snacks. What’s this? Cream and scones?”
“Too much dairy. I’m gonna throw up. Hand me your hat.”
Selys recoiled as Drassi reached for her hat. The Drake swatted at her friend’s claws.
“Back off. I like this hat. What about the tea?”
“It’s good. But expensive. Do you know how much they’re charging for all of this?”
“I do not.”
Nor had she asked. She’d assumed—rightly—that she could cover it whatever it was. Selys Shivertail adjusted her hat and noticed the envious stares. The [Heiress] paused, and again, felt that sense of surreality at her position, the amount of gold she knew she had. But only for a moment. She was getting used to it.
Money. It bought so many things. And—it was wrong how much it could buy. A position at the top of the line, for instance. Respect, or at least, privilege.
“We didn’t wait in line to get in here. I would have been right at the back of the line—I couldn’t even have gotten a tea before work started. Oh. Hey! Is that you, Fransk?”
Drassi pointed down the line of waiting guests and waved to a Gnoll. Selys winced.
“Stop waving, Drassi.”
“Why? What are they gonna do, kick you out?”
The [Gossip] and one of Selys’ best friends looked at her blankly. It was true as well. Selys shifted uncomfortably. Her name was one of the up-and-comers around Liscor. Selys Shivertail, owner of the Heartflame Breastplate.
Part of it might have been due to her Skill. [Shadow of His Name]. Or it might have been the money again. Because Selys was rich.
“So—how much is the tea? Three silver a cup? Ew. And I thought Lyonette was greedy. And the scones and cream…let’s see. That would be how many hours of work for both of us if I was paying?”
Drassi curiously and unashamedly began adding up numbers. Selys blushed.
“No, I’m curious. Do the math with me. And how much money does Keldrass pay you per day to rent the armor?”
“What did you say? Like, three gold coins per day? And that’s because you’re giving him a discount in case he finds treasure. Just asking.”
The former [Receptionist] took a deep sip of the tea. It really was too sweet. A bit invigorating—the [Teamaker] had a Skill after all—but it was just a fad. The recipe would have to be improved.
Former [Receptionist]. It was true that Selys still had her class. But…she didn’t really work as much in the Adventurer’s Guild anymore. She was there for parts of the day, and she came by to help train the newbies. But even her grandmother had let her stop working as much. It was a hobby now; Selys didn’t need the coin.
“He can afford it, Drassi. Adventurers make that kind of money every single day.”
Drassi rolled her eyes. That wasn’t the point and both Drakes knew it.
“I know that. I heard Keldrass complaining that his team only pulled in, like, five gold coins on a bad day. Five gold coins. That’s like…Erin pays well, but I can’t toss five gold coins out. I’d sit down and cry if I lost five gold.”
“You heard him wrong, Drassi. He’s mad if his team earns fifteen gold a day.”
Selys felt the need to clarify.
“It’s from the dungeon. With the monster parts bounties, he can make a lot of money. And that’s an average…”
“Right. So he can afford to pay you a measly three gold coins each day.”
The [Gossip] and [Bartender] gave Selys a bright smile. The Drake shifted. She was still friends with Drassi, who was a childhood confidant and who hadn’t been affected by Selys’ newfound wealth. In that she hadn’t asked for favors. But this conversation was…awkward.
“Adventurers make tens—hundreds of thousands of gold coins. And they spend it on potions, armor, artifacts. And because I can rent the Heartflame Armor—I don’t have to work. Because my uncle—because Zel died. But he wanted me to have this. Should I feel…guilty?”
“Absolutely. It’s totally unfair.”
Selys stared at Drassi, poised to take another sip of tea.
Her friend laughed and waved one claw.
“No, I’m being serious. It’s disgusting. But hey—at least you’re benefitting, right?”
“I’m building houses. An entire apartment.”
“Good for you. How much is rent?”
“…Drassi, are you in a bad mood today?”
The [Gossip] winked at Selys cheerfully.
“I’m not. I’m just throwing numbers around. Does it bother you?”
Selys put her cup down. She was done having tea. Her friend chewed on a scone and sighed.
“Think I can get a bag so I can share this with Mrsha? I’ve got work in twenty minutes. Or—can you lend me your bag of holding?”
“What? And absolutely not. Drassi—that’s disgusting. Can’t you stay? I wanted to talk more.”
“Work! Hey, can I get a bag for this?”
The [Bartender] was talking with a [Waitress] as she shoved her scone and the whipped cream into one mess. The worst part was that Selys was sure Mrsha would eat it and enjoy it.
“Erin could let you off, Drassi.”
The [Gossip] paused. She looked back at Selys as the other Drake fumbled for an appropriate tip and the money for the food. She saw a gold coin flash as Selys put it down on the table.
The two Drakes looked at each other. Drassi glanced around at the café. Tea parlor, whatever. It was for well-to-do Drakes and Gnolls, and they were waiting in line. The [Waitress] was already thanking Selys profusely for a silver tip. Drassi smiled with teeth.
“I’m sure she could. But you wouldn’t ask her to do that, right?”
The two Drakes looked at each other. And Selys felt…she glanced at the tip. That wasn’t something most Drakes did. It was more of a Human tradition, but Selys had adopted it because it made a difference. She could afford to tip.
Silently, Selys got up, and the two walked through the streets towards The Wandering Inn. They joined a crowd around the door.
“Whew. Looks like a bigger crowd. I guess word got around about Erin’s new card games. It’s great when she comes out with something interesting.”
Drassi commented as they got into line. Drakes and Gnolls looked around. Some of them seemed to take offense to the comment.
“We’re not here just for entertainment, Miss Drassi. The Human’s not the only fun in Liscor.”
A Gnoll sniffed at Drassi, doing a pretty good Pisces impression. Selys suddenly missed him. The other people waiting for the magical door to be switched to Liscor agreed.
“It’s not like she’s the only entertainment in Liscor.”
“Of course not. There’s dancing, card games, dice games, magic games, drinks, socialization, music, um—[Bards] with jokes or news—”
Drassi helpfully nodded as she balanced her snack-bag from the café in one claw. The guests coughed or shuffled their feet awkwardly. Someone went on.
“Training, ball throwing, sekach—swimming in the spring, and visiting the [Traders], cooking…”
Sekach, a Drake game of conquest and hoarding…stealing the opponent’s treasure. Played with colorful pieces of wood. The subject of many fights between players.
Two new crazes sweeping Liscor. But the plays were confined to The Wandering Inn mostly; there were some knockoffs, but The Players of Celum were the best without question. And baseball? Teams were playing for fun, but there was some talk about another competition. People wanted Erin to organize it.
The guests in line frowned. And who had brought that game to the city?
“No, that’s her new stuff. But there are pets!”
Everyone agreed. Pets. Pets were good. See? Liscor had more entertainment than just the crazy Human with the inn! Absolutely! They could entertain themselves elsewhere.
At that moment, the door opened. Drassi pushed past everyone.
“Excuse me! I’ve gotta get to work. Mrsha! I have a treat! Let me know if you’re not coming through. Hi, Ishkr. Want some cream scones? Anyone who’s coming through—we have card games! Poker! That’s what it’s called, right?”
She smiled back through the doorway. Selys and the other Liscorians looked at each other. There was tons of stuff…elsewhere…they could do for fun. Tons of it. However, well…
“Erin! What’s new?”
The young woman in the inn looked up to a small avalanche of guests coming through from Liscor. She saw Selys, Drassi—Mrsha had already raced towards the Drake [Bartender] as she set up.
“Selys! Hi! I’ve got cards!”
She waved her hand in the air. Selys, walking over, saw Erin was alone at her table. There were a number of guests and familiar faces around the inn. At other tables.
“Cards? Oh, the poker thing Drassi mentioned. How do you play? I’m free for the day. Hello, Mrsha!”
The Gnoll waved at Selys absently. Drassi had scones with cream! Selys turned to Erin. The young woman was explaining.
“It’s this fun game. You can play with a group. Want to learn?”
“Sure. Will anyone play with us?”
Selys looked around. She caught the eye of a Centaur, moodily smoking near an open window.
“Palt. Do you want to…”
The Centaur glanced up. Normally, Palt was affable as could be. Right now? He gave the deck of cards a dark look. Selys blinked. She looked at Erin, whom she was fairly certain Palt liked. Erin wore a guilty expression.
“Anyone else? Montressa? Beza?”
“I will not play with her.”
The Minotauress folded her arms. Selys looked around.
“No! I am not playing! You cannot have my birds!”
The Worker shouted. He was possessively clutching his boiled eggs to him as he had lunch. Selys looked at Erin and raised one brow.
“What did you do, Erin?”
“Nothing! I was just playing—and I kept winning—”
“Miss Erin has an unusual gift for playing cards. Which in turn takes away from our enjoyment of the game.”
Palt explained as he blew a smoke ring out the window. Erin blushed as Selys looked at her.
“Apparently it’s known as ‘counting outs’. And Erin can do it in her head.”
Montressa was counting the coins she had left. Erin had returned some of the money, but she’d swept the table too many times for anyone else to be happy. She’d even won two birds off of Bird.
“You never told me you’re a [Gambler], Erin.”
Selys was surprised. Erin shook her head instantly.
“What? Psh. I don’t gamble. I thought you all liked to play!”
She pointed accusatorially at the Wistram [Mages]. All three looked quite put out.
“We like to play fair games, Erin.”
Montressa shot back. Erin turned red.
“What? All three of you were cheating! You used magic to see my hand!”
“That’s how you play in Wistram! And it didn’t help because you figured it out each time we tried! You—you’re using calculations to win! That’s not fair!”
“It’s just math! Odds! Probability! It’s easy! And you have to not show people what you’re really thinking.”
“So says the board game expert.”
Selys rolled her eyes. Of course Erin was good at games like this. She could be surprisingly competitive and when she learned a game, she learned it. Especially how to win. And her poker face? Erin’s poker face? It was probably unbeatable.
“So, do you want to play, Selys? Or—I know! Why don’t you check out my garden? I was planting stuff with the others all day.”
Selys glanced at the cards and table. And at the Garden of Sanctuary. And she realized she didn’t really want to do either. Perhaps it was that, or Drassi’s nettling comment that made Selys look back the way she’d come.
“You know, Erin? I was sort of wondering. Is the door to Pallass open? I…might want to visit again.”
Erin Solstice blinked. She looked at Selys. And then she smiled.
“Yeah. And the grass has it fully charged up so it’s easy…easier. Lyonette wants to charge people. But if we go now, she doesn’t have to know…”
“I can pay—”
The [Heiress] saw Drassi roll her eyes. Erin laughed as she led Selys down the passage to the door. She waited as a group of Humans came through.
“You coming for the inn?”
“Uh? No, Miss. We’re here to work, actually.”
A small group of women and men hurriedly bowed to Erin, some removing their caps. Erin smiled.
“Really? Where are you from? Wait—Esthelm?”
“We’ve got day-jobs in Liscor.”
“Oh—then let me put you through. One sec, Selys…”
The Drake watched as the Human disappeared. Liscor was changing a lot. Selys looked at Erin, in her [Innkeeper]’s work clothing, a bit dirty from gardening and newly dried from her pond bath.
“…Do you want to come with me, Erin? I’m actually hoping I can meet some people in Pallass, and I have some—acquaintances Keldrass recommended me to.”
Erin Solstice paused at the door.
“Um, I probably should stick in the inn, Selys. I could go through, but the last time I went…aaah! Wyvern attack! You know? I might hold off.”
The young woman mimed and Selys nodded. When you put it like that—she was somewhat glad as Erin adjusted the door.
“One to go through! Hey Zekia, is that you?”
“Halt! You can’t just open—Miss Solstice!”
The voice instantly became resigned as Erin poked her head through the doorway and waved. Selys glanced at Erin.
“You know the guards?”
“Sure do. I sometimes leave pizzas in the door at night. They stopped shouting as much at me. And threatening to shoot me. Hey Zekia, this is Selys. Can’t she go through? I told you, the door’s all charged up now. See? I can jump through, jump back—waitasecond. I’m gonna stop doing that now.”
Erin caught herself, turned to Selys and smiled. The Drake [Lieutenant] on the other side sounded resigned.
“Miss Solstice, we cannot just waive the list. We have a system!”
“Yeah, but the door has magic now. Come on. It’s Selys. She’s been here before.”
“That doesn’t constitute a reason to let her through. Miss Solstice, we cannot allow you to break the rules—wait.”
The pair of eyes behind the sliding panel flicked to Selys. The Drake eyed the steel door—crenellations from which the guards could shoot through—and the other eyes watching her. She saw the Drake [Lieutenant]’s eyes widen.
“Do you mean Selys Shivertail, as in…the niece of General Shivertail? The owner of…”
Erin blinked. The Drake, Zekia, looked at Selys. And the [Heiress] saw her step back, confer with one of her squad mates. Then Zekia spoke again.
“Um—if this isn’t legal, I can go back…”
Selys pointed weakly over her shoulder. She was no Erin. But—Zekia paused.
“Allow me ten—five minutes, Miss Shivertail. I will communicate with the Watch Captain on duty. Pardon me.”
She stepped back. Erin stared at Selys. And the Drake waited nervously in the box of a room where the door was now stored. Until Zekia came back, opened the door, and motioned Selys through.
“Right this way, Miss Shivertail.”
“What? You’re letting her through?”
Even Erin was taken aback. Zekia nodded to Selys and the [Heiress] realized that there was someone waiting for her.
“Miss Shivertail is on a list, Miss Solstice.”
A Drake with a monocle was waiting for Selys. He bowed quite smartly and adjusted the monocle he was wearing. Selys recognized him of course, instantly. The world would recognize this Drake. And he was not alone. Watch Captain Venim gave Selys a smart salute and Erin a glare. The [Innkeeper] waved. But it was for Selys the two Drakes were here.
“Miss Shivertail? My name is Sir Relz Hauscale of Pallass. And this is Watch Captain Venim. I had the good fortune to be speaking with the Watch Captain when I heard about your desire to visit our city. May I be the first to welcome you here?”
“A pleasure, Miss Shivertail. I had the honor of meeting your uncle. Twice.”
Venim nodded to Selys. She blinked at him. And then at Sir Relz.
“I’ve uh, been here before. I just wanted to visit because…I’m Selys. Uh—pleased to meet you.”
Sir Relz didn’t miss a beat. He bowed and offered his arm.
“Ah, in that case, it would be my delight to introduce you to Pallass, Miss Selys. Or rather, a part of it simply begging to meet you. We were aware of our peers in Liscor, but this is a fortuitous circumstance.”
Sir Relz gave Selys a curious look as Watch Captain Venim saluted them and went to lecture Erin on bothering the [Guards] on duty. Erin blinked after Selys.
“What people? Hey, are you that monocle-jerk? Hey!”
Sir Relz ignored Erin. But he answered Selys as he gestured down the street, waving at people who turned to stare at him and thus, Selys.
“Society, Miss Selys. Proper society. And if you’ll allow me to be forthright—it pays to get to know an up-and-coming Drake. I doubt anyone has introduced you to the right circles. But for the niece of General Shivertail and the owner of a relic-class artifact…”
The [Heiress] looked at Sir Relz. And she looked down at her clothes and adjusted her hat as he led her down the street. And she realized—
She might be underdressed. Erin stared after her friend’s back. High society? She scratched her head.
“No one’s ever invited me to high society.”
Watch Captain Venim closed the door in Erin’s face. The Drake sighed.
“I can’t imagine why.”
High Society. It needed the capital letters. Because it was high society. The kind of society you couldn’t get into without something.
Fame. Wealth. Connections. A mix of the three. It was a world hidden from the masses. And it had its own rules and system. Most people were probably aware it existed. But if you danced in the world of the elite you understood the game, even if you didn’t play.
You had to. And the young, female Drake who appeared in the ritzy room of socialites knew none of the rules. You could just see it, from the way she looked around at the décor, the names—wide-eyed, impressed. That wasn’t how you were supposed to do it. Even if you met your hero, you were supposed to be casual. Act as if you belonged and everyone might believe it.
Then again—she belonged. Or else why would she have been invited? A name ran around the room as fast as lightning.
Selys Shivertail. Heiress to the Heartflame Breastplate. Relative of a hero of the Drakes. Rich—well, moneyed. And new to all of it.
“Ancestors. They’re going to eat her up.”
One of the watchers on the outside of the room commented as she saw Selys being swept into the room by one of High Society’s darlings. Sir Relz himself, one of the two [Commentators] whose star was on the rise. And she was being introduced to the other big names in Pallass.
“This is Lord Werdin Blackwing, Miss Selys. One of our distinguished nobles—Lords and Ladies of the Wall, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“Simply Werdin, Miss Selys. We’re not exactly as antiquated as the other Walled Cities. I have a number of business interests. The Blackwing family is one of the largest in Pallass. And this is my wife. Lady Melika. And my daughter, Salkis—Salkis, this is the Selys Shivertail. Owner of the Heartflame Breastplate!”
Look. From the sides you could see the Wall Lord—one of Pallass’ few remaining families—introducing his daughter, whose scales shone like onyx. Lady Salkis, the demure, sheltered young Wall Lady, her father, Lord Werdin, who was more business-Drake than noble. And his wife…
“A delight. Truly.”
Selys blinked at the plumed Garuda’s colorful feathers. But—points to her, the young Drake greeted Lady Melika. A Garuda.
Unthinkable in another city. But Melika was stunning, and her marriage to Lord Werdin after his scandalous divorce was set in stone for nearly a decade. Sir Relz was adjusting his monocle, speaking quickly, still in his commentator-mode. Which really meant giving his opinion on everything and everyone.
“We’re far more progressive than other cities, Miss Selys. Not a strong Human population as Liscor has, certainly, but our Garuda and Dullahan minorities are growing. I’d like to introduce you to everyone here; it’s not a large gathering. But—well, this is the place we tend to congregate in. The Noble’s Fancy.”
Selys was taken aback. Sir Relz chuckled as did Lord Werdin, Lady Melika—the Garuda sheltered her beak with a wing as she laughed.
“Well, what else would you call it? But an inn—I suppose it fits, but this is one fit for royalty. The [Innkeeper], Adalton Serristail—wonderful fellow, we’ll introduce you—designed this place based on Terandrian mansions. With a classic Izrilian take, of course. But any Human [Lord] or [Lady] would be envious of this place.”
He gestured around. Selys looked around the room designed for socialization and private company. You couldn’t pay to get in—you had to be invited. Rather like Tails and Scales, honestly.
But Tails and Scales wasn’t the 6th Floor’s largest building by far. The Wandering Inn, [Grand Theatre] and all, was dwarfed by The Noble’s Fancy. The most expensive and elite…‘inn’ in Pallass. And then—only because the idea of a hotel hadn’t been properly introduced yet.
“This is a marvelous residence. I’ve bought my own room and stayed for, dead gods, it must be eight years now. Lord Werdin has his own estates, but we like to visit here. It’s something of a hub. Linger here long enough and you’ll meet anyone from General Edellein to Grand Strategist Chaldion himself.”
Sage nods. Across the room, someone’s face twisted at the names. Edellein Blackwing. Their family was the big name of course. And Chaldion…Lord Werdin was nodding sagely.
“Rarely. Although he had made an appearance now and then. Although I fear we won’t see him for a while. Have you heard about the accident, Miss Selys?”
“Accident? No. I thought—I saw him just the other day at The Wandering Inn.”
A pause. Sir Relz blinked behind his monocle. Some of the outsiders laughed, those in the know about the other inn. It was as if these people forgot that Chaldion met ordinary plebeians as well. And that he preferred Tails and Scales, which didn’t serve most of High Society’s clientele.
“Ah, well—it was today. A terrible tragedy. He slipped on some stairs. He’s at the healer’s now. Broken leg, as I understand it. Oh—and let me introduce you to Miss Duskal.”
“Oh no. Um—”
Selys found herself shaking a hand of a Dullahan woman and staring at the head being borne by an attendant, rather than asking about Chaldion. The torso bowed slightly.
“I am in charge of Pallass’ manufacture of mechanical devices. Its export to other cities. Control and design.”
The Dullahan woman was very formal. But she offered Selys a cordial smile. The [Heiress] looked at her rather riveting armor studded with costly metal and clearly designed for ornamentation rather than combat. Miss Duskal preened like a Garuda under the gaze.
“Are you an [Engineer], then? And you make—siege weapons?”
A titter of laughter. The Dullahan woman looked offended and hurried to correct Selys.
“Oversee. I manage the [Engineers] and Pallass’ innovations. Which are of course, the pride of Izril.”
“Unmatched. And here is Dellibe, our [Merchant of Curios]. Well, not exactly of Pallass, but he circulates between all the Walled Cities. Say hello, Dellibe—don’t let him make you an offer for the armor, Selys. He couldn’t afford it. And that fine Drake lady with the white and pink scales is a [Fashionista]—”
It was funny. Here were classes and people you had no idea existed. Well-dressed sorts of various invisible ranks falling over themselves to be remembered by the important people. Who, of course, changed with the seasons and the whims of High Society.
“It wasn’t too long ago that Relz was one of the hangers-on. And Noass would have been allowed in here only on sufferance.”
A female Drake hanging out near the back of the circle engulfing Selys commented acidly to the Dullahan in fake-gold armor. Well, it looked good, but she was quite aware that it was just gold leaf painted onto ornamented, plain steel.
He was an [Auctioneer]. She was…well, her. The two traded glances. The Dullahan, whose name was Calert, whispered back as he adjusted his head.
“Don’t let Relz hear you say that. Do you know…her?”
The Drake snorted. She cast her eyes dismissively around the gathering. Selys had come at a good time—well—sort of. Most of the movers and shakers were here, and she was getting to know them all.
“She’s a kid from Liscor, Calert. She inherited the Heartflame Breastplate.”
“Ah. Does she have any plans on selling it?”
The Dullahan’s eyes lit up. As stated, he was an [Auctioneer], and he was allowed in these sorts of gatherings because he often sold the very things Pallass’ elite—and other elites across the world, even [Monarchs]—fought over. The Drake flicked her tail and smacked him in the leg.
“Don’t think about it. You don’t have the security to protect the armor even if it went on sale, Calert. I’m surprised no one’s stolen it, but I hear she’s renting it out to Gold-rank adventurers. Smart for her, but someone’s going to make a move eventually.”
Calert buffed at the spot that had been smudged on his armor, nervously checking to see if the gold paint had flaked away. He gave the Drake a glare. But she was immune to it.
Nor was she entirely welcome here. She was not a mover or a shaker or someone who enjoyed playing the games of High Society. But then—that was because this Drake was aware that high society was rather like the low society. In the underworld of Pallass, there were faces. Master criminals, and gangs. Like the Blackwing family, except not sanctioned by the law. And anyone who was anyone had to obey the rules down there too.
The only difference was that High Society just ostracized you if you made a mistake. In the shadows, you got stabbed and if you were lucky, people found enough of you to identify.
“At least [Thugs] are honest about when they’re about to bash you over the head and take everything you own. How much do you want to bet half of Miss Selys’ new friends are just begging to try on the Heartflame Breastplate so they can be first to show it off? She’ll get a lot of favors until the novelty wears off. And then she’s at the back of the line. Unless one of them get her first.”
The Dullahan shushed his companion, looking around, askance. But no one was listening.
The Noble’s Fancy really was…fancy. Refreshments were of course, freely offered and the [Innkeeper], Adalton, was keenly aware that his clientele weren’t coming here for just the feed or rooms, but the service and the scene. So there was entertainment to be had at all hours.
Including the work Calert was here for. The [Auctioneer] was checking a magical time-teller nervously; it reflected the sky above him.
“I’ve got to begin the bidding soon. Onieva—do you have it?”
The Drake sighed. She plucked something from the bag of holding she wore and dangled it at the Dullahan. Heads turned. Even with Selys in the middle of the gathering.
“Fresh from himself. Catch.”
She tossed it. The vial of liquid spun through the air and Calert grabbed desperately at it. One of his arms detached and caught the vial. It hovered in the air and slowly floated back to his body. He was sweating.
“Onieva! Don’t do that!”
“Relax. Don’t get your tail in knots. Saliss wouldn’t put his potions in a regular glass vial. You can get the money from him. And I’m done being his Street Runner.”
The female Drake snorted. She turned. And she missed Calert’s glare at her back. She looked around, disinterested in the entire room. But Selys—as Calert hurried away with the item of the hour, Onieva counted.
“Ladies and Gentledrakes, we are ready to begin the auction. Our top item—which will be bid on worldwide is a Potion of Temporary Youth, brewed by Saliss of Lights himself!”
Calert’s voice echoed through the hall. And scrying mirrors began to light up as viewers from elsewhere tuned in. Like many auction houses, those from afar could bid on items in Pallass.
Well, there were private auction-houses too, with darker items on sale. Chandrar had them. And there were even more elite gatherings than these. But Pallass’ was notable, despite being smaller for one thing.
The Potion of Youth. Onieva saw heads turning. Everyone who was anyone here turned. Some weren’t even that old. But it was the name, the power and desire that made them look for the very item she’d tossed at Calert. And which gave the fake Dullahan his small amount of power here.
Youth. A way to restore age, however temporarily. Lord Werdin broke off from speaking with Selys, and Onieva chuckled, seeing the naked desire in his eyes. This was why she stuck around. And also why they let her in here.
“Fat chance you’ll get it, Werdin. You can’t outbid the really rich. And for what? One week.”
The Drake was drinking something expensive. She made a face and spat it into an ornamental vase. She caught sight of one of the few Gnolls sniffing at her in horror. Onieva stuck out her tongue. The Gnoll hurried off, shaking his head in disgust. And Onieva strolled across the room.
“You must attend one of our gatherings, Miss Selys. I am part of it, but Healer Demerra organizes the events. I believe there is one in four days. Allow me to send you an invitation—it will be at my estates this time, but we do alternate locations.”
“Oh—uh—and what do you all do?”
Duskal, the rich Dullahan woman whose armor was totally authentic and totally worthless, smiled grandly.
“Speak, of course. About such matters that concern us. But we also bid on our own small collections. Demerra has a collection of very fine healing crystals which rejuvenate the body. There are tonics, other artifacts—ah, but speaking of which, the auction has begun. I was waiting for this. If you’ll excuse me?”
Her head was looking as well towards the auction, and the vial of viridian liquid. Age. Duskal had to be pushing sixty. Oh, to be a young Dullahan for a moment! But she’d be bidding against the world’s biggest purses. She wouldn’t make it past the first round of bidding, but she’d be part of it, just to prove—she could have it if she beggared herself.
Selys saw the Dullahan woman walking quickly towards the auction house. Well—a measured tread, with the attendant Dullahan holding her head on the pillow. Now that was rich. Someone just to hold your head. She tried to count how many invitations she’d received.
One from Duskal to join…a circle of Pallass’ most wealthy? Lord Werdin wanted her to visit his estates—the shy Lady Salkis was a bit younger than Selys, but he seemed to think they’d be friends. A Gnoll had told Selys there was this delightful trend to go to Pallass Hunting—Selys had been under the impression that it was all fake, according to Erin, but maybe not?—and someone wanted her to go to—
“A party tonight?”
Sir Relz had invited her to that. One in this very…inn. Selys glanced about. She was tempted to go. And she felt distinctly poorer than she had with Drassi. Sir Relz was on the scrying orb! And Duskhal controlled all of Pallass’ engineering…?
“Psst. Idiot. A word of advice. Stop gaping and pretend you’re not impressed. And don’t go to that party.”
Selys jumped. Someone was standing next to her. She saw a taller Drake, slim, with rose-and-cobalt scales eying her from the side. She had a glass in one claw.
She had to have misheard the ‘idiot’. The female Drake looked at her.
“You don’t want to go with them to their fancy shindigs. You’re just going to do the most expensive and overpriced drugs and have mad sex—or buy a bunch of magical ‘healing gemstones’ or illusions. Again, overpriced.”
Selys blinked. Here was someone who didn’t fit in. The Drake eyed Selys with urbane amusement. And she had a sharp tongue. Selys frowned.
“How would you know that?”
“I’ve been, of course. If you want to, go ahead. But you’re going to catch something. Or get hooked. You’re new to ‘High Society’, aren’t you? It’s all a bunch of idiots in a bucket clamoring for attention and you’re the newest bait.”
She reminded Selys a bit of Drassi—when Drassi was in a bad mood. She was also fairly familiar for someone whom Selys had never met. Selys glared.
“I’m new here, yes. But I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Selys. Shivertail.”
“…niece of the great General Shivertail, owner of the Heartflame Breastplate. Yes, so I’ve heard. Congratulations. You got lucky, like everyone else here. Including myself.”
The Drake transferred the drink to her other claw to hold out a claw to shake. Selys stared at her. The [Heiress] folded her arms.
“Charmed. And you are?”
A slight smile, like a razor’s edge.
“Onieva Oliwing. Yes, yes, related to the great Saliss Oliwing. Please don’t compare us. He’s part of the family, but distantly.”
“Saliss? You mean—”
“Pallass’ naked, dancing [Alchemist]? Or Saliss of Lights? Same one. I delivered the Potion of Youth. That’s my job. Also—being rich. How do you do?”
Onieva drained the glass. Then she tossed it. Selys winced, waiting for the glass to shatter, but instead of breaking on the carpet, it landed softly. Onieva laughed, ignoring the looks she was getting.
“Nothing breaks in The Noble’s Fancy. Fancy for tricks. And I’m afraid that Shivertail is a big name…in Manus, Selys. General Shivertail’s family moved there back when he became a big hero. But around here, if you’re not Blackwing—or Oliwing I suppose, we’re relatives—you need something else. Don’t let anyone steal that Heartflame Breastplate or they’ll never let you back in.”
She gestured around the room. Selys hesitated.
“What makes you think I’m part of this place? I just came here to visit and I was spirited…here.”
Onieva gave Selys a sidelong glance.
“Well, you seemed so taken with them…but good for you if you’re not interested. I just came here to warn you that this is an elite group. Not everyone hangs out here. I’m the only Oliwing who does, and it’s just to deliver Saliss’ potions and tweak tails. You won’t catch Chaldion here and they banned Saliss long ago.”
“Chaldion…? He’s related to Saliss?”
The [Heiress] stared. She saw Onieva wink at her.
“Chaldion Oliwing? Yeah, they’re related. And not happy about it. But both of them hate this place. Don’t let Relz fool you. He’s just like all the other people here. Go visit Tails and Scales if they’ll let you in, or somewhere with real people.”
“Onieva. Are you bothering our newest member?”
A voice floated back down the hall. Selys and Onieva saw Lady Melika coming back their way. Onieva stage-whispered to Selys.
“And here comes Melika. A literal [Socialite]. Married into the Blackwing family. She came from Baleros. Look at all the beautiful Skills and illusions that go into her feathers!”
Her whisper was a bit too loud. Or just loud enough. Melika’s eyes narrowed like a hunting bird. Onieva backed up, smiling with all her teeth.
“And my time is up. I’m leaving, Melika. Don’t lose another feather. Selys—you were warned.”
She walked towards the doors as, behind her, the auctioneer shouted numbers and people bid on the Potion of Youth. Selys glanced over her shoulder at Onieva. Melika adjusted her ruffled plumage as she extended a wing.
“I’m sorry you had to meet that Drake, Miss Selys. She’s something of a black sheep in her family. Even Saliss of Lights, as…singular as he is, has some redeeming value. Miss Onieva leeches off both her relatives. She mainly delivers potions for her cousin. Now, you must come see the auction.”
She led Selys back towards the bidding, speaking into Selys’ ear. Onieva was walking towards the exit.
“I doubt you will win any of them; the bidding is fierce today, with the Potion of Youth, but it is something to see what’s being offered…where is Salkis? I do hope you’ll be friends, but my stepdaughter is rather reclusive. She disappears for long periods. Studious. Well…”
A strange world. Selys felt her head spinning, but the richness of this place spoke to her, even above Onieva’s warnings. Something at the heart of her heritage, Drakes, Dragons, loved the feel of this place. Power, moving unspoken.
And yet—Onieva made Selys look back one last time. That Drake had given her a warning, sharp-toothed as it might have been. She had been uncannily familiar too. Had they met?
No. Surely not. Selys shook her head. And she was wrong, of course. But, contrary to what she might have believed, this wasn’t her moment.
A Drake walked through Pallass. And she attracted very little attention. Almost by design. Well—she got looks for her unique coloration of scales, rose pink fading darker to cobalt. And she wasn’t unknown. In fact, she got friendlier looks after leaving The Noble’s Fancy.
“Onieva! Are you delivering another potion? Did Saliss make another Potion of Youth?”
A Garuda apprentice [Alchemist] was making a supply run from the 1st floor trading market. He was flying up, with a package in one claw. Flying hard; even the extra weight was hard on him. Onieva called out as the Garuda flapped past her.
“It’s Temporary Youth. And yes he did! Go bother him about it if you want one.”
“Hah! He never answers anyone. Even when Xif pounds on his door all day! Wait—I heard he took an apprentice. Is that—”
“Sorry, can’t hear you!”
The female Drake shouted back cheerfully. She heard an oath from above as the Garuda spiraled, straining to pull the ingredients for his master all the way to the 9th floor. He could have taken an elevator, but he probably saved a few minutes doing it like this. Onieva continued her walk, going down, not up.
And she had no more conversations as she walked. Some of the [Alchemists] knew her, but it was actually most of Pallass’ elites that knew Onieva’s name. After all—she was Onieva Oliwing. Not Saliss, or Chaldion.
Everyone knew those two. And Saliss, on a trip to any floor, would invariably speak to most people he passed by. Even if it was them pleading with him to put on pants. But Onieva walked in silence. If she did recognize…two faces in the crowd, she didn’t call out to them. And they did not acknowledge her.
Down. Further down. Not down the Grand Staircases, but one of the numerous smaller staircases. The 6th floor had a lot of activities for people with money. But Onieva wasn’t in search of those things. She headed down. And down. And…
The 1st and 2nd Floors of Pallass weren’t places for the ultra-rich. In fact, they were something of the opposite. Because that was where traffic was highest; people came in and out of the city through there. There were high-capacity lodgings, plentiful shops, the trading bazaar. But the rich preferred to take that at a remove.
Also, the 1st and 2nd Floors were by far the largest. Because Pallass’ floors grew progressively smaller the higher they got, the bottom two floors utilized all of the Walled City’s incredible space. And in that alone the 1st floor made Liscor small by comparison.
There were places in Pallass that even regular residents didn’t know. There was crime in the Walled City. Not as much as in the north, or perhaps, more accurately, the law cracked down harsher on crime, which meant those that survived were up to the challenge. But if you knew where to look, you could find crime.
And secrets. Like this. As she descended, Onieva pulled out a handy rain cloak. As if it wasn’t a warm evening. But—the sun wasn’t visible as she walked under the shadow of the 3rd floor, along the second. There was artificial lighting, but it wasn’t the same.
Further inside, along the walls. No one wanted to live in the shade all the time, so there was another metric of wealth. The richer you were, the closer to the edge you lived, literally. And also—the higher. Somewhere around the 6th floor was where the bell-curve of wealth reached its peak.
Now her scales were concealed. And her face was hidden in the shadows of her hooded cloak. Onieva walked carefully, amid a dense intersection of buildings.
There. You’d never know it among the other buildings. But here was a suspiciously new door. And this building—Onieva studied it, and put her claw on the door. She whispered a phrase and the door clicked. The lock opened and she pushed the door open. She stepped into…
A bar. Or perhaps ‘pub’ was a better word. Yes, a pub. The difference was that a bar was where you got alcohol. A pub was for everything.
Then again, there was alcohol here. But also food. A few tables and chairs, of varying quality—but it wasn’t exactly the cleanliest of places.
And the bar looked…well, ‘worn’ was a poor descriptor. There were also, coincidentally, no windows. But there were two—three exits. And a cellar. Onieva counted.
She threw back her hood and removed the cloak. It went into to the bag of holding. Onieva sensed eyes on her—they had been on her the moment she’d entered. But only a few lingered. People recognized her here.
“Onieva. I haven’t seen you in a week.”
A voice came from the bar. The female Drake made a beeline for the Drake owner of this establishment.
“Mirn. This place is awful.”
“Don’t say that. You’ll wound my pride. Here, have a sandwich on me. And a drink?”
A plate and drink were slid across the bar. They didn’t exactly do a smooth, Rufelt-quality slide; they hit a bump and would have gone over the side if Onieva hadn’t caught them. She grabbed the drink and plate and swore. Then she took a bite of the sandwich and promptly spat it over the bar counter.
“Ancestors. What is that?”
“Onieva! It’s food! Can’t you tell?”
“That is the stalest food I’ve ever had. And I’ve eaten five-week old bread by accident. At least that had fresh mold. You can’t cook, Mirn. Don’t tell me you tried?”
The Drake looked at her old acquaintance. Another Drake leaned on the counter. Mirn, the owner of…this place at this moment, grinned at her. He had an infectious smile, also a scar across his bottom and upper lip.
“I didn’t. I bought these from some idiot and it’s all we’ve got. They went stale, alright?”
“When did you buy them?”
“That explains it.”
Onieva pushed the plate away. She sighed.
“Your bag of holding isn’t good at preserving food, Mirn. Stop buying this stuff.”
“It’s the only one with the capacity I need. Have a drink.”
The Drake urged his friend. Onieva took a swallow. She opened her mouth.
“Spit it and I’ll make you eat the entire plate.”
The Drake warned Onieva. She closed her mouth.
“This is disgusting.”
“But it’s cheap. Honestly, it is bad. But it’s all we could get on short notice. Take a seat. Where’ve you been?”
Their greetings finished, the two Drakes leaned in. Mirn wasn’t exactly circulating the room, waiting on clients. And Onieva noticed most had brought their own food or drinks. Some were chatting together, or finding new people. Cautiously.
In the background, someone had set up a music crystal. Onieva heard a thumping beat and a female voice. She smiled and began to tap her foot.
“Isn’t it? The Queen of Pop. She’s selling those music crystals. That’s a gift. The kids are loving it.”
Mirn tilted her head, indicating a group of Gnolls and Drakes and a single Garuda dancing wildly in a corner. They were being treated with some forbearance, despite the pub’s clientele differing wildly in ages. But the pop song didn’t bother anyone unduly. In fact—Onieva smiled.
“I should buy some. For myself, obviously.”
“Obviously. Can’t share it with me.”
“You’ll just put it in here. And then someone might ask questions. And I am done with questions. And I’m in a bad mood, Mirn.”
The Drake rolled his eyes.
“No, really? And here I thought to myself ‘Mirn, you know when I see Onieva? It’s always when she’s in a good mood.’ What crawled up your tail today?”
“Oh…you know the usual suspect.”
“Right. I heard.”
Mirn went sober for a second. He investigated a mug, picking at a bit of something. Onieva checked her mug; Mirn was in theory a [Pub Owner], a [Publican]. In theory, because he didn’t have that class and because his establishment was nothing like Tails and Scales, or even The Wandering Inn.
Rufelt would have probably burned down this place if he knew it existed. But he didn’t. Not many people did. This was a word-of-mouth place. And you had to know the password. You had to be invited. And you had to need it.
Somehow, people found this place, through any number of whispers, chance meetings. Even though it changed locations, even though there was…trouble. In a way, it was as magical a spot as The Wandering Inn’s magical door. But Onieva would have paid a lot for Erin’s magical door. Let alone her garden.
“Mirn. I’ve got a lot to tell you. Not just my problems. But have you ever thought of being an actual [Pub Owner]? Or [Innkeeper] or something? Even a [Bartender].”
“Who, me? Well, my class is adjacent, Onieva. Adjacent. But I’ve thought of it. I could clean up each place. I used to, remember?”
“Absolutely. You mind at least swabbing the floors?”
The Drake’s smile slipped. He studied Onieva.
“I’ll think about the next good place we find. But we won’t be here long, Onieva. We’ve got tails.”
The Drake paused, halfway through the bad drink.
“I think it’s official. I’m glad you’re here, actually. There was a bad situation with the last bar.”
“I didn’t hear. I’m sorry. I was in the laboratory all of this week. I barely made a new potion after the Youth Potion and I have an apprentice. And that was on top of the Wyverns…”
Mirn nodded. He was dressed in casual clothes, not a [Bartender] or other owner’s distinctive clothing. He could, if needed, disappear into a crowd. Everyone could. Most had come here with some sort of disguise. And some still wore them.
Onieva looked past tables, at the dancing youths. The two Gnolls she recognized and the Garuda. Not the Drake. The Gnolls were a couple. Both male.
“I heard about the apprentice. It’s all the buzz in the alchemist circles. Do you mean Saliss has an apprentice?”
Onieva looked back at her friend. She jabbed her chest with a claw.
“I have one, Mirn. She’s a good kid. And I was delivering the potion. I met this young Drake. Selys Shivertail. Niece of Zel Shivertail. She was getting tangled up in society with all the rich idiots at The Noble’s Fancy.”
“I hear they have good food there.”
“Rich food. Don’t get any ideas, Mirn. It tastes almost as bad as this stuff. Just get me something stronger, will you?”
“Firebreath Whiskey, coming up.”
The Drake pulled out a bottle of the stuff and filled a glass. Not a shot glass, or a cute tumbler. A proper drinking glass. Also—not a tiny bit. It was two thirds full and Onieva took the glass and drained half. Mirn winced.
“Do [Alchemists] have iron stomachs?”
“I could take an acid bath. But you learn to drink anything and everything. Come on, fill it up. I’m not in a good mood.”
The level of strong liquor went up in the glass, and went down just as fast. Onieva exhaled slowly. Then she reached for her bag of holding.
“And your payment, good sir.”
“Thank you, miss. Is this a tip?”
Mirn watched as gold spilled onto the counter. Onieva wagged one claw; she was blocking the others from seeing the small fortune as Mirn made it disappear into his bag of holding just as quick.
“This isn’t the tip. Just payment for my drink. This is today’s tip.”
She produced several small bottles of a glowing liquid. Mirn’s eyes went round.
“Straight Orgasminium, mined from the halls of Saliss of Light’s laboratory. And I made it while teaching my new apprentice, so I don’t have to lie if I get interrogated about it.”
Onieva tapped the glowing bottles of liquid pleasure, which she’d made a few days ago while teaching Octavia. Mirn reached for one.
“I thought they were banned. Even you said you couldn’t risk making it—you can do it if it’s your apprentice?”
“Yup. Nice loophole, right? If you’re found with it, I was giving them away. Which I’ll do later, with a few of the bottles.”
“Split them into quarter-doses if you need to. That’s all I’ve got, Mirn. Xif’s got two bottles, but knowing him he’s already traded it for favors from his Gnoll friends and social circle.”
The Drake spat the words. Mirn nodded.
“These ones will go straight to the ones who need it most in their life.”
The glowing potions disappeared as well as the gold. Onieva sighed. Her head lolled back as the whiskey hit her all at once. Mirn looked at her.
“What would I do without my best customer?”
“Keep running this place. Only, your clientele would eventually end up sitting on the ground and eating dirt and bugs instead of using tables and awful sandwiches.”
“Hm. Sounds appealing. So…tell me.”
Onieva passed a claw over her eyes. She turned to face Mirn at the bar.
“Chaldion’s fine. I slipped him some of the you-know-what.”
“Again? How much did you spend to…?”
“I’ll make it back with the Potion of Youth. Enough. I have a new lead on some ingredients. I’m not in the mood to talk shop, Mirn.”
“I’m just asking. In all seriousness, if you disappear, I’m not going to have the money to keep renting new places. Let alone replacing the door or…you know.”
“Don’t worry, Mirn. Saliss of Lights knows how to juggle his finances. And he’s not an idiot. If worse comes to worst, he’ll sell some of his potions.”
“Not hunt Wyverns in the High Passes?”
The Drake opened one eye and gave Mirn a look.
“He’s not an idiot, I said. He doesn’t risk his life without a damn good reason. Those adventurers are going to get slaughtered there.”
“Really? Damn. There’s one of us in a team planning to head north. Should I warn her off?”
Onieva sat up slightly.
“Drake. She’s been here twice. Her team’s after that gold, like anyone else. Should I…?”
The [Alchemist] closed her eyes and thought.
“…No. It’s a fair risk for a team. That much gold for a Wyvern? I have no idea who’s posting the bounty, but if it’s legitimate—I’d jump at it and take the risk if I was that level. She’s high-Silver rank, right? I think I know who you’re talking about.”
Neither Drake mentioned names. Names—were a risky thing to mention in this place. After all, this was a bar, a pub for a particular sort of person. They had a name in Drake society.
Turnscale. Or at least, that was a broad term. It didn’t cover Onieva quite right. Drakes didn’t have a name for her. Mirn regarded his friend.
“Does Saliss have any more Polymorph Potions, Onieva? I’m asking for a friend.”
The Drake’s head was lolling a bit. She was tired—the alcohol was working fast. But her body was dispersing the drink just as quickly. She sat up, shook her head.
“[Polymorph] is the spell, which applies to people turning into completely different forms. This is different, Mirn. And I can’t make it last…that’s not my specialty, and even if it was, this is serious magic.”
“I know. But could you—Saliss—”
A fist smacked the bar. Mirn recoiled just in time. He saw Onieva’s eye glaring at him. Even her eye color was different. Violet.
“Me, Mirn. It’s always me. I’m as authentically Saliss as I am when I’m Onieva.”
“So, always lying through your teeth?”
The two Drakes looked at each other. Onieva sagged back down.
“Yeah, probably. We’re different, you know? I’ve been noticing it more and more. Saliss likes smoking. I like drinking.”
Mirn eyed the empty glass.
“You don’t say. Look, the potions aren’t for me. I’d only be curious to try it once, and even then—I’m fine in my scales. But there are some people who’d…need them.”
The [Alchemist] closed her eyes.
“I can’t make enough of them, Mirn. This isn’t just scales-deep. It’s complete. It’d be easier to buy illusion spells. Or…”
“It’s not the same.”
“No. Damn. But I can’t. Someone finds that potion, and they will trace it back to me or Xif. Or one of a few [Alchemists] in this city. Saliss cannot be linked to you. I’ll give you gold, even the other potions, but not that.”
The male Drake chewed that over. He nodded at last.
“Fine. You do enough for us as it is. So—no potions.”
“Want me to ram one right up your ass?”
“No thanks. Not even as Saliss.”
Both laughed at each other. Onieva made a fist and Mirn chuckled. He looked at his friend. Then he decided to ask another question on his mind.
“But let’s say you perfect the potion and it doesn’t wear off. Would you ever consider not being Saliss? I mean, you’d have to have an excuse. But if it could be permanent…also, do you ever get the urge to have sex as…Saliss? Or only as you? Or does it change between…?””
He saw Onieva pause. She closed her eyes. But then she shook her head.
“I’m not in the mood to discuss every way I’m a disappointment to my grandfather, Mirn.”
“He hasn’t changed?”
“Do you think he would after all this time? No. That old bastard is the same. I could strangle him. Rgh! Hero this, future of Pallass that. Haven’t I done enough?”
Onieva made a grasping motion with her claws. It was something Saliss would never do. But then—even if he was the famed nudist of Pallass, he was also Pallass’ hero. Or as close to it as they got.
“Saliss is pretty beloved. I didn’t hear anyone even so much as calling you out for the naked dancing for a week after the Wyvern attack.”
The [Alchemist]’s lips twitched and she relaxed.
“That was funny. But Saliss is the closest I can get to what Chaldion wants. And even then—I’m not putting on pants. I’d rather tweak all of Pallass’ tails as their famed Named Adventurer than be the respectable hero. I’d be a fraud.”
Mirn was slowly trying to polish a cup and smearing it with some kind of oily residue. He eyed Onieva from the side as another Drake came in, following a group of cloaked and masked Dullahans.
“And you’re not a hero already?”
“Don’t you start, Mirn. We don’t need heroes. We need to change—we need—I could do it. I could. I could walk around, pretending to be as perfect as Chaldion wants. He might even be proud of me. But that’s not what I want to be. I have to drink this potion. Come here or walk around Pallass as me. Or I will snap. Even as Saliss, I can’t pretend to be a ‘good Drake’. I have to run around naked and annoy those idiots. Or else I feel more and more like an imposter.”
Mirn nodded. He watched as the Drake newcomer walked over to a table. The people there greeted him warmly. They were all friends here.
Turnscales. Or—people that didn’t fit, like Onieva. There weren’t many of them—or at least, many who came here. But more than you thought. How many were there, really? How many had no clue? Or were afraid to know the truth?
“What’s wrong with us, Mirn?”
The [Alchemist] stared past him. At nothing. At the wall. Mirn leaned on the bar.
“Me? Nothing. You? You’re rude, violent, a nudist, you enjoy annoying people no matter who you are, you gobble food—”
He dodged the swipe from the claws. Onieva stared past him. And Mirn—was concerned. This was bad, even for her. Chaldion and Saliss seldom spoke because this happened. And Chaldion and Onieva?
“Tell me about Zel Shivertail, Onieva. He was one of us?”
“Turnscale. Yeah. I met him a few times. Never in secret. I bet you he could never have come here.”
“I wish I could have met him. I bet you I could tell. You’re sure?”
Onieva looked past Mirn.
“Absolutely. You’d know in a heartbeat. I think he found me out.”
“General Shivertail. The Tidebreaker.”
Mirn closed his eyes. The hero of the Drakes. He was dead. But the knowledge mattered. They were not alone. If Zel Shivertail had been one of them, they were not wrong.
“He was one of us, Onieva. That means something.”
“It means Drakes, the cities need heroes, Mirn. It means the old man’s right. And that the world needs Saliss more than Onieva. It means I shouldn’t come back here. And you know what? Part of me agrees. That’s why I’m Saliss. Because I know we need Saliss of Lights. The Antinium. Humans. Monsters. We need him. Not someone who’s a traitor to our species.”
The Drake was resting her head on the bar. Mirn had nothing to say to that. He left her for a moment as someone came over.
“Mirn, Mirn. That Drake is asking if this is our regular gathering spot.”
A Garuda whispered urgently at him. The Drake saw the newcomer circulating the tables. Laughing, smiling. But something—the Drake felt a warning bell go off in his head. He looked at the Garuda.
“That’s not bad, Quet—”
But the Garuda had the same thought as Mirn.
“It’s how he’s asking, Mirn. You know? Like last time.”
His feathers were standing up. Mirn grabbed the Garuda and towed him back. He whispered, urgently.
“Don’t get alarmed. Onieva and I are both here. I’ll deal with it. Tell everyone else not to run for the doors. Stay put.”
The Garuda nodded. Mirn strode over.
“Hey! You! No one asks questions here. You can come back tomorrow. No details, no names. Don’t you know the rules?”
He glared, and saw an unfamiliar face turning towards him. The Drake was young. Fairly handsome. Nice tail. He raised his claws, looking sheepish.
“Sorry, I’m new.”
Mirn repeated. Nothing was certain. He saw Quet glancing at him and nodded. Keep an eye out. He got a nod and went back to Onieva. She was past depressed and spiraling. Now she was staring at the ceiling. And when one of her eyes moved towards Mirn, he got worried.
“Do you ever feel like burning it all down, Mirn? Sometimes I wonder if I could.”
“Burn…what down, Onieva?”
“Pallass. Sometimes I wonder if I could. Just destroy the city, maybe. I can’t destroy the walls. But the rest of it? If only the people weren’t in the way. Then it would be easy. I could do it. They couldn’t stop me. Not at first. It would be like the Greater Wyvern.”
She stared past Mirn. And he remembered. His friend was a Named-Rank Adventurer. Mirn made his voice cheerful.
“You—wouldn’t do that, though. It’s a shit society. But we need the cities. And we’re still Drakes, aren’t we? You can’t quit being that. You can’t stop being a Drake, right?”
He believed that. But the [Alchemist] just looked past him.
“In a heartbeat. But you know why I’m still me? It’s because I still love that old idiot. Still. And because he’s right. Not about…Onieva. But because Saliss is needed. He has to do terrible things, Mirn. Things I can’t even tell you about. The Antinium don’t stay in their Hives all the time.”
She whispered that and Mirn’s scales tingled. Onieva’s head rolled. She looked at him again, seriously.
“And even then. Even when he’s seen me fighting for Pallass. Chaldion won’t look me in the eye. Not me. After all I’ve done. And you know what? I’m keeping him alive until he’ll look at me. Because someday he’ll die. And when he does, they’ll come down on us harder. Turnscales.”
She raised her voice. The pub went silent. Mirn saw the Drake newcomer circulating near the back look up. The forbidden word made the other guests look at Onieva nervously. They knew her, but—
She was too angry to care.
“They won’t ignore us after the old man. They’ll hunt. Overturn every rock and exile us. If they don’t find enough rope first. But it’s not like that everywhere.”
“You mean—Oteslia? I hear it’s easier there. Or Zeres?”
“It’s the same in all the Walled Cities.”
Onieva snapped. She pointed at Mirn, her finger remarkably unwavering despite how drunk she was.
“I’m talking about other places! It doesn’t have to be like this, you know. Nerrhavia’s different. For Drakes, at any rate. They care about your fabric. So—ironically, us Drakes can walk around as we please. It’s the Alterkind they hate. So it’s the same everywhere, actually. Nevermind.”
“Onieva, you’re drunk.”
Mirn gently pried her claws off her empty cup. Onieva stared at him. Then she shook her head. Mirn remembered his friend. She had come back from Nerrhavia as a seasoned [Alchemist]. With a potion and her name. And a resolution not to take an apprentice and get romantically involved, ever.
The normal atmosphere returned after a while. Onieva idled as Mirn fed her some of the terrible sandwiches.
“…You should get food from The Wandering Inn. They have good food. It’s a nice place.”
“Yes, yes. But it’s not for us. Liscor’s like Pallass, I bet.”
“It could be better. It could all be better. I could burn it down.”
“If you burn this pub down, I’ll hit you.”
“You couldn’t touch me. No one can. I’m the biggest disgrace in Drake society and they can’t fire me or stop me. Isn’t that funny?”
“Mirn—he’s asking if there are more places like this one.”
The Drake was bothering some of the other clients. This time Mirn looked up. Onieva jerked upright and pointed a finger. She didn’t bother with subtlety.
“I am so angry at that old damn Drake. Hey! You! Stop bothering them or we’ll pull out your scales one by one!”
She shouted at the Drake. And Mirn saw the Drake look up nervously. He waved apologetically and slid towards the doors. Mirn’s scales chilled.
“Onieva. I think that guy’s…”
“Yeah. Clear everyone out.”
The [Alchemist] might have been beyond drunk, but she was still an adventurer. She narrowed her eyes, and sobered up almost at once. Mirn’s clients watched sedately as the Drake left, smiling around and apologizing. The instant the door closed they moved.
“Downstairs. No one bother with the doors!”
Mirn snapped. Everyone flooded towards the real secret exit. Mirn checked all three of the magical doors he’d installed.
Erin wasn’t the only one who’d learned you could install your own magical doorways. These were only reinforced and magically locked. Onieva looked around and cursed.
“We’ve got four minutes, I bet. Grab the doors.”
“No. They’ll slow them down—”
Mirn was herding everyone out of the secret hole in the basement. It led to the 1st floor—everyone was hurrying out into the street, scattering. They’d done this before. But Onieva was angry. Her tail lashed.
“How much do they cost? Grab the damn doors.”
“Onieva, forget about them and come on.”
There was a sound from outside. Mirn spun. A voice bellowed.
“This is the Watch! Open the door at once!”
“The Watch. Not someone else. Ancestors. Go on. I’ll buy you a minute.”
Mirn hesitated. He flicked a blade out of his side pocket. Both edges were razor-sharp. You could open someone’s throat with it in a moment. The [Protector] looked at Onieva. She was drinking another potion.
“Get lost, Mirn. I’ll find you again.”
He nodded. And vanished through the trap door. Onieva sat by the bar. Silently, as the lights flickered out.
No crystals playing music. No drinks. Some crappy sandwiches on the floor. Even the tables and chairs were gone, in the bag of holding. Only the Drake remained as the Watch, exasperated, finally decided to blast through the wall rather than the reinforced doors they’d been battering.
They found no Turnscales. No illegal activities. Only a female Drake, sitting at the bar. And her scales were deep green. She was taller than she had been a moment ago. And when she turned, the [Infiltrator] who’d discovered the place didn’t recognize her. Her mouth flickered as the Watch aimed their weapons at her.
“Put your hands up! Where are the others?”
The [Captain] barked at her. Onieva narrowed her eyes. And she opened her mouth and spat frost. They went for her. And she grabbed a club. There were a lot of them. But she was a Named Adventurer. They had no idea.
Four minutes and a half later, Onieva let the last ones run. She stood amid unconscious bodies. Broken bones, frostbite at the worst. No more. The Drake had a few bruises. Nothing worse. They had barely touched her.
She could have killed them with a wood club. It would have been easy. The Drake paused. She bowed her head.
“This has been a really terrible day.”
She paused to kick a Drake in the groin on the way out. She stepped into the street and took a final potion. All the liquids were giving her a stomachache—they would have done horrible things to a regular stomach. But the [Alchemist] walked through the streets. She made only one mistake, and corrected it before she left.
By the time the Watch flooded into the empty den of depravity, a Drake was walking through Pallass. Invisible to their eyes, camouflaged by his very nature. Of course, everyone looked at him.
But that was only because he was extremely naked.
It was a terrible kind of day. And it had started with a fall. And—at the heart of it all was Chaldion. Love, terrible, fraught, and twisted. Bitter. And a Drake had not had a good day.
But he didn’t end the day by burning down the city. Or even murdering anyone. Because he had lived through worse days. The Drake [Alchemist] stretched in the sun. And he felt all wrong. But that was as much a sense of himself as the world.
Saliss of Lights walked through Pallass, as invisible in his own way as Onieva. And if anyone recognized him—if he saw Mirn in the crowd, he gave no sign of it. Pallass needed a hero. And if anyone knew him, they kept it secret.
Gnolls were good at keeping secrets. So were Dullahans. So were the sort of folks who existed outside of what was good and pure and right. And this was the world Saliss protected. Year after year. Until, perhaps, his potions stopped working. For today—let it be.
“Hey. It’s me.”
The Drake lay in the hallway in Erin’s inn. Flat on his front—there were children about, after all. He inch-wormed his way down the hallway, ignoring the looks he got.
“Excuse me, Mister Saliss. Would you mind…not doing that? People are worried.”
Lyonette, a bit flustered, tried to get Saliss to get up. He rolled over.
“…No. Erin? Erin.”
The [Innkeeper] came after a little bit. Saliss stared up at her. And he was ready to stop annoying her after a while. She didn’t deserve full-Saliss. He respected her, liked her a bit. From a fellow person with a mask to another.
But the young woman didn’t chase Saliss away, or shout. She just squatted there as he stared up at her.
“Nothing much. People don’t like me playing cards.”
“You don’t say?”
“Nope. I have a great poker face, apparently.”
“Oh. You don’t say.”
“Mhm. Why are you lying on the ground?”
“…Because it was there?”
A stupid answer. But the young woman smiled. And she saw straight through him. Well—part of him.
“You wanna drink? Octavia says Chaldion got hurt. Is he okay?”
Saliss looked up at Erin. And he sat up abruptly.
“Chaldion? Psh. He’s fine. Ornery as always. I had a lot of drinks.”
“But is he okay? And we have milk. And blue fruit juice.”
“…I’ll have some milk. Chaldion? He’d probably like a visit. You know him. If you go visit, can you play chess?”
“I’ll let you get by the [Healer]. And I’ll pay you to slip some spicy peppers into his food.”
“…I’ll think about that.”
The Drake found himself sitting at a table. And he felt a bit better as he found cards being explained to him. It wasn’t anything in particular he enjoyed. But he beat Erin in a single hand of cards by bluffing. Because her poker face was an open book to an expert. It was obvious if you knew what to look for.
And the Drake was alone. Alone, in an inn. Alone in a city. After all—he knew there were people like him. But there was no background, no understanding in this world for what Saliss felt like.
In this world. But someone understood. A young woman understood a bit. Not everything. In fact, very little. But she understood his mood. And the [Alchemist] relaxed. For—she had many things. Glorious fire. Flowers.
Keys, perhaps, to his potions. Towards immortality. He owed Erin Solstice nothing but goodwill. Saliss looked at the young woman and felt…content.
Until the door opened and reality stepped into the inn. The Named Adventurer turned. And he saw a flash of color.
Shimmering eyes. Azure chitin. A staff. And a slim, feminine form. Made for her. The Drake locked eyes with someone who knew exactly what she was. And he felt fear.
Xrn, the Small Queen stepped into The Wandering Inn. And she brought silence with her. She looked around. And she was a stranger and familiar.
She had been here once before. But not this inn. And this time—Erin Solstice paused, with a plate in her hands meant for Saliss. Because perhaps she understood.
“The Small Queen.”
Someone whispered her name. Liscor’s residents stared in trepidation. But those of Pallass paled. Not a month ago, they had seen a Worker standing on their walls.
Look. And remember.
First the Slayer. Next? Xrn’s eyes swirled like a nebula, changing colors, vast as clouds in the sky. And she shone like glory. Forgotten, until you laid eyes on her.
Centenium. The True Antinium of Rhir. Saliss sat there, looking at her. And he saw her looking back at him. The two appraised each other.
It would be—the Drake shuddered. Then he saw the Antinium’s head turn. She walked towards Erin.
The young woman looked at the Antinium. Xrn smiled. She inclined her head.
“I would like to speak to you, Erin Solstice. Greatly so. I am Xrn of the Grand Hive. Do you remember me?”
“Xrn, the Small Queen. Hi. They call me Saliss.”
The Drake popped out of his seat. And everyone turned to look at him. Saliss struck a pose. Xrn stared at him.
“You are naked. Fascinating. I know you.”
The [Alchemist] grinned. He felt every single potion on his person. Ready to throw, or detonate.
It would be—
“Sorry, I didn’t want to slow your roll. It’s just—I have a question.”
The Drake spread his arms.
“Is it war? I’m asking for a friend.”
A pause. And then—laughter. Everyone laughed at that, with nervousness, and then—relief. Saliss grinned. But he never took his eyes off Xrn.
And she? She smiled. And then she laughed. And it was a strange, fluttering, alien sound. Insectile. It made the laughter stop. And the Small Queen looked at Saliss. And she replied.
“Silly little Drake. The question is not yes or no. The question is: with whom? Because we never stopped.”
Erin looked at Xrn. And Saliss nodded. He walked out of that inn. And back towards Pallass. And he said only one word.
This was the end of it. It began with a fall. And ended with a conversation. A female Drake sat next to a bedside. She had pink and blue scales.
Rose and cobalt. She looked at the old Drake. And he looked past her.
“Hey, Chaldion. Will you look at me?”
He made no answer. He didn’t look at her. Or respond.
The Drake sat there. Too afraid to try and touch him. Too proud to walk away and deny the truth for his reality.
It felt like they had been sitting like this forever. But this was the first time. But it had always been like this. One refusing to give. And the other trapped.
It could have lasted this way forever, without changing. But—Onieva spoke.
“She’s a Level 40 [Magical Innkeeper]. And she has two Skills I’ve never seen before called [Immortal Moment] and [Wondrous Fare]. Lots of combat Skills for an [Innkeeper]. Weird spread.”
Chaldion jerked. His eye moved and then found the female Drake’s face. He opened his mouth. And she spoke before he could. She produced a jar of glowing green acid and stared at it. A gift from an inn.
“Sometimes I wonder if she’s on our side. I like her. I think she’s a good person. But I don’t know. And sometimes…I wonder. People say such things.”
The two looked at each other. Onieva twirled the jar of acid on one claw, caught it as it wobbled. The [Strategist] just looked at her.
“When we get down to it, Chaldion, are we on the same side? Because we’re both Drakes of Pallass. If I’m not, let me know and I can be the monster I think I am.”
She showed him the glowing jar. The [Strategist] made no sound. Onieva tossed it up, caught it. And then—the jar vanished into the bag of holding. She went on, tired. Uncertain.
“Xrn, the Small Queen is in her inn. She wants to talk to Erin.”
A sound. The two Drakes looked at each other. Chaldion opened his mouth.
Onieva leaned forwards. She stared into Chaldion’s eyes. Her mouth opened, closed. She searched for words but none came around the pit in her stomach. At last, she asked, with all the feeling in her.
“Who is she?”
Chaldion stared at her. He stared at Onieva, through her, away. His one good eye jerked backwards, dancing away. But she was there. He looked back at the two eyes, staring. Waiting.
And he said nothing, for so long. His mouth stayed closed. But there was no immortal moment. Forever was too short. And they had so little time.
At last, the old Drake replied. Slowly, each word coming out slowly. As he met the eyes and looked away and back.
And away again.
“I don’t know. Someday, I will find out whether she’s ally or foe or something in between.”
He saw the Drake bow her head. For a long time she sat there. Then she looked up. Her eyes shone with no magical light. Just a reflection, and water.
“Make it soon? I’m tired of waiting.”
She reached out. Chaldion looked at the claw as it took his. He closed his eye.
Author’s Note: The end. I’m not sure about this chapter. Mainly because I went through a terrible time writing it.
…Me-wise. The chapter was probably fine since I got it done, but the first chapter after a break has always sucked. And I’m still recovering from something. I could have taken more time off, but the world sort of sucks too right now. I want to write.
Still, I’m not at what I’d call 100%. But I hope you enjoyed this chapter and I am back from the break! But wow. This took me about…10 hours? Wait, that’s normal. I guess I just need to get back into the rhythm!
Hope you enjoyed, really. And I have some art to showcase! Today’s artist is Zelanter, who has done The King of Challenges in an amazing scene! Also cute Horns of Hammerad art! But I’m showcasing the amazing picture for another one of Innworld’s heroes.
Find the rest of all the new art in Fanworks! Hope you enjoy and thanks for reading! See you next chapter. Which is like…in three days. Hm. Back to work!