(The story is now on break until May 23rd! May 26 for Public readers.)
A new day dawned. And with it, a [Princess] rose from her bed. An [Innkeeper] rolled out of her bed and onto the floor. A Hobgoblin [Bard] yawned, checked the sun, and put the pillow over his head. A white Gnoll sat on the ledge of the windowsill, watching the sun coming up. An Antinium [Hunter] was sitting in his tower, eating a raw egg.
Mrsha raised her paws as if she were holding the sun up. Bird looked around for birdsong and checked his bow. Erin Solstice said ‘ow’.
And Lyonette du Marquin found the bed was as comfortable as she remembered. Although the pillows had changed. And she was no longer lying against Pawn as he sat-slept against the wall. Since he was, in fact, a poor pillow with his non-flesh body, Lyonette had been sleeping against some pillows bunched around him.
A Fortress of Fluff. The [Princess] looked around and saw the [Priest] was staring through a window. At the sky. Like Mrsha, giggling and watching as she ‘held’ the fire in the sky, the Antinium still wondered at the sight. The [Princess] smiled and stretched.
The Antinium looked at her. And smiled with all the pleasure in his being. He had no subterfuge, no reserve. When the Antinium did something, they held nothing back.
Lyonette rose. And it was a different room—Pawn’s—that she woke up in. The mattress she’d added, but the Antinium had a little cave-fort of blankets and pillows he normally slept in. His censer was lying on a desk, ready to be cleaned. He had two books he’d bought with money from his salary.
In Erin’s room, the young woman looked up at the little Gnoll.
“Oh. Hey, Mrsha. I forgot you’re sleeping here. Did I wake you?”
The Gnoll shook her head. The [Druid] smiled in the sunlight, as Apista buzzed through the open window.
Numbtongue rolled over in his bed. He had a hangover.
A new day. And everything was different. Again. Erin Solstice, bleary in her pajamas—very comfy one-piece nightwear much like ones from her world, but a bit oversized since it had been made for Gnolls—saw Mrsha climb out the window.
“Mrsha! Hold on! You can’t do that!”
The Gnoll scampered up the roof. Erin tumbled out after her. She hurried out onto the roof, calling out.
“Mrsha! I told you—no roof climbing! Or surfing!”
The Gnoll scampered up the roof as Apista buzzed higher. Bird, looking in the distance at a flight of Razorbeaks flying high overhead, saw a white form scuttling up the roof.
“Is that a rat? No, that is not a rat. That is Mrsha. Hello, good morning!”
The [Hunter] sang to the Gnoll. Erin, cursing, saw Mrsha running nimbly past arched windows, each of which led to its own room.
The Wandering Inn’s second floor was done. And many rooms were now open. And the third floor, where Bird’s tower was set until the renovations were done? It too would hold guests, in lovely rooms. Lyonette wanted the third floor to be more luxurious, which meant larger rooms.
For now, the second floor could hold far more guests than it ever had. And the inn was still under construction.
Marching Workers leaving the city covered in detritus looked up and saw the young woman scrambling up the roof. And the Gnoll child, waving happily at Bird as he waved back. They headed up the hill, ready to help build this sacred place. It made the shouting, the trash throwing—everything worth it.
A sanctuary to them. Something as close to a place of worship as the barracks in their Hive. And they were not the only ones.
Erin Solstice ran after Mrsha as the Gnoll raced down the rooftop.
“Mrsha! Get back here!”
Her voice roused Numbtongue. He raised his head and saw a pajama-wearing Erin run past his window. The Hobgoblin [Bard] paused. He looked for the bottle of gin he’d taken and shook it suspiciously.
“No, that was real.”
Reiss’ ghost commented from his seat. Numbtongue put the pillow over his head as Erin kept yelling.
“You’ll fall! You’ll slip! You’ll—oh heck—”
She wind-milled her arms as she nearly slipped off the side of the inn. The incline wasn’t that steep, but Erin’s bipedal format was actually much more precarious than the four-legged scamper.
Mrsha ignored Erin. She raced past Pawn’s window, then stopped and stared through. The [Princess] yelped.
“Mrsha! Close the windows, Pawn! Erin will see us!”
“Are we ashamed? Erin said that shame was a sign of sin in her story about the Garden of Eden. Not the [Garden of Sanctuary], but it seems to me that Erin will find out eventually—”
“Not when I’m half-naked right now! Shut the windows!”
Pawn obediently closed the windows. Mrsha stuck her tongue out at the [Priest]. Pawn turned to Lyonette.
“I do not think Mrsha likes me anymore. This is distressing. I would like to rectify her grievances.”
Lyonette opened her mouth, and then saw Mrsha race off past the curtains. Erin followed, oblivious, still yelling.
“Mrsha! Get back here! I’m gonna get mad! I mean, I’m already ticked off!”
It didn’t seem to occur to her that chasing Mrsha was enabling the little Gnoll’s fun. Lyonette sighed. The real move was to calmly tell Mrsha to come back inside and offer her escalating punishments. Erin could have used her [Inn’s Aura], offered Mrsha a bribe, or done any number of things.
But Erin wouldn’t be Erin if logic was her first reaction after waking up. The [Innkeeper] thundered after the gleeful Mrsha. Actually, Erin was starting to see why Mrsha liked running on the roof. Aside from the drop off the edge where she could see herself breaking an arm—or her neck—this was fun!
She raced past a window and then blinked. A Lamia, completely naked, stood in front of his window, staring out at the glorious morning. And Erin.
She froze, mid-step. Hexel Quithail, the [Architect] for Liscor who had arrived yesterday, stared at Erin. She stared back.
A fun fact was that Lamias had genitalia. Not like regular Lizardfolk, but there you were. Theirs were actually retractable. Like snakes. Hexel recoiled slightly. Then he waved.
Erin waved back.
“Um. Sorry. Just chasing Mrsha…”
Hexel spoke through the glass. He slowly slithered forwards, drew the curtains. Erin backed away. Then she heard a scream.
A pair of Lizardfolk poked their heads out their window. They stared at Erin, and then at Mrsha. She was pressed up against another window. And inside, Imani, one of the young people from Earth, was in hysterics. A Gnoll staring at you through a window as you blearily looked up was actually scary.
Erin Solstice saw more windows pop open. Joseph nearly fell out. Rose looked around and stared at Erin. Hexel Quithail heard the young woman shouting.
“Hold on! That’s just Mrsha! Mrsha, stop that! Get down right now! I’m actually mad! Sorry, nothing to see here—”
“What a fascinating inn.”
The Lamia smiled to himself. Lyonette covered her face as she hurried out the door. Pawn called after her.
“I must go to work, Lyonette! But I will see you tonight! How am I romancing—”
“Shh! We’ll read a book! Have a good day! Love you!”
She clattered down the steps to the inn as Erin grabbed Mrsha. Then slipped and went tumbling down the side of the roof.
Lyonette found Erin hanging from the edge of the roof as Mrsha tried to haul her up, shouting curses. And that was how another day in The Wandering Inn started.
Madness, chaos, laughter, and change. Breakfast was sausage, eggs, and toast. Grilled tomatoes, unless you hated tomatoes. Mrsha had to eat hers.
The city of Liscor and The Wandering Inn had changed again, overnight. The old dynamic, the old cast and the stakes were rearranged.
Change, that elusive beast, had struck again. And it had come time and time again to Liscor. So much so that change, was, in itself, a kind of normal.
Invrisil had come to Liscor via the magic door. A group of Earthers had reached The Wandering Inn. The [Architect] was here—
And Magnolia Reinhart had splendidly thrown the Antinium under a metaphorical carriage and run them over. Everything was different.
How you dealt with such shifts in ‘normality’ really depended on who you were. Some people resisted it, demanding everything go back to yesterday. Others embraced it, or at least, the change that benefitted them. But only a few really understood how fluid this world was. Tomorrow, the world could be upside down. Metaphorically speaking. Or sometimes…literally.
One of the people who knew this, but didn’t know it was Olesm Swifttail. He woke up in his lovely little apartment, which he’d rented on his [Tactician] salary when he was first hired, in an apartment just off market-street. Not exactly high-end, but nice. He stared out into the street.
And no [Innkeeper] ran past his window, chasing a white Gnoll. No glorious sun awaited him. But the world was different than he had left it.
There was chanting.
“No more Antinium! Get out of our city! No more lies! No more Antinium!”
A crowd was marching in the streets. Olesm listened. They had learned this, from the election. As people did, what was new yesterday—elections, social movements—were now old-hat. And those lessons paid dividends now.
“We’ve been lied to enough! Get rid of the Antinium! No more Ants!”
A Gnoll was bellowing through a primitive megaphone—her paws. And the crowd of Drakes and Gnolls were marching, waking up the neighborhood.
“No more Ants! Get out of our city!”
“No more Humans! Give back our jobs! Liscor is not for you!”
The second chant might not have been intentional, but it was shouted with the same fervor as the first. And some in the crowd might not have agreed. But the city was moving.
Olesm rested his forehead on the windowsill as he stood, in his undergarments. Facing another morning. How had it come to this?
Magnolia Reinhart had destroyed the old order. She’d exposed the Antinium’s illegalities en-masse. And—it terrified Olesm.
They could sack this city. Soldiers and Workers combined were nearly ten times that of the current Watch. Yes, Workers weren’t [Fighters], but they could kill your average citizen. Olesm hadn’t seen it. He stood, feeling lost.
“…Going to be more work. Walled Cities summoning the Council. The army too. And Watch Captain Zevara…”
But not him. He was a failure of a [Strategist]. He didn’t deserve his class. A Human [Lady] had done what should have been his job. Olesm—was just a fool. A fool without the magical inn. A fool wasn’t welcome there.
Slowly, Olesm Swifttail dressed. His magic was gone. He was just a Drake, who’d participated in an adventurer’s raid on a dungeon, once. Nearly died. He’d made a few decisions, run a chess magazine that had achieved worldwide acclaim—
But all of it had been because of her. Erin Solstice. Not him. He was just a fraud who rode her coattails. The Drake knew it. He wasn’t like Erin. He had none of her magic. Without her?
He checked his cupboards, realized he hadn’t bought any breakfast, and walked out his door. Head hung low. The marching in the streets continued. Antinium, the few of them, hurried about their business. The people hurled detritus at the Workers, jeering. The mood had turned against the Antinium in a day, thanks to the Deadly Flower of the North, Magnolia Reinhart.
But the Antinium could kill them all. And Olesm…what was his role? The Drake miserably went looking for breakfast. And wished he could ask Erin for help.
But she. Hated.
As the sun rose higher and The Wandering Inn opened for breakfast, a Level 19 [Princess] clashed with a Level 41 [Innkeeper].
“Get. Out. Of. My. Inn.”
Erin Solstice pointed. Her eyes blazed. The room vibrated. It was a current in the air, which made Mrsha, eating breakfast with a headachy Numbtongue, look up.
The [Princess] refused to budge. The air around her—shimmered. With concentrated intensity.
The [Innkeeper]’s eyes narrowed. There was a huge disparity in their levels, but somehow the [Princess] was holding her ground. But the room began to actually shake.
“I said, get—out.”
Her willpower and the power in the air became overwhelming. Lyonette staggered. Her feet began to move towards the door. Numbtongue and Mrsha watched, forks poised, as the [Princess]’ feet began to drag her towards the door.
But then—Lyonette halted. She fought back, gritting her teeth hard. Her eyes flashed with royal pride. The kind of resolve that had forged nations.
Erin’s eyes narrowed. And the pressure became physically crushing. Now, Lyonette was assailed not just with the desire to leave, but with overpowering weight. It hurt! But she drew her aura around herself, concentrating it, forming a layer around her body, forcing Erin back—
“Another sausage, Mister Ratici? You’re here early. Don’t mind them.”
Drassi passed by Lyonette holding some of the hot breakfast sausages. A Drake tipped his cap.
“You’re a blessing, miss. What’re we watching?”
“Oh, just a thing. Don’t worry, it happens all the time. This is normal. Mister Wilovan, can I refill your cup?”
The [Bartender] and [Gossip] saw the Gnoll touch the brim of his tall hat.
“I’m well served, Miss Drassi. Thank you.”
Polite as could be, the two watched Erin and Lyonette facing off. Some of the inn’s extra-early guests were filing in. And the [Princess]—despite Erin’s power in her place—refused to budge.
“Get lost or I’ll smack you! I’m gonna! Inn—smack her!”
Erin pointed at Lyonette, her brows drawn together. But the inn failed to manifest a helpful army to hit Lyonette. And as the stalemate drew on—Erin—began—to lose focus.
The pressure lightened. Erin wiped at her brow. Lyonette felt the pressure on her relax and exhaled. Erin Solstice teetered to a chair and sat down. Mrsha patted Erin’s head with a napkin. Numbtongue pushed over a pitcher of water as Lyonette came over and sat down too.
“Whew! What? How’d you do that?”
Panting, Erin looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] shook her head. She took the glass of water, gulped from it, wiped her mouth, and then took another sip.
They were training their auras. Or at least, Erin had asked Lyonette to practice after being beaten by Magnolia. The problem was…she was going about it all wrong. Lyonette panted at the [Innkeeper] as more people began coming downstairs, like a dressed Hexel—which meant clothes over his upper half and midriff—nothing around his gleaming tail.
“I told you, Erin. That’s not how Auras work. You’re using yours like a hammer.”
“Yeah. And I nearly smacked you.”
Erin exhaled a few times before putting a fried egg on toast and biting into it.
“But you didn’t. And you never would have gotten me to budge. Let alone Magnolia. Didn’t you feel what I was doing?”
The young woman frowned. She looked at Lyonette and recalled the feeling.
“Yeah. You bunched up. Like…a rock. I couldn’t shift you.”
“I consolidated my aura. You were using yours like a hammer. It was too wide, Erin. And few auras can make someone just—move. You could keep me out a lot easier than force me to leave. One’s a shield, the other is—hard.”
Lyonette looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] was frowning, trying to understand.
“…I don’t quite get it. Explain it again?”
The [Princess] exhaled.
“I told you, I never took many aura-lessons. My mother didn’t think it was time yet—I was a Level 5—you-know-what. But this is what she taught me. Erin, you’re unskilled. I’m better at using my aura. You have high potency—no manifestation or control.”
The [innkeeper] blinked a few times.
“I have what the what the what?”
The [Princess] rubbed at her head. She had a headache, despite being able to resist someone twenty levels higher than she was.
“Potency. The power of your aura in your inn is strong. As strong as Magnolia’s maybe. But your control—how you use it—is weak. Magnolia could refine her aura until she could actually push you out of the way, or hold everyone down. Erin—is like a giant blanket. She affects everything. She doesn’t focus on one person.”
She nodded to the room as a whole. Mrsha and Numbtongue nodded.
The [Bard] summarized for Lyonette. Erin’s eyes widened.
“Yes. ‘Too wide’. But you could fix that, Erin. You just need to practice. Focus on me; you were doing it near the end.”
“But why didn’t I move you if I had more power? I shoulda thrown you out, like bam!”
Erin punched her palm. Mrsha copied her, nodding. Lyonette looked at both of them.
“That’s not how auras work, Erin. It’s not—arm wrestling.”
“No! Why would it be? Erin, auras mix and match. Some win over others. It’s…complex. And I’m not an expert. What I do know is that you have potency, no control, and no manifestation.”
“What’s the manifestation bit?”
“You can’t make a sword out of your aura and cut someone in half with it.”
Numbtongue looked up from his food. So did Mrsha, her eyes shining.
“You can do that?”
Erin blinked. Lyonette nodded casually.
“Of course. But you need a specific aura. [Knights] have more…combat focused ones. Like a Thronebearer [Knight] from Calanfer. They can concentrate their auras, coat their blades in magical light to attack Ghosts. But that’s because their auras are tied to light and such. Yours? You have an [Inn’s Aura]. Hard to manifest that.”
“Oh. Well—can I try?”
“If you want to—”
Erin raised her hand.
“[Aura Sword]! Hiyah!”
She brought it down. Lyonette recoiled. So did Numbtongue. Mrsha stared hopefully at the table. Erin stared at the uncut butter in front of them.
“Don’t do that!”
Lyonette shouted at Erin. The young woman sighed.
“I need more practice.”
Another morning in The Wandering Inn. Hexel was looking around the inn with his Lizardfolk assistants. They looked markedly less nervous in the inn, but they backed away as Drassi came over.
“Whoops, excuse me. Architect Quithail! I’m so sorry for this morning’s incident. Can we get you breakfast? Part of your room and board. We have eggs, toast, sausages, tomatoes—I don’t know what Lizardfolk eat, I’m sorry.”
The [Princess] excused herself and hurried over to tend to the Lamia herself. He smiled at her.
“I found it quite entertaining. I am a Lamia, Miss…Lyon? Yes, Lyon. I enjoyed it. I might have a different opinion if it was at the dead of night, but hatchlings—excuse me—children, are a delight. I have to meet with Liscor’s Council later, or someone about my designs, but please! Breakfast us away!”
He indicated his Lizardfolk group. Lyonette smiled.
“Right here, sir. Unless you’d like a private room? No? Well, we can add more meat or less meat depending on your dietary preferences…”
“I like eggs. But we are carnivorous, by and large. Might we have undercooked sausage?”
“…Ours are actually pre-cooked. This entire inn has a [Field of Preservation] on it, Mister Hexel. But we could—Drassi, get one of the uncooked steaks, would you?”
The Lamia brightened. Ratici nudged Wilovan. The Gnoll calmly opened one eye and whispered.
“I heard. Pray, allow me to continue my morning’s repast uninterrupted, Ratici.”
He went back to eating his toast. Hexel meanwhile was chortling.
“Oh yes. Some of that steak, rare and bloody? And the eggs on toast. We’d be delighted, Miss Lyon. An entire inn under…? Of course, that’s an [Innkeeper]’s Skill. How useful!”
He smiled as a steak was brought out. Lyonette began counting the cost and debating whether she should add it to his tab—but caught herself.
Hexel Quithail and his company were special guests. He paid well, and—despite it being a steak—it wasn’t that expensive in the summer. This wasn’t the bad old days where the inn had to count every copper coin. They had money. Lyonette told herself that.
But she had big plans. Oh, yes. Big plans for the inn. The [Princess] served the guests as Drassi passed her the food, and then returned to Erin’s table.
There she saw Mrsha was busy picking bits of cut sausage off a neighboring table’s plates.
The Horns of Hammerad were awake. They sat at the tables, as if nothing had changed. Pisces was eating with good humor, shielding his plate. Yvlon wasn’t eating sausage, so Mrsha had no beef with her—or pork—but Ceria was laughing and swatting at her playfully. Ksmvr had hissed at Mrsha when she tried to steal from him, so the half-Elf was the logical target.
“Stop that, Mrsha! Mrsha!”
“Mrsha! Stop that at once!”
The Gnoll swiped another piece of sausage as Lyonette put her hands on her hips, embarrassed. Ceria looked up.
“She’s just playing, Lyon—”
“She has her breakfast. And that is terribly bad manners. Mrsha! Enough!”
Lyonette raised a finger warningly. Mrsha looked up. And the young Gnoll hesitated. She eyed Lyonette and gave her a defiant look.
Mrsha didn’t like it when Lyonette…stayed the night in Pawn’s room. Lyonette had explained, and Mrsha definitely understood—she had grown up in a Plains Gnoll tribe, where everyone could hear and smell when a couple got together.
She just didn’t like it. Mrsha even liked Pawn as…Pawn. She just didn’t like the idea of Pawn being Lyonette’s, or vice-versa.
So she tossed her head defiantly, rather like Lyonette herself and reached for a scrap on Ceria’s plate. Lyonette put her hands on her hips. She lowered her voice so that only those next to her would hear and whispered.
“Mrsha du Marquin, I’m warning you once.”
Mrsha froze. So did Erin, and Numbtongue, who were close enough to hear the whisper. Mrsha slowly lowered her paw and harrumphed her way back over to her table. Lyonette sat down, only mildly exasperated.
Erin looked at the [Princess]. She lowered her voice too. Only a Gnoll would have been able to hear, and only one close by. Even Wilovan’s ears didn’t twitch—but perhaps that was because listening in was ungentlemanly.
“…You call her Mrsha du Marquin?”
“Of course. Why not?”
Lyonette looked challengingly at Erin. The young woman closed her mouth.
Mrsha du Marquin, Mrsha the Prim and Proper, glumly took her fork and poked at her toast and egg. But she was a good girl…for all of three minutes.
Then the Earthers came downstairs.
“Whoa! It wasn’t a dream!”
Kevin stared about the inn. Joseph blinked around at the bright, painful room and held his head. But he was there, and Rose, Galina, Troydel, Imani, and Leon. The seven young people who had been in Magnolia’s care were…here. In the inn.
Erin stopped smiling. Mrsha’s head slowly rose. She backed out of her chair as Rose made a sound.
“Oh! There she is! Hello! Mrsha! Cutie!”
She and Galina stared at Mrsha, overly excited to see her. Imani just shivered and hid behind Kevin, who was tallest along with Joseph.
Seven people from Earth. Strangers. Even to Erin. The young woman slowly rose.
She’d nearly forgotten about last night. The revelation that Ryoka had sent these people here was…well, it had been too big for Erin to do anything but react to. She’d given them a room after asking questions—but they’d all been tired and most more than a little bit drunk.
“Wild. That’s a Gnoll, Rose. Not a dog. And those are Drakes and that’s…uh…one of the Antinium. I think. Not Bird? Are you Bird?”
Kevin waved at Ksmvr. The [Skirmisher]’s head rose, confused. He looked at Ceria, who was getting her own looks from Troydel—known as ‘Troy’, and Leon.
“I am not Bird.”
Kevin nodded a few times. He was distinctly…Kevin. Lyonette remembered him flirting unsuccessfully with Drassi last night.
The others were harder for her to pin any details on. Joseph was noticeably the most hung over of the group. He’d been drinking hard and subsequently run up a large amount of their—unpaid—tab.
Rose was one of the group’s leaders. She was also fascinated by Mrsha, who’d slunk off her seat in the face of the stares. Mrsha peeked around Numbtongue and glowered at the group.
They stared at Numbtongue too. And only a few of them looked at all uneasy. The perpetually-afraid Imani shivered at Numbtongue’s crimson eyes and green skin, but Leon only nudged Troydel.
“An Orc. I’m telling you…”
Galina was excitedly staring about the inn, at the stage where the [Players] had performed last night. And Troydel and Leon were arguing over whether Numbtongue was an ‘Orc’, or another Goblin.
But all seven looked around the inn as if they were, well, tourists, or visitors. Lyonette had the distinct impression that if one of them had owned a ‘camera’, that thing from Erin’s world they used to take images, they would have been taking pictures now.
Erin just looked at them. She had known them. Or so Lyonette gathered. The others looked at Erin, blinking at her apron. The young woman hesitated.
“So—we have a lot to talk about. Why don’t you take a seat? And have breakfast? We’ve got sausages, eggs on toast, tomatoes.”
“Oh yes! From home!”
Instantly, the group lit up ecstatically. They sat next to Lyonette’s table. And the convivial atmosphere of the morning changed for Lyonette.
She and Drassi served the food. She heard them exclaiming in relief.
“Proper food. Not like what we’ve eaten sometimes. Thank you so much—do you have waffles? Or pancakes? I’ve been dying to have some…”
Galina was talking to Erin. The young woman blinked a few times.
“I mean, we do, but—”
“Can I get bacon?”
Kevin practically shouted. Joseph swore and covered his ears. Leon’s head rose.
“Wait—do you have hamburgers? I saw that on the menu, but someone ate mine.”
He glared at Joseph. Erin hesitated.
“We…have them. But—”
“Can we get them? I mean, it’s from home.”
The others gave Erin a pleading look. Lyonette sighed as Erin turned to her.
“Coming up. Who wants a hamburger?”
“No lettuce on mine.”
Troydel instantly raised his hand. Lyonette paused—and sighed. She went into the kitchen and came back.
“I can’t believe this. You have an inn! How did you get it? Did you find it? I mean—I remember us meeting way back when, but this is incredible! Do you own it? Really?”
Rose was chatting to Erin. The young woman nodded, watching Kevin bite into his cheeseburger and sigh. Mrsha’s head poked over the table, narrow-eyed.
“I did. I mean—the first inn wasn’t mine. But I fixed it up and I run it. That’s my class. [Innkeeper].”
“Whoa. So you’re in this world. Really? And you work here?”
Kevin looked up. Erin looked at Numbtongue. The Goblin was eying the Earthers who didn’t seem bothered by him, just—fascinated. Galina and Rose were staring at him and whispering and so was Leon, muttering about a videogame to Troydel.
“…no tusks…but they have Minotaurs, man…”
The lack of fear so much as naked curiosity bothered the Hobgoblin [Bard]. He slowly edged away from his table until he was sitting with the Horns of Hammerad. Ceria realized her eyes were also the focus of much staring.
“Just insane. Wild. We were at Magnolia’s mansion the entire time. Which sucked. Right until the [Assassins] attacked—what’s your level?”
Joseph had recovered with the food enough to join in asking questions. Even Erin was wincing and looking around.
“Lower your voice. We can talk about that later.”
“What? Oh—right. Well, we came all the way here looking for you. Ryoka said you had an inn, but we didn’t know you had a magic door! That’s nuts.”
Erin exhaled. Lyonette and Mrsha both looked up sharply.
Ryoka. The [Innkeeper] spoke carefully.
“Ryoka. Yeah, she sent all of you. She sent me a letter. But I didn’t know you were…uh…coming. Where is she? Is she okay? Why did she send you all?”
Lyonette nodded. She came over and the others looked at her. Rose hesitated.
“Ryoka? Well—she arrived just before the—[Assassins]. She took our electronics. All of them. And she told us to come here since Magnolia’s estates were under attack.”
The two young women waited, but Rose was done. Erin looked at Lyonette helplessly.
“Well—she said your inn wasn’t always safe, but you’d take us in. She was really busy. She had this boxer-friend who hated our guts, but she hired some adventurers to escort us south. We weren’t in Reizmelt long.”
“Reizmelt. So Ryoka’s there?”
The [Princess]’s hands tightened on the tabletop. Mrsha looked at Rose. The young woman, oblivious to the hidden emotion, nodded.
“Yeah. They call her the Wind Runner of Reizmelt. She can command the wind. Didn’t you know?”
She looked around. The Horns of Hammerad were listening in. Erin’s eyes widened.
“She can? Wait—how is she? Tell us all about her!”
So much emotion. So much history. Rose hesitated.
The others looked at each other.
“Good how? Is she missing any more fingers? Is she okay? How is she commanding the wind?”
The Earthers leaned back in the face of the intense questions. They looked at each other. But they didn’t know. Ryoka was ‘good’. They hadn’t asked.
At this point, Lyonette had to serve some familiar guests. Griffon Hunt had come down the stairs, and Cade was sleepily clinging to his mother.
“Halrac. It is so good to see you.”
“What are we, spare thread?”
Revi grumbled, but with a smile as Lyonette served them. And they could order whatever they wanted for breakfast, no questions asked. Because…they were friends.
Cade got a special egg-and-bacon breakfast in the form of a smile that made him laugh. Briganda, a double serving. Halrac, less sausage and more toast with butter and a bit of honey. Revi, extra the honey.
Typhenous wanted just the standard breakfast; he wasn’t picky, but he got tea with his meal, hot from a pot. And Lyonette begrudged them none of it.
Why? Again, because they were friends. Revi eyed the seven Earthers still talking with Erin. And the unusually mystified look on Erin’s face.
“Who’s that lot? I saw them last night.”
“Friends of Ryoka. They’re a bit of a handful.”
Lyonette had no idea what they were going to do with them. What did Ryoka expect? Were they to feed and house them forever? It was just like Ryoka…
Revi’s face more than expressed Lyonette’s mood.
“Ryoka’s friends? A handful? You’re kidding. No, I’m shocked. My condolences, Lyonette.”
“Don’t worry about it. Are you all staying?”
“We’re going to Hedault’s today. With the Horns of Hammerad. To get our treasure appraised. Hedault told us to wait until mid-morning, though. [Enchanters].”
“I might stay behind. Cade needs his mother. If that’s alright?”
Briganda looked up. Cade stared at Halrac. The [Scout] looked up, dour-faced. He tried to look…less-menacing. And failed. Lyonette just nodded.
“As long as you like. Of course, we can let you get back to Invrisil, Miss Briganda. Or you can explore Liscor—anything you want.”
The [Shield Maiden] brightened up.
“Really? Just like that?”
Lyonette nodded, although she herself had nearly forgotten—The City of Adventurers was open to the public, albeit at a fee. But anyone could visit anytime they wanted. This new dynamic really would take some getting used to.
Speaking of which…Lyonette’s head snapped up.
“Drassi! Did you check the door?”
“Oh, Ancestors! I’m so sorry! I’ll do it now! Excuse me, anyone from Liscor? I’m so sorry, we’ve had uh, a few delays—come in!”
Drassi ran for the door. Lyonette heard her voice coming down the hallway. Lyonette finished talking and serving Griffon Hunt and left them smiling.
The smile faded as she saw Mrsha’s face. The Gnoll was standing at the table on two legs, peeking over the edge as Erin talked with them, asking about Ryoka and what was happening in the north and receiving vague, unhelpful answers.
Because the Earthers didn’t know. And that was frustrating but—Erin knew how they’d lived, even if she disapproved. She knew Magnolia Reinhart.
So did Lyonette. She even saw something familiar in the way the others looked so…lost. Even if that was aggravating.
But Mrsha? Mrsha was just Mrsha. Mrsha all the way. And she only knew Ryoka.
Her friend. The City Runner who had carried her out of oblivion. Who had been there when her tribe ended.
Ryoka and Ivolethe, from another time. Ryoka, whom Mrsha had looked to as the only one who remembered, who had taken her to this inn.
Who had run away after Brunkr had died.
That Ryoka. And the little Gnoll probably still loved the sad, brilliant, wounded, guilty, triumphant Runner. Even if she was so angry at being left behind with no contact. Even if she understood her curse had driven Ryoka away.
These were the things Mrsha believed. If Ryoka had come in that door, Mrsha might have run to her and hugged her before anything else.
But this? This was Ryoka’s…gift. What she had decided she needed to send to The Wandering Inn. These seven…Humans.
Mrsha stared. And her little face slowly turned from incomprehension to—dislike. She looked at these people, eating her hamburger and being so stupid.
And she did not like them. Not. One. Bit. Imani was staring at Mrsha. The Gnoll glowered at her and Imani flinched. Then someone put her hand on Mrsha’s head.
Galina tried to pet Mrsha. Instantly, the Gnoll punched the hand off her head. Erin saw Galina recoil.
“Don’t pet Mrsha, please. She’s not a pet. She’s a Gnoll.”
“But she’s so—adorable! I didn’t mean to bother you! Mrsha, right? You’re so precious! Hello! Can you say ‘hi’?”
Galina bent over. And innocent as the question was—it was the wrong one to ask. She didn’t know. Ryoka had never told her about Mrsha. The Gnoll’s ears flattened and she backed away.
“Mrsha can’t speak. She’s a kid. Ryoka rescued her, but—”
Erin’s stomach felt upset. She didn’t know what Ryoka had intended. What was she supposed to do? Ryoka! She wanted to grab Ryoka, find her, and shake her. The others were just looking at Erin.
“If you’re willing to—give us a place to stay, and food, we won’t be a problem. We can help out. This is a great inn, Erin.”
Kevin looked around. His vague assurances were added to by the others. Erin nodded, helplessly.
“Yeah. I mean—definitely. You can stay here. I guess we can have you help?”
She looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] frowned. Was that her job? But then Erin looked to the stairs.
“There they are. I told you!”
Montressa and Beza were staring at the Earthers. Like hawks who’d sighted a bunch of baby rabbits who’d basted themselves in barbeque sauce. Erin sighed.
“Stay here. Don’t say anything about home. Got it? There are problems—Montressa! I need to speak to you!”
The [Innkeeper] ran for the stairs. Montressa jumped and backed up.
“Don’t you dare send anything! And you! How many times have I told you—”
Palt jumped as he came out of his room. He tried to hide the smoking spliff, but it was too late. Erin began to harangue.
Problems. Lyonette was split between serving guests and eying the Earthers. Erin would do her best, but what would they do? Really? She’d have to think about it.
For now—this was the inn. Hexel slithered to the door.
“Miss Lyon? A pleasure. Can we enter Liscor from here? I don’t see my [Bodyguards]. Quite a displeasure, but I suppose this Liscor’s Council isn’t that fast on the job. Before I find work, we’ll require it, Yemmi. Don’t worry.”
He reassured one of the Lizardfolk. Lyonette pointed him to the hallway. Then she saw Rose come up behind her.
“Excuse me, Miss Barmaid? Where’s the bathroom?”
“The—outside. The outhouses are over there.”
Lyonette stared after Rose. Yes, something indeed. But that was her world. Confusion, chaos—
And change. You got used to thinking on your feet, adapting. Even to—
Joseph wandered behind the bar of the inn. He hunted around and then pulled out a bottle of gin. Lyonette and Erin both looked at him. He cracked it open, and only then noticed the stares.
Lyonette’s jaw twitched. No, it was fine. Lay down the law. She just had to—she saw Imani, who’d also found the outhouse, unprompted, coming back to the table. She went to sit down and a little white Gnoll crept around her chair. Mrsha yanked the chair back as Imani sat and the young woman went sprawling.
The Gnoll raced off as the others helped Imani up. Lyonette was about to scold when Drassi sidled into the room.
Exasperated, the [Princess] turned. Drassi pointed.
“We have a situation. Should I let everyone in?”
And then Lyonette saw them. In Invrisil, in The Players’ Retreat, there was a crowd. Of people. About…oh, four hundred strong. Lined up at the door as Redit the [Bouncer] kept them out.
All with the six-silver passage fee to Liscor. [Traders], [Merchants], pedestrians who stared at Drassi and murmured—
Curious Humans. Tourism had come to Liscor. Lyonette stared at the open door. And if she’d been someone else she might have thrown up her hands, panicked, or just frozen. But the [Princess] had been here a while. She just sighed, rolled up her sleeves.
And got to work.
Olesm was hungry as he waited in line for one of the street-stalls. No restaurants; he didn’t have the time for it.
Or the coin, frankly. Olesm was paid decently well for a [Tactician] in a small city. And he’d had a small pay increase for his new class. But Liscor was not rich.
The food on offer was, ironically, a hamburger. Copied from Erin. Only it wasn’t a burger—more like a glazed boneless rib-inna-bun.
It still smelled delicious. And if the stall-owner was actually a decent cook and not a mad sales-genius who could sell vaguely meat-like products solely on the virtues of his sales craft—well, it was good enough.
There was a line, and Olesm was licking his lips and wondering if he could spring for two burgers. His stomach rumbled—
And at that precise moment, as he was drawing towards the front, a Street Runner raced up.
“There you are! Strategist Olesm to City Hall at once! The Council needs you!”
“What? What for?”
Olesm’s face fell. The Gnoll [Runner] shrugged.
“Didn’t say. They want you right away, though! Something about an [Architect]?”
“Oh, scale cheese—”
One of the Drakes in line gagged and glared as Olesm ran off. The [Architect]! He hadn’t been more than introduced to the Lamia yesterday, but he’d totally forgotten after last night.
He’d…had a lot to drink in between not getting to talk to Erin. It hadn’t been that bad a night, but Olesm felt slower, stupider today.
And he had forgotten about Hexel. So—apparently—had the Council.
“I believe I requested a group of [Bodyguards]. Plural. Non-Drakes. I was quite happy with my residence, my travel notwithstanding. But I will require both. Today. If I am unsatisfied, I will, with great politeness, leave, because security is a pressing issue for my team. And the Guild of Builders in Baleros will hear of it.”
Hexel was cheerfully threatening Liscor’s Council in the morning. They were eating. Olesm just stared at fresh meat pies that Krshia had provided to the Council.
“As I was saying, Mister Hexel—that’s an addition to the budget we haven’t calculated.”
“Then calculate it. And I need to begin redesigning the city. Shall we do it now? No? Ah—this must be the [Strategist].”
Hexel slithered backwards as Olesm, panting, raised one claw.
“You—needed to see me, Councilmembers?”
“Yes, ah, Olesm. Our [Strategist]. I think you met him yesterday, Mister Hexel? Olesm, Architect Quithail requires a [Bodyguard] escort. As [Strategist], please appoint one.”
Lism didn’t meet the Lamia’s eyes as he shuffled the papers. The Lamia gave Olesm a toothy smile.
“Non-Drake. I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course, sir.”
The young, blue-scaled Drake shifted uncomfortably. Not just because of Hexel’s obvious distrust of Drakes and the story he’d heard last night. Being attacked by hostile Drake…[Bandits]. Yes, [Bandits]. Criminals. But the frightened Lizardfolk trio hid behind their boss.
“Olesm, please hire the [Bodyguards] immediately. Submit them for Architect Hexel’s review, yes? We will begin discussing the plans for the new city.”
Krshia dipped her head at Hexel. Olesm was nodding.
“I can uh—hire some adventurers? Or Watch Captain Zevara can appoint members of the Watch. The Watch will be cheaper by far—”
He realized he was thinking out loud and blushed. Lism looked at his nephew, fond as ever, but impatient.
“Let’s do that, then. Save the city coin. Now, we’re rather pressed for time, Architect. We have a number of meetings with the High Command of Walled Cities, not to mention our armies over this damned Antinium issue. Which I was right about, incidentally—”
Krshia audibly ground her teeth as Lism shot her a glare. The members of the Council rustled. Elirr, Raekea on one side were subdued. Alonna and Jeiss were worried, as were the traditionalist, and largely, useless two members of the Council, Tismel and Zalaiss, who tended to be overridden in most majority-votes.
“—so we really can’t devote all the time to your work. But if you’d like to survey the city, we can meet tomorrow at—”
Lism’s little speech was interrupted by Hexel. The [Architect] calmly gestured, and one of his [Apprentices] put down a blueprint of the city. The illustration was in white, with colorful chalk additions on black, thick paper that could be easily adjusted.
And it was of Liscor. Olesm saw the city laid out perfectly in the blueprints. And then—he saw the new part of the city. What could be. But only for a moment.
Because the map began to glow. Hexel slithered back.
“[Ambition Visualized]. I do not have time to waste either, Councilmember. Allow me to present my view of Liscor.”
From the table rose the city. Olesm saw buildings and streets, devoid of people but beautifully detailed, as if drawn from above. The Council sat back as the [Architect] briskly pointed and another of his assistants moved around the table.
“Observe. This is the city you requested, Councilmembers. A third of the city from the expansion point—here—with a focus on high-occupancy residential housing. I have already surveyed the city, or rather, one of my apprentices did last night. I note you’ve leased certain areas, and I can work around that. But this is the Liscor you asked me to design.”
It was beautiful. The city seamlessly expanded, the original western wall falling away to make Liscor wider. Olesm saw two parks, organized streets to prevent traffic jams from travel, even—as the map rose higher—an expanded network of the sewers!
Alonna was impressed. The rest of the Council, even Tismel and Zalaiss, murmured in clear approval. This Liscor looked like the old one, which was, of course, what you wanted to see. It was just larger.
“That’s exactly what we paid for. New residential districts—which we’ll be making sure are affordable. So long as we get the new wall enchanted by Spring, it works! I suppose that will be a priority, er, Mister Hexel?”
Lism jabbed at the map, watching his claw passing through a building with awe. The Lamia smiled as he looked from face to face.
“Certainly, my previous plans allowed for this design and a completion of the outer walls at least by Spring. The city would need to hire a high-level [Enchanter] specializing in architectural enchantments, but I would be happy to stick to the plans I laid out. Or I would be. However, recent events have put more of a focus on—security, haven’t they?”
The Council looked up sharply. So did Olesm, trying to edge around the side and get one of the meat pies Jeiss and the Gnolls were scarfing down. Hexel went on.
“The Antinium, I mean. And I will admit—security is something I have been thinking on as well, since my own encounter.”
He touched at the scar running down his face. The Council fell silent. Hexel looked around and smiled again.
“Not that I bear anyone here a grudge. Did I mention the bodyguards? At least four, one for each of my assistants. If you’re using the Watch, I insist on Level 20 or higher. But I digress. If you’ll look at this second plan, this is what I’ve come up with since last night. A work in progress, but—here we are.”
A Lizardgirl rolled out a map on top of the first one. The first overlay vanished. And Olesm—gasped.
“What is this?”
Krshia half-rose, staring at the new city rising from the map. It was completely different from the old. For one thing—it was a lot taller.
A second level had been added to the city. Olesm saw aerial walkways, entire streets built above the first. Not all-encompassing—they were designed to allow passage from those above without casting too much shadow on the ground level people. But the apartments were twice as high. Hexel slithered around it.
“This takes lessons from Pallass. Horrible issues with shadows from their upper floors. The design is somewhat Balerosian, but I’ve made as many concessions to Drake architecture as possible. Space for Gnollish aesthetics too. Under this design, the city does expand—but upwards as well as horizontally. It will triple your capacity when fully built.”
“You’ve expanded in two directions?”
Lism stared upwards at the higher, burgeoning skyscrapers, and then to the sides. Olesm saw two walls had been replaced and expanded.
“Of course. West and south. But that’s because under the new plan—I would hope to remodel the walls. Note the height.”
Hexel pointed. Little numbers appeared where he did, and Olesm saw. The walls were now fifty feet high. Not sheer vertical drops either, but slanted slopes, still very steep, but to allow for the height.
“Fifty-foot walls, which would put Liscor above most Drake cities in stature. Doubled landmass based on western and southern expansions, and a second layer of the city for increased usage of space. This is partly for efficiency’s sake, but also to make room for the largest of the improvements—here.”
The city rotated. Olesm craned his neck and heard a sound. He looked down into the center of the new section of the city and saw…blue.
Water. Krshia stared into a huge, inland pool—no, lake. No—a sea. Okay, maybe a lake. But a vast one. And deep! The sewer system ran around it.
“What is this?”
“A lake. I’ve studied your spring rains, Councilmember.”
Hexel nodded to Jeiss. He gestured, and the view of the city enhanced around the lake. Olesm saw little fish swimming around it, a Gnoll fishing on one of the piers—
“You want to build a lake in our city? What nonsense! Think of the flooding! The insects that would flock to it—the acid flies are already bad in the summer! This is nonsense!”
Tismel was aghast. Lism glanced up at him.
“Councilmember Tismel, kindly shut up. This—is odd. But fascinating. Explain, er, Architect Hexel.”
Lism sat back. The Lamia smiled at him.
“I am from Baleros, Councilmember…Tismel. I know about insects. This body of water would be exceptionally deep, and the surface area enchanted against pests. Regular ward spells, like the ones on your walls. But rather than considering insects—think of the fish. Liscor actually exports a large amount of seafood in the spring. But your people don’t have high-level [Fisher] classes because, of course, it’s only in one season. Imagine that—all year round?”
The Council did. They looked at each other. Alonna murmured.
“It’s incredibly deep.”
The proposed lake ran nearly three times as deep as Liscor was tall—and that was the new model. And the surface area was large as well. Hexel nodded, going on.
“It is, Councilmember. But imagine this: free, fresh water so long as you manage it. A source of food, entertainment so long as you segregate the more dangerous fish populations from your recreational areas—and security.”
“Security? Against what? Oh—”
Lism’s eyes widened. Krshia murmured. She looked up sharply.
“The Hive. You want to flood them?”
The Lamia smiled.
“Only as a last resort. But you asked for an [Architect], and I take wars into account. The Antinium are an interesting foe. Obviously, I’d need enchanted stone to prevent sabotage; in fact, I’ll need to completely redesign your sewer system and ensure everything’s secure. Here, here and here—”
He began rotating the map, showing highlighted weak points. The Council looked at each other.
“But the cost—”
Tismel was spluttering. Hexel nodded.
“Good point. Here is my revised budget—”
He pointed, and one of his Lizardfolk assistants held up a sheet of paper with the number written on it. The Council gasped.
“Outrageous! We can’t pay for that!”
“Tismel, shut up.”
Jeiss didn’t look at the Drake. He was looking about, gauging opinions.
“Candidly, we do not have that coin, Architect Hexel. But is that a conservative estimate?”
Elirr folded his paws together. Hexel grinned.
“Assuming no other additions? I did come up with this in one night. While I was drinking, Councilmember Elirr. I can envision a few more add-ons. But while it would be expensive, I can do it. If you feel able to finance this, I will begin work and only begin the most ambitious aspects once funding is secured. This is—humbly—just in the design phase.”
The Council looked at each other. Krshia’s eyes were bright with interest. So were Olesm’s. He just stared at the lake. Imagine the possibilities! Who would have thought of it?
The rest of the Council was more reserved, though. Raekea raised a polite paw.
“Hrr. Begging your pardon, [Architect], but I see one flaw immediately. This water—where does it come from?”
She gestured at the lake. The others looked at her. Jeiss scratched at his neck.
The Gnoll gave him a roll of the eyes.
“It would have to rain for months as it does in the spring even to fill this a bit. And we would drain it if we relied on it for water, yes, Jeiss? Would we divert a river into this place? I do not see one—”
“Ah, Miss Raekea, you’re thinking like an [Architect]. Happily, we do not need a river.”
Hexel beamed. He pointed.
“This lake would, in fact, make use of the Floodplain’s ample groundwater. It might take a few [Hydromancers] to pull it up, but Liscor could be supplied on the water from your spring rains alone.”
Lism looked blank. Hexel sighed and flicked a claw.
“Where are the estimates of how much water Liscor receives? Your Floodplains…flood, Councilmember Lism. Every year. And yet—it drains with unnatural speed. Where does the water go? Down. It has to be somewhere. I’d like to find it, and make use of it. As well as where all those fish go every spring. If you could tap into it, you’d have more water than you could ever dream of. And more water than the Antinium could handle.”
The Council fell silent. They looked at each other. The scope of Hexel’s ambition took Olesm away. And yet—he didn’t seem like he was exaggerating his abilities. He had the kind of confidence Olesm had learned to see, rather than bravado. Earned confidence.
“I only worry that the Antinium will see this as a definite sign of aggression.”
Alonna murmured. Lism snorted and folded his arms.
“They see it that way? They’ve already been lying to us, Alonna. They don’t have to know until we start digging. And—so what if they object? If they never attack, everything’s fine.”
“Unless we decide to flood them, yes, Councilmember Lism? I’m sure they trust your honor, but the scenario exists. This is a matter to discuss.”
Krshia smiled toothily at Lism. He glowered.
“Well—the budget and this plan. And the Antinium! We’re bringing it up with the army and the Walled Cities. Maybe this will get them to stop panicking. Er—Architect. Can you make sure the Antinium can’t cave in our walls?”
“Of course. And if you’d like to talk about that, or other Antinium safeguards, by all means. That’s what I’m here for. Pass me a meat pasty.”
The Lamia settled himself at the table. Tismel was still spluttering.
“But he’s a Lizardperson. Can we really trust him to make sure our walls are—secure?”
The entire room fell silent. Hexel’s eyes glittered and he watched the others’ faces slowly. Krshia’s brows drew together. But it was Lism’s jaw who twitched. He looked at Hexel, and then around swiftly.
“Alright. A quick vote since this is in debate. All in favor of cancelling our agreement with Architect Hexel who has come from Baleros and represents the Builder’s Guild because he’s a Lizardperson?”
No one moved. Tismel’s claw hesitated.
“Shut up, Tismel. Alright, that’s decided. Now, all in favor of throwing Tismel out of the window?”
Six hands rose. Olesm saw Tismel blanch.
“That’s not an official vote! Don’t you dare! I’m a Councilmember—”
“Someone call for Guardsman Relc.”
Lism looked past Tismel, ignoring the Drake’s panic. And Olesm was proud of his uncle. Irascible as he was—Lism looked at Hexel’s vision of Liscor. And that mattered more than a grudge between species. Jeiss coughed and looked at Hexel as Tismel fled the room.
“Let’s talk, [Architect]. The Antinium security issue is a large one. Can you point out weak spots? We have a…map of the Antinium tunnel network and dungeon, roughly. And it’s concerning.”
Olesm had seen it too. Hexel winced as he saw the secret sketch Magnolia had provided Zevara and the others.
“I…may need to check your foundations. But the Antinium are good at avoiding collapsing things when they don’t want to. Can I safeguard against that? Give me enough enchanted stone, and I can. But your budget…”
“Oh, I have some more notes on the city’s defenses. Give me one second and I’ll fetch them.”
The young Drake’s voice made everyone turn to look at him. Olesm had nearly been forgotten amid the talk. He had nearly reached a meat pie, one of the last ones left. Krshia blinked at him.
“Olesm? But what about Hexel’s bodyguards?”
The [Strategist] paused.
“I—can send a letter to Watch Captain Zevara. But as Liscor’s [Strategist]—”
He hesitated. The Council was looking at him. Lism, his uncle, looked kindly at Olesm. But even his eyes flickered to Hexel.
“Well, we have Grand Strategist Chaldion meeting with us later today. You should voice your opinions then, Olesm. Yes, but I think making Architect Hexel as comfortable as possible is most important. Tell Watch Captain Zevara to send her best. At least one Senior Guardsman. We’ll call for you if Architect Hexel has any questions. And for that meeting with the other cities.”
Olesm’s heart sank through his stomach and out his tail. He opened his mouth. He was the [Strategist], though! The old Council would never have sent him packing. But they let him do everything. This one?
He should stay. The Drake opened his mouth to insist—
And found himself hurrying towards the door.
“I’ll uh, send the [Bodyguards] here later.”
He muttered as he closed the door. The Council didn’t take any notice. They were talking to Hexel and the Lamia, in his element, was answering back, making his apprentices run about.
Olesm stared at the closed doors. But he had run this city with Zevara. He had—
He had lost it, hadn’t he? The Council didn’t need him because they were competent. And Olesm had lost Erin’s friendship. He’d lost…
The Drake turned and walked down the hallway. He passed Councilmember Tismel. The Drake fled from behind the potted plant.
“Don’t you dare throw me out the window again!”
Again? Olesm was too, suddenly, woebegone to even notice that. He walked out of the City Hall.
They’d be talking to Grand Strategist Chaldion later today. And the other leaders of the Walled Cities. The [High Strategist] of Liscor’s army. Of course he wasn’t necessary.
When had it all gone so wrong? Olesm had become a [Strategist]. Ilvriss had called him a prodigy. He had the attention of Niers Astoragon—Olesm still wore the Ring of Sight.
But what had happened?
He had sided against Erin, that was what had happened. And the chess magazines had ceased. The Drake had begun hiding from the Mage’s Guild and the City Runners who sent letters demanding to know when the next magazine episode was coming out. Because how could he run it without her?
Olesm had found his job was more…mundane. He’d made a mistake. And suddenly, the whirlwind of events that had spun around Erin ceased to include him. Because she had made him.
And without her?
A little blue errand-bug scurried out of City Hall. It went to the Watch House and Zevara agreed to assign Beilmark and five other Gnolls and Humans to security. Then the blue insect walked outside.
And Olesm realized he was hungry. He hadn’t even had breakfast. And since…he wasn’t needed, he walked back towards Market Street to go buy some. Not The Wandering Inn. After all—
He was just another customer there.
Part of it was depression. Self-hatred. Lack of confidence. A Drake louse scurried into the market.
Another part of it was anger. Frustration. Uncertainty. A sense of—weakness, coupled with a problem she didn’t want to have. Erin Solstice threw up her hands as she tried to argue with Montressa, tell the other people from Earth to shut up—and failed to get the irony in that.
Different people. Different problems. But that was the thing. Sometimes, the days were glorious without flaw—but seldom. Even the clearest skies usually came only after rain. Usually, the cleanest glass had a bit of microscopic dust or smudge.
Someone knocked over a neat pyramid of neatly de-cored Amentus Fruits as Olesm entered the market. It was an accident; a bump against the table. It happened. Olesm heard the [Shopkeeper]’s aggrieved shout.
Erin Solstice dragged Montressa upstairs to negotiate about why all the Earthers were off-limits. The Earthers looked at each other.
“Wow. That was a Minotaur.”
“So—we’re staying here?”
“Guess so. Let’s look around. They call this place the ‘Floodplains’. Come on. We’ll get out of Erin’s hair. She looks busy.”
They got up and left the inn, and no one noticed for a good ten minutes in the rush. By the time Erin went to look for them to explain about Wistram—they were gone. Wandering the perfectly safe Floodplains. Erin began to curse in a very uncharacteristic manner.
And at that moment the magical door opened, as the [Innkeeper] was preparing to leave. And a woman walked into the inn and put it to a standstill. She wore not the yellow tracksuit of yesterday, but her hair was still styled. Lady Pryde looked around the inn with narrowed eyes.
The little bug heard a furious voice.
“You! You ruined my stock! You damned—someone call the Watch! Is there a [Guardsman]?”
And everyone looked at him. All the bug-Drake wanted was some food. The inn was unguarded.
It was times like these, when the deck was stacked against you, a single face, a single card could turn the tides.
Like a [Lady]. Let alone a [Princess].
Olesm Swifttail heard a young woman arguing with the irate Gnoll. He found the crowd nudging him out of line, as a member of Liscor’s law enforcement, to deal with the problem. He just wanted his sandwich.
But then he turned and saw her.
Her hair was mussed, disorderly from sharing a room with Ceria on a floor-mattress. She was in the same clothes as yesterday since her clothing—and her money pouch had been stolen by Thomast.
Even so, her hair was black and orange. And she burned like fire. The [Lady] was speaking slowly.
“I’m sorry. It was an accident.”
“Accident? Who cares? That’s my stock! Now it’s bruised! You Humans think you can just damage someone’s business and walk off? This is why I voted for Lism!”
The Gnoll was haranguing her. The young woman was scooping down to pick up the Amentus Fruits.
“Get your paws off them! And pay for those!”
The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] was having a bad day. She glared about as her customers called out.
“Leave off. They’re just dusty, Berri.”
“Shut up. Where’s a [Guardsman]? I want recompense.”
“I’m sorry. But I don’t have any money.”
Maviola El gestured to her missing money pouch. That was actually the wrong thing to say. The crowd instantly turned suspicious.
“Not one copper penny?”
“Why are you in Market Street, then?”
“Looking around. Looking for work.”
The [Lady] defended herself. But the memory of the Human [Thief] was working against her. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] looked furiously around.
“Where’s a [Guardsman]?”
Someone called out and pointed at Olesm. The Drake jumped. He was drooling at the blue fruits. The Gnoll brightened.
“Olesm! Just the Drake I wanted! Sort this out, please? This Human knocked over my stall! And she’s loitering about here without a penny in her pockets, or so she says! Just like the last [Thief]!”
“Uh—hello, everyone. What seems to be the problem, Miss…?”
Olesm halted. He blinked at Maviola.
“Um. Do I know you?”
Maviola turned. She smiled, relieved. But only a bit relieved; she didn’t seem worried, despite the very angry Gnoll.
“I daresay you might. Didn’t we drink together? Olesm Swifttail? Maviola.”
“Oh. You beat me in chess. And—right, you know the Horns.”
The [Shopkeeper] hesitated as Olesm nodded to Maviola and she smiled. This was not how the confrontation in her head had played out. She coughed, trying to be polite.
“Strategist? This Human bumped over my stock.”
“Oh—right. Miss Maviola, did you, in fact, intend to steal or knock over Miss Berri’s stock?”
Olesm sighed. Maviola shook her head.
“But she could just be saying that. The last Human was a thief! Stole from Honored Krshia and blew up the—”
Berri protested, and then tried to eat her tongue. But the other customers were somewhat on her side. Olesm sighed.
“Why don’t we test this via truth stone? We’ll have to flag down a Senior Guardsman or go to the barracks. Miss Maviola? If you’ll come with me, we can go back there. It won’t take long. And you’re not under arrest.”
And maybe I can get some breakfast. The Drake thought internally. He tried to hold out a claw to her. But Maviola refused. She pointed at the Amentus Fruits and raised her chin.
“That was an accident. I’ve apologized, but I’ve stolen nothing. Why must I be escorted to the Watch on the merest claim that I ‘might’ have been doing something? Has anything been stolen in Market Street? Is it a crime to walk around here without money?”
The [Strategist]’s brows knitted.
Why was she being stubborn about this? But the [Lady]’s orange eyes flashed as she looked at Berri.
“An accident is an accident. It seems to me those fruits would fall over if anyone bumped into that stall. They already looked bruised to me. But it seems because I am Human, I’m being singled out.”
The Gnoll woman growled at her. Olesm’s head began to hurt again. Nothing was ever simple. He looked helplessly at Miss Berri and decided he was too hungry for this.
“You know what? That’s true. An accident is an accident. Miss Berri, why don’t we call this a simple misunderstanding. I can pay for Miss Maviola since we know each other. Here—”
He dug out four coppers and winced. He’d only meant to pull out two; he wasn’t even buying one. But Berri’s face broke into a smile.
“Well, I appreciate that, Strategist Olesm. A credit to the city, and kind too! Yes, I can forgive—”
She reached out as Olesm proffered the coins. And Maviola slapped down Olesm’s wrist.
Olesm lost his temper. He rounded on Maviola. But her eyes just glittered as she looked at Berri.
“I will not let you give her money for an accident and a crime I didn’t commit. I did nothing wrong. I demand that you arrest me, Strategist Olesm, or resolve this. Because this is not justice.”
His jaw dropped. So did Berri’s. But the young woman just stood there. And the look in her eyes said that she would rather be arrested than let a single copper coin go to Berri.
Like contained fire. From her hair to her eyes, Maviola El blazed with passion, even in the early morning. Even in the light. She looked at Olesm and he saw her burning indignation. Because she was right.
But the fire burned deeper still. And Olesm looked at Maviola. And at that moment—he and perhaps other shoppers in Market Street remembered something.
Another young woman. An angry Drake, overcharging prices. And to settle it, a chess game.
Olesm’s eyes brightened. The fog of hunger and depression rose for a second. And for the first time that day, he began to think. He turned back to Berri. The Gnoll [Shopkeeper] was spluttering.
“She wants to be stubborn? Fine! Summon a [Guard]! Waste of time on everyone’s part if you ask me—”
“Miss Berri. As [Strategist] of Liscor, I am authorized to arrest civilians. Is it your wish to charge Miss Maviola with damage of property?”
Olesm snapped. The Gnoll and the crowd fell silent. Berri hesitated. But she was in too far. Her chin rose as she looked at Olesm challengingly.
“Yes. My fruits were damaged, accidentally or not. Shouldn’t I be recompensed for that?”
The Drake nodded.
“Of course. That is your right, as is your right to level a charge that the Watch should investigate. Thus—excuse me!”
He turned and waved his claws over his head. The people amid the bustling street looked around. Maviola glanced at Olesm. And her eyes lit up as the Drake shouted.
“Would everyone who has ever bumped into Miss Berri’s stall and knocked over the Amentus Fruits please step forwards? Today or in the past?”
The crowd of people on the street looked about. The wise ones didn’t raise their hands or step forwards. But at least fourteen innocent, good citizens of Liscor did. After all, Miss Berri had sold fruits here for years. Olesm beamed at them.
“Excellent. Well then, I am arresting you all for complaint of damage to property at Miss Berri’s insistence. Please follow me to the Watch House and we will make sure none of you intentionally damaged her goods. After that, we will determine if you must pay a small fine—”
A shout came from the crowd. Berri raised her paws, looking very worried.
“I never said that! I just said this Human—”
She tried to point at Maviola. Olesm turned to Berri.
“Miss Berri, that Human is a pedestrian on the streets. Is there a difference between the accident she caused or the accident a Gnoll shopper might cause? Or a Drake one?”
Olesm looked at Berri as she trailed off.
“So—if the shopper was a Gnoll, the situation would be different? What about a Drake?”
“Yes, exactly! Thank you!”
The Drake [Strategist] hadn’t been prepared for that. His jaw worked as Berri looked relieved. But some of the crowd understood his point.
“Stop blaming Humans for your stupid display, Berri! You’re wasting all our time!”
One of the Drake customers shouted at her. Another Gnoll shouted his agreement. Berri’s ears flattened.
“Do you withdraw the complaint?”
Olesm nodded. He looked at the triumphant Maviola, who was not hiding her pleasure. But the Drake looked around the street, speaking to the Gnoll and the others.
“Miss Berri, if you have a complaint, don’t hesitate to register it with a [Guard]. Especially if a Human [Thief] appears in the market. But that goes for any [Thief] of any species. Humans are new to the city. But that is all. The law makes no distinction between them.”
The Gnoll didn’t reply. The members of the crowd watched Olesm step back. He gestured to Maviola and they walked away. In the silence, one of the Drakes murmured to his companion.
“Well, Ancestors. That was kind of harsh, don’t you think?”
“Humans. Well, he is friends with that crazy one. Say, can I get two Amentus Fruits? Not the bruised ones. Thanks.”
And the crowd shifted to supporting the downtrodden Berri.
“That Olesm. Not always the nicest of sorts. He had a point, but did he have to embarrass Berri, make a speech?”
“His new class has gone to his head, what? I remember that nice young Drake boy…”
“Anyone know where the carrots are for sale?”
Selys groaned as Hawk waved his paw around vaguely. The crowd murmured. After a few seconds, some of them began to shout at Olesm’s back.
You couldn’t win them all. Olesm heard the people hurling insults at his back and high-tailed it out of Market Street. He thought he’d done a good job. But one of the said Amentus Fruits even went soaring after his head.
He started running and only stopped when he heard the laughter. Maviola was hurrying after him, but she was laughing as she ran.
The pure amusement in her voice made Olesm stop and grin ruefully. He saw her glance behind him.
“No mob. We’re safe.”
The two caught their breaths. Olesm looked at Maviola.
“Sorry. I thought that really worked.”
“It was a good speech. But did you really expect them to suddenly stop disliking Humans? You made a huge scene and humiliated that poor Gnoll.”
Olesm’s jaw dropped.
“Because you told me to!”
“Not to do it that way! And if you were going to make a scene, you should always have a way out. In case it fails! Otherwise you and I could have been beaten to pulp with—fruits!”
She laughed merrily at him. Olesm hadn’t considered that. Berri was a Gnoll woman—which meant bigger than Maviola and Olesm. She could probably pluck their heads off like grapes and put them on her counter if she got mad.
“Well—I’ve never done that before! I did my best, alright?”
“And I’m grateful. I didn’t knock over the fruits on purpose, by the way.”
The Drake looked stupidly at her. The [Lady] brushed her dress and glanced about. She opened her mouth as Olesm tried to say something about inclusivity and how Liscor wasn’t used to Humans.
Their stomachs both rumbled. The Drake and young woman paused. And then they started chuckling.
“Sorry. I haven’t had anything to eat.”
“Me neither. My money pouch got stolen.”
“Oh no. In the city? We can report it—”
Maviola waved it off. She bent down, dusted something off.
“Anyways, I found breakfast. I was looking for work as a [Stall Attendant] or something, but since that’s out—want to share?”
She offered the cored Amentus Fruit to Olesm. He blinked at it. It was only slightly bruised and Maviola bit into it with clear delight.
“Sweet! And so delicious. You know, these sell for gold up north? Well, the poison is deadly.”
“It’s all in the core. And if you’re hungry, want some breakfast? I need to get some. Now.”
The young woman looked at Olesm.
“I can’t pay for myself. I was going to have to go back to the inn and ask the Horns. I was actually hoping to look around the city.”
“Well, I know it like the back of my tail. Been here all my life. Come on—they’re selling burgers this way. Well—ribs in a bun. I’ll treat you. We do know each other, after all. Don’t worry; they’re really cheap.”
Maviola smiled as Olesm pointed.
“Thank you. Well, I’ll share my breakfast too.”
She popped the other half of the Amentus Fruit into Olesm’s mouth. He blinked. It was sweet! And only a bit gritty. The [Lady] walked past him, looking at the expression on his face with amusement. The Drake stared at her back. And then followed after. There was something about Maviola that made you want to learn about her.
It was familiar.
Lady Pryde Ulta stood in the inn. Erin froze with her hand on the doorknob. The [Lady of Pride] looked around, and her eyes flashed imperiously.
She was the same as she’d been just yesterday. Erin stared at her. And the inn fell silent.
The [Lady] glanced at Erin. The Earthers were gone; Erin had just been about to go after them. Lyonette froze as she edged out of the kitchen with an extra-large pie for Moore; the Halfseekers had come through the door just a moment ago.
“A curious inn. I don’t see why Magnolia is so obsessed with this place. However—it has some interesting qualities. Innkeeper, how much would you take for this door? Eighty thousand gold pieces? Name your price. If it is within reason, we may come to an arrangement. I have other objects I would like to purchase—”
Erin Solstice strode up to Pryde. And the air was suddenly stifling.
“You’re not welcome here. Get out.”
This time the [Lady] heard her, or acknowledged she’d heard. Her eyes narrowed slightly.
“Insolence. I am Lady Pryde Ulta. No one tells me where to go.”
As dialogue went, that last part fell flat. But Pryde was holding still. And Erin—
“This is my inn. You can’t come in here. You’re not buying the door. And you and Magnolia—all of you are on my bad list.”
Pryde just ignored that. She turned her head. And then began to walk past Erin, towards one of the doors. Just like that. Erin’s eyes bulged.
“I said, stop.”
This time Lyonette felt the aura condensing around Pryde. The [Lady] nearly stumbled. She turned.
“So, the [Innkeeper] does have thorns. But you wouldn’t have stopped me, even alone. Girl. I am a [Lady] of Izril. I will excuse your foul manners. Once. Do not test me.”
This time the [Lady of Pride]’s eyes narrowed. Lyonette felt the gathering aura against the door. She looked for Mrsha.
“Mrsha—oh no. Mrsha, get over here!”
The Gnoll looked up. She scampered over. Lyonette seized her, and then tossed her. Mrsha went flying through the [Garden of Sanctuary] with a yelp. Lyonette slammed the door.
In the inn, Pryde’s aura was gathering around her. Someone had taught her. She brushed off Erin’s aura, began to overpower the [Innkeeper]. Erin’s eyes went wide. She pushed back, but the [Lady]’s atmosphere was overpowering. That was pride, manifest.
“Don’t make me discipline you. I might admire your spirit. In fact, I rather do. But I require respect first.”
Pryde half-smiled as the air began to shake around Erin. Then someone coughed.
“Excuse me. That’s our friend. If she says you’re not welcome, get out.”
The air turned cold. Lyonette saw-felt a third aura merging, freezing the air around Pryde. She saw Ceria.
“No, no, you idiot—”
Pryde glanced at the frost growing on her clothing. She tsked. The Horns were on their feet. So were the Halfseekers. Griffon Hunt were more indecisive.
“Don’t be an idiot, Moore! That’s a [Lady]!”
Revi hissed at the half-Giant. But he was carefully edging around the table. Yvlon walked forwards, her hands raised placatingly as Pisces stealthily moved around Pryde’s back. Ksmvr pulled out a crossbow and Halrac grabbed it.
“Lady Ulta, please calm down. This is not your land. Miss Solstice is the owner of the inn. Her word is law.”
Pryde glanced at Yvlon.
“And you are?”
“A minor house’s daughter. You have only a scrap of our class. And you have no right to lecture me on my authority. Be silent.”
The [Armsmistress]’s eyes blazed. She took a step forwards.
“We will back up Erin’s words. Please reconsider.”
Ceria was freezing the air colder and colder. Not dangerously cold yet; but she was warning Pryde. Lyonette hesitated. This was bad. Ceria was like Erin.
“That’s not how you fight with auras—”
Lady Pryde turned her head, saw Pisces and Ksmvr trying to sneak up on her from behind. Her eyes flashed with anger.
“Enough of this. You want to challenge me, children. Fine. Challenge me.”
Yvlon, striding for Pryde, suddenly froze. The aura spread out, immobilizing Ksmvr, Pisces, Ceria—it squashed Ceria’s elemental aura. And the air around Pryde turned golden, taking on an ethereal tinge.
“Oh no. She’s got control, potency, and manifestation.”
Lyonette groaned. Erin staggered as everyone in the inn felt an overwhelming, yet invisible weight pushing them down. Pryde’s ego was weight. Lyonette herself had to gather her aura and push against the intensity.
But—Erin still moved. She looked around her staggering friends. A copy of yesterday. And she lost her temper.
She pointed. Lyonette saw the air ripple. Both she and Pryde blinked. But the [Lady] went stumbling back a few steps. Pryde caught herself, formed a shield. Erin blinked. She’d just manifested her aura!
“Interesting. You want to make this a competition? Show me what makes Magnolia so fascinated.”
Lady Pryde’s aura intensified. But this was Erin’s land. The young woman pushed back. And the two personalities met in the center of the inn.
It was something Lyonette could sense. To many, it was just an invisible staring contest. But no—you could feel it in the air, like two hostile intentions. And it was actually affecting the air between them. Shimmering where the auras met.
Revi whispered. She didn’t quite understand. But Halrac was staring at the two; the [Scout] could see almost as well as Lyonette.
Everyone could feel an aura. Everyone could use an aura. If you had ever engaged in a hostile staring contest—that was two auras clashing. But this was that natural ability multiplied a thousand times.
Lyonette saw Erin struggling against Pryde. The [Lady] was locking down everyone around her, but that was more of a side-effect. The two were battling it out and the Horns were frozen. They might have moved. Pisces might have flicked his glowing [Shatterbolt] ring. But that was—too—hostile. This was a [Lady]’s battle.
And an [Innkeeper] was matching her in her inn. It was close. They went back and forth; Pryde had experience, a more powerful class and a more distinguished aura.
But this was Erin’s inn. And she was mad. The two glared at each other.
Pryde’s eyes narrowed as she tried to squash Erin and found the young woman pushing at her. Erin was biting her lip hard enough to draw blood. The [Innkeeper]’s focus was slipping. But—she balled a hand into a fist.
“This is my inn. You want to get mean?”
She began walking forwards. Lyonette saw Erin raising her fist. Pryde saw it, and smiled.
“[Pride is Unbreakable].”
She began walking forwards too. They were on a collision course. And the clash of auras was about to get physical. But Pryde was supremely confident in her defensive Skill. And Lyonette, looking between them, wondered what she could do. If she threw her power behind Erin—but she could barely push Pryde off her!
Push. Wait a second…Lyonette’s eyes widened. Abruptly, the [Princess]’ back straightened. She felt the pressure lift. Of course! Erin had no idea, and neither did Pryde! Lyonette saw Erin raising a fist and ran.
She shoved Erin aside. The [Innkeeper] went ‘bwuh’, and sprawled onto the ground. Lyonette saw Pryde blink.
The pressure on Erin relented—slightly. Erin scrambled up.
“Lyonette! Get out of the way! I’m gonna punch her—”
“Erin Solstice. We have bigger issues! Go after the Ear—go after Rose and the others! They’re in the Floodplains, remember?”
Lyonette snapped at the [Innkeeper]. Erin blinked. She glanced at the door, and then at the confused Pryde.
“Go. I’ll handle things here.”
Lyonette saw Erin hesitate, weigh the odds of Joseph and the others being in trouble, look at Pryde. Then she cursed and ran. Erin only stopped at the door to point at Pryde.
“This isn’t over! Dun, dun, d—”
She slammed the door. Pryde stared after her, and then at Lyonette. Her aura was still crushing everyone around her.
“Gah! Why can’t I—”
Ceria was on her knees. She was being completely shut down. Even Yvlon was struggling to stay upright. But Lyonette? Pryde focused on the [Princess]. And Lyonette’s knees didn’t so much as buckle.
“And who are you?”
Lyonette du Marquin stood in front of Lady Pryde Ulta. She took a deep breath. And then she smoothly curtsied.
“Lyon, Lady Pryde! So sorry about that. I’m the inn’s [Manager] and [Head Barmaid], under Miss Solstice. How can I help you?”
The [Lady] blinked. The aura…slowly relaxed. She turned her head, eyed Lyonette a few times, and then sniffed.
“Well, someone has politeness and a spine. I’ll conduct my business myself. Tell that impudent [Innkeeper].”
With that she turned away and walked through one of the side doors. Lyonette exhaled, slowly. She felt everyone begin breathing, talking again.
“Dead gods damn it, I couldn’t do anything! Again!”
Ceria got up, breathing hard. She looked at Lyonette. Then at Pryde.
“We’re just letting her go?”
“Would you like to throw her out? I’ll follow her, make sure nothing else happens. Mrsha! You can come in, but don’t you dare cause trouble!”
Mrsha was peeking at Lyonette wide-eyed through the Garden of Sanctuary. The others saw Lyonette clap her hands.
“Sorry for the interruption, everyone! Won’t happen again—hopefully. Back to work!”
They all looked at the [Princess]. Yvlon, panting, eyed Lyonette. She asked the question that Mrsha and the others dearly wanted to know.
“You just interrupted both Erin and Pryde. She tried to squash you, Lyonette. I’m no expert—I’m a Level 4 [Lady]. But how did you do that?”
Lyonette just winked.
“Aura battles aren’t pure force, Yvlon. Ceria, you need practice. Just like Erin. As for how—that’s my secret. Come on, Mrsha!”
She scooped Mrsha up and followed after Pryde. The Gnoll patted Lyonette on the head urgently. She signed with her paws, practically begging.
“How did you do that?”
Lyonette saw Mrsha pleading for the answer. So she lowered her voice as she followed Pryde and whispered.
“Easy, Mrsha. I just know about auras. Pryde is stronger, more skillful than Erin and me. But you know what? I outrank her.”
It was all about perspective. Once Lyonette shifted her own authority, Pryde was aiming at the wrong target. There was nothing like a secret [Princess] when someone pulled out a [Lady].
But round two was just beginning. Lyonette wiped sweat from her brow. She hurried down the main hallway. Pryde was going through one of the side doors.
“Lady Pryde! How can I help—”
The magic door opened and a Drake strode through. An absolute unit. Grimalkin the Fist Mage made the Gnolls look small and skinny. He was already in an irritable mood. But he was unfailingly…Grimalkin.
“Ah, Miss Lyonette. Excellent. I must speak to Erin Solstice at once. About the Antinium issue.”
“Grimalkin! I mean, Magus—now is not a good time. Erin’s outside and—”
“Is she? I’ll find her. I’d also like to confer with Watch Captain Zevara before I leave. The Walled Cities are debating on the Liscorian issue…excuse me.”
Grimalkin turned towards the door. Lyonette’s eyes widened. She could see the future. Grimalkin would find Erin in a moment. And the Earthers. And knowing them—they hadn’t been briefed yet.
“No, Magus Grimalkin, now’s really not a good time—Erin’s in the middle of something.”
“When is she not? I’ll be brief, but I must insist—”
Grimalkin went for the door. Lyonette took a deep breath.
“I said, no.”
The Drake halted in his tracks. He looked over his shoulder. And the [Princess]’s aura caught and held him.
“What are you doing?”
The young Human woman smiled at him as Mrsha smirked at Grimalkin.
“Magus Grimalkin. While I appreciate the severity of your needs, Erin is busy with a pressing task. It is somewhat rude to interrupt her. Is your task critical or just pressing?”
The Drake’s jaw worked a few times. He hesitated. And Lyonette looked at him. Her aura didn’t hold him down like Pryde and Erin did. It just pushed one thing onto him.
He was being rather unmannerly. The [Sinew Magus] coughed, checked himself.
“I could—wait. Yes. I’ll—see Miss Solstice at her leisure. Once this pressing issue is dealt with. You understand my concern?”
“Of course. And she will see you directly after she is free. I’ll convey that to her myself. Would you like to wait in the inn?”
“Er…yes. Yes, before the Watch Captain.”
The [Sinew Magus] stepped back from the door. Lyonette felt more energy leave her as she released her aura. But Mrsha was giving her Human mother another awed look. Power was more than muscle. Grimalkin was all muscle. But he had little experience with noble classes.
Of course, you could mostly get around that because on the battlefield, all these diplomatic tricks didn’t stop an arrow going through your head. Except in Pryde’s case.
And speaking of her…Lyonette hurried after Pryde. What was she up to? Lyonette peeked around the inn, worried. Was she after one of the Antinium? Oh no. Where was Bird? Numbtongue? Was she—
Pryde was in one of the inn’s newest rooms. The weights room. Grimalkin’s new weights and exercise machines were all set up. And the [Lady] was staring at a poster Grimalkin had worked up showing how to properly do a deadlift. She was holding one of the larger barbells casually in one arm.
“Oh, you again. These are intriguing. They’re for building muscle, aren’t they? I want them. Where do they come from and how much are they? Never mind. I’ll buy these.”
Pryde turned to Lyonette as the young woman entered the room. Mrsha padded in after her, wrinkling her nose. It always smelled vaguely of sweat in here. Lyonette blinked at Pryde.
“Yes. Sell them to me.”
The [Lady] looked at the [Princess]. She narrowed her eyes and Lyonette felt an experimental push. For a moment she wanted to sell the weights. Well—she still did. But the [Princess] had her pride. She took a breath, restrained her vexation, and smiled.
She rather enjoyed saying that. Pryde blinked a few times.
“I’ll buy them for twice of whatever they were sold to you for.”
Again, the [Princess] fought. Internally, her mercantile side said ‘yes, absolutely’! But part of her, the [Princess] part, said—
“No, Lady Pryde. These are the property of The Wandering Inn. They cannot be sold, even to a [Lady] of Izril. I am so sorry.”
It was so funny. Lyonette loved money. But this was her inn. No one walked in and made demands of her. She ignored Pryde’s aura; the [Lady] was still looking at her like a [Barmaid].
But this was hers, too. The [Lady of Pride] concentrated, and then looked exasperated.
“I want these. Where do they come from. What are they?”
A little bell rang in Lyonette’s head. The [Princess] smiled widely. She looked over her shoulder.
“Actually, Lady Pryde—I think I can put you in touch with the creator himself. One moment?”
She hurried out of the room. Lady Pryde opened her mouth. And then she turned and stared.
Mrsha was trying to bench press a miniature weights bar. She gave Pryde a challenging look. Even Pryde needed a moment for that. Cuteness could overpower even pride.
Grimalkin was still pacing back and forth in the hallway, muttering to himself.
“Auras. Damn formality Skills. Should I go after Miss Solstice? But there is such a thing as politeness—which is of course, how the Skills work. If I was a savage-minded person with no manners, I’d be practically immune…”
He jumped as Lyonette opened one of the secret side-doors.
“I haven’t left. Wait, is Miss Solstice back yet?”
He turned on her, expectantly. Lyonette smiled at Grimalkin.
“Actually, not that I want to distract you, but I have someone asking about buying some of your weights. She’s very intrigued. Could you spare a moment to speak to Lady Pryde Ulta?”
“Lady Pryde—one of the [Ladies] is here? Show me, yes, absolutely.”
Grimalkin strode into the weights room after Lyonette. Pryde was experimentally loading up her own weights bar. Mrsha was helping her slot some of the heavier lead weights into place.
Both caught sight of each other at the same time. Pryde straightened and Grimalkin folded his arms.
They practically said the same thing.
“Lady Pryde, may I introduce Magus Grimalkin of Pallass? He created the weights you see here.”
Grimalkin opened his mouth.
“May I ask what a [Lady] is doing in Liscor? Miss Pryde?”
Pryde’s eyes flashed again.
“Lady Pryde. And I came here to investigate this…contraption. I saw it yesterday, but I was occupied with Magnolia’s plan. What is this for? To build muscle?”
Grimalkin was opening his mouth. Then—he blinked.
“Well, of course. This is my revolutionary weights-system. And this is a—gymnasium. To build muscle, in a controlled environment.”
“Really? Why haven’t I heard of this?”
“It’s a new invention.”
Grimalkin shot back. He glanced at Pryde’s weight bar dismissively.
“The techniques are completely revolutionary. My concept with some help from a…significant source. Each muscular group can be worked on without the need for sparring or general training. This is an…academic approach to improving one’s body. But it is in development still. Please don’t try lifting that bar, Miss Pryde.”
The [Lady] saw the Drake glance at it.
“It’s far too heavy for your muscular mass. The weights are designed to be used incrementally. You’d want to reduce, oh, eighty pounds from that.”
He gave Pryde a dismissive look up and down. The [Lady] wasn’t wearing the tracksuit, but she was wearing loose, travel or athletic clothes. She didn’t look a tenth as muscular as Grimalkin. However, at Grimalkin’s words, Pryde’s head snapped up.
“Is that a challenge?”
“No, a fact. I warn you—”
Too late. Pryde bent down. A bit uncertainly—she bent down. And then picked the weights bar up and heaved it onto her shoulders to do a squat.
Lyonette and Grimalkin stared. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. Pryde eyed the poster on the wall, and imitated a squat. The weights bar—which had to have over two hundred pounds on it, balanced on her shoulders as she did one squat. Then two.
“Too heavy, you said?”
The [Lady] looked at Grimalkin. The weight was clearly heavy on her, but she was managing it. Grimalkin scratched at his head.
“That’s not…are you using magic? An aura?”
He squinted at her. Pryde just smirked at him.
“I don’t need either. I keep myself fit. House Ulta’s retainers have strict training and I’ve ensured their regimen is second to none. And gone through it myself.”
Grimalkin saw Pryde carefully hooking the weights bar on the squat rack; then the woman’s clothes moved. Lyonette saw abdominal muscle. Mrsha squinted at Pryde’s arms.
“[Compressed Muscle]. Of course. A [Lady]’s Skill. I haven’t seen that Skill in—years. It’s not common.”
The Drake eyed Pryde. She smirked at him.
“A gift from my mother. House Ulta has always been in high physical shape.”
“Not a concept most Drakes know about. I see you have some muscle.”
Grimalkin harrumphed. He and Pryde stared at each other, appraising each other a second time. Lyonette slowly beckoned towards Mrsha; the Gnoll was trying to pump a barbell.
“Well—I can see I’ve misjudged you, Lady Ulta. But these weights are only being tested in Drake lands. I have yet to perfect the regimen.”
“Really? I want them. My [Warriors] could use them. I’ve been looking for ways to improve their strength. Do you have more aids in building muscle? Why have I not heard of these weights before? I don’t keep up on Drake politics.”
“Well, they are cutting-edge. New. And I haven’t been advertising—”
The [Sinew Magus] hesitated. He blinked a few times.
“Did you say you wanted to know more about strength building?”
“Did you mishear me? Unless you don’t have anything else?”
The [Lady] looked archly at Grimalkin. Lyonette grinned and closed the door. Now, that wasn’t a [Princess]’s power. That was just misdirection. And she had learned that trick from—Erin.
“Lyonette, what’s up with that [Lady]?”
“All sorted, Drassi. Ishkr, they’re in the weights room. Bring in some sliced oranges and water for them.”
Lyonette exhaled as she came back into the common room. Pawn and some of the Antinium were in the common room. She exclaimed as she saw them.
“Pawn! What happened to you?”
“We were pelted with trash on our way out of the Hive.”
The [Priest] was picking a rag off his antennae. Two of his Workers smelled as though they’d been doused by…chamber pots. Lyonette’s brows drew together.
“Those—are you hurt?”
“Not physically. But I am somewhat irritable.”
The [Priest] replied. Lyonette saw Ishkr wrinkling his nose.
“Drassi, get the oranges and water for Pryde and Grimalkin. Ishkr—water? Soap?”
“Yes, Miss Lyonette.”
“I’m sorry, Pawn. We can move the door or—make a new one so that doesn’t happen. What’s it like in Liscor? Hold on, I’ll get you some towels—”
Lyonette walked past a table. And then abruptly, collapsed onto it.
The Gnoll blinked as Lyonette caught herself.
“Whoops, slipped. I’m fine, Ishkr.”
Lyonette smiled at Ishkr—and then abruptly, sat back in her chair. Everything spun. Lyonette’s face turned pale.
Mrsha and Pawn sprinted at Lyonette as Ishkr bent over her. The [Princess] felt everything going dark. She panted as Pawn seized her.
“No! I’m fine!”
Urgently, Lyonette knocked away Pawn’s hands. Everyone was watching! She panted as Mrsha grabbed her.
“I just need to—rest. I used up my aura.”
She’d never done that. Her mother hadn’t used her aura as much as that, not in all the years Lyonette had been at court. The [Princess] closed her eyes as the voices murmured around her.
“Just give me—give me—one moment.”
Her head lolled back. And she closed her eyes. The [Princess] passed out—just for a moment, before Mrsha shoved a stamina potion in her mouth. But that was all she needed. She heard that wonderful voice she’d been waiting for.
[Worldly Princess Level 20!]
At the same time that was happening, a [Lady] was listening to a Drake’s woes. Maviola El savored her bites of the rib-burger as she walked across Liscor with Olesm.
The Drake was showing her around. Olesm really didn’t have much to do—well, he had to attend the strategy meeting regarding the Antinium situation.
“But what do I do? I’m just a low-level [Strategist]. Grand Strategist Chaldion will be there. I mean—I’ve messed it all up.”
Olesm was showing Maviola the park. She stopped, watching Ekirra throw Visma off the top of the park slide. The screaming Drake child plummeted to the ground before the safety spell caught her. Then she raced up and kicked Ekirra off.
“But you’re Liscor’s [Strategist]. You’ve done a lot for the city. Before this Council, you practically ran it.”
“How do you know that?”
She smiled at him.
“You told me last night. We played chess, remember?”
“Oh. I uh—drank too much. Sorry. I’m whining, aren’t I?”
“Yes. The [Innkeeper] doesn’t like you. That half-Elf doesn’t love you. You don’t get paid enough, the city’s undefended against the Antinium—”
Maviola began counting Olesm’s woes off on her fingers. He turned bright red under his scales. He’d told her all that yesterday? She grinned at his expression.
“I’m—sorry. I’ll shut up.”
The Drake turned away. Idiot! But Maviola just pushed at his shoulder.
“Do you know what your problem is, Olesm? You told me all your problems yesterday. But you don’t do anything about them.”
The [Strategist] hunched his shoulders.
“What? No, I mean, I can’t fix Ceria not…and Erin—I burned the bridge with her.”
Maviola rolled her eyes.
“Yes, yes. But those two aren’t the biggest problems, are they? The Antinium was what I meant—but let’s start with an easy one. You don’t get paid enough?”
“I…could use a bigger salary. I mean, it’s decent. But I spend money on paper and ink for my personal notes. It’s not that I need a lot more, it’d just be helpful. Did I mention that?”
Olesm counted his coins. Even treating Maviola to a meal ticked his cash flow at the back of his head. Maviola smiled.
“Briefly. So if you need more money and you’re working hard—why don’t you ask for it? Ask this Council.”
The blue-scaled Drake hesitated.
“I couldn’t do that. They have so many budgetary needs, what with the city’s construction and so forth—I don’t need to add to that.”
The [Lady] rolled her eyes.
“And is your salary going to impact the entire future of Liscor’s construction?”
She spread her arms to indicate the entire city, mockingly. Olesm blushed again.
“No! But—it’s petty.”
“You mean, it’s easy. Just ask. If they say no, that’s it. But you don’t ask. That’s like your Antinium problem.”
“Ow. What is?”
Olesm backed up from the poking. Maviola looked at him, exasperated, but amused. Somehow—knowing.
“Forget about what this Grand Strategist can do. What can you, as the [Strategist] of Liscor, do? You’re making a mistake of command: you think that if you can’t fix everything, you should leave it to your superiors. That’s idiotic.”
She pointed down at the ground they stood on.
“You do the best job you can in your position, and you inform those above you about what you can’t do. You don’t do nothing and wait for orders. If that’s how you act, you don’t deserve to even follow.”
Her words were sharp and cut Olesm to the quick. What was worse—Maviola sounded like she knew exactly what she was talking about from personal experience. Olesm just looked at her.
“Oh, Ancestors. That makes so much sense.”
“Mhm. Imagine that.”
She leaned on a sign in front of the public park. It read, ‘Erin Solstice is banned from entry by order of the community and the Watch’. There had been a siege here, once. Children vs grownups. An epic battle.
Anyways. Olesm just looked at Maviola.
“So—I should be doing what I can that Chaldion can’t do?”
She shrugged. The young woman gave Olesm a very blank look.
“I have no idea. I’m not Liscor’s [Strategist]. But what are the problems in Liscor that could be fixed?”
“Oh, well—so many. The Humans coming into Liscor—that’s an issue you highlighted this morning. I had this chess magazine, and that’s more personal, but it was actually putting Liscor on the map. But I don’t talk to Erin. And there’s the budget—if I could help with that—”
For a moment Olesm felt that helplessness set in. How did you fix any of that? He began to feel sorry for himself.
Then Maviola kicked him. The Drake yelped. He glared at her and then realized. He was doing it again. Here was the problem. Now—where was his solution?
“I…don’t know what I should do.”
Maviola raised her foot. Olesm hurried on.
He rubbed at his chin in thought. Thought, for once. And he didn’t see Maviola’s eyes locked on his face. Her smile, as she saw a fire reigniting in his empty gaze.
“Why don’t you show me around? Run your ideas by me. I can listen.”
She suggested. Olesm looked around.
“Oh! Sure. We can—walk by some of Liscor’s attractions. You know, we have great singing performances. Erin’s never bothered to go down Stonesong Boulevard, but it really is a sight. They have this Rock Crab—sorry, Hollowstone Deceiver’s—shell that they painted and people stand on it and sing. Amazing acoustics. Come on, I’ll show you.”
He pointed and the two began to walk. After a moment, Olesm looked at Maviola, embarrassed. She was smiling, looking around this city with excitement. And at him.
“So—well, it’s incomplete, but—”
“Tell me already.”
“Well, I had this idea just now. You know my magazine? What if—I saw that Pallass has a newspaper, which is this thing—okay, let me start from the beginning. But hear me out…”
He began to talk. And Maviola listened. Smiling and walking with him. She grabbed his arm and listened, laughing. As if she had all the time in the world. Or as if this was all that mattered with the time she had left.
And the flames grew.
Across the Floodplains, a group of seven walked. They were a bit—disconsolate.
“Wow. Erin’s a lot more high-strung than I remember. Not as bad as Ryoka, though.”
“She really runs this inn? Why? Maybe she likes being…an [Innkeeper]?”
They were debating. Wandering up and down the hills and valleys, marveling at the landscape, the odd rocks scattered here and there, the city in the distance.
But it wasn’t—necessarily—a place you wanted to stay. Still, where else did they have to go? Rose was shaking her head.
“Erin’s nice. She let us in after we ran up that huge tab.”
“But how does she have all this? I mean—do you think she actually has a higher level? She’s only been here what, a few months?”
Leon was skeptical. Kevin scratched his head.
“I dunno, guys. She’s a pretty big deal. I was chatting up that Drake. Drassi.”
“Hitting on her, you mean. Kevin—that’s so disgusting.”
Galina wrinkled her nose. Kevin looked at her.
“That’s like—being one of those people. That dresses up in costumes?”
Troydel looked at her. Kevin frowned.
“Drassi’s not that. She’s a person.”
“But she’s a lizard—”
“Don’t call them that.”
“Guys! I’m just asking if we want to stay here.”
Rose raised her voice. The others looked at her. Joseph, rubbing his head, muttered.
“Why not? We don’t have anywhere else to go. But is it safe? Erin can’t protect us. She’s got that Gnoll—that red-haired girl, a few employees—”
“That cute Gnoll. Did you see her face?”
Galina sighed. The others were arguing. They were lost. And—under one misconception. Only one, really. They thought of Erin as being like them. Because they didn’t know her.
Or Liscor. If they had, they might have understood. Crucial facts about the inn, about Erin that made her—not like them. Little details, that was all the seven were missing.
Like the fact that rocks moved. One of them slowly stood up and crept over a hill. It had a lot of little legs.
Another Rock Crab slowly stood up. And then another. And another. They saw the food moving in a helpful group and began to creep closer. Most Gnoll [Hunters] kept their distance from the telltale rocks. But the Earthers, like other animals not used to the Floodplains, didn’t know.
And that wasn’t their fault. Rose was poking at the others.
“All I’m saying is, we owe Erin. Don’t be an idiot and steal her drinks, Joseph! We’re going to go back, help out, and—just be helpful! Got it? Any objections?”
No one had any. But it was Imani, a [Survivor], who had been clutching Rose’s shirt who quavered.
“Everyone? I just saw—a rock move.”
The others looked at her. Joseph glanced around. There were a few rocks. Boulders, really. Big. Kevin scratched his head.
“Like…roll down a hill?”
“No. It stood up. That one.”
Imani pointed. Now the Earthers glanced around. Leon frowned.
“Those are a lot of rocks. Were they here…when we started walking?”
They halted. Six rocks were spaced around the small hills about them. The Earthers paused. They weren’t idiots.
“I think…we should go back.”
Rose breathed slowly. She hunted for the magic wand she had been given. Joseph felt at his belt.
“I don’t have a sword. Anyone else?”
“I…left my wand back at the inn.”
The others looked at each other. They glanced back the way they came. There was a giant boulder in the way.
“It stood up again.”
All seven heads turned. They saw a bunch of tiny legs as one of the rocks got up and shuffled towards them. They stared. Then Imani began to scream.
Kevin bellowed. He pointed. The others ran for a gap—and as one, the Rocks Crab stood up and began scuttling at them. Giant pincers appeared under the rocks as the Rock Crabs lifted up their disguises.
And they began to click.
“Run! [Fire Arrow]!”
Rose pointed. An arrow made of fire blasted off a shell as she missed the gap. She paled at the effort; Imani was screaming.
Joseph grabbed her. He and Kevin tried to run with her. But one of the Rock Crabs scuttled in front of them. The group tried to swerve. They nearly tumbled down a valley. The Rock Crabs crept over the ledges, encircling them.
“Oh my god. This isn’t happening.”
Galina looked around. Six Rock Crabs looked down at them. Their antennae-eyes stared at the food. They clicked.
Imani was screaming. The others backed up. Rose raised a finger, but her hand was shaking. Kevin looked around.
“Make a break for it when they come. Just run. And maybe some of us will get out.”
“I—let’s duck under the shells. Maybe they have a weak point.”
Leon whispered. Troydel just looked at the Rock Crabs. He grinned, face white.
“I guess we find out if this is a game after all.”
Each to their own. The Rock Crabs paused. Imani’s screaming was bothering them. It was very loud. And there was a second sound below it. No—coming from the side? Their antennae turned. And then the screaming grew louder.
“You jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeerks! Get off my lawn!”
Erin Solstice raced over a hill. The Earthers looked up. The young woman was alone.
“Erin! Fucking run!”
Joseph bellowed. Erin was unarmed. But she was holding a handful of—
Seed cores. Erin threw the first. It splatted on a Rock Crab’s shell. The giant crab recoiled as the deadly poison leaked down towards its antennae. It jerked back and the other Rock Crabs backed up.
Erin threw the other seed cores. The Rock Crabs scurried back as the young Humans looked up, gaping. The [Innkeeper] hurled another core and pointed.
“Run! This way!”
They looked at each other. Then they ran. Kevin and Joseph went back and grabbed the petrified Imani. Erin threw more seed cores.
“Yeah! Get lost! You stupid crabs! I’ve had it up to here with—uh oh.”
She realized she was out of seed cores. The Rock Crabs stopped scuttling away. They turned. Erin Solstice hesitated. They began scuttling at the poison-thrower, full of rage.
“What do we do?”
Erin pushed Leon towards the inn. She held her ground. Rose pulled at her. Erin shouted.
“I said, run for it!”
She backed up, covering the other’s retreat. You couldn’t outrun Rock Crabs on the hills and valleys. They were too fast. Erin raised a fist. She concentrated.
Aura. The first Rock Crab coming up the hill saw Erin staring down at it.
“Hey. Hey you. I’ll eat you. Get outta here.”
The [Innkeeper] pointed at the Rock Crab. The Hollowstone Deceiver hesitated. The aura was making Erin…feel dangerous. But Erin was tired. Outside her inn. Her aura flickered. The Rock Crab clicked one claw.
Erin backed up. She turned to run. The Rock Crab went up the hill.
Rose saw the [Innkeeper] leap down the hill. The Rock Crab scurried over the top. It raised a pincer to snap her in half. And an arrow shot from The Wandering Inn’s tower.
It flashed past Erin and hit the ground. The young woman saw it flashing towards the Rock Crab’s feet. A miss?
No—the arrow bounced off the ground as if it was rubber and went straight under the shell. The Rock Crab made a keening sound.
[Ricochet Arrow]. From his tower, Bird took aim. He shot another arrow and it curved and went through the Rock Crab’s exposed antennae. Blue blood ran onto the ground as Erin scrambled away. The Rock Crab withdrew into its shell as the other Rock Crabs scuttled past it.
“That is not good. The crabs will eat Miss Solstice. My arrows are not big enough.”
Bird spoke to himself as he saw Erin running. He casually shot another antennae out, and then looked at the inn.
“Alarm! Hello? There are Rock Crabs! I am Bird. AND I AM CALLING AN ALARM!”
The Workers on the roof of the inn looked up. They saw the distant Humans running. They began to click their mandibles. Then scream.
The piercing wail made the inn’s patrons halt. Grimalkin looked up as he demonstrated a proper deadlift. The Horns of Hammerad stopped arguing about how Ceria’s aura should be used. Halrac cursed.
The Rock Crabs, all six of them, raced after the Earthers. They were running for the inn. Erin brought up the rear. She hurled her knife through one of the Rock Crab’s antennae.
“Take that! I’d better get that knife back! Keep running!”
They stared at her. She wasn’t afraid. She was just—intense. The young woman looked up. And then she grinned. The young people from Earth looked up. And then—they figured out the difference between them and Erin.
The Wandering Inn exploded.
Metaphorically. Halrac opened a window and shot a glowing arrow out of it. A Rock Crab saw the arrow zoom under its shell and then the arrow detonated. The Rock Crab collapsed as blue blood and smoke ran from underneath the shell.
“Aw, hells! Rock Crabs! I’m slowing them!”
Ceria Springwalker pointed. Walls of ice rose behind Erin, blocking another Rock Crab who smashed into them and failed to break the ice. The other five Rock Crabs saw a blur running at them—then a [Shatterbolt] hit another Rock Crab and the front of its rocky shell shattered. The exposed crab heard a thunk. It recoiled; two crossbow bolts were embedded in its shell.
Ksmvr announced as Yvlon raced out the door. But she was too slow. Magus Grimalkin leapt, crashed into a third Rock Crab. It swiped at him.
He punched once.
The other Rock Crabs heard the crunch. They saw a glowing orb that Typhenous threw hit their exposed comrade. There was a thump—a flash of light.
Bits of crab rained down. The remaining three Rock Crabs saw arrows, spells, and little not-snacks running at them. And a horde of very angry bug-men. They turned and scuttled away.
“Yeah, that’s right! Run! Where’s my knife? Aw, I gotta find it.”
Erin Solstice stood on a hill close to her inn, panting. And the seven Earthers saw the young woman wipe at the sweat and blue blood on her face from where she’d thrown her knife through an antennae. They saw her turn to them. And they got it.
Kevin breathed. Erin Solstice looked at them, their wide-eyes. The sudden respect or awe or—bewilderment. Imani was crying again. She sighed.
It was so easy to be exasperated. Annoyed. Just—furious. At incompetence, incomprehension.
Youth. Erin Solstice stood in the inn, staring at Rose and the others. Her patience was done. Lyonette was letting Erin speak; she and the [Innkeeper] were on the same page. Mrsha was furiously watching from under a table.
The other adventurers were relaxing after the sudden burst of activity; free drinks and snacks all around. Grimalkin was cleaning blood off his scales as Pryde put in an order for multiple weight sets.
“You just thought it was a good idea to walk around? And none of you have swords or even knives?”
“We—didn’t know. Sorry.”
Rose lamely replied. Imani was hiccupping. She was white in the face. Erin inhaled.
At the same time, Olesm stopped on Stonesinger Boulevard. He looked at Maviola.
“I think—well, that’s my idea. It’s not great, but—what do you think?”
“I think it’s a good idea.”
Maviola El replied patiently. The old woman, the young woman, looked at Olesm. And saw his face crumple into a mixture of uncertainty from the excitement that had been there just a moment ago.
“But—it’s just my idea. I mean—Erin didn’t help me come up with it. It could backfire. What if I land Liscor in trouble?”
It was so easy to want to kick him. Which she’d done a few times. But really kick him, try to beat his uncertainty out of him. But that was youth.
And she had seen this before. Maviola didn’t kick Olesm. She spoke kindly, but directly, sparing no words.
“Is it better than doing nothing?”
“No, but—I’m not Erin.”
The Drake confessed. Maviola cocked her head, listening.
“You say her name a lot.”
“Every other sentence. ‘Erin did this’, or ‘Erin showed me that’. Do you think she gave you your class?”
The [Strategist] stared over the side of the bridge they were standing on.
“Sometimes, yes. I’m not as original as her. Without her—how much of my accomplishments are mine? The magazine—anything else?”
He was crumpling, even in his genius. Maviola El looked at him. And she had seen this before. You could be so unkind.
“You—are all—I just don’t know what to do. Don’t go outside! Listen, you can’t talk about…home. Do you understand? There are monsters here. Rock Crabs. Shield Spiders—”
Erin was berating them. The others listened, flushing. And Imani, gulping, flinched. And then began to scream. Erin jumped as the others crowded around her.
“Imani! It’s alright!”
The young woman was in hysterics. Actual hysterics. She refused to calm down, even though the Rock Crabs were gone. She was crying, hitting the others as they tried to grab her.
Mrsha stared contemptuously. Her ears hurt. And she hated them. They’d nearly gotten killed by crabs?
Idiots! She furiously raced up and kicked Joseph in the leg.
“Ow. What the fuck?”
“Mrsha, stop that!”
Lyonette snapped. But no one was happy with the Earthers. And Mrsha—looked at Imani as the girl recoiled from her.
“I want to go home!”
She sobbed. Perhaps only Pisces and a few others knew what that meant; Grimalkin was busy talking with Pryde. Imani howled. And Mrsha couldn’t take it anymore. She bared her teeth. Ryoka had sent them? They didn’t deserve to be here!
Mrsha would take care of them. She’d—she’d make them pay for being so stupid. Sticks in their pillows. Throw rocks at them! She balled up her little paws into fists.
“Imani, stop screaming!”
Joseph shouted at Imani. But she wouldn’t. Erin clenched her teeth. Lyonette looked around, exasperated. She could shut Imani up with her aura. She looked at Rose.
“Why is she screaming? They’re gone.”
“I’m sorry. It’s—she was attacked by Crelers. Her group was—killed. She still has nightmares. Imani, shh. It’s okay. Where’s the calming tonic, Kevin?”
“We ran out—”
Lyonette blinked. So did Mrsha. She stopped, ready to slash an ankle with her thorn paw. And she looked up.
“Crelers? Oh. Her entire group was—”
Erin mouthed the word ‘eaten’ at Lyonette. The [Princess] paled. And the Horns of Hammerad slowly looked up.
Imani was still terrified. Crying. In hysterics, yes. Which grated on the ears. It was so easy to hate that. Unless you had seen it.
Lived it. Mrsha looked at Imani’s tears. And it had not been Crelers for her, but Goblins. Yet she knew what it was like to be afraid, even in a safe place. She thought how exasperated she, Erin, Lyonette—everyone was.
And the Gnoll child realized they were being unkind. She looked up at the frightened girl.
She was crying. Weeping, babbling about Crelers, as she clung to Kevin. This world’s nightmares. She had survived that.
Erin’s arms slowly uncrossed. She looked at Imani, and the other silent young people from Earth. And she saw it in every line of how they stood.
Fear. Uncertainty. Terror, still. They hadn’t known about the Rock Crabs. Hadn’t imagined they could have been in that much danger five minutes from the inn. Erin Solstice looked at them and remembered a young woman who had run screaming from a Rock Crab the first time she’d gone for a walk.
And then she saw a little white Gnoll looking up at her. And Erin Solstice felt her anger—fading.
The little eyes were judging her. Erin was ashamed, because Mrsha looked disappointed. In herself, and the [Innkeeper]. In Erin, who welcomed Goblins. And wouldn’t welcome some people from her world because they weren’t what she wanted.
The hysterics were fading—at least from screams into sobs. Typhenous cleared his throat.
“Perhaps a [Calm] spell?”
The old mage walked over. He reached out and Imani flinched. But Typhenous smiled kindly at her.
“This won’t hurt a bit, Miss Imani.”
He touched her head, whispered a word. And Imani relaxed. She still clung to the others. But the worst of her fear—vanished. And Erin Solstice took a breath.
“Sorry. I should have warned you all.”
That was what she said first. She looked at the seven young people.
“It’s just—this was so sudden. I wasn’t sure how to—greet you. But I meant what I said.”
She gestured around the inn.
“We have room. Stay as long as you want. But you do have to know things. About Rock Crabs. And—”
Her eyes darted to Palt, who was muttering about [Calm] spells versus his superior [Remove Fear] spells. Montressa, and Beza, watching them like hawks. Erin looked at the others.
“—there are complications. It’s not always easy. But listen. If you want to stay here, you’re welcome.”
The others looked at each other. And the [Princess] walked forwards. She smiled and nodded.
“That’s right. I don’t know if I’ve done this formally—I’m Lyonette. And this is Mrsha.”
She gestured at the little white Gnoll. And the [Princess] saw something familiar in the young people from Earth too. Like a [Princess] who refused to even take orders. Exasperating, yes. Infuriating? Beyond so. But they were not all the same.
Imani jumped. And then she looked down. A little Gnoll looked up at her apologetically. Not all the same. She nuzzled Imani’s leg. And swatted at Rose’s hand as the young woman tried to pat her on the head.
Youth was failure. Maviola looked at Olesm as he stood on the bridge, afraid to make a mistake again. And she saw his flame guttering. To her—the world was fire. It was her passion, her class.
“Olesm Swifttail. You are a fool.”
He looked at her. And the flames ran lower. But Maviola just drew herself up.
“By that, I mean, you think everything you have came from this Erin Solstice. And that’s why you’re a fool. Because just a moment ago you had a brilliant idea! What fire! What creativity! Yes, it came from other people. Yes, you use their ideas. But so what? No one is entirely original. You just need the daring, the will to try and fail.”
She reached out.
“Try your idea. Show me your determination.”
“But what if I can’t?”
Olesm looked at her. Flinching. Maviola shook her head and her hair blazed. She burned in the daylight, and her triumph shone even under the sun.
“Listen. I’ve failed and triumphed more times than I can count, in equal quantity! And the failure always hurts. But we do not grow, we do not level from never having tried. You have to try. Or you will be the same forever. And—you do not have to do it alone. Few people ever stand alone.”
She reached for his clawed hand.
And a little Gnoll’s paw found Imani’s hand. The young woman started. The [Survivor] looked into another [Survivor]’s eyes. And Mrsha tugged Imani, pointing.
To a magical door. The group of seven started, gasping. Rose looked wide-eyed towards the grass hill. Imani hesitated.
She drew back. But Mrsha tugged at her, smiling. Erin looked at her garden.
“That? That’s the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Go on. It’s safe.”
Imani hesitated. She looked down at Mrsha, and felt a kindred spirit. And Lyonette watched. Numbtongue stood with Bird, observing the way the seven children looked at that magical place. Looking at Imani.
She hadn’t ever been safe. Felt safe. She had come into this world and it had been purely unfair to her. Without reason, or logic. Bad things had happened, and there was no excuse for it.
They knew that full well. The [Princess], the [Druid], the [Bard], the [Innkeeper], and the [Hunter]. That was one of the things that unified them. Casual cruelty by mocking fate.
But look. The Gnoll girl led the young woman into the garden. A safe, magical place. The little champion led a frightened stranger into a beautiful place. Up a hill. And Imani’s voice caught as she found the hilltop.
It was empty, for her. But she sat there and felt—safe. She closed her eyes as the big Gnoll girl sat next to her and offered a little yellow flower that shone with gold. And she breathed easier.
For here was safety. You felt it in the air. Rose gasped as she saw the Sage’s Grass. Kevin blinked around.
“No way. What is this?”
“A safe place. The safest place I know of.”
Erin answered for him. A [Druid] had been granted entrance to this place despite her Skill, but that was probably his class. But Grimalkin had not, with all his power. So she had to believe it was secure. If you tried to enter with malicious intent, you would have to break this inn first. Erin Solstice had made this garden. And it was safe.
She looked from face to face. And then she said it, complete.
“I’m Erin Solstice. This is my inn. This is my place. And you’re welcome to stay here a while.”
Lyonette smiled. And her eyes lit up. She saw Mrsha, her darling daughter, sitting with Imani on the hilltop. And Lyonette felt something rising in her. A certainty. She walked up the hill, and her new Skill burned in her chest.
Something to inspire. Maviola looked at Olesm. That was what he needed. And she told him that. Fire was honest.
“No one ever gave you your fire. It was always in you. They just lit the spark. You let it go out. But it’s still there. I know it.”
The Drake wanted to believe. But he too was no fool. He ducked his head.
“You say that. But I can’t just—change. I needed Erin. Maybe she didn’t make me. But I needed her.”
“I know. You’re like—charcoal.”
“Thanks? In that I’m single-use?”
“No! Listen, you idiot. You’re capable of doing so much. But sometimes you need a push. Sometimes someone is good in a group instead of alone. And that’s fine. You just need a spark.”
She grabbed him, and turned, laughing. The air shone with dancing magical sparks. Like fireflies. Olesm looked around. Maviola was—igniting. Her black hair began to turn to flame. His eyes widened.
“Who are you? Really?”
The [Lady] smiled. She drew closer. On the hilltop, Lyonette scooped up Mrsha. Erin smiled, tired, but—willing to try as she saw the young people so like her.
It wasn’t perfect. It was flawed. But today, at least—Erin smiled. If she was petty enough to turn away a stranger at the door, she wouldn’t have made it this far.
“I’m so proud of you. My little hero.”
Lyonette du Marquin whispered to the Gnoll. And Maviola drew Olesm closer as the flames engulfed her. But they burned no flesh or scale. Only spirit.
“They call me Maviola. Lady Firestarter. Look at me, you beautiful ember. Show me how you burn.”
She bent forwards. And kissed the Drake. She whispered.
“[A Little Bit of Courage].”
His eyes widened. And the spark lit.
Lyonette kissed Mrsha’s forehead.
“[Boon of the Princess].”
The Gnoll’s eyes went round. Lyonette saw something appear. A glowing—sigil.
It looked like a little halo. A hovering blessing you had to look for to see. The heraldry of The Eternal Throne of Calanfer. Lyonette gasped.
The little [Druid] stood taller. And she heard a sound in her head.
[Temporary Skill – Barkfur obtained!]
[Temporary Skill – Lesser Strength obtained!]
Her eyes opened wide. Lyonette heard the Skills too. She tumbled backwards. Mrsha looked at herself. She raced about. Then—she looked at Lyonette.
“Whoa, what’s this place? It’s amazing!”
Kevin and the others were coming up the hill. Mrsha felt the power racing through her. A blessing. She sat back.
And then she howled. The sound was joyous, and Ishkr, the other Gnolls looked up. Marveling. Mrsha raced forwards, blazing with life.
She charged, howling like a beast from legends. Mrsha the Great and Terrible cannonballed into Kevin’s stomach. He went whoof and tumbled down the hill.
“Help! Get her off! Get her off—”
Lyonette saw Mrsha dragging Kevin by the foot. And she looked around. And laughed and laughed. And the invincible daughter knocked Erin flat with a flying head-butt. She arm-wrestled Rose and lost—barely. Mrsha crashed around the tables, a cannonball unafraid of the impacts.
The little Gnoll raced about, blazing with a mother’s love, a royal gift. And she was one of two fires igniting in Liscor. If you thought about things like fire, that was. You could probably get tired of the metaphor. But banana-based metaphors were more difficult.
The Skill—the [Boon of the Princess] was a Skill among Skills. Lyonette knew about royal blessings. But this was hers.
And it didn’t run out. Mrsha went from becoming a terror in the common room to actually lifting weights in the weights-room. She made Numbtongue hit her—which he did very gently—and her two temporary Skills didn’t halt, even six hours later.
“It’s a boon. I can only give it to one person at a time. And I can’t switch it like that. But it’s still my boon.”
The [Princess] smiled, laughing. She stood in the inn, working, as the Horns and Halfseekers and Griffon Hunt left, cleaning up, as Erin gave the others a crash course on rules of the inn—watching as Grimalkin’s eyes bulged over Pryde’s funding. But she could have predicted that. House Ulta was not poor.
And then—the door opened. Erin Solstice looked up from a game of chess against Joseph. And her eyes widened.
The Drake paused in the common room. He looked about. And inhaled.
“Hello, Erin. I’m not—bothering you, am I?”
“No—come in. I was just—sorry, I’m a bit busy. But—Joseph, can you hold on? Bird can play you. We didn’t get to speak, yesterday, Olesm—”
The Drake held up a claw. And someone else entered the inn. Lyonette blinked at the familiar [Lady]. And she felt a kinship. She stared at Maviola’s orange in her black hair, and Maviola noted Lyonette’s red hair. They looked at each other as Olesm looked around.
“I don’t want to bother you, Erin. Actually—I was hoping I could talk to Drassi. Can I borrow her?”
“Drassi? Of course.”
Erin blinked. But Olesm smiled and walked past her. Confidently. Pursuing his goals. As he walked past Erin to the intrigued Drassi, Lyonette stopped.
The [Lady] was looking at her. She looked a bit older than Lyonette. And felt—so different. Lyonette tilted her head.
“Um—we’ve met, right?”
The young woman sketched a curtsey.
“Hello. I’m Maviola.”
The [Princess] caught herself the first time, and then gave her full name. There was no use hiding. They looked at each other. Lyonette noticed Maviola’s worn clothing.
“You—lost your money pouch, right? Ceria wanted to leave some coin for you.”
“Oh. Thank you. I’ll pay her back.”
Maviola accepted the small pouch of coins. She looked at Lyonette. And the two exchanged an unspoken thought.
They looked at each other. And gave each other small smiles. Exchanged a nod.
“Can I get you something to eat?”
“I haven’t had lunch. Thank you. What’s—a ‘lasagna’?”
Lyonette brought her some. Maviola sat down as Olesm spoke to Drassi. The female Drake’s tail began wagging with excitement.
“No way! I can do that! Just give me one second! Where’s the newspaper? Yeah—and if we get a [Scribe]—sure!”
“I talked with Beilmark already. Do you know if I can talk to…Bird?”
“Sure. He’s upstairs.”
Olesm went up the steps. Maviola watched him out of the corner of her eyes as she was served. She gasped at the lovely square of food.
“Oh! I’ve had this in Terandria. It just wasn’t called that.”
“Yes—do you want a drink?”
“Um—some blue fruit juice. Thank you.”
The [Lady] smiled. And then Erin noticed her. The [Innkeeper] had been glancing up, sensing something familiar.
“Oh. Hey. Don’t I know you?”
“Maviola. I was here yesterday. Thank you for having me.”
Erin nodded, vaguely. She opened her mouth, but Joseph was blinking at Apista.
“What is that?”
Maviola turned back to her food, smiling as Erin was distracted. They’d speak again. She reached for her fork—and saw a bold little paw reaching for some of her complimentary fries. Maviola frowned and ducked her head under the table.
Mrsha froze, in the midst of her theft. Maviola’s eyes lit up as the little Gnoll stared boldly at her. The [Lady] laughed. And then fixed a piercing gaze on Mrsha.
“What a beautiful little child. Steal from my plate and face the consequences.”
She bared her teeth. Mrsha stared back at Maviola’s look. Which was young in feature, but in expression—reminded her of the really old granny-Gnolls. Mrsha slowly backed away from her plate.
“I’m so sorry. Did Mrsha bother you? Mrsha! No desserts!”
Lyonette hurried back with the drink. Mrsha fled. The [Princess] hesitated. Then she sat down opposite Maviola.
“Are you—staying in Liscor?”
“Just for a bit. To get away from things. And you?”
“I live here.”
Maviola El glanced up. She looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] saw Maviola laugh, and her eyes lit up.
“It seems fun!”
“It really is. Hard at times, but—I do like it. Are you…? What brought you here?”
Lady Firestarter sipped from her drink.
“One last adventure. But I’ve done this kind of thing more than once.”
Maviola winked at the [Princess]. Lyonette glanced around. She frowned.
“Shoot. Mrsha! Enough! I’m sorry, I have to—”
Mrsha the Invincible was trying to pick a fight with Kevin’s knees. Lyonette sighed; she had to work since Drassi was suddenly very busy with a quill and paper. She looked at Maviola.
“Let’s…talk. When we have the time. I’m busy today, but I have days off.”
“That would be nice. I’m actually following that blue Drake around today. Olesm Swifttail. Do you know him?”
“Yes. He’s actually—a friend of the inn. Sort of. But—he hasn’t been around a lot. It’s complicated.”
Lyonette gestured awkwardly. Maviola leaned forwards.
“I know. Can I get another lasagna for him? He’ll want to speak to you as well.”
“Me? What for?”
Maviola sat back. When Olesm came down, bursting with excitement, Lyonette sat down at the table. She blinked. But then agreed to his idea.
And Olesm scarfed down his food. Maviola leapt up. And then raced off to find a [Scribe]. By the time they came back to the inn, all three pieces were done. Olesm was scribbling on a piece of parchment.
“Okay—so—do we put Lyonette’s piece first?”
“No, Drassi’s. Put that Bird piece at the back. And you misspelled ‘serendipidously’. It’s serendipitously.”
Wilovan and Ratici jumped as the two sat at a table. Olesm rearranged the pieces of parchment and paper. He shuffled them, and then showed them to Maviola.
“How’s this for a rough draft?”
She read through it. The little bit of courage was still in him. But it was just a bit. It couldn’t turn a [Farmer] into a [General]. But it could give you a little push. And in that sense, it was a powerful Skill.
She read as Olesm fidgeted. Maviola put down the documents. Then she threw her head back and laughed.
She laughed and laughed, but merrily. And told him to send it to the [Scribe]. Then Olesm took a deep breath.
“Okay, we might have the prototypes by the time the Council meets. Now—I need to figure out what to say. I’m afraid that’s just a bunch of math.”
“Let me help. I’m good at balancing budgets.”
“Really? You can calculate?”
Maviola El gave Olesm a mock-glare.
“Try me. Just don’t ask me to turn a profit. Come on. Where’s your office?”
She dragged him out of the chair. Olesm’s jaw dropped.
“But Erin hates calculations.”
“So? What does that have to do with me?”
That evening, Strategist Olesm Swifttail stood in front of Liscor Council’s meeting room. And he was not alone. Maviola saw him adjusting the prototype in his hands. Incomplete; you couldn’t work wonders in a single day.
But it was enough. Olesm consulted his notes.
“I might be fired after this.”
“If you are, that’s too bad.”
The [Strategist] looked askance. He hesitated.
“You wouldn’t happen to have anything really encouraging to say to me?”
Maviola El thought about it. She shook her head.
“This is your job. Go in there and do it proudly. And remember: you’re doing what you think is right.”
She put a hand on his shoulder. The Drake took a deep breath. And then he opened the doors.
“Excuse me, Councilmembers. A word before our conference with the Walled Cities and High Command?”
The Council looked up. Hexel was long gone, to redesign the city with all the notes. They were debating the upcoming meeting hotly. None of them looked happy.
“Ah—Olesm. This really isn’t a good time. By all means, make your notes when we have the meeting. But we’re just consulting with Watch Captain Zevara—”
Lism cleared his throat. Zevara was standing in front of the Council, looking unhappy. They were going to be chewed out for a second day in a row. The other Walled Cities would spend most of it going over what everyone had learned from Magnolia and asking what Liscor would do about it.
Then—they’d ask Chaldion and the army’s High Command for a decision on what should be done. Olesm knew this because it was what had happened yesterday.
And it was wrong. He spoke, politely looking his uncle in the eyes.
“Yes, Councilmember Lism. I’m aware of the pressing time. Which is why, as [Strategist] of Liscor, I demand your time. I’ll review Architect Hexel’s work as well later and present my opinions to the Council. For now—if I can direct your attention to this?”
He passed around the copied bundles of parchment. Not papyrus or paper; these were rough-copies the [Scribe] had made. The Council blinked as Olesm briskly went back to the front of the desk.
“I plan on addressing the Walled Cities first. I’m sure the Council will allow this? Also—this is unrelated, but I’d like the city to fund this new project.”
“What is this, Olesm?”
Krshia blinked at the object in front of her. It was…a bundle of words. A colorful image of Liscor and the Floodplains over a title. She read, slowly.
The Liscorian Gazette. Featuring chess commentary, news by Drassi Tewing, perspectives of each species, and stories of your city. Edited by Olesm Swifttail.
“A newspaper. Like the one Pallass has.”
Jeiss was the first one to catch on. He grinned, flipping through it. Olesm nodded politely.
“Exactly. I was thinking about the issue of relations between species in the city—and of course, our own changing times. Through this, the Council can speak to the people. I’ll include a little chess section—and other extras. This is just the prototype.”
The Councilmembers looked at each other. And Lism burst into a huge smile.
“Magnificent! Well, this is a welcome surprise, Olesm. I knew my neph—er, our [Strategist] would come up with something. So—we’ll send this out to other cities along with your chess magazine!”
Olesm gave Lism a blank look.
“No, Councilmember Lism.”
The [Shopkeeper] turned [Councilmember] paused.
Olesm folded his claws behind his back.
“Why would we do so, Councilmember? It’s Liscor’s news. I plan to continue my chess magazine.”
“But this is our news.”
Alonna tapped the newspaper, proudly, though it hadn’t existed an hour ago. Elirr snorted into his paper.
“It is only our news, I think is what Olesm is trying to say. Pallass has their newspaper too. Why would other cities want to read ours?”
The Council looked disappointed. Raekea frowned.
“Wait—then, this is copying, no? Is this allowed?”
She looked worried; [Blacksmiths] had their own relationship with stealing designs. Maviola, her ear pressed against the door, grinned. Olesm was ready for this. He bowed to the Gnoll.
“Certainly, it is, Councilwoman Raekea. But so are most things in life. And while this might only affect our city—I think this newspaper is necessary. If you’ll read the article headlines?”
He gestured as the Council began to actually read The Liscorian Gazette. Olesm went on.
“The newspaper has more of a role than just—announcements. This is a balanced perspective of each species. Miss Lyonette wrote the first article, about being a Human in Liscor. For many people, that might be their insight in what it means to be a Human. Senior Guardswoman Beilmark spoke to Drassi about the challenges she faced entering the Watch, and the differences between Gnolls and Drakes.”
Krshia’s eyes sharpened. She looked up at Olesm. A Human perspective? Olesm nodded.
“Who knows what it’s really like, being another species? There is also a short article by an Antinium.”
Lism recoiled from the paper. He looked at Olesm in shock. So did the entire Council, Zevara included.
“The Antinium, Olesm?”
Zevara frowned. The Drake just nodded.
“Tensions between the Antinium and other species in Liscor are at an all-time high. I hope—this will calm those conflicts.”
“But the Antinium are doubling their numbers beneath our city—”
Lism spluttered, looking at Olesm in clear confusion. His views were known. Olesm sighed.
“Yes, Councilmember Lism. My perspective is that the Antinium are a threat. As I will say to the Walled Cities in—thirteen minutes, I believe. But our struggle is for the security of Liscor, not promoting clashes on the streets. To that end—I asked one of the Antinium to write a piece to…individualize them.”
“Who? Which one?”
The Council looked at each other. Zevara slowly flipped towards the back of the magazine. She read. And despite herself—she chuckled. The others stared at her as Zevara’s stony expression broke for just a moment. Then they read the article too.
Birds I Eat, by Bird of the The Wandering Inn. It was a catalogue of birds that Bird had seen. There were even images.
“It’s incomplete. More illustrations to be added. I hired an [Illustrator] with a passion for nature to draw them. Bird was very happy.”
Olesm pointed at the article. There were ratings of each bird, out of five stars, and how delicious they were, how hard to hunt, how beautiful—Bird had obsessive rankings. Despite themselves, the Council chuckled. Even Lism snorted. He looked up at Olesm. And his smile was fond.
“Brilliant. Well, I can see our way clear to approving this.”
“But where do we find the funding—”
Tismel ducked as Lism threw a cup at him.
“It’s not that expensive! Right?”
He turned to Olesm. The Drake took a deep breath.
“I think the city will find room in the budget for it. It may even pay for itself depending on its popularity. Incidentally—how well can we fund Architect Hexel’s plans?”
The Council fell silent. Morosely, they looked at each other.
“…We’ll have to request funding from the Walled Cities. In addition to the money agreed upon. It’s one of the topics we’ll be raising. Along with security.”
Zevara grimaced. Olesm nodded. He took a seat as the Council glumly prepared for the communication spell. And Maviola’s heart beat faster.
This was it. A bit of courage. She listened as the Walled Cities and even Liscor’s own High Command were magically connected with the Council. Maviola sat with one ear to the door, chasing off the people who gave her odd looks.
And she heard a lot of debate. As Olesm had told her, this was Drake chaos. Which sounded a lot like Human nobility infighting with some subtle differences.
The Walled Cities were not happy. And they were taking turns to berate each other and Liscor. Speculating—it was at first just a noise contest, until the confident voices won through.
“It’s clear Liscor was unaware of these issues. I have no time for assigning blame among the Walled Cities. The Antinium’s numbers must be addressed. If the Free Hive is this large, we may be woefully in error with our projections of the other Hives’ numbers, even with our estimates.”
Chaldion snapped through Pallass’ screen. They’d copied Wistram’s system so each representative and the congregated members of each command were squeezed into the scrying orb’s perspective. The viewpoint changed.
“Salazsar agrees. We motion for increased security against the Antinium. This is a budgetary meeting, not a shouting match. Zeres.”
Ilvriss’ cool voice broke into the conversation. There was a spluttering sound from Zeres’ feed. But a representative of Pallass—one of the [Senators] spoke off, interrupting Chaldion.
“The issue of budget is a concern. But why are we funding Liscor? Far better, one imagines, to enact our own projects. Liscor has already demanded money for construction—”
“Are you saying we shouldn’t address the issue of the Antinium threat?”
One of Oteslia’s [Strategists] snapped. The [Senator], Errif, smiled without really smiling.
“Not at all. But this is clearly a Liscorian concern. An individual city takes on their own issues. If the gold is not going to be used adequately…”
“Don’t try to weasel out of this. Liscor is closest to Pallass!”
A representative to Manus barked. Errif sneered back.
“We’re fully prepared to give an appropriate budget to Liscor, Manus. We can afford it.”
“You little snake—”
The other Walled Cities began to bicker. And a sharp voice cut through all the arguments.
“Liscor’s High Command. We want to know what actions will be taken around the Free Antinium. We support the demand to cut their numbers until the Hive falls in line with the original treaties. Only then will funding be released to Liscor from our forces.”
Everyone fell silent. Olesm saw the Council look up. He knew that voice. One of Liscor’s [Generals]. High Command.
So far from home. They had left because of Liscor’s Hive. In many ways—that had caused a schism between the army and the city. But the army had more money than the city. The view switched back to a [Mage Strategist] from Fissival. He nodded warily.
“Fissival supports this measure. The Antinium must be curtailed. What pressure will Liscor’s council put on them?”
“Zeres agrees. Punitive measures. Liscor? Your submission?”
The Council stirred. Lism looked at Krshia, swearing silently. Jeiss was shaking his head. Demand the Antinium Hive halve their numbers? But the Walled Cities were all murmuring agreement. Some of their representatives, like Chaldion, Manus’s security council, and Ilvriss were expressing dissent.
But it fell on Liscor to respond. Krshia was slowly rising, looking at Lism. He jabbed a claw at his chest and the two whispered to each other as the others shifted, impatiently. And before they could come to an agreement—Olesm stood.
He was shaking. But his voice was clear. His tail was jittering so much Jeiss and Alonna looked alarmed. But Olesm walked forwards.
“Councilmembers, as [Strategist] of Liscor I believe it is time for me to express my opinion.”
Lism looked at his nephew and shook his head. But it was too late. Dragonspeaker Luciva spoke and every voice went silent.
“Manus agrees. Approach and state Liscor’s measures, Strategist Olesm Swifttail of Liscor.”
The [Strategist] nearly threw up then and there. He did in his mouth, a bit. Some of the most powerful Gnolls and Drakes in the world were looking at him. The view switched to Ilvriss; the Wall Lord smiled slightly, then Chaldion was looking at Olesm with his good eye, impatiently.
This was it. Maviola closed her eyes. She had seen the fire, the potential. Now, the Drake proved her right or wrong.
Olesm opened his mouth and belched. It came out, nervously, a hiccup. The watchers all recoiled. The Drake frantically waved at his face. He spoke before someone demanded him thrown out a window.
“Apologies. As I was about to say. High Command of Liscor’s army. Representatives of the Walled Cities. In regards to Liscor’s actions against the Antinium…it is my recommendation as [Strategist] of Liscor…”
He looked into the scrying orb. At every eye on him. And his mouth dried.
The Sharkcaptain of Zeres growled. Olesm took another breath. He could run away now. And if he ran—Maviola had shown him, he’d keep running. Better to be fired. Olesm closed his eyes as he replied. But he did reply.
“Apologies, Zeres. I misspoke. I should have said—as [Strategist] of Liscor. It is my decision that in light of Liscor’s insufficient safeguards against the Antinium, their breach of the treaty was not enough to constitute hostile action. As such—I will, with my authority, veto any such motions that affect the relationship between my city and the Free Hive of the Antinium.”
For a second there was silence. Then another second. Olesm’s heart thundered. He cracked one eye open. Then he heard Lism drop something with a clatter. Maviola laughed silently out the door.
The bellow came from the Sharkcaptain—and then High Command. The room burst into a flurry of voices, all demanding—Olesm shouted.
“Excuse me. Excuse me!”
“Someone shut that idiot up! Zeres—kick that insane Drake out of—”
“Pallass. Silence. Let the [Strategist] speak.”
“Salazsar acknowledges Strategist Olesm. Speak.”
Three voices cut through the clamor. Three of the six Walled Cities spoke. Someone on Zeres’ side was shouting obscenities—then a cool voice.
“The Gardener of Oteslia acknowledges. A majority calls upon Liscor’s [Strategist] to speak. Why no action, Strategist Olesm?”
The Gardener of Oteslia. And the Dragonspeaker of Manus. Olesm’s mouth was dry. But he’d come this far, and there was a comfort in letting it all go. He shuffled his notes.
“To answer your questions, honored guests—I first ask that you consult the documents sent to you via [Message] spell—twenty minutes ago.”
He listened to the confused babble for a moment, went on as the others demanded the very documents. Ilvriss was reading his. And smiling. Olesm looked into the scrying orb and spoke.
“I believe that the Antinium presence in Liscor is, while in breach of our initial treaties—not solvable by direct pressure on the Hive. They will most certainly resist. This would lead to a confrontation between the Free Hive and Liscor. One which will result in warfare.”
“And are you implying Liscor would lose that confrontation? Or that we should fear Antinium aggression?”
A [General] of Liscor spoke. Olesm stared at the three [Generals] of Liscor, and the Drake with a burn mark around his face. And he bowed his head.
“Respectfully, General Sendel? In either event, Liscor loses. The Free Antinium are our allies. Liscor has no desire to engage in what will certainly be a destructive war. Nor—at this moment—does Liscor intend to begin the Third Antinium War. Which is what confrontation with the Free Antinium means.”
He listened to the frozen murmur. Does High Command want that? General Sendel was silent. Olesm went on, into his one moment.
“Respected guests. I understand today’s meeting is about funding for Liscor’s security. I understand the reluctance of the other Walled Cities to support Liscor. However—with respect— I submit that the Antinium were allowed to grow and take actions that violated the letter and law of our agreement because Liscor was always underfunded.”
Another murmur. Olesm held up a claw, forestalling Errif and a dozen voices.
“It seems to me, High Command, respected members of the Walled Cities—that Liscor’s defenses were always insufficient, beginning from when Liscor agreed to harbor the Antinium. Please recall—the decision to harbor the Free Antinium was meant to end the Second Antinium War. And Liscor agreed to it. However, we were granted almost no funds to prepare for the Hive at that time. And subsequently—our army left.”
He looked at the High Command of Liscor’s army.
“Our army has returned once since then. In times past, Liscor’s army did move abroad and take on mercenary contracts. But they always protected their home. Not so in recent decades. It seems to me, as [Strategist] of Liscor that our lack of funding, the absence of our army…was intentional. Perhaps Liscor was always meant to fail, but do so in an advantageous way to the Walled Cities. If that is the case—the Free Antinium’s actions cannot be faulted.”
Dead silence now. Ilvriss’ eyes glittered. So did Manus’ security council. Chaldion’s good eye never blinked. But no one said a word. Because the ones in the know—knew Olesm was right.
Maviola smiled. There was nothing unique about Olesm’s conclusion. No grand brilliance in his speech, for all he had practiced it on her to make it eloquent. He had just said it out loud. And that took more than a bit of courage.
“That is a bold accusation, Strategist Olesm. What do the Walled Cities gain from losing a city to the Antinium?”
A voice; Maviola couldn’t tell which one. Olesm replied steadily.
“It is no accusation, High Strategist. Just practicality. I submit that if Liscor fell to the Antinium, it would indeed make sense—strategically. Since they would be poised to threaten the north and thus necessitate Human intervention, for fear of incursions at least. A conflict with Liscor would also weaken at least one of the Hives and if a decisive strike were carried out preemptively…there is much to be said for allowing Liscor to fall. If war is the goal.”
He took a breath. The Walled Cities were silent, waiting. Their connection was secure, unable to be listened to even by Wistram. Magically secure—but for an ear against the door. Olesm spoke.
“As [Strategist] of Liscor, honored guests, I have only one demand. Clarity. If Liscor is meant to stand alone, let us stand alone. Otherwise, if we are Drakes, the same city that General Sserys called home, that the Tidebreaker fought for—I demand the aid of the other Walled Cities. Because either way, this is our land. And we will not leave it.”
He raised the second document he’d brought into the room, the ones now in front of Ilvriss, Chaldion, and all the others.
“I have submitted a budget plan for the renovation and reinforcement of Liscor as a city. I hope each Walled City and the army will see fit to contribute to it. All of it—or nothing. The Free Antinium have been allowed to expand because Liscor was not funded. If the Walled Cities and High Command believe this to be acceptable in the future in preparation for Liscor as a sacrifice—give us nothing. Otherwise, this is my requirement.”
He tapped the report. It was neatly broken down with Maviola and Olesm’s rough estimates, giving some reason for the number underlined at the bottom. But it was really just a number. The other cities paged through the report. After a moment, the Sharkcaptain of Zeres coughed.
“…Is there an extra zero here?”
The Walled Cities murmured. Ilvriss smiled, and leaned forwards.
“I believe it is time for debate. Liscor, we will remove you from this—discussion. Please hold.”
The sound was muted. The scrying orb flickered from arguing people in silence. Someone threw a chair in one of the scrying orbs. He looked around.
“Dead gods, Olesm…”
Zevara stared at him. He nodded.
“It won’t fund all your improvements, Watch Captain. I asked only for as much as I thought we needed—Liscor may still need to source more money. But it should fund the construction for Architect Hexel.”
The Council looked at each other.
“What if they offer us less?”
“I will refuse it. I meant what I said.”
Tismel choked on his tongue in a corner. Olesm’s eyes flicked to the orb. The arguing people on the other side—paused for a second. Maviola’s eyes glittered. Smart, Olesm. Just because one side couldn’t hear the other, did not mean the reverse was true.
It was a long eternity, a short wait, until sound resumed. It was a representative from Salazsar who spoke for the others. Wall Lady Calistoca spoke, glaring down at Olesm.
“Strategist Olesm. The Walled Cities do not take…sides in the disputes of lesser—er—other Drake cities. We do fund certain projects at times. But we do not interfere in a city’s business. Drake settlements are sovereign unto themselves. And that is how we prefer it.”
Olesm bowed his head. The old Wall Lady pursed her lips and then spoke.
“However. We agree the Free Antinium must be curtailed in light of their…advancements. Is your decision to veto any actions against the Free Antinium final?”
“Yes, Wall Lady.”
The Drake felt a pang. There was a…rhythm to her words. The Wall Lady’s eyes narrowed.
“One moment, Wall Lady. Excuse me.”
Lism strode forwards. The Wall Lady cut off, looking affronted. Lism put an arm around Olesm’s shoulders. And the [Shopkeeper] politely sneered into the scrying orb.
“I just felt Liscor’s Council should present our opinions. We will also back a veto to go after the Free Antinium. They are—Liscor’s assets, after all.”
It looked like he threw up in his mouth to say that. But he stood with his nephew. Olesm looked up at Lism—then saw Krshia standing next to him.
“The entire Council’s decision.”
“And my backing as Watch Captain.”
Zevara stepped forwards. Calistoca’s eyes bulged. But now Liscor’s entire leadership stood in front of the scrying orb. The High Command of the army looked like they were having heart attacks in the background.
“Go ahead and fire him now, you scaly lizard—er—idiot.”
Lism muttered under his breath. He…might have been audible to everyone on the call. Silently, the image flickered. Wall Lord Ilvriss pushed forwards.
“I think that settles it. Unless we’d like to…? No? Very well. Liscor—we will grant you your proposed budget, in exchange for certain assurances of completion. We may send our representatives to monitor the work. Is that acceptable?”
“Yes, Wall Lord.”
Olesm’s knees shook. Lism kept him upright. Ilvriss smiled into the scrying orb.
“Very well then. Let’s discuss implementation. Now, for funding—”
The argument began anew. But Maviola didn’t hear. She’d run off, throwing her arms up, laughing until she got behind a closed door and then she screamed triumphantly. She laughed, relieved and delighted.
The fire burned.
Olesm Swifttail emerged from the Council’s chambers amid cheering. The Council was celebrating, even Tismel. He was flushed—Lism had stood three rounds with his nephew and it looked like they were going to continue partying.
But he was looking for someone. Maviola El wasn’t outside the Council’s room; probably wise since they’d been demanding Street Runners bring them libations.
She was in his office, where they’d planned the audacity. He paused in the door as she napped in the fading light.
She was still glowing. Or perhaps he was. He felt alive. Triumphant. He paused, as she opened her eyes and woke up from her nap in his chair.
“You did it.”
She beamed at him. Olesm hesitated—then went into the office and sat in the guest’s chair in the little, cramped space. He looked around. He’d asked for and doubled his salary. He could have probably quadrupled it, but he really didn’t need it.
“I did. But it wasn’t really me.”
She looked at him. The Drake rested his elbows on his knees, letting his claws droop downwards as he clasped them loosely. He looked at Maviola, wondering.
“You did it too. I realized it—you made it possible. If not for you, I’d be wallowing in misery this morning. Probably just standing there, letting them give us nothing.”
He nodded back towards the raucous celebrations. Lism was hugging and kissing everyone—he reached Krshia and caught himself, spat out hairs. Glared at her. She hugged him and raised a cup, roaring with laughter.
Maviola’s eyes twinkled as she looked at Olesm.
“You’re doing it again. Take some credit for your bravery. I didn’t do more than give you a nudge. And you were amazing.”
She sat up, came around the desk. Olesm was shaking his head. He drew back as she tried to sit on the same chair.
“No—Maviola. Listen. Thank you so much. But—I’m afraid it’s—you’re like Erin.”
“Erin Solstice. Yes, your muse, your inspiration. But I’m not her. And she didn’t make you. We established that.”
Maviola laughed. Olesm drew back.
“But—she helped. Maybe I don’t need to stand alone. But she—and you—”
“What’s wrong with needing help?”
She sat on his lap, facing him. The flimsy chair creaked alarmingly with both their weights, light as they were. Olesm tried to lift her off.
“No. Maviola—listen. You’re too much like Erin. I shouldn’t. We shouldn’t. It would just be like how I feel—felt for Erin—you’re too much like her. I shouldn’t.”
The [Lady] regarded Olesm. In the sunset, she threw back her head and rose. Her eyes flashed.
“I see. I’m just like Erin, am I?”
“I…can’t unsee the connection.”
Olesm whispered. He saw Maviola turn. He sighed, bowing his head. Then Maviola, who blazed with fire—did something that was Maviola.
She lifted a foot, and then stomped on the gap between Olesm’s legs. She missed him—barely. But the rickety chair collapsed. Olesm crashed to the ground.
Maviola straddled his body. She looked down at him, eyes gleaming. And she leaned forwards.
“There’s no one exactly like me, you fool. Or did you ever burn for her like this? Did she for you?”
The Drake [Strategist] gaped up at her. That was not an Erin move. He stared up at Maviola. Erin burned like Maviola, sometimes. But she was happiness. She loved the Antinium. But Maviola—agreed they were dangerous.
Erin was passionate. Maviola prickly. Erin was—Maviola was—
The superimposed image of Erin over Maviola’s face disappeared. Because she was industriously checking his belt. She looked at him.
“Well? Are we similar?”
“No. She’s wasn’t ever like this.”
He whispered. The [Lady] leaned over Olesm and reached behind her back. She laughed, young, vibrant.
“Then let’s find out how different I am. Unless you don’t want to?”
And of course, they both knew the answer to that. The blue-scaled Drake looked up. And then he nodded.
Maviola paused. Olesm hesitated.
“No, wait. I meant the other thing.”
She started laughing. And then her top was off.
Olesm gulped. But then he was laughing too.
[Strategist Level 33!]
[Skill – Instantaneous Barrage (Phantom Arrows) obtained!]
[Lady Firestarter Level 49!]
[Skill – Conjure Fast Fireball obtained!]
Author’s Note: The poll decided the two perspectives. Which were…very different. And I am now on break. Do you think they were the two options you wanted? Or deserved? Or do you just not read the author’s note?
How dare you. Well, I am on break now. Until…the 23rd of May, I believe. Depending on your time zone and stuff. And yes, it’s 2 updates off. But I do need it. This allows me to write hard and relax harder. Or easier. I dunno.
But I may make this a monthly thing. I have written extremely long chapters even by my standards, and these regular week-breaks may help. We will see.
I’ll leave you with some amazing art. Maviola El, of course, has been drawn by Cortz, while Lady Pryde herself was captured by pkay, who did her and Magnolia and Wuvren, and Plushie, who did Lady Pryde (and Hawk)! Hope you enjoy, and I’ll see you in a bit.
…And no, I’m not writing the rest of this scene. I mean, should I? Nah. Maybe Mating Rituals Pt. 3.
I joke. This was a romance. I hope you enjoyed it, and thanks for reading!
Maviola El and Sketches by Cortz
Pryde and Hawk by Plushie
The Three Ladies by pkay