One Week Ago.
If you got the invitation, well, that wasn’t anything special. If you attended—that meant something. But not much. If attendance was a sign of complicity, then at least a quarter of Izril’s nobility were guilty.
But they weren’t. And dangerous as being publically known to be a member of the Circle of Thorns was—there were levels of commitment.
Most nobles got an invitation from someone connected to the circle. And some had been part of the circle in decades past. For, you see, the Circle of Thorns was not new.
It was as old as the Five Families. As old as the flowers of Izril, and their millennia-old conquest of Izril. The Circle of Thorns was a reaction to the power of the Five Families.
Few members of the Five Families ever joined the Circle of Thorns. Yet individuals were invited, and the Circle didn’t necessarily hate the Five Families. Indeed, they had been known to move on behalf of the Five Families.
The Circle of Thorns was…a sign of objection. It was made of the nobility. ‘Lesser’ nobility, which included the likes of even Ieka Imariss. Anyone not of the original Five Families. And the Circle—as Lady Ieka understood it—was meant to censure those with too much power.
Who watched the [Watchman]? Well…everyone. [Thieves], busybodies wanting to make sure they were being protected, fellow [Watchmen], his superiors, bored children, rabbits…the list went on and on.
Who watched the nobility? Again, everyone. But who could hold them to account? So very few. Peasants? Hah. That was what War Golems were for, or private armies. Adventurers? Hardly likely. They were the labor.
Izril had no monarchs. Or at least—it was famous for not having any. No [Kings], no [Emperors], no [Tyrants]. That was why the Five Families had colonized Izril. To get away from all that.
But that meant a [Lord] was a class second to none. And to keep a powerful one in check like…Magnolia Reinhart, there had to be a group. A secret group.
The Circle of Thorns.
“In the past, the Circle was more public. It was a symbol of opposition, even a political group. Only in the last few hundred years has it become more…secretive.”
Lady Ieka was hosting Lady Rie Valerund at her very comfortable mansion. Lady Rie inhaled as the cool, magically-chilled air kept out the summer’s heat.
They were finally back at Ieka’s estates. It had taken some time for Ieka to return after the business with the Stitch Witch. She didn’t have a magical coach.
Well—she had several, but none as fast as Magnolia. For anyone but Magnolia Reinhart, Tyrion Veltras, and a few others, travelling across Izril was a journey that took weeks. And Ieka was glad to be home.
The [Lady] Imarris reclined in a chair made out of Deguree Rabbits. Just…the rabbits. From their pelts to the cotton on their tail. It was stuffed with the oversized tails of the Deguree Rabbit, rumored to be one of the softest substances on in the world. And it felt wonderful. Ieka sighed as Rie accepted a cup of wine and sipped.
“Pardon me, Ieka, but I don’t see the point of history. I am aware of the Circle’s history.”
Lady Rie was…objectionable. Ieka opened one eye, annoyed. Rie Valerund, a lesser [Lady] whose family had been all but erased during the Goblin King’s rampage and the Sacrifice of Roses—was distinctly below Lady Ieka’s richness, prosperous lands, and magical ability as a [Mage Lady].
But they were both members of the Circle of Thorns. And irksomely—Lady Rie was higher in rank than Ieka.
After a moment, Ieka dipped her head, graciously.
“Of course, Rie. I was just remarking—we have been more overt.”
“The Reinharts drove us into hiding. Lady Suvelta Reinhart battled the Circle of Thorns. And lost. We curtailed her power, albeit at the need to hide. Later Reinharts have also fought our Circle. And lost.”
Rie’s voice was calm. Ieka hesitated. Rie might know more of the history of their little group than Ieka. And the way she spoke—
Covertly, Ieka glanced about.
“Sidel, another glass of wine for me. Thank you.”
She smiled at the young woman attending her. Sidel, a newly-made [Maid], blushed. She was new to her role, but Ieka had selected her. She had—a passion for women. One that was more acceptable in Wistram, when she had been a [Mage], but now was a…private interest. Lady Rie made no comment as a second glass of wine was brought.
In many ways, Ieka was a revolutionary. She was a Wistram Academy graduate, a rarity in a first-born noble scion. And she believed in magic. Like the Terland family, she had instituted a number of magical reforms in her lands, like self-drawing wells powered by magic. Ieka was a visionary.
But the Circle of Thorns was well in the past.
“Lady Suvelta. That was the Reinhart Vampire, yes? A terrible monster.”
Ieka swirled the wine in the glass she was given, drinking lightly. Rie raised one eyebrow.
She was—cool. Few things riled her, in Ieka’s experience with Rie. For all the indignities heaped upon her—having her mansion sacked by Goblins, serving this new [Emperor], of all things—she was very calculating. And willing to do anything for the circle.
That was the thing. Ieka shifted as Rie took a sip of wine. Rie’s gaze was very direct as she replied.
“A terrible monster. An immortal Vampire. With the ability to fight a Named Rank adventurer on even terms with her sheer…nature. And with levels. She ruled Izril too long. But that is why the Circle is needed, Ieka. We killed her.”
Ieka felt a slight chill at that. She had read the records. Publically—Lady Suvelta had been a long-lived monster. Few had known she was a Vampire even after her death; but her end had been the end of Vampires. But she had lived, and been a Vampire. With levels, as Rie said. They had been exterminated, the Vampires. Too dangerous to live. Suvelta might have ruled Izril like a new [Queen] for…forever; that had been her ambition.
But the Circle of Thorns in her era had been…powerful. They had fought against the Reinhart’s power from the shadows. And when they killed Suvelta, they had done it to send a message. Suvelta Reinhart had died screaming in the sunlight, tortured for sixteen days and nights before she died.
That was the Circle of Thorns. But that was the one Ieka knew. The past Circles had been dangerous, as the circumstances dictated. A few iterations of her group had fought back invasions from Chandrar and Baleros. They had humbled Khelt when it invaded—thrown back the Six Great Companies of Baleros two thousand years back.
They waned and grew as the era demanded. Sometimes they were protectors, other times watchers. Mostly—useless.
The Circle of Thorns. If you were offered an invitation, especially six years ago, it would have been to a small group of nobles like you where you could eat good food, complain about annoying nobles (assuming they weren’t in the room with you), and relax. It was a social thing, a little reminder to the Five Families that they weren’t unopposed.
But this new Circle was…different. More like the old times. Lady Rie fished out the Thorn of Speaking from some secret compartment on her person.
“The Circle awaits, Lady Ieka. Will you join the Petals of Death?”
Ieka nearly laughed at Rie’s terms for the inner council. Not the petty outside, with all their pretensions at being part of ‘the Circle of Thorns’. But the real movers and shakers. The…scary ones.
She hesitated, and took another sip of her wine.
“Of course. I…hope you will prompt me on what to do?”
Rie gave Ieka a look. Neither one was part of the Petals of Death. But Rie was second only to them—one of their agents. She had the authority to listen, even recommend to the Circle what to do. Ieka was a member of the Thorns of Contempt. Which was—two ranks up from someone who’s just been introduced to the Circle. Powerful. Able to ask for…favors.
Like now. Rie took the carefully-sculpted flower made of glass and magic. She was no [Mage] and probably couldn’t even see the enchantments woven into it. Ieka, as a graduate [Mage], could. It was an old artifact. And one with—requirements. It was a special kind of magic, one that had a tenuous relationship with the law.
Blood magic. Ieka saw Rie delicately run the glass flower down her hand. The razor-sharp thorns opened her skin in a moment. She made a sound; her blood ran across the glass rose.
And the blood twisted and changed. Ieka saw it seeping into the rose; confirming Rie’s allegiance. Opening a…gateway. Albeit for sound alone. And she heard a voice.
Ieka and Rie froze. But the voice wasn’t directed towards them. It was…male. More than that Ieka couldn’t tell; the spell scrambled the voice’s intonations, tone, made it flat, dispassionate.
“Magnolia Reinhart has betrayed the North. She has gone to the Drakes. It is beyond time to deal with her. She must be—removed.”
The time was one week ago. Only a few days since Magnolia Reinhart’s dramatic entry to Liscor. Then—now—Lady Ieka felt the same boiling hatred towards Magnolia she always did.
But the speaker on the other end was dispassionate. So were the other voices. There were only…six. No, seven? Rie and Ieka listened, holding their tongues. There might be many agents of the Petals of Death. But only a select few were members.
“Magnolia Reinhart is an asset. She is a high-level [Lady]. We do not kill assets, even problematic ones. She fought the Antinium twice.”
“And she has compromised herself.”
A flat, female voice. It could have been anyone. Any [Lady] in Izril; entry to the Petals of Death wasn’t based on sheer power, or Ieka would have been one already. It was loyalty. Commitment to the Circle.
They had changed from the organization of squabbling nobles Ieka remembered a decade ago. This Circle did things.
Even if the Assassin’s Guild was somewhat inefficient as a tool, they’d stolen it back from Magnolia. Murdered some of her fellow [Ladies]. In cold blood; that had bothered Ieka. But better to have the vipers on your side than against. Now, the Petals spoke over one another.
“She is no longer an asset to the North. Clearly—she intends to ally with the Drakes. Her arrival at Liscor and Pallass exemplified that fact.”
“She may still be within reason. Killing her weakens us. And the Drakes and Antinium are a pressing threat. We could approach her.”
“Magnolia Reinhart is our enemy. She does not bend. Not on this. Removal is more expedient.”
“But we guard the North. If she is removed—who will guard her lands?”
Silence, then. Ieka listened, heart pumping. Rie only had that inscrutable, polite look on her face. Her perfect guise. She looked so—trustworthy. But how many deeds had she undertaken for her masters? Ieka couldn’t fathom. She…felt uncomfortable as she waved for the young [Maid] to refill her glass. Sidel did so, clumsily, and Ieka had cause to regret employing her as a [Maid]. But she’d been so taken…
She had what some might call an ‘unhealthy relationship’ with her maids. In that many were lovers. Some were just competent, but Ieka was a…deviant. As Izril’s people understood things. Certainly by Terandrian and Drake standards.
It was one of the reasons she was part of the Circle of Thorns. They asked only loyalty. What you did with your own affairs was meaningless so long as it wasn’t public. And Ieka needed to have her secret lovers. Her hatred of Magnolia Reinhart was another reason for her joining the Circle of course. She couldn’t stand Magnolia. And that—her perfect maid, Ressa—who was so—so, unflappable, especially since Ieka had tried to bribe her away from Magnolia for years for exorbitant sums.
Ieka was certain Magnolia and Ressa were in a relationship. But she couldn’t prove that. And the Petals of Death didn’t care.
“If Magnolia Reinhart dies, she must die. No examples. The Couriers made a fool of the Assassin’s Guild.”
“Better that than the death of Couriers. The North must endure. The war between Ailendamus and the southern Kingdoms in Terandria—”
“If Ailendamus wins, time to be concerned. The North should not move unwisely. Focus on Magnolia Reinhart. Does she die?”
Ieka listened. The Petals fell silent. The Circle of Thorns was meant to defend Izril. Only—from within as much from external forces. That was their modus operandi. But in practice, it was self-interest as much as anything that moved the Petals. But killing Magnolia Reinhart?
“It is unwise. No.”
Four out of the seven. Ieka felt a chill run down her spine. The last had not spoken—but he seldom did in her experience. She took a gulp of wine. Just like that, it was done.
“Track her movements. Have the Roots report in. The Guild of Assassins will ensure her end. No mistakes. No casual attempt. Death or destruction.”
Roots. The Roots of Contempt—the group Rie was part of. Not just the nobility, but high-level agents the Circle employed. They had to be cautious, going up against a member of the Five Families. But the Circle of Thorns could be said to rival one of the Five Families in scope.
“She dies. But we must have an agent. If Reinhart dies—who leads the north?”
A pause. Then—the male voice. The seventh. Possibly their leader. Ieka listened, noting the slight difference in speech pattern; no inflection or anything else. The magic made it impossible to detect.
“If Reinhart dies—choose Veltras. Approach Tyrion Veltras. With our support, he could take Liscor again.”
Another pause. Then, voices.
“He has lost his wife, hates the Drakes. Sound opinion. I agree.”
“Tyrion is stubborn. Disagree.”
“Who else of the Five Families can lead publically? Agreement. The House of El has lost their ruler. Maviola El. Terland and Wellfar wane…”
“If Ulva Terland and Petria both lived—”
“They do not. She is shattered. Wellfar is too focused on the sea. Agree. So—Tyrion?”
“Approach him. Kill Reinhart. If Veltras refuses, we may need to raise one of our own to the level required. The Antinium must die. The Drakes must fall.”
The Petals of Death debated, but agreed. The vote was cast—five to two to reach out to Tyrion Veltras. Ieka listened, spellbound, but with words instead of magic. And then—the Petals spoke.
“Rie Valerund and Ieka Imarris. You listen.”
Ieka jumped. They knew. And they used her name without honorifics. She adjusted her posture, as if they could see her.
“Yes, Honored Petals. I am—”
The Petals of Death ignored her.
“Valerund. Is this [Emperor] Godart an ally or not?”
Ieka’s mouth snapped shut. Rie, calm as ever, replied.
“I believe so. I am working on him. But I have exposed none of our plans. He is—a singularly unique individual. I do not know where he hails from, or how he knows what he does. But I believe I am in his confidences. Give me time.”
“We run short on time. Investigate. Make him an offer. If he is unwilling to be an ally—settle it yourself.”
Rie hesitated. But Ieka saw her gaze flicker.
“Yes. It will be done.”
The Petals of Death murmured. Two asked for plans of the trebuchets—Rie didn’t have them. They ordered her to retrieve them regardless of this [Emperor]’s death or not.
More power to the Circle. The conversation ended abruptly, voices ceasing to speak. Rie and Ieka sat there until the last was gone. And Ieka Imarris wondered.
The Circle of Thorn was dangerous. They killed without hesitation. This was like the same group that had slain Suvelta. Or—trying to be. Ieka had her doubts.
There were many groups in Izril among the nobility. And the Circle, powerful and old though they may be, weren’t the only ones. Ieka saw Rie straighten after the call ended. And Ieka, smiling, gestured towards her.
“Well, it seems we have our orders. None for me, but I am—delighted to aid you in any way you need, Rie. Simply let me know. As for myself—I will wait for the Circle’s orders. May I offer you refreshments? Rest? Or will you return to this, ah, Unseen Empire, at once?”
Rie smiled like a viper in Ieka’s parlor, and the [Mage Lady] shivered.
“I will return forthwith, Ieka. If you would be so gracious.”
“Of course. And please—as I said, anything to help you.”
Ieka stood. A bit unsteady with how much wine she’d imbibed. But Sidel swept back in. And Rie smiled at her.
Sidel, that was. The [Maid] smiled uncertainly back. Rie, that low-level [Lady], that…agent of the Circle of Thorns, looked at Ieka.
“The Circle appreciates your commitment, Ieka. However—we would prefer you quit your cabal with the other [Ladies] under your association. Ladies Bedai and Therris have refused our offers. We would appreciate you bringing them into our folds. Rather than your own personal mage-circle.”
Ieka froze, choking on her mouthful of wine. How did they know about—? They’d been so secure!
Sidel’s eyes were wide, uncomprehending. She didn’t know about Ieka’s other little circle of…allies. But Rie did. And the Circle was old. Not like Ieka’s alliances. She smiled again.
Like a Demon wearing Human flesh.
“You may also wish to speak to Miss Sidel. As I understand it—she is in the employ of Wistram. Who know your tastes. Well, a number of factions.”
The [Lady] politely indicated Sidel. The [Maid] turned white. She spun to run.
“[Gracious Invitation]. Stay a moment. Lady Ieka surely has words for you.”
Rie pointed. Sidel froze in place. She should have drawn a weapon. [Lady] Skills were too powerful outside of combat. Rie saw Sidel turn, then clasp her hands behind her back and bow.
“I am at Lady Ieka’s disposal, Lady Rie.”
A polite answer to Rie’s Skill. Only Sidel’s wide, rolling eyes betrayed the fear in her. Rie looked at Ieka.
“I will take a carriage back. And leave you to the unpleasantness. My condolences, Ieka.”
Ieka Imarris, the [Mage Lady] who could blow a hole through an unenchanted castle’s walls…felt a pit of cold in her stomach. She looked at Rie, and saw a true [Lady]. Someone who was as powerful in social circles, in the realms of intrigue and politics as a Named Rank [Mage] throwing [Siege Fireballs] around in a battlefield. She saw Rie tactfully make her way to the door. Ieka had no doubt she’d find her way back to Riverfarm.
Ieka looked at Sidel. The young woman—just gorgeous, beautifully orange of hair, almost similar to Terandrian hair coloration, and stunningly fit, in the prime of her life like Ieka liked in her lovers—trembled.
“Lady Ieka, I only—I had to feed my family, and—”
“I trusted you. I made you my personal [Maid].”
Ieka was still stunned by the revelation. If Sidel had been conscientious enough to deny Rie’s allegations, Ieka might have even believed her. Sidel? A spy?
“I—Lady Ieka—I can—”
“I loved you.”
Ieka Imarris whispered. Her eyes shimmered. With unshed tears. With magic. With betrayal. Sidel flinched. And as Lady Rie Valerund left—Lady Ieka Imarris was further pulled into that inner circle.
The Circle of Thorns. And their plans shaped Izril.
But then—that was a week ago. And for all their machinations, they were just people. Powerful people, yes. But who sometimes forgot that they didn’t control every part of the world. Didn’t understand the hearts of…
Still One Week Ago.
It was indeed a funny thing. But when he was not the great rival of Magnolia Reinhart, the head of the Veltras family, terrible foe to his enemies—Tyrion Veltras presented few of the qualities that made him so hated.
He stopped outside the keep that was his family’s ancestral estate and looked up. The war stallion shifted underneath him, too well-trained to fidget. And for a moment, Tyrion Veltras just inhaled the fresh morning air. He closed his eyes. And reveled in the summer.
Tyrion looked around. Across the grass was a tilting dummy. One of several set up on the open straightaway. He raised the lance he carried, almost a third hand. And the [Lord] rode at the dummy.
Faster. Faster. His stallion snorted and dug into the earth. Tyrion Veltras galloped forwards, accelerating.
He had started four times further than a regular [Knight] would away from the tilting dummies. But that was because his Skills afforded him incredible acceleration. And the max speed his mount could reach—
Was closer to lightning than man. The Lord Veltras rode faster, until he was a blur, moving faster than a horse and rider should be able to. Towards the little training dummy.
If you had perfect eyes—you could see his target. A bouncing, little ring of wood. So light that the wind was blowing it, twirling the hoop of wood around. And it was that Tyrion rode at. His lance’s tip bobbed, following the ring, steady despite the galloping horse.
He struck forwards, bracing as he passed the training dummy. From his seat, Hethon Veltras, 1st Son of the Veltras name after his father, saw the [Lord] flick his lance tip up after he passed.
The wooden ring was on it, of course. Tyrion Veltras slowed his mount, soothing it and rewarding it with a bit of sugar. He looked—pleased.
As pleased as stone could look, that was. Tyrion was famous for not smiling. Or if he did—it was like a lion smiled. Unaccustomed to the feat. He rode back towards his audience and heard the applause.
Hethon Veltras, who was fourteen this summer, applauded politely for his father. Tyrion—regarded his son, perplexed.
“Good strike, father.”
Hethon was thinner than his father. Less robust than the famed [Lord] who was, according to some lists, the second-best [Lord] in the world. Only—mentioning that would only make Tyrion unhappy.
And indeed, perhaps that was because his son didn’t know Tyrion any more than the Circle of Thorns. Tyrion leaned on his saddle horn.
“Good strike, Hethon? Why?”
He sounded like a drillmaster. Hethon hesitated. And his compliment turned to confusion.
“You…got the ring, father. Isn’t that hard?”
Indeed, snagging the little ring with the tip of your lance at full-tilt was difficult. A master [Lancer] would train like that, but not at the speeds Tyrion could ride. But the [Lord] just shook his head, mystified.
“Hethon Veltras. That is a warm-up. Save your compliments for true feats. A [Lord] should not be overly generous with their words.”
The young [Lord] turned red as his father gave him a stern look. He ducked his head.
“Sorry. I just meant—”
He didn’t have words to finish that sentence. And it didn’t help that Tyrion was clearly waiting for them. After a second, someone cleared his throat.
“Perhaps, Lord Veltras, the young Lord Hethon simply doesn’t understand the difficulty of your true regimen. It would be instructive for him to watch.”
That comment came from an elderly man. Ullim, the [Majordomo] of the Veltras household. And—much like Ressa, a force as equally powerful within his domain. Although Ullim would not be the target of an unrequited Lady Ieka’s affections. Maybe someone else’s, but…
He had been balding. And he was safely in his early sixties, white of hair—thanks to the expensive tonics he liked to buy.
That was his one vice. He’d buy [Alchemist]’s draughts to maintain his fraught hairline. And sometimes he was handsomely haired, like a white fox—or goat—other times, the potions backfired and he was stately in his baldness.
The [Majordomo] had to be. He was composed as he patted Hethon reassuringly on the arm. Tyrion blinked. He looked at Ullim and nodded slightly.
“Most evidently, Ullim. Have you never seen me practice, Hethon?”
“No, Lord Veltras. The last time might well have been a year ago. You were occupied with the Goblin Lord business. And you seldom tilt competitively in public.”
The [Majordomo]’s voice was kindly. And he was like…a second father to Hethon. Not a mother. Perhaps an uncle, but never a mother.
Hethon’s mother was dead.
Tyrion Veltras also respected Ullim’s words. He nodded and abruptly reached for his bag of holding.
“I will demonstrate, then. Hethon. Watch. What you just applauded was a basic [Lancer]’s training. But if you choose to pick up the lance, this is what you should aspire to in training. Ullim, set up the magic targets. Battlefield lancework.”
He turned. Ullim bowed and called out. A pair of [Workhands] rushed across the field. Hethon saw two young boys—nearly his age, maybe a year or two older—setting up a second dummy. Clearing the others off the field.
Tyrion on the other hand was dismounting. He quickly withdrew something from his bag of holding and began fastening it to his stallion, who snorted grumpily, knowing what was coming.
Horse barding. And Tyrion himself was putting on a helmet. Just a helmet, with a visor. No breastplate or other armor; he was in his riding clothes for the morning. But the helmet was the very same armor he would put on for war. And he seldom wore that helmet. Hethon began to understand why as one of the [Workhands] shouted.
“Activating the dummy! Off the field!”
He waved a magic wand linked to the dummy. And Tyrion turned as he mounted up. Hethon saw, about two thousand paces distant, a straw dummy planted into the green grass.
His eyes were beyond perfect. A gift from his mother’s Skills. Hethon could actually see the dummy. It was made of straw, like most dummies. But this one was…magical. It was armored in some kind of scale-covering and while it had a shield hanging from one arm—
The shield was magical. It sprang to life and a pink-violet aura surrounded the target. The training dummy’s face—which looked like a Drake’s, however crudely—lit up. The two eye sockets blazed with pink magic.
And then—the training dummy began to fire magical arrows made of light at Tyrion, Ullim, and Hethon. The [Majordomo] and the young [Lordling] saw dozens of magical arrows blasting upwards.
Basic spells. Tier 1 spells. But dozens of them. They arced, curving towards them and Tyrion. Arrows made of sand, light, fire, stone—Hethon gaped until Ullim yanked him off the little bluff of grass.
The [Majordomo] had a shield in one hand. He had been a [Retainer] once—a good one. And like Tyrion he had a bag of holding. Tyrion glanced at him. He raised his shield.
“The training guide must sense you as combatants. Hold still, Ullim. This won’t take long. [Barrier of Pride].”
A stationary field appeared around Ullim and Hethon. Tyrion Veltras ignored the arrows smashing into the golden barrier in the air. He narrowed his eyes at the magical training dummy. Then he leveled his lance and dug his heels into his horse’s flanks.
The stallion shot forwards. Hethon had thought it had been going fast before, but now the horse flickered across the ground. Tyrion Veltras rode at the dummy.
And the magical spells exploded from the angry training dummy as if it was possessed by some angry ghost of vengeance. The long-distance hail turned into bursts of magical arrows, lances of light—all trying to strike at Tyrion.
They weren’t just illusions either. Tyrion kept his shield up, deflecting the magical spells, weaving his horse back and forth. He dodged underneath a beam of light, deflected a blast that made the air ripple—Hethon watched him charging the enchanted target, forgetting the danger to himself.
“Ullim! Ullim, what is that?”
“That is how your father trains, Lord Hethon.”
Old Ullim watched, fondly, as Tyrion closed. His shield was constantly moving, blocking attacks to him and his steed. But his lance was on-target.
And the magical shield around the training dummy’s target—Hethon saw Tyrion point. His horse disappeared—
The training dummy’s shield exploded into a shower of light particles as the [Lord]’s lance blasted through the protective wards. Tyrion put his lance up as his stallion, panting, turned and cantered about.
This time Hethon was applauding on his feet when his father came back. He stared at Tyrion Veltras. The [Lord] even allowed himself a small smile as he removed his helmet.
“Not a bad performance. I’m in decent shape, Ullim. No strikes to me or Gelden.”
He meant his horse. The [Majordomo] lowered the magical shield he carried as Tyrion’s [Barrier of Pride] flickered out around them.
“A fine showing, sir. I’m sure Hethon is duly impressed. One might have hoped he would have been out of range. I will speak to the staff about putting him in danger.”
His words gave both Tyrion and Hethon pause. The [Lord] blinked at Hethon and then looked at the distant dummy. Which had, frankly, put out enough firepower in a few seconds to vaporize Hethon twice over.
“I wouldn’t have let him come to harm. And you’re more than capable of blocking those kinds of spells, Ullim.”
Tyrion addressed Ullim stiffly. The [Majordomo] bowed.
“Of course, sire. I was here, but age does take its toll, Lord Veltras.”
“I wasn’t afraid, father.”
Hethon added hurriedly. The [Lord] hesitated. He glanced at Hethon, but then looked at Ullim. He—listened to Ullim. And Miss Jericha, another of his retainers.
Few others. After a second, Tyrion stiffly inclined his head.
“Hethon should begin learning to ride a horse and protect himself. He’s—fourteen. He would have been a [Squire] already if he was a [Knight].”
It wasn’t quite a question. Ullim nodded.
“Of course, sire. But we had discussed that it wasn’t quite appropriate…?”
Hethon fidgeted as his father looked him up and down. Not quite as a father might, but as a [Lord Commander] and one of the most powerful [Lords] in the world with his own personal army might. Appraisingly, seeking all of Hethon’s weaknesses and finding them.
Scrawny, bookish. Not the reincarnation of Tyrion. Just—Hethon.
“As you say, Ullim. However, I have an abundance of time. Those Drake saboteurs have been dealt with. The realm is…at peace…for now.”
He leaned on his horse as he gazed about. The estates of Tyrion Veltras’ lands were flush with nature. The keep rested next to a large forest—or part of it.
The Vail Forest, one of the largest forests in all of Izril lay smack dab in Veltras lands. And you couldn’t but ride anywhere without seeing part of it. The Veltras Keep, heavily fortified, as much a mansion as stronghold, lay next to it.
This tilting and training area was where Tyrion loved to be when he wasn’t managing his estates or out attending to his affairs. As was so often the case. And this summer’s day was…
Father-son time. In theory. It had mostly been Tyrion showing Hethon his morning routine.
“Perhaps it’s time for a snack?”
“We had breakfast two hours ago.”
Tyrion saw his [Majordomo] sigh. Ullim did his best, he really did.
“Young Hethon is a growing boy. Perhaps a few snacks might not go amiss? There’s some wonderful sugar-coated walnuts from Baleros, milord.”
The [Lord] frowned. ‘It’s a waste of money and I ate a fulfilling breakfast’.
…Was what he didn’t say. Mainly because he caught Ullim’s meaningful look. The [Lord] paused again.
“Very well. Hethon, have a snack. Then you can try tilting at the dummies.”
He rode off, waving at the [Workhands] to reset the magical dummy. Hethon watched longingly as his father rode at the dummy, dodging the flashes of light.
“Ullim. Am I bothering my father?”
He spoke plaintively as the [Majordomo] had a [Servant] bring some of the candied nuts. Hethon helped himself as Ullim, fussing as was his wont, made Hethon eat them off a handkerchief in one hand.
“Not at all, Lord Hethon. Your father is just—unaccustomed to your presence. But he’s made time, and he is doing his best. He simply doesn’t know—”
The old man hesitated. His face wrinkled up as he realized he’d gone too far. And Hethon finished his sentence.
He looked at the old man. Ullim’s hands shook as he gently wiped at a bit of grass stuck to Hethon’s clothing.
“You or Sammial, Lord Hethon. Lord Veltras doesn’t know children.”
Hethon frowned darkly.
“I’m not a child. Sammial is.”
Sammial was his ten year-old brother. He was on a ride with Jericha. Ullim bowed.
“Or young folk such as yourself, excuse me, Lord Hethon. Lord Tyrion is a [Commander] as much as a [Lord]. He’s…doing his best. But your mother, Five Families honor her, was far better than Lord Tyrion.”
Hethon went quiet. He nodded slowly.
Ullim nodded anxiously. He looked at Tyrion as he struck the training dummy with a sound that reverberated and sent a distant group of goslings flying into the air.
“She was a welcome influence on your father. The two were a fine pair. As fine as…”
He trailed off. Hethon ate the candied walnuts, ignoring Ullim’s look. He’d heard it all before. Salva Veltras was a blessing, the influence Tyrion needed; the two of them had been perfect. A power couple, even if Salva hadn’t been as influential as Tyrion Veltras.
If she had lived—Tyrion might have had the support of every noble in Izril by now. But she was dead. The Drakes had assassinated her.
Everyone knew that. It was old history. Hethon remembered his mother. So did Sammial. It hadn’t been long ago. Four years.
Four years. And Hethon, grown now, still talked to his father once in a blue moon.
“Done with the snack? Hethon, mount up. I will teach you to joust.”
Hethon and Ullim jumped. Tyrion cantered over, his horse happily munching on another lump of sugar. Hethon looked nervously at his father.
“I can’t ride quite right, father—”
“Lord Veltras, Hethon is still starting his studies. He wasn’t apprenticed like you were…”
Ullim looked worried. Tyrion Veltras had been born to warfare. Not only had he fought against Velan the Kind and the Antinium, he was known as the most powerful martial [Lord] in existence—aside from perhaps Lord Hayvon, Lord Belchaus, and Lord Seagrass.
Tyrion had been trained as a [Squire] when he was nine. Hethon on the other hand…
“Ullim. Enough. Hethon can sit a horse, can’t he?”
Tyrion brushed aside his [Majordomo]’s worries this time. He motioned to Hethon.
“Come here, Hethon. Quickly now. Gelden won’t bite.”
He sounded impatient. But he always sounded impatient to anyone he spoke to. Brusque, the fancy word was. Hethon approached the massive stallion hesitantly.
Gelden was one of Tyrion’s war horses, and he was trained to kill enemies in combat by kicking them hard enough to break their necks. Just a fun fact Hethon was always aware of. And Gelden had been trained by a [Beast Master]; he gave Hethon a look as the boy approached.
Watch it, kid. I could eat you. Just because your dad’s making me give you a ride, doesn’t mean we’re friends.
That was the message Hethon felt the horse was giving him. But Tyrion just leaned down, grabbed Hethon’s arm, and pulled him up onto the saddle.
“There. You see?”
Hethon gaped as the world changed around him. Suddenly, he was on Gelden’s back. High off the ground. Gelden was huge, and Hethon felt as though everything was smaller. He looked up—and his father, stern, serious, black hair goatee and clean-shaven elsewhere, was looking at him.
“You look as though you haven’t ridden a horse before. Has Ullim been stinting on your lessons?”
The young boy ducked his head. Worriedly, Ullim called up.
“No, Lord Veltras. But Lord Hethon has a number of…”
The Lord Veltras blinked a few times at Ullim and Hethon’s worried faces.
“That was a joke, Ullim.”
The two exhaled. Tyrion sighed. He looked at Hethon, sitting in front of him, and then nodded.
“Have you ever tilted, Hethon? I don’t presume the [Tutors] have taught you that.”
Hethon breathed. He looked at Tyrion’s lance. Just wood—weighted perfectly to make Tyrion build muscle as he used it. And then—the [Lord] offered it to him.
“Here. Try lifting it.”
Hethon grabbed the lance awkwardly. He tried to lift it, but even with both hands, it was impossible. Tyrion’s lips quirked slightly.
“Too heavy? Then—Ullim, get me a long wooden pole.”
“A training lance, perhaps, sire?”
“No. Too heavy. Hethon will never manage it.”
“I can try—”
Tyrion ignored his son. He grabbed a lance as one of the young [Workhands] rode towards him and tossed it to him. Well—lance was an overstatement. It was just a pole of wood. Hethon deflated as he looked at it.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not trained and you don’t have Skills. Here. You can still hold it like a lance. Just so. Copy me. See?”
Briskly, like a drill instructor, Tyrion made Hethon copy his posture. The young man messed up three times, but Tyrion effortlessly corrected his posture.
“It’s meant to. Don’t hit Gelden in the head.”
The horse ducked as Hethon tried to control the pole of wood. Even that was hard for him to manage; he’d never have done an actual practice lance, however light. Tyrion pointed.
“You hold it on the other side of Gelden’s head. There, see? Now, try to keep it steady. Gelden—tsek.”
The [Lord] gave a riding order. Gelden’s ears perked up and he grudgingly trotted forwards.
Hethon felt as if a mountain were moving underneath him. But the horse was just trotting. It was nothing like the ponies and mares and geldings he’d ridden. Riding Gelden was riding an avalanche. And if he hit something?
The boy found himself smiling. And when he glanced up, he saw Tyrion was too. The [Lord] glanced down and his smile froze.
“Are you enjoying yourself?”
Hethon was trying to balance the lance. Tyrion showed him how to move with the horse to avoid it bobbing.
“Don’t fight it. Anticipate the movements in the saddle.”
“I can’t—get it still—”
“It’s practice. No one holds a lance steady their first time. Just ride. We’ll do one lap of the training fields. Mind your tongue or you’ll bite it.”
That was a common mistake most riders could make. If you chattered while riding and the horse came down hard, your teeth would snap together and possibly bite straight through your tongue. It didn’t always happen. But it could.
The [Lord] took Hethon around the training grounds, moving faster and faster. Hethon gaped as Gelden sped up, outpacing the [Workhands] and [Hostlers] and so on who were allowed to try their hand at tilting and riding during their time off. He knew Tyrion was one of the fastest [Riders] in the world, especially among the [Lord] class. But to experience it—
“This is amazing!”
Tyrion Veltras was smiling again at his son’s delight. He looked down, genuinely mystified.
“I didn’t know you liked riding. Ullim didn’t bring it up.”
“I don’t. But I like this! How fast can you go? Do you ride this fast when you’re in battle?”
“Faster. I can go three times as fast if I combine my Skills. For a few seconds. A lance is a proper [Knight]’s first weapon, Hethon. And a [Lord]’s. Gelden and I can dodge arrow fire, even lightning bolts. And few things stop an enchanted lance.”
“Not even that Great Goblin Chieftain? I heard—”
Hethon’s teeth came together hard on his tongue. He yelped and Tyrion slowed.
“Let me see. You’re fine. No bleeding. Watch your tongue.”
The [Lord] stared at Hethon’s tear-studded eyes from the pain, but Hethon just gulped and nodded, uttering no words of complaint. Which was the right thing to do. Tyrion ignored Hethon’s tears as the boy furiously swiped at them. And continued, as if nothing had happened.
“I did kill that…Goblin. A Great Goblin, I think they’re classified as. I thought we killed all of them with that Goblin King. It wasn’t a match for me, even if it hadn’t been wounded. Even so—it killed a Gold-rank team. Goblins aren’t to be underestimated, Hethon.”
“But you killed it? Yourself?”
Hethon tried to ignore the pain on his tongue. Ullim would give him a bit of healing potion. Tyrion glanced at him and nodded.
“Nothing to be proud of. It was just duty, Hethon.”
“But you killed it. By yourself!”
Hethon insisted. He was going to tell the other boys—[Lord]’s sons and [Ladies]—that he was allowed to socialize with the next time they met. He’d heard about it before of course, but now he could tell them he’d heard it from his father.
“I won’t hear you bragging of it, Hethon.”
Tyrion frowned absently. Hethon’s face fell. Why did he have to understand what Hethon wanted now of all times?
“It was my duty. Not my pleasure. Duty compelled me to deal with the Goblin threat, Hethon. And Liscor.”
Suddenly, Tyrion was lecturing. Hethon sagged.
“I know, but—”
“A [Lord] does not gloat over their foes. Or boast, Hethon Veltras.”
Tyrion looked at his son, who was suddenly not enjoying his ride. He cleared his throat, suddenly, uniquely, awkward.
Lord Tyrion Veltras would have preferred to be on the road, attending to some monster or on campaign. His son was…odd.
Not unwelcome. Just odd, to Tyrion. A strange animal who couldn’t be tamed or reasoned with. Not a beast—but not yet a man. Hethon was moody, didn’t take to his studies all the time even though he had a gift, and could be quite irrational.
In short, he was a boy. As Ullim kept saying. But Tyrion didn’t know if he’d been like that as a boy. In fact—he knew he hadn’t been. He just didn’t know what to say to Hethon, who was different.
Salva would have. But Tyrion looked at the boy—still too young to hold anything but the makeshift lance and felt…conflicted. He cleared his throat. Suddenly, he was uncomfortable.
“It is our duty, Hethon. You understand why I rode against Liscor?”
“Because you were going to take the city? You nearly did. That Magnolia Reinhart stopped you, though.”
Tyrion frowned. First knowing about Tremborag and now this. Was Ullim telling his sons…? He shook his head.
“Not just that, Hethon. It was also part of duty. Duty informed both decisions.”
He saw his son glance up suspiciously.
“How was duty part of it, father?”
Tyrion explained. This felt right. His father had given him this talk—it was past time Hethon heard it from him.
“Duty is a [Lord]’s task. We have duty. To our family, our house, to our people, and to the realm and then to our peers. Not necessarily in that order, Hethon. But duty informs each decision. Why did I rally against the Goblin Lord? Duty to the realm, yes. To protect those whom the Goblins would slaughter or rape. But that was also duty to our people, Hethon. And to you. If the Goblin Lord continued—you would have been spitted on their pikes, along with every boy in Izril. You see, it was duty to many things that made me combat his threat.”
Hethon hesitated. Tyrion Veltras was also poor at speaking to children.
“But why did you go towards Liscor?”
“That is more complex. That ties into my battles against the Drakes. They are our enemies. Our house has long opposed them. They make war with us, Humans, each year. They sent saboteurs, infiltrators against us. We are never at peace.”
Hethon nodded dutifully. Tyrion went on.
“However, that is a longstanding grudge between our species. I would be…less inclined to make war otherwise. The north has its own issues. However. My duty towards my family comes first. They killed your mother. For that alone, I should drown Izril in Drake blood.”
He said it so calmly, unlike whenever he had to talk sensibly to Hethon—let alone Sammial. That was easy. And it all made sense, like when his father had explained it to him.
But Hethon just gave Tyrion a blank look.
“I know, father. But why attack Liscor?”
The [Lord] hesitated. He leaned down and blinked a few times at his son.
“Because they killed Salva, Hethon. Was that not clear?”
“No. I mean, yes. It was. But what did Liscor do?”
“They’re a staging ground. Liscor is difficult to take and it makes establishing a foothold impossible so long as they exist. They can be reinforced quickly—but for the Antinium, they used to be impregnable. If you couldn’t take the city in a week, the Walled Cities would have an army of three hundred thousand marching on Liscor. If we’d taken it, we’d be poised to venture further south…”
Hethon was nodding impatiently as Tyrion’s mind spun across what would have been but for Magnolia. His blood still boiled, thinking of her. Then his son raised one hand as Gelden trotted back towards Ullim.
“But father. What did the people of Liscor do? They didn’t kill mother. Why do they have to die?”
The [Lord] halted. Gelden pulled up. Hethon looked at his father. Tyrion Veltras hesitated. His talk with his father, which had been so clear and reassuring—had not gone like this.
At last, he answered.
“Nothing, Hethon. I doubt very much they were part of the plot to kill Salva—kill your mother. That was one of the Walled Cities. Manus.”
His fist clenched on his reins. Hethon looked at his father, uncertainly.
“Then why did Liscor have to fall?”
“Because they stand with our enemies, Hethon Veltras. It is not an honorable thing to say. But [Lords] are not [Knights]. I would have…spared the civilians if they surrendered. But a [Lord] is seldom kind. Do you…understand that?”
Tyrion Veltras looked down at his son. Hethon looked gravely up at him.
“I think I do, father.”
The [Lord] reached down. He clasped Hethon’s shoulder. He’d seen Pellmia do that with his boy a few times. Hethon smiled.
Not like Tyrion at all. But somehow—Tyrion felt as though the talk had been as productive as he had once had with his father. He found himself smiling again.
“Lord Veltras. We have Hethon’s mare ready, if you two would like to ride—”
Ullim, steadfast Ullim, was already mounted on a destrier and leading a much smaller mare. The old man looked comical on the massive horse. But then—Ullim had ridden with Tyrion’s father in times of war.
Tyrion waved the horse away. Hethon and Ullim blinked, but Tyrion’s son obediently began checking the ground.
“I can jump down—”
“No. You have the practice lance. I’ll show you how to tilt. Unless you don’t want to?”
Tyrion frowned at Hethon. His son looked up, suddenly ecstatic.
“Of course. Hasn’t Ullim let you…?”
“I’m not that advanced yet.”
“Hrn. Well then. I’ll teach you. Raise your lance, just like I showed you. Ullim! Set up the practice dummies. Rings—all but the magical ones.”
Ullim rode off. Hethon looked alarmed as he saw the willow ring target.
“Do you think I can do that, father? Should I start with…?”
He pointed with his free hand at the targets made of conventional targets. Tyrion smiled thinly.
“Are you afraid you’ll miss the hoop target?”
“I—don’t think I can hit it.”
Hethon replied truthfully. He looked up anxiously, waiting for condemnation or disapproval. But he didn’t know his father very well. Four years had passed since Hethon’s mother had died. And they were strangers.
Because Tyrion Veltras smiled.
“You can hit it. I know you can. I’ll use one Skill to help you aim. And I’ll call out to you and manage the horse. You just focus on the hoop. Understand?”
“If you miss, we’ll try again. Seasoned [Lancers] miss all the time on a windy day. But you should try rather than fear failure, Hethon Veltras.”
The boy looked up at his father. And he felt a steady hand, like stone, guiding him, adjusting his grip.
“Ullim, clear the field. Hethon is tilting at the hoop-target. Remember. It will jump as the wind blows. Anticipate, Hethon.”
The [Lordling] gulped. But his father was there. And he let go of Hethon’s hand, but he was behind him, speaking.
The war horse began trotting, and then moved into a canter. Faster. Then—Tyrion whispered.
“Gelden. Sav! Sav!”
The stallion heard the secret commands [Beast Tamers] liked to use and accelerated. Hethon yelped.
“Steady. You can do it. Don’t bite your tongue. Now—aim. Feel the wind?”
They were shooting across the long training course as [Workhands], the staff of the mansion, Ullim, all watched. Veltras [Soldiers], staff, and more saw the [Lord] riding with his son sitting in front of him with the silly lance held in front of them. But they were moving at a full tilt, faster than most [Knights].
“Aim. [Peilspear Formation].”
And the [Lord] whispered a Skill. One that improved focus. He and his son rode, a formation of two. And he saw Hethon forget his fear, sit up, aiming.
A breeze picked up as they charged. And the little yew hoop of wood danced like an insane butterfly, twirling, defying Hethon to strike it. Without a Skill, even Tyrion would have been hard-pressed to hit it.
As the two charged, Tyrion watched with that perfect detachment. He looked around, feeling Gelden surging forwards, loving to just run.
The sun was warm. The air refreshing. The Vail Forest’s breeze brought the scent of nature to him. The [Lord] inhaled.
They passed the training dummy. Tyrion slowed Gelden, although the warhorse needed little encouragement. He began speaking, absently. This was the hard part. What did he say to Hethon?
Salva was so good at being…he wished she could have shared this day. He missed her.
“A glorious summer’s day. We can try again. Don’t be discouraged; I don’t think I would have hit it. Lancework is tricky. Practice and building the muscle for it are—”
“F-father! Dad. Look! Look!”
Tyrion Veltras broke off from the tricky speech. He looked down.
And he saw a little wooden hoop on the end of the practice lance. It had snapped off the training dummy, as it was meant to. Hethon was pointing at it, wide-eyed.
“I did it! See?”
The [Lord] was blank-faced. In his head he was…calculating the odds. Even with his formation Skill, an untested [Lord] with no applicable [Warrior] classes hitting something at that speed…
Luck only went so far. There might be real talent there. Tyrion slowly dismounted from the horse. He walked to the end of Hethon’s lance and took the hoop, inspected it for flaws.
Then he looked up. Hethon was beaming—but the smile fell away as he looked at his stern father, face unchanged. He was hesitating, checking himself.
“You did use a Skill. I got lucky.”
“No. It wasn’t luck.”
Tyrion Veltras looked at his son. He tried to smile. But it wasn’t what he did. He looked at Hethon.
He didn’t have his mother’s eyes. He had Tyrion’s father’s eyes. A more angular nose, softer features. He didn’t look like Salva. Or Tyrion.
But here was Tyrion’s son. The [Lord] reached out, and offered Hethon the little wooden hoop.
“Very well done, Hethon. You may have hidden talent as a lancer. Exemplary work.”
That was what he would have said to a [Soldier]. It wasn’t enough. But Hethon’s eyes lit up because even that was more than he got. He beamed as Ullim came over, waving the hoop.
“Ullim! Did you see? On my first try!”
And Tyrion heard applause. The Veltras folk were applauding the ecstatic young [Lordling]. They were laughing and cheering. Tyrion looked around, surprised.
But Veltras folk loved their [Lords] and [Ladies]. House Veltras had always been custodians of the land, of the forests, of their people. And Tyrion was a poor [Lord] in areas outside of war.
But good enough in other ways.
“Save the ring. It will be a trophy. Replace it on the training dummy.”
Tyrion instructed Ullim as he lifted Hethon out of the saddle. Ullim gave him a mildly exasperated look, as if there had been a question of it going back.
But Hethon was beaming. And he wanted to try tilting again. So up they went in the saddle. And they rode through that summer’s day.
Tyrion Veltras loved being outdoors. Riding, hawking, hunting, even fishing. It was in his blood. He paused, marveling.
“He hit the target six times out of ten. Even without my Skills.”
The [Lord] commented to Ullim. The [Majordomo] was beaming.
“He might have a true talent, sire. His eyes are excellent. I’ll ask the tutors to focus on it in his lessons.”
“I can teach him myself. Assuming I’m here.”
Tyrion hesitated. Already tonight he had to go ride south. Sixty miles along the Vail Forest was an overactive Mothbear clan. Too far for most to ride quickly towards. But Tyrion Veltras could do it in a night with a small escort. He was faster than most law-enforcement and preferred hunting the monsters that attacked his people from the forests.
“I’m sure Lord Hethon would love to learn from a master, if you have the time, sire.”
Ullim was looking at Tyrion hesitantly. The [Lord] thought of his commitments, grimaced.
And then—came to a quick decision.
“I’ll…make time. Tomorrow, at dawn—”
The [Majordomo] shook his head. Tyrion hesitated.
He got another look. Ullim was a perfect [Majordomo], not nearly as combative as Ressa or treacherous as the…unfortunate Sidel. But he could still get his point across with a single glance.
“Perhaps before lunch, sire?”
“Fine. Push back my meeting with the [Druids], then. I’ll teach Hethon then.”
“Most excellent, milord.”
Ullim bowed. Tyrion looked around. Hethon was speaking animatedly to a [Stablemaster] who was riding towards him.
With one leg. And one-legged though he might be, but he rode his older mare with a grace Tyrion lacked. The [Lord] paused, then strode towards him.
“Stablemaster Tell. I didn’t think to see you about so soon. Can you ride? Rest, if not. Your work will wait for you.”
His voice was closer to a snap, which made Hethon jump. But Tell Hidam, the [Stablemaster], just grinned.
“Trick is balancing, Lord Veltras. I’m all right. Those potions you had sent took any pain away. As for the rest—leg’s gone. Back to work.”
He shrugged. Calm as could be. He hadn’t been when they had to take off his leg. But then—the infection had gone too bad, and even the best [Healer] hadn’t done much.
“If you’re unwell, rest. I won’t have you falling out of the saddle and injuring yourself so soon after healing.”
Tyrion instructed Tell. The man just bowed in the saddle. His old mare whickered at Gelden. Fast as Tyrion’s warhorse might be, even the [Lord] would hesitate to put all his money on a race against Tell Hidam and his mount, Daisystream. Well, until recently.
Tell had lost a leg. And he’d never ride as surely as before. But he’d not lose his job in the Veltras estates. Few people were rich, unlike the Reinhart or Terland or Wellfar families who had coin to throw around. El and Veltras were poorer.
But no one went hungry here, either. And they were not tossed away, as Terland was wont to do. Tyrion Veltras sighed as he looked at Hethon. Now—Salva would have…said…or done…? She was so good at being—kind. For all she could be a fiery as he. She had once told him he was like ‘a rock carved out of Veltras pride and stubbornness, only not nearly as soft’.
He missed her. But he looked at Hethon, still waving his trophy of the wooden ring about. And felt proud.
“Tonight, we’ll dine on Hethon’s favorite dish. A treat. And allow him a pick of one of his books from the [Bookseller] whenever they next visit.”
Tyrion’s announcement made Hethon’s eyes light up. Ullim was smiling too. It was rare for Tyrion to reward anything, but the demonstration of martial competence had put him in an unusually good mood.
“Perhaps some of the gelato as well? That Terandrian dish? Pellmia prevailed on me to try it. Have some prepared, Ullim. For Sammial and Hethon.”
The [Majordomo] hesitated. His smile flickered.
“That might be trickier, sire. The trade war of Lady Reinhart has shut down most major trading routes. And while it isn’t affecting our lands—”
Tyrion had not sent one of the black roses. But—funnily—the [Merchants] had some idea that he and Magnolia weren’t exactly friends. Tyrion’s brows snapped together.
“You can’t get it?”
The [Lord] frowned darkly. He looked at Hethon and the boy held his breath.
“For this? Get some. Hire a Courier if you have to. Hire—the Moonlight Rider. Tritel.”
“Yes, Lord Veltras!”
Ullim beamed. It was unlike Tyrion in the extreme. Except for hiring a horse-based Courier. That was like him. But Hethon was practically dancing with excitement. He couldn’t wait to tell the others. They’d all had ice cream—the young [Lords] and [Ladies] his age. But Tyrion had deemed it a waste until now. Hethon couldn’t wait to tell Eliasor. She’d told him it had tasted like—
Oh. Hethon’s glee faded a bit. He hadn’t seen Eliasor in a few months. He might not, now. [Assassins] had killed her mother.
A sobering thought for a moment. And then Hethon felt happy again. Tyrion was debating with Ullim about letting Hethon try the magical dummy—with Tyrion protecting him, of course.
“Milord, you don’t hit the dummy unscathed!”
Ullim pointed accusatorially towards Tyrion’s chest, where a magical bolt of energy had seared his clothing along his shoulder blade. Tyrion frowned.
“What about the flying target? Yes, if not the battlefield simulation—set up the jumping target. Hethon, I’ll control Gelden. The goal is to learn how to hit a target while in the air—”
As the training fields were buzzing and some of the [Workhands] were dragging out the dummy with wings attached—there was a commotion. Hethon, smiling and bouncing to try to impress his father again—heard a voice.
Crying loudly. Every head turned. Ullim’s face fell. So did Hethon’s. He recognized the voice. And the tantrum.
And the rider, carefully but swiftly escorting a young boy back towards them. Tyrion turned his head. And Hethon saw his younger brother, riding behind Jericha, Tyrion’s [Aide], [Mage], and retainer.
Hethon saw Sammy, or Sammial Veltras, ten years old, screaming and howling with tears as Jericha rode him back. He was small for his age, but rather fit.
“Lord Sammial. What’s the matter?”
Ullim hurried towards Sammial. The [Lord] was bawling. Red-faced.
He was very much a kid compared to Hethon’s distinguished fourteen years of age. He cried a lot when he didn’t get his way, threw tantrums—got mad—
But there was this for Sammial. He was…something. Hethon saw every head turn and people hastening to see what was wrong as Jericha, naturally grey-haired, tried to help Sammial down. He punched at her, enraged over something.
The thing about Sammial was…the thing was…
When people talk about Hethon, they said things like ‘he’s studious’. Diligent, a bit quiet, but level-headed. A credit to his class, really. Interested in books, which is grand, isn’t it? Knows when to listen, thoughtful—
When they were polite. Well—there wasn’t much they said that was bad about Hethon. Or…so he thought, from eavesdropping on the servants. And that was well and good.
But Sammial. When they spoke of Sammial Veltras, they said only one thing.
“He’s a Veltras born. Fiery as his mother. That Veltras rage in him, and command. A [Lord] of [Lords].”
At ten years of age, Sammial Veltras had outstripped his brother in one thing. Not education, understanding his father, however slightly, control of his emotions, and certainly not knowing when to shut up.
But he had more force. Sammial, age 10, already had an aura. His will manifest, as Ullim had explained it to Hethon. Not necessarily a good thing; it was just that Sammial had the power to influence those around him.
“I hate you!”
Unfortunately, it was a boy who had that power, not an adult. Well—it could be bad either way. But Sammial was screaming at Jericha.
Tyrion looked mystified. Shamefaced, his [Mage]-[Aide] bowed towards Tyrion. She was high-level, competent, as close to a babysitter as Ullim to Hethon. More than once Jericha had minded him. Hethon liked Jericha. So did Sammial—mostly. He usually suffered Jericha more than Ullim.
Not today. The young [Lord] was screaming in pain. He had blood dried around his mouth.
“We were riding, Lord Veltras. Lord Sammial—bit his tongue. Hard. I treated it, but he insisted—”
Sammial let out an ear-splitting wail as Ullim pried his jaws open. The [Majordomo] looked inside the mouth and tsked.
“All healed already. Jericha healed you, Lord Sammial.”
“But it hurt! It was her fault!”
“Sammy, you’re not supposed to blabber and ride.”
Hethon was exasperated. Sammial always forgot. He’d probably asked Jericha to ride really fast like he liked and begun talking. Sammial sniffed.
“But she made me bite my tongue! It was a rock!”
“I jumped a small one, sire.”
Jericha was exceptionally embarrassed. Tyrion just blinked at her. He shook his head slightly, clearly totally uncomprehending the issue.
“Sammial, you were warned. And you were healed. Are you still feeling pain?”
“No! But it hurt!”
“But the pain is gone.”
The [Lord] saw Sammial grudgingly nod. He turned towards Jericha.
“Don’t trouble yourself, Jericha. Clearly, Sammial is overwrought. Sammial Veltras. A [Lord] does not whine. Calm yourself. And if you behave, I will let you joust—”
Hethon held his breath. He didn’t know if he wanted Sammial to stop whining before Tyrion got mad—or if he didn’t want Sammial to show him up. Sammial was very good with most athletic things. His [Fencer] instructor said he was a natural with a sword. Tyrion had actually considered making him a [Squire], but for his temperament.
Sammial quieted, sniveling. Tyrion nodded.
“Jericha or I can have you ride while you tilt. If you stop complaining.”
“I don’t want Jericha.”
Sammial’s response was sullen at once. Tyrion nodded.
“Then, I will ride with you. Or Ullim. But you will first apologize to Jericha.”
Even Jericha looked mystified. Tyrion’s frown intensified.
“For striking her. She did nothing wrong. You were warned to watch yourself while riding.”
The ten-year-old boy glowered at his father. Tyrion blinked a few times.
“You won’t apologize to her?”
“No. I hate her.”
“Lord Sammial, I deeply apologize for the mistake. It won’t happen again. Won’t you let me ride with you? I will do my best.”
Jericha knelt, smiling at Sammial. He looked at her. And Hethon, hoping, praying though he didn’t know how to—saw Sammial’s eyes flash with rage.
“Shut up! I said, I hate you! Go away! You’re not my mother! You’re just a servant!”
He spat at Jericha. The [Mage] recoiled as Sammial got angry. The same angry that would lead to him beating up someone five years older than he was—or attacking a feral dog with a stick.
The Veltras rage. Hethon even felt it in the air, a prickling, painful sensation. He flinched as Jericha drew back. But then—the feeling faded.
Cold oblivion pushed it back. Tyrion Veltras was smoldering. And Veltras fury? Jericha, his second-in-command and Ullim both stood up.
“Perhaps Lord Sammial—”
“Sammial Veltras. You will never speak to your people like that!”
The [Lord] snapped, his voice a battlefield roar. Sammial paled, his aura going out in front of the adult’s. He turned to run back into the mansion. Tyrion caught him in three strides. He was of course, a lot faster even without a horse than a boy. Even one like Sammial.
It was fast. Tyrion grabbed Sammial, put him over one knee, and began to spank him. Hard. Sammial shouted with fury and then pain. Then he began crying and trying to punch his father.
Tyrion Veltras wasn’t known for mercy. Nor—for spanking people lightly. Hethon flinched with every blow. By the end, Sammial was hanging on his father’s knee, just crying.
When Tyrion let go, Sammial somehow had the energy to stand up. He turned, crimson-faced, crying.
“I hate you! I wish you’d died too!”
He screamed in his father’s face. Then he ran, sobbing, into the mansion. Ullim ran after him. Lord Tyrion Veltras just stood there.
No one knew what to say after that. Jericha, looking pale, approached Tyrion. So did Hethon. A moment ago—they had been so happy. But when Tyrion turned, his face was blank.
“Time to investigate the Mothbear attacks. I’ll be back late, if at all tonight. Hethon. I will see you tomorrow. Jericha, my usual escort.”
Jericha cast one agonized glance at Hethon. The boy stood there. He wanted to say—‘no’. But if Tyrion stayed, with Sammial so upset—would the gelato even matter?
He stood with the little wooden ring in his hands, on that glorious summer’s day. And it was a glorious day.
Tyrion Veltras felt it too. Such a beautiful day. He looked back at his son once.
But Hethon—was more of a stranger. A stranger who understood how his father worked. And Sammial? Not at all. And Tyrion didn’t understand him at all.
Ullim was a poor mother. Jericha was only Jericha. The boys lacked a mother. And Tyrion—preferred killing monsters to raising sons. One of those he was good at. One of those he could make a difference in doing.
The [Lord] rode away. He understood children not at all. He understood women only a bit more. But he had a duty. To some, he was a monster. To others, a symbol of humanity, at least on Izril.
The undeniable truth to all though was that Tyrion Veltras was just a man.
…Who was pretty bad with kids.
Yes, A Week Ago.
At the exact same time, someone screamed. Happily. A little Drake girl pointed as every head turned. The children sitting around a table went wide-eyed. Then—an [Innkeeper] leapt out of the kitchen.
“Happy Birthday, Mrsha!”
Erin Solstice carefully waved the cake over her head and danced about. The children went crazy. Visma’s jaw fell open as Erin Solstice brought over the carefully-frosted chocolate cake to the table and put it down. Behind her came Bird holding a cold tub of strawberry ice cream.
“I have brought the ice of cream. Please, celebrate me.”
It was unnecessary instructions. The children were going nuts. Ekirra was practically vibrating out of his chair.
“Hold on! Hold on! No grabbing! Remember, I said there’s an order to this? See the candles? We have to sing the song! Alright, everyone! Happy birthday…”
Erin began singing. The children and adults blinked, and then began trying to copy her. It was…about as bad as most renditions of happy birthday songs. In that—the bar was low enough that even untrained singers who didn’t know the words couldn’t lower it much further.
“Okay! Now blow out the candles, Mrsha! Try to get them all in one go. That’s good luck. I think.”
The little Gnoll bouncing in her seat with an imitation party-hat on her head eagerly blew. The candles winked out. Erin cheered and people copied her.
“Good job! Oh, shoot! Make a wish! I mean, you should already have made a wish. But don’t tell anyone what it was!”
She put a finger to Mrsha’s mouth. The Gnoll’s eyes went round and she closed her eyes, concentrating hard.
“…Dude. Do you think they actually think the wishes come true? This is nuts. How do they not have birthdays?”
At a distant table, Kevin looked at the others. Rose sighed.
“Kevin. They have birthdays. Just not cake.”
“But the wishes…okay. Do we get cake?”
“Everyone gets cake! Who wants cake? And ice cream? You can have both!”
The Wandering Inn was filled with hands. And Erin Solstice, beaming, began slicing the cake up into pieces. It was a special day, as the cake and bits of ice cream went around the room. Gnolls and Drakes and yes, a few other species, ate happily.
There was a pile of gifts on one table. Erin was beaming as Lyonette gave Mrsha a little hug with the first slice of cake and ice cream she was doling out.
It was Mrsha’s birthday.
…And that was it. Mrsha’s birthday.
Nothing else. No grand events in The Wandering Inn. No confluence of events—well—only a few—
But primarily, just a birthday for a special little Gnoll girl who savored her first bite of strawberry ice cream and chocolate cake.
It was perfect. But she knew it would be, because she’d helped decide which flavor cake and ice cream to make. It had been a hard choice. But she was happy with this over lemon, vanilla, lime, carrot, mint, or the other inferior flavors.
Especially carrot. Hah! The only person sad about that was Hawk, who was attending with Selys near the back.
Of course, Selys was there. And Rufelt and Lasica. And Moore—of course he had to be there. And the Horns of Hammerad, and Griffon Hunt and Krshia and Elirr and Jasi and Wesle…
So many. It was a kind of event that only the door being in Invrisil could conjure. Somehow—all of Mrsha’s friends, friends of the inn could make it.
Except for Ryoka Griffin of course. But no one had spoken her name today. And Mrsha hadn’t thought of Ryoka. She was too focused on the cake.
“Cake! Cake! Cake! Mom! Mooooom! Look! Cake! Can we take some back?”
Ekirra was drooling over this cake. He waved at his mother, a Gnoll. She was very embarrassed as she waved back. But Erin was laughing merrily.
“Sure! If there’s leftovers! But you can come over and have more, Ekirra!”
“On special occasions!”
Lyonette hurriedly added. But this was the most special of occasions.
“Hello. I am Bird. Check my Bird Reviews section in the Liscorian Gazette. Have some ice cream. It is made of strawberries, not blood. Hello, I am Bird. Would you like some ice cream? I have opinions about birds.”
An Antinium was helping pass out ice cream. At the same time, a Centaur was flicking plates of cake towards Erin with his fingers and levitating them around.
“Enough cake for everyone! Wait, didn’t I serve you twice?”
Palt narrowed his eyes at Relc. The Drake hid a plate behind his back.
“…No. I, uh, inhaled mine. Can I get another?”
“No extra servings, Relc! Except for Moore.”
Erin passed out a huge chunk towards Moore and the Halfseekers. Jelaqua beamed as they received their cake.
“Maughin. Hold on, let me serve you. You’re going to love this.”
She bent over the Dullahans’ head on the table and began to feed him the cake and ice cream. The Dullahan smiled as his body did the same to Jelaqua.
Seborn made a sound like vomiting and moved away from the table. Moore sighed, but he was more beaming with happiness for Mrsha. The Drowned Man moved to another table.
Seborn acknowledged Wailant, Viceria, Garia, and Numbtongue and Octavia. It was…a likely group to sit together, really. If you thought about it. The Drowned Man slid into a chair and Wailant laughed.
“This is something, this birthday idea, eh? At sea, we just get the bastard stinking drunk! I’ve heard of birthday gifts, but—”
He eyed the table with presents. It was…a table with presents.
As in, you needed the whole table for all the presents. Not one of those dinky tables either, but a proper, round table that you could eat your dinner off of. And not like ‘oh, you could use a smaller table’.
No. A proper table, for an amount of presents. They had to be heaped up. It was the kind of birthday children across the world dreamed of. Presents.
Because, obviously, Erin had invited everyone. And due to the nature of her guests—a lot of them were rich. There were…over…Wailant had to count.
“Hold up. Halfseekers are 4, Horns make it 8. Griffon Hunt makes it 12—that’s easy. Then you add that Garuda lady—”
“Bevussa. And that’s Keldrass and his team.”
“Right…plus those adventurers there. Silver-rank? Gold?”
“So there’s over thirty Gold-rank adventurers here. Plus Saliss of Lights. All who brought presents.”
Seborn looked at Wailant. Both [Pirates] looked at the table full of presents. It was…tempting them. Mildly.
And that was just the adventurers. Hawk shifted as he tried to copy Jelaqua. Selys brushed the fork away from her face.
“I can feed myself, Hawk!”
She snapped. Hawk sighed.
“Isn’t it cute, though?”
“Cute, and impractical. Where’s my gift? Is it being squashed?”
“Nope. But Selys, don’t you think it might be a bit too costly? Even if the other adventurers…”
“No, I don’t. This is Mrsha’s birthday. She’s been through a lot. Eat your cake, Hawk.”
“But it’s not carrot—”
The two began bickering quietly. Selys glared at Hawk and did not look at Pisces and the Horns of Hammerad.
“Cake. Cake. Cake. Cake. Cake. Cake. Cake. Cake.”
Ksmvr was chanting as he bounced up and down in his seat. Yvlon sighed.
“Can I get something other than cake and ice cream? It’s just sugar. I’d settle for those onion rings.”
“I’ll take her cake.”
Ceria and Pisces both raised their hands. They began fighting for the slice of cake. Rather than…die…Lyonette let go and backed away.
Adventurers. A half-Giant friend. A [Necromancer] fighting with a half-Elf over a piece of cake. Oh, yes, and the Antinium, the Black Tide of Izril, also sitting and politely eating ice cream since the cake did bad things to their digestions. A Hobgoblin sipping from a glass of milk while a giant Ashfire Bee sat on his head.
And amid this all—the ordinary parents. Ekirra’s family, Visma’s, and four other families sat in the inn. Visma’s mother stared at Councilwoman Krshia and Councilmember Elirr, who had invited Hexel, the Lamia [Architect], to this gathering. Of course, they’d all brought gifts.
Ekirra’s father coughed a few times. He eyed the Gnoll sitting next to him. He was relieved it wasn’t a Selphid. After a moment of waiting for his cake to arrive, he spoke nervously.
“This is our first time at a ‘birthday party’. You must be friends of the inn, yes?”
Felkhr, the Gnoll sitting next to him looked around blankly. He smiled.
“Ah. Yes. Actually—I’m only distantly related to this inn. I’m from Pallass, you see—the [Innkeeper], Miss Solstice was in the same bar during the Wyvern attack.”
Ekirra’s father, Evink Silverfang, part of the Silverfang tribe, stared at Felkhr.
“The…Wyvern attack. And you are from Pallass?”
“Yes. Actually, they call me the ‘Flying Gnoll of Pallass’, yes? I have this project—I’m trying to fly, so I jump off the walls—I haven’t flown yet, but I haven’t died yet—”
Ekirra’s parents stared at Felkhr. They slowly edged backwards as the Gnoll tried to explain. Across from him, Rufelt sighed.
“Felkhr. You have the worst way of introducing yourself. Ever. Pardon me. Rufelt, owner of Tails and Scales. And this is my lovely wife, Lasica…”
The Drake smiled at the Gnoll couple. Ekirra’s parents relaxed in the presence of sanity. Rufelt smiled as they shook hands.
“Oh, it is a delight. Are you a [Bartender]?”
“I am. And Lasica is a [Chef]. Not that she’s practicing—”
Lasica elbowed Rufelt in the side. He grunted.
“I mean to say—she doesn’t need to work, so why would she—”
This time she kicked him. Ekirra’s parents edged away again. But then Ekirra’s mother sniffed the air. She hesitated, and then smiled at Lasica, suddenly content.
“Oh! I see. Is it your first time?”
Lasica hesitated. Then she smiled widely and leaned forwards.
“Yes. And Rufelt’s just being protective…”
“Gnolls always are. Evink was the same way. You think this is bad, just wait until they’re born. Evink once tried to chase off Guardsman Relc with a rolling pin…”
“Did someone call?”
Relc looked around, failed to spot the others, and went back to picking up a piece of cake that had fallen on the floor. Wing Commander Embria tried to pull him up while attempting to cast the [Invisibility] spell on them both out of sheer embarrassment.
“I’m not super early, but Gnoll cubs do grow fast. Yes, about…two months into? Progressing very fast. Isn’t it…six months if it’s a Gnoll? That’s what my [Wet Nurse] tells me, but Pallass doesn’t have as many Gnolls as…”
“Yes, yes. Six months. I don’t know how Humans and Drakes manage nine—well, it can be ten for Drakes. And Centaurs? Have you even heard…? You used a fertility spell, obviously?”
“Tweaked to allow cross-species pregnancies. Yes, I bought it from Wistram and they’re very reliable. It was almost the first night. Well, I say, almost, but…”
Lasica and Ekirra’s mother began gossiping. Rufelt and Evink shifted uncomfortably. Rufelt looked around at the other parents.
“So—you are all friends of Mrsha’s, yes?”
“We—Ekirra knows Mrsha. They play together. And we were happy to attend this, ‘birthday celebration’. But we had no idea it would be…”
Evink waved a paw around weakly. Rufelt nodded. It was—something. The Wandering Inn could shock the uninitiated. And today?
“Hey! Do I know you?”
Saliss of Lights, Named Adventurer of Pallass, imposter in his body at times, and famous [Alchemist], stared at a table with two people sitting together. He was passing by with a pair of drinks for his table with a very sulky Xif.
He was also almost completely naked. And yes, in front of the kids. To make up for that, Saliss had consented to wearing a tiny little box around his groinal region. But only that.
Grimalkin of Pallass didn’t blink twice at Saliss. He just sighed. Lady Pryde Ulta however, stared at the box. She stared at Saliss.
“I am here to observe.”
“Oh, well feel free.”
Saliss posed. Pryde stared at the box. She stared at Saliss.
“Why are you here?”
“I could ask you the same thing. I’m here because this party needed class. My class. [Alchemist]. I thought you were banned.”
Saliss winked at Pryde. Grimalkin sighed.
“We’re speaking on weight-lifting issues. Lady Pryde Ulta…refused to go.”
“The [Innkeeper] is free to try to remove me. If she wants to start a fight.”
Pryde ignored the glares she was getting from around the room. There was no Xrn or Klbkch—which was a small mercy—but Erin Solstice herself had not been happy about Pryde.
True to her nature, the [Lady of Pride] had refused to go and even insisted on being served cake. Which she would get.
“Lyonette! Hurry up and spike that cake with the hot peppers and stuff! The death-peppers for that Pryde-jerk!”
Erin hissed at Lyonette as she kept serving cake. The [Princess] frowned as she scooped more ice cream and stared at the plate Erin was pointing at.
“That one? But I already gave you the hot-pepper one for Lady Pryde…”
She and Erin looked at each other. Erin Solstice paled.
“Oh dead gods, it’s hot! Ancestors!”
A shout came up from Keldrass’ table. One of his teammates was screaming in agony. Keldrass and the other Drakes clustered around with Bevussa.
“It’s not hot, it’s cold! You breathe fire, you idiot! Suck it up!”
Keldrass bellowed at the Drake. Erin slowly edged over. But Palt smoothly flicked a finger and the plate with the deadly cake and ice cream vanished. The [Illusionist] winked at Erin.
“It’s in the kitchen. If you want to pull a prank, you might as well ask an expert. Here’s a hint: don’t use too many spices or that [Lady] will think you’re trying to assassinate her. She’s got to have at least one ring enchanted against poison.”
She turned red. Lyonette breathed a sigh of relief and all was well—except for the stricken Drake. She was begging for water as her uncomprehending comrades mocked her.
“This cake is good.”
Kevin amiably listened to the screams in the background as he watched the excited children eating. Because that was what this was about. Children. All these other perspectives?
Meaningless. Including Beza and Montressa eagerly listening into the Earther’s conversation. They knew, of course. And they wanted the seven, oh yes. But a few things kept them from grabbing the Earthers.
Politics. Palt being on Erin’s side. The fact that Erin herself was ‘not from Earth’ as far as Wistram knew. Wanting to be on Erin’s good side. Also—Erin threatening to send Saliss, Relc, and every Gold-rank team she knew after them if they tried a kidnapping.
“I need a drink. Can we do a chocolate liquor? I think—I need it.”
Joseph stared at his shaking hand. He considered that he might…might have a problem. Rose ignored him.
“They are so. Cute.”
She pointed at Mrsha. The Gnoll cub, who was fluffy, white-furred, and yes, very cute, had a birthday hat on her head. Conical, decorated with silver-painted stars. And she was busy licking a bit of frosting off Visma’s cheek.
“I’m going to die. Where’s my iPhone? Ryoka has to get it back to us.”
The others agreed. Mrsha was cute. Another Gnoll who’d been invited trying to lick ice cream off of his nose was also cute.
Too much of the cutes.
“Write that down, write that down! We know this Ryoka exists. And she has all their devices?”
Montressa nudged Beza as they scribbled. The Minotauress [Spellscribe] was actually able to take down all the voices as they were happening; she wrote faster than they spoke.
“Ice cream? Who am I missing? Sit down, Relc!”
“Here! If you please!”
Wesle rose and gave an exaggerated bow. Erin laughed and hurried over. He and Griffon Hunt were sitting together. Halrac refused his cake.
“I’ll have a Minotaur’s Punch.”
“Halrac! Not even one slice? Okay, then. How’s some onion rings? Yes? Yes? Am I hearing a yes?”
“Okay! Great! Imani! One order of—oh, I’m sorry!”
Erin saw a girl flinch from the kitchen. Imani, who was helping serve food mainly by getting the required dishes, was all flinch. Erin hurried over to apologize. Imani was in her good books. She felt really bad for Imani.
The others? Leon and Troy were arguing.
“Look, it’s not bestiality. That’s only from our world. I’m not a furry. You’re not a furry—”
“Well, hold on. I just said that—”
Erin nearly walked into a wall and into the Garden of Sanctuary. She had problems. But for today at least—
“Is everything good over here? Sorry, I can chat after the rush calms down.”
“Hello, yes. Thank you for the…cake?”
The [Princess], Lyonette, paused in front of Maviola’s table. The [Lady] smiled up at her. And next to her, Olesm’s cheeks were bulging. From onion rings. They were a new hit.
“This is so good. Thanks for having us.”
It was two days after Maviola and Olesm had entered into a meeting of the minds. Also, Maviola had moved into Olesm’s apartment. For now.
The Liscorian Gazette was circulating the city and of course it was doing well. Bird happily sat in front of a crowd of awed Antinium including Pawn.
“Olesm asked me to write about Birds. And so I did. I have many opinions. You too may be part of the newspaper. But not my section. Olesm will add more sections, but my section is for me.”
So many perspectives. All tying together, like the Gentlemen Callers, who had decided today was not the day for a covert investigation, as it were. But they didn’t matter.
Because it was the children who mattered. Mrsha most of all.
“Okay! We have cake! We’ll open presents later! But we get to play today! Who wants to play?”
Erin strode over to the table with the kids. On a sugar-high, they all bounced up. Erin laughed. And she—was good with kids.
This was how good. Erin Solstice raised one fist into the air.
“Party! Party! Let’s go to the park!”
And the children went nuts. The [Innkeeper] ran down the hallway, arms flailing, and the birthday children rushed out after her. She had the same energy. She could incite children to madness, which, admittedly, wasn’t a hard task. But Erin could be as fun as childhood.
The children rushed after Erin, a responsible adult in theory, towards Liscor and the park. The adults remained behind, but the responsible parents all ran after Erin.
Not because they didn’t trust her. But because they…didn’t trust her. Which even Erin would admit, was fair.
The park of Liscor. A magical place with high swing sets, a fortress full of balance beams, little towers—all set in a natural park. Enchanted so that children falling from heights, as they loved to do, wouldn’t die.
There was a sign in front of it.
Erin Solstice is banned from entry by order of the community and the Watch.
The [Innkeeper] skidded to a stop in front of it. Ahead of her, parents or guardians were watching children play around the park. There were some dangers—the park couldn’t stop kids who thought it was a good idea to throw stones, or who got into fights.
But it was safe. And all Erin Solstices were banned from it.
Because of a legendary day. The playground heard the screaming. And they saw Mrsha, Ekirra, Visma, and a half-dozen little Gnolls and Drakes running forwards, hepped up on ice cream.
And the [Innkeeper] read the sign.
She was banned. And Erin knew why. The panting parents following her were relieved as they saw Erin standing in front of the playground. Mrsha looked back over her shoulder and saw Erin standing there. The [Innkeeper] looked wistfully up at the playground. And the parents and children there turned to look at her.
“Oh Ancestors, it’s her. Cessi! Come on! We’re leaving!”
A Drake mother freaked out when she saw Erin. She had been there too. The Drake girl, who was twelve and clambering near the heights of the playground looked down and saw Erin. She raised a claw.
She shouted joyfully. Erin Solstice looked up. And she laughed. Mrsha waved urgently at Erin. It would be fun without her, but it would be most fun with her! And it was her birthday! Don’t let the silly sign stop her!
Erin had visited the park once and been banned thereafter. It was not a story which the [Bards] sung of. But those who had been there remembered.
And the rumors had remained. Spreading among the free. The children looked down and saw the [Innkeeper] standing there. Erin Solstice carefully studied the sign as Ekirra’s, Visma’s, and the other parents sighed in relief.
Then she casually pulled the sign out of the ground and tossed it to one side. The adults froze. And the children saw the [Innkeeper] striding forwards.
“Oh no. Call the Watch.”
Someone whispered. But it was too late.
Erin Solstice looked at the children. They looked at her, perched on the playground. Mrsha saw little Gnolls and Drakes poking their heads out of windows nearby. Even a pair of Human children frozen in their corner, looking at Erin.
The young woman took a breath. Then she thrust one fist into the air. She shouted.
And the legend grew two sizes that day.
Ekirra got hurt while playing in the park,
Leaping about with childish glee;
As Erin Solstice led the kids on a lark
Sugar and riots, too much for me!
As he ran wild, as he ran mad,
As he punched and bit and rolled in the dirt,
As he picked a fight and made Visma sad,
He got pretty hurt.
…The point was that Ekirra got hurt. It was something you could predict. Especially if you were—anyone who knew kids.
(Sugar + a park + the excitement of a birthday) * Erin Solstice = wild children.
It was a simple equation, but incredibly, Erin herself hadn’t envisioned the scenario that occurred. Which was again, Ekirra running about, growing increasingly more wild as he pushed children, even punched and kicked and bit.
His parents shouting at him couldn’t stop the excited Gnoll and after he’d shoved Mrsha and Visma off the top of the playground twice, the little Drake had had enough. She scratched Ekirra on the face.
Hard. Drake claws were no joke. The howl of pain as Ekirra ran, bleeding, to his mother, cast a damper on the party.
Erin Solstice stopped waving the little flag she’d made on top of the playground and the children stopped their battle to be on top of the playground with her. Mrsha’s ears and tail drooped. Watch Captain Zevara and a squad of [Guards] saw Erin look around guiltily as Ekirra howled in pain.
Zevara needed a drink. Ekirra needed a few drops of healing potion and Visma got scolded, which made her upset because it wasn’t her fault that Ekirra was bad first! The two little friends began quarrelling, which made Mrsha upset because it was her birthday and no one should be unhappy!
“I’m sorry. Uh—is he okay?”
“He’s fine, Miss Solstice. He gets hurt worse than this all the time. One time he ran onto a nail. And the [Healer] had a dreadful time with that…Ekirra, say sorry to Visma. Now.”
Ekirra’s mother reassured Erin. The [Innkeeper] was relieved, but her metaphorical fire was out. She couldn’t exactly climb back onto the playground and start a riot again. Especially because Zevara was hovering behind her with a club not-quite-raised.
“I think the children should go back to playing, Miss Solstice. By themselves, if they so choose.”
Erin eyed Zevara. She looked at the club, and then at Ekirra, who was in no mood to play.
“Yeah. Sorry. Maybe I got them too hyped up.”
They went back to the inn, a bit subdued. Mrsha anxiously ran between Visma and Ekirra, trying to play the peacemaker. Still—all was not lost.
There were still the presents.
“Happy Birthday, Mrsha! This is from us!”
The Horns of Hammerad saw Mrsha’s anxious face turn into a beaming smile as she opened her present and found…a tiny hunting horn! Wide-eyed, Mrsha blew into it and it emitted a toot of sound. She took a breath and blew.
Every Gnoll and most of the other adults clapped their hands over their ears. Typhenous, a master of dealing with children, instantly pointed and cast a [Silence] spell on the trumpet. Mrsha happily blew it.
“It’s just a small gift, but we thought it’d really help Mrsha if she wants to make sound. You know? And it’s uh—a pun.”
“What? Oh. The Horns of—that’s hilarious!”
Erin began chortling. Ceria grinned and Ksmvr opened his mandibles wide, but Pisces and Yvlon both looked embarrassed.
“I just got it! Dead gods, that’s amazing!”
Saliss sprayed his drink over Xif as he laughed. Relc nudged Embria and Jelaqua grinned—they were about the only people in the room who appreciated that level of humor. Mrsha ran about excitedly, but Lyonette had to call her back.
“There are more presents, Mrsha. Thank the Horns.”
Mrsha hugged them all, and then the next present was placed before her. Erin eyed the…tower…of presents.
“Whose is this? There’s no nametag…”
“Oh, that’s me! Hawk and I bought it! Open it, Mrsha!”
The Gnoll opened the package Selys had wrapped and past the colorful paper she saw…a mirror.
A hand mirror, set with beautiful wood, that reflected Mrsha’s face. The Gnoll blinked into it as some of the guests with an eye for quality oohed.
“It’s so—fancy! Wow, Selys.”
Erin blinked at the delicate tracing on the wood; someone had hand-burned lines onto the mirror, giving it a more Gnollish aesthetic without gemstones. But the glass on the mirror was perfect, without flaw, and it was enchanted.
“It’s more than that. Mrsha, I had this trick added. See that little bit of topaz near the top? Touch it.”
Mrsha did. Then she stared at her face in the mirror. A puzzled Mrsha stared back. But the face wasn’t moving.
“I think she broke it. Oh dear.”
Ksmvr commented. Selys laughed. Mrsha waved the mirror, fascinated.
“No—it takes an image of what was reflected, see? Just one. If you touch the topaz again—”
Mrsha saw the mirror begin reflecting normally. She looked up, ecstatic.
“I was also thinking of Mrsha—this way she can show you what she wants. Do you like it, Mrsha? There’s also some fur dyes here—”
There was in fact, fur dyes, little cheap bits of gemstones you could add to your fur and make it sparkly—Gnollish beauty products. Mrsha heard murmuring and Visma stared at the lineup of makeup.
“Wow, Selys. This is amazing. Really.”
Erin was blown away. It must have cost at least a few hundred gold. Especially for an enchanted mirror! But Selys waved it away. She leaned over as Mrsha took a picture of Ceria making a face and then ran around showing everyone.
“It wasn’t that expensive. And its Mrsha’s first birthday here. To tell you the truth, I was going to get a scrying mirror, but Hawk said it might be too much.”
The Rabbit Beastkin rolled his eyes, looking a bit…he smiled when Selys glanced at him.
“No, no. The mirror was a great gift, Selys. Just…great. To buy for a child. She shouldn’t take it out of the inn. Thieves and stuff…”
He coughed as Selys narrowed her eyes. Erin found herself agreeing with Hawk. It was so expensive.
“Mrsha! We have more gifts! You can play with it later! Who’s next?”
Relc shouted. He had a clumsily wrapped gift—a wire puzzle. But Wailant and Viceria wanted Mrsha to open their present, which was a miniature set of [Farmer]’s tools. Oh, and Griffon Hunt had bought Mrsha a little bow and arrows which was a dubious present if you considered…aim…
Bird had wrapped up his favorite feathers, Numbtongue had found a large nugget of silver and Pyrite had turned it into a perfect ball you could roll about. And at this point, Erin Solstice realized…
Selys hadn’t broken the bank. She’d just set the bar and some of the gifts were nudging it. Like a potion from Saliss of Lights that made small little Gnolls glow in the dark.
Actually, that was a thoughtful, price-restricted gift. Numbtongue on the other hand…didn’t really know what to give children, so the ball of silver was completely impractical in that it would be stolen anywhere but the inn.
Mrsha loved it, of course, but there were so many gifts. Each one of the Halfseekers had gotten Mrsha a gift rather than going by team. Krshia, Elirr, Raekea, every Gnoll invited had a gift. All the children had brought gifts.
A. Pile. Of. Gifts. On the table. Mrsha had to begin opening them and quickly hugging the people who had gifted them rather than take the time to process each one.
And the other children stared at the gifts. Birthdays were a thing in this world. But the tradition of having to give a gift was new; a child could expect a new ball, like Ekirra got for his birthday from his parents. Nothing more.
Mrsha had four new balls and counting, including the one made of silver. And Erin, watching the kid’s faces, saw this next part coming.
“I want a birthday like Mrsha!”
One of the Drake friends (not Visma), began shouting as he saw Mrsha blink at a small pile of savory dried meat snacks from Elirr. And how not? The Drake boy began stomping the floor.
“I want presents! I only got one!”
“Tiss! Be quiet!”
Mortified, his father hissed at him. But the little Drake was also in his hoarding phase and Mrsha’s pile of gifts was triggering him.
Frankly, most of the Drakes in the room and Typhenous, Seborn, Wailant, Pisces, and anyone with a thieving background were getting hot and bothered too. Erin looked around. She saw Ekirra staring at Mrsha’s new balls. Mrsha was looking around, overwhelmed by the presents…
“Visma! I saw that! Don’t you dare!”
The little Drake jumped. She had Mrsha’s new mirror behind her back. She instantly ran off with it. Her parents chased after her.
“Uh oh. I think…hey! Take five, everyone!”
The room looked at Erin. Pryde was busy pouring a handful of gold coins into a bit of wrapping paper—she hadn’t known about the party—and the children were either throwing tantrums or just pure jealous.
“Five what? Five eggs?”
Ceria looked around blankly. Erin sighed.
“Take a break! Lyonette, quick family meeting! Mrsha, why don’t you uh—play ball in the Garden with everyone? We’ll open the presents later.”
She hustled Lyonette into the kitchen. Mrsha, somewhat relieved, grabbed one of the balls and waved at her friends. They followed her as the other guests looked at each other. The tantrum-throwing children, Mrsha’s clear discomfort at being the recipient of too much—was putting that uncomfortable smile on the faces of the guests. Jelaqua winced around hers.
“Uh oh. I think we got her too many presents. I told you we should have gone all in on one present, Moore. But you said—”
“Ulinde said that. Don’t put this on Moore.”
Seborn pointed at the Selphid who was sipping from a milkshake and vibrating slightly. Jelaqua blushed orange.
“Oh. Right. Er…we should have listened to you, Ulinde.”
Ulinde blushed, ducking her head. Moore just looked after Mrsha, playing awkwardly with the balls in the garden. Then he glanced at Erin as she slipped into the kitchen.
Inside, Erin took a deep breath and looked around.
“I think this party might be a bit—too—fancy. Mrsha shouldn’t unwrap all those presents, especially in front of her friends. And we can’t keep all of them! Right?”
Lyonette stared at Erin. Numbtongue and Bird had come too since it was a family meeting. The Hobgoblin and Antinium scratched their heads.
“It’s so much! Mrsha doesn’t need all of it. I mean, the horn, the mirror—they’re all great gifts. But she’s got too much!”
Erin explained to Numbtongue. The Hobgoblin nodded, snapping his fingers lightly with understanding. But Lyonette just folded her arms.
“I thought it was fine. Perhaps the other children don’t need to see all the gifts being unwrapped, but it’s appropriate. My birthday was like that.”
Erin Solstice stared at Lyonette. The [Princess] didn’t see the problem. Mainly because she was a [Princess] and Mrsha’s mother.
But motherhood, or rather, parenting, wasn’t an easy game. Erin looked at Numbtongue and Bird. And got no help.
The Hobgoblin [Bard] was listening to Pyrite, who was informing him about spoiling children. But Goblins were bad at birthdays. A Goblin birthday present was getting to live another year, nothing else.
And Bird? He had been alive for two years, so he was technically younger than Mrsha. Lyonette clearly thought this was everything Mrsha deserved.
So Erin had a moment of introspection. She closed her eyes. Thought about the badly-timed riot where Ekirra had gotten hurt, this minor debacle. Then she opened her eyes.
“Oh. I get it. We should have had a birthday party with twelve people, tops. It should have been small. And a larger gathering without gifts later.”
The others looked at her. Erin looked about. Then sighed. She went out to salvage the party—mainly by delaying the gifts until later where Mrsha would thank everyone individually and putting the presents out of sight and out of mind.
“Hah. See that? I could’ve told her this idea was cracked in the head from the start. Too much gold turns even the most honest man at sea to a backstabbing traitor.”
Wailant commented, highly amused by the entire affair. He eyed Mrsha. She was happy—but the emotions were mixed. Ekirra’s injury, the presents—
It wasn’t a bad birthday. Just not a perfect one. Bittersweet, and still mostly sweet. Like chocolate. Viceria nodded; the two experienced parents were sharing that knowing feeling of superiority that made less-able parents want to throw a drink in their faces.
“Erin and Lyonette are new at being mothers. I’ll have a talk with them about proper parenting later.”
The daughter sitting with her parents at their table turned and gave her parents a disgusted look.
“Mom. Dad. I caught you two running around naked with Numbtongue just a few weeks ago!”
Her parents gave her a blank look. Wailant took a deep gulp of his ale.
“And? You’re grown up now. This is obviously for children.”
Rufelt and Lasica were taking notes as well. Although, privately, Lasica didn’t mind the amount of presents. Drakes and [Princesses] shared commonalities there. It was a lavish party. And even if that wasn’t the best party—the presents would remain even after the hubbub died down.
Felkhr had gotten Mrsha a little flying top you could spin and then chase after. Grimalkin had gotten Mrsha a few kid-sized weights. Pisces was quite relieved he hadn’t made that custom, miniature bone-pet. Yvlon and Ceria had talked him out of that one…
“I say, Ratici. It seems there’s a spot of bother about the party. Quite an amount of coin being represented in those presents. I hesitate to ask—but this is a special day for a young Gnoll lady. You wouldn’t be tempted to spoil that, would you?”
Wilovan leaned against one side of the doorway in Invrisil, carefully lighting a pipe. Ratici gave Wilovan a deeply disturbed look as he adjusted his cap.
“Wilovan, that may be the most wounding thing you’ve ever said. It may be that stealing from babies and children is easy, as it were said by my peers, but is it honorable? I’d soon as cut one claw off.”
“I apologize deeply, Ratici. Just checking. Even the best of [Thieves] might be tempted by pickings such as that.”
“Yes, but a [Gentleman Thief]?”
“I do regret my facetious comments. Let me buy you dinner to make up for it.”
“That may soothe my wounded pride.”
Huffily, Ratici adjusted his clothes. Wilovan nodded, eying the full inn. Then Drassi hurried over as a bawling Drake was carried off by his parents.
“Sorry! No one in the inn—oh, it’s you. Mister Wilovan?”
“Just taking our ease, Miss Drassi. By all means, change the door.”
The Gnoll tipped his hat at her. Drassi smiled gratefully as the parents carried their kid, the first casualty, out of the party.
That was Mrsha’s birthday. Erin Solstice and Lyonette had done their best. But despite it all, that night, Mrsha would still end up bursting into tears over the overstimulation. It would be a minor bit of sadness.
But it was still a mistake. Erin Solstice did indeed know the hearts of children. But knowing was different from parenting. Too much of a good thing was bad. Like sugar. Or water.
The Same Week Prior.
Children were screaming. Also, laughing. It was a lovely sound, full of innocence and delight.
…If you thought about it. In reality, children playing sometimes sounded like Harpies shrieking. Children could be annoying. Snotty. Vicious, and thoughtless. They were animals.
Ryoka Griffin knew that full well. She didn’t—like—children. Not in the way a parent loved their kids. Ryoka, in her vague dreams about the future, had never envisioned having children. She could both remember being a kid and being a hellion to her parents and how she felt.
Kids were not for her. She wasn’t good with them. The young Asian woman had no predisposition to coo and adore children.
“Hey! Be careful!”
The City Runner’s aggravated voice rang out across the walls of Reizmelt. Human [Guards] leaned on the battlements of the walls, chuckling as they saw Ryoka jogging after a gaggle of children. The boys and girls were screaming.
Playing, in the wind. The same glorious summer day was shining down on Ryoka’s head. Warm—but the wind was blowing strong around her. Providing blessed cool.
There they were. Children, being blown about by the wind Ryoka had called for. They were racing.
Little boys and girls had stolen sheets or cloth and tied them into crude sails, attached them to wheelbarrows, handcarts, anything with wheels. And the wind was pushing them around. A few kids had just tied parachutes to their backs and were being tossed around. The gusts of winds could actually pick up the lighter ones and carry them, wiggling, through the air, for a few feet.
They were having fun. And it was all Ryoka’s fault. The City Runner watched, anxiously, as a cart overburdened with six kids all balanced together went careening past her. The cart wobbled and Ryoka thrust a hand out.
“Hey! Too many people on that cart! Only—three! You’ll get hurt!”
The wind blowing the sail-cart lessened. The kids shouted obscenities and curses at Ryoka, but after a quick fight, three slithered off.
“Miss Wind runner! Blow me! I want to go high!”
A kid with two parachutes was screaming on the walls. Ryoka turned.
“Oh no. Absolutely not! Get off the walls!”
“I’ve got him, Miss Wind Runner. Off you go, you brat.”
A [Guard] forced the disappointed child off the walls. Much to the relief of Ryoka and anyone who had suddenly had a vision of the kid dive-bombing off the walls and trusting the wind to save him.
“No jumping! No pushing! Don’t run into each other!”
The Wind Runner of Reizmelt bellowed at the children. And—amazingly—they obeyed. Mainly because she controlled the winds. Or—the winds listened to her.
It was a funny thing. Ryoka looked around, exasperated, trying to keep all the kids in her line of sight. She wasn’t content to let them just play, even with her winds providing the entertainment.
Of course, she had agreed to let them play. Which wasn’t like Ryoka. But they always begged. And—funnily—their parents had agreed.
None of the parents were even watching their kids being blown about. They were at work, or relaxing, free from the burdens of parenthood. Which was funny. In Liscor, the parents wouldn’t ever have abandoned their kids to the Crazy Human of Liscor’s care, let alone her inn.
But Reizmelt’s parents had let the Wind Runner of Reizmelt take custody of their offspring for a few hours. Despite Ryoka liking kids a lot less than Erin. Perhaps—because Ryoka never took her eyes off the children. Much like a concerned parent, actually.
And she had to. Ryoka pointed.
“Hey you! Don’t you dare throw that.”
A boy froze with a rock in one hand. He was aiming at a girl who’d passed him by on a little hand-made sailcart. He looked challengingly at Ryoka.
“Or what? Whatcha gonna do, Miss Runner?”
He was old enough to backchat adults. And his challenging look made Ryoka want to shout back. Something like—‘Or what? Throw that rock and I’ll shove it into an orifice, you monstrous little shit.’
But you couldn’t shout that at kids. Nor could you play their game. Ryoka folded her arms and thought for a moment as the boy taunted her. Then she smiled evilly.
“I can’t stop you. Go ahead if you really think you’ll be safe. But I’m warning you: you’ll make the wind angry.”
The boy from Reizmelt hesitated. He would have accepted Ryoka’s threat to box his ears or lay him out with a punch as acceptable consequences. But this sounded like a…warning. He narrowed his eyes.
“You’ll just make it do something.”
Ryoka widened her eyes innocently.
“What? Me? No, not me. I don’t control it. I just persuade it to play nice.”
She gestured. The boy felt a swirl of wind tugging at his clothes and the parachute tied to his waist by a rope. He weighed the odds that Ryoka was lying, and then tossed the rock down with a sigh.
Kids. Ryoka sighed. She wasn’t good with them. She jogged after a wailing girl in an overturned cart with a curse, already feeling for her healing potion. This was too dangerous. She never should have agreed to it.
And as Ryoka Griffin attended to the crying girl, healing her scratches with a few drops of healing potion, making her laugh as the wind blew her hair and cautioning her to be careful since the wind wasn’t always nice—she was being watched.
Serafierre val Lischelle-Drakle thought it was funny. She lounged in the shadows of Reizmelt’s wall, a thick hood over her head despite the heat. Ryoka Griffin didn’t understand why kids liked her, or parents trusted her. But she was quite poor at looking at herself. Even worse than Fierre, who didn’t appear in mirrors.
The Vampire girl watched as Ryoka found another kid whose foot was run over by a cart. She checked the foot, picked him up. He clung to her as she bore him back into the city. The children followed her; the wind followed Ryoka.
“I’m really sorry. His foot got run over—I don’t think it’s broken. Just bruised. I put some healing potion on it—”
Ryoka apologized to the parents as the kids played in the street. The wind caught a child about to crash into a wall, blowing him backwards. The parent, a [Carpenter], laughed as she checked her son’s foot.
“He gets worse all the time. Don’t worry about it. Thank the Wind Runner, Thein!”
“Thanks, Miss Runner.”
The boy sniffed. Ryoka awkwardly waved at him. She turned.
“Okay, that’s all for today. One hour’s all I can manage. Scram!”
The children complained. But they obediently began packing up. Ryoka was exhausted. Kids made her so tired. Still—she’d entertained them three times this week. She might have kept them entertained, but the injury with the cart and the boy’s foot had rattled her.
She had a…thing about legs being run over. Ryoka shook her head. She turned, as a slim, short figure materialized out of a shadow.
Pointed teeth grinned at her. Red eyes fixed on Ryoka’s face. The City Runner wiped some sweat from her forehead.
“That would be a lot creepier if you were a tall, old man. With a cape.”
She looked down at Fierre, who was a good head shorter than Ryoka. Well—Fierre was a bit short for the average woman’s height. She looked a lot younger than she was, which was twenty five. More like she was sixteen. And she was pale, covered in dark clothing—not exactly imposing.
“Is that what you think a proper Vampire is?”
The Vampire girl had to look around before whispering at Ryoka. The City Runner grinned. Fierre was no Nosferatu, or Dracula. The two whispered as they went down the street, a soothing wind blowing at their backs.
“No. I mean, yes, I do imagine that sometimes. But I just meant if you were an old man watching me in the shadows, you’d be scarier, Vampire or not.”
“Fair point. Although if it happened to me, I’d call that ‘lunch’.”
The two laughed merrily. The joke was that Fierre didn’t drink Human blood and wouldn’t ever call attention to herself that way—although she could probably turn any casual would-be assaulter into paste.
“You know, there was this…legend of a you-know-what who hunted other you-know-who’s. He called himself Alucard. It was a great show—er—I mean, story.”
Ryoka stumbled over her words as she tried to describe a crossbow-wielding Vampire. Fierre wasn’t impressed.
“Arrows are easy to dodge. Old Bamer once shot a bow at me for training and I could dodge the arrows.”
How about bullets, then? But Ryoka didn’t say that.
“How about that V—”
She bit back the word as they passed by an old [Alchemist], Miss Kelysta. The woman called out to them.
“Oh, Fierre! We have more of those damned herbs to grind. It’s nasty, so wear your mask! And Miss Griffin, I have a delivery going by way of Invrisil. If you could get it started, I’ll be so obliged.”
“Yes, Miss Kelysta! I’ll be there tonight.”
“I’ll see about the delivery. No promises.”
The two young women called out to the [Alchemist]. Then they turned back to their conversation. Ryoka whispered.
“The half-Vampire with the sword?”
“You’re making that up. There’s no such thing as half-us. And why does he go around hunting other Vampires?”
“Uh—just the evil ones?”
Fierre considered it. She screwed up her face in thought.
“…Maybe. I doubt the half-Vampire story is real. But Old Bamer would know more. As for powers? Shapeshifting, regeneration—I totally believe that. Turning into—what did you say? A mass of monsters? That sounds like really old powers.”
“But it could happen?”
Awesome. Ryoka’s inner imagination was going wild. Awesome and terrifying. Fierre shrugged.
“It’s definitely not something any of us today can do. But the legends talk about…really impressive stuff. I’ll ask when I go home. Bamer or my mother would know. They love talking about the old times.”
“What about your father?”
That would be Himilt val Lischelle-Drakle. He was the most ‘Vampire’ of all Fierre’s family, for all her mother spoke vith the accvent and put on airs. But Himilt, a humble farmer and shepherd though he might be, made Ryoka feel as though he was just pretending to be normal.
He scared her sometimes, but then—so could Fierre. But they were friends.
“You can ask him. But he never talks about the old days. He probably knows…something. You can try to get it out of him. Why don’t you visit again?”
Fierre glanced at Ryoka slyly. The City Runner smiled crookedly.
“Maybe in another week. I’m not hungry for extra-rare meat yet.”
“We cooked yours properly.”
The Vampire girl scowled at Ryoka. The City Runner laughed.
“But it was all meat. Don’t you have salads, even if you don’t eat them? Also—there’s nothing to drink.”
“We have wine.”
“Your mom mixed blood into it.”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
The two laughed again. They were just hanging out. Talking about Vampire lore.
Not just that. But it was a shared interest. Actually, Fierre and Ryoka often talked about immortals.
“You know, Old Bamer says he met a Unicorn, once. While poaching.”
“Really? What happened?”
“It nearly killed him. Ran him through the chest. Unicorns are evil.”
“Get out of here. I thought—well, the lore is that they’re peaceful. Virginal, you know?”
“Ryoka, they have a stabbing horn on their heads. How peaceful do you think that is?”
“Okay. But Pegasi—I found a bestiary that apparently has copies of actual illustrations of each creature. Let me show you the Unicorn. It’s a beautiful drawing.”
“Right. Until they stab you through the stomach.”
They had reached an inn that stood mostly deserted in Reizmelt, despite it being such a bustling town on the way north to First Landing. The Huntress’ Haven, run by Mad Madain was as always, mostly empty.
But the food was cheap, Madain himself was reasonable on his good days, and—Ryoka liked it here. She understood having a bad day.
A voice rang out as Fierre and Ryoka entered the inn. Ryoka braced for Madain, but the voice was younger. Alber, the [Fistfighter], strode up to them.
He was—usually—quiet. So much so that Ryoka hadn’t spoken a word to him for two months. But she had gotten to know him recently, after an encounter. And Alber, while quiet to most, could be—
Intense. The [Fistfighter] had on his protective gloves. He barely nodded at Fierre as he bounced on the balls of his feet.
“Are you free? I’m ready to spar and I want you to show me those hooks again. I’ve been doing them wrong the entire time but I’m noticing the difference.”
“Oh—I have time. Fierre, I promised to help Alber. I forgot. Do you mind…?”
The Vampire girl suppressed a grimace. She gave a toothless smile to Alber and Ryoka she didn’t mean.
“I have work later. Go ahead. I’ll watch.”
Grumpily, she saw Ryoka turn to Alber. The two immediately broke into a lingo as foreign as her and Ryoka talking about Vampires.
“So what’s the problem?”
“It’s the motion. It’s so compact. When I pivot like this—”
Alber demonstrated a hook from Ryoka’s world, which did look incredibly compact. Ryoka was nodding.
“I know you’ve extended it, but you lose so much force. Let’s find a space so I can show you—you keep pressing in. How’s the fistfighting?”
Alber smiled tightly. He had a boxer’s face. His ears and nose had both taken a lot of impacts. He made money challenging anyone to try and knock him down or last three minutes in the ring. He had been moving from city to city, but of late he had remained here.
“I’m making a lot more money. Still can’t knock down a Gold-rank. But I won money off an entire team of Silver-ranks. All six of them in a row.”
Fierre scoffed as she shadowed the two. She could do that. Grumpily, she watched Alber and Ryoka find an open space. The [Fistfighter] went through a boxer’s workout he and Ryoka had worked on as Ryoka lifted some training mitts she’d had made. Alber punched as Ryoka set up the mitts. He panted after he took a break.
“I’m feeling—faster. Your theory and the punches—I’m leveling. I’ve been running too. It really helps. I wouldn’t have had the—endurance to take on all six a month ago.”
“Hey, that’s great. Okay, see the range of the hook? Like—that—fuck.”
Ryoka saw the hook coming and braced. But the impact still blew her hand wide. She shook her mitt out as Alber stopped.
“Yeah. You just punch like someone twice your weight.”
Ryoka looked at Alber. He would have been around the featherweight class—if he made the effort to hit the weight limit. As it was, he was probably around…super welterweight? Still, very light.
But he punched fast and like someone in the heaviest weight classes. That wasn’t a joke, either. Alber had [Fists of Iron] and he was leveling since working with Ryoka. She shivered. Someone who moved as fast as Alber and punched as hard as a heavyweight shouldn’t exist. Even if he didn’t have a sword, he was as dangerous as any [Warrior].
“You could light me up in a second.”
Alber shook his head as he set up for another hook and Ryoka held the mitts up.
“You’re pretty good yourself. If you had my class—”
“Pass. I’m not that good at fighting. I used to think I was good—until I picked a fight with a Minotaur.”
“Huh. They’re good fighters. Beat one, once. I’ve lost to…thirty eight, though. Mostly on ports. Used to work around First Landing.”
“You were at First Landing?”
Fierre glanced up from imitating one of Alber’s punches. She could copy him—but Ryoka refused to let her try sparring. She’d nearly broken Ryoka’s wrist once. Alber shrugged. Not a big deal. He was like that in everything but his passion.
“Yup. It’s good money, but there are too many high-level clients. I couldn’t take the heat. Plus, it’s too expensive. I’ll head north once I hit Level 30. If I’d known how to do half these punches—check my jab?”
“Sure. Give me your best.”
Serafierre watched Ryoka blocking the jabs, calling out to Alber. Then they stood around and commentated on their forms. Is the arm best like this? What if they come at me like—
The Vampire girl was yawning. But this too was one of Ryoka’s passions. She only got interested when Alber tossed a spare set of gloves at Ryoka.
“Let’s spar. Come on. You have to show me some of these techniques.”
The City Runner tried to refuse.
“It’s not a good idea, Alber.”
“I’ll hold back.”
Ryoka hesitated. But a gleam lit up her eyes. Condescension, even kindly, poked at her ego. Fierre grinned from the shadows as she saw Ryoka put on the gloves.
“You don’t need to hold back that much. Okay. Three rounds. Don’t break my jaw. I’ll show you a new trick. It’s not legal if we were in a more—organized fight, but—”
Alber and Fierre gave Ryoka a searching look. She sometimes did that. Ryoka would hint at…something. Fierre itched, trying to put that piece together. She was an Opener, an information broker, with fingers in a lot of pies in the underworld. But she had no idea where Ryoka was really from. Her best guess was—Terandria. Or a utopia. Perhaps Khelt. But Ryoka was cagey and refused to answer anything directly.
At any rate, the sparring match was short. Fierre watched as Ryoka and Alber went at it.
It was a fairly good match if Alber held back a bit. He could indeed punch far harder than Ryoka, but she was quick and had done this before. They went back and forth, exchanging punches, keeping their guards up.
At first they stopped when one of them saw something interesting, like Alber noting how useful the hook was as a block. But then Ryoka punched him straight through a gap in his guard. Alber’s head rocked back as Fierre laughed, and they got a bit more—competitive.
Ryoka hadn’t made a mouth guard yet, so she was grateful to Alber for avoiding her head. But after her shot to his face, he came for her.
[Ten Second Rush]. She knew the Skill and saw him coming at her. Ryoka put up her guard, but the punches began backing her up hard. She hit a rope in the little ring they’d set up and swore internally. Then Alber threw a punch and caught her in the side.
Ryoka’s guard went down. She felt one punch land straight on her solar plexus and felt everything go out of her. Another fist went for her face—
Alber stopped the punch. Panting. The [Fistfighter] caught Ryoka before she stumbled.
“Sorry. Got carried away.”
“Told you—you could get me. Nice rush.”
Ryoka panted. She saw Fierre watching her anxiously. She waved a hand.
“One more round. Let me try the trick. You’re going to like this.”
Alber nodded. He reset himself. Ryoka, wincing, thanked the stars she hadn’t been hit on her liver—and that Alber wasn’t punching as hard as he could. And he still couldn’t beat Gold-ranks?
Fierre slapped the wall. The two shot towards each other. This time Ryoka came in fast. Alber had learned modern boxing theory well and he was practicing infighting. In that he would now stick to his opponents like glue until they wanted to die. Not that he hadn’t been good already, but boxing theory from Ryoka’s world had made him even more dangerous.
And they had lots of tricks. And this wasn’t boxing so much as fistfighting. Which meant—Ryoka jabbed twice, watching Alber’s guard go up. Then—she took a chance. She spun—and her body flashed around.
Her backhand caught the tip of Alber’s chin as he jumped back. He wobbled, but Ryoka had missed. Alber swore, lowered his guard.
“What was that?”
Completely illegal in a boxing match due to the spin. But since this wasn’t boxing, Alber could go for it. He watched as Ryoka demonstrated.
“Spinning kick, spinning backhand—you just love to twirl about, don’t you?”
Fierre commentated from the side. Ryoka and Alber both gave her looks of mild wrath.
“It’s a good surprise move. And it could lay Alber out. Like I said, if we were just going pure boxing…”
“I get it. Let me try it, though.”
Ryoka put up her gloves. Alber spun—missed completely. Fierre laughed herself off the barrel she’d been sitting on.
Sometimes Ryoka got the impression Fierre didn’t quite like Alber. And Alber was distinctly…polite to Fierre. They were distant.
But Alber was a new friend. Since the events with the Earthers at Magnolia’s mansion, in fact. He loved only one thing, which was boxing, or his version of it. But Ryoka was happy with that.
She wiped sweat from her brow. Alber nodded.
“I’ll let you know how the hook goes. And the spinning. I’ll try it out.”
He was all warmed up and ready to beat down some poor travellers who thought they could knock Alber down. Ryoka felt sorry for them.
She sighed, shaking out her limbs. Fierre slipped off her barrel. She avoided a patch of sun as she stuck to the sides of Madain’s inn.
“I thought you were going to help Miss Kelysta with the grinding.”
Fierre grimaced. Ryoka glanced sideways at her.
“You don’t need to anymore, though. Right? I thought the information business was doing really well.”
The Vampire grinned at Ryoka with the toothy smile she’d only give her friend.
“Better than ever. But Kelystra’s old and she makes those poisons for adventurers. Anyone but me gets really sick. Anyways, she’s good for information.”
Ryoka nodded. She walked with Fierre out of the courtyard.
“Poison doesn’t get you.”
“Most poison. In exchange, I can’t do garlic, silver, and light.”
“Pretty good trade, except for that light stuff. Okay, I’ll see you later. Maybe tonight. I’m just doing local runs. Won’t be long, but I might get caught out.”
“Sure. Show me that book later?”
Ryoka promised Fierre with a smile. And the Vampire girl smiled back. Perhaps—she only imagined Ryoka’s smile turn to a clouded expression out of the corner of her eye.
The City Runner stood alone. Restlessly, Ryoka looked around. Then she went for a walk.
“Miss Griffin! Hello! Thank you for minding the children!”
“Did you see the latest on the scrying orb? That battle at sea?”
“I need something run north. I don’t suppose you’re going that way…?”
It was a funny thing. Ryoka Griffin walked through Reizmelt. And people knew her. People smiled at her. Children liked her.
She hadn’t gone on any major runs recently. Well—nothing like the one for Laken or Bethal. She made good money, but she’d been sticking around Reizmelt. Being properly Human.
Ryoka boxed with Alber, hung out with Fierre. She’d been to the van Lischelle household once for dinner, and thankfully not been part of the menu. She’d watched the battles at sea and kept up with the scrying orb news.
And she had more friends.
“Ryoka! There you are!”
The instant Ryoka entered the Adventurer’s Guild, Mousey sat up. The Aldasian Warhound looked at Ryoka and Levil, Bram, Lamont, Tally, Keima, Ullica, and the other dog, Makki, who made up Pithfire Hounds waved at her.
“I heard you arrived. Hey everyone. Hello, Mousey.”
Awkwardly, Ryoka bent down and received a lick after Levil murmured the ‘all safe’ command. She had a bond with Mousey, whom she’d run with.
With the Pithfire Hounds. In a way—Ryoka had saved their lives. It was…history. And they were continually grateful, for some reason.
“It’s great to see you. Buy you a drink?”
“I have to run later. I’ll take some water.”
“Water for the boring City Runner!”
Tally shouted. The others laughed good-naturedly. Ryoka smiled. And for a little bit—she was content.
“We got work after we headed south. Fighting some stray Ogres. There were raids a while back—one of the bastards nearly kicked Makki. But we brought ‘em down.”
“How dangerous was it?”
Ryoka leaned forwards. She was asking because it was a story, and also because she wanted to know. That was…what being a friend was. Levil twiddled his fingers and produced a miniature ball of flame.
“Not bad. We fought a group of three. That’s as much as I was willing to handle, but there weren’t any huge gangs. Now, forty and we’re running for it. But Lady Ulta smashed one group and I heard some [Knights] did for another. Just good pay. I leveled, and so did Keima. You got our [Messages]?”
“Congratulations! And—yep. Thanks for doing the escort mission. I know it was hard—”
The Pithfire Hounds all sighed. Ryoka grimaced. They had been escorting Rose, Joseph, and the others about a month back. Part of the way; Ryoka had arranged more escorts on their way south. Levil gave Ryoka a crooked grin.
“It wasn’t the worst. But between you and me, Ryoka? Only for you would we escort that lot. Just insane. You know one of them was drunk the entire way?”
Joseph. Ryoka closed her eyes. Oh, she knew what a handful that lot was. She opened her eyes.
“I appreciate it. And believe me—I know. We had them for four days. I had to get them moving or Fierre would have killed them. Alber refused to come to the inn after the second day.”
She felt guilty over sending them to Liscor. But hopefully—no. Where else did they have to go? Ryoka’s stomach twisted. She reached for her bag of holding unconsciously. Then stopped herself.
“Thank you, really. I’ll repay the favor.”
“You pulled us out of that situation with the frogs once. As far as I’m concerned, we’re still not square.”
Levil raised his mug. Ryoka turned red from the embarrassment. She exchanged a few more words, promised to drink with them later. Rose.
The Runner’s Guild next. Ryoka didn’t know if she liked knowing the [Receptionist], Alime, by name, or the Runners.
“Ryoka! We just got a big request to run a delivery. Nothing dangerous, but let me have it? Please?”
Melodie caught Ryoka at the door. The City Runner raised her hands.
“All yours. I’m not running far.”
The young woman hugged Ryoka. For a moment, Ryoka smiled and remembered a pinched girl’s face, arguments with Fals. Then it was gone and Melodie was trotting towards the desk.
“Alime, I’m looking for that delivery to Lupp. And I promised to head south, so if I swing down that way, what can you give me?”
The [Receptionist] smiled at Ryoka. And the City Runner belatedly coughed.
“Uh, sorry. Hi. How’s it going?”
“Well, thank you, Ryoka. And I have Mister Lupp’s delivery…I can give you three, if that’s alright? Nothing but copper and a bit of silver.”
“Works for me.”
Ryoka took the deliveries. She put them in her crowded bag of holding. Then jogged out of the Runner’s Guild.
Out of the city. The day’s light was fading. The [Guards] called to Ryoka.
“Miss Wind Runner! A breeze?”
The young woman raised a hand and they shouted their thanks. Ryoka felt the wind blowing at her back. She had more control over it since visiting Riverfarm. Just a bit.
But she couldn’t conjure the tornado made out of wind and fire she had when she had been at the heart of witchcraft. Nor did she run nearly as fast. She ran, drinking from a stamina potion when her pace faltered.
About two hours later, Ryoka finished her last delivery as she ran towards a small farm with towering corn stalks. A scarecrow was sitting outside the field. Ryoka hopped over the locked gate. And she ran towards the scarecrow.
“Lupp! Lupp, is that you?”
She approached the person-sized scarecrow warily. Ryoka walked around the scarecrow and saw—
A painted face. She heard laughter. And the farmhouse’s doors opened to reveal Farmer Lupp. The old [Farmer] walked down the steps, waving at Ryoka. She grinned at him and trotted over.
“Ah, Miss Ryoka. You’re back again. So soon?”
“I have your money from Lady Bethal and something from your daughter. Also—the stuff you ordered.”
Ryoka began pulling objects out of her bag of holding. Money—and a receipt from the Runner’s Guild for the full amount. A little jar from Lupp’s daughter. And a few bottles.
Alcohol. Lupp sighed as he eyed the gin. He’d asked Ryoka to bring him some. The [Farmer] took it all eagerly, then did a double-take at the gold mixed with the silver.
“Dead gods, but that [Lady] kept her word. Gold for corn. Who’d have thought it?”
“You say that every time. When are you going to stop?”
Ryoka teased Lupp gently. The [Farmer] just stared at the small fortune he’d been given. Then he closed the money pouch and looked around.
But his farm was isolated. And his beautiful fields of corn were growing again.
“I’ve made three harvests. Figured that Lady Walchaís would get bored of the corn.”
“She’s not eating it all. It’s going to a market.”
“Still. It’s worth all this? And she sends a wagon by each month, a proper fast one. As if my corn’s…well, it is some of the best you’d ever eat.”
The [Farmer] caught himself, straightening with pride. Ryoka grinned. She liked Lupp. The lonely farmer…she understood. Perhaps more than even Fierre, or Alber. They had parts of Ryoka’s passions.
But Lupp stood there, looking grateful just to talk to someone. He nodded awkwardly towards the bottles of gin.
“Fine stuff you brought. As good as the gold. Did my daughter say aught?”
“Just that you should stop sending her gold.”
“Hah. What else do I use it for? She can…thank you for running it to her. Here. A tip.”
Lupp fumbled for a gold coin. Ryoka put her hand out.
“No. No. Take it. It’s too much otherwise. You do these regular deliveries when I know you have better paying work.”
Reluctantly, the young Asian woman took the money. Then she smiled.
“Thanks. People have been too kind to me.”
“Oh? And you’re the first person I’ve seen the last three days. What did you do today? Er—come in. Can I offer you some of the gin?”
“I wouldn’t want to prevail—”
The [Farmer] glanced up under his hat. He eyed Ryoka.
“Not at all. I’d take it kindly. But if you’re busy, don’t mind me, please.”
He had no artifice. Ryoka hesitated in the face of the naked choice. She ducked her head after a moment.
“…I’ll stay. Thanks.”
Alike indeed. That was how, as dusk fell, Ryoka Griffin found herself in Lupp’s farmhouse, sharing a meal. It was—corn. But delicious. You could eat it raw, boiled—and Lupp’s corn was the best.
Especially with some gin. The two drank as they ate. Ryoka related her day, Lupp speculated about a mega crow he’d seen leading the pack. That reminded Ryoka of Mavika.
“Watch out for crows. I met a [Witch] once—”
“That crow bitch?”
Lupp was already on his second shot. He slammed down a fist and Ryoka jumped.
“You know her?”
“Of course. Anyone living far from cities knows…and my corn is the best! She tried to make me an offer. No crows for a year for two harvests. I turned her down so her crows took a crap all over my house. Damn [Witches]. How d’you know her? Don’t tell me you got on her bad side. She’s a nasty one.”
“I actually met her in Riverfarm. It was this entire scene. I—it’s hard to explain.”
“Tell me. Unless you have to be anywhere tonight?”
Ryoka glanced out the window. Then she looked back at Lupp. The lonely [Farmer] was the best kind of audience. Hungry to know. She took a breath.
“…No. Okay. Listen. Do you know about…other [Witches]?”
She told Lupp an abridged tale of the [Witches] at Riverfarm. The death of Ser Reim—the evil of Belavierr. A mother’s twisted love.
Lupp listened, exclaiming, asking questions. Falling silent and shuddering at the image of wildfire set by a Drake. Belavierr’s immortal, immoral bargains.
“All that happened while you were gone? You never said.”
“It’s a Runner’s life. I told Fierre—my friend. But how do you bring that up?”
Ryoka shrugged awkwardly. Lupp laughed.
“Not so easy. Now, me, I’ll listen and say anything. Corn don’t judge or talk back. When it does—I’ll finally have gone crazy as a crow. And since then?”
“Oh—I haven’t seen Charlay. But I’ve sent her two [Messages] and we’re going to meet soon. Runners always do. I’m mostly based around Reizmelt. Did I tell you about that group of—young people I met?”
“About a month back? You looked as if you’d been gnawed on by rats. How’s they doing?”
“Good. I hope. They’re around Invrisil, but they stopped sending me [Messages]. I want to check on them…but…nah, I’ll wait. They’re probably just seeing the sights.”
The young Asian woman sighed. They were a constant worry, but she couldn’t hold their hands forever. Nor was she willing to travel with them at a snail’s pace; she could have funded them to go by overnight carriage, the fastest travel. But they didn’t deserve that much gold.
“It’s all good, Lupp. Played with those kids. You should see them racing about with those sails. Teaching my friend, Alber, boxing.”
“No bad days?”
The City Runner paused. She smiled at Lupp.
“Not recently. How about you?”
The [Farmer] smiled as well. He looked thoughtfully at his worn dining room.
“They come and go. Dark days. The gold doesn’t help that. It glitters, but that’s a poor light when the shadows come crawling. Like you said.”
Ryoka had nothing to say to that. Lupp was the realest person she knew. Like an inverse Erin. A tired old man at times, who knew those dark days for what they were.
So. Perhaps it was why she had come here. Because Farmer Lupp looked at Ryoka Griffin, smiling as she sat with him, being friendly. And he put words through her chest like an arrow through the crows he shot.
“Pardon me, Ryoka. But if I’m being honest, it seems like you’re lying to me about those bad days.”
The young woman stirred. She looked up at Lupp and smiled. It wasn’t hard. She’d learned to smile, to be sociable to people. To be…a person rather than the detached, moody City Runner.
“No. I really haven’t had a bad day.”
The [Farmer] mulled this over, unconvinced.
“Maybe not a bad one, then. But you look miserable.”
Ryoka blinked a few times. She’d been smiling all day. But she looked at Lupp and realized. Perhaps—that wasn’t a smile.
Lupp wasn’t smiling. He’d smiled a few times, from seeing Ryoka, while she ate his corn—sparingly. Even though he was enjoying her company. That was a smile, when it came out unasked for, completely genuine.
Hers was artificial. A social thing. Ryoka saw Lupp sit back, fumble for his cup. He poured some gin.
“Begging your pardon, Ryoka. I could be wrong. But I knew a fellow [Farmer] who I used to chat to—way back, oh, twenty years. Used to be closer. Just down the road.”
“I never saw…”
“His farm’s all overgrown. Nothing left. Rhir’s hell, I dug up some of his stones for my fence. Old history. Point was—there was a time I would talk to him. After one of them bad winters. He smiled like that.”
Lupp took a gulp. Ryoka sat there, listening to his story.
“I’d ask about the crops, and so forth. And how he was doing what with it being dreadfully hard and all. Tightening our belts. And he’d smile and say it was all going to be okay.”
Her face was shadowed. Lupp looked at Ryoka.
“That was all. You don’t meddle in a man’s business more than that. Can’t. So we’d just talk now and then. Until the day I came to his farm and it was empty. I checked all around. And—”
“He hanged himself?”
The City Runner sat there, shivering. Lupp looked at her with old eyes. Then he laughed.
“No. I thought so too. It would’ve been me there, after my wife. I checked the barn three times. But no. He left.”
Ryoka started. She looked up at Lupp. Then she laughed, hoarsely, and grabbed the drink. They’d had the same conclusion. But—then she stopped, the bitter liquid at her lips.
They’d had the same conclusion. She lowered the cup, looked at Lupp.
“This farmer. Why did he leave?”
Lupp tossed his shot down.
“Because he was a miserable bastard. Was for over ten whole years. I never asked. But I think he hated every second of being a [Farmer] that last few years. But he stayed—it was a family business. His father was a good [Farmer]. The man buried him and tried to be a great [Farmer]. But he wanted to do something else.”
He looked at Ryoka.
“Needed to. Something ate away at him until he was hollow inside. Just like you, Miss Griffin.”
The City Runner looked at Lupp. She grinned, honestly.
“Yeah. You saw right through me.”
“Strange. I don’t know my own daughter. But I look at you and sometimes it’s like staring into a mirror. It’s not good for such a young woman.”
Lupp raised his glass, eyed it, and put it down. Ryoka rested her arms on her knees.
“There is something. I have…something to do. Those young people I mentioned? I helped them—because I wanted something from them. Something valuable.”
The [Farmer] didn’t ask questions. He saw Ryoka shift, nearly touch the bag of holding. In it were a laptop, devices.
But Ryoka Griffin just looked up.
“Yes. Something very valuable. There’s something I’ve been meaning to do, Lupp. But it’ll take a while. I could—die.”
“If it’s not a secret, what is it?”
The young woman sat in silence. She looked up, slowly.
“That [Witch]. Belavierr. When it was all over, she met me one last time, Lupp. And she made me an offer.”
The [Farmer]—stopped. He looked at the young woman, swimming in the shadows by candlelight.
“They say a [Witch]’s bargains are something you should never take lightly. And seldom agree to. Dire methods for dire need.”
“Oh, yes. They’re right about that.”
Ryoka exhaled. She looked up at Lupp. And her eyes were also glistening a bit.
“The thing is—they always offer what you want the most. I didn’t tell you this, Lupp. But I’ve gotten my friends killed. People like me here. Fierre, Alber—everyone in Reizmelt. But I left all my mistakes behind. In the south. People died because of me.”
“Sometimes that happens. Sometimes a fellow has to run far away. No shame in that.”
The [Farmer] watched the candles flicker lower. He sat across from the City Runner. Ryoka took another gulp of liquid that burned.
“Yeah. But you can’t run forever. I should know. You get really tired. Lupp. My best friend’s name was Ivolethe. She wasn’t like you or me. She died saving me. But you know what?”
Ryoka’s eyes burned. She looked up at the [Farmer] and clenched her hand so tightly the glass cracked. Ryoka let go, looked at Lupp.
“Alive. But I’ll never see her. That was her—punishment. It’s not distance. It’s…a curse. Magic. The kind only a [Witch] could undo.”
The [Farmer] looked steadily at Ryoka. She didn’t know if any of this was even coherent. But maybe it was to him, who lived in a world of magic.
“The [Witch] offered me a way to see her. And I want to. I have to. She was—my first real friend. She still is. I don’t have a purpose in the north beyond being…nice Ryoka. I left a child behind. Mrsha. I left a friend behind. Because I’m afraid of killing them. But I could bring one of them back.”
She looked up.
“But I’m afraid of the consequences. What will happen this time? How badly will I…hurt everyone?”
The young woman looked at the old farmer. Lost. And he had no answer. The fates of corn wasn’t like the lives yanked around by cruel destiny. The [Farmer] weighed his words carefully. Without much knowledge. But he spoke honestly, with all the clarity he could. Which is all you could do.
“I’m not an adventurer, Miss Ryoka. Or a [Mage]. But it seems to me you’re as miserable as that [Farmer] I knew. You speak of this like you have a choice…seems to me the only choice is when you go.”
Ryoka Griffin looked up. Lupp filled his glass with water.
“Or do you think you won’t ever go chasing your friend and trying to free her from the curse?”
The question struck Ryoka. And like that—it was like turning a key in her head. She bowed her head, feeling the world spinning.
“No. That’s absolutely right. I just fear what will happen. If it just happened to me, it would be alright.”
Lupp got up, taking their plates.
“True enough. That’s the blessing in being alone. But between you and me, Miss Ryoka? I was close to a darker day when you met me than any before. Some nights swallow you. You’ve been a comfort to this old man, at least.”
He looked back and saw her smile. Slowly, Ryoka Griffin stretched. She looked at Lupp, thoughtfully.
She was old. Old—at least in some senses. Twenty one years old. Closer to twenty-two, now. But in some ways, Ryoka wasn’t an adult yet. Not like Lupp was.
It was all relative. Children loved Ryoka. She was good at handling them, even if she didn’t like it.
It was a funny thing. Tears were difficult for Tyrion Veltras. He didn’t know how to be gentle.
Erin Solstice was a different problem. She was just no mother, could be thoughtless.
And Ryoka? She just hated seeing kids cry. She worried.
Perhaps all three missed the obvious. Which was that it was okay if children cried. Everyone needed to cry. To be uncertain. When did you stop parenting? And how did you do it well? Ryoka Griffin knew a lot of bad parenting techniques.
Slowly, Farmer Lupp cleaned a glass with some fresh water from a bucket. And he saw the young woman brushing at her eyes. Then she looked up.
Ryoka Griffin exhaled. And she felt better. She stretched lightly, resolved.
“Thanks, Lupp. I guess that clears it up. Just—can I ask one thing?”
“What happened to the [Farmer] you knew? The miserable one? What did he do?”
The old man turned. He smiled.
“Why—he became an adventurer, of course. A famous one. He fought in the Second Antinium Wars against the Goblins. Ended up as part of a Named-Rank team.”
Ryoka blinked at him. The [Farmer] looked back.
“You’re joking. Where’s the ending? Is he dead?”
“Nope. Name’s Eldert. Think he changed it to something fancier, though. I haven’t seen him since. But that was him. Used to grow beets.”
The City Runner looked Lupp’s face up and down. Searching for any hint he was actually pulling her leg. Then she sat back and laughed. Just laughed.
She didn’t know what exactly was funny about it. Lupp smiled. Then, Ryoka stood.
“I’ve got to go, Lupp. Fierre’s going to be pissed. But I’ve got to go. Again. I hope I’ll see you again.”
“So you’re going.”
It wasn’t a question. Ryoka smiled.
“My friend’s alive. I just need to meet her again. One more time, Lupp. For that, it’s easy to risk my life. Just not anyone else’s.”
Her eyes shone. Lupp nodded.
“I’ll do my best. Thank you, Lupp. Really.”
Ryoka Griffin walked towards the door and realized she hadn’t ever wiped her feet. She did so now, on the carpet, embarrassed. Lupp laughed. He saw Ryoka open the door, as the darkness fled before the faint light in his farmhouse.
He had to ask. Before she left, the [Farmer] called out. Worried for the little girl running into the night. Brave—but a child still, to him.
“Miss Ryoka. That dark [Witch]. Did you take her offer to save your friend?”
The young woman turned. Her face was shrouded as she waited a second before replying.
“I thought about it. If it was the only way to save my friend—she gave me a time limit. Before the summer reaches its zenith.”
“Not long now. Will you accept it?”
Ryoka Griffin paused.
“You know, if it was my only way—I might have. But I thought about it then. And a [Witch]’s power…might be enough. But I have something better than a [Witch]. If I can get him on my side. So, no. I told Belavierr to eat shit.”
She heard the farmer laugh. Ryoka closed the door and ran, laughing as well. Smiling properly.
That night, Ryoka ran back to Reizmelt. She talked to Fierre, who was upset, and did something uncharacteristic.
The [Driver] of the overnight carriage that ran the trade routes was obviously suspicious of Ryoka. After all—she was a City Runner.
“But I need to get south fast. This carriage runs all night.”
“And all day. We don’t stop except in cities to change horses. ‘Sright. But we don’t take Runners or their packages. Too dangerous. This is for pedestrians, Miss. You’re not carrying anything?”
“Not a thing. I can swear it on a truth stone.”
“As it so happens…I have one.”
Ryoka patiently repeated herself. But the [Driver] was anxious. At last, relief came from Alime.
The [Receptionist] came out of the Runner’s Guild. Ryoka saw Fierre wink at her and nodded back gratefully. Alime spoke to the [Driver].
“Sir, I am the [Receptionist] of Reizmelt’s Runner’s Guild. We have no deliveries with Miss Griffin at this time and her reputation is impeccable.”
Ryoka blushed. But the [Driver] was relieved.
“I suppose that’s all right then. Just—we’ve had three carriages attacked in the last few months. All due to us taking on Runners.”
“…Is that Runner, uh, Alevica the [Witch] by any chance?”
Ryoka winced. The [Driver] scowled.
“That’s exactly her. You a friend of hers?”
“Absolutely not. I hate her guts.”
“Oh—well come on in then.”
The doors opened. Ryoka clambered in. She settled back, yawning. There were two people in the carriage who budged over for Ryoka. The [Driver] cracked a whip.
“Going south! Anyone coming with? Off we go!”
And Ryoka rode south. Leaving Fierre, her friends behind.
Again. But she was headed south to confront the past. To find the one person better than a [Witch] at circumventing fae magic. To make an offer before the Summer Solstice. To meet, well…an old acquaintance.
That was all one week ago.
Now. Ryoka Griffin sat in a downpour. Well, not in, but the carriage was cramped. There were nine people in it heading south towards the High Passes.
She’d been riding for an entire week, only pausing to take short breaks. Ryoka was scribbling in her corner of the wagon as the [Driver] cursed and made the horses run down the muddy road.
“Coming up on Celum! We’re going to have to stop when we reach the city—should be only twenty minutes at our speed! But this downpour’s getting worse! And we can’t move in it! Sorry folks, but we’re having a rare delay!”
The carriage was still moving fast. But if the rain continued it would be a danger. The passengers grumbled or sounded relieved. Ryoka was of mixed feelings.
Celum. She would run into Erin. The door. Her friends. She couldn’t—maybe after—
The City Runner’s gut churned. Maybe she’d just ask to get out now. It wasn’t far to the High Passes if she just legged it. But a warm bed after a week of travel was very appealing. But if it was that or chancing a meeting with an old face…
Not yet. Let her meet Ivolethe first.
Her friend. Everything would be okay after that. Just let her fix this one thing. Ryoka closed her eyes.
“Driver! I’m getting out here!”
The [Driver], whose name was not Termin but Olat, was astonished. But Ryoka squeezed past the other passengers, then jumped out of the carriage.
“I’m close to my destination! I’ll make it from here!”
“You’ll be drowned! Damn it, if you have to go, go! But stay clear of rivers!”
The [Driver] warned Ryoka, shouting above the downpour. She smiled, shouting back.
“Thank you! Good luck!”
He cracked the whip, raising one hand. Ryoka saw the carriage move past and looked around to get her bearings. The High Passes were—there. She could vaguely see them in the distance, those looming peaks.
One week of travel. Ryoka felt at her bag of holding. She saw the carriage move past her. It was so dark.
Ryoka raised one hand. She saw a ball of light appear, warm and golden. Then—another, orange ball of light.
The City Runner blinked. She hadn’t conjured that. It was a distant thing. A will o’ the wisp? No—it was growing larger. It was—
Ryoka dove. The [Fireball] hit the carriage and detonated. The impact threw her into the mud.
Ears ringing. Shock—Ryoka stumbled to her feet. She looked around. What? Someone had just attacked—her? Persua?
No. They galloped towards her out of the rain, laughing. A figure swooped out of the skies, riding a flying carpet. Another blurred towards her on foot, as fast as a Courier.
[Bandits]. No—again—Ryoka saw them pointing at her. A glowing crossbow rose. A shrouded figure produced two enchanted blades. She raised her hands, ears ringing. She didn’t hear what they said.
But she knew them. All of the figures were masked. Covered from head to toe, to avoid revealing any features. They circled her and the burning carriage that had been full of living people, laughing. Ryoka saw the bloody mark on their masks.
The Bloodfeast Raiders. They pointed at her as the City Runner raised her hands. Nowhere to run. As if she could evade them. The most feared, most elusive gang of marauders in all of Izril. The City Runner closed her eyes.
Of course. She should have known. Somewhere—Belavierr was probably laughing. Of course. She should have known. It was her. Not Erin. This was her fault.
It was never, ever easy.
Author’s Note: I had intended to start with the ending, if that makes sense. But this opening was better, easier to ease into the story.
Hi. This is a 26,000 word chapter that I wrote as my return-chapter after the break. Hope it wasn’t too rough! Have I gotten rusty?
I could have used a longer break. Actually, me writing a deliberate cliffhanger strikes me as very unusual. Do I do that a lot? Hm. I’m questioning all my decisions now.
Much like a certain City Runner. But here we are, and the next chapter will come out in a few days! Hope you enjoyed this one! There has been so much amazing stuff.
Volume 2 is now on Audible for preorder! It will come out July 14th if all goes well, so if you have a credit, drop it on the audiobook if you’re so inclined! Don’t buy it straight out. That’s a lotta money.
Also, amazing art! For this chapter, I have to feature just one artist (but there is a TON to feature and I will do it every chapter, as usual), Enuryn! They did Tails and Scales and it is a gorgeous picture! Much thanks to them and as always, hope you enjoy and thanks for reading!
Tails and Scales by Enuryn