It started with decorations.
As with every city, the Watch had places where the [Guards] liked to be posted. Places where you got less trouble, free food, or just a breath of fresh air. In every city, there were the good streets and bad streets. Good positions awarded to a [Guard] in need of an unofficial vacation or a veteran of many years—
And the bad streets. Punishment duty. And again, it varied. Sometimes there were cities where ‘bad’ meant Gnoll residential districts. And there the Watch made it clear what they thought of the Gnoll minorities.
In Pallass, it wasn’t that dichotomy between species. Pallass was, after all, home to four species in abundance: Dullahans, Garuda, Gnolls, and Drakes. So the bad spots were 1st floor work, 9th floor shenanigans, 3rd and 4th floor troubles…and recently, the 8th.
The others were completely understandable—if you were a resident of Pallass. And a [Guard]. Who wanted to police the 1st floor’s bazaar, with all the incoming profits and trade goods? You were on your feet constantly, checking goods, stopping petty theft…no thank you.
9th floor was just as bad. It wasn’t as common to get trouble up there, but there was always at least one [Alchemist] having a bad experiment, or some [Smiths] getting into it. And [Blacksmiths] were strong and always armed with hammers.
The 3rd and 4th floors were the poorer, most populated residential districts. You didn’t want to deal with that. No, Dullahan strife where they just clammed up or noisy Garuda arguments where the perpetrators might just try to fly off? Those were all bad areas.
Far better to be on the 6th, a wealthy district. Or—or a baking area on the 7th, say. That was free food. Tails and Scales especially. If you were lucky and walked slow when Lasica was baking, you might get a snack of one of her new dishes, or one of Rufelt’s drinks on the house.
That was the way it had been, with bonus undesirability points for prison-duty, anti-Turnscale duty, or wherever Saliss of Lights was being nude. [Guards] would trade duties, negotiate to not have to take such stressful positions, or curry favor by biting the arrowhead and just suffering through it. However, now a new post had become synonymous with suffering.
The 8th Floor. Normally the place of the middle to upper-middle class, nice, in the sunlight—it was a good spot with only a few smaller markets and shopping areas. More in-development since it was the second-newest floor with space to build.
However, if you were posted on the 8th these days by Captain Venim, Qissa, good old Desdal, or that snot-tailed new Igesti, you had better pray you were in the Watch Captain’s good books. Or else you’d be posted…at the door.
The door. And then you’d be under Sergeant Kel’s command. That poor Drake needed more breaks. He’d give you a speech and you’d laugh and ask if it was really that serious? One Human? And he’d look at you like you were being sent to Rhir’s hell and say, ‘yes’.
The Crazy Human of Liscor would make your life a living hell.
The Pallassian [Guards] on duty had to check new visitors into Liscor. They had to receive new lists of people entering Pallass, conduct spot checks, and worse—they’d been warned that monsters could, at any moment, attack the checkpoint. That made the portcullis and fortifications less fun for them.
But all that would have been made okay by the fact that they got to sit about and watch a door all day. You could love that, despite the danger. Bring some snacks and get a good crew and you’d talk the entire day away.
What made it awful was the improvisation. She came by. Not every day, but at least once a week something would happen. And if you didn’t improvise—a dreaded word among the Watch—just right, and make the exact right call, your tail, or ass, or feathers would be hung out to dry by the Watch Captains, Grand Strategist Chaldion, and the [Senators].
The door opened. It wasn’t the morning commute, so the [Guards] groaned. They reached for their weapons, ready for everything. Ready for her.
And there she was. A young woman peeked through the door. She eyed the many faces staring at her through the balistraria—arrow slits. She heard the audible sigh, but paid no mind.
“’Scuse me. Just gotta…I’ll just be a second!”
That damn Human. That agent of chaos, the daughter of disarray, etc, etc. She edged into the narrow room meant to hold a potential enemy for entering Pallass. Like…the Antinium. She was holding a bundle of…scrolls?
No, rolled up posters. A voice came from the walls.
“Miss Human, no entry is authorized into Pallass at this moment! Please return to your inn.”
“Issat you, Kel? Hey!”
Erin Solstice turned around and waved. The surly voice paused.
“We have orders not to let anyone into Pallass.”
“You say that, but Grimalkin and Chaldion get to come through whenever they want. Why can’t I? I’m not entering Pallass. Technically, this is neutral ground.”
A pause. Watch-Sergeant Kel ground his teeth as the rest of the unlucky [Guards] on patrol looked at him.
“…I have orders, Miss Solstice. What are you doing?”
The others eyed Erin nervously. She was inspecting the wall.
“Um…putting up stuff. Won’t be long. Darn, this is stone, isn’t it? Can’t hammer a nail into that. Or can you? Well, that’s why I have this sticky stuff…hey, is this head-height, or is it too low for Gnolls?”
The Watch just stared. Erin began to plaster one poster-sized piece of parchment on the walls. Sergeant Kel’s eyes bulged.
“What. Are. You. Doing?”
“Making this place homey. What do you think?”
Erin gave him a mock-outraged look. She plastered the first poster on the walls. Then another. She stepped back, eyed her work, and then disappeared into the door. After a second, she dragged a potted plant into the checkpoint. The dark, stone room was illuminated by a lantern on a table. Erin Solstice put a few chairs along one side. Then a copy of the Liscorian Gazette on the table. She turned around.
“Whatcha think? I like the posters, but…”
She stepped back to survey the military-style checkpoint. Which, in a few seconds, she had converted into a waiting room.
The Watch heard a sound. It was the sound of their sinking hearts, knowing they were going to be chewed out for this. Guardsman Kel spoke slowly.
“Decorations. See, I think the first poster is good. It has the rules up like this. That’s the first thing you see. Then, you get into the room and you see the chairs, the copy of the newspaper—ooh, I’d better get at least four copies—and the other stuff.”
Erin Solstice pointed. All of the [Guards], Dullahans, Gnolls, a single Garuda, and Drakes, stared. They were equipped with crossbows, magical wands, and had access to four spells which would turn this room into a deathtrap. Even an army would be choked off if it tried to invade here. Like the Antinium, for example.
Now, they saw a big, smiling Goblin’s head, drawn in a crude but cute cartoon style. Above it was written, in big font:
No Killing Goblins.
That was the first poster you’d see. Another was of a smiling bunch of Gnolls—well—you assumed they were. The drawer had been very clumsy, but she’d done her best drawing a mountain, a forest, some tents—and what you assumed were either Gnolls, or blobby stick-people with fuzzy heads.
“What are you doing?”
Sergeant Kel’s head hurt. He looked at Erin. She pointed.
“…Just putting up some decorations. Don’t worry; I’ll get someone to water the flowers.”
She was placing a flower pot full of some lovely red flowers on the waiting table. Kel stared at her.
“You know what I mean. Miss Erin Solstice, kindly remove your…your…unauthorized objects from this room. This is a checkpoint.”
“Well, it can also be nice. I’ve had complaints from people waiting. They have to stand around and the door only gets checked every ten minutes. So I decided let’s spruce it up.”
“‘Spruce it up?’ Just—just what is that?”
Erin looked as the Drake pointed at the poster.
“What? The posters? It’s just a little thing.”
“We have rules. Nothing is allowed in here without the Watch Captain’s express consent!”
Erin blew out her cheeks.
“Kel, we’ve been friends for months.”
“We aren’t friends.”
She ignored that. The young woman waved at Kel.
“Can’t you make an exception?”
She scowled as the Drake glared back at her through the small speaking slit.
“Reasons of security.”
“For flowers? You can get them yourself if you want to! And this is just a bit of art! See, Mrsha made this one!”
“And that poster?”
The Drake pointed at the smiling Goblin. Erin’s face lowered into a deep scowl.
“…I drew that. See? It says ‘No Killing Goblins’. Important rule. No one really reads it.”
The Watch stared at the smiling Goblin. They looked at Erin Solstice. Guardsman Kel had a headache.
“Miss Erin Solstice. We are not allowed to make changes to this room—”
“Fine, fine. So get Watch Captain Venim to approve it. Or Chaldion. Or Grimalkin.”
The wretched Human female rolled her eyes. As if the Grand Strategist of all of Pallass had time to authorize this minutiae. Or as if they wouldn’t be chewed to pieces and spat over the walls for bothering him! The Watch on duty shifted.
“Please take it down.”
Sergeant Kel’s tone was of a man hanging onto a crumbling cliff’s edge, begging gravity not to work. Erin Solstice shrugged.
“Hey. I don’t make the rules.”
They waited. One of the [Guards] coughed.
“Yes. Exactly. So…”
“So get someone to tell me to take it down. Until then—”
Erin wandered off through the doorway. The Watch looked at each other. Someone would have to tell the Watch Captain on their floor. They would…not be happy. Sergeant Kel rubbed at his face.
And then Erin Solstice came back through the door. She spread four more magazines onto the table, arranging them just so. And then she reached back into the door.
“That’s great, Ishkr. Thanks. Okay—here you go, Kel. Do I put this in front of the portcullis? I can shove it through your arrow-thingies.”
She had a tray of something. One of the Gnolls sniffed the air. The others stared at the hot, round…thingies on her tray. They were practically steaming. Fresh out of the oven. They smelled like sugar and baking.
The Watch knew what those were. Cookies. Lasica was selling them, but only a few of Pallass’ [Bakers] had mastered the recipe. But the inventor from Liscor had a hot, piping tray of fresh ones.
“These have white chocolate on them. I mean—it’s not really chocolate. But we’re rationing the actual stuff, so Lasica and Rose helped me make them. Another third is oatmeal, and the last bunch is just raisin. I mean—someone has to eat raisins. Stands to reason.”
The young woman confessed as she waved the sprinkled cookies at the [Guards]. They stared at the cookies. Then they saw another tray being passed through.
“Ooh, thanks, Ishkr. Put them down there? Hey, Kel. Where do I…?”
A second tray of salsa and chips was brought in by Ishkr. The Gnoll blinked around the room, put down the tray on a table, and Erin thanked him. The [Guards] hesitated. This was a new crew. They eyed Kel. The [Sergeant] paused.
“…We’ll collect the food.”
“Great! You need drinks?”
“We’re not allowed to drink on duty, Miss Solstice.”
“Right. Blue fruit juice?”
“We’re…fine. Thank you, Miss Solstice. About the posters—”
“Can’t hear you, Kel! Gotta go, bye!”
Erin Solstice shut the door. After a moment, the portcullis slowly rose a few feet. One of the [Guards] stared at the two trays of food. Fresh…food.
“Is this safe, Sergeant Kel?”
The Drake sat back in his armchair. Which, the patrol of [Guards] who’d been dreading their assignment to the 8th floor now realized—looked mighty comfy. The Drake sighed. And looked around.
“Send a Street Runner to Watch Captain Quissa. About the decorations. In…ten minutes.”
One of the Dullahans was slow on the uptake. Sergeant Kel nodded to the two trays of cookies and chips and dip.
“We have to take care of this first. Ten minutes gives us twenty for the Watch Captain to come over. What’s that note say?”
It was attached to the chips and salsa. It read—‘Experimenting with my salsa recipe! Let me know if it’s too spicy or not enough! The first bowl is mild, the second is spicy!’
The [Guards] stared at Kel. He helped himself to a cookie. The Garuda looked at his companions. He coughed.
“Sergeant Kel. Do you…often get these sort of interruptions?”
“Hm? Well, she tends to put stuff through the door when she inconveniences us. Let’s get rid of this. Can’t allow contraband through the door.”
The squad looked at each other. And then it clicked. A Dullahan reached for a white-chocolate cookie. A Gnoll sniffed at the salsa. And they realized why so many ‘unhappy [Guards]’ talked up the 8th floor duty as being the worst. Then subsequently volunteered to take it for a few favors. Kel looked around as he reached for some chips.
“I really hate her. Be sure to file your complaints.”
That was their experience. But there was always trouble. Erin Solstice sighed as she closed the door.
“Give it like, twenty minutes, Ishkr. Warn me when an angry Watch Captain wants me?”
“Yes, Miss Erin.”
The Gnoll ducked his head as he adjusted the dial and set the magical door to Esthelm. Erin smiled. And she looked at the Gnoll for a second. Ishkr was being extra-respectful today, calling her ‘Miss Erin’. He was one of two of her longest current employees and she’d heard him call her ‘Erin’ more than once.
She encouraged it, really. Lyonette was the one who set boundaries. But perhaps—it was because he felt awkward or embarrassed or grateful. After all, he’d asked for his week’s pay in advance.
Something to do with family. Which went to show you that even someone like Ishkr had secrets. He had one, Erin was sure. He never talked about it, but he sometimes had to leave early. Or get money for…something.
No one ever raised an eyebrow. Not even Lyonette; Ishkr was a model employee. He didn’t cause trouble, he did his job and got paid. In some ways, he was the dream of any establishment—someone whose goal was to earn a living without seeking advancement, needing someone to hold his paw, or anything else.
Still. He had a secret. One. Thoughtfully, Erin walked down the hallway as Ishkr greeted some day-workers bound for Liscor.
“Good morning, yes? Anyone bound for Liscor? Wait here, please—anyone bound for Celum, please wait on the far wall for visitors to enter before exiting…”
The new visitors eyed a happy slime on the wall surrounded by friendly Shield Spiders and beavers—Mrsha’s work. It was largely impressionistic to anyone who hadn’t been explained what it was supposed to be. But Erin had introduced paw-painting into Mrsha’s lessons. And it had been a wild hit.
Painting wasn’t something children did unless they wanted the class. So Ekirra, Visma, and Mrsha had produced some masterpieces—in their parent’s opinions—and they had been hung around The Wandering Inn by Erin. She was just a bit proud of that.
But Ishkr. Erin paused at the doorway and looked at him. He had a secret.
Ishkr wasn’t married; Erin would know. He was also fairly young. Nineteen? He was very adult, but Krshia had never mentioned it and she would. On the other hand, Erin knew he lived largely alone. He was from the Silverfang tribe, having been born around the time some came to Liscor. He had one sister he talked about—grumbled, really—and two parents he never talked about. She had the impression…they had died.
So, that meant something was up. Erin peeked through one of the hallway’s spy-holes as the Gnoll opened the door to Liscor and let more people out and let people in. She ignored the crossbow Belgrade had installed in a little holster to quickly fire at any intruders and studied Ishkr.
He was responsible. You never had to ask him to account for spills or mistakes; he did it himself. Someone like that…didn’t strike Erin as wasting money. So why did he need the money?
She didn’t know. But she was fairly sure it had to do with his sister. That seemed to coincide with Ishkr having to leave early or asking for an advance. A person—usually a Gnoll or Drake in their late teens or a young adult—would find Ishkr and whisper to him. And he’d sigh or growl curses and…
“What’s your secret?”
The Gnoll scratched at the back of his neck. Erin studied him for a moment. She could, of course, just ask. Or find out. She had ways. They involved everything from getting Drassi to find out to shadowing Ishkr to manufacturing an incident with cheese and Mrsha.
But she didn’t. Erin Solstice had decided all was going well. She had not caused a massive incident in a while. Not—not hugely important, at any rate. The Wyvern attack was still fresh in Erin’s memory, even if she hadn’t been responsible for it. But Bird? The fallout from that? Grimalkin’s weights?
Sometimes, Erin felt like she was walking around a room filled with balloons. She kept popping them. Just by accident sometimes. But—other times, intentionally.
But Ryoka Griffin had come. The Horns, Griffon Hunt, had gone. Magnolia had…done her thing. And things were peaceful for the moment. The [Innkeeper] wondered if it was alright to not want to rock the boat.
She was tempted. And when she looked at the way Ishkr’s ears were flat even as he pretended to smile—and the way he was tensed, weighed down by whatever had caused him to ask for an advance—she wanted to help. The problem was, Erin Solstice felt like she made things worse. Not always, but sometimes. She had to be careful.
So she let him be. Anyways, even the small things Erin did caused a fuss.
“Miss Solstice. You cannot alter the checkpoint without express permission. It is sovereign Pallassian territory.”
“Yeah. But it’s my inn, right? What’s the problem with flowers and magazines in the waiting room, anyways?”
Watch Captain Venim was having a bad day. That tended to correlate with his meetings with Erin.
“The issue isn’t decorations, Miss Solstice. It’s in getting permission first. We have systems for doing things. I’d appreciate it if you—obeyed the rules.”
“But it’s flowers. Why do I have to wait to put flowers there? Have a cookie. White chocolate.”
The Drake was lost for a second in Erin’s reasonable insanity. He eyed the cookie Erin proffered. He nearly took it, and then sighed.
“Miss Solstice. I can file the requisite paperwork. But I am here to ask you not to make changes without permission.”
“But I’m going to get permission because you’re filing paperwork, right? So why do I have to? It’s all worked out well.”
Erin was lightly pleased with herself. The Watch Captain gave her a narced expression. He rubbed at his forehead tiredly. But Erin knew she’d won.
She hadn’t fed Kel and the [Guards] on duty for nothing. She had curried goodwill—sometimes with actual curry. Venim now—he was more like Zevara. He didn’t take the cookies she was waving towards him. But they’d had interactions like this before.
“Come on, Venim. What’s the problem? What if Kel just told you about my decoration and you sorted it out without making it—”
Erin waved her hands to indicate the hurdles of legality and the process of bureaucracy. It made sense to her. Erin liked the law—but the law sometimes did stupid things.
Venim looked at Erin. And she, confident she was right, waited for his response. He put her slightly smug mood into a dumpster and set it on fire with one reply:
“The problem, Miss Erin Solstice, is that whenever you cause trouble, I’m the one who has to speak with you. I was on my vacation. With my daughter.”
He sat there, arms folded. Erin’s smile wavered.
The Drake rubbed at his tired face.
“I’m your appointed liaison. As is Sergeant Kel. Have you not wondered why I’m assigned to the 8th floor every day? And why Sergeant Kel hasn’t changed duties, despite multiple requests?”
“I—no—did you say your daughter? Um. Time off?”
“I get two days per week. This would be my one day with my daughter; her mother has the other day. She’s with my sister due to the emergency involving you.”
The Drake stared at Erin. His voice was very polite. But he was telling Erin—her face fell.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Well, I will do the paperwork. But I would appreciate notice in advance. All things being equal, Miss Solstice, I would have preferred to get the request tomorrow, through Sergeant Kel. I would have processed it and granted you the rights by the end of the day. Tomorrow. Is that entirely reasonable?”
Erin stared at Venim. She hadn’t known he was married. Or—previously married and divorced. Of course, it made sense. Lots of people were married. Erin just didn’t ask.
She had been focused on Ishkr of late, puzzling him out. Getting Octavia situated—reuniting with Ryoka. When Erin knew someone, she thought she knew someone. But it disconcerted her to know how little she understood of people she was acquainted with.
“Sorry. Um. Do you want some cookies? For your daughter? On the house?”
Erin offered the cookies weakly to Venim. He hesitated.
“…Do these have grapes? My daughter’s allergic to grapes.”
“Let me find you some non-grape ones. But I baked them together…er…”
Erin ended up giving Venim a bag of little white chocolate squares instead of possibly tainted cookies. He left, and she sat there.
That was all she said for a while. Erin bowed her head, as she sometimes had cause to do. The inn, not bustling but lively, moved around her. The Players of Liscor were running through a new play with Galina. Kevin and Joseph were outside, teaching kids and adults to play soccer. Leon and Troy? She hoped they weren’t causing trouble.
Mrsha was building a dam with the beavers. Lyonette was running the inn. Bird was overseeing the construction of his final tower on the newly-built third floor. Palt was flipping burgers for fun.
It was Numbtongue who wandered by Erin with a fresh hamburger. He saw Erin, head bowed. The [Bard] hesitated, put his hamburger down on a table, and began to chow while he waited.
“…So that’s why he didn’t want a cookie when he heard they were raisin. Just in case.”
The [Innkeeper] muttered to herself. Numbtongue eyed her. He looked at the cooling cookies and took one. After he noshed for a while, Erin looked up.
The Hobgoblin offered a cookie. Erin smiled and declined. Numbtongue shrugged. It was a social, Human, or rather, non-Goblin question.
‘Bad day’? As if days that didn’t involve you dying or being shot with arrows weren’t anything but good days. And yet—he had come to understand that there really were bad days. Of course, if you compared it to people trying to kill you, every day was a good day. But…there was badness besides arrows and monsters. It was a novel thing.
Someday, he’d wander into the new Stitchworks and find Octavia nearly in tears over a failed experiment she could not get right. Or—or—Bird was curled into a ball in his room because he’d been punished for doing things like offering Mrsha maggot-infested dead birds. Or Erin would be like this. And these were sad and important moments. Not like someone dying—but important.
It scared Numbtongue how much he had begun to care about whether Mrsha hurt her paw. Not that he had been uncaring when he was a Redfang warrior—but it had been different. Then, if, say, Bugear had torn open his arm by accident while skinning an Eater Goat, Numbtongue would have just laughed and mocked him with the others.
If Bugear had dared to cry or whinge about it, he’d have been mocked. And even when a comrade died, like Grunter and the heroes at Esthelm—Numbtongue moved for wars. He—had been a warrior. A soldier under Garen Redfang who would fight and die when the time came.
But now, the Hobgoblin was a [Bard]. A member of The Wandering Inn. Now—if Mrsha broke her paw, he might cry. That scared him. But it didn’t mean he was soft. Rather—he had something to fight for. And he wished Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Badarrow, Rabbiteater—had all been able to experience this.
Worrying about Erin’s grieved expression. After a moment, Numbtongue poked Erin. She jumped slightly.
“Oh—there was just this thing with Venim. I was putting up posters and making the waiting room in Pallass livable, Numbtongue. But I think I made a mistake…”
Erin gave Numbtongue an abbreviated version of the events. He didn’t see the problem. So one Drake had an issue since he couldn’t see his daughter all day. So what?
And yet, he saw it the other way too. The [Bard] scowled as Erin sighed.
“I feel bad. I should do something nice for Venim.”
“You don’t have to.”
There was a pause as Erin blinked and then looked over. The [Innkeeper] gave Numbtongue a blank look.
“Of course not. But I should, right?”
He nodded. That was what Numbtongue loved about Erin. ‘Should’ and ‘must’ were sometimes the same for her. The Hobgoblin looked around.
“Good cookies. Got any acid-fly ones?”
“For you, Numbtongue? I can’t believe you eat them!”
Erin smiled, looking amused. The Hobgoblin shook his head.
“For Yellow Splatters.”
“Oh! No—I’m going to make a special batch. Don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of cookies.”
The Hobgoblin nodded, content with that. He sat back, eating a third cookie as Erin looked ahead.
“Well, I guess that’s that. Hey—are you eating all my cookies?”
“No! They’re for Lyonette! Argh! How many did you eat?”
Eight. Well, five were already in Numbtongue’s belt pouch for later. Dismayed, Erin stared at her plundered cookie tray. She narrowed her eyes and poked the Goblin back.
“You’re going to get fat, Numbtongue.”
That sufficiently stumped Erin enough for Numbtongue to liberate two more cookies. Mrsha-treats. She rescued her cookie tray and returned to the common room in time to see Numbtongue fetching something from behind the bar. He carried it out of the common room and down the hallway. Into one of the private rooms. Erin followed him. She peeked into the open doorway and saw what the Hobgoblin had retrieved.
A laptop. The Hobgoblin opened the lid, saw the computer was in ‘sleep’ mode, and casually waited for it to boot up. He entered Kevin’s password, and began to use the touchpad to click around the screen. Erin stared.
Numbtongue began playing an FPS game—Halo CE. The computer began emitting sounds of combat and battle and he did fairly well for someone playing on a touchpad and computer keys. Erin kept staring.
The adaptability of Goblins knew no limits. In a few days, Numbtongue had mastered the computer enough to alt-tab out of the game and look at Erin. She pointed weakly at the computer.
“Uh—uh—Kevin showed you how to use the computer, huh?”
“Mhm. Fun. Want to watch a movie?”
Kevin had only a few more movies left unwatched and movie night was a huge thing. Everyone in the inner group of the inn would drop anything to watch a movie—even if the Earthworlders had seen the movie a thousand times before. But the laptop had more value for those not from Earth.
For instance—Numbtongue was now obsessed with the video game that even Galina and Imani had beaten three times. Each. The electronics Ryoka had brought back to the inn had been used for months by the seven Earthers—to the point where Rose could lip-sync every rap song and Leon had beaten Solitaire a hundred times. They had explored the limits of the laptop, tablets, and iPhones.
But the others? Erin had already initiated a one-hour limit for Mrsha to play with the electronics. Numbtongue had no such restrictions. And with Palt, Montressa, and Beza all able to cast [Repair], battery life was only an issue if Numbtongue wanted to recharge the laptop after a late-night gaming session.
“You really like this, huh?”
Numbtongue went back to playing. Erin saw a flash as something exploded. She wasn’t a fan of video games. Well—she played Minecraft and stuff. But she wasn’t into the complex action game stuff.
“Say…mind scooting over?”
Erin sat down and watched as Numbtongue played through a level—mainly by killing a lot of very ugly potato-people. With tendrils and stuff. They looked…well, dangerous, but sort of tame.
“I bet you could kill that one.”
“Maybe. Not with guns.”
Erin eyed the ugly potato attacking Numbtongue as he threw a grenade.
“You like playing fighting games? Isn’t it like—too real? For a warrior like you?”
The Hobgoblin glanced at Erin.
“…No. It’s fun. Games.”
“Ah, right, right. Hey, watch out for the one on the left—”
The [Bard] went back to playing. Erin watched until he died. Then she poked him.
“My turn. I want to use the computer.”
“…One more life?”
“You play it all night. Give.”
She poked him again. That was a very Goblin/Gnoll thing, so the Hobgoblin, grumbling, gave the laptop over. Erin knew Mrsha was trying to play too and she just worried about the effects of video games on Mrsha’s psyche. Then again—when she was playing outside she led crusades against Shield Spiders. So maybe this was okay.
“Okay. Let’s see. Where’re the comics?”
Kevin’s laptop was a goldmine of data. It didn’t look like it, but Kevin’s attitude towards data had been one of acquisition. His laptop was filled with movies, games he liked, pictures—and most crucially—pirated comics and other media. Erin eagerly clicked on a folder.
“Aha! This is the stuff!”
Numbtongue stared with the kind of detached pain that arose from seeing someone misuse their computer-time as Erin double-clicked on a picture icon. A big…picture…popped up on the screen.
Well, it was really three pictures, each separated by black bar. Each one held a little character, with some kind of extreme deformity in their body shape emitting balloons with words. Erin stared at the first one, and then laughed.
She began to giggle. Not really laugh, but smile as she stared at the little boxes and figures. Numbtongue peeked over her shoulder. He stared at a round-headed person and pointed.
Erin blinked at him and then grinned.
“Oh—sorry. You’ve never seen a comic, right, Numbtongue? This—this is Peanuts. Kevin’s got some of the classics! See? This is Charlie Brown.”
Erin pointed at a person with anatomical problems. The Hobgoblin narrowed his eyes.
“He has puff-head badness? Going to explode?”
The Human girl looked at him. She opened and closed her mouth a few times.
“Oh. Why does he look like that?”
Erin tried to explain.
“It’s just—how they’re drawn. It’s just—it’s like a mini-story. That’s what a comic is. Words and pictures. See? He’s going to kick this football and…”
Numbtongue stared. He didn’t get it. Well, the arbitrary act of cruelty on the part of the young girl made him smile.
“See, he tries to kick the football but he never does. Except that time he was invisible. It’s like a metaphor, but it’s also funny.”
Erin ruminated on the deep levels of Human cruelty and hopeless aspiration for a second. Numbtongue just snorted.
“Isn’t it? But it’s great. I respect Kevin for having this on his computer. Aside from the you-know-what.”
Erin scowled deeply. She had found the porn that Kevin had faithfully reinstalled onto his computer. And deleted it. Numbtongue rolled his eyes.
“Yes, yes. Bad sexy Humans.”
He had rather enjoyed it. And Kevin had a backup, but Numbtongue decided this was the stuff that Erin didn’t need to know. The young woman went on, pointing obliviously at the comic.
“This is great.”
“No, really. It’s a classic. Art!”
“Mhm. Heads look funny.”
Erin puffed out her cheeks in exasperation.
“It’s a caricature, Numbtongue. This is funny! To me! I watched it all the time when I was a kid. And it’s…oh. Look at that.”
Her face fell as she flipped through the pages of the comic. Numbtongue saw Erin grow silent again. After a moment, the [Innkeeper] looked up. And her expression was—thoughtful.
“I just wonder, Numbtongue. If I’m…a jerk. You know? Or if I’ve changed a bit. Here. She’s probably in here. No—no—no—that’s Linus. He’s cool. Um—no—here.”
Erin pointed to a character on the screen. Numbtongue stared. All Humans looked fairly similar unless you got to know them, and this girl wasn’t that distinguished.
Erin sighed. She looked at Numbtongue.
“I think I might be her.”
The Hobgoblin saw Erin sitting there. After a moment, she smiled.
“The thing is—this is a story, Numbtongue. None of the characters are real. But they were popular. Millions of people loved them. There was even a television show.”
“Like the Ogre?”
Numbtongue grew excited. He liked that one. Something about a green-skinned protagonist really spoke to him. He had watched that with the secret Dragon, Ryoka, Mrsha, and Erin. And loved it. The music, the action—
The only person who hadn’t liked it upon a repeat viewing was Lyonette. Something about a [Princess] being turned into an Ogress spoke to her in negative ways. Eldavin had nearly incinerated the entire hill when the donkey married the Dragon.
But Erin shook her head.
“No, television, Numbtongue. Not movies. That’s like—a mini-movie. It’s still good. Peanuts had lots. It also had movies. Actually—I think a new movie came out. I wish I’d seen it before…”
She trailed off. And Erin stared for a second at the comic on screen. Then she closed her eyes and remembered. The words came more slowly, but with heavy nostalgia.
“The point is that I liked the movies. My parents did too. They still do—they let me watch all the movies. Even the shows. Not many of my friends knew there was a TV show along with the movies. But I watched them all. Even the weird ones.”
She had a point she was going towards. The Hobgoblin waited for it all to make sense. Erin pointed at the peppermint-girl.
“My favorite characters in the shows and movies were Snoopy, Linus—and Peppermint Patty and Marcie. Marceline. And those two? I liked them the most in a way. See—the second episode of the Peanuts specials is actually really interesting. Patty’s learning to skate, you see. And she’s working really hard. And that’s weird because she never really works hard; she sleeps in school and she’s really passionate…”
Numbtongue decided he needed a drink. Erin followed him, explaining the show he had no reference for. But which he understood because she was explaining it.
“And she’s trying hard. And it’s a fun episode. Episode 2! The adults even have voices instead of going ‘blah, blah, blah’. But the thing is—Patty asks Marcie for help. She wants Marcie to make a dress for her skating competition. And Marcie can’t really sew. So…”
Numbtongue took a long drink of ale as Erin explained a basic plotline involving a dog teaching skating, the girl winning the skating competition, and failure with garments.
“…The point is that Patty’s always like that. She always makes Marcie do things that Marcie doesn’t want to do. But Marcie tried. She couldn’t sew, but she tried. She tried to help her friend. She cared about Patty. And I…”
The [Innkeeper] sat there, nostalgic as Numbtongue drank at the bar. Her eyes were far away. But she focused on Numbtongue.
“I always liked them so much. Marcie especially. I wanted to be her, you know. Since I played chess and she liked books and had glasses…I wanted to be a good friend to someone like Patty. But I never met someone like that. It was just me. Which was alright. But I liked them the most. Do you understand?”
The Goblin looked up and met Erin’s eyes. That?
The young woman smiled at him. She looked back towards the place where she and Venim had been sitting and took a deep breath.
“The thing is—I think sometimes I’m Patty, Numbtongue. Thoughtless. I always get my way, because I can make it happen. But that’s not who I used to be. I used to be…different. But I had to be like this because I’d have died. Still, I wonder—”
She lapsed into silence. The Goblin looked at her. And he thought Erin had said something important. But he couldn’t decode the layers of understanding—perhaps only another Erin could have done that. Yet he knew what to do. He reached over and patted Erin on the shoulder. She looked at him and the [Bard] gave her another pat.
“You did good things. I know that.”
She looked at him, greatly surprised. Then she laughed and hugged him. The [Bard] smiled to himself. He had a way with words. After that, Erin just sighed. And Numbtongue offered to show her how to play Kevin’s videogames.
Erin managed to kill herself in the first ten seconds. But the kind, silly [Innkeeper] and the Hobgoblin sat together. Laughing for a while.
It began with a reprimand.
The protests were still continuing outside the Watch Barracks. Not that the protestors and cityfolk had any real reason to be upset at the Watch. But those who had lost almost everything to The Golden Triangle had no one to blame; after the broadcast, the members of The Golden Triangle had fled, and the inner organization had disappeared.
But poverty remained. Desperation. Fury—they were demonstrating outside of City Hall.
It wasn’t her fault. Part of Watch Captain Zevara resented the idiots who’d given all their money to this fraud. Still, if the perpetrators of this scheme had been in front of her, she would have arrested them at once.
…There was no face of this fake scheme. No one to blame. Wistram had ended The Golden Triangle and in so doing, wrecked the lives of tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps. Poor people who now lacked gold or silver they needed to live.
“We want our money back!”
“Justice for us!”
“We did nothing wrong!”
The shouts from outside Zevara’s window made the Drake’s scales itch. She saw the [Guards] blocking the protestors from entering the Watch House. The Watch Captain stared a moment. And then turned back to her desk. She sat down, heavily.
“This is a disaster, Senior Guardsman Relc.”
“Yes, Watch Captain.”
The Drake stood in front of her desk. Zevara looked at the huge, still-healing Drake. She had given him off as much time as she could. But things in the city had reached a peak. She shuffled her papers.
“Senior Guardsman Relc. The city is in uproar over this—Golden Triangle business.”
“Yep, Watch Captain. I’ve noticed.”
Relc’s claws were folded behind his back. He stared over her shoulder, a familiar look. Zevara paused, then went on. She noted his uniform was smirched—people had thrown things at him as he came into work this morning.
“…I assume you’re healed from your ambush, Guardsman Relc?”
“Yes, Watch Captain.”
“…We owe you a debt of gratitude for dispatching the likes of Bearclaw’s gang. We had no proof—but Soot is dead. And we will find Bearclaw. I’ve posted a thousand-gold bounty on her head. She will not be safe in any Drake city, I promise you.”
The [Spearmaster]’s eyes twitched towards her. He nodded slightly.
“Thanks, Watch Captain.”
Zevara cleared her throat. She was dancing around the real subject, and both of them knew it. Relc waited, at parade-rest, like he was in the military. The Watch Captain cleared her throat a second time, and coughed. But nothing could stop her from doing her duty. Not even her own reluctance.
“About the Golden Triangle…I understand you were not aware of the fraud. That is not in question. Senior Guardsman Relc. But you understand that people are rightly upset? You signed over eight hundred people into The Golden Triangle.”
“…Yes, Watch Captain.”
Relc’s eyes glittered as he stared over Zevara’s shoulder. Eight hundred people, all of whom were out of gold—or silver. Zevara went on.
“I understand you gave back as much gold as you could. I take that into account. However—the mood is against you. I have…no less than fifty petitions for me to strip you of your Senior Guardsman rank. Some call for your imprisonment.”
“I understand that, Watch Captain.”
For a moment, the two Drakes just waited. Zevara, sitting at her desk. How many times had she done this? Called in Relc to yell at him at being an idiot, causing trouble for the Watch?
This time was different. Both of them felt it. Even Relc was—changed. Normally, he would be offering excuses, dodging the blame or pinning it on Klbkch.
…Klbkch was gone. Zevara looked up.
“Senior Guardsman Relc. Do you have anything to say in your defense? That you were unaware of The Golden Triangle’s fraudulent nature I appreciate. But what do you—do you have a defense?”
The [Spearmaster] looked ahead. Zevara waited, ready to latch onto anything. Any excuse. From Relc, it was a surety. But the Drake just stared at her. Then he slowly shook his head.
“Watch Captain. I take full responsibility for my actions. I was a Senior Guardsman. I shouldn’t have led people to invest their money. I…made a terrible mistake.”
The Watch Captain’s mouth opened slightly. She blinked.
Relc nodded. Then he stared over her shoulder. Zevara had never heard anything like that from Relc. Even being hit over the head in Bearclaw’s ambush—repeatedly—didn’t explain it.
But it made her duties all the more clear. All the harder. The Watch Captain of Liscor stood up.
“Senior Guardsman Relc, I appreciate your candor. Moreover—I do not accept your apology. I am aware you tried to warn as many people as possible and return their coin.”
Relc looked up. Zevara met his gaze. She looked straight into Relc’s surprised eyes.
“A Senior Guardsman should do nothing less. Be that as it may, public trust in you has been eroded. So—as is my duty as Watch Captain, I strip you of your Senior Guardsman rank.”
He only flinched a bit at that. But the worst was yet to come. Zevara inhaled.
“—Furthermore. I believe it is untenable for you to remain in Liscor for this moment. Too much ill will is set against you. So—Guardsman Relc—I have applied for your transfer to another Drake City in need of capable [Guards].”
The Drake’s head snapped up. He looked at Zevara.
“Me? But—Watch Captain—”
The female Drake silenced Relc.
“This is my decision as Watch Captain, Guardsman Relc. If you disagree—you have only but to object.”
He didn’t. The Drake hesitated, and then bowed his head.
“…I get it. Where am I going?”
“Cellidel. The city is in need of high-level [Guards]. I…was negotiating with their Watch Captain for an exchange of [Guards] already in return for material aid. This incident expedites the process. You will serve there for a number of months to be decided. Until this incident is behind you.”
Relc’s head lowered further. Zevara went on, in a strained voice.
“You may object, Sen—Guardsman Relc. It is your right.”
“…No objections, Watch Captain. Maybe it’s for the best. It’s that or resign, right?”
The Watch Captain was surprised a second time. She looked at Relc. Something about him looked—older. As he bowed to her and saluted, she was struck. He was older than her. It was just the first time he’d acted like it in their entire relationship.
“Well then, Senior Guardsman Relc. I regret to inform you that your tenure here will be over by the week’s end. You will have a few days to rest and further recuperate; I will put you on unpaid leave. You may…tender your resignation if you decide a new posting is inappropriate.”
That was hard to say. And she’d had to demote, reprimand, even fire friends. But Relc? His eyes flickered. He hesitated as he held his salute.
“—It’s just regular Guardsman Relc now, isn’t it, Watch Captain?”
Zevara smiled. Wearily. Sadly. She looked at Relc, whom she had relied on for so long without thinking about him. Her annoying, but invincible Senior Guardsman. Like Klbkch. Only—now both were gone. She shook her head.
“Senior Guardsman Relc. You are no longer a member of Liscor’s Watch. But as it happens—your rank would make you a Senior Guardsman of Cellidel. If you choose to go. The choice is yours, but I’d hate to lose a Senior Guardsman. Especially since you’d return as one.”
The Drake’s jaw opened. Zevara saluted him as she stood. Then she held out a claw.
“Good luck, Senior Guardsman. I hope you will take your new posting. It won’t be forever. It was—the best I could do.”
He hesitated. And the Drake slowly extended his claw and shook Zevara’s hand.
“I’m sorry for the trouble, Watch Captain. I’ll let you know tonight.”
“Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault. For once.”
He almost smiled at that. And then the Drake saluted. Zevara saw him turn. And the whisper ran through the Watch House. Through Liscor. The Gecko was leaving, one way or the other. She sat down and put her head in her claws.
Everything was changing.
It started with a conversation over breakfast. A lesson, really.
A blue-scaled Drake munched on some exceptionally crispy bacon. Also—bread—also toasted with a bit of cheese. Even the cheese seemed burnt.
But that was a motif. A calling card. And Maviola El wasn’t actually that good at cooking. She’d never really bothered to learn. That she was trying now was a sign of…something.
Affection, probably. She was eating the same and the two were crowded around a little table.
She nodded. They were going over a complex logistical paper, breaking down expenses. Maviola tapped the paper and her notes.
“In your theory, you’ve got an army you’re marching. You need donkeys. All you’ve accounted for is—potions, salaries, ammunition, equipment upkeep—not donkeys.”
“Why do I need to account for that?”
Olesm stared warily at the parchment. Maviola sighed.
“Donkeys are better for labor. They’re pack animals. Or do you want to grab a bunch of horses which might not be suited for pulling wagons? Mules are also good.”
“I…I’m sure I’d account for it in the moment.”
The Drake defended himself. He was a [Strategist], Maviola, a [Lady]. But she was lecturing him.
“Well, if you didn’t you’d be scrambling. Which is why we’re going over it now. This is the ideal ratio of wagons-to-soldiers. And these are good numbers to hold by for how much you should be willing to spend to buy new supplies on the march.”
She pulled up a second chart, listing everything from the prices of oil to healing potions. Olesm’s eyes bulged.
“Wait. Our instruction at Manus never accounted for that—”
“Because Manus expects you to defend a city. I’m giving you a fuller education. These are the kind of numbers a [General] or [Strategist] leading an actual army needs to know. Pay attention.”
“I am, I am! Hold on. Does that say ‘birth control’?”
Maviola rolled her eyes as she speared a bit of burnt bacon. She’d done her best with a skillet, but she had a tendency to overheat the cooking fire.
“Mixed-gender armies always run into the issue. Especially new [Soldiers]. They have sex—they get pregnant. Have at least a few potions to deal with complications.”
“I never—is this really a problem I’m going to run into? Maviola, please. I’m Liscor’s [Strategist]. Having to deal with a pregnant [Soldier] isn’t something I’m going to run into.”
The Human [Lady] nodded agreeably.
“True. As Liscor’s [Strategist] you might not. But are you going to be a [Strategist] forever?”
“And if you have a pregnant [Soldier] barging into your tent at midnight, do you want to have a solution for the problem or be completely blindsided?”
The blue Drake opened and closed his mouth.
“…Have a solution?”
“There you are, then. Eat your eggs. Here.”
She put the eggs on a fork. Olesm sniffed.
“I can eat them—”
“Open your mouth.”
He did, to object, and she poked the fork into his mouth. Maviola laughed at Olesm’s outraged expression.
“Sorry; force of habit. I had to feed too many annoying little children when I was growing up. Products of people who don’t account for accidental babies.”
The Drake chewed and swallowed.
“How many children did you grow up with?”
“More than you’d be happy to know about. None myself, incidentally. I never had time for it. I regret that.”
Wistfully, Maviola glanced out the window. The city was waking up. The protests about The Golden Triangle had woken both of them up in bed. But—however alien a Drake city might have been, she was surprised how much at home the little apartment felt.
Olesm looked at Maviola as he shoveled more burnt breakfast into his mouth. He thoughtfully eyed the young woman. And forbade asking why twenty-something was too late for children.
Maviola was—different. And even an idiot would have picked up on the little clues she kept dropping. Olesm didn’t know the entire thing, but he suspected something.
At last, the [Lady] looked at him. And when she smiled—the Drake felt as though she were smiling just for him. Maviola was Lady Firestarter. Flame and passion. Her power—her appeal was that when she looked at you, you felt like you were the only thing in the world. She was brilliant; she was teaching him any number of new tactics as well as logistics and things even his lessons in Manus had never covered.
And also, a mystery. Maviola sighed as she looked out the window.
“…Nearly two weeks now. It’s passed so quickly.”
“I’m glad to have you. I mean—I’m very grateful for your help. And the rest. I think this has been great. The best time in my life.”
The Drake interjected quickly. Maviola smiled. Her eyes flicked to his face and she shook her head. Her black-and-orange hair moved in the dawn’s light.
“Olesm. I told you. I love you, as much as I’ve loved anyone. But it won’t last. I have to leave soon.”
“Don’t say that.”
The Drake reached out. Maviola hesitated, but she let him grasp her hand. The Drake held on tight.
“You’re—the best thing that’s happened to me all year. In the last decade. Don’t say you have to go.”
“The truth is the truth.”
Her voice was calm. And when she looked at him again—he felt like a child speaking to an adult. And he hadn’t felt like that way in years. But Maviola was old. Her eyes flickered like fire. But old fire, raging one last time before the darkness closed in. Gently, she put her other hand on his, clasping his claw.
“Olesm. I mean to give you fire. Me meeting you was fate. I want to believe I was sent here to help you learn to…burn. You were a faded ember when I found you. All I did was light your fire.”
“You did that. First the Council and the newspaper—it’s a huge success! Drassi actually got scouted to work for Pallass! And the money coming in from the newspaper is big. Why then—do you have to go?”
Her eyes were sad.
“Sometimes that is just the way it is. I wish I had met you long ago. I wish I hadn’t waited. I wish…”
She trailed off. Olesm tightened his grip and Maviola looked at him. The Drake took a shuddering breath. He hadn’t planned on it today. But she sounded like—
“Listen. It doesn’t have to be that way. I don’t care how sick you are. I’m—I’m resourceful. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but Erin’s my friend. If we need to get you to the Healer of Tenbault or—Saliss of Lights visits Erin’s inn. However ill you are, we can fight it.”
Maviola’s eyes widened. Then she put her head back and laughed. Olesm paused. He had been so sure he was right. But Maviola just laughed until she cried, and wiped the tears from her eyes.
“You’re too beautiful, Olesm Swifttail.”
That was all she said. And she kissed him on the cheek. Then Maviola shook her head and stood.
“I won’t go today. Or tomorrow. But soon. Let’s just make the most of today, alright?”
“Okay. But please don’t go.”
The Drake stood up, feeling helpless. He saw the young woman turn her head to the open window. And for a moment, she hesitated. Then fire laughed and embraced him.
“I have so much to do. So much I want to do, now. I’ll try. But I make no promises.”
She whispered. Then the young [Lady] took Olesm’s arm and spun him around. Her laughter filled the apartment.
“Come on. You have so much left to learn! Combat—[Mages]—let’s study for a few hours. Then you have to go to work.”
“And you? Are you going to work with Hexel…?”
Olesm looked at Maviola, whom he had hired to help him with his duties. She had been helping manage the [Architect] Lamia, but Maviola shook her head.
“Your Councilman—Elirr?—is far better at it than I. He and Hexel get along better, always.”
“Believe me. I know how people work. I can see it. Today, I think it’s time I met Erin Solstice. I have something to teach her as well.”
The [Strategist] caught his breath.
“What’s that? I mean—Erin? Why her?”
“She has a lot of potential. Just like you. I see that too.”
And she looked at him like he was the sun. The Drake held onto Maviola. He didn’t want to let her go.
It started with an upset [Lady]. And weak tea.
Magnolia Reinhart sipped from the weak cup of tea. It was bitter—lacking sugar. She made a polite face. Anyone who knew Magnolia Reinhart knew that she drank tea with more sugar than water. But sugar was in short supply, and even the demands of etiquette hadn’t conjured sugar out of the sky.
But then—that was also the fault of the mousey-haired [Lady] who was sitting opposite Magnolia. The [Lady] Reinhart coughed.
“Ressa, perhaps a bit of sweetener from the coach…?”
Her words were almost preempted by the sugar cubes dumped unceremoniously into her cup. Ressa, the [Maid] waiting attendance on the two was far more polite with Lady Edere Sanito’s cup.
“Oh, yes please.”
The Lady Sanito was all too eager for Ressa to lace the sugar cube in her cup with a sugar tong—Ressa even stirred the cup with a silver spoon. Magnolia did her cup herself. She briskly stirred and sipped the much sweeter liquid with a sigh.
“I’m—I’m so dreadfully sorry, Lady—um, Magnolia. But sugar has been so dreadfully dear of late–”
“Hence the reason I’m here. Not to worry, Edere. And let us use first names! We’re both [Ladies], after all.”
Magnolia reached out and placed her hand on Sanito’s leg. The woman jumped, but flushed with the compliment. It was a cozy setting and Magnolia was being uncharacteristically familiar and intimate. Welcoming, even.
The Sanito House was not rich. It wasn’t as destitute as House Byres, say, at the mercy of [Merchants], but its funds were limited, unlike Magnolia Reinhart, who had a personal contract with Stormlord Seagrass to get her sugar on time.
Of late, it had suffered. House Sanito had sent reinforcements to Lord Tyrion Veltras—not without cost—and it had been affected by another economic event.
A [Trade War]. Even now, Sanito’s household was conspicuously devoid of certain number of goods. Iron for the forges wasn’t coming down the trade roads. Good preservatives like salt, oranges from past Walchaís lands—and sugar were also out of stock.
Not that it meant the lands were starving. But the pinch was widely felt. So widely in fact—that Magnolia Reinhart was here, sipping tea in a quiet little conference with Lady Edere without Lord Alman Sanito’s knowledge.
She had received the black flower of shame from House Sanito a few months ago. An occasion that the nobles had had cause to regret.
“I—it’s good to taste a bit of sweet, Magnolia. And this dreadful [Trade War] hurts both houses, doesn’t it?”
Lady Sanito was incapable of conjuring sugar out of the air at a wave of her hand. She had mousey hair. She was not ugly by any means. Far from it; she had charmed Lord Sanito with her beauty and he had married her, a commoner, and made her a [Lady].
Of course, Edere hadn’t been exactly a [Farmhand] but a [Merchant]’s daughter. And the marriage had been good for House Sanito. But she was just a bit too low-level. Lacking in ambition, say. Magnolia tapped a finger against her teacup.
She was also less than subtle. All well and good. She smiled.
“The [Trade War] is a bit of a nuisance. But I haven’t found myself unduly discomforted, Lady Edere. Ah, but Invrisil is fed from all roads. Ressa, more sugar.”
She thrust her cup out. The [Maid] gave her a glare, but she dutifully put more cubes of sugar in the teacup. Lady Edere stared as the [Lady] happily drank the sugar-slurry. Magnolia was overdoing it, but then again—it was working.
“I—I—quite, Magnolia. But it’s such a dreadful thing—can’t we put this unpleasantness behind us?”
“Mm. Perhaps. But being called a coward, even if it is in flower-language, does grate, doesn’t it?”
Magnolia’s eyes sparkled as she drained her cup. Edere paled.
“Alman was advised to do that, Magnolia. It wasn’t his idea—”
She broke off as Magnolia raised one finger. The [Lady], in her shocking pink dress, smiled with an edge.
“I’m sure he was. But that doesn’t change the fact that he knew what he was sending me. Edere, I’m quite aware you wouldn’t have countenanced such an insult. Much less that you hadn’t been at the Sacrifice of Roses. But I was there, you see. And Alman—excuse me, Lord Alman—was not. Perfectly understandable; he was far from First Landing so it wasn’t an act of cowardice. But it grates, you see?”
“I do, Magnolia. But—”
But House Sanito is tired of bleeding gold over a petty insult and a political argument we were never too invested in.
Magnolia read the unspoken language in the [Lady]’s posture and nodded. She glanced out the window.
A tall half-Elf with inhuman—indeed, quite inhuman—features was grumpily feeding a dog scraps as Reynold stood at attention. Teriarch was bored, but he had come along with her. She had better hurry this up. Magnolia sighed.
“Let’s not beat around the bush, Edere. An insult was made. And my [Trade War] affects dozens of noble houses. Sanito has been hard-hit. I am aware. But I will not lift my [Trade War] for another month. The other noble houses may lose countless thousands of gold in profits, but that is the cost of war with me.”
Edere paled. Already the [Blacksmiths], [Bakers]—any number of professions were screaming for salt, sugar, ore, and all the other things Magnolia’s Skill was making twice or three times as expensive. Another month of that?
“Can’t we—come to some arrangement, Magnolia?”
“Well—that would be acceptable.”
Magnolia cast a glance out the window. Teriarch was making the dog stand up on two legs to get a treat. He seemed to be trying to teach it to bow, next. Or genuflect. She rolled her eyes. Dragons. Everyone had to bow to them. It was probably why they didn’t get along with cats. She glanced up and put a big smile on her face.
“Edere, I think we can come to an arrangement. However, I would have some…requirements.”
The other [Lady] licked her lips.
“Of course. But…what?”
She needn’t have been worried. Magnolia smiled and steepled her fingers as Ressa took her cup and refilled it with the dreadful tea.
“Oh, just a public renouncement of the insult, Edere. A few strong words made publically—and of course, maybe a cordial gesture or two. Nothing strenuous.”
Edere almost collapsed with relief. Magnolia could have pressed her hard. But all she wanted was a chink in the armor of offended nobles unwilling to renounce their insult. House Sanito was a good weak point. Lord Alman wasn’t the most stubborn idiot about; the House didn’t have deep coffers. And Edere was no high-level [Lady] with a backbone of steel. Most importantly though—she and Lord Alman were genuinely affectionate towards each other. When one spoke, the other listened.
It was all just levers to Magnolia. She waited as she laid out her very minimal requirements. A public refutation, a gesture of overt good will towards House Reinhart that would pull the other noble houses into refuting their insult for a cessation of the [Trade War].
“…And I’m sure that within a day, House Sanito will find more than a dozen [Merchants] lined up to sell reasonably-priced goods. They do have a nose for such things.”
And I’ll incentivize them to give you good deals. Lady Edere nibbled at her lip as she thought. She was already half-nodding, but she wasn’t a complete idiot. The [Lady] glanced up at Magnolia with a hint of suspicion.
“I—I can certainly get Alman to do that, Magnolia. But—I can’t help but notice you mentioned ‘a few other cordial favors’. Might I ask….what that is?”
Magnolia sighed. She’d forgotten that Edere was a [Coin Lady]. Not exactly a high-level class, but she had [Merchant] roots. She’d notice a little thing like that in any deal, even verbal ones. She smiled though, with genuine good humor. Because the truth was easy.
“Nothing arduous, Edere. To you or Alman. I’d just like you two to attend…a little party this summer. Around the solstice? I plan to attend myself and I’d consider it a personal favor.”
Ressa made a face behind Edere as the [Lady] blinked and then her face lit up.
“Oh, is that all? Of course! If that’s all…”
“Just a little gathering. I’m hesitant to say where since the location has yet to be fully decided. But it is a personal favor—not my party, you understand? Favors for other friends…”
Magnolia looked out the window. Teriarch, who was listening in, glanced up at her. She casually stuck out her tongue behind her teacup. The things she did for the old man. But he had asked and since he was out of his cave, she was minded to grant him his odd requests.
Damn that Ryoka Griffin. Magnolia felt jealous of her, even as she and Edere came to a [Lady]’s gentle accord. She smiled, shook Edere’s hand, and tried to leave as fast as possible so she could get Teriarch to some entertainment. The plays, perhaps. The longer he stayed awake and out in the sun—even as a simulacra—the better. But there were little ceremonies to do, the new baby of Edere’s to coo over, getting Teriarch to stop teleporting cats into trees—
Magnolia Reinhart was busy. But she was happy.
Erin was giggling over Numbtongue playing Minesweeper when Maviola El entered the inn. The Hobgoblin took the game like literal life-and-death when the concept of landmines had been explained to him. He was actually sweating as he eyed a ‘4’ square. The inn was…lively.
That was what the [Firestarter Lady] noticed. She had not lied to Olesm, before she had sent him off to do his job. She could read people.
There was some saying about having a hammer and seeing the world as a nail. Maviola had never thought it was a bad thing to look at the world through the lens of what you were good at. She was fire. She gained a unique Skill based on fire and in her prime, the entire continent of Izril had known her for her flames.
So she understood the inn as fire. A collection of souls, each one with a different level of fire. Passion. Some were burnt embers, like the Drake [Veteran]; a wounded soul. She ached for him. But Maviola had seen many of his kind. Her concern was with the brightest glows.
Olesm Swifttail had been one such, for all he had been muted by shame, his broken ego, self-doubt. Maviola had just unearthed the spark. She had done it to turn the Drake into what she believed he could be. Liscor was a place that all of Izril—maybe the world—would turn on. She felt that. So if she could change the future in a significant way…
But look. This inn was filled with those bright sparks. They were the kind of people that the matriarch of House El had learned to spot. Those who would go on to change the world if only they lived and were brought to life.
Maviola looked around. And she saw them.
See. A [Princess] swept the floor with a broom, demonstrating the flawless version of sweeping, and then handed it to a new recruit, and a Gnoll girl timidly copied her. Maviola smiled and Lyonette turned and lit up.
“Are you and Olesm here? I don’t see him—”
The [Princess] hurried over. Maviola laughed.
“Just me, today. Am I welcome in your place, Miss Marquin?”
Lyonette halted and the two shared a knowing look. Lyonette carefully bowed and Maviola inclined her head.
“Always, Maviola. And I’d be delighted to sit with you. In a few moments? I have more questions…especially about, um, inter-House dealings.”
Politics. Maviola’s eyes twinkled. Lyonette knew who she was. Or had guessed. The [Princess] probably saw noble titles and ranks in the same way that Maviola looked at souls.
“Of course. It would be my delight. But perhaps tonight? I have someone else to speak to.”
“That’s fine! Can I get you a drink?”
“…A blue fruit juice?”
Maviola smiled as Lyonette served her the drink herself. She liked Lyonette. And relating stories from her youth as if they were things she’d heard was easy enough. The [Princess] benefitted from her surfeit of knowledge; Maviola liked Lyonette as someone like her.
But she was not here for Lyonette. Maviola’s eyes followed the [Princess]. Yes, there was a spark. She was high-level for her age. Especially as a [Princess]. Maviola El had met many as the leader of House El, mostly from Terandria. And most had been sad creatures, barely above Level 16, even when they were twice as old. But Lyonette shone. The [Princess] walked across the floor, passing by a white Gnoll riding a beaver…
Maviola, Lyonette, and half the patrons of the inn turned to stare at that. Even Lady Firestarter had to take a moment to admire Mrsha the White Rider as she rode a large Fortress Beaver across the inn’s floor. She waved her wand and held a stick with an apple in her other paw.
The Fortress Beaver—who would make most ordinary large dogs small by comparison—shuffled across the floor, good-naturedly playing Mrsha’s game. The adults all backed up; the beaver could possibly snap a leg bone if it was so inclined.
“Mrsha! What are you doing? Stop that—”
Lyonette scolded, but the White Rider saw the pursuing [Princess] and kicked her trusty steed. The Fortress Beaver lumbered forwards towards a wall. The door to the Garden of Sanctuary opened and the two fled through. Lyonette hurried after them and smacked into a wall.
She chased after them. Maviola nearly laughed herself off her chair. Beavers! When had that happened? She looked around as Lyonette cursed and chased the door to the garden—which had opened on the far wall. Mrsha was better at using it than Lyonette—or Erin’s [Garden of Sanctuary] prioritized her will.
“Now, where is Erin Solstice…?”
She looked around, but all she saw was…another spark? Maviola turned her head and saw a girl on the stage.
“Okay, the plot is of a married woman who’s just—just had enough. It’s a classic play, and I really think we shouldn’t cast Jasi for it. You understand?”
Galina stood on stage with Emme, the [Manager], Andel, a [Writer] for the Players of Celum, and Temile, the [Producer] of the Players of Liscor.
“Wait, I don’t understand. Jasi’s our best female lead. Why wouldn’t we make her the lead?”
Emme’s arms were folded. The Dwarf woman, who had come from Invrisil this morning just to hear Galina with Andel (and get the extra-fluffy soufflés), looked skeptically at Galina. The young woman sighed.
“But it’s not always about casting the best actor. Don’t you see, Emme? Jasi’s great. She’s just—amazing. But she can’t do everything. This is A Doll’s House—it’s about a married woman unhappy with her life. Who’s been married for a while. You look at Jasi—does she look old to you?”
The three troupe members looked at each other. Temile coughed.
“She doesn’t look like that, I’ll grant you. But she could play the part—”
“But why does she have to be the only star? She’s already in every big performance; this would give her time off. And you want to treat your [Lead Actors] right…right?”
“She has a point. Wesle and Jasi both say they’re suffering from vocal strain, even with potions. We could trial this…but who’s our lead?”
“An older woman. Someone…someone who can really speak to married women who are unhappy. She shouldn’t be radiant. She should be a mother. A wife!”
Galina was more excited than she’d been since coming to this world. She looked around as Emme bit her lip.
“…We don’t have many. But come to think of it, I heard Yaina was married, didn’t you, Andel? Divorced—she’s our candidate for mothers. Good, solid acting in Shakespearian roles.”
The young woman from Earth rolled her eyes. As if Shakespeare was the be-all-end-all of the stage!
“Well, can you get her to run through the script? I’ve—it’s hard for me to write it out. I don’t have Erin’s memory, so it’s rough. I was hoping you could help me get it to the professional level…”
Andel studied the script he’d been given.
“It can definitely be updated. But the core conceit? I like it. Emme, we should put this on.”
“But let’s trial it in the inn. The Players of Liscor can put it on and if it’s suitable for Invrisil…?”
Temile and Emme put their heads together. Galina’s fingers gripped each other behind her back. Emme looked up, still looking dubious, but nodding.
“Erin vouches for you, Miss Galina. So I suppose we had better try it. I’m just not sure married life is as…as grand as our other plays.”
And that was the problem. The Players of Celum had been given bombastic dramas by Erin. They had wrongly understood what theatre was. Galina was about to jumpstart their education into the stage. If she could get in with them. The young woman held her breath.
“Then—you’ll hire me?”
Emme blinked. Andel snorted as he ruffled through the tidy, painstakingly-written links in ink. Temile laughed. As Galina looked at them, Emme smiled and laughed too.
“Hire you? Miss Galina—that was never in doubt. How many more plays do you know?”
And the stage claimed another soul. But then—Galina had been doomed from the beginning. She screamed with delight and hugged the others. She liked her friends from Earth—but they were all different. This was where Galina belonged. They were splitting up. And that was—okay.
“Alright! Who’s here for baseball? Kids, over here!”
Rose waved her arms and a bunch of little Gnolls and Drakes queued up with bats and gloves in hand. Outside, Joseph raised his hand.
“Anyone playing football—?”
A huge roar answered him. The largest crowd of kids and adults marched on Joseph and he looked around. Even a Councilmember, Jeiss, wanted his attention.
“Joseph! Joseph! The first intercity game with Pallass is in three days! Can our team win? You saw the game…”
“I did. If we practice, we’ll smoke them.”
Joseph reassured Jeiss. The Drake was a huge fan of the game already. He was grinning.
“Poor shots, right?”
“And worse teamwork. Are you in the team?”
“I hope so! I uh, took time off from the Council for this. Who’re you picking for the final team?”
“I’ll let you know. One second. Kids—follow Kevin!”
“Hey! Ekirra, my man! High five! Low five!”
Kevin slapped Ekirra’s paws and then moved them over to one of the newly-flattened field areas. It was temporary; the spring rains would play havoc with the landscape, but Hexel had great plans. Kevin grabbed one of the balls and addressed his audience.
Rows of little Drakes, Gnolls, and even some Humans stared solemnly up at him. They were taking this—seriously. Each one was a [Kicker], or—a new class—[Dribbler]. It wasn’t as bad as it sounded to the worried parents and Kevin had explained it was actually a good class.
“We’ll practice kicking today! And maybe if we have time, we’ll play some real football, yeah?”
He grinned as Joseph turned around to glare.
“You mean, rugby.”
“Whatever you say, Joseph! You’re Mr. Soccer!”
The Spanish young man flipped Kevin off and he laughed. Kevin produced the odd, American Football ball and showed it to Ekirra. The Gnoll blinked at it.
“How do you play that, Mister Kevin?”
Some of the other adults were staring curiously too. Kevin winked at the little Gnoll.
“We’ll see after practice. It’s another fun game! Okay, make pairs! We’re practicing passing—remember, kick with the inside of the foot! Drakes especially—we don’t want any more deflated balls…”
More excitement and drama. Another sport? Kevin and Joseph hadn’t cleared it with Erin; they didn’t understand the value of tactically applied sports moments. But all eyes were on Joseph as he kicked the ball.
“Miss Imani, what’s that?”
Palt the Centaur stared at the round…doughy…ball that seemed ready for the oven. But it was on a plate. And apparently, done?
“Er…what is it?”
Imani ducked her head. She was nervous, but not in the same way as she usually was. You could reduce Imani to tears if you screamed loudly in her ear at night. Which was due to her understandable fear of monsters. But this was more nerves as one fan of cuisine to another.
“It’s—a starch. See? It’s cassava—well, it should be. But I found a root that’s almost as good. And flour with water…”
Well, plantain flour. Which wasn’t wheat…but Imani had been experimenting. Octavia had actually helped with that. Palt eyed the food.
He was making rice. More saffron rice that he was going to add a lovely stir-fry to. Erin didn’t know how to cook vegetables and the Centaur liked cooking.
So, apparently, did Imani. And after a few incidents where she’d run screaming away from the Centaur, she could even speak to him.
“So how do you eat it?”
“Oh…with this soup. See?”
It was a beefy side dish. Palt stared at the fufu, and the beef in the thick broth. You’d mix the two. He sniffed.
“Mhm. Erin asked me to make some. See?”
Imani tore off a small ball of the doughy substance and dipped it in the soup. She popped it into her mouth and ate with apparent relish.
“Mind if I have some?”
Palt waited for the nod and took a helping. He wasn’t a meat-person, but he brightened as he ate it.
“That’s rather good! Will you teach me the recipe?”
Imani saw the furry faces staring at her as she turned, dropped the plate of fufu, and screamed. Mrsha, and the beavers fled as the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary] exposed the food-thieves. Palt pointed—the dish and fufu stopped before it could land on the floor. He caught his breath and Imani covered her face.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”
Palt shouted. He saw Lyonette march into the kitchen and Mrsha the Very Much in Trouble fled with her beavers into a damn dam. Which Erin had bought wood for. Imani looked at Palt and he smiled.
“It was just—”
“Totally understood. Why don’t we put this outside? And maybe if Mrsha’s good she can have a bite. Then again—”
The Fortress Beavers were fighting Lyonette as she attacked them with a broom, mainly swatting at their behinds. Mrsha the Even More In Trouble barreled into Lyonette from behind and the [Princess] went splash into the pond. Palt closed the door over Lyonette’s outraged laughter and shrieking.
“…I think she might be getting bread and water today.”
Imani smiled gratefully as Palt took her arm. She never noticed him whispering the [Remove Fear] spell. After all. An [Illusionist] should be able to do that much unnoticed. Or what was the point?
And last and perhaps least…two young men had neither job nor passion. No—that wasn’t correct. It was just that they hadn’t found their passion.
“Sucks that we don’t have something. Joseph’s got football, Galina’s in love with those [Actors]. What do we get, Leon?”
The two were in Invrisil, though. And today, Troy, much discontented, was walking with his hands in pockets. Looking at the shops, the sights—all the things he couldn’t buy.
“I’ve got five silver. How much do you have?”
The two young men looked at each other. Neither one complained…at least not aloud. They were given free room and board and they were being paid by the hour for help. It was just that they were earning an actual paycheck per hour, not…free money. They made as much as Ishkr and Drassi did. A bit less, actually, given their inexperience and if they wanted lots of spending money, they needed to work for hours.
Everyone else had better jobs. But Leon and Troy had not been blessed with…with…anything. Joseph, now, he’d gotten lucky. So had Galina. They just happened to have the right talents. But what did Leon and Troy get?
“Nothing. I don’t feel like lifting boxes all day. Maybe we should beg, like Kevin.”
“Kevin’s Kevin. He’d survive anywhere. Imani gets special treatment.”
That was true…but both felt guilty for pointing that out. Nevertheless, the two walked on. Leon groused.
“It’s not like we don’t have skills!”
“If this was a videogame, we’d be the best at it. But magic doesn’t’ work like that.”
“Think we can get Erin to give us money for a spellbook?”
“Well—what are we good at? Joseph and Galina have skills. And you were taking courses in engineering, right Troy?”
The young man from Greece shook his head.
“No—no—uh—I was going to. After high school. I was into…and you were really into tabletop games…”
Miniatures. Leon was a big tabletop fan, which wasn’t the biggest of things in Poland. And Troy was also a gamer. Video games. The two looked at each other.
“What if we made a tabletop game?”
“Right! So…how are we casting and designing the miniatures? I mean, I know what they look like. But how do we put that into an actual figurine?”
“Uh…well, maybe cards?”
“Can you draw?”
They walked on, talking of ideas. Cards, now—Leon also liked Magic the Gathering. They counted their silver and then paused to duck out of the way as a crowd of people protesting The Golden Triangle marched through Invrisil. The sad, the desperate—the two young man walked past them, heads bowed as the furious, hurt people screamed for someone to do something. But what could you do?
The money was gone.
After a while, Numbtongue got bored of minesweeper. He began to listen to music. Erin sat with him for a while. But it was just a distraction. After a while—in between songs, she had to ask.
“Numbtongue. Am I a jerk?”
He looked at her.
He patted her on the shoulder again. Erin stared at him.
“Thank you for your honesty.”
“Welcome. Be shush.”
The Goblin went back to listening to the song. He was trying to come up with a guitar cover. Erin stood up. Sighing, she went to the door and opened it.
“Don’t play on the computer too long.”
She warned him. The Hobgoblin looked back at her.
Erin opened and closed her mouth.
“…I think my mom told me that once. I dunno, maybe your head explodes. Okaygottago!”
She closed the door. And nearly ran into a young woman with fire in her hair.
“Oh! Excuse me!”
Erin smiled. So did the young woman.
“Pardon me. I was actually just looking around.”
“For the bathroom? It’s outside. Or if you wanted Octavia’s shop—it’s down the other hallway. Door at the end.”
Erin pointed. Octavia was now part of the inn and she was happy with it. Actually—she was more focused on her apprenticeship with Saliss to care. Erin was happy for her, even if Numbtongue grumbled that Octavia was too busy these days to go mining with him.
“Thank you, but I was actually looking for you, Miss Erin Solstice.”
The raven-and-ember-haired girl grinned. Her eyes were vibrant orange, Erin couldn’t help but notice. And she felt like she’d met her…
“Me? Uh. Do I know you? Wait—wait—aren’t you—?”
“Maviola. Pleased to meet you. Olesm and I have been stopping here regularly.”
“Oh. You’re Olesm’s girlfr—”
Erin bit her tongue. Olesm’s girlfriend? She had heard about it, but she hadn’t believed it. She gaped at Maviola.
“I’m she. And you’re Erin Solstice. Do you have a moment?”
“I—uh—y—sure—hey! You were the one who threw alcohol all over me! Ceria’s noble friend! Wait, you’re a [Lady]!”
Erin remembered at last. Maviola’s teeth flashed. She bowed slightly, and it was elegant and charming.
“As I am charged, so guilty! I think our meeting has been long overdue, Erin. May I call you that?”
“Sure? But wait…why are we meeting? I mean…”
Erin found Maviola tugging her into another of the smaller private rooms. There was something about the young woman that was compelling. Erin found Maviola pulling out a chair. She smiled as she sat down. Erin frowned. Something…
“I’ve been wanting to talk with you. After all—you and I are similar. Have you noticed?”
“That we’re similar? Nah. I mean—you’re taller. And you have cool hair. Uh—we’re both Humans? I…is something…are you doing something to me?”
The [Innkeeper] narrowed her eyes. She couldn’t look away from Maviola. The fiery girl leaned on the table.
“Of course. The question is: what?”
Erin tried to look away. But her eyes were drawn to Maviola. Much like a moth was to light. Or eyes to a…fire. She felt it.
“Stop that. You—you’re using your aura-thing!”
“Stop that. You—you’re a [Lady]!”
Erin finally recognized the signs. It felt like Magnolia, Pryde, and Wuvren. Only—different. She had the impression she was sitting across from a bonfire. Maviola’s eyes locked on Erin’s.
Erin struggled. She hadn’t been prepared for a fight, even a mental one. She bit her lip, tried to remember Lyonette’s lessons. Focus. Gather your will like—Erin pushed. She felt something pushing back, encircling her. She glowered.
“Stop. Doing. That!”
She shot up and flipped the table on Maviola. Or tried to. The table was too big. But Erin felt the force locking her down break. Maviola slipped back as Erin raised a fist.
“Get out of my inn! You [Ladies] are like—rats! Shoo!”
She punched. Maviola dodged backwards.
“I’m trying to help you. Don’t you see how much you need it? I could have persuaded you to walk out of your inn before you started fighting back.”
“That’s a crummy way of helping! I don’t want you here. Shoo! Get lost! Get—”
Maviola caught Erin’s punch. Since it wasn’t a [Minotaur Punch], it wasn’t that strong. She grabbed Erin’s other wrist.
“Calm down, Erin. We’re alike.”
“Like heck we are. Let go.”
Erin head-butted her. Maviola wasn’t expecting that. The [Innkeeper] had the satisfaction of watching Maviola sit down hard on the floor. The [Lady] blinked up at her.
“Well. You’re more like Magnolia than I thought.”
The [Innkeeper]’s eyes narrowed. Maviola was rapidly getting on her nerves.
“I don’t know why you came here. But I don’t like you already. Stop bothering me.”
She turned, to get someone to kick Maviola out. But the [Lady] stood up, and grabbed Erin’s shoulder.
Erin whirled. She raised a fist. And saw fire.
Maviola burst into flames. Her hair caught fire, her eyes blazed. Her hand holding Erin’s shoulder was wreathed in brilliant, white-red flames.
With a shout of panic, Erin tore away from her. But the door caught fire. She backed away as Maviola stood there. The fire was spreading! White-hot flames were covering the floor, the door—she was going to burn everything in the room! She was—
The fire was familiar. Erin stared at it. It looked—gentle.
White-red fire, yes. So brilliant it hurt the eyes at first. But the longer you looked, the less harsh the flames seemed. They had a gentleness to them. Erin felt it instinctively. It looked like—
Kindness made fire. She stared into Maviola’s burning eyes and saw—
A woman bending down, laughing at her brother’s rueful expression as a toddler crawled out of his arms towards her. She had never been married. But she was delighted. Teasing. She lifted the boy up and he laughed and caught at the flames and sparks around her. Maviola looked at her brother, Fulviolo El, leader of the House of El as he—
The flames flickered. They went out. The door stopped burning; the wood untouched. Maviola rubbed at her forehead. Flicked a bit of white fire off her shoulder.
It had burned nothing. Perhaps it could have. Kindness could be a terribly painful flame to those it hurt. But not to Erin. The [Innkeeper] stood there. She had seen the fire. She recognized it.
“Memory fire? But that’s….”
Impossible, she almost said. But Erin remembered. [Like Fire, Memory]. It wasn’t her Skill. [Immortal Moment] had been different. If Erin had to describe it—it had felt green—which meant it was unique, as far as she understood it. But [Like Fire, Memory]…someone had earned the Skill first.
“Let me try again. I’m too used to getting my way. I thought I could barge in your place and give you a lesson. Impress you. Oh, well. I’m a hothead.”
She chuckled at that. Erin just kept staring. Maviola sat back down.
“I’m sorry, Erin Solstice. When I said we were similar—I meant it literally. You have the same fire as me. The same Skill. My Skill.”
She touched her breast, lightly. Erin stared. She had seen—a much older woman.
“Who—who are you?”
The [Lady] sighed. She leaned on her arms and smiled.
“Sit down, please. I can explain. I came here to help. Olesm told me you were full of surprises. But he didn’t mention how fast you were.”
“I have a quick head. Uh—who was—”
“Me. I didn’t realize you could see the memory in my fire. But I’ve never met anyone like you. Sit, please.”
Erin sat. Maviola sighed. They regarded each other a second time. Erin was shaken. Shook. But she was thinking.
“You’re a [Lady].”
“You have—[Like Fire, Memory]. Don’t you?”
“I was the first.”
Maviola’s eyes glittered with amusement as Erin’s jaw dropped.
“No way. But then—when you threw alcohol on me—and why didn’t you say anything?”
“It wasn’t a good time. I was impressed, to be honest. You’ve learned to call at least two different fires, haven’t you?”
“Four. Well—well, I can do three. The last one is hardest. It’s purple…”
Maviola laughed in delight and clapped her hands together.
“Purple? You mean—love?”
Erin jumped and blushed.
“Love? No, it’s happiness!”
“What? Love is purple.”
“No it’s not. I’ve never had love fire. I have glory-fire, which is pink—”
“That’s gold for me.”
The two stared at each other. Lady Firestarter blinked, and then she started giggling.
“So it’s different colors! Of course! I’ve always seen glory as gold. But you must see it as—pink! Pink!”
“Hey! Pink is a good color!”
Erin defended herself. Maviola was nodding and laughing.
“Of course! And hatred is invisible—how brilliant! I have no invisible fire. Hatred is black for me. I wonder if I could change the color? I’ve never tried.”
“But you have the Skill? Who—who are you? I heard you and Olesm were dating…”
“We’re not dating.”
Maviola’s laughter turned into an amused look. Erin blinked.
“But Drassi said—”
“We’re not—‘boyfriend’ and ‘girlfriend’. We’ve been intimate. But I don’t have much time left.”
The young woman—no—Maviola’s amused look made the two terms seem juvenile. Erin’s eyes popped.
“You and Olesm? But—wh—”
The woman shook her head.
“That’s something else. Let’s talk more about the fire.”
“No it’s not. Go back. Explain. Why—”
“Erin. Look at me.”
The [Lady] spread her arms. And Erin saw her eyes shimmer. Fire raced up her arm. But this time—it wasn’t one color.
Her hand burned with white flame. But further up, green fire, calm and cool, the fire of contentment, burned. Then red, passion, rage.
Black hatred. Maviola El stared down at the Goblin King as the Flowers of Izril began to sortie. She pointed, and the [Archers] launched a fiery volley that exploded among the ranks of the Goblins. But there were too many—
Sorrowful blue. Fulviolo El was dead. His son lay sick in bed, just a boy, as Maviola received the news. She stood there, as everyone turned to her. But she could not believe. Her brother was dead. Dead—he was—
Gold glory. She rode through a forest fire, her army marching through the fire that burned only their enemies. The Drakes were in retreat; even their Oldbloods fled this fire. Lady Firestarter charged—
Purple, deep love. Erin saw Maviola kissing Olesm—a woman dancing with a laughing man—
Like a rainbow of color, the flames raced up Maviola’s arm. But more colors than even a rainbow held. Each one was beautiful. Deep. Erin felt tears springing to her eyes. She stared at Maviola. And she saw a young woman. But in the memory, she saw Maviola aging. Her memories of her body betraying her. Yet the fire remained. And now—
The two sat there. Erin blinked. And then she looked at the [Lady] sitting across from her. And her objections faded. She saw an old woman smiling gently. Her face lined, bound by a chair. Her form withered. For a moment. But she had always been the young woman who lounged in the chair. Even as time changed her.
“Oh. So that’s who you are.”
That was all the [Innkeeper] said. Maviola almost—flinched. In a moment, Erin had seen more than perhaps even the [Lady] intended. She shook her head.
“I’ve never done that before, you know.”
“Really? It was beautiful.”
“Yes. But it’s also intimate. As you well know.”
Erin smiled ruefully.
“Yeah. That was. Wow. I’m—sorry for head butting you. Uh—are you okay?”
The [Lady]’s eyes widened. She started laughing again and plucked at her arm.
“What? Oh—this isn’t an illusion. I’m fine. I’ve taken worse blows before.”
“Phew. Thank goodness.”
Erin shook her head. She kept staring at Maviola. After a second, Erin opened her mouth.
“—You’re a [Lady]. A Lady.”
She meant it in another sense. She had seen Maviola in a ballroom, greeting [Kings], even having royalty treat her like an equal. Leading armies. But she wanted Maviola to say it. The [Lady] inclined her head. She took a breath.
“True enough. Let me say it, then. My name is Maviola El. And I hope you will let me teach you in the time I have left, my successor of fire.”
Erin’s breath caught. El. Even she knew the Five Families. But she had known the instant she stared into the fire.
“I was…once…the matriarch of the House of El. Lady Firestarter, my nickname. Maviola and Fulviolo El. My brother was always the responsible one. But he had to die and I had to take charge. That was over a decade ago. Before that? I was a wild girl. I fought in a few wars. I had quite a fun time. I never managed to find someone to settle down with. But there were enough children in my life. That is me. And you?”
The [Lady] looked at Erin. Her soul bared. The fire had been the most intimate exposure of her past that Erin had seen. By contrast, the words just reaffirmed that truth. Erin’s hand shook.
“But you look—”
“A Potion of Youth. Wonderful things. Your [Alchemist] friend made them. Saliss of Lights can restore even someone as old as me into a young body. For a while.”
Maviola laughed at Erin’s expression. Erin sat back, holding her head.
“No way. But you were old. I mean—sorry—but you were!”
“Dreadfully old! I was bound in my wheelchair. See?”
Maviola flicked a finger. A dusty, grey flame appeared. Erin saw Maviola sitting in her wheelchair. Experienced it. She felt bound, too weary, incapable of rising. Her very bones ached, despite the tinctures and potions. Erin felt the aged frustration even as she jerked her eyes away.
The woman’s lips quirked.
“It gets better. Your body betrays you. The worst part is remembering what it’s like to run about. And half-Elves getting to live far longer. I was so jealous.”
“Magic. Alchemy. Surely you’ve heard of magical spells?”
Erin had seen [Fireballs]. Powerful spells. Even undead. But this seemed grander than the rest. Maviola nodded.
“That’s mundane. Saliss of Lights is one of the world’s greatest [Alchemists]. He stands at the cusp of rediscovering true wonders. The kind that reversed aging. Potions that could allegedly bring back the dead, give the drinker wings. Transform them from one species into another. That is true alchemy.”
The [Innkeeper] sat back. She was taking it all in. But Maviola was looking at her.
“You’re so surprised. But you’ve seen so much yourself. I saw it, in your fire. Will you…show me?”
Erin jerked. Her heart pounded at the simple request. Still, Maviola had shown her so much. Shyly, Erin raised a hand.
“I can’t do it like you.”
“That’s quite alright. If you could, I wouldn’t be here. What can you do?”
“Um—happiness is hardest.”
“This is—easy. Depression fire. See?”
A blue flame appeared in Erin’s cupped palms. Maviola’s smile faded. She stared into Erin’s fire. And saw—
Erin knelt over a pile of dust, searching for Toren. Calling his name.
She held Headscratcher, trying to hear his last words.
Klbkch was dead.
Scenes flickered through the fire. Not any one thing. Maviola brushed at her eyes.
“You’ve seen too much.”
“Maybe. But you—”
“I’m old. I should have sadness enough for a lifetime. But you? You’re a girl. You shouldn’t be able to call so many memories out. That’s why I’m here.”
Maviola reached out and touched Erin’s hand. Erin jerked, but it was too late. Maviola touched the fire—both blinked—
The Worker walked towards Erin. She raised the frying pan and he stopped. The Worker raised all four arms.
“Please. I mean you no harm.”
The words were familiar. The way of speaking was familiar. Erin hesitated. She stared at him. She knew him. But she asked anyways.
“I am not Pawn.”
The Worker shook his head. But he was not Ksmvr either. He knelt before Erin suddenly, and she nearly tossed the jar of acid. But the Worker made no move. He spoke to her, voice loud in the silence. And she knew his name before he spoke it.
“I am Knight.”
Erin stopped. And walked out of herself. She stared around as time froze.
Her voice was a ghost in the memory as she saw herself staring at [Knight]. Someone else appeared.
“I don’t know. This has never happened before. We’re in your memory.”
Maviola stared around. She reached for Knight. Touched at the Antinium.
“What is this?”
“An [Immortal Moment].”
She stared around. The two Skills had merged. Erin would never forget this moment. And in her fire was the memory. Maviola touched at her chest.
“It hurts. I feel—you.”
Erin’s panic, her confusion and fear. Erin felt it too. But she had lived it. For Maviola—her eyes glittered. She clenched her teeth.
She looked around. And both of them saw.
A figure crawling up a hill. Crimson eyes made of ruby. Pure terror.
Erin’s heart clenched, but she refused to retreat. Maviola turned pale and backed away.
“Dead gods. What is that?”
The past resumed. More Antinium stepped forwards. Naming themselves.
Milner-Barry. Garry. Bird. Calabrian. So many—and Erin had never forgotten them. Maviola walked among them. Erin was in two places, recreating the memory and watching as well, a spectator.
“Look at them. They are nothing like the Antinium I know.”
Erin blinked. The Antinium were gone. The fire flickered. In the private room, the fire changed to red. The two women’s hands were linked. Erin felt—
Rage. Maviola stood with Fulviolo, Petra and Ulva Terland, Lord Dallien Veltras—only Wellfar had refused to send aid to House Reinhart.
And there was Magnolia Reinhart. A girl. But she rode, garbed in armor and protective equipment at the head of an army.
The Antinium surrounded Liscor. Maviola spat. Erin felt the bile in her mouth.
“What vile things. We were right to come, Fulviolo.”
“The Drakes are not our allies.”
Petra snapped. But the other house heads were equally disturbed by the vast horde. The Black Tide was reforming. Fulviolo hesitated. Maviola looked up at her older brother and he, his face lined but no less the brother she had known, nodded.
“Allies or not. This army threatens all of Izril. House Reinhart was right. We cannot allow this plague to continue. Lord Dallien. Will you lead the charge?”
The [Lord] of the Veltras family nodded.
“Ride with me, Fulviolo.”
“It would be my honor. Maviola—”
“I’m coming with you.”
The [Lady] insisted. Fulviolo pulled her aside.
“Stay with the [Archers]. This isn’t the Sedfast war. I won’t lose you or let you rush into them. Besides—the Antinium tunnel. Guard our flanks.”
Maviola bit her lip. But she acquiesced. The air burst into fire around her. Erin saw her pointing.
“[Archers], take my fire!”
“Prepare to charge! Raise the banners!”
Lord Dallien shouted. Magnolia Reinhart joined the [Lords] preparing to charge, despite the objections of the others. Her face was white with fear. But what a brave girl.
“She’s a lot younger.”
Erin remarked. The world froze over. Maviola turned her head, stepped out of her body. She blinked.
“We broke the backs of the Antinium this day. The first Antinium war. I thought they were but monsters until I came here. I still did—but your memory—can we go to it?”
Erin raised her hands. Concentrated.
Flicker. The flame turned blue again.
They looked down at Skinner. Maviola stared about her at the Antinium, fighting the undead.
“Where are you?”
“Inside. Playing chess.”
“It was an [Immortal Moment]. So—so I could get over my fear of Skinner.”
“I see. Look at that monster.”
Maviola spat. The spit flickered out of existence. She narrowed her eyes, shook her head.
“They all died.”
Erin looked at Knight. The dying chess club. She reached out. But she hadn’t touched him, so her hand passed through this memory. She shook her head.
“Stop. I want to stop.”
“Yes. This is—too much.”
The fire grew dimmer. Maviola let go of Erin’s hands.
The memory vanished. The immortal moment ended. Erin sat in the inn, across from Maviola as the woman withdrew her hands. Erin blinked. Her face was wet. With tears?
She touched her face. Maviola blinked at her, wide-eyed. Whatever the two had expected—it was not this. They looked at each other, having seen through each other’s eyes. Erin touched the wetness on her cheeks. She stared at Maviola.
“…Did you just spit on me?”
“You’re not from here. I didn’t think you were Izrilian or Terandrian. But that proves it. I saw into your mind, Erin.”
“Uh oh. Please don’t tell anyone.”
Erin sat with Maviola after a handkerchief and water had been applied. Maviola looked at her.
“Don’t worry. I don’t have long left.”
Erin had seen that too. She stared as Maviola produced a viridian vial.
“Two more weeks to go.”
“That’s terrible. Can’t you get more?”
“Do you have tens of thousands of gold pieces? And does Saliss have the ability to produce a Potion of Youth each week?”
Maviola smiled at Erin and shrugged.
“No, it’s not. You shouldn’t die! You’re just going to live for two more weeks and then fall over dead?”
The young woman was horrified. In that way—she understood Maviola’s feelings. How not when she had seen her memories? But she was not Maviola and the idea was anathema.
Maviola was sanguine.
“It’s a beautiful ending. Fire should burn out fast, not die as an ember. I’ve made my peace with it. And as I said—I have something to do. Teach you.”
She pointed at Erin’s chest. The [Innkeeper] blinked.
“Teach me what?”
“Fire! And offer you bits of advice. You’re like me. A firekeeper. We tend to people. We try to make the world better. That’s the role of the nobility. Or it was. Magnolia, Tyrion—all these hotheads are better suited to war. But you? Look what you’ve made!”
She spread her arms to indicate the entire inn. Erin blushed.
“Nah, it wasn’t…”
The lie was too hard to utter. Maviola pointed sternly at Erin.
“Don’t be modest. I hate false modesty. You know what you’ve done. All I want to do is give you more power. If I had met you when you were younger—you could have burned Skinner out of existence yourself. I could have, at any rate.”
She smiled, conjuring a little ball of fire in one hand. Erin stared at it.
“…Is that magic? I can’t do magic.”
“No. The power of my aura. I’m fire. I don’t know what you are, but we can find out. Erin. Will you let me teach you?”
The [Innkeeper] sat there. Then she stood up. She looked at Maviola. Here she was. Someone with Erin’s very Skills. Someone who was a master. Erin looked at Maviola.
“…Sure. But also—do you want to go to a party? Can you make it that long? No, you have to.”
The two began to talk. Animatedly. Arms were waved. But Erin found herself sitting across from…a friend. Odd, but she knew Maviola better than perhaps the [Lady] had intended.
[Like Fire, Memory]. But also—[Immortal Moments]. A Skill Maviola hadn’t accounted for. And that was the thing. The moments might pass. But they were still immortal.
The fire was wondrous. Golden. It blazed like gold in Maviola’s hands. She stood in the [Garden of Sanctuary] and Erin marveled at it. So did Mrsha. The Gnoll girl sat, staring at the two as they stood on the hill. Lyonette and Numbtongue peeked through the door.
“This is my glory. Yours is different. But with time—practice—you can make it stronger. Each one has vast utility. I cannot believe you gained your Skill barely a month ago!”
Maviola’s voice was almost indignant. Erin shrugged helplessly.
“It’s a great Skill. And I did get it at Level 40.”
“Yes, but—with this Skill? What kind of class do you have? Wait. I know this one. [Magical Innkeeper]. I suppose it’s a rare class. Still—I’m a [Lady]. Your Skills match mine.”
Maviola made an unhappy face. Erin rubbed at her head. Maviola’s memories were bouncing around in her skull too.
“It’s weird. But I’m also from…Earth.”
Lyonette slapped her face. Numbtongue copied her. Maviola just nodded.
“What a strange place. But I know it. Together, your flame and mine is too—too intimate. I saw too much thanks to your [Immortal Moments]. Just as well I didn’t conjure a flame with me and Olesm, hm?”
She grinned as Erin turned red. Mrsha rolled down the side of the hill in disgust.
“No thank you. Can you just show me the fire, please?”
Maviola concentrated and the golden flame turned into a ball of fire. She drew her arm back and threw it.
Golden flames arced through the air. Erin yelped.
“No! Don’t set my garden on fire—”
The flames landed, burned. But consumed nothing. Erin stopped. Maviola looked at her.
“Glory burns nothing. It’s fleeting.”
“Your glory doesn’t burn anything. But mine does!”
The [Lady] frowned, crossing her arms in vexation.
“Hm. This is harder than I thought. Our fires are clearly different. But at least—I can show you a few things. You can throw your fire. Also—do this.”
She set herself on fire. White flames burst from her body and Mrsha scrambled backwards. Then she crawled up the hill and tried to touch Maviola.
“No, Mrsha. Don’t. Shoo! Shoo! Go play with the beavers.”
Erin tried to urge Mrsha away. The Gnoll looked up at her. But this was more fun! Maviola smiled.
She offered a bit of the white fire of kindness to Mrsha. The Gnoll gleefully took it and watched as it licked over her paw. Erin protested.
“It won’t burn her. See?”
Mrsha tried to wipe the fire onto the grass. It burned very slowly and went out after a few seconds. Maviola looked at Erin.
“I’ve never thought to make lanterns out of my fire. But you’ve seen me give [Archers] fire. You can even coat weapons in the fire if you want. That’s due to your Skill. But auras? They’re a bit different. Watch.”
She pointed. A patch of innocent grass burst into flame. Real fire. Erin and Mrsha jumped.
“Stop setting stuff on fire!”
Erin ran over to stomp on it with her shoes. Maviola shrugged.
“It’s my aura. You may have noticed a motif with me.”
“Yeah! You’re pretty hot stuff!”
Erin stomped and Mrsha waved her wand; the grass regrew. Both glared at Maviola. Lady Firestarter smirked.
“My nature is flame. I have yet to figure out yours. But you need to work on your aura, Erin. I was able to manipulate you for a few moments. We’ll practice using both flame and aura.”
“I…sure. I’ve learned from Lyonette, but it’s just not something I can figure out. Do you think you can teach me?”
Erin scratched her head. Lyonette whispered indignantly to Numbtongue.
“I was teaching her!”
The [Lady] cast an amused glance towards the doorway.
“I’m sure Lyonette’s done her best. But she’s a [Princess]. I doubt she had much training at her age; normally she’d be much older by the time she developed her powers. She’s a prodigy.”
Lyonette blushed as Maviola waved at her. Numbtongue nudged her. Erin blinked.
“Oh yes. Monarchs don’t need to hone their auras. This is a Skill of—well, [Ladies] and [Knights] primarily. Only [Ladies] need to train. And the Flowers of Izril developed their abilities more than anyone else. In antiquity, the Order of Seasons actually learned from our class.”
Maviola motioned Erin to sit down as Mrsha began to scribble notes on her drawing-paper. She was copying Grimalkin.
“You see—[Kings] are rather good at being forceful themselves. You’ve seen the King of Destruction?”
“That jerk? Yeah, once or twice.”
Erin waved a hand. Maviola laughed.
“He’s more intimidating in real life. I met him when he was a boy—before the world called him the ‘King of Destruction’. Back when people still invited him to gatherings and thought they could use him in political games. He was forceful of will enough then to resist even the most cunning of [Lords] and [Ladies]. And all untrained! That’s what I mean. He has no fine control, but when he says ‘kneel’, he can force an army to bend their knees.”
Erin glanced at Mrsha. The Gnoll nodded. Definitely sounded bad. Although Rufelt liked Flos. So did Mrsha. He was nice to Gnolls. Even white Gnolls. Maviola shrugged.
“It’s an example. Lyonette, by her class, is stronger than both of us naturally. No wonder she’s a poor teacher.”
Both ignored that. Maviola gestured.
“It’s not just about concentration. There’s elegance in how you use your aura. See? I manifest fire.”
She made a ball of real, hot fire appear in her hands. Mrsha oohed and applauded. Maviola tossed it at her. Mrsha ran away, squealing, but the fire vanished before it touched her.
“Stop bullying Mrsha.”
Erin scowled at Maviola. The grandmother of a [Lady] laughed.
“Children should be careful. I hear this one’s unruly. Aren’t you?”
She stared at Mrsha, peeking around Erin’s back. Mrsha made a face. Maviola pointed.
“Sit down and be good, child.”
Mrsha hesitated, and then scooted over and sat. Erin narrowed her eyes.
“You used your aura on her.”
“Say I did.”
The [Lady] sighed.
“Perhaps it is. But you do it too. Or do you think all of those spontaneous parties just ‘happened’? You’re using your aura without thinking of it. My goal is to train that.”
“How? Lyonette’s taught—”
Maviola rolled her eyes.
She reached out and grabbed Erin’s hands. The [Innkeeper] started and Maviola closed her eyes.
“I’m going to shove you. This is a high-level technique. [Ladies] use with their Skills. [Deft Hand], usually. You should concentrate to stop me.”
“Concentrate? Stop wh—”
Erin felt a push. She tried to bl—
Mrsha saw Erin backflip off the hill and go flying as if someone’s invisible hand had swatted her. She and Maviola stared as Erin went flying and rolling down the hill. Mrsha’s jaw dropped. Maviola winked at her.
“That’s proper training.”
“Aaah! You jerk!”
Erin came charging up the hill. Maviola raised a hand.
“Oh no. St—”
Erin went flying again. Mrsha stared as she tumbled back down the hill. She got up and waved at Maviola. Do me, do me! The [Lady] laughed.
Lyonette went stomping up the hill to stop Mrsha-swatting. She looked huffily at Maviola.
“Maviola, I don’t know if this is the best way to train Erin—”
“I think it’s the way she learns. See?”
Erin went charging up the hill. She pointed.
Maviola and Lyonette staggered. The air pushed down on them. Maviola gritted her teeth.
“Cute. But I told you to block—”
This time Erin went stumbling backwards. Lyonette did too, but less far. Maviola glanced at her.
“You’re already more powerful than I, Lyonette. At least in station. Don’t worry. I’m here to help. Truly.”
“It’s very sudden. Erin shouldn’t have told you about her…home. I trust you’ll keep it secret?”
Lyonette pursed her lips. She liked Maviola. But Erin had given away far too much. Lyonette knew Maviola was another runaway from her house, but she was a [Lady] of Izril. Maviola smiled deeper.
“To my very grave. Lyonette du Marquin.”
The [Princess] hesitated.
“I’d like to believe that. But I don’t know who you are. There’s only one Maviola and that’s from the House of El. But she’s old; the House’s matriarch.”
“And retired. I stepped down two weeks ago.”
Lyonette blinked. Then her eyes went round. She looked at Maviola.
The [Lady] swatted with her hand. Lyonette and Erin went somersaulting down the hill past Mrsha. The old [Lady] saw Mrsha peeking up at her with more respect as curses echoed from behind her. She winked at Mrsha.
“Behave. Now, what’s your little secret, you brave firefly?”
Mrsha scooted closer on her bum and showed Maviola her wand. Erin lay on the grass as Lyonette’s head of red hair slowly rose. Both glared up at the top of the hill.
That was lesson one.
“You did well. In time, no [Lady] will be able to force you to bow within twenty levels. They can still shove, but it’s just a matter of being aware of it. Three-versus-one? Well, Magnolia would still probably have pushed past you even in your inn. But the trick with auras is to force them to break their rules.”
A while later, Maviola was lecturing the tousle-haired younger women. Both glowered at her, nursing bruises from being tossed down the hill.
“How? Magnolia even bullied Xrn! And Klbkch!”
“Only because they weren’t willing to attack. [Ladies] are unmatched in society. That’s why we’re [Ladies]. I’m suited for combat, but even I can’t stand with [Warriors]. If the Antinium had attacked—at least one of them would have died. Why do you think Wuvren was last to retreat? They would have broken the etiquette of the moment and all their little tricks would have ended.”
“So if Magnolia tries to influence me…”
“Kick her. Or head-butt her. That usually works. But watch out for Ressa. She was trained as an [Assassin]. Now, let’s move onto more lessons. I’m tired. I’ll keep teaching you to use your aura for a few more days. Practice makes perfect.”
Maviola yawned delicately, as if she hadn’t just flicked both girls off the hill. They’d managed to avoid being thrown in the last ten minutes of the hour-long practice, but only just. Mrsha was sitting on Maviola’s lap, having her hair combed. The [Lady] enjoyed it so much she’d groomed three beavers who were napping around her.
Erin decided she didn’t like Maviola that much. She was sort of pushy! But then—the woman smiled and Erin was reminded of the life she’d lived.
“Okay. What next?”
The [Lady] clapped her hands. Mrsha and the beavers started into wakefulness.
“Say what now?”
Erin’s face fell. Maviola grabbed her arm.
“You’re a beautifully talented young woman. But I’ve noticed you’re about as good at tackling numbers and matters of the like as this young Gnoll here. Have you even budgeted your inn? Do you know how much you’ll owe in taxes?”
“Well—we have a [Tax Collector]. He’s sort of a jerk, but he did them. And Lyonette calculates our income! Why do I have to do it? Delegation, that’s important too!”
Erin protested. Maviola stared at her.
“So you didn’t double-check the [Tax Collector]’s numbers? You have no one overseeing Lyonette’s work? Have you even tried to get better deals on say, food?”
“No. We go through Krshia—”
“Where’s your budget sheets? Your incomes and expenses?”
The [Princess] looked worried as Maviola ushered them into the inn. In short order, she produced sheets of paper. But they were just Lyonette’s notes. They weren’t dated. They had no organizational system tracking each day of the month in neat rows, like food expenses—just a total sum Lyonette roughly calculated. Maviola gave Erin a look.
“In your world, is there no such thing as bookkeeping?”
Erin blushed. Maviola looked at Lyonette.
“At least Miss Lyonette has the excuse of never having to manage a budget. [Princesses] don’t. But you’re an [Innkeeper].”
“But I never was good at math—”
“Then learn. Give me a quill. Little Mrsha, come here. You can learn this too. This is how you calculate your income.”
In short order, Maviola had drawn up a spreadsheet with neat columns and rows. Each date would have an entry and the expenses would go down on this side, and the incomes…Erin and Lyonette looked at each other.
“That’s so easy!”
“I can’t believe you don’t know how to do this. Well, I have practice. This way you can track more than just expenses. Do you know how to haggle?”
“Who provides your milk? Have you shopped around for a better deal?”
“There’s this [Rancher] Gnoll…but look, we have a good relationship with him! I don’t think we need to be mean.”
Maviola rolled her eyes.
“And if he’s taking advantage of you?”
“Well, I don’t think he is. Anyways, a good deal is where everyone wins, right?”
“Hah! Wait, are you serious? Okay. How much did you pay for milk last week?”
Lesson two sucked. But it did point out a few things to Erin. Namely that she could save money and that doing basic budgets wasn’t hard. It was just entering stuff into a spreadsheet. Even so—she didn’t like it.
“Money is important. My House survives on being able to balance our budget. You may have money coming in, but you can always save more. It’s quite clear to me that you’re overpaying for any number of vegetables. You buy from Liscor’s markets.”
“Buy from Celum. They have larger farms. Liscor is agriculturally poor, hence the price increase. On the other hand, milk is cheaper than Celum’s markets. Thank you, Drassi, was it?”
“Yes, Miss Maviola.”
The panting Drake had run into Celum to get tallies on the market prices, as well as Esthelm and Invrisil’s prices. Maviola snapped her fingers.
Mrsha handed one to her. The [Lady] showed Erin a tally.
“However—these are the prices from Pallass. Produce is just as cheap. That’s because of Oteslia. I’d encourage you to still buy from Celum because you have [Farmers] like this Wailant you can make relationships with. Plus, transport from Pallass takes mana from your door. But do that and you’ll save gold per week.”
Lyonette’s eyes were shining. She was staring at Maviola like a hero of the fiscal report. The woman tapped her fingers on the table.
“Well…you don’t need to worry that much about money. It’s refreshing not to see so much debt.”
“Does House El have money problems?”
Erin saw both Lyonette and Maviola wince. The [Lady] blushed as she twiddled the quill in her fingers.
“I’ve done my best. But we’re historically bad at managing our money. We have large projects; the last one put us more into debt. Money goes in, money goes out. I’m good at saving money, not spending it. Which is why I won’t tell you how to spend your gold. But I will tell you that you have enough to spend. So—what projects do you have in mind?”
Erin and Lyonette looked at each other.
Maviola looked sternly at them.
“Money is meant to be used. You have to grow it, not keep it locked away under your bed.”
“I knew that. That’s why it’s buried in the garden.”
The [Innkeeper] was pleased to see Maviola close her eyes for a second in actual pain. To be fair—she’d done that on purpose. Not that she didn’t appreciate Maviola’s help. But she was being bossy. Sort of like—Lyonette. Or Erin herself.
“Please tell me you have plans for the inn? Renovating it is good! But do you have any other designs?”
“Bird wants a ballista.”
Lyonette and Maviola looked at Erin. She shrugged.
“Well, he does. But that’s not on my list. I guess…enchantments? But we never got around to it. It was too expensive and then we couldn’t find an [Enchanter]. Uh—this was back before the magic door.”
“I see. And you want enchantments?”
Maviola saw Erin and Lyonette exchange a glance and then they began speaking over each other.
“Okay, the stone ovens are great, but I hear you can make them magic. I’d love not to have to light them each time—”
“I want a tracking spell on Mrsha—”
“—someone to look at the door—”
“—light spells at night—”
“—something nice instead of the poo smell in the outhouses—”
“—noise-cancelling spells in the bedrooms. Just for privacy’s sake—”
The [Lady] leaned back in the face of the eager voices. She stared at them.
“Then hire an [Enchanter].”
Both looked at her. Maviola opened and closed her mouth.
“Invrisil? Pallass? Set up an appointment and hire them.”
Erin’s mystified look made Maviola snap. She stood up.
“Follow me. Do you just not know how to schedule appointments? We’re going to Invrisil. No, not you. Or you. I don’t have time for trouble and you two would both bring it.”
She poked Mrsha and Numbtongue as the two followed. Both looked hurt. Lyonette stood up, flustered.
“I’ll stay with Mrsha, Erin. Are you going to go now?”
“It will take fifteen minutes. Come on.”
“Wait! But—wh—I’m not ready!”
Erin found her arm in Maviola’s. The [Lady] dragged her towards the magic door. Erin fought to get free, but Maviola just linked her arm tighter.
“Come on. You have to learn some basic skills.”
“Okay, stop pulling me!”
Blushing, Erin pulled away from Maviola. The [Lady] eyed her.
“Don’t be so formal. Incidentally, you need to fall in love sometime. It’s a wonderful feeling.”
“Excuse me! That’s personal!”
“Youth is wasted on you. Do you not like Drakes or Gnolls? Or perhaps…”
“I’m fine! Geez! Everyone’s so personal!”
In a huff, Erin stalked past Maviola. And then they were in Invrisil. The [Lady] followed. It took her a bit of will to resist paying the silver tax, but Magnolia wasn’t the only [Lady] with authority. Besides, Maviola didn’t have that much coin anymore.
“I couldn’t help but notice that in your memories, you never seem interested in all the fine fellows around you. Especially that young [Necromancer].”
“What about the Courier?”
“Hawk? He has a fluffy tail, but that’s it.”
“Hm. The Goblin? No, you weren’t attached to him either. But I know I recalled…”
“Stop it! Where are we going?”
The two arguing young women stopped as they left the inn and abruptly—heard a lot of noise. Both halted in the street in time to see the protest.
People were marching and shouting, angry faces lighting up the street. Erin backed up into Maviola. The [Lady] stared.
“What is this?”
They turned to the [Bouncer] at the door. Redit was standing there; hand on his club, but trying to be unobtrusive as possible.
“The Golden Triangle, Misses. They’re protesting. Demanding the Mage’s Guild and [Mayor] give them their money back. Haven’t you heard of the protests?”
Erin looked at Maviola.
“There was a riot two days ago. It’s still going on?”
“In Liscor it’s protests too. How bad was it?”
Maviola had been with Olesm the night the news broke. Several buildings had been half-burned. Redit grimaced.
“Nothing bad happened around here, Misses. We took care of trouble. But the Mage’s Guild was under siege until the Watch broke it up. Lots of fighting. They’re still angry.”
“That’s terrible. Those poor people. I told Relc he was an idiot…”
Erin’s face fell. Maviola was nodding, but she glanced at Erin.
“Relc? Your friend was in The Golden Triangle? Come on, we’ll walk past the protest.”
“That’s not wise—”
Redit objected, but Maviola walked through the crowd. So did Erin. The crowd was chanting, angry people ready for a fight. Redit tensed to go after them—but to his surprise, he saw people walking around Maviola and Erin as if they weren’t there.
[Crowd Control]. Maviola looked at Erin.
“You’re using your aura.”
“I know. I just didn’t realize it until now.”
Erin frowned. It was both her Skill and her aura. She felt like she could feel the—flow of the crowd. It would be hard—almost impossible to make them calm. On the other hand, it would be terrifyingly easy to get them to turn into another riot. Maviola glanced at her.
“Lots of smoldering embers here. You feel it too? That’s another use of your aura. Igniting them.”
“I have a Skill that does that.”
“Well, you can make it stronger. But let’s not experiment with this lot. What was the problem with this Relc? Have I met him?”
“Maybe? He’s the big Drake with the spear.”
“Ah, him. So what did he do…?”
As they walked through the streets of Invrisil, leaving the protest behind, Erin explained Relc’s objectionable behavior to Maviola. Even now she grew angry thinking about it.
“He didn’t even get what he was doing was wrong! Until Ryoka and I explained it.”
Maviola gave her a strange look.
“Of course not. Why would he? No one knew. Only someone from your world would have. Why are you so angry at him for not seeing through a cunning trick?”
“I—but he was wrong.”
“But he didn’t know.”
Erin bit her lip and fell silent. Maviola shook her head.
“You’re rather stubborn. And opinionated, Erin Solstice. Rather like me. It’s a disturbing parallel. I wish you weren’t so much my clone. Well—we vary in some ways.”
“I’m your clone? Waitaminute. Hey! I’m not that stubborn! I just have convictions!”
Erin protested and hurried after Maviola. They arrived at their destination after some light bickering. Maviola pushed into the busy guild, which had a double line of Human [Guards], arguing with Erin.
“All I’m saying is that giving is part of negotiations. You refuse to compromise at times. I saw that.”
“Yes…of course you are…excuse me! A message to Master Hedault, please! He’s still working in Invrisil, isn’t he?”
The [Scribe] at the front desk glanced up at Maviola. He wasn’t having a good day and his tone was rather brusque.
“Yes, Miss. He is. But I’d advise you to go to the Runner’s Guild for any messages.”
“But he is a member of the Mage’s Guild, isn’t he? You have a direct way to contact him. Street Runner messages tend to get lumped together or ignored depending on how important the client is, Erin.”
Maviola half-spoke to Erin. The [Scribe] sighed.
“We do not just deliver messages for our members, Miss…?”
“El. Lady El.”
The [Scribe] dropped his quill. Heads turned across the Mage’s Guild. Maviola stood there, in her casual clothing as the [Scribe] blinked at her.
“L-Lady El? Of the…”
“That’s right. Of the House of El. Need you a truth spell or will you take me at my word?”
Maviola drew herself up. Erin narrowed her eyes. A touch of her aura. But it was mostly the way she held herself. The [Lady] looked at the [Scribe] as he stammered.
“Of course not, Lady El—how can I serve you? Deepest apologies. Did you say Master Hedault?”
“Yes. Inform Master Hedault that I would like my friend to use his services. Miss Erin Solstice of The Wandering Inn. She has a connection as well through the Horns of Hammerad, isn’t that right, Erin?”
“Uh, yes. Hi. I’m Erin.”
The young woman waved at the [Scribe]. He wrote frantically.
“Very good, Lady El. I will have it delivered forthwith. Master Hedault may not reply—he is a peculiar personage—”
“He will for me. House El is acquainted with him and he knows that. Moreover, Miss Solstice owns the magical door. I’m sure you’ve heard of it? Master Hedault will see Miss Solstice soon—have the message sent to Liscor’s Mage’s Guild and then to The Wandering Inn. They will know where it is.”
“Absolutely, Lady El.”
“Good. For your time.”
Maviola put several silvers on the counter. The [Scribe] bowed and she swept out. Erin nearly forgot to follow her.
“Whoa! That was—”
That was like her! But Erin didn’t say that. Maviola had done it in a different way; Erin would have just dropped names. Maviola glanced at Erin.
“You always have to use names to get ahead or you’d be waiting forever, Erin. And that’s how you schedule an appointment. By the end of the week, you’ll get to see Master Hedault. Sooner, I should think. Don’t worry about the payment; if there is any, it will go to House El. They owe me that much. Although—do you have a gold coin?”
“Um. Yes. Do I give it to the [Scribe]?”
Erin dug one out. Maviola blinked at her.
“Scribe? No, I tipped him. This is for me. Tuition fee and for the tip I gave.”
She took the gold coin. Erin blinked at it.
“But you gave him five silver.”
The two walked on. The [Scribe] frantically worked away as the others murmured. House El. But they weren’t surprised to see a [Lady] here. After all, this was Invrisil. That she was without bodyguards? Well, the young nobles did that too.
But the [Scribe] did notice something as he took the tip and did not charge House El for the minor message. A little note, sent to the Mage’s Guilds. They were looking for…his head jerked up. He stared at Maviola’s black and orange hair. Slowly, his hands froze on the message.
“Setil? What’s wrong? Is she not of House El?”
One of the other [Scribe Mages] whispered to him. Setil jumped. The [Scribe] looked at his co-worker. He shook his head.
“No. Get a City Runner to deliver it to Master Hedault. Mark it as priority from the House of El. I—I need to send a [Message].”
“The House of El. That’s their runaway. They have a bounty for sightings of her.”
Maviola and Erin walked through Invrisil, but they weren’t the only people moving through the city. Nor even the only important people on business here.
They were coming. The [Guards] on the gates let the procession of [Riders] through without checking any of them. They stood to attention as nearly three-dozen [Lords] and retainers rode through the city. Each was a local noble. House Terr, House Phi’Deran, House Sanito…
Lord Alman Sanito was riding stiffly with the other [Lords]. Lord Ranga of House Owe was riding with his son. The [Lord] snapped as his son checked his sword.
“Sword away, Mel!”
The young [Lordling], seventeen years of age and hot-blooded, flushed.
“We are not barbarians. Apologies, Lord Alman, you were saying?”
“Are you certain this is wise, Ranga? I still have reservations.”
Lord Alman was nervous. He hadn’t told his wife about this; he had excused it as a ride to settle his nerves. But the other [Lord] just nodded.
“This intolerable [Trade War] has lasted too long, Alman. We’ll all be out of gold in another two weeks. Reinhart must relent.”
Neither man referenced the fact that this was due to the black flowers they’d sent her. They’d had cause to regret that. It had been politically expedient at the time. But…Alman shifted in his saddle.
“We’re like to run into her security.”
“And will they attack us? I don’t think so. Reinhart may be…a Reinhart…but even she’s not that mad. We’ll demand an audience.”
Lord Alman glanced about at the other [Lords]. Some looked as nervous as him, but a few were more hotheaded than he would have cared to see.
“And if we don’t get it?”
Lord Ranga’s son checked his blade again. It was an…ill-conceived plan. Lord Alman reflected on Magnolia Reinhart. She had been tempered by time, but everyone knew how she’d come to power. Moreover, she might not rule the Assassin’s Guild at this moment, but in the past her family had been known to make their opponents disappear. Or be found in gruesome ways.
Still—they were desperate. And the [Lords] considered this the best option. They were wrong for a few reasons.
Firstly—Magnolia Reinhart’s security tended to be varied. Some had quite a lot of restraint and respect for nobility. Others—did not.
Second—Magnolia Reinhart was unlikely to be impressed even by this group of nobles.
And third? She wasn’t even at her mansion. She was excusing herself from her meeting with Lady Edere at this moment.
But none of that mattered because the [Lords] were set. And as they rode through the city, one of them saw the protests. They halted as the crowds of protesters saw the [Lords].
“Justice! Give us back our money!”
One of them screamed at the [Lords]. A son unsheathed his sword—but the retainers looked nervously at the thousands of very upset people.
“I say, what’s this all about?”
A tall man shouted uncertainly. One of his retainers muttered in his ear.
“Milord, the Golden Triangle—”
Several of the [Lords], including Alman, blanched with fury. They’d lost gold to that too. Another blow they couldn’t handle with their depleted treasuries. The [Lords] muttered.
“We have our issues with the Golden Triangle! Make way! The Lords of Izril have a complaint to settle with Magnolia Reinhart regarding this [Trade War]!”
Lord Ranga bellowed. The angry mob didn’t really budge. He hesitated. Then Lord Ranga’s expression lit up. He turned to Alman.
“I have a better idea to force Magnolia’s hand. Lord Alman—listen—”
The other man began uneasily, but it was too late. Ranga shouted.
“Utter your grievances to Lady Reinhart! She is your [Lady]! She should have protected you! Demand your money from her, people of Invrisil!”
The crowd listened. They began to boil. Some people nodded; the other [Lords] lent their voices and even Skills to Ranga.
“Justice from Reinhart! March with us!”
The crowd’s energy began to pick up. Lord Alman gulped. Indeed, as Erin had noted—
It just took one spark. Unfortunately, as bad ideas went—
This one wasn’t much better.
Erin and Maviola noticed the shouting as they were headed back to The Wandering Inn but neither took notice of it at first. They were talking.
“So—so what do I do with this Hedault guy?”
“You tell him what you want and he tells you how much it costs. Try to be polite. There’s nothing to it, Erin. Have you never hired a contractor? A [Mercenary]?”
“Um. No. My parents hired the plumber and painter and stuff.”
“Children. It’s very simple. Why are you so reluctant to do these things?”
“I dunno. I try not to rock the boat. See, it’s been peaceful of late.”
“Not everything you do will turn out into some huge event.”
“Aha, see—you don’t know me that well. I could make a cup of water explode. Probably.”
“So could I. I think you’re just lazy, Erin.”
“Lazy? Hey now—that’s fair, but—”
The two were enjoying each other’s company. In a way. Erin felt too close to Maviola after staring into her memory flames if that made sense. She barely knew the woman and even Maviola seemed uneasy by the shared memories.
“You saw Fulviolo. My brother.”
“…Yeah. He died, right?”
“To Goblins. And I killed Antinium. To me, they were The Black Tide. You must understand—I’ve looked at them like that all my life. This is new to me.”
“You should talk to Numbtongue. He’s a swell guy.”
“I may. But I don’t know if I’ll stay in Liscor much longer. Long enough to teach you and Olesm, Erin. But I want my ending to be bright. I may ride upon the Antinium Hives. To see them.”
Erin halted in the street.
“Don’t talk about dying.”
“Why not? I’ve lived over ninety years, Erin. You see me now bright and glowing. But I made my peace. Life isn’t meant to be forever. I—still believe that.”
Maviola’s eyes grew troubled for a second. She shivered. Erin bit her tongue.
“But what about Olesm? You’ll break his heart. Why did you like him, anyways?”
“There was much to love. He needed me. And in a way—I needed him. Can’t I fall in love?”
The [Lady] laughed as she looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] was troubled.
“How…how do you do that? Fall in love? It’s so hard for me.”
Maviola halted in the street. She looked back at Erin. Sympathetically. The admission had come out of Erin by accident. She blushed.
“I just meant—”
“You poor burning child. Come here.”
Maviola hugged Erin. It was embarrassing. Erin tried to pull away, but Maviola tried to hug her. People were staring. Erin flushed; it was hard to remember Maviola was so old if you looked at her. Young, radiant, beautiful—Erin envied her confidence.
The two jostled on the street, Maviola laughing, Erin ducking away. And Invrisil was abuzz. A crowd was marching through the streets, now turned against Magnolia Reinhart. At the same time—
“Lady Macbeth is being performed tonight! Tomorrow—Elisial featuring Jasi and Wesle of The Players of Celum!”
A boy-[Crier] distracted Erin and Maviola. The [Lady] looked up, sighed.
“Dead gods. But that’s something else you made, isn’t it?”
The two looked at a huge poster of Jasi, with some of the cast, drawn in noble poses on a wall as the [Crier] sold tickets. To a show three weeks later, actually.
“Tickets are sold out for tomorrow, Miss! And three weeks on! You’ll want these, though! They’re going up in price! You can resell ‘em too! Some of the profits to go to rebuilding Celum!”
The [Crier] addressed Erin and Maviola, trying to make another sale. Both were amused and he didn’t know why. He watched them trail away as they regarded the posters.
“You know, I have a private booth. Jasi keeps telling me I should go, but I don’t want the attention.”
“Can I go? I’d love to see a play. I saw them perform once. But this is so new.”
Maviola’s voice was wistful. Erin looked at her.
“Why not? I’ll ask ‘em!”
“See, they are an asset. And you don’t really leverage them? Ask for a cut of their profits? I would argue they owe you some.”
“But—but that’s so mean…”
“Mean? Erin, you have to think about money like…”
The two were arguing again. They passed by a bunch of women riding horses. And Maviola heard a voice.
“There, you see? I told you that this was the newest thing. Magnolia told me all about it. I didn’t get a chance to watch last time. But we have tickets for tomorrow’s play.”
“Milady Bethal, why tomorrow?”
A group of women was riding with the [Lady] and her escort of shockingly pink [Knights]. Bethal Walchaís laughed.
“I hear the Drake is the best [Actor]. We’ll stay the night. Magnolia might put us up. Do you think so, Thomast?”
The man riding next to her sighed.
“We are dropping in unannounced. With company.”
“Bah. It’s only a few of my friends.”
Bethal turned to the other women riding with them. They were to Bethal what a [King]’s court was—just smaller. Riding friends, commoners or the very fringes of nobility. Bethal turned her head.
“Now, onto the [Seamstress]! I want to see what those styles of clothing Magnolia had were. We’ll take the north by storm!”
The others clapped their hands and laughed. The Knights of the Petal and Thomast patiently accompanied the procession on their outing. And Maviola stared at Bethal’s back.
“Maviola? Maviola, what’s wrong?”
Erin prodded her. Lady Firestarter jumped.
“Oh—I just thought of something to do. Will you excuse me for a second, Erin?”
“Just a second…”
Maviola strode off. Erin saw her march to the nearest building. A shop. She began speaking with the owner. Erin stared at the [Lady] riding horseback. Did Erin know her?
…No. But she looked rather fun, urging her stoic husband into the conversation, laughing—Erin smiled. She turned as Maviola reappeared, panting, with a bucket in her hands. Erin sniffed, recoiled.
“What is that?”
“Animal waste. That was a [Beast Tamer]’s shop. Rather lucky, right?”
“Lucky…? Hey, what are you doing with—”
Erin saw Maviola hurry off, clearing a way with the stench from the liquid bucket alone. Bethal Walchaís didn’t notice. And Erin realized—too late that Maviola and her were rather alike.
Different in some ways. For instance—Lady Firestarter had been known in her youth to be rather vindictive. Maviola stopped behind Bethal as one of the Rose Knights blocked her path.
“Excuse me, young woman—”
Sir Kerrig began and gagged at the stench. Maviola smiled at him.
The air ignited. Ser Kerrig reached for his battleaxe as his horse reared, spooked by the fire Maviola conjured around her. The [Lady] stepped forwards as Bethal and the others turned, alarmed by the sudden heat.
She tossed the bucket.
Erin saw the bucket and filthy brown contents go flying. She saw a blur—Thomast, the [Chevalier] blocked Bethal, leaping from his horse. Nevertheless—he was fast, but not fast enough in his surprise. Most of the bucket hit him square in the chest. But a few spatters of…well…stuff hit his wife. Bethal Walchaís blinked down at the stinking excrement on her dress. Her escort shouted in horror. Maviola waved at Bethal.
“Thank you, Bethal Walchaís!”
She blew a kiss. Bethal stared at Maviola.
The young lady ran for it. The [Knights] were cursing, hesitating as they looked at their [Lady]. Bethal touched some of the brown filth, recoiled. She looked at her covered husband. Her dress.
He wiped filth from his face. Bethal smiled and pointed at Maviola’s back.
Erin stared as Maviola ran at her. She was so horrified the [Lady]’s shouts didn’t register at first. Then she heard—
“Run, you idiot!”
Maviola, laughing, raced past Erin as the Rose Knights charged after her, leaping from their saddles. Thomast himself stayed with Bethal despite her shouting bloody murder. Erin ran.
“You maniac! Why did you do that?”
Maviola retorted. They scrambled through the street as the [Knights] shouted. Erin ran—but the Rose Knights were fast. Trained warriors, they barreled down the street.
“Stop. By order of Lady Walchaís!”
“This wasn’t my fault this time! It wasn’t my fault this time!”
Erin shouted. Maviola was just laughing. She raced between two people on horseback, startling the horses. Erin ducked left. She saw Ser Kerrig running at her, turned—
She threw a punch. Ser Kerrig’s eyes widened. He halted—and blocked her punch with a grunt.
Erin’s fist hit his gauntlet. Both recoiled at the impact. The [Knight] stared at her. Erin threw up her hands. She turned around and ran screaming.
“Aaaaah! Aaaaaaaah! Maviola, I hate you!”
The [Lady] was laughing. She conjured fire and threw it at the [Knights]. Nothing dangerous; but enough to make them and the onlookers scatter. Erin made it five more steps before someone grabbed her shoulder.
She whirled and booted Ser Kerrig in the groin. All that happened was that Erin’s foot hurt; his enchanted codpiece refused to budge. Even so, the [Knight] winced from the mere act.
“Excuse me, Miss—”
He expertly pulled her arm up and Erin yelped. She tried to stomp on his foot, then backwards head-butt him. The [Knight] ignored all of it, blocking her head with a hand. Erin struggled, but ahead of her she saw Maviola running for the inn.
She never made it. Lady Bethal herself rode down on Maviola and Erin heard an impact. As she was hauled forwards, she saw Maviola lying on the ground. Bethal had knocked her flat. Not hard, but enough to leave the [Lady] breathless.
“I have the other one, Lady Walchaís.”
“Maviola El. We meet again. Thomast, give me your rapier.”
The furious [Lady of Thorns] stood over Maviola as the [Lady Firestarter] looked up. Maviola gasped after regaining her breath.
“You—deserved it. You petty [Thief].”
“You stole from me first! Thomast—go get more filth. I’ll make Maviola eat it. Her and her—who’s this?”
Bethal looked blankly at Erin. Ser Kerrig shrugged.
“An accomplice, Lady Bethal? I don’t believe she participated.”
“I’m innocent! Hey! That hurts!”
Bethal cast a dismissive glance at Erin.
“Let her go then. Thomast—make it a huge bucket.”
The arguing couple and Maviola being restrained by two [Knights] was interrupted by Erin. Free of Ser Kerrig’s hold, she did the only expedient thing: she ran into the Player’s Retreat, the inn, and disappeared. Bethal glanced at Maviola.
“Much loyalty you inspire.”
“She’s a friend. Hello, Bethal.”
“I have a mind to make you eat the leavings of my horse, Maviola. I was content with pranking you, but this—and poor Thomast? We will have a reckoning.”
Bethal’s eyes flashed as she pointed down at Maviola. Thomast sighed.
“Bethal, leave it alone. Lady El surely deserves her payback. You inconvenienced her for several days.”
“Thomast! You should be on my side! You’re covered in—in—excrement!”
The [Lady] stomped a foot as she dismounted. One of her attendants was calling for a cleansing charm. Thomast shrugged as someone waved a wand over his clothes and most of the filth just—fell away. It still stank, though.
“It washes off, dear.”
“Nonsense. I demand—”
The door to the inn swung back open. Bethal, the Knights of the Petal, and Thomast turned and saw—a small army in the doorway.
Erin had made Redit drag the magical door so it overlapped with the actual doorway. So what the [Lady] and her attendants saw was about two dozen guests of the inn and staff aiming the emergency crossbows at them. Erin had a frying pan and a knife in the other hand. She pointed the knife at them.
“Stick ‘em up! Let go of Maviola!”
The street froze. The Rose Knights reached for their weapons, putting themselves between the inn and Bethal at once. Thomast drew his rapier so fast Erin didn’t see it.
Maviola began to laugh. Bethal glanced at the inn in shock—then at Maviola. Slowly, she stepped back, and the [Knights] holding Maviola let go. Maviola turned.
“I believe I’ll leave it at that, Bethal.”
Smugly, she walked through the doorway. Erin stared at Maviola as the [Lady] winked at her.
“Well done, Erin. Thank you for—”
Erin donked her on the head with the pan. Hard. That was roughly the sound the pan made. Maviola staggered. Bethal blinked.
Maviola glowered. Erin put her knife away—and Maviola kicked her back. Erin got up, outraged.
“You threw poo! You’re a maniac!”
“That was justice! How dare you—”
Erin pulled Maviola’s left leg up. The [Lady]’s eyes went wide and she fell over. Erin pointed.
“Mrsha! Get her!”
The Gnoll leapt on Maviola, hirsute, her fur making her look like some miniature white mammoth. Maviola shouted, trying not to hurt Mrsha as she pummeled Erin. The [Innkeeper] folded her arms—until she heard the laughter.
Lady Bethal Walchaís was laughing. Behind her [Knights], who were watching the comedy with eyes on the crossbows, the [Lady] was laughing. She guffawed at Maviola as the [Lady Firestarter] finally tossed Mrsha off her.
Bethal doubled over and then looked at Thomast as crossbows were lowered and everyone relaxed. Lyonette looked appalled. Ser Kerrig and the other [Knights] looked extremely wary. Thomast just blinked. Bethal looked at Erin and then at Thomast.
“I like you! I say, do you have anything to wash a dress with?”
Erin looked at Bethal. She glanced at Maviola. Then she fell down as Maviola kicked her legs in.
The [Lady] was in a good mood. After a quick change from her saddlebags, she sat in The Wandering Inn. And all was forgiven.
Between her and Erin, at least. The [Knights] were not happy. But the crossbows hadn’t even been loaded, a fact Thomast had pointed out. Now, they stood around in the inn.
And Bethal Walchaís had met the legendary [Innkeeper] with the magic door. She clapped her hands with delight as Mrsha offered her a towel.
“What a wonderful Gnoll-child! Hello! What’s your name?”
“She’s Mrsha. She can’t talk. Say hi to the nice [Lady], Mrsha.”
Mrsha signaled ‘hi, nice to meet you.’ Bethal’s eyes widened at the sign language.
“Hello? Was that hello? How terrible! Was it an accident?”
“No, Mrsha was always like this. She said—‘hi, nice to meet you.’ See—she makes words with her hands.”
“I see her, Bethal. Hello, Miss Mrsha.”
The [Chevalier] bowed slightly. Mrsha sniffed at him. The man looked around.
“We came through the door! During the game of soccer. But I had no idea you owned it. Maviola, you’re staying here?”
Maviola was glowering at Erin. The two had kept kicking each other until Lyonette had separated them. Erin shook a fist around Mrsha. Maviola was crazy! Nothing like her. Who threw poo? Well, Bird. But he didn’t count.
“Amazing. And this is actually the origin of the Players of Celum?”
“Yup. We actually have another theatre group. See?”
Erin pointed down the [Grand Theatre]. The Players of Liscor were rehearsing A Doll’s House, completely inoculated to the madness of the inn. Lady Bethal looked around, eyes shining.
“What a splendid inn. An inn at a crossroads, thanks to the magical door! And we’re actually at Liscor? That’s hundreds of miles!”
“Well, it is a magic door. It’s nothing special.”
Erin puffed out her chest, slightly proud of the [Lady]’s wonder. Maviola whispered in Erin’s ear.
“So a magical door that teleports you four hundred miles is nothing special, but Potions of Youth don’t exist, hm?”
The [Innkeeper] scowled at Maviola’s good point. She saw Bethal Walchaís staring around.
“Sorry. For the crossbows. They were unloaded. I just wanted to scare you. I thought you were gonna beat Maviola up.”
“I probably would have settled for tossing a bunch of excrement over her.”
Bethal muttered. Thomast sighed. He bowed to Erin.
“My name is Thomast Veniral. Lady Bethal’s husband. I apologize for the misunderstanding, Miss Solstice.”
“Oh! That’s alright. I’m uh, sorry for kicking and punching that guy.”
Erin pointed at Ser Kerrig. The [Knight] was staring at Numbtongue. He jumped, distracted.
“What? Ah, no damage done, Miss Solstice. Indeed not. Lady Walchaís…”
“I see it, Kerrig. Hm.”
Bethal’s eyes locked on Numbtongue. She glanced at Erin.
“I understand Magnolia came here and made quite a fuss. She warned me to stay away from this inn. Something to do with unpleasantness?”
“Oh. Yeah. She’s banned. And so are her jerk friends.”
Erin folded her arms, scowling darkly. Bethal hesitated.
“…Would that include me? I count myself as Magnolia’s great friend. But I don’t bear you any ill-will, Miss Solstice.”
The young woman faltered. She looked at Bethal’s earnest entreaty. And thought of Ryoka.
“Um. Er…well now…Maviola did poo you.”
“I did what?”
Maviola made an outraged noise. Bethal laughed again and stood up.
“Indeed! Won’t you let me look around at least? Or even stay the night? Thomast, imagine it! We could visit this Liscor or even Pallass and be in Invrisil tomorrow for the play!”
“Perhaps, dear. If the inn has room.”
Erin looked at the large group following Bethal, but Lyonette pushed forwards.
“We do! And the third floor has the larger suites, Lady Walchaís! We’d be honored by a stay!”
“There we are then. Someone cancel our reservation at the other inn.”
Bethal clapped her hands. Erin and Lyonette blinked. But Bethal was so spontaneous. She rose, looking at Maviola.
“And are we square, Maviola?”
The two [Ladies] regarded each other challengingly. Erin felt them clashing—but invisibly. Maviola inhaled, but sighed.
“I suppose so. Quits, Bethal Walchaís?”
They shook hands, smiling with their teeth. But at that moment one of the Fortress Beavers with a bunch of the kits wandered out of the kitchen. And Bethal Walchaís nearly fell out of her chair laughing again.
It was one of those days. Erin Solstice was looking at Maviola. And she asked, with very little guile—
“So is Walchaís like—a big family? I mean, I know Magnolia is from the Reinhart House and Maviola…”
She was counting two plus one Bethal. That was almost Ryoka’s goal! And here Erin hadn’t been sure if she could help! Wait till Ryoka heard about this! Bethal looked amused and pained. Lyonette and Maviola were quietly horrified.
“I’m the last of my line, actually. My entire family perished during the Second Antinium Wars.”
“I’m so sorry. Do you want a cookie?”
Madness. And at that moment, from the street outside, there was a shout. Maviola, Bethal, and Erin all turned to stare a moment before the voice. And the saw the riot.
Lord Ranga rode down the street, leading a furious crowd of people. The Wandering Inn saw him pointing as men and women—mostly Humans—marched. The magical door in the common room reflected the street filled with hundreds of people following one [Lord].
And he was far from the only one. The entire inn went silent. And Maviola’s adventures with Erin, her existing petty quarrel with Bethal—all of it—was replaced by this.
Lyonette looked for Mrsha. The Gnoll was already standing by the [Garden of Sanctuary]’s door as loud, angry voices filled the inn. She held a beaver kit in her paws as the others fled through it. Lady Bethal rose.
“What is happening?”
Everyone saw the crowd moving through the street. Grabbing weapons, torches, and beginning to march as one angry unit. Not just a protest, but a single emotion. And Erin felt her stomach sink as Maviola echoed what she already knew:
“That’s a riot.”
Update: I’ve cut the ending bit because I really didn’t like it. I may add in the scene in a different way or just cut it, but my conclusion was that it was too poor. If you’ve already read it…uh…forget? But editing is important! This is why we do these web serial things!
Author’s Note: Hm. I don’t know if I like this chapter. I did my best! But first-chapters back are always weird. And best laid plans all that. We went off-script but not necessarily for the world. I’m a biased perspective after finishing a chapter. I’ll let you tell me how much you enjoyed it. And of course, the second chapter makes it all different!
Hi! My break did me some good! As you can tell. I wrote more than I planned. Possibly too much. But we’re back. The story continues.
This monthly week-off seems to work. I may want to do a longer break every 3 months, though. Or…I dunno. The point is that I find myself needing more time off. I’ve gotten weaker.
But I do like writing too. And Erin’s interaction with Maviola, the changing inn—it’s Liscor for now. But what will the next chapters hold? More madness, probably.
For this chapter, I’m featuring…rats. Rats by JohnDoe and Brack and Tomeo, all of whom gave the horrible scene from Wistram’s chapter life! You’ll know what I mean. Warning–it is sad!
Hope you enjoy, and thanks for reading!
[Witches], Light, Blessings, [Ladies] and more by Tomeo!
Rats, Ryoka and Fierre, Me?, Rock Crabs, and more by Brack!
Amerys, Rats, Geneva?, Inky, and more by JohnDoe!