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The sack of flour was nondescript, but marked by a…city with a tree growing out of it? Erin Solstice peered at it.
“Oteslia’s symbol. It must be what you ordered, Erin.”
Lyonette du Marquin paid the Street Runner who’d brought it into the inn. Erin Solstice stared at the bag.
Oteslia? She didn’t know much about it. About the other cities, beyond Salazsar and Pallass, really. That dude Ferris kept talking up Manus, but Erin had heard it was called the ‘City of War’, so it wasn’t high on her to-see list.
Yet—here it was. The [Innkeeper] opened the sack and found…flour. But instead of being some shade of white, it was dark as night.
The flour was beautifully black, devoid of color. And to look at it—Erin felt, instinctively, that this wasn’t just dyed. It even smelled a tiny bit different than normal flour. And who went around smelling flour?
Erin looked around. It was one of her cooking experts who answered. Palt and Imani had come to investigate the groceries, some of which they’d ordered, like the rice. Long grains, short grains, purple grains…purple rice? Erin shook her head.
“How much did we pay for this?”
The Centaur looked pleased as he and Imani sorted through the shipment.
“Not much. Oteslia does these regular deliveries to all the Walled Cities. It’s pricier of course, but they are the City of Growth.”
“Ooh. That’s what that [Druidess] said. The kidnapping jerk with the spiders.”
Erin frowned. But then she looked at the flour again.
“I thought this was from Terandria?”
“It’s from Noelictus—they export the stuff. Ashwheat, Gloomwren eggs…but Oteslia grows everything, and I mean everything. They must have a few gardens. In Oteslia—everything is available that comes out of the earth, Erin. It’s like your garden actually; they have different biomes. Very beautiful. I’ve never been, but I used to buy, er—supplies from a guy there.”
Erin peered at Palt, narrow-eyed. The Centaur coughed.
“Let’s get this stuff sorted, Imani. What do you want to make tonight?”
“A pilaf? And for sides, maybe…”
Erin let the two walk off with their haul. She was staring at the flour.
“Huh. I guess there’s no excuse, then.”
Numbtongue had wandered over, as he often did when food abounded. Now, the Hobgoblin looked at Erin.
Palt’s head slowly turned back. So did Imani’s. Lyonette looked around for Mrsha. The [Innkeeper] nodded slowly.
This time…she had prepared for this. Erin Solstice was a poor chef.
No, she really was. Aside from her penchant to make fast food—she was just not into cooking for the joy of it. Making food for Erin was about people eating it. The process could be annoying. In that sense she might have been a halfway decent [Cook]…
But Numbtongue had prompted her to try. So this time—Erin Solstice dragged the bag of flour into a dark room, a new part of The Wandering Inn she’d asked to be reserved for her purposes alone.
A few people peeked into the room and watched as Erin set up. Octavia, because Erin needed squid ink, other edible dark dyes, black rice, blackberries, black tea leaves, garlic—and yes, it was the dark variety—
There was a lot of food that fit Erin’s theme for the dish in her head. Even potatoes—although they were actually more purple than midnight in color.
“How do you know what you’re making, Erin?”
The young woman had a dark water in hand. Some salt had been mixed with the water to give it an unsettling shade that didn’t make it look edible at all. Even the eggs were dark.
Gloomwren eggs. Erin had never met the birds, but the eggs were large. Like ostrich eggs, not chicken eggs. Even the yolks and ‘whites’ were darker.
“It’s a theme, Palt. I think I figured it out. Before—I just made stuff and experimented. Like Scale Soup.”
“You called that a soup?”
The [Innkeeper] ignored that. She spoke quietly as she lined everything up.
“Experimenting made some things. But the one time I tried to make something—it was for a purpose. No—twice.”
The fae’s banquet. And—the dish she’d served to the two fake adventurers. Erin looked around the room. Then she closed the curtains.
It grew darker. Palt looked around as Numbtongue watched Erin wiping the table down, where she was going to mix her dough.
His eyes glowed in the darkness. The Centaur shivered.
“Uh. Theme. Understood.”
“Not just that. Emotion and intention. I want you to cast a [Darkness] spell, Palt. No light comes in, no light goes out.”
The young woman stood in near-perfect darkness. The [Illusionist] looked at Erin. She wasn’t smiling. He was reminded of the invisible flames.
“You’re quite serious, Erin…”
“Yeah. I’m getting in the mood.”
The [Innkeeper] didn’t smile back. Palt opened his mouth to tell a joke—and stopped. Erin was looking at Numbtongue. The [Bard] waited.
“What are you going to make?”
“Something to hide people. From bad people. Midnight Bread. Something that would hide you even in the brightest sun.”
The [Innkeeper] had spread the flour on the table. Making an indentation to pour water and other ingredients into. But before she made the dough—she took something out.
Palt had yet to cast his spell. So for a moment—he saw something shine. It caught what little light there was and glowed—a color of its own.
The coin sat there and Erin Solstice stared at it. Then—she looked at Palt.
She drowned the faint light in the darkness as she worked. To make midnight into a substance. A food. A dark loaf that ate sunlight.
Erin Solstice tried. She failed. She threw the first disaster into a bowl and Lyonette took it and baked it into perfectly edible—just non-wondrous—bread. Erin tried again. She failed.
On her fifth attempt, Numbtongue, wandering down the hallway to check on her realized that the shadows hung long here. Despite the sunlight streaming through the windows. The [Bard] looked around, and saw the sunlight losing.
Erin Solstice threw the Shadow Loaf at the wall. It halted in midair and Palt, Montressa, and Bezale crowded around it.
“You failed? This is amazing!”
Palt stared at the loaf that literally ate light. It was doing the exact same thing a light bulb did—except with darkness. The shadows lengthened around it. It practically obfuscated in a dark room, and even in the light, it was taking in the brightness.
But Erin Solstice was upset.
“I made it wrong. I forgot the one most important thing!”
“And what was that?”
Montressa took a crumb and chewed it. Instantly—nothing happened. Her mouth was very dark when she opened it, but the bread had no inherent properties upon consumption. It was just really cool. Mrsha wanted it. So did Numbtongue. And Bird. And half of the guests.
“I made it when it was day. I should have done it tonight! With like—no moons in the sky. You’ve gotta be thematic, and I forgot! Gah! Bread-punch!”
Erin punched at the loaf, and it was rescued by Numbtongue. He patted the loaf, sniffing at it.
“Good try, Erin.”
“It’s not good. It’s a disgrace. You hear me? You’re not even worth buttering!”
Erin pointed accusingly at the loaf. Mrsha looked hurt on behalf of the loaf. She thought it was the coolest thing she’d seen.
“And I got really dark too. I was all serious and stuff.”
The young woman put her head on the table. She was tired. Something had gone out of her to make the bread the five times it had taken. But it was a good step.
“You can try again. When’s the next dual new moons event?”
Palt turned to Montressa. They began astronomical calculations to find when both of the moons would be invisible. Erin sighed.
“I’ll try again later. Maybe I should make my other idea—crystalline candies. I just need to figure out the theme. Should they be, like, luminescent? Or do something?”
The concept for that idea was to take the basic rock candy recipe, only make it out of powdered gemstones from Numbtongue’s mining, among other things. The only problem was that Erin had to have a theme and intent—or she’d just make candy you broke your teeth on.
As the others were debating ideas and Numbtongue was trying to persuade Erin to collaborate on lightning lollipops, an idea that Erin was almost halfway sold on—the door to Pallass burst open and a naked Drake ran into the inn.
Saliss of Lights screamed one word. He was out of chocolates. Erin, Palt, and the others barely looked up as the naked Drake stopped and turned around, giving everyone a clear view of his nudity.
“Hey Saliss. How’s it going?”
The Named Alchemist lowered his arms, a bit hurt by the lack of a response. He cleared his throat.
“Chocolate. I need…chocolate.”
Erin’s head rose. She frowned at him.
“I gave you a box of our milk chocolates two days ago.”
“I know. I ate them all.”
Erin opened her mouth. There had been thirty six pieces. She’d even tried a caramel—okay, Imani had made the filling—and a strawberry one.
She eyed Saliss’ thin frame.
“You ate them?”
“Breakfast, lunch, dinner. It was really handy since sometimes I forget to eat. Now. Chocolate. Here.”
Saliss slapped gold on the table. Erin raised her hands.
The [Alchemist] slapped another clawful of gold coins down. Erin scowled.
“How about now?”
The [Alchemist] dumped a small pile of coins on the table. Erin stared at him.
“No, we’re actually out.”
Saliss sighed. He scooped up his coins into his bag of holding. That generally worked. He noticed the Shadow Loaf and scooted over.
“Ooh, what is this?”
It was weird how the two could be so much on the same wavelength. Neither blinked at the other’s antics. Lyonette had a pained look as she returned from the kitchen.
“We really are all out of chocolate, Saliss. We’ve got a bit left fermenting but…the tree’s out of pods. And our little gardener can’t make it grow any faster.”
Mrsha sighed despondently as Lyonette turned to her.
Lazy tree, my sincerest apologies.
She held up a card. Saliss turned around.
“But—how am I supposed to live?”
“Sorry. We replanted some more seeds, but it’s a tree. It’ll take ages to grow, even with help.”
Erin explained. The Drake stomped his foot.
“Unacceptable. Chocolate needs to exist and be in my mouth now. Hire a [Farmer]! No—an [Arborist]!”
“A tree expert, Erin. You know—we could hire Wailant to try and grow the trees. He is a good farmer since he grows Sage’s Grass.”
Lyonette rubbed at her chin. Saliss rolled his eyes.
“Please. Anyone can grow Sage’s Grass. It’s protecting the stuff that’s hard. I want chocolate now, now, now! If you have seeds—send them to Oteslia! Heck, I’ll get my contacts to put a rush on it if it means more chocolate!”
“Oteslia? Why Oteslia?”
“They grow everything faster, Erin. You want the best agricultural experts in the world? Oteslia.”
That made sense. Erin’s eyes lit up.
“You know, that’s not a bad idea! We’re already buying food and stuff like all that rice and other plants. I wonder if they’ve got…coffee? No, I’ve never seen it sold…”
She sighed. Some of the others looked at her. Saliss paused in gesticulating.
“What’s a coffee?”
“Oh, it’s like this little bean you grind up to make into a liquid. I bet Baleros might have it…sort of the same climate. It’s uh, brown when you roast it.”
Erin tried to describe it to the others. Predictably, it was hard for them to understand. Someone came to Erin’s rescue this time, though.
Imani. She sketched a little bean and showed it around. That helped. But even so—even Palt and Montressa shook their heads. Even Saliss.
“Never heard of it. Does it taste good?”
“Nah. It’s bitter. But it wakes you up.”
“I know what that is. Vell had some.”
Every head turned. Erin’s gaze slowly rotated left. She saw a depressed red-scaled Drake day-drinking. Embria Grasstongue had been in the inn since her father had been…reassigned. She drank a lot. Erin had been working on her. Now, the [Wing Commander] waved an unsteady hand.
“Vell bought some. Oteslia. We were around there…a while back. Before we returned to Liscor. She had some. Roasted beans. Tasted bitter. Ask her.”
Erin’s eyes widened. Saliss of Lights rubbed his claws together.
“Excellent. Chocolate and bitter beans! Oh boy! I’ll put in an order once you tell me what they look like! I’m Saliss of Lights. They’ll grow those trees overnight or I’ll burn down their tree! Now, I need a cake.”
He vibrated in place. The [Innkeeper] gave him a concerned look, but she was excited. So was Imani, as it turned out.
“I need coffee. I’ve missed it. Troy will be happy too. If we find coffee—we’ll be rich.”
Palt and Lyonette and Montressa and Beza’s ears all perked up. They clustered around Erin and an unsteady Embria stood up to find Captain Vell.
Half the spies in the inn went running to beat them to it.
So there was chaos. Madness. And Saliss kept up his manic episode for a good few minutes until everyone had left. Then he stopped jittering and looked around.
Chocolate was okay. Nali-sticks had way more sugar, though, if that was what you wanted. The [Alchemist] glanced at the Human he’d sighted from the start.
Rose was…nervous. She was keeping to herself after the incident a few days back. And while she’d glanced at Saliss with that way people had when they didn’t know the [Alchemist]—she hadn’t joined in on the madness. Now, the Drake sashayed over. He grinned at her as Rose gave him a horrified look.
“Hey, Miss Human. I don’t think we’ve properly met. I’m Saliss. I’ve seen you about. What’s your name?”
“I’m Rose. Why are you—you’re Saliss, right?”
He winked at her.
“That’s right. And I’m your best friend, Miss Rose. I think. So what do you do around here and where are you from?”
Oteslia had coffee. Or rather, the beans. It was an expensive little pick-me-up that they were trialing in stamina potions. Not mass-produced by any means.
Also, the ‘beans’ were actually red berries unless you processed them. When you thought about it, someone making them into a drink was sort of far-fetched. Especially when stamina potions did such an adequate job.
Still—the Walled City of Oteslia grew the stuff. It grew everything. Oteslia was known as the City of Growth. It was Izril’s agricultural giant, a place at the height of green tech.
…The city was also poorest of all the Walled Cities. By a lot. People told jokes. Oteslia might have been rich in crops, but that was a bad thing in, well, a world where a single Level 30 [Farmer] could harvest his fields six times more than someone from Erin’s world.
Oteslia grew cash crops, and it did export produce cheap. But it just wasn’t Salazar, with gemstones, or the huge trading and naval power of Zeres, magical or mundane might from Fissival or Manus, or at the cutting edge like Pallass.
That was not to say Oteslia wasn’t nice. It just wasn’t essential. If Pallass fought with other cities, they could stop exporting steel and that would be felt. Manus had a vast army; if Salazsar hired mercenaries, they hired mercenaries.
If Oteslia got into a fight, their enemies just bought food from elsewhere. The City of Growth did buy goodwill; they had saved more than one city from starvation when disaster threatened with free shipments of food.
But those were cities which needed food, so Oteslia was something of a hero among the…smaller cities. Not the kind you wanted to back you in a huge, continent-wide political fight.
And ‘poorest’ of the Walled Cities was still richer than most. Oteslia’s main concerns year by year were ensuring good harvests—and fighting off monsters.
Swarms of locusts, Crelers, hungry birds, predators of every kind loved Oteslia. To that end, the Walled City employed [Druids], [Gardeners], and a lot of specialists in numbers. The Walled City was also famous for its Pegasus population—the largest in the world.
All of that meant that the City of Growth had a rather layered design. Like the vast, central tree that had grown in the center of the city that people now built into, the City of Growth built upwards. Down was hard; the city was surrounded by a vast lake, a defense, source of water, and entertainment for the people.
But the colorful buildings were often shaded by canopies like the branches of the central tree, the Heart of Oteslia. The canopies were beautiful and also prevented accidents involving Pegasi relieving themselves at high altitudes—or the many birds that lived in the city. Oteslia had the largest Gnoll-to-Drake population of any Walled City.
It also had a secret.
A group of [Strategists] were making for the Walled City. Not on foot; they had rented a wagon, along with horses. The wagon was for Wil Kallinad.
And Yerranola. Any movement disturbed her; the Selphid was fighting the poison eating away at her body. Their progress was slower than they wanted to keep her from being disturbed. But it was also fast as they could make it.
Oteslia had [Druids]. It also had experts in antidotes. It might take them time to synthesize something—but there was hope there.
They were being pursued. Twice now, they’d come under attack. Venaz, Feshi, Peki, and Merrik had fought off the attackers already; the Drowned Folk trying to reclaim the blades and the [Mercenaries]—hired by someone else after the Diamond Swords of Serept the three [Strategists] carried—had failed to take them.
A Minotaur with [Haste] permanently cast on him, Feshi’s ability to summon dangerous undead, and Wil’s three clones all made the group difficult for anyone short of a Gold-rank to take on. But they were coming. The first attacks had only been to test their mettle.
“Feshi, we won’t make it. We’re being tailed. We have to ride faster even if Yerranola is hurting. Peki can fly with her.”
The Minotaur spoke tensely, his expression grim. He was tired; they all were. They hadn’t stopped moving for days, sleeping in the wagon. Wil raised a gaunt face.
“We can’t. I’ve been watching Yerra. She’s…shedding parts of herself. If she doesn’t, the poison will eat her away. She can’t be disturbed. If she’s shaken about—the poison could spread across her entire body.”
Venaz glanced at the covered jar; Yerranola was making a shrill sound from within. He looked ahead.
“Then we need to draw the others off, Wil. They’re coming for the swords.”
“Wait. Help is coming. I sent out the call the moment we arrived.”
That was all Feshi said. The others looked at her. Merrik shook his head. The Dwarf’s usual smile was gone.
“Let’s hope you’re right, Feshi. If a Gold-rank team decides they want to take the blades—”
He said nothing more. The others rode on. Behind them—a group was forming.
Even on land, seafolk stuck together. [Storm Sailors], Drowned Folk—[Pirates]—were forming a coalition. They wanted those damn blades. The [Strategist] students had cost them all too much to turn back now.
The pursuers picked up the pace. They didn’t like fighting on land, with horses. But there were dozens. Nearly a hundred. They saw the Minotaur turning back. He drew the greatsword and the seafolk hesitated.
But a single relic wasn’t enough. Or even three. The [Strategists] were not adventurers, or heroes. They didn’t deserve the relics.
“Peki and I will stall them. We’re the only ones who can break away. Peki, with me. For the honor of Hammerad!”
The Minotaur snorted. The [Martial Artist] flew after him.
“Venaz! Don’t be stupid! Come back!”
The Minotaur turned back. He wasn’t salivating over glory this time. He nodded at the pursuit.
“This is calculated stupidity this time, Wil. I’ll see you at the City of Growth.”
The Human [Lord] called out. Venaz ignored him. He’d drawn the greatsword, but his mount was unaffected. Once he charged, he’d have to dismount. If his horse lived that long.
“Just stall them, Peki.”
The Minotaur looked at her. The Garuda blinked at him, fearless. Then she turned her head.
“We’re being flanked. Something’s coming.”
Venaz turned his head. The Minotaur hesitated.
So did the seafolk. A Selphid [Pirate] eyed something appearing to the left.
“I see something. That’s not natural. Fog’s rising.”
The [Storm Sailors] muttered uneasily. Fog at sea was one thing. But this was the summer, midday.
Yet a large front of grey was coming from the east. It spilled across the ground, moving fast. Venaz halted his advance. Feshi’s head turned. Wil saw her smiling.
The bank of fog was moving forwards, cutting off the [Strategists] from the seafolk. The pursuers sped up cautiously. The mists swept forwards—and then the seafolk heard a sound.
Howling. The Drowned Folk halted their advance. Turned and began to ride away.
“Where are you going—”
One of the [Pirates] called out. Then he saw the fog beginning to lift. And riding out of it came—
Gnolls. They were riding horses. The seafolk, used to sporadic Gnolls on the sea, stared. But there were Gnolls on horseback. Nearly two thousand of them.
A [Pirate] shouted. Their faction broke and whirled. The Gnolls howled again, emerging from the mists.
“Is that the Weatherfur tribe?”
Wil stared at the Gnolls, whose fur was dyed in places like Feshi. The [Shaman] raised her dagger and howled back.
“Not all of them.”
The [Warriors] advanced, as their [Shamans] and the cloud began to encircle the pursuers. Faced with those numbers—the seafolk broke and ran towards the coast. They wouldn’t take the blades by force. Subterfuge was all that remained.
Wil sighed in relief as the Gnolls began to approach the [Strategists]. He looked at Feshi.
“Your tribe came all this way for us? We owe you, Feshi.”
“I have a Diamond Sword of Serept. Of course they’d come. And it wasn’t just for us; the Meeting of Tribes approaches ever faster. Let’s get to Oteslia.”
He nodded. They rode on, towards the distant tree in the lake. They had to hurry. Time…time was running out.
She was coming. The First Gardener of Oteslia was a female Drake. A fun fact about her was that she was the 6th female Drake to be elected to her position in a row by the lesser caretakers of Oteslia. Each one managed a district and they in turn elected her.
There were actually Gnolls as well—but the First Gardener was always a female Drake. Again, for the last six generations at least. And she ruled for life.
People assumed that it was some law that demanded that. But it wasn’t. There was a reason the First Gardener always met those two criteria.
Well—even then, she was always the most competent in both administration, diplomacy, and so on that Oteslia could find. This First Gardener was named Shaerrha Brasswing, apt due to the coloration of her family’s scales.
She…was stressed out. She often was, for multiple reasons. But Shaerrha would have gladly traded her job with Luciva Skybreath, or the Sharkcaptain of Zeres. They had easy roles, fighting off [Pirates], combatting the Antinium…
Shaerrha had to manage angry [Druids], spend Oteslia’s limited budget wisely, deal with her ward, and now—prepare for what might be the most politically charged event in Izrilian history for the last century, aside from the Antinium arriving.
“Magnolia Reinhart is prepared to arrive within a month’s time. What’s our guest list looking like?”
“Expanding each day, First Gardener. Wall Lady Navine and her mother are of course coming, and they’ve now expanded the list to nearly thirty dignitaries from Salazsar. And that’s only the arrivals, not their staff…”
“Security. The instant she crosses the border, we’re going to need an escort. Have we coordinated with Reinhart?”
“She claims she has a route planned—”
“Well, get in touch with her! And tell Skybreath that this isn’t under discussion! No—deny that we’ve heard anything. If she objects, I’ll speak to her myself.”
The others were starting to get wind of the event planned. Shaerrha had kept it under wraps with her co-conspirators as much as possible, but it was inevitable. A [Lady] of the Five Families, coming to southern Izril? To…negotiate? Or just socialize?
It had a lot of potential. Shaerrha didn’t deny that; that was why she had offered her city for the gathering. Peace with the Humans appealed to her, especially with the Antinium threat. She had never believed strongly in the conflict; that was why a lot of female Drakes, especially the Wall Ladies of Izril—had convened this event.
Still, it was stressful. And Shaerrha, as mentioned, had a hard job. Not only did she manage her city—she had to keep Oteslia’s great secret.
The City of Growth had a secret. A secret so grand and important that they had guarded it for nearly a century now, and before that—centuries still. But the last century had been much, much harder.
None of the other Walled Cities save for Manus knew Oteslia’s great secret. No other city could know. It was zealously kept.
The First Gardener walked across her balcony, built into the very wood of the Heart of Oteslia, the grand tree planted eons ago. She looked across her city, seeing life.
Life! Not just Drake or Gnoll! Birds, animals, from squirrels climbing the vast trunks of the tree to a myriad of birds hunting for seeds and the fish of the lakes, the insects—
Okay, she hated the insects. The First Gardener was pleased to see that the repellant spells were working on her balcony. And below her—every kind of plant was growing in every area. From terraced rice paddies to arid zones built into the tree or underground, whatever existed Oteslia could grow. The builders of the City of Growth had made the city to provide for all the Walled Cities of Izril. In ages past—the vision had been simple.
Manus to train. Zeres to hold the seas. Pallass to create. Salazsar to mine. Fissival to connect. And Oteslia to provide. There were other Walled Cities of course; but Fissival and Oteslia had been integral to the grand plan.
The teleportation network of Fissival would have connected all the Walled Cities and so even if they were under siege, they would never be starved. Not with reinforcements and Oteslia’s foodstuffs.
Of course, now the Walled Cities were reduced and squabbled amongst themselves when they should be united. Shaerrha sighed. But there was hope. Oteslia had been given a charge. And as First Gardener, her priority over even the safety of her city, the growth of plants and everything else was to tend to her sacred charge. Even if—
“Mom. Mooooom! Guess what I saw? It’s those [Strategists] on the scrying orb! Can I visit them? Can I? Can I?”
—Even if it was hard. The First Gardener sighed. Her headache resumed. A green…Drake…flew up towards her balcony.
Anyone else would have been stopped. But the young Drake, a young man of around…sixteen?…wasn’t stopped. His guards, all Oldbloods or Pegasi riders, strove to catch up as he shot upwards.
The Drake was magnificent. His scales were a blend of green there were few words for, mixed with a brown and purple that ran across his body. His neck-spines were a pale yellow turning almost to white, and his eyes shone with the bright warmth of the earth.
He had wings and the ability to spit acid, or noxious fumes in the form of fogs of various maladies—or even beneficial substances—and he was faster, stronger than any of his peers. He was her…son.
He was also in trouble. The First Gardener glared as the Drake alighted on the balcony, as nimble as could be.
“Cirediel Anvi’dualln Olic—”
“Mom. I told you to call me Cire. No one calls me by my full name but you. All my friends call me Cire. And my girlfriend.”
The Drake hopped on to the balcony. The First Gardener waved away the guards who’d finally caught up. She should have been annoyed with them but she knew how fast Cirediel was.
“Cire, you know I’m not to be casually disturbed when I’m at work. I am the First Gardener of Oteslia. And you have to be aware of my station.”
The young Drake had a whine in his tone which most people would have objected to at his age. But Shaerrha was unusually patient.
“Cire. First of all, if those are the [Strategists]—”
“They are! I saw them! They’re like, miles away, but I’m sure it was them.”
The Drake waved it away breezily. The First Gardener believed him; Cire’s eyes were superior to even most Skills. She changed tactics.
“—I’m sure we could arrange a meeting. As First Gardener, I will of course help them if they are here for their friend. We could even arrange an escort—with the Pegasus Riders. You may visit them once they enter the city. If we come to an understanding.”
She saw the young Drag—Drake close his mouth and scowl. He knew what was coming next. The First Gardener sighed.
“Cire. About your…girlfriend.”
“I can have one. She’s special.”
“You said that about Wusha.”
“Well, I was wrong okay? But F—no, wait. Eerie’s the right one for me!”
“Cire, she’s a Gnoll. A Plains Gnoll.”
“So? I’m okay with that. Besides, she’s hot. Have you seen—”
The Drake broke off, seeing the First Gardener’s expression.
“Cirediel. You cannot continue to…see her. It’s too dangerous.”
“What? That’s not fair! I like her! She loves me! Besides, nothing’s going to come of it. I mean, babies. She was all worried, and I said—”
The First Gardener stomped her foot. And the room carved out of the tree shook. Shaerrha was a [Green Mage] who had trained with [Druids]. Her ward looked at her, realizing she really was mad.
“You are incautious. Cirediel. That is exactly what I am talking about. If you must…date…it can only be within Oteslia’s people. There are many Drakes and Gnolls who are interested in you—”
“And I’m not. I’ve hung out with like, a quarter of them already. I’m bored, Mom!”
“No Plains Gnolls. Break up with your friend—politely. You can keep talking with her, but if she sees you when you’re unguarded or you let something slip…again…”
Cire pouted. He glared at his mother.
His…adopted mother? Even that was hard. Shaerrha loved Cire. She truly did. But she knew what he was. And how old he was and…
“Yasy was cooler than you. She let me do what I wanted. Is she still touring the world?”
“…Yes. I’m sorry. She sends her love. I could obtain a letter…”
“I’m cool. It’s not like it matters.”
Cire turned, folding his arms and wings sullenly. Suddenly, Shaerrra felt bad for the young Drake.
He had to know that Yasyiin, the last Grand Gardener of Oteslia—was dead. But as the last five Gardeners of Oteslia had done, she’d gone on vacation in her last years. To die away from her city and spare the Drake—their ward—heartbreak.
Now, Cirediel stood, looking a bit lost as he stared at Shaerrha.
“Sorry, Mom. I didn’t mean it.”
She smiled, and wondered if he would remember her name when she was long gone.
“I know that, Cire. And I am sorry too. It’s just that your friend Eerie—could smell you.”
“I lied. She says I have a cool scent. What if—”
“I’m sorry, Cire.”
The Drake kicked at a rug. He flexed his wings and then shrugged, moodily.
“That’s fine. I’m sort of done with Drakes and Gnolls anyways. You know what would be cool? Humans. What about them?”
The First Gardener had a headache again. Cire was…young. And older than she was.
He was over ninety years old. And naturally—
He was a Dragon.
But oh, what a different sort of Dragon from the one Manus had. Luciva Skybreath had no idea. She had Rafaema, who had decades on Cire. Okay, thirty years, but that was a lot, especially for developmental Dragons.
Cire was in the middle of his adolescence. And it showed. He was…young…for a Dragon. But they were cognizant as fast as other species, even if it took their bodies longer to grow. So, like half-Elves, their puberties lasted a long time.
The Gardeners and people of Oteslia had spent a long time protecting their ward. Not only was Cire under the effect of a transformation spell and multiple tricks, like a scent-destroying tonic he often forgot to apply, he had his own bodyguards.
Unfortunately, Cire was not his counterpart in Manus. Oteslia had a memory-spell budget. They also had a lot of…help. Where in Manus, the secret was kept to the inner council, here…
A [Shopkeeper] listened as Eerie, a young Plains Gnoll who had begun a relationship with the First Gardener’s wild son, gossiped with her friends.
“He said I couldn’t get pregnant, yes? That he was special?”
“Is that a word for impotent?”
“I have no idea. But he said he was also older than he looked—”
“Excuse me, Miss! Would you like a free sample of our latest product?”
The [Shopkeeper] desperately interrupted the two gossiping Gnolls. He was a Drake, and had lived in Oteslia for a long time. In fact…a lot of Oteslia’s citizens didn’t leave their city. They were very patriotic. And…very hardworking.
Eerie and her friend’s ears perked up. They didn’t see the other [Shopkeepers] carefully closing the street as the Drake warmly beckoned her into the shop. Or the Pegasus Rider flying down and cursing Cire’s name.
The secret was kept another day.
In her quarters, Shaerrha was very grateful for the growing group of keepers of Oteslia’s great secret. Just another…hundred years…and Cire would be the responsible, adult hope of Izril. She thought she wouldn’t live to see the end of the century with how much stress he gave her.
No wonder the First Gardeners had such short tenures. The young Earth Dragon was a handful. It was just as well he couldn’t get the young women of every species he courted pregnant or Oteslia’s noble circles would have had a lot of children they’d have to explain away.
Cire was reckless, brash—and cooped up. Shaerrha understood, she did. At least it wasn’t Manus; he could fly about with his bodyguards. But he still needed to be protected, especially from himself.
Now the Drake flopped on to the couch. He was a handful and hard to control for anyone but his mother, the First Gardener. He glanced up and gave Shaerrha a casual look that didn’t fool her for one second.
“So…if Eerie’s off-limits now, can I meet the [Strategists]?”
“With an escort. When they arrive.”
“If you watch your tongue, yes! But if you so much as breathe something that will get you in trouble, I’ll ground you for the next two months!”
Cire gulped in the face of that threat.
“I’m fine! I’ll be good! Don’t worry—I’ll be so secretive no one will even know. And wait until I tell Rafaema! When do we get to see each other again?”
“In two months we have a meeting. At Manus this time.”
“I hate Manus. They’re all so—so—and Rafaema’s so uptight these days.”
The Dragon glowered, folding his arms. The First Gardener wondered if she should up the calming tonic in her diet.
“Hey Mom, if Pallass has television, do you think we can get one? I mean, so I can be on it. Rafaema would flip if she saw that. Or—can I visit Pallass? Please?”
Never in a million years. Shaerrha imagined Cire visiting the City of Inventions and the secret leaking to the world as soon as he walked in front of a scrying orb. It was hard enough in Oteslia—there had been some incidents.
Still…imagine Pallass, or Salazsar giving her the resources she needed to take care of a restless young Dragon? Some nights Shaerrha dreamed of that.
But it was too dangerous. She shook her head. Distract the young Dragon.
“Why don’t you see if the [Strategists] made it into the city, Cire? You know—they might be on the scrying orb—”
“I didn’t think of that! Gotta go, Mom!”
The Dragon raced for the balcony and dove off the walls, flying into his city. Shaerrha sat down.
“Make sure no one uses a scrying orb with Cire.”
She spoke curtly to the [Flight Captain] waiting by the window. The Gnoll saluted. Not all of Oteslia’s secret-keepers were Drakes. They followed their charge.
And the Grand Gardener sat down. Magnolia Reinhart was coming. Ancestors, she had better not find out who Cire was. Or the others! Fortunately, Cire disliked stuffy events. Shaerrha sighed.
It was an honor, a privilege, and a pain to look after her little son. She wanted him to grow up safely. But it was hard…
Rafaema was so well-mannered and thoughtful. Why couldn’t they have switched places? Manus was better for keeping secrets, anyways.
Shaerrha thought that, in the thoughtless way of someone admiring the grass on the other side. If Luciva Skybreath or Ferris could have heard her thoughts, they would have laughed until they puked.
For now—the Dragon of Oteslia waited for something interesting to happen to him. Then he went off to watch television.
Author’s Note: SHORT CHAPTER! I needed a short chapter. At last, I can turn the air conditioning back on! Huzzah!
And I mean, this may be another empty chapter where nothing…ah, you know the joke. The Last Tide is out and it’s sold over 800 copies so far! It’s apparently the biggest launch of Cloudscape digitally and that’s great because it incentivizes them to keep the comic going or add to the operating budget!
Tell your friends! Tell your dog! Wait, your dog’s useless! Tell your friends! And thanks for reading! Two more days remain until my break and I hope you’re enjoying this! Today’s art is another commission! This time of A’ctelios Salash, drawn by Jason, one of our reoccurring artists!
Drakorise commissioned the piece though, so much credit to him! It’s a beautifully…horrifying…illustration! Like caring for a teen for decades! Hope you enjoy and thanks for reading!
A’ctelios Confrontation by Jason, commissioned by Drakorise!