(Entropy Games has created a fan-game of The Wandering Inn where you serve guests as Erin! Check it out here!)
All things changed. Everything good someday came to an end. Freedom, thou fleeting thing. Innocence lost.
Mrsha du Marquin was crying. Weeping. She hung on, but the unkind hands tore her away. She turned pleadingly—but the monster had no pity.
“It’s time for clothing, Mrsha. A dress, pants at least!”
The white Gnoll fought. Viciously! She punched, kicked—
“Ow! Kick me one more time young lady, and you will get no dessert!”
Mrsha hesitated. She’d just cleared her last ‘no dessert’ punishment. She lowered her fists. She stared up at her mother, the [Princess]’ narked look, and sullenly shuffled over to her seat.
It was a combination lesson-dressing in The Wandering Inn. Lyonette had designs, cloth samples, and since she had Mrsha’s ‘homework hour’—incorrectly dubbed by Erin since it was actually her hour(s) of schooling each day—she had decided to make it about clothing.
“Don’t give me that look, Mrsha, sweetie. You’ll get to design your clothing!”
Mrsha’s ears perked up. That…sounded better. She had visions of herself in some snazzy outfit, like the ones on the movies! Or—armor?
Lyonette misread Mrsha’s eager expression. She did not misread the quick paw-signs, though. Her face went blank.
“…No, Mrsha. Not armor. You’re not a [Warrior]. I mean a dress. But first—you should know more about clothing. I can’t believe Erin and Krshia…”
She hesitated. Love ‘em, really. But Erin Solstice was not exactly trustworthy in the realms of common sense. You suspected she knew more than she normally acted, but her teaching Mrsha about clothing terminology? Less likely than Mrsha learning how to play chess blindfolded.
And Mrsha’s other teachers? Bird wore a loincloth and only because people expected him to. Numbtongue had dressed similarly and while he wore and had his own slowly-growing wardrobe, he was a Redfang and sometimes sat around all day in chainmail.
And Krshia—Mrsha’s last regular ‘teacher’ with Elirr and Selys as supplementals—was a Plains Gnoll. Clothing mattered, but Krshia wasn’t much about fashion.
It fell to Lyonette. She adjusted the board and picked up a bit of chalk as Mrsha gloomily sat in her teaching chair.
“Don’t give me that look, Mrsha. When we’re done we’ll go over your clothing and buy you a set! You cannot keep running around naked.”
And why, pray? Mrsha sneered as she signed that she had fur. Lyonette rolled her eyes exasperatedly.
“I am not getting into it with you, young miss. Now—about skirts.”
Mrsha’s face fell. Did you know that skirts came in all shapes and sizes and cuts? The minutiae of whether a skirt had this many folds, or was knee-high rather than floor-length differed its classification!
The next hour of Mrsha’s life was filled with knowledge. The difference between pleated and knife-pleated, eight panel, four panel, draped, accordion, waist, pencil…
Wow. Look at all the words for clothing you’re never going to get me to wear. Mrsha’s face was that of a prisoner being herded towards the torture room. Lyonette doggedly drummed the words into Mrsha’s head.
“You need to wear something today, Mrsha. Just so you can see it’s not a burden. No, it is not painful! Stop signing that!”
Mrsha was communicating with Lyonette with her sign-language rather than her notes. The allure of being perfectly understood via text had worn off for Mrsha and signing was faster—so long as the other person could actually understand her language.
The Gnoll child scowled and folded her arms, but Lyonette was blocking the door and she could veto dessert, which was cake. The tyrant would have her due.
“Selys has offered to pay for the dresses…she’ll buy one. The rest will come from one of Krshia’s [Tailor] friends who works with Gnolls. You have to choose, Mrsha. Choose a dress. And maybe pants. And a shirt! You’ll look so cute in it!”
Lyonette even had one of the borrowed smartphones, having discovered the allure of free pictures. Mrsha looked at the pile of clothing samples. She looked at Lyonette’s board full of ideas and then at the [Princess].
Thirty minutes later, Mrsha waddled downstairs, feeling as if she’d won a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Lyonette followed, scowling a tiny bit.
She had gotten her way. Mrsha was wearing a shirt and a kind of dress. She looked rather odd in it. But she walked downstairs on her two legs with a vague air of pride.
“Mrsha? Did Lyonette actually get you to put on a—hah!”
Erin laughed when she saw Mrsha. Lyonette glared.
“It’s the only thing she would put on.”
Mrsha was wearing a cotton shirt—and a kilt. She had tossed all the other dresses out of the lineup for the most open design. It had been that or a toga, and Lyonette had chosen the lesser of two evils.
It looked very funny to Erin.
“I didn’t even know there was plaid on sale in Liscor!”
“I got the samples from Invrisil. Why? Does it look—off to you?”
“No…but it does uh, sort of looks like a thing guys from Earth might wear. If they were from a certain country.”
Mrsha had clearly chosen the one combination of clothing designed to make her least lady-like. Lyonette was exasperated.
“It’s a start. Alright, Mrsha. You’re allowed to play now.”
Mrsha brightened up. She grabbed her belt and Lyonette raised a finger.
“In clothing! And no getting it torn or ripped!”
The Gnoll child scowled and stomped off. Erin shook her head as she watched Mrsha go. All she needed was a tiny beret to match.
“Did you get pictures of her in other outfits?”
“A few. Here…”
The Wandering Inn was open for another day in this long summer. Mrsha walked around on two-legs, doing her customary round of the inn more ungainly. But she was entering her shifting year and she already seemed a bit taller to Erin.
“Is that Mrsha?”
Several of the regulars exclaimed when they saw her. Mostly with amusement. Mrsha bore it with ill grace. Menolit laughed his tail off over his loaded baked potato with a snack. She slapped his claw away as he tried to ruffle her head and attempted to grab his potato—she was too slow in this clothing!
“You’re so cute. They should put little pictures of you up around the inn! Or some art! Tell Erin to do that—I keep saying the common room needs more culture!”
Uriesta, a Drake in her mid-forties, tried to tempt Mrsha with a bit of salad. The Gnoll took one look at the leaf and turned her head. She stomped off, looking for her real friends, the ones who’d commiserate with her rather than be annoying adults.
“Mrsha? It’s me, Mrsha!”
The young Gnoll’s ears perked up as she heard a familiar, and welcome voice. She turned. Ekirra? But instead of the red blur she was expecting to race towards her and hug her—she saw an unsteady fellow on two legs, wearing pants.
Mrsha’s face fell.
Damn them. They’d gotten to Ekirra too! He was waddling around, fully-dressed and looking uncomfortable.
“Mrsha! You look funny!”
His mouth opened and he started laughing as he saw Mrsha. The Gnoll furiously signed back—Ekirra was funny too!
The young Gnoll cocked his head as he read her words and shrugged.
“It’s so stiff!”
He complained. Mrsha nodded. She’d nearly gone for pants—but it was too constraining! The kilt was her happiest compromise. Ekirra nearly began to roll around on the floor, but he caught himself.
“I can’t get dirty. Mrsha…I hate clothing! I want to be a Plains Gnoll, not a City Gnoll! They don’t have to wear clothing, right?”
Not at all! They can wear loincloths!
Mrsha emphatically signed back. Plains Gnolls were so much more civilized than silly people with their rules on clothing. Ekirra sighed. He tried to sit down and scratch one ear with a hind leg, but his pants stopped him.
“Want to play tag?”
The two looked around. Mrsha had her collection of balls, but—she just didn’t feel fast. She shook her head.
“Grounded. She stole an amulet.”
Mrsha expressed her dismay. If she and Ekirra were going through the shifting year, Visma was still going through her hoarding phase. She’d gotten in trouble last week for hiding money she’d stolen from her parent’s pouch.
Ekirra nodded dismally.
“For two days. Do you think I can take my pants off when I play football? Is Mister Joseph here?”
He looked around for his hero, Joseph, the football coach of Liscor, who was currently leading the score 1-0 in the new football league.
Not here. He’s sleeping.
After having too much to drink. Erin had told him off last night. Joseph had ‘a problem’, according to her. But he was trying. Ekirra nodded understandingly.
“Mister Dizk next door drinks too much. He smells bad, like pee and throwing up. Mom says I can’t say that to him.”
The two walked down the common room, grousing about adult foibles. Both attracted attention as the ‘cute little cubs’ they were. Mrsha nearly cast [Dirt Spray] at the third person who said that in the sickly-sweet tone of voice. She was still learning some magic and Palt had taught her that one!
Speaking of which…where was Palt? Since running about sucked in clothing, Mrsha wanted some interesting people. Erin might do, but she and Lyonette were doing something official with the staff today and Mrsha didn’t want to bother them. That left any number of entertaining people, though.
Relc was gone. Poor Relc. But there was Numbtongue, Octavia—sometimes—Saliss, Grimalkin if he was here, Moore, Jelaqua, Palt, Bird…it wasn’t Mrsha’s friends, but the ‘fun people’ she had a list of. Lyonette was Mrsha’s mother and a resident of the inn, for instance. But she wasn’t cool.
Palt wore kilts, hence Mrsha copying him. She looked around for him, but she didn’t immediately pick up his unique scent of smoke and whatever else was in his cigars. He might have been in the kitchen, helping Imani.
Mrsha wondered if the two were going to fall in love. She was fairly certain they weren’t in a relationship—yet—even if Erin and Lyonette and Rose were all saying how ‘good’ it was that Palt was helping Imani. But Gnolls were Gnolls—neither had had sex. The nose knew.
And Mrsha and Ekirra knew more than kids ought to. Like—Mrsha could have called when Selys and Hawk were close to breaking up. Or whenever Relc had a fun night, although he generally told everyone in sight anyways. She didn’t want to know this stuff, but there you were. You could put clay in your nose or live knowing facts.
There were…people…who got to have more fun than others. Not that Mrsha saw the point. But Maviola and Olesm for instance were repeat offenders on the ‘gross’ scale. Poor Menolit had entered the ranks of the yuck as well, which was actually a good thing Mrsha supposed. Jelaqua…well, Selphids smelled like death and preservatives as much as that, but she knew because of Moore. Krshia had let Mrsha down, and despite the lack of a Palt-Imani connection, she got around more than Bezale and Montressa…
So had Pisces, now and then. The Antinium were refreshingly safe in that regard, except for Pawn.
She sniffed—and blinked. Hold on. Someone here was smelling like that. She looked up—and saw a unique sight, even for The Wandering Inn.
A Lamia paused in slithering past Mrsha. Hexel, the [Architect] and one of four Lizardfolk in Liscor blinked at Mrsha.
“Well, look at you! Mrsha, is it? Come to join the ranks of the clothed?”
Mrsha nodded, a bit warily. She didn’t know Hexel too well. But he was nice. She waved at him and hunted around for her cards.
I am suffering.
Hexel laughed as he read the card. He handed it back, uncaring of the side-looks some Drakes still gave him after all this time. He was usually in Liscor, anyways. Building stuff.
“Don’t worry. If you grow a tail, you don’t need to wear pants.”
He gestured at his own clothing, which was more of a vest which ran down just to where his tail began. Mrsha nodded approvingly. She’d bear that in mind.
Have a good day!
Hexel wrinkled his brow at the second card. Then Mrsha held up another with a huge ‘?’ to clarify. The Lamia blinked.
“Ah. Well, it’s quite good for just waking up. Thank you.”
This time the Lamia laughed.
“Unpleasant people, you mean? I’ve found my ways of dealing with them. And Liscor has been quite—welcoming. Some of the city’s inhabitants, anyways. Besides. Jerks exist in Baleros too. Irritable Gorgons ruin one’s day.”
Mrsha gave a sage nod. Before she could ask how big a Gorgon was—a subject of debate between her and her friends—the [Architect] took a glance at the sky.
“I’m late. I must go. Thank you for the kind words on the card, Miss Mrsha. I really should stay here more often. Maybe tonight? But your Council has me curling my tail until its raw! Not that I mind—excuse me.”
He slithered past Mrsha after flicking her the cards. She sighed. She hadn’t gotten to figure out how to ask if he’d upgrade Liscor’s park! She’d write him a letter in case he got back.
There went an interesting person who didn’t stay at the inn. Why, he treated it as if it were some kind of…semi-permanent lodging where you ate and slept and nothing more.
“He’s scaly. And shiny.”
Ekirra had been staring at Hexel the entire time and unapologetically picking his nose with his tongue. Mrsha nodded. The other three Lizardfolk that Hexel had brought with him were much more colorful than Drakes. Too bad they were so nervous.
What now? Mrsha looked around for another diversion. Well—her eyes lit up as she saw a gang of cool cats to roll with.
Or rather—a very fun Hobgoblin and some Antinium. Mrsha pulled Ekirra over and found Yellow Splatters, Numbtongue, one of the Painted Workers, and a number of Painted Soldiers in a booth.
These were all exceptionally fun people to be around. Antinium and Goblins weren’t too good to have fun or get dirty. Mrsha pulled Ekirra—who was suddenly shy—over.
“…Tier 5 or 6, I think. It is very reassuring to have her around, but perhaps we do not level?”
“Too strong. Safe fighting means no levels. Sounds like Xrn does too much work.”
“I see. But, surely, it is better than dying?”
Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters were having a quiet debate as the other Antinium listened. The two friends glanced up as Mrsha slid into a seat next to Purple Smiles.
“Hello, Mrsha. And this is…Ekirra?”
Yellow Splatters had a wonderfully deep voice. The Gnoll cub stared at him with round eyes.
Mrsha nudged Ekirra. There was nothing to fear! The Antinium didn’t even get mad if you accidentally knocked over a glass. They probably wouldn’t even complain if Mrsha swiped their food!
Not that she would. Antinium were off-limits. Numbtongue waved at Mrsha and replied to Yellow Splatters.
“No high levels means you die—just later. Death of weakness.”
Yellow Splatters sighed.
“This is true.”
Both looked at Mrsha as she banged on the table. She wanted in on this conversation! Importantly, she hand-signed to Numbtongue, who could understand her.
Stone Spears tribe had lower-leveled Gnolls [Warriors]. And some left. But we had higher-leveled [Chieftains] and [Hunters] and things!
They still died when the Goblin Lord attacked. Mrsha felt a pang, but it wasn’t the sharp one it used to be. Moreover, Numbtongue and Yellow Splatters both nodded.
“Non-combat classes level in peace. Not a Redfang specialty. But she has a good point.”
That was why Numbtongue was, like, #2 on the coolness-list. Mrsha puffed out her chest proudly. He gave credit where credit was due.
“Indeed. But—and perhaps I am misinterpreting—Antinium have no [Chieftains]. I do not believe we can obtain the class as we are.”
Numbtongue and Mrsha both blinked at Yellow Splatters. The Antinium had read Mrsha—perfectly. Of course, he’d seen so before and Antinium had that understanding of body language like Goblins. But it was still impressive!
You understand this?
Yellow Splatters nodded. He reached for a straw in a cup of blue juice and sipped.
Mrsha was delighted! Of course, her sign-language was all her design, but she’d been improving it with the help of some of the other Earthers, who knew tiny bits of sign language. She really felt understood of late. Especially with [Druids] and Goblins and Antinium and Ekirra and Visma.
“It is something to think about. Thank you, Mrsha. Do you have anything you need?”
Mrsha shook her head; she was just here for the ambiance. Ekirra saw Yellow Splatters turn his head and froze for a second.
“I—I—d-do you eat Gnolls if they’re bad?”
Ekirra looked up at Yellow Splatters and asked the first question so far. The Antinium heard Numbtongue snort.
“Oh. Good. There’s an Antinium working in the inn now! Actually, three! There’s one!”
Ekirra pointed at Silveran, who was sweeping the floor. Yellow Splatters opened his mandibles and raised them and Mrsha laughed at Ekirra.
“We know. It is a good thing.”
Mrsha nodded. They had their own rooms and everything! Well—room. Unlike Bird, the three Workers that Erin had gotten from the Hive wanted to sleep together. Bird had expressed an interest himself—but his collection of bird feathers, arrows, and his Fortress of Fluff required a room to himself. He was actually sort of messy, that Bird.
Numbtongue. Do you want to go adventuring later? I have clothing. It is stinky-stupid. So I can’t play. But we can have fun in the mountains!
Mrsha conveyed all that with several gestures. Numbtongue had his own name—he grinned as she pretended to pinch her tongue. The ‘do you want’ was conveyed in ‘want’, a clasping motion to the chest with one paw, and so on.
It wasn’t a one-to-one exactly of words to intention, but Mrsha pinching her nose and tapping her head and such were logical motions such that you could infer from her face a lot of what she was saying.
“No adventuring today. I am practicing on the guitar. Too tired.”
The [Bard] was unaffected by her insults. He’d been out late, doing sword-things again. Mrsha scowled; Numbtongue was actually teaching Lyonette some moves. He’d gotten suddenly a lot more interested in his sword. But he hadn’t said why—yet. It was a secret and he clearly wanted to tell Erin.
“Don’t kick me. Go play in the Garden if you’re bored. Or shoot arrows with Bird.”
The Hobgoblin shook his head at Mrsha. He was downgraded five ranks on the cool list instantly. Still—everyone had days when they wanted to do their thing and Mrsha was prepared to forgive. Mrsha the Benevolent and Kind could do no less. She was trying to figure out who else she could bother with Ekirra when the Gnoll cub yawned.
“Mrsha—can I have an icy-slurpy thing from the kitchen? Please?”
He whispered to Mrsha. She looked up. That sounded good.
It was a standing order from Lyonette to the staff that Mrsha’s friends and their family got ‘bonuses’, like some of the guests. Mainly because they were friends—and partly to keep them coming back to The Wandering Inn. That meant Ekirra could sometimes sneak some food that Mrsha couldn’t from the kitchens.
Erin’s shaved ice slurpies were an invention that had come out just the other day. Free ice from her sad-fire freezer or Palt’s magic plus some blue fruit juice or sugar-mix with a bit of fruit juice?
Delicious. The food spies had had a field day with that. Erin had tried to get everyone to eat inside on the first day, instead of sneaking their food away. Mrsha distinctly recalled watching one spy from Liscor buy the snow cone and running for the exit while Erin chased them with a broom.
It was still a fad for the inn because ice wasn’t the easiest thing to copy. Although all the big restaurants and inns like Peslas’ Tailless Thief had [Mages] or access to magic or Skills. Still, Ekirra was wagging his tail.
“Please, Mrsha? Dad says other kids want to be your friend so they can go to the inn. He says it’s ‘dis-in-genuous’, but I should be your friend even without free food. But can I have free food?”
Mrsha’s ears perked up. New friends? She signed back after a moment’s thought.
Get free food for me, too! Friend! Anyone else want food?
She looked at Numbtongue.
“Yes. I’ll get it. One cone for Mrsha, one for Ekirra…”
He looked around the table. The other Antinium had been quietly eating from bowls of fufu dipped in the spicy broth and goat’s meat they loved to eat from Imani’s kitchen. Well—only one of them was a Worker anyways, so they hadn’t exactly been leaping to join the conversation.
Purple Smiles raised a hand. The Worker nodded. The other Painted Soldiers susurrated. Mrsha finally recognized two more ‘unique’ Soldiers among the crowd at the booth.
Chesacre and Thaina! Of course, each Soldier had a name, but the two who were female Soldiers were unique. Not only because their art formed a whole across the two bodies, but because they were…female.
The other Soldiers were male, or, possibly, indifferent. Yellow Splatters had gone over it with Numbtongue and decided he was probably male. Pawn had expressed the same idea, much to Lyonette’s relief. She was bothered by all of it.
Erin said it was their choice and that the entire thing was ‘complicated’ to Mrsha and that she wasn’t an expert. Rose said Chesacre and Thaina were wonderful and used a lot of unfamiliar words.
Mrsha thought Chesacre and Thaina were amazing. Not high on the ‘cool’ list, but they’d gone into the dungeon, survived Headsnatcher, and come back! A thousand Antinium had gone in—and only they’d made it.
That was amazing. And sad. And very brave! Now, Chesacre and Thaina looked at each other, one of their hands holding the other’s, as Mrsha almost always saw them. Then—Thaina raised two free hands as she moved her bowl out of the way. And she said—
I and this one would like a drink too.
Mrsha—stared. So did Numbtongue, Yellow Splatters, and the other Antinium. Ekirra was picking his nose again while staring at the ceiling.
It hadn’t been perfect. Instead of a proper name, Thaina had just pointed. But she had done all the words. With Mrsha’s sign-language!
“You two want a drink?”
The [Soulbard] blinked at Thaina. She nodded.
That was a drawing-in motion and a half-smile, which, translated into Antinium expressions, was a slight raise and opening of the mandibles. It was…so natural.
How did they know? Of course they knew! Chesacre and Thaina and the other Antinium were regulars of the inn nowadays and they had seen Mrsha signing and teaching other people. But they had never tried to do it themselves. Because it had been Mrsha’s language.
But it wasn’t just hers. Mrsha processed all of that in a moment. Of course. Soldiers couldn’t talk. They had never talked. Their names—their identities had come when they had painted themselves.
Yet—they could have words. Thaina seemed to know what she had done. She put her hands on the table, and then looked at Mrsha.
Your words. May I have them? Please?
The little Gnoll saw the others looking at her. She looked at Thaina, saw the trembling of the fingers, and smiled. Mrsha carefully signed back.
Yes! Today is a very good day.
She saw Thaina’s antennae move. And then Chesacre carefully raised her hands.
Numbtongue’s raid on the kitchens was harder these days. Imani nearly fended him off until he said the slurpies were for the Antinium and Mrsha and Ekirra. Then she let him have them.
“Numbtongue. Are all those for you?”
Erin passed the Hobgoblin with a dozen of the precious snowcones balanced in his arms. He grunted.
“For the table. Ekirra wanted them.”
“Is it too much, Erin? I told him they’re for paying guests—”
Imani stared at Numbtongue. He grinned toothily at her. They had an odd rivalry. Imani, who was terrified of bumps in the night, and most scary things, defended her kitchen from Numbtongue casually wandering in and stealing the fruits of her labor. He had learned she would chase him out or smack him a good one if he tried. Mrsha had gotten the same lesson, incidentally.
“Oh…well, it’s cool. Ekirra’s an exception, Imani and it’s just ice and flavor.”
“You’re not the one who has to shave it down.”
Imani grumbled. Erin opened and closed her mouth and Numbtongue smirked at her.
“By the way, the Soldiers are talking with Mrsha’s sign language.”
He remarked as he walked back to the table. Erin’s nodded absently. Then her head snapped around.
She ran over to the table, after Numbtongue.
“You can talk? With Mrsha’s…? That makes so much sense! Guys! You can speak?”
She looked at the Antinium. After a second, one of the Soldiers slowly raised his hands.
My foot hurts.
Everyone looked at Polkadot’s foot. It actually had a gash on it. Erin’s jaw dropped.
“Someone get Polkadot a healing potion! Oh my—”
“Holy heck! No, wait! Heck! Wait—”
Before she could figure out a better turn of phrase, Mrsha snatched a snow-cone and began licking it. Numbtongue was serene in the moment, despite being as pleased by the developments as Mrsha. The Antinium began to nibble at the ice as Erin scrubbed at her hair.
“This is so good! Yellow Splatters! Pawn is going to be so happy. I have to tell him! We’re going by Garry’s bakery, anyways. This is—great. Right?”
“It is an excellent day.”
The [Sergeant] was smiling. Erin looked around. Ekirra and Mrsha had their faces buried in the snow cones, Numbtongue was chowing down with the Antinium—she threw her hands up.
“Does no one know how to be astounded properly?”
“Erin, where did you go? I thought you were getting the dishes—oh no. What is it this time?”
Lyonette groaned as she saw Erin dancing around by the booth. Erin turned.
“They can speak!”
The [Princess] got what Erin meant after a hurried explanation. Then she beamed at the Antinium.
“This is wonderful news! I’ll tell Pawn! He’ll be delighted. And you came up with it just now, Thaina?”
The Soldier nodded slowly.
I wanted to speak. So I did.
The others smiled. Lyonette turned to Erin.
“Let’s go to them.”
“Yeah, but—hand-waving? Shouting? Come on, guys! Dance a bit! Show me you care!”
Erin did it, laughing at the way Mrsha nearly snorted ice out her nose. She grinned as the Antinium and Numbtongue smiled.
“Fine. I hope Pawn flips, though. Imani! Imani, I actually need those dishes for Garry…”
The [Innkeeper] collected the fufu, and other dishes from Imani and Palt’s repertoire that Garry had wanted to sample. He was the only [Chef] who got recipes and the dishes themselves.
“Throw in a bag of that rice we got, please? No, wait—four bags. The big ones. He has to make food for the Free Queen and the others. He’ll pay us back.”
Imani helped load the huge bags of rice that came from Oteslia into Erin’s bag of holding. Then the two young women hurried into Liscor to spread the good news.
After they had gone. Numbtongue licked the snow cone and Ekirra decided he did want to run around after all. He had stains on his clothing, but then, so did Mrsha. The little Gnoll scowled after Lyonette. She looked around at the group.
She and Pawn have sex.
She informed the group. The Antinium, Goblin, and other Gnoll looked at her.
Yellow Splatters signed back.
Erin Solstice was smiling. It did seem obvious in hindsight. But that wasn’t what was special about that little moment in the inn.
What was special was—it hadn’t come from her. One of the Soldiers had decided to do it of their own volition. And that was what was extraordinary.
The inn was changing. No—
Liscor was changing. Erin Solstice walked down the streets with Lyonette. And she remembered what it had been. She had been alone in the crowds, a stranger.
Now—she saw other Humans. Not many. She was still a minority. But there were Humans from Esthelm, Celum, and even further! Even a Dullahan on vacation.
And look! An Antinium patrol of Painted Antinium was marching down the street. Erin waved.
“Hey, good luck! Stop by the inn on the way back!”
They all stopped for her, which was embarrassing. But the Painted Antinium were more welcome. Some people knew specific Antinium.
And yes…some people hated the Humans in their city. Some gave the Antinium dirty looks and spoke about the Hive and the Antinium Wars.
But the proof, to Erin, that there was more good than bad was in the bakery.
Garry’s bakery was still running. And since they’d arranged to meet here, the [Chef] himself was running the stall.
“So…how much is this entire quiche?”
“Two copper coins.”
“Two copper coins.”
“…One copper coin?”
The [Chef] was ‘haggling’ with a very suspicious Human [Laborer] who’d stopped by the shop, right outside the entrance to the Hive. The man hesitated.
“And it’s got no bugs in it?”
“That is not guaranteed. Did you take it from the non-bug section?”
“Then it had no more chance of bugs than any loaf of bread you eat. Which, statistically does have a bug in it.”
“You’re lying to me.”
“There are often bits of grasshopper or other insects from the wheat harvest in grain. Is this not a fact you are aware of? I believe it adds nutritional value.”
The man hesitated. But he’d gone too far and was being weirded out by it all. He fumbled a copper coin onto the table.
“Uh…thanks. My mate said that the muffins here were to die for. Here’s hoping no bugs, right? How much for a muffin?”
“…One copper for two?”
The Antinium turned as Erin came over, beaming. The muffins looked to die for, and she plucked one up.
“How’s my favorite Antinium [Chef]? And that’s only you, so don’t get worried. You can’t sell these for a copper, Garry! They’re worth a lot more! Even with bugs! Can I have one?”
“Yes, Erin. It is good to see you.”
The Antinium smiled. Erin took a big bite of the raisin muffin, and the [Laborer] brightened. He fumbled for his coin pouch.
“I’ll have s—”
Erin sprayed the acidfly-muffin to the side. The man backed away as Erin coughed.
“No, wait! I didn’t check which one it was. That uh—it was good except for bugs. You know I have a thing about bugs, Garry.”
“I have observed this, Erin. I am sorry you do not find it palatable. Yet.”
The [Chef] reassured her. Lyonette caught up as Erin drank from her water flask.
“Hello, Garry. Is your shop doing well?”
The Antinium smiled.
“I have lost money every single day since opening. However, I have also cleared my entire inventory. Even the bug-items. I am leveling up.”
“That’s great, really. Do I have anything in my teeth? Where’s Pawn? We’ve got great news, Garry.”
The [Chef]’s antennae perked up. As Erin unloaded her bag of holding he listened to the revelation about Antinium speech.
“This is most excellent. I am very happy! I must have my two assistants learn to speak…although I do not know if they will be able to do the same signing.”
“Their bodies are not the same. They have different appendages.”
“That’s right…because they’re Flying Antinium? What are their names again?”
“Pisca and Runel. They are both nearing Level 10 as [Assistant Baker] and [Assistant Cook].”
“Ooh! And here’s the rice…Imani says she’d be glad to have you in the kitchen if you want to practice.”
Garry delicately sampled the dishes Erin had put out.
“This is indeed…mm. Yes. I am very pleased. I think I will attempt to make them first, Erin, and then inquire if I have questions. Interesting…a root mashed up? What if I added intestines of, say, larvae and…”
The young woman’s smile turned a bit green as Garry began speculating. Erin loved Garry’s bakery, really. But she had vowed never to buy anything close to the insect-section.
“Is Pawn around, Garry?”
“I believe so. He went to purchase some supplies and has been delayed. Is Bird doing well, Erin?”
“He’s as happy as can be. I think he’s planning on upgrading the tower—the third floor’s done but Lyonette wants an attic. Bird’s got plans since he asked for all this wood and nails and rope and stuff.”
“He’d better not try making changes without me. But at least he’s busy and not asking for a ballista. Or a catapult. Or a trebuchet.”
Lyonette rolled her eyes. Then she and Erin saw a figure heading down the mostly-empty street. Garry saw a hungry-looking Drake boy in less-than-stellar clothing run up.
“The usual, Kesst? I have a special pie for you. It does not have bugs. Do not look at me like that. One moment…one copper, please.”
Erin turned her head—but Lyonette hugged Pawn and distracted her and the Drake boy was gone with an entire pie before she could blink.
“Pawn! I have the most wonderful news!”
“Really? But how disappointing. I thought I was the only one with a wonderful discovery today. Once again, Erin has outdone me. It was her, wasn’t it?”
Pawn, the [Priest] of the Painted Antinium smiled as he embraced Lyonette back. He had something in his hands…a journal? And a quill.
“It wasn’t me, for once! Hi Pawn! How’s it going?”
“Very well, Erin. And soon to be better?”
“The Soldiers can talk! With Mrsha’s sign language! It’s so obvious—they can’t write, but they can talk!”
Erin threw up her hands. Garry copied her. Pawn’s antennae went still for a moment.
“Oh. Of course. How—wonderful.”
The [Priest] clasped two hands together.
“I am overcome with emotion, Lyonette. And I feel foolish that I did not think of it myself. This—this is wonderful news! And it fits. It shall be the last entry I write in this.”
He brandished the notebook at Lyonette and Erin. The two regarded it curiously.
“What’s that, Pawn? Your diary? Hey, that’s not a bad idea!”
The [Innkeeper] saw Pawn shake his head slightly.
“Oh no, Erin. This is no journal. This…is to become our sacred text. I have just added the first entry.”
The young woman saw Lyonette’s head swivel towards her. Her jaw dropped.
“You mean, a bible?”
“If that is the word, yes. I was given to understand by Ryoka that there are many such documents. Conflicting reports.”
That was somehow Pawn. He’s taken this to another level that Erin couldn’t follow him to in a moment. She had to process this.
“You’re going to write it, Pawn?”
“Who else but me, Erin? It occurred to me the other day that if I died—”
“Don’t say that.”
Lyonette squeezed Pawn with a scowl. He went on, doggedly.
“—and that I am simply inefficient by myself. There are [Acolytes]. But a written text is reproducible. Why? Is there something wrong with me writing one?”
“Er. N—y—I think I’ll let Ryoka answer that. You might be the right person, actually. Unless there’s a dude who walks on water somewhere. Wait—no—he didn’t actually write anything down. Huh.”
“I could ask Magus Grimalkin?”
Pawn tilted his head left and right, doubtfully. Erin laughed.
“So—what are you writing?”
The [Priest] offered her the journal. It was plain, and the ink freshly dried.
“Everything the Antinium need to know to find Heaven. That is all, Erin. I do not have the confidence to do anything else.”
To him, it was a manual to getting into Heaven. Erin opened it—Pawn had yet to give his text a name. She read, slowly, seeing the neat handwriting of the Antinium, economical with space yet still legible.
In the beginning, someone might have created the world. Or, possibly, it sprang into existence due to a number of factors. The world of our reality was potentially created in seven days. Other sources claim different lengths of time or methods. Reports are unclear and unverifiable.
It does not matter. Once, perhaps, there were gods. But they were not gods for us. Far later, when the gods were dead, the Antinium were created and created themselves…we were not born, but made.
It went on for a bit. Pawn did not know the full story of the Antinium and he wrote that down.
“It’s uh—very honest about the gaps, Pawn.”
“It is not the important part, Erin. I am just giving perspective. What do you think?”
“Um. I think it’s great. Really. Do you think it’ll really help with your sermons, Pawn?”
“I believe so, Erin. After all—I plan to hire an [Illustrator] and pay for the important parts.”
The [Priest] pointed up.
“The sky. This book must have color. And each one should have a flower. I have thought about more to add. I am open to suggestions.”
Erin and Lyonette exchanged a glance. Erin smiled.
“You know—I think every religious text could use a picture of the sky and a flower. What about…some smells? Besides flowers?”
“Cinnamon. These are good ideas, yes. Shall we go conduct the interviews? You said you were on a busy schedule, Lyonette.”
Pawn made a few notes on a separate journal. Erin saw Lyonette nod.
“Absolutely. Ishkr should have the applicants all set. Garry, I’m sorry, we have to run back to the inn, but…”
“I am quite happy, Miss Lyonette, Erin. I must add these recipes to my cookbook. I will have someone take over my bakery. And I found a dead rat on the street. Goodbye!”
The [Chef] happily hurried back into the Hive. Erin waved after him and they walked back to the inn. They walked back—Erin bounced on her feet and slapped her forehead.
“Oh no. I have to pick up some sugar! I promised Imani!”
“You could get someone to—”
Too late, Lyonette saw Erin run off towards Krshia’s stall. She rolled her eyes, but she headed back to the inn with Pawn. He was writing in his journal.
“More of your text, Pawn? Erin’s explained the idea of g—the idea of—the idea of religion, but it’s so strange.”
She stumbled a bit. Pawn looked up and nodded.
“I know. I could explain again.”
“It’s fine. I don’t need to get it.”
“Yet you enjoy my presence anyways. How curious.”
Lyonette started giggling. Pawn’s deadpan astonishment always made her do that. Pawn looked ahead.
“So. How is your day going?”
“I got Mrsha to wear a dress. Well, a kilt. You’ll see once we get to the inn. And we’re hoping to hire eight more positions onto the staff.”
“How many of them will be Antinium? There are thirty seven applicants.”
“I’m hoping to add four, Pawn. Permanently. But I want more Drakes, Gnolls, even a Human if one’s applied.”
“I see. I hope they meet the qualifications. How will you decide?”
“…Erin and I will do it. She’ll probably handle the Antinium unless you have observations.”
Pawn tilted his head back and forth.
“Did you not once tell me that Erin was ‘garbage at managing the staff’?”
Lyonette looked around for Erin. She sighed.
“Erin…cannot fire people. Or balance a budget. She doesn’t really have an eye for talent, either. However, she does bring out the best in people regardless of who they are. If she finds someone she likes, I’ll definitely consider hiring them. We work well together.”
“I see. That does seem useful. I will offer my suggestions if you would like.”
“I would like that. Just whisper them to me or tell me when no one will hear, though, m’kay? Especially because we might have to hire Ishkr’s sister. He asked us to consider it and he’s really been so helpful—but uh—even he won’t recommend her, so be subtle, alright?”
“Of course. I have learned subterfuge, Lyonette.”
She laughed a bit at that and Pawn smiled. But then—he did not show her what he’d just written either.
In the beginning, there was an inn. And a kind person came there one day. Her name was Erin Solstice…
An ordinary day in The Wandering Inn. Or unordinary, as it might turn out to be. But either way, it began quietly, without explosions or too much drama.
…How many days had passed since the last event? What counted? The Wyvern attack? Magnolia Reinhart storming into Liscor?
No matter how you sliced it, though, a lot had happened. Even recently, the inn had been demolished and rebuilt, and didn’t that feel like an age ago? And still, here the inn was. Here it remained.
It made Montressa du Valeross feel…odd. Odd, because part of her enjoyed these days.
It was as if she had exhausted all her mana. But instead of feeling mana burnt, or mana drained—she was just empty. Not apathetic. Just empty of the hate and rage and fear.
She had been like that for a while, now. She woke up every day, ate a tasty breakfast, went out with Beza or sat about taking notes, arguing, watching the orb. Studied magic in the evenings…
It was like…being at Wistram Academy.
It was like how being at Wistram should have been. How it had been for about two years before her world had turned upside down. That day when Calvaron died, and she became an outcast and her two friends left.
She should have gone with them. No—she shouldn’t have judged them as she did. No—she had her reasons to do that and they had been fair and unfair at the same time.
“It was just a bad time.”
That was how Montressa could accept it. It was not a neat bow on the past. Nor did it clear up the present. Erin still held Montressa at a remove. Her access to the Garden of Sanctuary was…spotty. Mrsha kept pranking Bezale. Her status in Wistram was in jeopardy, if she ever returned. Beatrice would surely kill her.
And was…that fine? Again, it wasn’t great. But Montressa realized she was done.
Done with hunting Pisces. Done with her grudge that had carried her out this far. Forgiving him was hard. But trying to kill him was impossible.
He had done it. Unleashed the undead. He was a [Necromancer]. He had lied to her and…he was also the same person who had linked with Ceria. Killed an Adult Creler.
Someone could be a friend, a hero, hateful and glorious and more at the same time. Montressa wasn’t done thinking it over. But she couldn’t maintain her quest.
Neither did she have a team anymore. Isceil was dead. Ulinde had gone to the Halfseekers, chasing her dream. Palt was…with them and not at the same time.
And Beza? Even she had a different journey, reckoning with Calruz and herself. So where did Montressa fall into all of it?
“You know. Erin won’t kick us out. I don’t think so, at least. Not unless we make a mistake like before. Maybe we could do some spells for her. Temporary enchantments and so on.”
The two were walking down a street. Montressa went on.
“And we both earn enough to pay rent and for food and other necessities. I mean, Liscor’s not exactly First Landing. It’s not expensive.”
“So…we could live here forever, couldn’t we? I mean, what else would we do?”
At that, Bezale stopped. She looked at Montressa.
“I’m going home.”
The [Aegiscaster] saw the [Spellscribe], her tall, muscular friend, smile.
“Not now, Montressa. But someday I will return to the House of Minos and I wish to bring back a worthy gift for my people when I do. A…story.”
“I get that.”
“And you have a family. What will House Valeross say?”
“Honestly? They wouldn’t be pleased, but if I helped out a bit—I’m a [Mage], Bezale. That sort of makes me a friendly outsider who can help but who’s not expected to be political or get married. I just…”
“You’re being melancholy again. You haven’t been staring at that Erin’s flames, have you?”
Bezale elbowed Montressa in the chest. The [Mage] almost laughed.
“No. No, it’s just—I don’t know what to do, Beza.”
The Minotauress folded her arms and leaned against a wall for a moment.
“I know what you mean. Me too, Montressa. Me too.”
The two looked at each other. And there it was. Mons had been so much younger—years younger, half a decade and thus a quarter of her life ago when Pisces had earned her enmity. Her life had been consumed by her isolation, her grudge.
Now what? What did she have left?
“I…can barely remember being a 1st Year student. Or 2nd Year. What did I want to do before I wanted to put Pisces in jail, take revenge?”
Montressa looked at her hands. Bezale raised her fist to knock.
“Perhaps save it for after we—”
“I wanted to be a great [Mage]. I wanted to become an Archmage. Beza. I want to keep studying magic.”
The Minotauress looked at Mons. She lowered her fist.
“Okay. What’s stopping you?”
“I mean, I want to learn magic. Not just keep up my studies, Beza. Where did that Beza go? The one who was learning in books and arguing with professors? That Mons? We’re more like adventurers these days. We have jobs. We should be [Mages]. Students of magic! We—”
The door opened and a suspicious face poked her head out. Montressa and Bezale had been standing outside the shop for the last minute or so, talking. The two jumped.
“Oh! Um. Miss…Cedava? We’re Montressa and Bezale. We sent you a letter via Street Runner regarding a meeting?”
The suspicious [Seamstress]’s face cleared. She was, in fact, the best and most-fashionable clothier in all of Invrisil, which was where Montressa and Bezale were. She opened the door wider, letting a bustling shop’s sounds pour over them.
“Of course! I didn’t expect…”
She eyed Bezale. The Minotauress was all charm, though.
“We quite understand, Miss Cedava. Would you like to speak here or more privately…?”
“My backroom. Please excuse me. Sharit? Take over the front for me, please.”
A Dullahan with pins in his mouth made his body wave at the woman. The two [Mages] headed back with Cedava. The [Seamstress] was a bit flustered, and eyed the two’s considerably younger age askance as she offered them some tea. But Montressa and Beza had done this before.
Calm, polite, professional. They’d received lessons from Wistram on how to act. Of course—they were acting in their own capacity here, and that was the first thing Montressa said after the niceties were done.
“We maintain our Wistram contracts, but we’d like to be up front that this is not an Academy business, as we said, Miss Cedava.”
The woman looked uneasy for a moment. Beza stepped in. They’d perfected this part too.
“Naturally, that’s to everyone’s benefit. Wistram-sponsored is less preferable to relying on the academy’s resources without the political entanglement.”
“I can see that. And you two are running the…”
Mons had a polite smile on her face as she adjusted her posture. There was a way to do this, especially two-on-one. You could be intimidating since the other person was obviously outnumbered. But reassurance was what they wanted here, so Bezale sat a bit back as Montressa took the intimate role.
If Beza leaned forwards the other person was in fear of being stabbed in the head by a horn. Or Beza head butting them.
“We’re coordinating the network, yes, Miss Cedava. But we’re hardly the managers. Rather, we facilitate. You’d own your business here, in Liscor, or Pallass. Our job is just to handle hiccups. And of course, there’s a larger system to fall back on. We are making use of the door, after all.”
“Of course. Through…the…er…”
“The Wandering Inn.”
It was only partly untrue, which is why it would have soared past a truth spell. Montressa had workshopped a lot of the dialogue with one, in fact. Cedava might have been using one concealed somewhere; there was a flicker by the desk behind Montressa she was picking up, but all the better. That meant Cedava was smart and also that she knew they were telling the truth.
Even if…Erin wasn’t exactly sanctioning this. But it was true, everything Mons and Beza had said and the deal they were laying out.
“A shop in Liscor. You know…it’s a small city. Compared to Invrisil.”
“A shop in a city that’s added over a tenth of its population in the last months. Two tenths, actually, right Beza?”
“And Pallass. Remember, Miss Cedava. Don’t think of Liscor as a city in the old, geographical sense. Think of it as a city half an hour away from Invrisil. And half an hour away from Pallass. And soon—dozens of other cities.”
The woman’s eyes widened. But it was true. The [Lords] of Izril that Erin was delivering goods to were making the same inquiries as a few Drake cities and Human ones.
“I can…see that. But Invrisil would be the same city, wouldn’t it?”
“Exactly. But you already have a shop here. Liscor on the other hand is where The Wandering Inn is based. And Pallass? It’s the City of Inventions. Two other cities.”
The [Seamstress] was nodding. She was no fool; she was the most savvy [Seamstress] in Invrisil, both businesswoman and designer of fantastic clothing. That was why Magnolia Reinhart had come to her for her new dresses that had left such a mark.
Oh yes. A mark. True, the King of Destruction had been in the news and there were always new things coming in via scrying orb. Niers Astoragon playing chess, the drama with the Couriers at sea.
Something for everyone. But the world of fashion was still dwelling on things like Magnolia’s dress. Never mind the assassination attempt.
Even passing through her shop to the back had shown Montressa that Cedava’s business was hopping. Everyone wanted a dress in the new fashion!
“Opening up two more business in two different cities is a huge thing to imagine, Mage Montressa. I can barely keep my shop running even after hiring twice as much staff and giving the others overtime…”
Cedava laughed. Mons just raised an eyebrow.
“Miss Cedava. You’re swamped here. But that means two more shops will have three times as much business. And revenue.”
That shook the woman. She licked her lips.
“You think so?”
Beza’s turn. She steepled her fingers together.
“Miss Cedava. I’ve been in Liscor and I know there’s demand for your clothing at the right prices. Pallass? Different prices. We can, ahem, tailor to each city. But the moment won’t last forever. Everyone steals designs…”
The [Seamstress]’s gaze darkened.
“Yes they do. Half of the [Seamstresses] and [Tailors] and so-called [Fashionistas] are stealing the designs I came up with.”
Montressa barely noticed the hesitation. She probably would have missed it if she hadn’t known to look for it.
The ones Magnolia gave you from Earth, you mean, eh? But she smiled innocuously.
“Well, you can beat the competition, Miss Cedava. Bezale and I are willing to do the footwork, make the connections. And don’t think of it as being too far away to manage. We’ll bring the applicants who’ll run your shop and cut your dresses here. You want to make sure they have the right Skills? Communicate a new design? Invrisil is two door jumps away at most.”
The woman was nodding.
“I—let’s say I want to open one shop in Pallass…or maybe Liscor…”
“We’re all too willing to adjust. Take it however slow you want, Miss Cedava.”
“And you have ideas?”
“We have a roster. Beza, our Liscor file.”
The woman was astounded as Mons and Bezale pulled up a file on each of the people they thought could be Cedava’s representative in Liscor—and people who might move from Invrisil or Pallass to fill the role.
“You had that all ready?”
“Just in case you’d accept. We’re moving fast, Miss Cedava. You’re not the only person investing in other cities.”
Her eyes flickered. Yes, that’s right. We clue you in that you’re part of a bigger thing and you’ll sign our contract. Mons was not unskillful in this game. After all—she had a been a Secret Broker in Wistram.
From there it was just going over details and terms and offering Cedava a magical contract to sign. Mons was perfectly willing to give the woman a day or two, but she’d clearly already been bought by the pitch or even beforehand. She signed then and there and then tossed something extra in to sweeten the deal.
“We’re booked now, but I’ll put both of you down for a free dress on the house. Any style. It’s a pleasure to be working with you two.”
Mons and Beza kept their faces straight. Only when they had bade farewell and gotten several blocks away did they celebrate.
The two high-fived and Mons hugged Beza. Cedava was number six! Their new network of business and possibly secret brokering was off the ground!
It was all about understanding, seeing the potentiality in the magic door. Not just that you could move goods from one place to another—that was old hat, basic.
It was about talent. Having a [Seamstress] like Cedava able to compete with Pallass—and in her case, take Pallass by storm since she had the new designs Pallass had seen the Human [Ladies] wearing!
All of Montressa and Bezale’s clients were that level of savvy. Which meant getting them onboard easy. The first had actually helped come up with the idea.
It had been Rufelt and Lasica. Not on Cedava’s level. But rather, Lasica and Rufelt had agreed to take on lower-level [Chefs] and [Bartenders] from Invrisil and Liscor to train up. The idea had sprung from a night on the city with Montressa and Bezale lamenting Palt’s exalted position—right after Pelt had jumped over to Esthelm.
After that? It had flowed like clockwork.
Client number two was Pelt. The two were helping him ship out his custom order and get the high-roller clients as well as source ore via Pallass and Invrisil. They had the skillset—Wistram was a name. And then had come Hedault, and…
They had yet to turn a massive profit. Or…much of one. Mons and Beza were running around getting new clients, setting up the businesses. But they were already reaping dividends. After all—they were the unofficial gatekeepers of the doorway.
No one else had quite mastered the ability to walk through the door like they could. They didn’t know Erin Solstice. And from what Montressa now understood—any would-be entrepreneurs would run up against a brick wall in Erin and then have to deal with Lyonette.
It was a strange new world. Montressa was poised to be the first multi-city broker. She hadn’t gone into secret-brokering, which was something with the gangs of each city and more dangerous—but here she was.
Palt was welcome to his damn status as the go-getter for his faction with Erin giving him Earth-only information. Montressa had taken the other option, which might be more advantageous to her personally in the long run. After all—money and influence weren’t what Erin had in spades. Not like this. But then again—she didn’t want to get to know Erin as well as Palt did.
“I think this calls for a night in Tails and Scales.”
Beza rubbed her hands together. They were, of course, on the entry list. Mons was smiling. But one thing subdued her joy.
“This is going to be us, isn’t it, Beza? I mean—I’m glad you’re working with me. But…that’s it for our careers in our factions, isn’t it?”
The Minotauress’ head lowered. The Scriptels were allied with the Revivalists. And they’d both lied about Erin.
“…We weren’t the largest horns around anyways. And when the wind blows you west, you don’t sail east.”
“Unless it’s the Last Tide.”
“Don’t be smart.”
Beza elbowed Montressa again. The [Aegiscaster] smiled.
“So…drinks. When do you want to rub Palt’s face in it?”
“With the new dresses and a bucket of gold. And Montressa?”
Beza stopped her friend and looked at her seriously.
“It’s all ahead, Montressa. You and I—this is it. Studying? We can afford the spellbooks we’d never get until we were at the top of our factions. Success? Your team up with Beatrice won’t be half as successful as this.”
She was right. Montressa felt…a bit more grounded. As if she had been floating on the family’s lake right outside the Valeross mansion. And finally—she was tethered.
The [Mage] reached out and grasped Beza’s arm.
“I guess we’ve got to break the news to Erin too at some point. Maybe at Tails and Scales tonight?”
“Maybe Lyonette first? Which do we tackle? The [Princess]’ll want a cut.”
“Um…Erin. Erin’s the one we need. Lyonette’s savvy.”
“She is a [Princess].”
Beza used a quick [Silence] spell on that last bit. Montressa nodded. Oh yes. There was a reason to be at The Wandering Inn. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t put it together. But, well—red hair wasn’t all Terandrian royalty. But Lyonette really, really needed her anti-[Appraisal] ring. Montressa had been flipping out about Mrsha when she’d figured that out.
Strangely…Pawn hadn’t had a single level. Either he was like that Ryoka or something else was up. But Montressa had time.
She and Beza were just about to go look for gifts to placate Erin and Lyonette when they both raised their fingers to their brows.
“Argh. Duty calls.”
“Cheer up. This proves they need us.”
Client #3 wanted a word. And since they were also poised to really make Montressa and Bezale rich, the two hurried off. They were based in Invrisil, too. The two went to find the Players of Celum. That Emme knew when to make deals too.
Look at them. Look at where they’ve come.
Opening clothing shops in multiple cities, making suspicious bug-free pies, writing religious texts.
Putting on a kilt. Sometimes—everyone just needed to look themselves in a mirror and wonder how far they’d come. Sometimes—it was a stranger who looked back at you.
Temile stopped admiring himself in the spoon when he realized Jasi was laughing at him. The Drake saw the [Producer] blush.
“Sorry. Don’t want them to throw us out.”
He gulped, only partly joking as he stared around the restaurant, the Djinni’s Spoon. One of the most high-class and sought-after establishments in the entire City of Adventurers.
Not currently being run by a Djinni, incidentally. The little historical placard they’d been given along with the expensive, gleaming silverware at the cloth table which was actually just a cloth draped in the air to act like a table—hard on the surface but with nothing to smack your shins into—explained the history of the place.
Apparently, the Djinni’s Spoon had used to employ a Chandrarian Djinni as the cook, but it had been forced to sell the Djinni a long time ago when they’d fallen on hard times. Still, the restaurant had rallied on good cooking and still kept the name and magical bent.
“Don’t worry, Temile. The [Chef] asked for your autograph along with all of ours. They won’t kick us out until they get them.”
“You performed with us on stage!”
“Just once. And that was a spontaneous show. I’m not nearly as good as the main cast of the Players—”
Temile felt nervous and out-of-place in this fancy restaurant. He sat straight as if the elegant [Waiter] practically gliding over to them were inspecting his behavior.
“Ladies, gentlemen. We’re delighted to host the Players of Celum tonight. The management would like to express what an honor it is and if I might be unprofessional for just a moment—I saw the second showing of Elisial and I was star struck.”
“Oh, thank you so much! May I ask your name?”
That came from Wesle. The [Waiter] blushed as he bowed.
“Well, let me just write…Jasi, do you want to do the embellishments?”
Wesle handed the cardboard autograph over to Jasi. And when she laughed next to Temile, he felt every eye in the restaurant turn to her. He felt dirty, unkempt, the cut on his cheek from where he’d been shaving this morning in The Wandering Inn as large as a sword gash.
His right hand’s thumb also felt obvious and exposed, despite the fact that he’d hidden it under the tablecloth. Compared to him, Jasi shone. One of the two most famous [Actors] in the city, a sensation that had taken the City of Adventurers by storm, she wrote, sounding out her autograph for the delighted Engam.
“I hope…you will have a chance to see us on stage again, Engam. Love, Jasi Redigal. Thank you so much! Wasn’t that the play where we were still getting our feet and we accidentally burned half the set?”
The part-Dwarf woman grinned over her wineglass on her taller seat as the [Waiter] bowed and circulated the table. The first bottle of wine was poured generously into Temile’s glass. No stinting for this crowd.
He didn’t fit in. There was Emme, the real [Manager] of the troupe in Invrisil. Wesle, the male [Actor] who had the eye of every eligible bachelorette—and some who weren’t eligible—in the city on him.
Kilkran, bald but golden-voiced. Esbell, Yimurr, their first Gnoll [Actor], Pralcem, the second, Jexam, the Drake behind the scenes, Andel, the [Writer]…
This was the crew. The originals, take no exceptions, who had left Celum and gone to Invrisil before the door existed. They’d beat the door, in fact, and become legends by their hard work.
Temile? Temile had…stayed. But they’d insisted he come along. Now—the Players shone.
In fact, they’d had to give him ‘his take’ of their profits just so he could buy a suit that fit this restaurant. The Players were rich. They wore magical artifacts, Cedava’s tailoring, and they’d gotten this booking by being invited. Not even asking.
Gone were the days when they were a ragtag group performing out of a warehouse or a curtain in the Frenzied Hare, with Erin Solstice serving tables and making food while helping them with their lines.
Temile almost missed it. And yet—when the first course was placed down and literally levitated upwards such they you had to use one of the delicately sharp forks to spear it, like a fish moving through the air—you sort of didn’t miss hunger and no money.
“Half magical air, half spun sugar. Nali-sticks and Toanberries, combined together. The dipping sauce adds the slightest savory to balance the sweet. A classic of the Djinni’s Spoon—and the cause of one fatality where a particularly hungry customer ate thirty and levitated eight miles into the air before the spell wore off.”
The [Waiter] delivered all that with a flair of his own. He might have been a good [Actor]. Temile hesitated, and bit his lip on the comment.
It was far from a quiet, reserved table. The others were talking—arguing over the moment with in Elisial. They were all the centers of attention—half-acting even now.
“No, no, I recall it now! We did burn the set! I nearly killed Andel—but Eltistiman saved the day! Most of the audience had no idea half the set was magical and it worked so well we had Eltistiman do the next three plays with illusions for the props!”
Kilkran was laughing as he hugged Eltistiman with one arm. The [Magician] was not one of the originals, but he had certainly earned his place. Eltistiman toasted the others with a glass.
“And my life was entirely for the better the moment I asked to join your troupe!”
“Dead gods. And we met you with those [Thugs] or whatever in the inn. Remember? Wesle and the others decided it was a good idea to pretend to be [Warriors]—”
Jasi laughed and Wesle turned red. Temile grinned as he took another deep drink—he had heard that one.
“Hah! Well…I may have had a fat head. But I did just get my [Method Actor] Skill.”
The [Actor] conceded. The others chuckled. It was Yimur who lifted a paw.
“And at last—I can finally catch up to you there, Wesle. No more of you quietly lording it over the rest of us! ‘Oh, do you want me to string a bow? I know how, thanks to my Skill. Anyone fancy a little duel? I’ve been studying Gold-rank [Warriors]…’”
The others laughed again. Orica, who had been almost as quiet as Temile, lifted a fork and the floating sugar she’d been nibbling on.
“Yes, that’s right. To Yimur and the [Humble Actor] Skill!”
Temile could voice agreement here, and did so gladly. This was a celebration as much as a reunion and—if Emme had been hinting—something more. Yimur took a bow to applause around the room.
“Skills and levels. Do you have any new ones as a [Producer], Temile?”
Jasi leaned over and murmured to him as the others began arguing about who Yimur should shadow first. Temile felt a flash of…jealousy? He had no right to that. He’d volunteered to stay, after all.
“Ah, well, just a few. I’m not Emme. So my [Producer] class only gave me a few. [Eye for Talent], [Pinpoint Discord]—helps with the arguments behind the scenes, and a decent one in [Revitalizing Touch].”
“Oh! Like a [Masseuse]? Or some [Healers]?”
“Yes. Funny story—it saved our lives in this performance where—”
Before he could tell the not-so-great story, Temile was interrupted by the [Waiter] again. This time he had the first course.
“Players of Celum, our first dish. Goose elrava. Which is to say—”
He placed the dish down with a flourish. It was, in fact…everyone exclaimed at the pile of oddly-colored…
Emme looked up. Engam nodded.
“Exactly, Miss Emme. Salt, in six varieties. A special blend, mixed with elements of Sage’s Grass, spices from three continents—all to create a baking shell. And inside is the goose—the Anitt-breed. Known for their ferocity such that far larger monsters will not dare to cross them. Highly intelligent, highly delectable. The salt comes away—as so—”
He produced a brush and flicked it over the dish. It was a clever trick; Temile was sure the [Magical Chef] or whatever the person’s class was had prepared the goose and re-covered it with salt. How else to explain the glaze and other additions from the ‘baked’ dish?
But the salt mixture whirled up, landed in a flurry on the table, and became…
A Salt Golem. Nothing like the real thing, but it briskly donned the little hat Engam placed on its head, cut and divided and served the goose to the delight of the Players.
And it was delicious and moist—not what you’d expect for something baked in salt. Or was it? Temile was no [Cook]. He saw Jasi pressing a clawed hand to her mouth.
“It is so good. I’m drooling. Temile, what were you saying?”
“I’ve completely forgotten. I wonder if we can give Erin some of this?”
“Dead gods! She really should have come with us!”
“You know her. She hasn’t even used the booth. I don’t actually think we told her we were going to the Djinni’s Spoon. Did you, Temile?”
“It completely slipped my mind. But perhaps if we can bring some back we’ll convince her….”
“I’ll petition the [Chef] myself for a second one. On bended knee!”
Kilkran got up to laughter. Half the table wanted to stop him, the other half egged him on. He entered the kitchen to the audible delight of the [Chef].
Jasi rolled her eyes. She looked back at Temile.
“Erin serves you food, doesn’t she?”
“Room and board for those of us not taking lodging elsewhere. Very decent food. Just not…”
“I still recall Agnes’ inn. I wonder what became of it during the Bloodraider’s attack?”
The two shuddered. Temile was glad to have taken the Players to Erin’s inn. But he had an aunt who’d narrowly avoided…
“Er, Jasi. I’m quite grateful to you all making me a part of the Players. To be honest, I fairly don’t fit in.”
The man confessed at last. It burst out of him. Jasi’s eyes widened.
“What? You were the one who stayed to keep the Players alive in Celum, Temile! Of course we’d make you one of the originals! Emme was beside herself when we found out we hadn’t paid you properly!”
“Exactly. We thought you’d be furious. Kilkran can’t look you in the eye, hence him going off.”
Orica leaned over. Temile started.
“Him? But I’m not half as grand as—”
He waved an arm around and found it was shaking. This place scared him more than any stage. He could stand in front of a crowd of hundreds or even thousand in Invrisil and perform his lines even if he was scared spitless. But this place?
Jasi started laughing. Orica joined in as well. She shook her head.
“Temile. You think I don’t feel like I’m out of place? I was a [Washer] less than a year ago! I’m so scared I’ll spill wine and have to pay for the tablecloth I nearly wet myself!”
The [Producer] stared at Jasi. She looked so sincere. Of course, she could be lying. But then he remembered—really remembered who they were.
Look at them. Here was Jasi, who had washed clothing until her scales fell off, and whose brother had lured an [Innkeeper] into a mugging. Wesle, the unfortunate [Guardsman] who’d had to deal with a stranger from Liscor.
Kilkran, the [Blacksmith] with a heart of gold and Yimur, his assistant! Emme, who’d been working as a [Manager] overseeing [Stablehands]. Andel had been a [Potter]—
Slowly Temile relaxed. And then he laughed. Jasi’s eyes twinkled at him.
“We should have remembered what it’s like. We’ve done this several times—but the first restaurant we went to like this we were so terrified. I think we still are, but you know [Actors]. Forgive us?”
“Well, I feel the right fool. ‘Cut me in swain, milady, with a sword, and it ‘twould be a kindness for your tongue’s no less sharp!’”
He muttered. It was a line from Elisial and Jasi’s laughter and her clapping her hands made him relax. Suddenly—the food was ten times more delicious and it had already been phantasmal.
Kilkran came back with a team of the staff, all of whom had his autograph, and a promise to get the goose in exchange for an autograph from all of them. The next course was a cassoulet—magical of course.
“Sixteen different meats, each from a magical animal. For instance, we have Frost Wyvern prime cuts, Roc’s wing, Stelbore—seasoned and prepared separately to remove the gaminess—naturally our vegetable medley is no less magical. The beans, for instance, are the Qizl beans which grow to those fantastical giant vines if given enough mana, overnight as the legends say—”
The others were interrupted by a shout. Pralcem had rapped another of the [Actor]’s fingers as he helped himself to the delicious meal.
“Pralcem, damn it! That’s my fencing-hand! How will we perform later if I’m injured?”
The other Gnoll growled.
“You’ll put a potion on it. Let the [Waiter] finish.”
Temile was half-listening. Orica was looking at the dish as it was served. She spoke to Jasi and Temile as they began the third course with great delight.
“With the Skills of the [Chef], apparently we’ll be full on the courses but won’t fill up. We can go three days without even needing to think of a bite and if we do eat—we won’t gain weight. It’s the kind of thing a Gold-rank adventurer can order before going on a long mission.”
“Fantastic. You know, that [Waiter] could have been one of us. I’m sure he’d pass an audition in the Players of Liscor.”
“Tell him! He might actually join!”
Jasi laughed. Temile shook his head.
“He probably earns more than I—than our Players of Liscor do in a night here than a month of work.”
“Oh—true. Is it just not as popular?”
Some of the others looked at Temile. He rolled his shoulders.
“The difference between a city Liscor’s size and one of Invrisil’s, I’m afraid. But we make quite a good living! Just not this.”
“Wait until you get invited to Pallass, Temile. Your day will come. Then I want some of the money flowing back into our coffers!”
Kilkran laughed and Temile grinned.
“It’s a promise, Five Families willing. Pallass is just reluctant to have us in. First it was because we were mostly Humans—”
“That we came from a Human-city. I can’t win.”
There was good-natured laughter and cursing all around. Two of the others elbowed Jexam.
“Put in a good word for you, Jexam! And you, Jasi.”
“We’re from the north! They won’t take us.”
“Ah, well, maybe after today Temile will have his shot.”
Emme looked around and the table stirred. Jasi smiled knowingly, and so did Wesle and Kilkran, and a few others, but no one elaborated.
“High-level. That’s the difference between us, Jasi. All that time on the road…”
“You had the harder job. Only one of us fought Crelers.”
Jasi looked at Temile’s stump. He flexed his hand and shuddered.
“True enough. Dead gods, but I thought I was truly dead.”
“I’m still trying to make it into a story. It’s just—action and players.”
Orica waved a hand. Temile shrugged.
“If I thought I could star in a play by the Players, I’d cut off more than a thumb! …How’s a pinky sound?”
More laughter. The wine was flowing well and the food kept coming. The cassoulet had been a marvel and difficult too! It had taken over a week of careful marinating for some components and magical cooking being what it was—the [Chef] had preservation runes all over to prevent even the slightest hint of decay, rot, or even contamination by pesky air.
“This next dish will grow your hair out. Wonder what it’ll do to your neck-spines, Jasi?”
“It’s a type of hair. Go to Rhir’s hell, Andel. And this is excellent cooking, Engam.”
The [Waiter] bowed.
“It’s a delight you think so, Miss Jasi. The chef will be honored. It may not be as…flashy as some restaurants. Invisible dishes, flaming foods—”
“We’ve seen all this.”
The man nodded.
“The Djinni’s Spoon used to have more such dishes, as the first course shows. But the restaurant took to quality over show. Fads like teleporting food come and go. Quality lasts.”
It came from all the [Actors]. It was a sentiment they could get behind. After all—they were performing tales so timeless they had created a second resurgence in this moment.
“Speaking of Skills—any new ones for you, Jasi? I know Wesle’s gotten even more disgusting…I didn’t get a chance to see it, though.”
Wesle Salkie, the [Method Actor] who had been Level 26 around the time he’d come to Invrisil had smashed past Level 30 and was now a rare class. [Famed Method Actor]—an addition to the class and he was gaining Skills to match! Not that anyone knew what the standard was. But—
“[Everyday Prop]? Wesle, go on, show Temile.”
“What, you mean, my sword?”
Wesle reached out—and drew a long, nobleman’s sword. Beautiful steel, jeweled pommel—it looked and swung like an expensive weapon. And it was—except for the enchantment. In the next moment, Wesle sat back and poured himself a cup.
“Not that it’d be a weapon for me, guvnah. Humble folk that I am.”
He winked as the mug, which even smelled like the ones Temile had drunk out of at cheap bars, was filled with a dirty bottle that the Djinni’s Spoon wouldn’t serve to dogs. Wesle took a swig, gagged, and handed it to Kilkran.
“Try this, Kilkran.”
“Dead gods, it tastes like home. Get it away from me!”
The man swatted it away and the drink and mug went flying. They vanished before they hit the floor to applause, as if Wesle had done a scene.
Any prop. Well, any everyday prop. A Skill to make anyone green with envy. But—Jasi hadn’t fallen behind in her own right.
[Famed Lead Actress] was her class—a predictable upgrade. But her Skills? Well, one of them was born in how she looked now.
Jasi had always been pretty. But now she glimmered with a kind of vitality and vigor that not even make up—which she could produce ten gold coin’s worth of for free with every performance—or potions could give her.
[Refinement by Accolade]. She literally improved with every performance. [Audience Charge] made her even more of an impact when she was doing well. [Perfect Imitation] was her version of Wesle’s Skill.
And to cap her Level 30 class was…
[The Actor’s Shadow]. If Wesle could produce any mundane object for his bit—Jasi could replace him.
Temile had seen it happen. Jasi could create a doppelganger who was…well, a shadow of the real thing. Which was still good and would get better with time. She could literally perform two roles on stage at the same time or use her shadow in a sacrificial bit like as Juliet—a real stabbing through the heart.
But the true power of the Skill? [The Actor’s Shadow] created a shadow-Jasi. Of…any species. They all were quintessentially Jasi—same height, relative to species. Same build. But dead gods.
What a Skill.
Temile was deeper into his cups, but reassured that there were sobering potions such that he’d walk out fresh as a daisy if he so chose. He looked around and finally realized they were down a Player, except for Erin.
“Where’s Grev, Jasi?”
“Hanging with his friends. Being a Face. Out of trouble, I think. He just refused point-blank to come to another restaurant. Mainly because I won’t let him drink.”
“Really? When I was a lad—”
“Erin told me it was dangerous. I think Grev actually listens, but he doesn’t care for us ‘old folk’ anyways. He’ll be about. He won’t want to miss the event later today. Speaking of which…”
They were having lunch, of course, although it felt like dinner with how much he was eating—and not getting full! Temile just felt more invigorated, in fact.
“Ah yes. What is the big surprise? Anyone? I know you’ve been keeping it secret, Emme. You’re performing in Pallass, is that it?”
“If we were, Temile, you’d be managing it. Guess again.”
The half-Dwarf woman had a sparkle in her eyes. Temile felt a leap in his chest.
“…You’re going to First Landing? Another noble’s invited you to a private play?”
They’d done that several times. The others shook their heads. Some like Yimur didn’t know. Wesle sighed.
“With Magnolia Reinhart gone…it’s tricky. We’re not uh, sure, if she’s still the patron. We’ve asked, but her mansion is virtually empty. Dicey.”
Politics. The others went silent for a moment, warily. But they were [Actors]. Hopefully no one killed them for being entertaining.
Emme waved that off.
“Damn it, Wesle. Now I have to say it since you brought us down. Temile was never going to guess!”
Wesle winked at Temile and the other man grinned. Emme looked around.
“I have—at great expense and effort—finally booked us a chance to open Pallass and First Landing to us. We’re popular and word’s spreading, but a Walled City is too good for us and First Landing has yet to know the Players. So—the 1st Troupe is going to put on the performance of a lifetime tonight. Half past seven—possibly later. That’s one of the reasons we’re eating magical food now.”
“Who’re we performing for? Even if it’s a dozen nobles, and I haven’t heard of that many, that’s not worth a ‘lifetime’s performance’, Emme.”
Kilkran adjusted his doublet, looking offended. Also—somewhat arrogant. But some of the other [Actors] were nodding. Emme scowled.
“You want more than a dozen nobles, Kilkran? Try dozens of monarchs. Try the world. Wistram has agreed to feature us on a segment tonight! It was hard to get and—”
That was all she said because the table exploded into noise. Some of the eavesdroppers from the other tables scrambled to gossip the news out. The Players were on their feet.
“And you didn’t let us rehearse?”
One of the [Actors] screamed. Emme shouted them down.
“We’ve done this a hundred times! It’s Hamlet and don’t argue! We have plenty of time! There are just a few—complications—I asked for two experts to help us. I think they’re nearly here.”
She nodded at the door and called for Montressa and Bezale to be let in. Temile sat down, heart pounding in his chest.
This was it. Wistram? Television? Montressa was looking around the fancy restaurant. She looked at the Players, ready to take it to the next level. She hesitated.
“Uh—bad news, Emme. Players. You’ve been pushed down two slots in the lineup. There’s uh…complications.”
The others exclaimed. Montressa winced. And Temile—listening—realized that Wistram didn’t value the Players as highly as some of them did themselves. They had no idea what the Players were. And television was a hard stage to get onto.
But they’d see.
The Players of Celum poured into The Wandering Inn to discuss the issue. Numbtongue half-noticed them. He was sitting with Bird and Erin.
Yellow Splatters had returned to the Hive to spread the good word. Pawn had left his good word in his room upstairs and Lyonette was managing the new hires—including Ishkr’s sister.
She looked rather like the [Head Waiter]. Except younger, and clearly—unhappy with her new employment. Ishkr was talking to her and she was growling a reply. Numbtongue watched with the fascination he always had with sibling dynamics. Then he went back to Bird.
“Okay. Bird song—take two.”
The two were quietly composing. Bird rocked back and forth.
“I am Bird. There are birds. Have you heard about the water bird?”
Numbtongue was trying to fit the guitar to Bird’s song—which he might have made up just now. They were completely different lyrics than yesterday, or even five seconds ago. Erin was laughing.
And Numbtongue’s fascination with electric guitar riffs wasn’t exactly the same as Bird’s melodies. But the two were having fun.
“What’s this about being pushed back? It took me ages to book the slot!”
Emme was pulling at her hair. Numbtongue strummed as he half-listened. Bird scratched at his head.
“I am out of words to rhyme with bird, Erin.”
“Word? Heard? Nerd? T-turd?”
“I’m no good with rhymes, Bird.”
“That is apparent, Erin.”
The Hobgoblin saw Montressa trying to sooth the wrath of Emme.
“I’m sorry. I’m trying to get in touch with my people, Emme. Believe me, it’s not something on our end. Rather, it’s uh…politics.”
It was rather simple to Numbtongue. He bypassed the layers of meaning and went to a very Goblin-answer.
The Wistram television was the first of its kind. People wanted to be on it. That was everyone, from [Kings] and [Queens] to powerful [Warlords] and [Mages].
Not everyone could be on it. It was like a quiver of magic arrows being shared in the Redfang tribe. First it went to those who deserved, nay, needed the time. Extraordinary events like the King of Destruction’s battles and so on took precedence.
But Wistram needed to fill the times when the Hundredfriends Courier wasn’t sailing into harbor. And so they ‘booked’ slots with scheduled events. A chess game. A soccer match. Two Level 50 [Fencers] going at it. A poem by the world’s best [Poet].
And so on. Erin broke in here to whisper.
“That’s like home! It’s TV, Numbtongue. Hey, the Players look great. I would have gone to that restaurant with Temile! But I was doing the job applications. Apparently it was really fancy.”
“Mm. Should have taken me.”
“I’d have sent you if they wouldn’t kill you!”
The Hobgoblin grinned.
“The point is that you weren’t guaranteed a slot, Emme. They probably even told you that.”
“But we paid them over two thousand gold—”
Temile gagged on the drink he’d taken from the Djinni’s Spoon. Kilkran stared in horror at Emme—she waved a finger at them.
“Don’t talk! Do you know how much a booking at the Djinni’s Spoon is worth? Anyways—it was for the chance!”
“You’ll get the money back if they cancel, or they’ll move you down. The point is it’s inevitable, Emme. I’m sorry—and believe me, Beza and I are leaning on our friends to get you confirmed.”
Montressa was apologetic. Meanwhile, Kilkran came over.
“Miss Erin, you are lovely as always! And Bird! Numbtongue, isn’t it?”
The Hobgoblin stared at the bald man with a voice like deep velvet, if that was even a thing. A saw being dragged pleasantly through wood while submerged in honey. Erin beamed.
“Kilkran! You look great! What’s that you’ve got?”
“Oh. A, ah, gift. You weren’t able to come to the Djinni’s Spoon so we thought we’d—”
Almost shamefaced, the man offered Erin the salt-goose. All his bravado in Invrisil was more subdued around Erin. She had been there from the start, when he’d auditioned. She laughed in delight.
“What? Baked in salt? That’s silly! Who’d do something like that? Palt! Imani! Lyonette, look at this! Mrsha too! It’s a salt-goose!”
“A goose in salt?”
Bird stopped humming. He sat up. Kilkran placed it on the table. Bird brushed some salt off as the others came out. Palt whistled.
“Is that from one of the magical restaurants? Erin—that’s high-class! You can bake in salt, you know.”
“Get out. What will you weirdos think of next?”
Erin laughed. Bird meanwhile was vibrating.
“A salt bird. A salt bird! I very much like you, Kilkran.”
“Think nothing of it. Er—I don’t think you eat the salt Bird…”
Numbtongue sniffed the goose. Oh yes. Mrsha was already drooling. It was going to be a rather fine dinner. But he still wanted to listen.
“Look—it’s about precedence. I don’t know who bumped you down, but it might have been royalty. They have deeper pockets and they look more entertaining.”
Andel was outraged. Jasi rolled her eyes.
“No one’s seen a play, Andel. It’s not Montressa’s fault. Let’s just prepare for our slot if we do get one. This is an audition.”
“That’s right. No slacking. Kilkran, stop showing off the goose! We’ve got to make sure…”
The others were debating. As it turned out they were ready—they just didn’t know when they would be called to action. They might be bumped up the queue.
“They must be flooded. I’m sure the Mage’s Guild in Invrisil has a representative who’s supposed to facilitate the scrying. Well—Beza and I can make sure they go where you want. Emme, let’s go. The rest of you—we’ll take care of it.”
“Maybe a run-through of the play on stage?”
Kilkran murmured to Wesle. The [Actor] shrugged.
“We have done Hamlet in our sleep, but why not? We have an audience!”
Indeed, a number of people in the inn were practically begging for it and the Players were handing out the valuable autographs. Numbtongue saw Erin rolling her eyes as Kilkran tried to hand her a special one.
“It’s worth something, Erin! I’d be hurt if you didn’t have this one! First-class!”
“I know, Kilkran. It’s just so—funny! Thank you, I’ll treasure it. And here’s Grev.”
“Heya, Erin. I heard Emme had her beard in a twist. You all done with the restaurant? Anything explode while I was away?”
The boy walked into the inn. Like the others—he was fuller, richer. Like a Hobgoblin returning to his Tribe. Numbtongue strummed quietly, watching the Players glitter. They were before his time. An original crew, back when Erin had been in Celum.
Look at them now. Vying to get on the enchanted mirror in the common room—currently dark while the one in the rec room was always on—with royalty. He wasn’t worried about their issues finding reception.
Their hour would come. And if it meant more good food, he was all in. He wondered if it were possible to sneak into Invrisil? Numbtongue had a thought and left the table to go to his room.
Unlike Bird, whose room was a [Hunter]’s haven of arrows, trophies, and so on, Numbtongue had a much different setup.
Weapons for Shorthilt, rocks and gems from Pyrite, and any number of tools for fixing his guitar or maintaining his gear. Two spare crossbows; Erin gave him money and the Hobgoblin had gotten used to ordering gear. And…he rummaged around and found a few tools.
Pyrite and Numbtongue had both had an idea. Shorthilt was mostly weapons-based information. Reiss folded his arms, scowling as he watched them work from afar.
“This is a bad idea.”
Numbtongue ignored him. And in the inn, Erin Solstice broke off from chatting with the Players to get a very important letter.
“Miss Solstice? Mage’s Guild [Message]. Here you go.”
A Street Runner from Liscor appeared to hand Erin a few letters. The [Innkeeper] stopped to open it. Mrsha’s ears perked up at the exclamation.
“What? Wow! Mrsha! Gah, what is this? It’s another Manus-spam letter. Shoo! But here! Look at this! I just got a [Message] from Ryoka! Mrsha! She’s coming to Invrisil! She’s already on her way!”
The Gnoll cub threw up her paws. So did Erin. They danced around and Erin laughed.
“And—wait. She’s bringing a friend? She has something big…no way!”
“Huh. I didn’t know she had any friends.”
Lyonette folded her arms and sniffed. Erin ignored that. She laughed in delight. Jasi looked thoughtfully at Erin, because she remembered Ryoka.
“The gang’s all getting back together.”
Wesle smiled. Jasi nodded and turned. Beza, who had remained to chat with Wistram while Montressa and Emme went to the Mage’s Guild in Invrisil, exclaimed.
“Maweil’s sails. Damn it, no wonder we were moved down!”
She threw down the scroll she’d been using to write [Messages] on with a curse. The others looked at her.
“What is it, Beza?”
“It was a priority-client for Wistram. They…out paid, essentially. More influence, more contacts I think. Nothing we can do. They’ve moved everyone down the roster and they might take longer—it’s going to be touch-and-go.”
“What? Who did that?”
Andel and the others were outraged. Beza raised her hands.
“I’m sorry. It’s—a special relationship. I am positive I couldn’t do anything about it.”
“Who’s the client, then?”
The Minotauress hesitated. Her eyes flicked across the room. At Erin, Kevin, who was yawning and ruffling his hair. Joseph, coming down after sleeping in far too late.
“Have you ever heard of…the Singer of Terandria?”
Cara O’Sullivan, the Singer of Terandria, the [Popstar], the Baroness of the Beat…etc. etc…was speaking into her smartphone.
And that demanded a second, or even third look if you knew what that meant. She wasn’t recording something on an app. She was talking to someone.
It astounded Abebi. Reception in another world? She and the band that accompanied Cara were poised. They were all of Earth, and the sight of someone using a phone as it had been intended?
Hypnotizing. Like drugs for a starved addict. Because it was home.
And the person on the other side was also from Earth. Not that they’d ever spoken to him. Greg, the [Guitarist], had tried, and Thien had put him in a headlock. The [Drummer] knew the score.
Rae, the [Bassist], Abebi, the [Manager] of the Queen of Pop’s tour, and half a dozen others. All from Earth. All found, or who had heard the [Popstar]’s music and come to her.
Abebi was one of the oldest, with Thien. She’d seen some real sights. But even she hadn’t known Cara from the beginning, only after the star had risen quite a ways on her own. She listened now to a name she’d heard once or twice—and then usually with a lot of explicit language.
“Fuck you, Aaron. Don’t screw with me on this one. The Academy’s been refusing to put me on your TV show for the last month. Tell whoever’s listening that I’m not sticking to a script. I’m performing. You booked me—and you owe me.”
“Come on, Cara. I helped get you the spot. At least…”
The fainter voice was cut off as Cara talked over him.
“You want to talk about help, Blackmage? You don’t want to do a ‘who owes who’ with me. You want trust? Put Elena on. No? That’s what I thought.”
History. Abebi raised her eyebrows at Thien and he grimaced. Elena, the person they’d sent to Wistram to scout it out had signaled them it was not the safe haven they wanted. Certainly, that was what Cara believed.
She stood there, flinty-eyed, listening to the voice on the other end. She’d just finished another concert—this time in the far north of Pheislant. The band was moving.
War had broken out in the south with Ailendamus and the Dawn Concordat and they wanted no part of it. Pheislant had the potentiality to be drawn in, so Abebi was taking the band north. Not that it was safer in some of the northern countries.
Noelictus, Pheislant, Nadel—a lot of nations had grudges against Ailendamus, but the vast kingdom was too powerful. Abebi was taking them straight towards Oztera, who had no personal beef with the war.
They weren’t heroes, and they weren’t going to fight. Abebi had seen some actual fights. Blood—death—they were from Earth. Few of them had the stomach to kill people like that.
“Really? Is that how it is? We’re booked, Aaron. I know it’s not your fault. Okay. Okay, how about this? I won’t have a handler. We’ll broadcast. You pick it up. And if you want to cancel? Go ahead. Just give me a second…”
She turned off her iPhone. Abebi saw Cara toss it down on the bed in the wagon and curse.
“What’s up, Cara? Are we not performing?”
The [Popstar] was still sweaty. She had just performed and but for the wagon’s soundproofed walls, they would have heard the cheering crowd. Thousands of people who’d come to listen. Groupies—including the nobility or royalty!
“We’re performing alright, Abebi. Is the area all set?”
“Set, we’ve got our own [Mages] on standby…we’re just waiting for two of the special actors. Are you sure they’ll make it? It’s a war—”
“I’m sure. We have a relationship. Don’t you worry. I saw some of the [Knights] on the docks, greeting their dead. As for the [Hunter]—they don’t let you down either. Just drive us—as soon as I clear up this.”
She took a breath. Then the Singer—changed.
Gone, gone the angry, Irish young woman who was dressed in a glittering costume, her makeup painted on, often ranting about feudalism or the injustices of this world.
Out came the Singer of Terandria. She opened the wagon’s doors and Abebi and the band heard a roar of sound.
“Hello, my shining stars of Terandria!”
Cara was different from the Singer, to Abebi. One was a person—the other, well, a celebrity. She walked out with a smile for the crowd. As Cara would say—a fake smile because she was a [Thespian] as well as a [Popstar].
But she was convincing if it was an act. Cara had sung for four hours—longer than a lot of concerts, using stamina and healing potions and her Skills to perform all her hits. She gave it her all when she was out there.
“I’m sorry, no encore!”
The roar of the crowd was just quieter than the [Singer]’s magnified voice. She went on.
“I am delighted you all came out for me. I just wanted to say that it’s my dream to let all of Terandria hear my voice. And everyone who’s bought a song-crystal or come out to support me—thank you so much.”
A pause for the cheering. Abebi saw Cara’s iPhone vibrate.
“Let me just—”
“Touch it, Greg, and Cara will beat you to death with your mic. And that’s after I do.”
Thien warned him. Greg sourly backed away from the iPhone. He was the most problematic member of the band. And more problematic because he was necessary for the guitarist spot, even if he couldn’t actually play. But he was good at pretending and that mattered.
So far they’d faked it and Rae was improving. But Cara had used actors who played along with the music she created from her iPhone and Skills up till now.
Abebi wanted a real band. Accidents happened and while Cara could sing—she needed instruments to play the countless songs from Earth. So the current crew was handpicked from the Earthers that Cara had found. The rest were…safe. Elsewhere. And Abebi would be damned before anyone heard where it was from her.
When they returned, Greg would probably be left behind. But for now they needed him on tour.
“I’d love to perform again before I go. I had a wonderful surprise for you all! An appearance on Wistram’s magic-vision network!”
This time Abebi actually went deaf before she put on the earplugs. She saw the others grabbing for the same. The [Manager] whistled. So that was what Cara was doing? The [Popstar]’s voice was still audible even through the enchanted ear buds.
“It was all set up for just two hours from now! But I’m sorry to say, my lovely stars that Wistram Academy decided to cancel at the last moment. I don’t know why, but—”
She was drowned out by a howl of fury. Abebi knew from experience that Wistram had tails on them who followed them from concert to concert. If they were in the crowd, she hoped for their sakes they weren’t noticeable.
“I’m sorry! I truly am! I’m trying to get the show back on, but—”
Cara went on for a few more minutes. And her heartfelt apology just made the crowd angrier. When she closed the door, Abebi wanted to applaud.
“That was impressive, Cara.”
“It was me using the one advantage I have. Don’t call it impressive, Abebi. Mobs are a scary fucking thing.”
Cara corrected the young woman from Nigeria. She sighed and rubbed at her brows—carefully, to avoid smudging the makeup.
“We just need one show. Then we can say quits to Wistram—until they start threatening Elena. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but if those bastards hurt her—”
She snatched up the vibrating iPhone.
“Aaron! Hello! How do you like that? Give. Me. A. Slot. Two hours from now—my place, my rules. We’ll perform three songs. And do a lovely interview with whomever you want. Or I’ll ride off into that glorious sunset while you get to answer the fans why I’m not on the broadcast. I hope Mage’s Guilds are enchanted to be fireproof. Well?”
After a while, she put down the iPhone.
“Okay. We’re back on. Abebi—I need to die in a corner for a while. I’ll be in my wagon. The rest of you—get ready. This is going to be one for the history books.”
“I’ll make a note, Cara.”
That came from Thien. He grinned as he sat down. [Drummer] he might be—and he could actually play—but he was also pursuing another class.
The world’s first encyclopedia written by someone from Earth was his pet project. Trying to figure out the actual state of the world, catalogue all nations, the effect magic had on the world—he was a [Historian]. But his real class was ‘scientist of the world.’ Everything was an entry in Thien’s book.
It was something he was allowed to do, rather than try to find enough copper coins to survive. All thanks to Cara. The others had time to look for answers, or learn, or recover from what they’d been through. Greg had his opportunity to meet all the lovely ladies of Terandria.
Cara left the wagon, looking tired before she opened the door and announced to her fans that the broadcast was back on thanks to their hard work. Abebi began ordering the caravan forwards. They’d need the security to keep the crowd well back for the first song. And they’d need to coordinate…
It was going to be a performance to remember.
So the Players of Celum were going after the Queen of Pop’s performance on the silver screen. Or…glass orb as the case might be.
Apparently the show had been scheduled, bumping everyone down, then cancelled—then quickly reinstated. Beza and Montressa were pitching fits. Along with everyone else in the lineup.
“This is not good. She’s got an hour segment. And then an orchestra from Chandrar plays. And then us.”
Emme was grousing. Jasi didn’t understand what was wrong. Temile laid it out for her.
“It’s attention, Jasi. We don’t have to worry about it because the Players are the biggest thing in Invrisil—but think about it from the perspective of the scrying orb.”
The [Lead Actress] tried. It was hard—but she imagined the orb as a kind of stage. Temile nodded to the current broadcast—an intense game of football between two Garuda teams in Chandrar.
“How many people are watching that, do you think?”
“Um…thousands? Tens of thousands. Hundreds?”
“I…maybe? I don’t know. I mean, proportionally, Jasi.”
The Drake squinted at the orb. It was fast-paced, good action. However, she’d seen Joseph’s team playing.
“Well…it’s not the newest thing around. No offense to the Garuda, but I saw the first games of soccer.”
“Exactly. If it’s not new or eye-catching, we get less of the population of whoever’s watching. And the other problem holds true. After the King of Destruction was defeated by the Minotaurs—what was on after that?”
Jasi saw the problem. If the Queen of Pop was too big, she’d satisfy the audience and leave the Players in the cold.
“Not much we can do about that. We just have to do our best.”
“That’s your role. Emme and I will be trying to figure out ways to spice it up. Just relax—or practice. I’m sure they’d love you on stage. The [Actors] from Liscor think you’re some kind of hero.”
Jasi laughed. But it was true—the Gnolls and Drakes and all the [Actors] besides the original cast looked up to her.
It was…strange being in The Wandering Inn. In Invrisil she was used to the attention. Jasi couldn’t step outside without signing an autograph or shaking a hand. She’d learned some of the pitfalls of fame—it was hard to meet people who didn’t want something from you, or saw only Jasi, the [Actor].
Even so. How far they’d come. Jasi looked across the room. Grev had taken to swanky clothing—although he downplayed it a bit so he could hang out on the ‘street’ with his ‘gang’. He wanted to be a Face.
When she still remembered begging the Watch not to put him in prison or exile him for his crimes. And they owed it all to…
“Mrsha! Put your kilt back on!”
Erin Solstice ran across the inn, chasing Mrsha who’d finally snapped and torn off her shirt and clothing to run around with her fur on, as things were supposed to be. She was laughing and chasing the Gnoll all over the inn as the Players set up on stage.
She hadn’t changed. But then—Erin didn’t have the Player’s fame or fortune. She seemed leery of it. Emme had pressed Erin to take some money. They’d had to give it to Lyonette because Erin had claimed it was all theirs.
She was inspiring and exasperating sometimes. Jasi smiled and rose.
“Going to perform with us? Come on, Jasi! For old time’s sake!”
Kilkran called out to cheers from around the room. Jasi laughed and waved apologetically.
“Actually…I’m going for a walk, Kilkran. Sorry! I’m sorry. But we’ll be performing later!”
“Fine! But you owe a performance up here!”
The others laughed. Jasi rose—and walked out of the common room. Into the long hallway that seemed so unnecessary. Eltistiman hated walking down it for some reason.
There was a Gnoll standing at the door these days; it was a permanent job for one of the staff to let people in and out rather than let them wait. The older Gnoll nudged her as she scowled.
“It’s ‘Hello, who’s going for Invrisil’?”
“Bite me, Isk. Why couldn’t I get another job? I don’t want to…”
She snapped back up at him. Jasi half-smiled as the Gnolls growled at each other. Ishkr apologetically lifted a paw.
“I am so sorry. Who is going to Liscor?”
He adjusted the dial, and let the people through. Then he adjusted it to Celum—
“For Invrisil, Miss Jasi? We have to charge you the fee…”
Ishkr gave her an apologetic look. Jasi didn’t offer him the silver coins like the other handful of people going through.
“Actually, Ishkr, I’d like to go to Celum. Is that possible?”
“Of course. Let’s see. Wailant has his door here. But we installed another stone after the attack…here we are.”
Ishkr consulted the little dial and adjusted it. His younger sister looked interested.
“If we’re staff, can I go through to Invrisil without paying?”
“Shh! And if you go off while we’re working—I had to ask Miss Lyonette and Erin to hire you! This is your last chance—”
The two Gnolls started arguing again. Jasi went through on her own with one other person, an adventurer or something.
“We check the door every ten minutes—that’s what you say, Liska—”
The door closed. Jasi looked around.
She sighed. She had seen it with Wesle and Grev right after the attack. But—it still hurt.
Celum had been wrecked by the Bloodfeast Raider’s raid. Now—at least the ash was gone, the bodies buried.
But it looked like a shell of the city it had been. Jasi saw the city of Celum in her mind, bustling, not a trading hub, but always busy and enough for a place where she had grown up all her life.
Now—the streets were broken, some being laid, but the money and the people weren’t here. Many had left. Many had died. Some had gone to other cities, others to Liscor…
Erin Solstice herself had helped one of the [Innkeepers] from Celum, Timbor Parthian, who’d lost his entire inn, find work in Liscor. He had set up an inn in the new district that was being built with help from Selys.
But not everyone had an Erin. Jasi began to wander as the [Warrior] folded his arms, looking around. She walked down street after street. Looking for…
Her home street was gone. The shabby apartment? Torn down and replaced by a [Healer]’s clinic. Jasi stared. It had been months.
But it felt like years. She was conscious of looks at her—she was still wearing the dress from the Djinni’s Spoon. Someone came over.
“Milady? Spare a few coppers? We lost it all in the Bloodfeast attack. Me’n my sister are starving.”
A boy cupped his hands and looked pitifully up at her. His face was sooty, smudged, and his clothing torn. Jasi saw a pitiful girl clinging to his arm.
The boy pressed forwards.
“Please, Miss. We haven’t ate for the last few days—”
His eyes flickered. Just in time, Jasi slapped the hand reaching for her coin pouch down. The boy sneaking up on her from behind yelped.
He fled. The other two [Beggar]-[Thieves] turned to run.
Jasi snapped and the two froze. It was useful, being able to copy a Watch Captain’s snap. Jasi had imitated Zevara there. She beckoned them over.
“I won’t hurt you. But you two should know better than to run that con here.”
“What? You’re from the street?”
The boy’s jaw dropped. He hung back with the girl, who didn’t look so waifish anymore. They were clearly ready to book it if Jasi came after them.
Street urchins, like Grev. She put her claws on her hips.
“My brother did the same thing all the time. I’d have never thought someone would try it on me.”
They gave her goggle-eyed looks.
“And why not? You walk around with that much sparkle, here?”
Jasi had forgotten how she must look. And this street—it wasn’t rich, and it hadn’t been even before the attack. She had been so poor, washing clothes for coppers.
She shook her head.
“You two—are you actually starving?”
“It’s not fun. Most folk ran off after the attack. Fucking raiders.”
The boy spat. Jasi nodded. That was what she remembered too. She dug in her pouch.
She tossed a gold coin at both of them. The two yelped and grabbed for it. The boy bit the coin.
“Are you crazy?”
“No. I grew up here. And don’t you dare have a gang mug me or I’ll kill you. Go on.”
The boy and girl hesitated. Then the girl pointed, eyes wide.
“You—you’re Jasi! The Players of Celum!”
The Drake saw heads turn with the exclamation. Suddenly, the entire street was looking at her. She smiled, ruefully.
“You came back? I heard you’d left! Can I have an autograph? Hold on—maybe I can get one’ve the autograph blanks! Please?”
Jasi eyed the boy, who was desperately looking around.
“I just gave you a gold coin.”
“An autograph’s worth more! ‘Specially if you kiss it!”
“Miss Jasi! I saw your play!”
Someone sprinted up to Jasi. The Drake saw a man, fumbling for…
“I am a huge fan! I wanted to go to Invrisil, but I couldn’t find a ticket! Sign—sign my shirt! Please!”
He ripped his cloak off and bared his chest. Jasi backed up.
“I’m sorry, but I just came to—”
“It’s Jasi! She’s here! Are you going to perform? Please sign an autograph! Please! It’d mean food for a month!”
More people were flooding down the street. Like the boy, they had pieces of parchment, anything possible to sign.
And Jasi started to get worried. She’d had this in Invrisil, but Emme always had bodyguards or Eltistiman around. Here? The people had that desperate look. She backed up.
“I’m sorry. I have to go. I—”
[The Actor’s Shadow]? But that wasn’t a Skill to get away. Jasi began to turn. She might have to run but—
“Miss Jasi! Please! If you could just spare a minute, an hour! I’m such a fan—”
The man who wanted her to sign his shirt grabbed at her shoulder. He lunged—
An arm checked him into the ground. The Human man was stunned. Jasi saw the [Warrior] blocking the way, arms spread. He was wearing armor—she turned and ran.
She fled. The crowd was slowed by the stranger. Jasi just had to turn randomly a few times and she lost them. She stopped, panting, and brushed at her face.
Shoulders down. Head bowed. Spine curved…Jasi couldn’t do anything about the clothing, but she could act different. She slipped out of the alleyway, suddenly meeker, scurrying with a different stride as if she were a [Scribe] or [Secretary] carrying some missive.
No one immediately followed her. Jasi breathed a sigh of relief. Unconsciously she turned the corner—
And saw the strange adventurer walking towards her. Jasi—froze.
She didn’t know whoever had helped her. And they had helped her. But they weren’t one of the Player’s [Bodyguards]. She didn’t recognize the helmet or armor either.
Jasi turned back the other way, still acting. But she realized the stranger was striding towards her and sped up.
Back to the inn? No! She was too far from Erin’s door. Jasi turned down another street, desperately searching for…the other figure raised a hand.
She ignored the muffled voice. Jasi fled, faster, and saw the figure take off. He charged after her.
Jasi grabbed at her wand she carried for self-defense. She raised it—and the [Warrior] grabbed her arm and pointed it up. Jasi opened her mouth to scream—
“It’s me. Stop, stop.”
The Hobgoblin flipped up the visor of his helmet with a growl. Jasi froze.
He grinned at her.
He let go of her quickly. Some people had stared—Jasi calmed down at once and began to laugh.
“You scared me! What are you doing here?”
“What, fellow person? I am just going for a walk. I am not a Goblin.”
The Hob’s voice was muffled behind his helmet. He was wearing gear such that no part of his body showed. Jasi clapped her claws together.
“I want to eat salt-geese. Testing it out in Celum. You shouldn’t walk around without guards. Too dangerous.”
Jasi nodded slowly. She didn’t know Numbtongue that well—he had appeared after Erin had returned to Liscor. But she’d been in the inn with him and the Redfangs for a while. Now, he was the last one left.
“I know. I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted to come back and see…it’s so different.”
The Hobgoblin gave her a knowing look.
“Yes. Things change. Very strange to see.”
They stared around Celum. Numbtongue pointed.
“There. There was Stitchworks.”
Jasi couldn’t even see where the shop had been. A butcher’s shop had opened in place. Numbtongue nodded.
“Everything’s different now. Poor Celum.”
Poor Celum indeed. Jasi nodded. She looked around.
“Dead gods. We’re right next to…the Frenzied Hare. Is it still open?”
“Hm. Erin’s other old inn?”
The Hobgoblin had never been. Jasi nodded.
“It might have survived the attack. Do you…have a minute, Numbtongue?”
The two walked down the street. Jasi felt her sense of nostalgia intensify with every passing step. Yes, she’d followed Erin here—and then the first play! Oh, dead gods, it was all coming back.
This street had been spared the ravages of the attack. And here it was. Jasi stared up at the faded sign.
The Frenzied Hare.
And a little sign had been attached below it.
It looked like Erin herself had written that and no one had ever bothered to take it down. Someone had crossed out another bit angrily.
Now showing, the Players of Celum!
The two had different reactions. Jasi looked at the inn. It looked…not empty, but not bustling either. She hesitantly took a few steps forwards.
“I just want to go in for a second. Just a—”
Jasi pushed open the doors. And there she was. A worn inn. A pair of servers—a young man and woman, clearly tired, not Maran and…who was the other one?
And a woman, emerging from the kitchen, arguing with one of the staff.
“Coming! Have a seat anywhere! I’ll just—”
Miss Agnes turned and saw Jasi in the doorway. She dropped the tray with the mini-pizza and two tankards. Someone at a table cursed as the two crashed to the ground. But the [Innkeeper] didn’t even notice.
The Drake walked back in time, in a daze.
“Dead gods. You look—Jasi? Is it really you? Let me see you, my dear!”
The old woman spread her arms, beaming. Jasi hesitated, but Agnes swept up to her and clasped her arms.
“You look incredible! Are the other Players here? I never thought I’d see you! The star of Invrisil! Sit, sit!”
“I just—I was in the area and I thought I’d check on—it’s good to see you, Miss Agnes!”
“And you, my dear! Sit down. I’ll get you—is this your friend?”
Numbtongue grunted. Agnes stared at him and then beamed.
“Of course you’d have one! Sit down. Ekal! Ekal! Get Jasi something to drink! No, the finest wine! What will you have, Jasi?”
“I’m fine, really.”
The Drake found herself swept into a chair. Agnes fussed around her. And everyone in the inn was staring. Jasi knew what she had to do. She went around, signing little autograph cards—she had her own supply. She met a coughing man from the kitchen—
“Who was that?”
“Jerom, of course.”
Agnes gave Jasi a strange look. The Drake had never actually met the woman’s husband, who had been ill the entire time Erin had been helping out. She blinked—it was a blast from the past.
“Jasi, it is so good to see you! Are the other Players here?”
Agnes beamed after she’d put away the autograph in her belt. Jasi looked at her. And suddenly—she was the same terrified Drake [Washer] who Erin was insisting become a [Barmaid].
She felt smaller, poorer, and Agnes felt more important, even towering, all of a sudden. But Agnes was looking at her like she was some glittering jewel.
“I—no. They’re in The Wandering Inn.”
Agnes’ face twitched a bit at the name.
“Well, I’m delighted you came here, Jasi! It’s so good of you to do that! Won’t you stay a bit? So much has happened—you heard about the attack?”
“I came back to see after it. The Bloodfeast Raiders?”
The woman shuddered.
“Monsters. Monsters! And Celum won’t ever be the same! Jerom and I couldn’t sleep for weeks! We’re only lucky one of them didn’t attack the inn. So many lost everything—did you hear that The Drunken Swordsman’s gone? Poor Timbor. He left Celum. I haven’t heard of him once. Ulna is worried sick. She’s still running Blazehound—it was only partly damaged, but half the inns closed in a single day.”
Despite that, the Frenzied hare didn’t seem to have more customers. Jasi supposed that the exodus of people hadn’t given the inn more guests even if it was one of fewer remaining.
“He made it to Liscor. Timbor, I mean. He’s actually opened The Drunken Swordsman a second time. But he’s calling it The Drunken Gnoll instead.”
“Did he? Liscor? I can’t imagine it. I’d visit, but the inn’s got me running about. And I’d…”
Have to meet Erin Solstice. Agnes and Erin had not parted on good terms. Jasi hesitated.
“Are Maran and Safry…?”
Agnes’ face froze.
“At Ulna’s. She took them in. But let’s not talk about here. Tell me about Invrisil!”
Jasi glanced at the door. Some of the people who’d gotten her autograph—including both of the servers—had left. And more were trying to get in.
“I—don’t know if I have time. The Players of Celum are doing wonderfully—”
“Don’t mind them. The Players? And you still call yourselves Celum’s players!”
“Of course. We did come from here. And we don’t forget…”
But she had forgotten. Jasi found Miss Agnes a stranger and so familiar it hurt. And it hurt because—well—Jasi was the same girl again.
And Miss Agnes was a bit overbearing. Pushy. And Jasi now recalled—she hadn’t liked Miss Agnes. The woman had disliked her because she was a Drake and in her eyes, a poor girl looking for a handout. But Miss Agnes now clearly thought Jasi could do no wrong.
Yet she treated Jasi as she had. A curious give and take of past and present.
“Just sit, Jasi. I’ll handle them. You lot!”
The [Innkeeper] stood up and Jasi saw Numbtongue’s visor open and shut so he could have a slice of pizza while no one was looking.
“I’ll get us out, Numbtongue. I just…”
“It’s fine. Mm. Good pizza. That Human is a good [Cook].”
The Hobgoblin seemed content just to be here. He snatched another piece of pizza and turned his head to eat it. Jasi watched Miss Agnes arguing with the people who wanted to see her.
She hadn’t liked Agnes. But the inn—the state of Celum—it hurt Jasi. This was her home. She’d helped out of course, at the beginning. But she was living in Invrisil now.
“I thought it’d look better than this. I…forgot.”
The Goblin replied. Jasi was shamefaced. She looked at herself in the mugs. Agnes’ inn wasn’t good. But her husband was a good [Cook] when he was healthy. And she still polished the mugs. Erin had fallen out with her. But Agnes had helped take Erin in. Here—
“I started acting in this inn, you know.”
Numbtongue gave Jasi a sidelong look. He stared across the inn—they would have hung the curtain there—and Erin would be making popcorn…
“Oh yes. Way back in the day. Erin was stranded here. She had a jar of dead bees, Octavia was running her shop…and she asked us to help her put on a play one day. It was just me, Grev, Wesle—Erin used to call him ‘Fuzzylips’ all the time, did you know that?”
The Hobgoblin laughed so hard he nearly fell out his seat. Jasi smiled.
“It’s why he doesn’t grow facial hair anymore. He couldn’t bear it. Dead gods. Back then, Erin was struggling so much to even go back to Liscor.”
“It’s far on foot or horseback. Without magic.”
Jasi nodded. Look at them now. Look at—
Her musings were cut off as Agnes bustled over.
“Jasi? I have a tiny little request, if you’d listen to it?”
She had a nervous smile on her face. Jasi saw a line of people.
“It’s just—well, if you’d just sit and sign a few autographs while we talked, it would help so much. There are so many fans who you left here. And it’s free coin! Doesn’t cost much of anything but ink and parchment, does it? Just for a few minutes—”
Jasi’s goodwill towards her home disappeared. She protested—but Agnes knew her. And you weren’t a hero in your hometown, wasn’t that what adventurers said?
In the end, Jasi signed autographs for a good twenty minutes while answering questions of how wonderful Invrisil was. Then she fled. Numbtongue held off the crowd—mainly just by folding his arms and standing there. He could have been a good [Actor]. He caught up two streets down.
“Well, that was something.”
Jasi sighed. Agnes was still Agnes. In a way—it was reassuring. But who was Jasi, now? She caught sight of herself in the reflection and the beautiful Drake in rich clothing…
Past and present. Numbtongue had a second pizza which he put in his bag of holding.
“Was it worth it?”
Jasi turned to Numbtongue. She smiled, slightly.
“Yes, yes it was, Numbtongue. And I think I realized something.”
“Good. Then where to?”
“Back to the inn. The Singer’s broadcast is starting soon. And I want to see it.”
They left Celum as it was. Numbtongue followed Jasi, and she saw him pull the guitar out of a bag of holding.
“So—you want to go to Invrisil?”
“And not die.”
The Hobgoblin qualified the statement. Jasi laughed and linked arms with him, much to the [Bard]’s surprise.
“Well, if you want, we’ll let you watch one of our plays anytime! And come with us to restaurants! Erin won’t! It might be dicey, but we’re [Actors]!”
She smiled and nodded. She might be different—but she liked having money and fame. Numbtongue followed her, eagerly.
“…When are you next eating out?”
The two chattered. And then they went back to The Wandering Inn. And the Queen of Pop began her broadcast.
Cara O’Sullivan was preparing for her broadcast. It would be the likes of which the world had never seen. Literally. She had a scrying orb in her personal trailer and she had been watching it.
“Television. The best technology to bring to this world.”
Rae laughed at that. She was clearly nervous. Cara smiled at her. A fake smile for a fake person. She wasn’t half as nice as she acted as the Queen of Pop. But make it real because it helped Rae.
“Relax, Rae. It’s going to be alright. You just stand in your spot and play.”
“But if I make a mistake—”
“Trust me. You won’t. Just worry about Greg fucking it up. It’s all about the Queen of Pop, anyways. You’ll be fine.”
Some of the color came back into the bass-player’s cheeks. Cara nodded at Thien.
“You set up, Thien?”
“I’m going to shit myself.”
“So long as the camera doesn’t see it, go ahead. You get to sit down, anyways.”
He laughed. Cara looked around. Greg was psyching himself up—the band was getting ready on their stage.
A real stage, incidentally. Wood, draped background—Abebi had set it up for them. But while they’d be playing there and the distant audience would be quieted with [Hush] spells to prevent them cheering into the song—Cara wouldn’t be joining them at first.
“Cara! Cara, the [Huntress] is here at last! So is the [Knight]!”
“Excellent. Just wait for Abebi’s signal, everyone. I’m going to my spot. We’re going to walk it over a few times. Time to start—twenty four minutes!”
The non-Earther staff and the band tensed when they heard it. Cara strode off the stage and began jogging to get to where Abebi was with some of the Wistram [Mages].
They were cutting it close. She wished she had a day to rehearse. But Wistram hadn’t given them a slot and getting the important actors had been hard too. Since there was a damn war with the Creler-humping bastards of Ailendamus—
Cara gritted her teeth. It was a sentiment that wouldn’t land her in trouble with any of the three special actors who had come at her request. Make it four—the stylish, long-jacket, hat-and-crossbows Hunter of the Hunter’s Guild of Noelictus had just arrived.
“Cara! Thank goodness! Everything’s set up. I just have to give you the amulets, and walk the others through the scene. I just explained what it is we’re doing—”
“Not to us!”
The aggrieved [Scrier] from Wistram had no idea what was going on. Cara pointed at him.
“You. Stand where Abebi wants and let her direct the shot.”
“But we’re Wistram’s—”
“Shut up and go.”
Abebi pushed the woman and Cara turned to the four. They were—in order—a Dwarf, a half-Elf, a Hunter from Noelictus—and a Thronebearer of Calanfer.
The half-Elf and Dwarf were hired specifically. Both female—the half-Elf was about as tall as Cara and had agreed to dye her hair to match. Cara felt shabby and mortal compared to her, but the half-Elf was a fan of her music.
The other two were harder to get. The Thronebearer bowed.
“Singer. It is an honor. I come from embattled Calanfer at your request.”
“Thank you so much, Dame…?”
The [Knight] was female. She even looked sort of like Cara, which was excellent. She performed a salute.
“Dame Neranthei, at your service, Singer. I am of the lowest rank of my Order—a Lightholder. I was told I would serve. And my Order can spare no one else.”
“Of course. I’m very grateful you could come to me. Of course—I’ll recompense your order.”
Again, the woman bowed. Her eyes flickered upwards.
“In truth, our Grandmaster might not have given me the order to come, even for you, Singer. But the [Princess]’ request swayed him.”
She had the crest of the 4th Princess of Calanfer on her breastplate. So—personal security. Cara smiled.
“Is Princess Seraphel safe?”
“Until the Eternal Throne is taken—she will be. I shall convey your words to her, if you wish it.”
“Maybe later. And thank you, Huntress Melizsa.”
“Noelictus keep you, Miss Cara.”
The [Hunter] tipped her hat. Also female—also with the same rough height and color of hair. She looked at Cara directly.
“For the Singer of Afiele, we would come. I understand this will be broadcast across the world.”
“Yes…do you understand what you have to do? Just walk—and keep your composure.”
The four nodded. The Dwarf and half-Elf were palpably more nervous. The Thronebearer and [Huntress] just looked concerned they’d make a mistake.
“That’s right. It’s the scene, the scene. Come on. I’ll show you your routes. The key is to keep acting. I’ll demonstrate.”
Cara slowed her pace and showed them. They watched her face, the way she moved slower.
“I see. And while that happens, the spells…?”
“That’s right. Abebi’s got five amulets.”
“What caliber? My own wards might suffice.”
The [Huntress] was curious. Cara didn’t know. The [Huntress] went to talk with Abebi and came back.
“Ah, charged spells. I’ll swap for that one, then. They should hold through all the spells.”
That reassured the Dwarf and half-Elf. Cara felt…anxious. But she was committed.
“Just remember. Don’t look directly at the [Scrier]. You’re acting. Pretending. Dame Neranthei, you’re first. Right here, you see? As we pass by this rise…so you’re walking this route. Let’s go through it.”
They did. The Thronebearer looked relieved.
“Very simple. And we walk to the end…?”
“That’s right. And your task is done. Then just walk away from the camera—the scrying orb.”
The others looked at each other. They didn’t get the entirety of what Cara wanted. But she had no time to show them or explain. The dirt-and-grass stretch that they’d dug up to create a few hundred feet of space in front of the stage was only prepared for one take.
“We have the [Mages] in place! Wands at the ready! Cara, are you set? Eight minutes to go!”
Abebi’s voice cracked with nerves. Cara was calmer.
“Are you both alright? It will be terrifying.”
“We—we’re good, Miss Cara. And it’s a huge honor.”
The Dwarf’s voice cracked as she clutched at her ornamental armor—she was no [Warrior], she just looked the part. The hardest part with her was deciding whether to ask for a Dwarf woman with a beard or clean-shaven. Cara had gone with clean-shaven—apparently it wasn’t that common.
“Alright. We’re ready! Have the music queued! Wait for Abebi’s countdown! [Scriers]—ready?”
The [Mages] called out .They’d been walked through their route and were beginning to pick up what was happening.
“Alright! We get one take, so no mistakes! I’m ready too.”
Cara walked over to the starting point. The [Scrier] took a position across from her, so she was smaller in the background but still visible. The [Makeup Artist] from Earth ran over to check Cara one last time.
The scrying orb Abebi was watching had Drassi and Noass on it.
“…wonderful performance of skill at arms by the two [Fencers]. Next, if you’ve been consulting our itinerary, and I know you have by the [Messages] flooding in, we have a special performance by the newest [Singer] to sweep the world! The Queen of Pop! The Siren of Songs! Ooh. The Siren of Savere won’t like that, will she?”
Drassi was reading from her card. These days—Wistram had a free TV Guide to the programs, updated every day at the Mage’s Guild. And featured prominently had been—
“Er, the Singer of Terandria has a number of appellations, Drassi. Let’s not delay her performance. I understand we’ll get three of her newest songs. And you can purchase sound-crystals of each song—a recording if you will—from most [Merchants] who carry cargo from Terandria! She’s extremely popular in Terandria and her music is reaching the rest of the world. Have you listened to it?”
“I have indeed! It’s catchy—upbeat, or soulful—and she has so many songs! She’s amazing, Noass. I can’t wait to see what she’s going to sing. I think we’re going live in three…”
The scrying orb flickered to Cara, standing in the background, the sun setting behind her.
Of course—Abebi had been watching the broadcast with a delay. So Cara was already performing.
In The Wandering Inn, this is what the audience saw. Around the world—they saw the Queen of Pop, standing with the sun setting behind her—but ambient light illuminating the ground more than the sky alone would.
The ground was…torn. Soil and grass had been dug up. And the Queen of Pop? You expected her to be like Jasi, a shimmering mirage of magical products and a wonderful dress, like the other [Singers] who had been featured.
But not Cara. She was in makeup. But her clothing was closer to rider’s clothing—albeit of a quality suiting a lady. And it was—torn along one arm. She had dirt on her cheek, a cut on her arm.
“Is—is something wrong? It looks like she’s been attacked—”
Drassi’s voice came through a second before the sound cut off. And then—the music began to play.
The electric guitar made Numbtongue look up. Daly fell out of his seat.
“It’s one of us.”
On the stage, Greg began to strum to the music coming from the speakers held next to the scrying orb by one of the crew. But the ‘camera’ wasn’t on him. Cara began walking forwards as the music began to play.
Then—the first [Fireball] detonated ahead of her. Everyone watching ducked. Half of the staff on the set did too. If the audience wasn’t under [Silence] spells—they would have screamed too loud.
The explosion was muffled. But the impact and fountaining dirt and bloom of fire? Cara flinched, but she kept walking. And that was the first explosion.
[Lightning] came down from the skies as another [Mage] used the charge built in the wand. It flashed down and Cara walked forwards. She felt the crackle of electricity do something to her wild hair. But she was wearing the protection amulet. As she had told the other actors—it was about the scene.
The wind was blowing dust and grit, not enough to cover anything in the scene. Just enough—a [Geomancer] and [Wind Mage] were providing the effects. Cara had spent lavishly for this.
This was not the bright pop songs other people had heard her sing. This was in the vein of some of the songs she was coming out with. Rock instead of pop.
And she had chosen a legend of Earth to bring to the world’s attention.
Boulevard of Broken Dreams, recorded by Cara and an actual band, was playing on the computer that was held just behind the scrying orb. Cara walked ahead as another flash of light showered dirt behind her.
Half a dozen [Archers] loosed flaming arrows onto the ground, aiming to land in the shot but miss Cara—narrowly.
Abebi’s fists were clenched. It rode on Cara. She had to not flinch from that too. And it was one thing to do that with special effects, but these were real spells. Cara had told Abebi she could handle it. She had seen battlefields before.
She was flinching with some of the spells detonating. But that was real. Cara walked forwards, as the audience saw the shot panning, rotating slowly to fit the carefully-choreographed scene. From the side, now, the Queen of Pop walked through a battlefield of spells and arrows.
“What is this?”
Jasi was staring. Erin and the others from Earth knew the answer. It was the world’s first music video. Cara was singing as she walked, a microphone in her hand. But it was just lip-syncing to the song—she didn’t keep to it.
Erin stared at Cara. Memorizing her face. Cara O’Sullivan was walking forwards. And—as the song played, one of her shadows—another actor, appeared out of the smoke.
A Thronebearer of Calanfer. Dame Neranthei. Her armor was a bit sooty, and blood was on her gauntlets. She looked at Cara—and the two nodded at each other.
They walked on, through hellfire and a battlefield. A group of [Warriors] fought past Cara as the spells ceased for a second. Neranthei vanished. And then—was Huntress Melitza.
The Hunter of Noelictus walked with a crossbow in her hands as if this was a real battlefield. The hat on her head turned as she and Cara glanced at each other.
They walked on. Again, a cloud of smoke and impact from a [Fireball] made the [Huntress] vanish. Cara walked through, coughing. And there was the half-Elf.
There was a trick to it. They each looked a bit like Cara. It fit the song. Cara walked with her shadows—the fourth was the Dwarf. The battlefield was destroyed as she finally reached the stage.
That was when the security let the audience who had followed the [Singer] rush forwards. They charged onto the field and Cara took the stage. She began to sing with her band and the view panned across the band and the audience.
That was the Queen of Pop. Her first song was a music video. A classic. To get everyone’s attention. When she had it—the [Popstar] could finally tell them what she wanted to say.
“Ancestors. That was amazing. Was that real? An illusion? I’m shaking!”
There was a ten-minute break between songs and Drassi filled it. She was blown away, as most of the people were. Staging a performance? Making up something on television?
“Is that inauthentic, though? That was not a real battlefield—”
Noass was pondering the ethics of it all, which struck Erin as vaguely hypocritical. Drassi flung her papers up.
“Who cares? It was amazing! I need that song! And the second one’s starting now! Everyone had better watch!”
And they were watching. Anyone who had a scrying orb—Trey, Teres, Daly and the United Nations—Tom, Richard, Erin—
All of them were watching. Including the ones who knew. Like Magnolia Reinhart. Others, like Niers Astoragon.
“We can use this. Anyone who asks about that music? It’ll help us identify more.”
That was the conclusion the Archmages had come to. They were watching the performance, annoyed that this was the one Human who was too popular to grab—yet.
The second song was even closer to an opera. And now Cara had ‘taught’ the audience what to expect—she put on a performance.
The Players of Celum were watching. For different reasons. Erin and the Earthers in her inn were as intense as could be. Jasi? She was just blown away.
The makeup. The style. Cara spoke to her as a fellow performer. The second music video opened with a set piece, a bit of stage-opera before music began.
As everyone watched—this is what they saw.
Cara O’Sullivan was nowhere out in sight. But a white-haired man in black robes with a grinning skull for a mask was bent over a scrying orb.
Cara O’Sullivan. The name flashed and she appeared in the orb, running. Stumbling. The [Necromancer] pointed and the darkness rustled.
It was a poor copy of Az’kerash. But shorthand worked. People shuddered as they stared at the [Necromancer].
Aaron Vanwell started for different reasons. He looked at Elena.
“That’s not her real name. The scrying spell doesn’t work on her.”
“But that’s how a scrying spell works?”
He nodded slowly.
The camera changed. Cara was backing away, holding a torch in the darkness. Things closed in around her. A shambling zombie, the [Necromancer]’s minions.
All of this was very offensive to the actual Necromancer of Terandria. But he wasn’t going to write in to complain. Cara backed up as the torch went out. The monsters and bad people closed in—
And then she began to sing and magical lights illuminated the set, driving the monsters back. That was the plot. More actors moved forwards, helping drive the bad guys back. The band joined Cara and there she saw, singing as she was beset by evil.
A classic music video. As it went on—Cara was forced to abandon the stage as the undead and evil army pursued her. She ran—towards what seemed at first to be relief.
The audience saw a [General] in armor and a bunch of [Soldiers] in black armor. Shorthand, again—but those who didn’t know music videos still gasped when the man drew a sword and hacked at Cara. She fell back—and for a second, a flag fluttered behind him.
Ailendamus’ crest. Cara fled as the army pursued her with the undead. She snatched up a sword and someone covered her.
The Thronebearer of Calanfer. The crest of the 4th Princess shone in the light. Lyonette gasped.
The woman raised her sword and the sky brightened for a moment. She held her ground as Cara fell back. The second person to rescue her was the [Huntress]. She stood on a grave, firing her crossbow. Noelictus’ flag was planted behind her. The half-Elf and Dwarf were fighting around her.
Onwards. The last set piece Cara came to had a bunch of [Mages] who unloaded spells into the darkness. Shining staves, wands.
Wistram Academy. The [Mages] watching from their orbs cheered. Even the Archmages exchanged pleased nods.
“There, you see? She is grateful. Not a complete fool after all.”
Viltach was very happy. Feor and Naili nodded, a bit dubiously. Nothing about what Naili had ever seen of Cara had shown she liked Wistram. But the [Mages] were clearly the heroes.
Beneath Wistram’s sigil—the island on the isle—they were fighting the evil army and undead back. There was another symbol below it. A triangle with an eye. Cara stood beneath it.
“Huh, that’s not our sigil. What, is that one of our factions?”
Naili eyed the pyramid and eye until the music video cut to the last scene, which was a typically climatic battle.
Cut to the [Necromancer] still scrying Cara via her magical name through the orb. Then—Cara was joined by her band, and the entire cast of ‘good’ guys. They vanquished the evil as the sun rose.
A classic video. And the audience loved it. It had action! Drama! Drassi was raving again as the band set up for the last song—which had no music video.
“…So that’s how it is.”
Rémi Canada sat back. He had been taking notes with the second music video. It was so—clear. He rubbed at his neck.
“Anti-scrying orbs. We’re compromised. I’m compromised.”
He looked at Cara. She was bowing. Spreading her arms. It said it all, really. How brilliant.
“We can’t go to Wistram, then. And now they know where she is.”
“You can’t hide if you’re the Singer of Terandria. I get it. We can’t use our real names, Daly.”
Geneva muttered. Her heart was beating fast. She stared at Cara as her band set up. She’d gotten it too. Perhaps the message wasn’t as clear if you were from a country…but that was a fairly universal message.
“Calanfer. That’s which [Knight] it is. And that’s…Noelictus. Half-Elf and Dwarf?”
“Mhm. Does she mean in general or…?”
“Shh. The last song’s starting.”
Unfortunately, or fortunately…the last song was just a song. Take on Me, by Aha. Of course, Cara performed it to her best. And she could actually sing this one rather than act in a music video. It was just a feel-good song. She performed it in her ‘war makeup’, though. And the crowd loved it.
She had done what she needed to. The message was out there—and her face. At least they couldn’t [Scry] her. She had made a stand.
Come and get me, you bastards. Cara felt relaxed. She went through the song, and then had time to be interviewed by the Drakes in Pallass.
“Miss Cara, that was some amazing singing. And I love the—what did you call them?”
“A musical broadcast. You see, it’s a stage. Acting and music. I am so delighted you liked it!”
The [Singer] was beaming and sitting demurely, the spirit of the [Popstar] who wanted to get her music out into the world. Drassi kept nodding. She had orders not to ask where the music came from.
“I’m told you can buy these song-recordings from Terandria. And Wistram! Now—the first musical broadcast was great. Action. War! I love how it fit the lyrics.”
“Well, I wrote them just for the scene.”
Cara felt a pinch on her conscience. But she was playing the song. Drassi sighed.
“I wish I had that talent. But—the second video had a few interesting qualities, didn’t it? The plot was a bit more confusing. Have you met a [Necromancer] before?”
“No. But I think the—the Necromancer weighs on all our minds. It’s just—I suppose you picked up on some of symbology?”
Cara leaned forwards earnestly. Time to throw non-Earthers off the track.
“It was about Ailendamus’ war with the Dawn Concordat.”
What? King Itorin II was suddenly very upset. Drassi clapped her claws together.
“I knew it! That army had their flag, right? Is this you being against Ailendamus?”
Cara looked up for a second. She gave the Drake an earnest look, and looked troubled as she clasped her hands together, leaning forwards.
“You know, Drassi. I’m not—for any one nation. Or against. I just—I suppose these last few songs were me being so troubled by war. Which Ailendamus has chosen to start again. I’m just not one for violence, myself.”
She kicked my ass yesterday! Greg mouthed silently off-screen. Cara went on, her eyes shimmering a bit.
“It’s just one of those things where I wonder—war? Can we really accept so many deaths for what, land? What about people? I’m actually writing another song on the topic—”
Drassi was nodding sympathetically. Noass hurriedly shoved into the camera.
“—And I think that’s all we have for now! Thank you! Thank you, Miss Cara. The Singer of Terandria, what a wonderful person. Let’s go now to a Human-led orchestra from northern Chandrar. I give you the Bowsong of—”
The image cut out. Erin was shaking. Like Remi—she had gotten it. Parts of it.
So that was how it was. Lyonette looked at Erin, concerned.
“Erin, what’s wrong? You kept saying ‘she’s saying something’. What was she saying? The Singer? She’s from Earth, right?”
Erin dared not say a word. But she looked at Kevin, Rose—the others. They retreated to the secret Earth-rooms.
“Did you all get the same thing?”
Rose whirled and looked at the others. Kevin scratched at his head. Troy and Leon were missing—Galina was with the Players who were up next. But the rest, Imani, Joseph, Erin—all nodded.
“I got—well, Palt told me you can scry someone if they aren’t warded with their names. That’s what they told you during the first chat, right, Rose?”
“That’s right. And we knew there was someone at Wistram. But—”
Rose looked up. But the sign. Kevin exhaled.
“So they are like the Illuminati? Maybe it was a mistake?”
“There’s no sign like that in this world. Not that I know of, I think.”
Erin shook her head. Joseph groaned.
“Then what was the rest? Ailendamus are the bad guys? She said that.”
Which made the good guys, by process of elimination, Noelictus, Calanfer—
“What did you say, Lyonette? It’s not just the Thronebearers?”
“No…I mean, that is the [Knight] order of my kingdom. But that one was wearing the crest of my sister. Seraphel du Marquin.”
She whispered that last to Erin, but the young woman barely heard it. It was too much to process. So that meant—allies? Or just good people? What about the half-Elf and Dwarf? Erin needed Dawil. Or Pelt.
Either way—the music video had told her everything. Those other band members—were they from Earth?
There you are. You, and Geneva. And Ryoka too. Erin raised her head.
“We’re not alone, guys. We just need to be careful.”
Rose exhaled. Kevin scrubbed a hand through his hair and Joseph looked around for another drink.
“Guess we’d better make an airplane then, right guys?”
“Or upgrade your door.”
Erin sat there. Ryoka needed to come here and they had to talk about this. Here I am, Cara said. Here is what you need to watch out for. Erin wondered…if someone was going to go after her.
One world’s worries aside, the music video and Singer of Terandria had shaken the Players of Celum. If they were growing to be experts of one craft—they had just seen centuries of refinement. Another art form.
“She’s like one of us. That’s what I felt. Her poise, the way she was moving—”
Jasi was talking amid a babble to no one in particular. Emme was having an apoplexy.
“How do we top that? We’ll never attract anyone! Look!”
Even the audience in the inn was too busy chatting to focus on the poor Chandrarian orchestra. They had beautiful music and they’d worked so hard.
But they were up against the Queen of Pop. If attention was sunlight, Cara had stolen the spotlight and all that was left were a few glimmers by dusk.
And yet—Jasi was hooked.
“That look. Did you see it, Wesle? She looked so—dirty, yet amazing! War-torn. It’s so stylish!”
“I was more impressed by the drums! I was trying to copy some of the band—the one playing the guitar in front I couldn’t copy. But the drums? Look at this!”
Wesle had pulled out the drum set Kevin and Numbtongue used. He began laying down a similar beat, having copied Thien. Jasi was distracted.
“Where’s my dye for the neck spines? If I adjusted my clothing like this…”
“What do we do? No one’s going to watch us!”
Kilkran wailed. Jasi looked at him.
“Enough people will see. Pipe down, Kilkran. And remember—I want to say something before the play.”
The Drake was too busy dabbing some color onto her neck spines. Cara’s hair had been dyed near the ends. Like…so?
“Jasi! We’re going to perform—”
Orica was horrified. Jasi rolled her eyes.
“In an hour! I can get this off in less than five minutes, Orica. I’m trying that look before I forget. There was a bit of…sensuality. Like this—”
[Perfect Imitation]. She grabbed a cup and pretended it was a microphone. And if she sang—
As it turned out, the mug had liquid in it. Jasi got some on her dress. Emme nearly died then and there.
“Get me water and a cleaning cloth!”
“Emme! Relax! I’ll get some water from…”
There was a crowd in the inn, which was very full. Jasi was on-stage—they’d decided to perform in The Wandering Inn for good luck. Mrsha was dancing with Ekirra—they had loved the song. Jasi saw the [Actors] pushing through the crowd and shook her head.
She just needed a bit of water. And thanks to Erin, she knew how to expedite the process.
She walked towards a wall and into the Garden of Sanctuary. It was shortcut to the kitchen or outhouse. Jasi heard an electric sound as she entered the [Garden]. She looked up as the door closed and saw—
Numbtongue. Erin’s problems were not his and he was copying the guitar from the song. Jasi blinked up at him.
The Hobgoblin [Bard] was shooting lightning from his strings. And unlike Wesle—his talent was the product of hard work, not just a Skill. He was flawlessly doing the guitar-portion of the first song and improvising on the fly.
The Hobgoblin realized he had an audience as he saw Jasi walking over to the pond. A few Fortress Beavers waddled past Jasi. He waved at her.
“Yeah! That’s an amazing copy, Numbtongue! Do you think you could actually perform the song?”
“Sure. Heard two before. On—”
Kevin’s laptop. Numbtongue closed his mouth on that.
“On song-crystals? I’m definitely buying some!”
Jasi nodded earnestly. She sighed.
“Wesle’s practicing the drums. He can copy the drummer, you know.”
“Ooh. Nice Skill. Something wrong?”
The Drake rolled her eyes and lashed her tail.
“Emme’s convinced no one will watch us after the impact the Singer made. It’s not like this is going to end our careers.”
Numbtongue kept strumming. Jasi looked past him.
“I’m glad to have seen it. The Singer—what a look. Hey—do you think I could look like that?”
“Why not? Bit of blood, ash…you have to tear your dress.”
“Yeah. Maybe after the performance. I just love the—”
Jasi was young. It spoke to her, and Numbtongue too. Noass had spent some time lambasting the death of ‘real music’ during his intermission. Numbtongue grinned.
“Makeup on the Singer looks a bit like Redfang warpaint. See? Looks good.”
He had some on his body. Jasi clapped her claws together.
“Right! That’s great! And you know what? I bet I could copy the Queen of Pop’s song!”
Numbtongue was astonished. Jasi smiled.
“We’re [Actors], Wesle, and I. Pralcem too—we have Skills to copy. Not as good as the real thing, but…is that your drum set?”
“Hmm. Kevin’s. We perform on stage.”
“Yep. You could join us.”
Numbtongue grinned. Jasi looked at him. Her mouth fell open.
“Wait. I—I just had an idea. Numbtongue. How well do you know those songs?”
“Mm. Take on Me? Boulevard of Broken Dreams? I know those two. Not the other one.”
“And—and could you play? If I—and Wesle and Pralcem—”
Jasi’s mind was spinning. She could sing, Wesle had drums—what other instruments were there? And they were…
But—then her face fell. She looked at Numbtongue. And remembered he was a Goblin. Sometimes you forgot. Not that he was green, or had crimson eyes. But what he was supposed to be.
Numbtongue looked at Jasi. She sighed.
“It’s just—I’m sorry, but if we—”
She looked at him. Numbtongue’s hair was frazzled. Because he’d been wearing that helmet the entire time. She opened and closed her mouth.
Jasi glanced at the magic door. She adjusted her dress—then carefully ripped a sleeve with her claws. The [Bard] raised an eyebrow.
“Is that bad?”
“We can get Eltistiman to [Repair] it if we need to. And speaking of which—Numbtongue, would you like to try something crazy? I don’t know if it’d work. But—this is Erin’s inn, right?”
He looked at her, an eyebrow raised. She told him her idea. And he started laughing. Of course he was in.
Cara was relaxing after the performance. She felt blissful. There was a whole lot of shit that was about to come her way.
Ailendamus would not like her taking a side. But they had already made her an enemy. They just didn’t remember. She hadn’t been the Queen of Pop at the time. As for the rest…
Wistram might get the Illuminati reference she’d painted them under if someone blabbed. But so what? It was done. Now, she was ready for what came next.
She’d deal with it tomorrow. Cara lay back—she hadn’t even bothered to take off her makeup and dress. She was so tired…
But she was still amped from the performance. So she turned on the scrying orb. Now this felt like home, in a sense.
“…wonderful performance. Not the Queen of Pop, but it doesn’t all need to be that, eh, Drassi? Some of us like classic music.”
“Up yours, Noass.”
Cara laughed as the two Drakes talked over the last performance. She liked Drassi. The two Drakes glared at each other.
“Now, we have a performance by the Players of Celum. A sensation that’s come to Invrisil. They’re putting on this…what are they called?”
The Queen of Pop hit her head. She stared at the ceiling—she’d fallen out of her bed.
“What the fuck?”
She shot upright. Noass was asking Drassi what it was. The Drake folded her arms.
“They started in Celum! I’ve seen them. There’s some in Liscor, Invrisil—it’s great. It’s like a [Performer] except—well, more stylized. You’re going to want to watch it, folks.”
Was the attention there? Not…really. Bowsong’s performance and Cara’s own entertainment had distracted the audience. The scrying orbs were on, but no one was there, so to speak.
Cara was all the way there. She stared at the orb as Drassi introduced the Players. [Actors]? Were they from Earth? She turned to shout for Abebi to take notes—
And then the orb changed. In it appeared a Drake. Cara sat back.
“Not from Earth.”
She was standing on a stage. And holding…Cara blinked. It looked like a microphone. Glittering—and the Drake had a torn dress. Her scales were glistening. Her neck-spines hung wetly—they were dyed bright green on the ends.
Jasi even had some of Numbtongue’s war paint on a cheek. She looked up. Cara looked at a copy of her dress. A copy of her. Then she saw the stage light up.
A man sat at a drum set. A Gnoll held a backup guitar. And an armored figure wearing a blank helmet stood to the side with a guitar sparking.
Wesle began hammering on the drums. Thien burst into the wagon.
“Cara! Someone’s playing—”
He saw her turn. Wesle was laying down the same beat—playing as well as Thien had. And then the armored figure began playing the guitar—except properly, not like Greg.
“Holy. Shit. They’re not—”
Take on Me began playing as Jasi began singing into the microphone. They were playing the same song! Cara stared.
The [Actors] had stage presence. They had seen how Cara did it. Now—they were copying her song! And adding to it! Jasi was rocking out and the [Guitarist]—
“Dude. That guy can play! Is that lightning coming from the strings?”
“Someone get rid of Greg and get me whoever that is.”
Cara stared at Numbtongue as he played. His armor and helmet were nondescript—but he’d painted two red eyes and a frowny-face on it.
“He has to be from Earth. That’s a reference to—”
Jasi was singing. Not as well as Cara, despite her [Perfect Imitation]—Cara had more Skills that Jasi hadn’t copied. But look at her. She had real passion. She was laughing, singing—
And she caught sight of herself in the blank scrying mirror on the wall of the inn. Jasi blinked. She stumbled over her words as she saw her reflection.
Look at that Jasi in the mirror. The Drake gave herself a wide-eyed look. Just for a moment. Then—the [Actress] smiled. She laughed and sang with herself. Past and present.
Look at me now.
The Players of Celum grabbed the spotlight from the Singer in a moment.
Grimalkin of Pallass and Chaldion stared at the unexpected cover of the Singer’s cover of an Earth song. It really wasn’t the point.
“So that’s an entire group in Terandria. They’re not as rare as you thought, Sinew Magus.”
“Thoughts, Grand Strategist?”
The old Drake grimaced. This was getting bigger than even he could imagine. And he’d been able to understand what Grimalkin had told him.
“We need to figure out how large this is. Wistram…Wistram must know. So that means—”
A claw covered his face. Chaldion kept speaking for a second and tried to jerk back. Saliss of Lights slowly pushed him out of the way. And Grimalkin.
“Who. Is. That. Drake?”
He was staring at Jasi. Grimalkin recoiled as the [Alchemist] gazed into the scrying orb and Jasi, who had just finished her song. At her style. The mood. He had seen Cara. But this was a Drake. And her look—
Rebellious. Unconventional. Noass was spluttering about the addition to the lineup, but Drassi was celebrating it. Because it was…youth.
And Saliss wasn’t the only one who was fascinated. Other Drakes in Pallass, other young people in Invrisil, across Izril and the world had something to copy. It was like a wave.
Lady Salkis of Pallass was heading for the 8th Floor. She had never had a reason to visit before but—her [Bodyguards] could barely catch up to the usually-sick or meek [Lady].
“Lady Salkis, please wait! Your father would be worried sick! That inn is not safe. There are Humans—it’s considered a hotspot of dangerous activities—”
She pushed open the door, following the song. Jasi—whom Salkis now had to see more of. The Drake halted as she opened the door and saw, amid the cheering, the crowd, the [Mage] with the scrying mirror asking questions of Jasi—a figure in armor make his escape.
Numbtongue walked back out of the [Garden of Sanctuary]. He had only been there for the music. And to be on the scrying orb, but he wasn’t going to push his luck. He pulled off his helmet as the onyx-scaled Drake came through the door of the common room.
The Hobgoblin blinked at Salkis. She stared at a Hobgoblin. The [Bodyguards] cried out in horror and reached for their weapons before a Mrsha kicked them in the back of the legs with wroth and fury.
Whoa. Salkis looked at Jasi, Numbtongue, and around the inn. She…decided she was going to like it here. After all. She was a ██████████ ██████.
“That wasn’t stealing. At least, we surely hope it wasn’t. It was a tribute to the Queen of Pop, which amazed us all. And we are [Actors].”
Jasi was giving an interview to the camera. She was panting, but looked elated. Drassi was nodding eagerly.
“And you just—copied it? Like that?”
“Life’s but a stage. And we’re actors who fret every moment, Miss Drassi.”
The [Reporter] chuckled. Jasi looked up.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen. Our actual performance is a play, which we’d like to dedicate to the city of Celum, which is where all this began. We’re actually starting a fundraiser and we’ll be donating the proceeds of the next ten plays and putting on special performances for the cause of rebuilding…”
Something for home. Wesle was smiling and nodding. It felt right. Erin wasn’t the only person who could do something. After all—Jasi was an [Actor]. And she had learned from the best.
Emme introduced the play as Jasi stepped back behind the curtains.
“And now, let us begin, dear audience. A classic—Hamlet, by the Bard of Avon. Please, silence until the play is over. The events on stage are not real—except as stories. We are the Players of Celum, and we pray your indulgence. When the curtains open—the play begins.”
She stepped back. And now—with considerable attention, Jasi playing the Queen Gertrude, Wesle as Hamlet, Kilkran as Claudius, and so on, put on their show.
Updated a bit. Changed in places, with nuance like a Drake wedding a Human man over a fictitious throne and Gnolls in the cast. But quintessentially the same. And they shone.
Erin Solstice emerged from her rooms to find Numbtongue chatting with a Drake she vaguely recognized. Mrsha was trying to beat a bodyguard to death with her paws. Erin pointed to the sign and saw the Players of Celum enter Pallass—and take the world’s stage.
Cara watched people like her.
It was possibly an ordinary day in The Wandering Inn. Or a good moment. Could you have one with the other? As the sun left the sky, and much ado about everything occurred, the stars rose.
The Players got an invitation to Pallass. Cara sent a [Message] to them and got dozens in return. Ailendamus got royally peeved, Erin decided to add another sign people had to walk around in her inn…
Mrsha got a kilt. She used it as a pillow as she waited for tomorrow, which would be even more fun.
The stars shone in the night sky, with two full moons. It was another day.
A Raskghar slowly creaked open the closed shutters of the adventurer’s barricades. It sniffed the air and growled to all of the others.
It was time.
Author’s Note: Thanks for reading! I don’t know if I kept the last…7,000 words? If I didn’t, they were next chapter. But this was a nice chapter to write. I still have energy from my break!
The trick is knowing when to stop and what’s good and what’s written where I’m not at my absolute best. Either way, I hope you enjoyed this!
I don’t have much to say. I debated some parts, like spelling out what Cara was doing. And some additions like Salkis in the inn didn’t have to be there. But they were always planned. I can add in what makes sense here or there or refrain from doing so.
What feels best for now and what for the story? These are the quandaries. For now, I’m going to leave you with some great art. Enuryn’s Players of Celum, for one! I think it’s perfect, don’t you? And I’ve been holding onto it for a while!
Also, Plushie, who did a…semi-canonical fanart from the Guestbook along with a lot of other great art! And Erin-emotes! Last but not least, we have an animation by PanzerSoul of a certain Hobgoblin trying out some cool sword techniques!
Hope you enjoy! Thanks for reading—more of Liscor next chapter! Don’t get hyped. They’ll probably be making doughnuts or something.
Players of Celum by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!
Selfies with Scarra, Erin, Mrsha, and Fetohep emotes by Plushie!
Commission info: https://trello.com/b/VsAcpMBu/bobo-plushie-commissions-page
Shorthilt Animation by PanzerSoul!