It might have been all the old faces, because Lyonette had a dream of the past.
Not the long-distant past, the chronologically undeniable history of Lyonette’s childhood when she and her sisters—a herd, a group, a flock…?—a snob of Calanfer’s [Princesses] had been growing up.
Some quirk of fate meant that Calanfer had so many princesses they had numbers. And the 6th [Princess] had grown up around her older sisters—with a large age gap between some of them.
Yet—that was ancient history. Somehow, the last year felt like a decade of time to Lyonette. Because more had happened to her in that period than the rest of her life. More levels, more drama, more growing up.
She remembered starving. Crying with hunger and the realization at last, that the only person who had been kind to her was suddenly gone. Having to rely on the kindness of Olesm, and then the Antinium.
And after putting a colony of bees to sleep with the last of the magical flowers—finding a little, thin Gnoll child in the inn. Practically feral, terribly sad and lonely, waiting for Ryoka and Erin to come back. She had refused to leave the inn, refused to eat. Been so miserable that it made the [Princess] ashamed of herself.
That had been one of the reasons why Lyonette du Marquin had tried. In those days, it had all been so small. So humble. No magical door to Celum, no new inn. No staff—but there had been magic there.
A little Gnoll with a bit of paint had, quite by accident, helped create the Painted Antinium. Lyonette remembered the first Painted Antinium. A white paw print on the Soldier’s chest.
He—had died. Lyonette knew his symbol now rested on the Painted Antinium’s memorial wall. Yet hundreds of Painted Antinium had come from that moment. Thousands, someday.
That was surely a legacy worth having. Few Humans, even royalty, could claim that distinction.
Yes, in those days the inn had been so small and humble. And their first guest of Lyonette’s—the first real guest? It had been a huge Drake whose name was spoken even in Terandria. A legend.
General Zel Shivertail. Lyonette wished she had been the same [Princess] then as she was now. Perhaps then, with this inn, at this time—Zel Shivertail would not have fallen.
But all she dreamed of was a silly little dream where she and Zel were coaxing Mrsha out of a table that was actually a mountain. Mrsha had fallen into the dungeon and Lyonette and Zel were offering her jars of honey on a long-handled serving tray. And the silly Gnoll kept staring at the grub that would become Apista and demanding to eat that—
The [Princess] awoke alone in her bed. And it was her bed, the shared room with the growing, far larger Gnoll child who could now walk on two feet. Who had given herself a language and could cast magic and walk to the outhouse without waking up Lyonette to hold her paw and bring her there.
How fast little Gnolls grew. But she wasn’t there. Nor had Lyonette spent the night with Pawn, sitting together and reading books or listening to him dream about a better place for his people.
Mrsha was gone. She hadn’t slept with Lyonette. She had, instead, spent the night glued to her favorite Human. The [Princess]’s face turned sour as she got up and began to comb her hair, a ritual from Calanfer.
She was, perhaps, the only person unhappy about Ryoka’s return.
Erin Solstice woke up with a huge smile on her face. She rolled out of her bed—also empty but for pillow, a blanket, and a book she’d forgotten was there.
“Ow. No wonder I thought my bed was so hard.”
The young woman discovered it underneath her. Also, a rectangle on her back. She prodded at it.
“And I slept on you?”
An [Explorer]’s Guide to 64 Isles of Note, by Cemale Tenvind stared back at her, completely unashamed. Erin scowled at it.
“I paid good money for you. And this is how you treat me?”
It was a good book. Erin checked her dog-eared page. She hadn’t read it in the last two days; she’d been too busy running around. In fact, she’d been so tired she’d fallen into bed—on top of the book—and drifted off.
Because, it had been an eventful few days. Raskghar. Players of Celum.
Ryoka. Erin smiled, forgetting about her sore back. Ryoka was back. The Raskghar were contained in Pallass.
Everything was okay again.
As the [Innkeeper] got out of bed and found some clothing, she decided she had to capitalize on this kind of day. No being stingy with anything!
A Ryoka-back, post-disaster day was the kind of day you had to celebrate. So Erin ran at a wall—into the [Garden], did a quick loop, and ran back through into the kitchen—
Imani freaked out over breakfast. Erin had popped out of the wall and the [Cook] dropped the hot pan of—
It stopped in midair and Erin saw Imani grab for the pan and stop it from going over. Erin looked around.
“Sorry, Imani! I forgot you’re always in here! Whoa, nice save, Palt! Palt…?”
She peered about. But the [Mage] she’d assumed had used levitation to save the pan was absent. And unless he was invisible—Erin felt at the air suspiciously.
“It’s just me, Erin. Please, don’t do that! Mrsha does it and I nearly hit her with a pot one time!”
Imani put her hand over her chest. Erin was immediately contrite.
“I’m so thoughtless, Imani. I should have checked. I just ran in here…”
Using the [Garden of Sanctuary] was second-nature to Erin by now. Scanning for people in her inn was still a conscious effort though, and one Erin wasn’t in the habit of doing. Imani calmed down a bit—but she still looked frazzled.
Right up until she reached for a little flask at her side and took a sip of something, that was. Then she immediately calmed down.
“It’s fine, Erin. It’s…okay. Whew.”
The [Innkeeper] eyed the flask. She knew Palt had been working with Imani, but that…
“What’s that there, Imani?”
“Dreamleaf water. Lemon, Dreamleaf, and a bit of sugar. Tastes like lemonade.”
Imani immediately replied. Erin opened her mouth. Then closed it.
“Palt gave you that?”
“Yes he did. It helps.”
He’d also given Imani sleeping draughts and other help with her trauma from the Creler attacks. Erin nodded slowly.
“Good, good. That’s good. Actually. Um—nice trick with the pan. I hadn’t seen it before.”
The young woman from Nigeria smiled.
“Thank you. It’s [Minor Accident Prevention].”
Erin wasn’t the only person leveling up. In fact—some of her guests and friends were outpacing her by far in terms of levels. As a [Cook], Imani had an interesting set of Skills far different from Erin.
“So does it stop like, you dropping eggs?”
“Bits of eggshell in food, spilling drinks—and the pan, like you saw. It won’t save me if I dump oil all over myself—well, maybe it would. I got it at Level 10.”
“Wait, it’s a good Skill?”
Imani raised an eyebrow.
“It’s everything, Erin. You know how you cut yourself once by trying to scale a fish wrong?”
Erin winced and flexed her hand. Imani gestured to the counter as she put the pan back on the heat.
“It would stop that, I think. I haven’t cut myself since getting the Skill. And it applies to all sorts of day-to-day activities.”
“Whoa. Give me that. I slept on a book this morning. You think it would stop that?”
The [Cook] had to process Erin’s particular brand of troubles. She shrugged.
“…Maybe? Anyways, can I help you? I’m making breakfast.”
“Right! Uh—well, I just wanted a big breakfast for Ryoka, since she’s here. Something special? I was thinking crepes with some of the Ashfire Bee honey if we had it…”
Imani’s face made Erin hesitate.
“Erin. Were you going to suggest we add the whipped cream I made and serve it with powdered sugar? Maybe even powdered nali-sticks? And syrup and butter?”
“Maaaaaybe. And if we had chocolate…”
The [Cook] shook her head.
“That’s such a disgusting breakfast.”
“Hey! It’s a special occasion!”
“I’m making something light and tasty. Here, take a look. Did you know there are avocados and other vegetables from our world we can get from Oteslia?”
Erin peered at the dark green avocado Imani was eagerly pointing to. It was definitely an avocado. Imani had ordered another shipment from Oteslia, or gotten it from the bazaar on Pallass’ first floor, apparently.
“So that’s what Lyonette keeps complaining about with the food budget. Are you sure, Imani? I mean, it looks good, but we could do crepes…”
“I’m just saying! It’s from home!”
Erin found herself outside of the kitchen. She kicked at the floor.
“All your food is unhealthy, Erin!”
The [Innkeeper] glared after Imani. She sighed, and made a note not to scare Imani again, even if she had a Skill. Erin stretched—
And saw a Worker with four daggers slowly lower them from his ambush-point where he’d been ready to leap on her. Erin stared wide-eyed at Silveran. The Worker sheathed the daggers.
“Oh. Right. The scream. Sorry, just me, Silveran.”
After Erin had retrieved her heart from her mouth, she waved at the Worker. He waved back. Erin edged away.
Definitely not the old days. You couldn’t attack someone in the inn these days without people coming to your rescue. In fact—Erin had to head off Palt as he nearly tripped down the stairs.
“Is it Imani? Another flashback? Oh, dead gods, I nearly broke my legs!”
“Sorry, just me, Palt!”
The Centaur slowed his mad clatter down the stairs. Erin saw him give her a reproachful look.
“Erin. Was that the garden-scare again? Last time Mrsha did it—”
“I’m sorry. I forgot!”
“You don’t just forget, Erin! Imani’s not…someone else! And popping out of the walls like you do would give even a Wistram [Mage] a fright! Dead gods, it’s like the ghosts the Academy used to have. Obnoxious Archmages watching everyone as they sleep and…”
“I’m sorry. Wait, ghosts? Wistram has ghosts?”
The Centaur rubbed at his face.
“Had. And good riddance to them, I say. Sorry, I just woke up.”
Palt liked to sleep in late; seeing him up this early was something. He flicked open his belt pouch, removed an edible and a little stamina pick-me-up and consumed both on the spot. Erin was so embarrassed at being rightly lectured she didn’t even bring it up. Anyways—it didn’t harm anyone and it helped Imani. That was how Erin had decided to feel about drugs.
“I’ll just head in there. What’s Imani cooking?”
“Something healthy and light.”
The [Innkeeper] muttered. Palt trotted into the kitchen. Erin saw Silveran, the Worker with the silver antennae on his carapace, return to sweeping up. She waved at him.
“How’re you doing, Silveran? I didn’t scare you, did I?”
No. I am good. Thank you.
The Worker signed back with two of his hands without even stopping sweeping. Erin was impressed. The other Workers had already picked up Mrsha’s sign language? And it was as if it had been made for them since they could work and talk!
“Cool. Great! Um…”
Erin turned—and saw a figure crouching with a crossbow in hand, aiming it at the ground. Numbtongue stared about from the [Garden of Sanctuary].
“Heard a shout. Imani?”
“Numbtongue. It was just—”
The Goblin and Erin both turned as a [Mage] sighed loudly and reappeared on the steps.
“Oh, it was Imani? Thank goodness.”
Montressa yawned as she shed her [Invisibility] spell. Erin stared at her. Montressa waved and called up the stairs.
Beza, Hexel, Temile, and two of the [Actors] all relaxed. Erin stared as they filed down the stairs, asking what had happened. She threw up her hands.
“I’m sorry, okay?”
Her shout woke up Ryoka from her sleep.
Someone shouted loud enough to wake the snoozing young woman. Ryoka Griffin woke up to find something heavy on her stomach.
It was a Mrsha. The Gnoll had crept into her room, leaving the door ajar, hence the shout travelling. Well, the scream from earlier had also begun the process. Normally a scream would get the City Runner up, but Ryoka had been exhausted from running well into the night to get here.
The Gnoll child was awake. [Twofold Rest] being what it was, even Ryoka felt energized after less than nine hours of optimal sleep. But there was that lazy, dozing rest that you didn’t want to get up from.
For Mrsha. In Ryoka’s case, Mrsha was a bit heavy.
“It’s hard to breathe. When did you get in here?”
Mm. Mrsha made a small sound in the back of her throat and hugged Ryoka. The young woman sat up and Mrsha wrapped her arms and legs around Ryoka.
It was tomorrow. And much hugging and reuniting had gone on between them already. Not enough—Ryoka had arrived late and the frantic introductions of Fierre, Salamani—she blinked.
“I’m here? I’m back.”
So soon! And yet—it was surreal to wake up in The Wandering Inn again. Ryoka looked about the comfy, well-kept room. She looked down at Mrsha as she sat cross-legged.
“What is this barnacle doing on me?”
Mrsha giggled as Ryoka patted her head. Then the City Runner gave her a small, tentative hug.
“Hi, Mrsha. I’m still here.”
Good. Mrsha didn’t need to say it with text or sign language to be heard. Ryoka looked around.
“…Bird too? Look, it was an accident! There’s no problem! It was just me…”
That sounded like Erin from downstairs. Ryoka eyed the ajar door.
“Uh oh. Erin might have set fire to the inn. We all might cook. Or maybe she just invented cold fusion.”
Another giggle from below. Ryoka grinned.
“You want to get up, barnacle-girl? Get some breakfast?”
Mrsha’s ears perked up a bit at the word ‘breakfast’, but for once, she didn’t leap downstairs. She just stayed there, in Ryoka’s lap.
“What do you want to do, Mrsha? Go to sleep? Are you that sleepy?”
A quick shake of the head. Mrsha looked up with her brown eyes and did something with her paws. Ryoka frowned. It was fast—
“What? What was that?”
Was that…sign language? Mrsha’s face fell as she realized Ryoka couldn’t read her. She fumbled at a small pouch attached to her side. Ryoka saw her pull out a bit of parchment, a quill that needed no ink—
“Are you writing?”
The Gnoll held up a small, furry finger, and Ryoka waited. Mrsha scribbled industriously and then handed Ryoka a note.
Stay here for a bit.
Ryoka read it with some shock. Mrsha—writing? And signing? So much had changed. And what did that mean? She looked at the little Gnoll as she hugged onto Ryoka’s belly again. And then she got it.
Slowly, Ryoka sat back and began to scratch Mrsha’s head. She and the girl sat there as Ryoka hugged her. The sun began to rise as they just sat.
No running about. No food—not yet—and no need to talk. They just sat there. Ryoka was back and Mrsha could not be happier. The City Runner found herself smiling, and looked around to see if anyone had noticed the uncharacteristic behavior.
Lyonette stomped downstairs shortly after the Imani-incident, as the inn was already abuzz. Erin was greeting people as they came down.
“Hi Hexel, sorry, that was me. Hi Temile, sorry that was me. Hi Lyonette—”
The [Princess]’ glower could have nailed Erin’s tongue to the roof of her mouth. The [Innkeeper] eyed her.
“Where’s Mrsha? She should be awake by now. She normally is.”
“She’s not with you? Wait a second—this had better not be like last time!”
She gave Hexel a long stare. The Lamia looked around as he collected a to-go breakfast to have with a certain Gnoll.
“I wasn’t accosted by a small white Gnoll this time. I did check.”
Before Erin could ask Numbtongue before calling a Mrsha-search, Lyonette interrupted.
“She’s with Ryoka.”
Erin wiped fake sweat from her brow, but the [Princess] just sat with arms folded. Erin saw Silveran come over with two plates of Imani’s breakfast, which she was serving to the guests and ignoring the requests for their meals because this was her kitchen.
“Not just yet, Silveran! We want to eat with Ryoka, I think.”
Lyonette folded her arms as the Worker handed a plate to Bird, who sighed over the distinct lack of obvious bird anatomy in his meal. He brightened up at the eggs, though.
“What’s the matter, Lyonette?”
“Nothing. Ryoka’s back and Mrsha is over the moon about it. I’m fine.”
The [Princess] glared. Erin sighed.
“Mrsha likes Ryoka. You know? Because she saved her from dying and stuff?”
Lyonette turned her head away.
“I know that! It’s fine. Mrsha has a favorite person.”
She was jealous. Which was fair. Lyonette had raised Mrsha when both Erin and Ryoka hadn’t been there and become her mother. So it was a mother’s jealousy? Erin scratched at her head.
She couldn’t serve a healthy breakfast or double-check before scaring the daylights out of Imani and half of her guests, but this? She looked around as more people filed down the stairs. Kevin, Rose, Galina…Troy and Leon and Joseph were all sleeping, it seemed. No survival instincts.
“Lyonette. You’re being silly. Mrsha loves you! You’re her mom!”
“I know that! Don’t you think I know that?”
The [Princess] snapped at Erin. The [Innkeeper] went on, rolling her eyes.
“—and Mrsha loves Ryoka because she’s the person who saved her. But that doesn’t mean you’re not her mom, right? Ryoka’s like…a favorite, cool aunt. She comes over and of course Mrsha wants to be with her! You’re here every day! It’s not personal. Don’t you have a favorite relative?”
Lyonette’s glower abated slightly. Erin gave her an encouraging smile. The [Princess] hesitated and muttered.
“I did have a favorite [Baron]. So Ryoka’s the aunt?”
“That’s right. Numbtongue’s the big brother, Bird is…either the little brother or another big brother…you’re the mom…”
“And you’re the father?”
They’d done this joke before. Erin flapped her hand dismissively.
“Nah, nah, I figured it out this time. I’m the crazy-awesome grandma! Doesn’t that make sense?”
She gave Lyonette a huge thumbs-up and a grin. The [Princess]’ lips quirked.
“You do fit the role. I remember my maternal grandmother was almost as intense as you were, before she passed.”
The [Innkeeper] took a bit of pride in seeing Lyonette relax and some of her grudge against Ryoka for Mrsha’s affection dissipate. It wasn’t like Erin didn’t notice that, and she could at least soothe Lyonette’s temper. That was her job these days. Not cooking, not cleaning—you had Silveran and Imani for that. People.
Like Ishkr and the sullen female Gnoll who followed him in for the morning’s shift. Erin waved.
“Hey, Ishkr! And Liska, right?”
“Miss Erin. Good morning.”
The Gnoll with red-brown fur and no distinct oddball traits nodded to her. The most-valuable worker and a definite contender for ‘Employee of the Month’ if Erin ever instituted that program. He nudged his sister and she growled something like ‘hello’.
Lyonette frowned as Ishkr dragged his sister over to a table. Erin pretended not to hear their growled argument.
“You say hello.”
“You said we get breakfast before we work! What’s that smell?”
“We do. But say hello even if we’re not on our shift! Come on—”
“Seems tough, having to work with a sister. How’s she doing, Lyonette?”
“Liska? She’s got a bad attitude but she follows orders so she’s not unmanageable. Not like Maran and Safry.”
“Oh wow. You remember them?”
“I had a dream about when it was just me and Mrsha in the inn.”
“No kidding? Well, maybe we can get Liska some work where she doesn’t have to smile at people. Like the loading jobs with the Antinium? Unless she has a problem with them or she’s untrustworthy?”
The [Princess] chewed that over as Silveran handed Hexel a packed-lunch—two tidy boxes! Actual boxes of wood, mind you. They slid open and kept the heat wonderfully. Imani had improvised them based on the bento box from Japan, which Erin had seen. You could put all kinds of food in there and you could bring back the box to cut the price of them.
In Hexel’s case, he made it disappear into a bag of holding and went for a breakfast with Elirr—not that Erin knew about that last part. He slithered out of the inn as Lyonette nodded.
“It could work. Maybe writing receipts or some of the secretarial jobs. Liska doesn’t seem untrustworthy—just rebellious. Doesn’t like having orders. Although—she works better if I talk to her rather than Ishkr. Brother and sister.”
“Sounds good. And hey—aren’t we sending a lot of um…foods today? F-fish?”
Erin tried to remember. People, that was her job. Only—Lyonette handled the staff and the deliveries. The [Princess] gave Erin a long look.
“We’re sending some of the preserved fish and a lot of tools from Esthelm to Lord Toldos of House Everight and Lord Alman of House Sanito.”
The young woman stared blankly at Lyonette.
“How do you remember those names?”
“How do you remember a Magnus-Belgrade Opening?”
“That doesn’t exist. And that’s different! That’s fun!”
Erin folded her arms defensively. The [Princess] sighed.
“Only to you, Erin. What’s taking those two so long?”
“Aw, let them sleep. Ryoka got in late. She was really worried about Mrsha!”
As the two talked and relaxed, the inn began waking up. Ishkr and his sister took their breakfast and soon the magical door would be letting people in. But Lyonette had decreed to Erin’s agreement that there was a hiatus to the morning’s rush. It was around seven-ish that you could enter via the magic door. Before that—peace reigned.
As Erin was debating whether knowing fork etiquette was less useful than chess patterns, someone else came down the stairs. The arguing duo looked up as a short girl, seemingly only sixteen or something, shaded her face and peered around, keeping well away from the light streaming out of some of the windows.
Erin didn’t recognize her at first. Pale skin, dark hair. And—red eyes. Numbtongue stopped noshing on his food as he recognized one of the guests who had come to the inn. Erin blinked.
Fierre turned and looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] felt a…an odd…?
“Hello. I heard a shout. Is everything alright?”
“Not at all. That was just uh, an accident. You’re Fierre, right? Come over! Sit down! I haven’t seen Ryoka or that other Runner today.”
“Salamani. Sorry, we did arrive late.”
The Vampire eyed the table where Lyonette and Erin were sitting. It was just far away enough from one of the deadly sunbeams—she edged over.
Erin gave Fierre much the same curious look. She was wearing lots of loose, heavy clothing. Ryoka had said…Fierre was interesting in her last visit. And also that Fierre was her friend from Reizmelt.
The [Innkeeper] politely edged her seat left, blocking one of the aforementioned sunbeams. Lyonette glanced at her as Fierre sat down. The Vampire glanced at Erin, but the [Innkeeper] smiled. And she wondered how much garlic the inn stocked. Scarves—scarves were nice.
Fierre was a Vampire. Erin’s face was perfectly friendly as she asked if Fierre had slept well, and saw the Vampire smile without exposing her teeth.
“Thanks. Your inn’s quite nice. Far better than the one I stay in at Reizmelt.”
“I’m so glad. If you want to have breakfast—we’re waiting on Ryoka.”
“I can wait. Um—you’re Miss Lyonette?”
“That’s right. Hello again.”
The two smiled at each other. Fierre sniffed at something. And Erin saw her glance at Lyonette’s…neck…for just a second. Or maybe just at her dress?
Now a trio, the three chatted as Fierre stared at Silveran and around at the inn that Ryoka had told her so much about. At Erin Solstice, who Fierre had heard about in her work as an Opener and information broker. And at Lyonette.
The [Princess] was the most oblivious one as the [Innkeeper] and Vampire took stock of each other. Erin didn’t know what to think. Fierre was Ryoka’s friend, already making her odd. But not bad. But she was also…
She seemed nice. But it was taking every inch of Erin’s self-control to not ask if Fierre wanted to borrow a coffin for tomorrow night. She really, really hoped that whatever Imani was making didn’t have garlic.
After about thirty minutes, Mrsha had enough of being cuddled and finally pushed away to point downstairs. Her stomach had begun rumbling and judging by the way she was sniffing the air, she had scented something nice.
Ryoka’s own stomach began growling; it had been days of quick meals for her, Fierre and Salamani. Especially near the end. She followed Mrsha out of her room after quickly dressing.
She found the little Gnoll staring up at a tall fellow in robes. Especially at Salamani’s lizard-like eyes. The Mage Runner turned as Ryoka came out of her room.
“Oh, Ryoka. This young Gnoll just met me. I thought I scared her, but she hasn’t said a word.”
“That’s Mrsha. You met her last night—”
Or had he? Salamani had been bushed from casting [Haste] on all three. The Courier squatted down.
“If I did, I forget. Hello, Mrsha. Don’t mind the eyes. They’re a gift from Lizardfolk parents.”
Oh. Mrsha nodded. Salamani glanced at Ryoka as Mrsha fiddled with her belt.
“She can’t speak. But she can—”
Mrsha handed Salamani a card. This was one of her pre-written lines for those not on the up and up with hand-signs. Salamani blinked, and read it.
Hello, I am Mrsha. I cannot speak but I can write and speak with my paws. Do not pat my head without permission.
“Ah, that’s so intelligent! Hello! Do you do handshakes, then?”
The Mage Runner laughed. Mrsha solemnly shook his hand, clearly pleased at being treated like a proper adult. In fact—she was so adult that while Ryoka had dressed, Mrsha had put on…
“Is that a kilt?”
Ryoka stared at Mrsha’s clothing. The Gnoll rolled her eyes and nodded. Salamani and Ryoka watched as Mrsha pointed downstairs and made a ‘come on, I’m hungry’ gesture neither of them needed to be taught.
“So this is the little Gnoll you were so worried about? Does she not usually wear clothing?”
“No! I mean—that’s not a problem! Despite how it sounds! She’s just—”
Getting older. Ryoka felt a pang in her chest. Mrsha was talking, wearing clothing, walking around on two legs…was this how parents felt all the time? It sort of sucked. At least, the part of Ryoka that told her she’d missed all of this. So rather, it sucked to be an absent parent.
At least, the ones who cared about their children. Ryoka shook her head. She wasn’t Mrsha’s…she could barely look after herself like a proper person, let alone Mrsha. Lyonette was far better.
Speaking of which, Lyonette, Erin, and Fierre were all waiting for them downstairs. Ryoka halted at the steps as she saw Mrsha race over, stop when she saw Fierre, and begin sniffing rapidly. The Vampire girl stared down at the Gnoll with some apprehension as Mrsha gave her a long look.
“Ryoka! There you are! And—and—Courier-guy!”
“Salamani! Hello Miss Solstice, thanks for putting me up.”
“Well, anything for Ryoka’s friends! Come on over! We were just having breakfast with Fierre! Imani’s whipping up something in the kitchen. I checked and we’re all good!”
Erin gave Ryoka a wink as she turned her head away from the others. Ryoka instantly wanted to die. Erin was already checking for garlic and stuff. She regretted telling Erin about Fierre instantly.
But she hadn’t thought they’d ever meet. At least, so soon! Not like this! Fierre gave Ryoka a careful smile as Mrsha handed her a card. The Vampire read it.
“Hi, Mrsha. I won’t pat your head. It’s um, very nice to meet you.”
The Gnoll stuck her paw up importantly for a shake. Fierre gave it a quick grasp and Mrsha nodded. Fierre was approved. The Gnoll clambered up into a seat and patted the one next to her. Ryoka got to sit next to Mrsha, who was next to Lyonette.
“It’s just great you’re all here. Hey Silveran! One Mrsha-sized breakfast and five adults!”
Mrsha sighed as Silveran nodded and walked into the kitchen. Salamani stared at the Antinium. So did Fierre, out of the corner of her eyes. They both glanced at Ryoka and she felt a bit—peculiar.
Here was a Courier [Mage] with Lizardfolk ancestry. And a bloody Vampire. And they thought an Antinium Worker was the weird one?
“So, uh. Erin. This is Salamani and Fierre. I introduced them last night, but not properly. Everyone, this is Erin, Lyonette, Mrsha—”
The others murmured hellos as Salamani caught sight of Numbtongue playing a morning round of cards with two men in hats. Fierre nudged Ryoka and the City Runner’s head went blank for a moment. No way. But hats on a Drake and Gnoll? They couldn’t be…
Erin had a knowing look in her eye as she gazed at Wilovan and Ratici. She smiled at Fierre.
“And you’re a…information person from Reizmelt?”
“Er…yeah. Sort of like a [Gossip].”
Fierre mumbled, giving Ryoka a sharp look. Erin nodded at the [Mage].
“And you’re a Courier?”
“The Mage Runner, yes. In debt to Miss Ryoka and Miss Fierre.”
“Whoa. I heard about that. Something about a delivery? It’s great to meet you both! And like I said yesterday—everything’s on the house for Ryoka’s friends.”
Lyonette coughed. Erin laughed and Salamani grinned.
“We can certainly pay—”
“Nah! Ryoka’s friends are my friends! And a Courier? You guys do great work. You know that big delivery of the cure for Yellow Rivers to Baleros? That’s amazing. I wish I could give all those Couriers free food for like, a year.”
Fierre and Salamani brightened up. They were a bit awkward with Erin and Lyonette, neither of which they knew, but the television was a universal icebreaker. Salamani leaned forwards with a bit of that shared pride of Runners.
“You heard about that too?”
“Yup! We’ve got a scrying mirror and saw the entire thing.”
The two saw the blank mirror. Fierre whistled as she beheld the huge mirror, which was as long as Erin and half as tall.
“That’s your scrying mirror? That has to cost thousands of gold pieces! Tens of thousands!”
Erin flapped a hand, grinning, but Salamani shot a knowing glance around the room.
“Actually, Fierre, it’s temporarily enchanted. Not an artifact—there must be someone who can cast [Scrying].”
“Oh. Of course.”
The Vampire blushed and Erin looked at Salamani with more respect.
“Hey, that’s right! We’ve got some [Mages] from Wistram here.”
“Really? I’m from Wistram! I’d love to meet them.”
The [Innkeeper]’s ready smile tensed just a bit and her eyes flickered to Ryoka. The City Runner shook her head quickly. Fierre stared at Ryoka as Erin relaxed. You could write a book on the unspoken dialogue here. Erin nodded.
“Well, I’ll introduce you to Palt in a moment. It’s great to meet you like I said, Salamani. You’re like the…one…two…third Courier I’ve ever met! No wait…fourth. There was poor Valceif…”
Ryoka’s face fell and Salamani winced. Then he blinked.
“You’ve met four Couriers, Miss Solstice? I know Hawk the Hare lives in Liscor…but there’s that door to Invrisil! Of course!”
“Yeah, I met Valceif, and Hawk, and Tritel and Ci. Do you know them?”
The Courier was nodding.
“The Moonlight Rider? I ran with him on this joint delivery—”
“That was you?”
Lyonette and Erin sat up and nearly knocked the food Ishkr and Silveran were bringing over. Mrsha sat bolt upright. Here was one of the Couriers from that run? She looked at Ryoka, jaw agape.
There was so much each side didn’t know about the other! Fierre began to look a bit supercilious herself as Salamani began to demur about the newsworthy run.
“It was just posturing. Those weren’t the best [Assassins] the guild had. It was a warning—and three Couriers are hard to stop. But it did get me a lot of free drinks!”
“No way. We need like—autographs! Ryoka, this is your friend?”
Salamani ducked his head.
“Miss Griffin’s fairly famous herself, Miss Solstice. Or she will be.”
“That’s right. She’s the Wind Runner of Reizmelt!”
Fierre grinned at Ryoka, hiding her fangs by turning her head. Erin leaned sideways to see and Ryoka kicked her under the table. Lyonette eyed Erin and Ryoka. Salamani nodded at Erin.
“If you’ve met Tritel and Ci, you know they’re one of the other Couriers who did that run. And—they’re the ones responsible for the land-delivery of the Yellow Rivers cure you were talking about!”
He waited for Erin to explode with awe at that. The [Innkeeper] blinked.
“Oh, yeah. I know that. I hired Tritel to take the cure from the inn.”
Salamani’s jaw dropped. Fierre turned from staring at Numbtongue again as the Goblin cursed and forfeited an uncut emerald.
“What was that? Sorry, I have to have misheard.”
“The cure? Octavia made it. She’s probably still in her shop. She’s an [Alchemist] who lives here. Made it herself.”
“Wh—it came from this inn? Ryoka, you never said!”
Salamani turned to Ryoka as a plate was put in front of him. Fierre was staring as well. Ryoka shrugged, but she couldn’t wipe the huge smirk off her face. The smug smile on Mrsha’s face was like that of a little gremlin’s. The Gnoll child was enjoying this a lot.
“I told you. The Wandering Inn’s big. What’s this, Erin? Did you make it?”
She blinked as Erin peered at the dish Imani had whipped up. Mrsha licked her lips.
In reaction to Erin’s very American breakfasts, Imani had drawn from every recipe she knew—and Palt was an expert on Balerosian cooking. Todays’ breakfast was sumptuous. Imani had made a snack of mandazi from her continent, having secured coconut milk by way of Oteslia.
As a nod to Erin’s appeal for sweet, she did have a number of dips, including a bit of Ashfire Bee honey. But that was only one plate. She had a more proper course of dishes, including a breakfast dish of packed rice, beans, boiled eggs, and rich avocado that you could spread on some Garry-bread toast.
And more! Ryoka’s mouth was watering and Salamani looked deeply impressed.
“Is this…this is excellent cooking!”
“It’s Imani. She’s the new cook, Ryoka.”
“Imani? That frightened girl from—wait—are those annoying br—your friends here, Ryoka?”
Fierre started. Erin blinked at her, and so did Lyonette and Mrsha.
“You know Imani? Kevin, Joseph, Rose—wait, you’re the person who helped get them here?”
The Vampire stared in awe at Kevin and Rose who were eating with Montressa and Bezale. Galina sat Temile’s table.
It was history. The time when the Earthers from Magnolia’s mansion had been a short, if unpleasant, event in Reizmelt where Fierre and Alber had grown thoroughly sick of them. But now they were here. And the pieces…
“Wait. Liscor. Is this the place where football comes from? I’d love to buy one of the balls! A round dozen—they’d make great souvenirs and some of the [Leatherworkers] would pay a pretty penny for them! And there’s another game, isn’t there?”
Salamani snapped his fingers. Erin grinned.
“Baseball? I can give you a set!”
Lyonette hissed. Salamani blinked at Erin. Then his eyes narrowed as he saw Mrsha’s shit-eating grin stretch wider.
“Wait a moment. Do you, by any chance, know a Joseph…?”
Fierre started as she made the connection. She looked at Ryoka and the City Runner groaned. Here they went again. She spread an avocado on her toast and bit into the rich bite.
This was The Wandering Inn. Salamani and Fierre had their own tales of amazement that they thought would blow anyone away. Waking the Archmage of Izril? Meeting Mihaela Godfrey? The Wind Runner of Reizmelt?
And certainly, Erin was a great audience to tell it to. She gasped and asked questions and was invested, just like Mrsha, who began slapping Ryoka on the back and looked around proudly as if to say ‘this is my Runner who did all that, you hear?’
Lyonette was just as good; she understood what it meant. But at some point Fierre and Salamani lost the trade of stories and just had to sit back.
The magic door. The attacks on Liscor. Soccer, baseball, the King of Destruction’s letter to Joseph and the famous player himself. A cure for Yellow Rivers? And more—it had all come from here!
“I thought you were making it up! At least 80% of it, Ryoka, whenever you told me about this place!”
Fierre sat back and exclaimed to laughter. Ryoka grinned.
“I couldn’t make it up if I tried. Mind you—Joseph becoming a famous football player is new to me. And so are the other things. Like the broadcast with the Players of Celum.”
She eyed Erin meaningfully and the [Innkeeper] spread her hands out helplessly.
“…It was cool?”
“The Players of Celum? Wait—”
Salamani and Fierre twisted in their seats and saw the same stage that the [Actors] had performed on. By now, everyone in earshot was enjoying watching the other two’s reactions. It was entertaining to all the ‘veterans’ of the inn to watch someone being told half of the crazy stories that emerged from this place.
“Say, Miss Solstice, mind telling your two friends how the Players of Celum happened to come about? And where they performed their first shows? In a certain inn?”
Menolit drawled from his table. Fierre and Salamani looked at Erin as she shrugged.
“Aw, Menolit! It’s not that special. They did all the work…”
The Vampire and Courier were routed. Beaten into submission. At some point you could only stare. Ryoka was enjoying their looks of awe. Because—Erin Solstice did deserve them.
Her only fear was that Fierre was smart and Salamani was from Wistram. This…could complicate matters. But she was here and Ryoka supposed they would have found out eventually. Better allies than enemies, right?
They were here. And Erin’s modesty over the events that had taken place in her inn was half out of necessity—the Raskghar issue was still something Ryoka worried about.
“They’re in Pallass. Don’t worry, Ryoka. Chaldion has them and he promised they’d get fair trials. No one’s escaping from that jail. Even Saliss says it’d be hard for him.”
“As in—Grand Strategist Chaldion of Pallass. And Saliss of Lights.”
Fierre was in Stage Three of the Solstice Effect: repeating names and staring at Erin because she had to be lying at this point. Ryoka shook her head.
“And they just…surrendered? Why?”
“They were sick. Typhenous got ‘em all. We’re still being careful of Nokha, but we lock everything, including the windows, and Bird’s on night-watch. He keeps shooting bats. Poor guys.”
“Ryoka, does she mean Bird the Hunter?”
“He’s an employee.”
The City Runner muttered. At this point, Fierre and Salamani had to tow her away from breakfast.
“Are you messing with me? Because if you are—this is amazing. Ryoka, what is this inn?”
The two huddled together, almost fearfully looking around at the laughing guests who sat there as if an Antinium Prognugator gainfully employed at this inn was normal. As if the [Innkeeper] being on a first-name basis with the Grand Strategist of Pallass and a Named Adventurer was nothing to be interested in, pass the butter, would you?
It messed with your head. Ryoka looked between them.
“Listen. I know it sounds like she’s lying, but that’s really Erin. And she’s telling the truth.”
“But that’s insane! Who is she? Who are—”
Fierre bit her lip. Salamani’s eyes were flickering around the room.
“I can’t believe it.”
Ryoka challenged them both. She poked at their chests.
“We woke up the Archmage of Izril, like you two keep telling me! We’re rich! Why’s it so hard to imagine?”
The two exchanged a look. And then their backs straightened. They began laughing. It was true. So they bypassed Stage Five of the Solstice-effect: being afraid of the inn and the [Innkeeper] and moved into Stage Six, hilarity and Stage Seven, acceptance.
This was The Wandering Inn. And it could be as grand as anything, or as silly as Mrsha smearing avocado on her cheeks to copy Numbtongue’s war paint. The trick was to roll with it.
“So. Now you’re here, what shall we do? And are you going to stay for a while? Because I think we all need that.”
Erin beamed at Ryoka as the three came back to the table. Ryoka sat down slowly.
“I don’t know. We have to get an appointment with Hedault. He owes me a favor.”
“I can help! We’ve got a line to Hedault with Montressa and Beza.”
Ryoka eyed Erin.
“Yeah. I don’t think he likes me.”
No kidding? Salamani raised his brows, at this point too numb by all the revelations to care that Erin knew the best [Enchanter] in Invrisil. Ryoka shook her head.
“We need to visit Lady Ieka if she’s still in residence. Salamani’s contacts say she is. And—Hedault, see what needs selling, and meet with…other people.”
Magnolia Reinhart. If she was still even in Izril after the attack. But Salamani shouldn’t know about that. Fierre gave Ryoka a significant look. Erin started.
“Oh yeah. And while you’re at it, you should meet with someone else. Maviola. I wrote to you about her, Ryoka. She can help with your big event.”
Fierre and Salamani’s brows snapped together. It couldn’t be. Ryoka sat up.
“Yeah, that too.”
The crazy plan that Teriarch had come up with was coming true. Somehow—it was the Erin-effect. The [Innkeeper] smiled.
“One step at a time. Come on. We’ll go together. We have a lot to catch up on!”
She held out a hand to Ryoka and the City Runner smiled. She took Erin’s hand and the young woman began to chatter as Mrsha leapt onto Ryoka’s shoulders and demanded to go along too. Fierre was shaking her head and taking notes. Salamani had just noticed Temile and Mons and Bezale were sizing the Courier up as a fellow Wistram [Mage].
And as Erin led them towards the door, it happened. The group of five—Lyonette was seeing to the deliveries downstairs in the basement and delivery ramp—heard a rumble of voices from outside suddenly. Erin stopped in her tracks.
“Whoa, that’s a lot of…”
And then the door blew open, divulging a bevy, a host, an army of people. Almost all Drakes, but with some exceptions like Bevussa and her team, a few Gnolls, a Dullahan or two and Garuda—
And voices. Arguing, demanding—Ryoka backed up as Mrsha pulled on her head as if to guide Ryoka like a horse. Erin stared.
The magical door had opened and poor Ishkr was being flattened against a wall as people surged through. From Pallass. The door actually drained itself of mana and began flickering as the ambient mana tried to resupply itself. But the first wave was already a babble.
“—here from Pallass. Hello, I’m a [Senator], make way, make way—”
“I hear there’s another party with Liscor and the Hectval situation! Where’s the gemstone cake? And we’re here about the Players of Celum coming to our city—”
“Raskghar. Yes, the Raskghar situation. You there. Where’s your Watch Captain? I have two Watch Captains and we won’t be kept waiting for—”
The people in the inn stared at the volume of largely important and self-important people coming through the door. And as if by design or chance, they heard a similar uproar coming from outside the inn.
“Justice for Liscor! We want to see the Raskghar tried and executed! Where’s the Grand Strategist?”
“Why did the magical door go out?”
“I want to go to Pallass now!”
“I just wanted that hamburger—”
A second crowd had, after discovering the magic door wasn’t yet working, marched from the gates to the inn, having to walk to get here.
Erin looked at Ryoka and Fierre and Salamani. They were confused—Mrsha tensed again. Ryoka reached up to squeeze her paw.
Really, it was predictable. Erin should have known, but she’d forgotten that ‘the end’ that she’d presumed to yesterday wasn’t an end at all. She had made the fire of mercy, found a solution to help Zevara.
But were the Raskghar dead? No. Was Liscor’s time with Hectval up? No. Were the Players of Celum in Pallass? Not at all. The first wave of Pallass’ dignitaries moved into the inn and Erin found another chaotic mess on her hands.
For once—not hers. She could happily kick this lot to Liscor and send the objectors and justice-seekers to Pallass. She knew only Bevussa, Keldrass, and a few other Gold-rank Captains who’d come through to be dignified and socialize and hobnob and blather on. It was Maviola’s problem, and the Council’s, and anyone who wanted to use the magic door today. The [Innkeeper] almost relaxed.
“Hey. So…where’s Pallass’ list of people, huh? Didn’t get that today.”
She grinned around. Then her head snapped back up.
One last person had come through the door—despite it being ‘empty’ of magical power. But then—he’d charged it up. And he came through the crowd like a killer whale among dolphins. At least—in pure physical size.
Grimalkin of Pallass walked forwards, his head on a swivel. And it might have been nothing. But Erin had a premonition. She knew the Sinew Magus. And sure enough—he stopped as his head found one person in the chaos of it all.
Ryoka Griffin. The huge Drake folded his arms and looked past her in less than a moment. But Erin had seen his eyes linger because she’d been watching him. She did not see Lady Salkis take one look at Ryoka and practically dive back through the door to Pallass. She did not see Troy and Leon on the other side, waiting for the next group of Pallass’ dignitaries to come through.
The thing that Erin had forgotten was that her great friend, Ryoka Griffin, was back. And if Erin had a tendency towards great events, both bad and good—Ryoka Griffin?
She just tended to bring trouble.
Lism woke up to the chanting from outside and stared blankly ahead. Time was, he’d have been part of the crowd demanding justice from a Councilmember. Who had decided it was a good idea to bully political figures in person? Oh—right. His campaign.
For a second, the Drake just stared blearily ahead. Then he felt the warm, furry shape next to him move and had a sudden burst of adrenaline and panic.
“Scale splinters. Krshia, wake up!”
He shook the Gnoll and heard a growl.
“What is it?”
“We have protestors!”
It took the other [Shopkeeper] a second to understand what the issue was. Then Krshia’s head shot up.
Protestors. Complaining about the Raskghar. Wanting justice. Perfectly understandable. Lism was on their side. Krshia? She’d go down there and shake claws and paws and tell them justice would be served.
The issue was if they both came out of Lism’s apartment. Together. And there were Gnolls and Drakes down there.
Lism’s mind went blank. But Krshia was already moving. She grabbed her clothing, looking around the room, and cursed.
“Where’s my bag of holding?”
“Over there? No, wait…”
Lism fumbled about. He was slow in the mornings, but Krshia was too youthful for her age. She had her bag of holding and was tearing through it in a moment. She found a vial, poured a bit of the liquid around on her clothing, and then splashed Lism with it.
“What are you doing?”
He blinked at her stupidly as the liquid ran down his face and front.
“Scent-destroying potion, you idiot, Lism! Put some fresh clothes on, and take a rinse! Wear some old clothing, even, that hasn’t been washed!”
She hissed at him as she hunted around. Lism took a moment to rub at his face.
“No we’re not. Stop panicking.”
Lism wasn’t panicking. He’d looked at it from all angles. He tapped Krshia on the back.
“Krshia—there’s no back way out of my apartments. Even if you were a [Thief]—they’d see you jump out the window.”
She ignored that.
“We’ll meet at City Hall. I have to meet this Hectval delegation. Stop panicking, Lism. I have this contained, yes?”
“There’s no access to the sewers either, Krshia. Look—I’ll go out there and try to talk to them. They’ll disperse after a while—you slip away when no one’s watching. Maybe—maybe I can get that Human to cause a distraction…”
“Lism. Don’t be an idiot. Do you think I didn’t think of this possibility? I am prepared. I’ll see you at City Hall.”
He stared at her. She had her clothes on, and now she pulled something out of her bag of holding. It was…a scroll.
She rolled her eyes.
“I knew you wouldn’t think of a backup plan.”
The Drake’s jaw dropped. He saw Krshia unfurl the scroll and the pre-programmed coordinates made her fur light up. It wasn’t a high-quality one—so the two stared at each other for nearly half a minute as light began to draw a circle around Krshia on the floor.
“Er…that’s very well thought out, Krshia.”
“It’s basic thinking, Lism. Speaking of which—do you have anything of Alonna’s? Or another female Drake? A Gnoll would be even better. Rub it on your clothing—just in case—”
Pop. She vanished. Lism stared at the spot Krshia had been, finally waking up and shaking off the dread that had engulfed him.
She had a plan. No wonder she’d wanted to buy something from that Minotauress and been so happy about having a [Spellscribe] in the city! Lism breathed again. That was Krshia Silverfang for you. Had backup plans for when things went south.
That was why he liked her. Lism began to hum under his breath as he hunted for clothing and checked his reflection for dead scales. Then he went out and became Councilmember Lism.
When Liscor’s Council met that day, they had a lot to do. So they had a working breakfast. Jeiss and Alonna gave Lism a long look after he arrived last, Elirr having beaten him by a few seconds.
“Sorry, protestors caught me. I assume all of you had the same issue?”
“They found me when I was taking my kids to the park. I had to call for backup.”
Jeiss muttered. He looked at Krshia, who muttered something in the affirmative. Alonna stared at Lism for a long moment.
“They uh—got to my apartment as well. Glad you and Krshia…and Elirr and everyone else made it out.”
Lism was still somewhat distracted, so he missed the note in her voice. Krshia—did not. She gave Raekea a swift look—the Gnoll had her face in her paws.
The secret was out. At least—to everyone but Tismel and Zalaiss. The two Drakes looked rather pleased with themselves, which was unusual, but Lism conceded they’d done actual work yesterday.
“Elirr? Raekea? How’d you fare?”
Raekea seemed fine, if a bit heated for some reason. But the [Beast Trainer] looked well and truly rattled.
“I had er—protestors at my shop. Scared myself and Hexel to death. We were going over plans for the city.”
“That’s working at all hours. I’m sorry they bothered you.”
Lism was impressed by Elirr’s dedication. The Gnoll exhaled.
“Yes, work. Not at all startling to have two dozen people banging on your door demanding justice.”
“Well, it’s a valid concern. The Raskghar situation and the delegation from Hectval—we’ve made splendid progress on both sides. Should we recap and break? Who wants to go first?”
The Council began to eat and talk and catch the other side up on what had happened. Lism rubbed his claws together as he heard about Pallass.
“Raskghar contained in Pallass’ prison by the Grand Strategist himself? That’s fine work! That damn H—Miss Erin Solstice really pulled through for us. We should commend her. Later. When this is all done.”
Krshia eyed Lism, but he was in a munificent mood. It really was a neat solution. Raekea nodded.
“Well, Pallass wants to talk on the issue. But we can combine that with our second problem. Or not a problem? I hear the delegation was far more…amenable yesterday. It was a grand success of a reception, yes?”
The four Councilmembers nodded proudly. Alonna, Lism, Tismel, and Zalaiss had nothing but good things to say about their interactions.
“I think they had the wrong impression of us, I really do. The Scalespeaker—Yisht—was nothing but cordial to us. Beyond cordial. The drink might have had something to do with that, but we really impressed them—and Pallass—with that reception. I’m hoping Miss Maviola can help us repeat the stunt.”
The others nodded. Lism felt a surge of excitement as he nodded around the table. Of course, he and Krshia had caught each other up yesterday at dinner so part of it was pretense. But it really felt like everything was coming up Lism, for once.
“I suggest we put together a second gathering with Miss Maviola. City Hall—we’re practically still decorated. Hectval’s actually sending us gifts—we should all go together. Hammer out whatever issue with the Raskghar there is and reassure the crowd, and make this a success. Let’s invite Grand Strategist Chaldion to join us if he’s available, or talk to some [Senators].”
Everyone nodded. The Council seemed energized, ready to work. Lism was eager for another reason as well.
“I really didn’t have as much time to socialize with Hectval’s delegation. Alonna, Tismel, Zalaiss, you had the most time to talk to them while we were rushing around getting the party ready. Any issues?”
Alonna hesitated. And her frown was the only one at the Council’s as she glanced at Tismel and Zalaiss.
“It—could be tricky, Lism. I got an interesting vibe from them…”
“I for one found them perfectly sociable. A bit standoffish and touchy—but just don’t insult their city.”
Tismel burst out. Zalaiss nodded repeatedly.
“They were really taken with you, Lism. I say—it’s all going to work well.”
“Really? Me? Well, then, we’d better meet with them.”
Lism preened a bit. He missed the look Alonna was trying to give him. And his good mood lasted right up until the Council descended from the upper floors as one body. Eight Councilmembers, the ruling body of Liscor. They heard chanting from outside, but the reception area of the City Hall was already filled.
People from Pallass were milling about. Hectval’s delegation was already here. So were Gold-rank adventurers, [Senators]…Lism blinked.
“They’re here already? And…eating?”
Indeed, the tables were set. There were servers—not the ones that had been hired yesterday, but looking decidedly more sharp and expensive, circulating offering extremely rich food. But not Maviola’s budget-finery. This was…Lism stared.
“Ah, Councilmembers! We’re back. And we decided we’d set up a second gathering so we could discuss this Raskghar situation. Don’t worry—we brought our own dishes. We do know how to set up a good event, although you did well yourselves.”
A quartet of [Senators] walked over. Lism recognized Errif, the Gnoll [Senator] from the Assembly of Crafts, two Drakes, and a Dullahan. They wore big smiles, looked quite happy to be here…
And bugged Lism’s instinctual warning-sense instantly. He looked for the Scalespeaker and saw him staring at the group, sipping coolly from a glass. Not nearly as jovial as yesterday. But he gave Lism a nod. There was hope there.
From the [Senators]? Krshia nodded to Errif who gave her and the Gnolls a smile.
“We’re delighted you enjoyed our reception yesterday, [Senators]. But what brings you today? We did not call for a second gathering, although we had planned to.”
The Drake smiled as he clasped his claws over Krshia’s.
“Ah, Miss Silverfang. It seems we then simply preempted the order of events! We just though this was a good chance to discuss issues of state while having a genial time, don’t you?”
The [Senators] smiled. Lism saw more dignitaries milling about, talking—but he intrinsically felt that they should have been invited.
“On the Raskghar issue?”
Jeiss looked bugged by the unexpected event as well. The Senior Guardsman raised an eyebrow as the [Senators] all chuckled. The Drake nodded.
“Of course, Councilmember. We wanted to assure you that Grand Strategist Chaldion has them well-secured. Of course, we’ve moved along the interrogation and trials—I understand he’s going through them right now. Once we’ve determined the guilty portion, they can be executed in Pallass—even televised, perhaps?—or we can arrange it at Liscor. We’ll even provide the [Executioner] as we understand Liscor lacks one.”
The Council stirred. They all felt it. That was what they wanted, but…Alonna frowned.
“Guilty portion? So there will be Raskghar that will not be executed?”
It was what Zevara wanted. The Drake [Senator] coughed into a fist.
“Naturally not, Councilmember. There are children among them. Young. We’ll see to them, don’t you worry. Grand Strategist Chaldion had already made some recommendations, as have our [Generals].”
Elirr echoed the word faintly. Lism was staring at the [Senators] now. Just waiting for the ball to drop, like a shady [Trader] who was about to hand you his bill for expenses incurred.
The [Senator] nodded.
“For the surviving Raskghar, of course. We will take custody of them. Only naturally, as Pallass has taken command of the situation. Some will of course have to go with Senator Errif to the Meeting of Tribes. But the rest? Pallass can find a place for them. We are a multi-species city.”
The brass penny dropped. Lism’s eyes narrowed as the Council stirred.
“Taken command? But they’re our prisoners. Ours to decide what to do with, with Pallass’ help. Isn’t that right?”
The Pallassian [Senators] chuckled. And while they said something else entirely—their eyes winked at Lism.
The war council was made up of a very select number of Pallass’ most high-ranking military leaders. As those who understood Pallass knew—there was the Assembly of Crafts. And then there was the inner group of a few [Senators], the Grand Strategist, [Generals], and so on who did what needed to be done.
It was the most effective method of implementing a democracy that the Walled City had settled on during its long history. Of course—it relied on strong leadership, so the inner workings of Pallass’ military had evolved around the same principle.
Pallass had multiple armies. Each one with a specialty, a [General], and a goal. For instance—1st Army was always stationed in the Walled City. It was made up of Pallass’ best who trained and drilled here—often they were sent to other armies for experience such that 1st Army was always cycling in a mix of new, promising candidates for training and receiving veterans who got guard-duty in the city as an unofficial break and reward.
There was 2nd Army, whose purpose was explicitly foreign affairs, campaigns abroad. The former 3rd Army which had been destroyed under Thrissiam Blackwing—monster slayers which could take on Adult Creler nests and the like.
4th Army under Edellein Blackwing was more specialized towards resource-acquisition. They could move fast, secure spots in inter-city conflicts, lay ambushes…their unofficial designation was ‘Pallass’ Bandits’ by other cities. Edellein disliked the term immensely. After all, he was 4th [General] of Pallass!
Each [General] had a seniority based on their army position. In truth, 2nd Army’s [General] was probably their best as 1st Army’s [General], the Dullahan, Duln, was always in the city. But you could generally assume there was a ranking based on levels.
And trust. So in that sense, Edellein was the 4th most trusted and highly-leveled [General] of the eight armies. Really, there should have been nine to match Pallass’ floors, but the last army had been a hypothetical for decades; there was a limit to the amount of forces even Pallass, home to millions, could support.
“—exceptional strength and agility despite their size. If Captain Bevussa’s report is to be understood, Raskghar exceed all but Level 30 Gnolls in combat ability during a full moon. With the right Skills, you could…match them at lower levels.”
It wasn’t just [Generals] in the room with just over a dozen members of the inner council. Edellein felt alone without his aides, but they were not permitted here. It was a [Veteran Strategist] who was giving the report—a Drake in his late fifties.
Of course, that was nothing compared to the venerable Grand Strategist himself who tapped a claw on the table.
“Awakened Raskghar. There’s a difference. Regular Raskghar are around a Level 15 Gnoll [Warrior] unless it’s a full moon. With their increased abilities, Level 20 at best. And with Skills, I’d give it to a Level 20 Gnoll if they have time to use a Skill.”
The [Veteran Strategist], duly chastened, ducked his head. And one of the [Generals] cleared his throat.
“Even so, they’re a valuable asset.”
Represented among the [Generals] were Duln, Edellein, and the newly-minted General Shirka of 3rd Army. Edellein had resented her being promoted over him; he’d felt he deserved to have his army moved up the ranking. But High Command had wanted another Drake, and chosen her.
She was…competent. Fought in some extreme campaigns and recruited to Pallass oh, eight years back. But Chaldion had to have really trusted her to make her 3rd [General].
Edellein sat back as the inner council debated.
“Heavy troopers. No Skills means they’re inherently weaker and won’t level. But they can go into fighting without needing to level. There’s an advantage there. Is that the plan, Grand Strategist?”
“First the sentencing. I have promised to hold the Raskghar accountable. Those guilty will be executed publically—our [Interrogators] are deciding guilt.”
“Why not just choose a third of them and save the most promising candidates?”
Edellein murmured. He was rewarded with a few quiet nods. But Chaldion looked pointedly at the Drake.
“Our relationship with Liscor is one I wish to keep harmonious, General Edellein. It is a strategic asset.”
In what way? Some of the [Generals] looked knowing. Edellein was just blank. That damn Bird the Hunter had come from Liscor. But he wasn’t always posted in Pallass and his information was sometimes lacking. He tried to keep the same look on his face as some of the other’s.
“The issue, as I see it, is that none of the Gnoll [Soldiers] or tribes will accept Raskghar easily, Grand Strategist.”
Edellein scowled. Shirka was no stranger to voicing her opinions despite her relative inexperience to her post. Mind you—she was doing it quite formally, but he still didn’t like the ease with which she kept talking. Chaldion however just nodded.
“Pallass would have to demonstrate their safe containment. Or civilization, General Shirka. The question is whether they can act as [Soldiers] or whether they’re naturally inclined to kill other Gnolls. General Duln will have responsibility for that.”
All eyes turned to the Dullahan. He was 1st General, remarkable for being a non-Drake—there were few Gnolls in the inner war council, even. He adjusted his head as he spoke.
“We’ll put the young through military training once their numbers replenish. Discipline will tell us how they react. It might be a complete failure as a program, but it’s a worthwhile investment.”
The military leaders nodded. It wouldn’t be easy, and it might take years and countless gold pieces to train the Raskghar—and that was if they were a suitable addition to the Walled City’s forces. But it was an expense they would sign off on in a moment for an edge in the future.
“But the Gnolls have sworn to kill Raskghar. I wish we had 8th Army’s consultation on this. The diplomatic repercussions could be—severe. The Tribes could see this as an extremely hostile threat if we don’t address the matter.”
Another Drake [Strategist] muttered. 8th Army’s [General] was a Gnoll. The only two Gnolls were 7th and 8th army’s. It was General Duln who replied calmly.
“The Walled Cities clashed with the tribes quite often before the Antinium wars. We have used unorthodox methods before—”
Chaldion snapped. The Dullahan suddenly fell silent. Edellein had been playing with a quill and looked up suddenly. It didn’t sound like anything special. But from the way the Dullahan nodded his head and sealed his lips—that had been a slip of the tongue.
“Your meaning, General Duln?”
Shirka glanced at the Dullahan and then the oldest active [Strategist]. Chaldion met the younger [General]’s gaze.
“That is classified, General Shirka.”
The [General] instantly saluted. But Edellein sat up even further. Classified to 3rd [General]? Or…was it because he and the others were here? He saw a few of the other inner war council shift a bit as they realized there was an even more inner ring to the secret group.
Well, that was how such things went. Edellein was interested in the Raskghar. On paper, they were fascinating. And that was because it was all they were to him. He had read the reports about their attacks on Liscor. It wasn’t personal to him.
Liscor’s Council was fuming. Pallass and Liscor. They’d had this interaction before, but it seemed Pallass hadn’t learned. Or—they thought there was nothing to learn.
The Walled City kept sweeping in and saying ‘this is how we’ll do it’. The Raskghar? They’d helped Liscor by taking the matter out of Liscor’s hands. Pallass was going to decide their fate.
It made Lism furious. Especially after he’d told that Drake [Senator]—Senator Wishill, one of the Assembly of Craft’s members with the longest careers and arguably, most influence—that it wasn’t Pallass’ decision alone.
“It was our city who accepted the Raskghar’s surrender, Senator. And Liscor and Pallass are allied—”
Every Pallassian in earshot had laughed. Laughed! Mostly Drakes, with only a handful of Gnolls, Garuda, or Dullahans—representative of the Walled City’s population in large. And Wishill had given Lism a superior look as he chuckled a reply.
“Allies, Councilmember? I’m terribly sorry if you’ve had the wrong impression, but Pallass is not—allies with Liscor. We’ve certainly had mutually beneficial relationships but—we’re allies with Manus and Zeres. Excuse me. I couldn’t help but chuckle.”
It was a reminder that they didn’t know inter-city politics, at least, among the Drakes. Honestly, Liscor’s Council knew more about Celum’s politics than Drake cities. And Lism had inadvertently referred to a formal alliance between cities written via magical treaty, which they certainly did not have.
Their [Negotiator], Teliv, explained this all in a hurried rush. Lism tried not to show his fury with his lashing tail. Alonna was doing just as poor a job. Ironically, it was Tismel and Zalaiss who were the ones in-the-know here.
“Bit of a faux pas, Lism. But we can get over it. Is the Raskghar issue that large?”
Zalaiss murmured as she looked at the other dignitaries.
Lism, Krshia, Elirr, Jeiss, and Raekea all snapped as one. Zalaiss recoiled. Teliv wrung his claws.
“It’ll be hard, Councilmembers. Pallass has the Raskghar now, and you know what they say about possession.”
“It’s mine, back off?”
Jeiss muttered. Teliv nodded. Drakes had a different saying than Humans. He glanced at the Council and cleared his throat.
“Not that I don’t think it wasn’t necessary given the—the security situation, but diplomatically, it wasn’t the best move if we wanted to control the Raskghar’s fate…”
Lism closed his eyes. It was not her fault. It wasn’t! She’d solved the problem. It was just—it was sort of Erin Solstice’s fault.
“What are our options, Teliv?”
The [Negotiator] bit his lip.
“I’m uh—going to be honest, Councilmembers. I’m out of my depth here. We have a room full of [Senators], which have Skills like mine—but they out-level and outclass me. As I see it, Liscor has no real levels on Pallass anyway.”
That was true. Lism gnashed his teeth.
“So we just have to take it?”
“Not entirely. There is…a way to lean on a Walled City. And that would be…”
The Drake shot a covert nod at a frosty group on the edges of Pallass’ convivial conversations with all the other hobnobbers and adventurers who’d come along with the dignitaries. Lism’s eyes sharpened.
Hectval. Of course! If a Walled City wanted to stomp around, smaller Drake cities could check them. Even he knew that. That was how Zel Shivertail had clashed with Wall Lord Ilvriss of Salazsar way back when. An alliance of Drake cities had been at odds with the Walled City and even gotten Salazsar to back down after a fight.
Not that it needed to come to that. Lism adjusted his clothing and looked at the others.
“It seems our route is clear then. Councilmembers? Time to spend some of that goodwill.”
The others nodded, perking up a bit. Krshia nudged them, speaking quietly.
“Covertly though, yes? Let’s make friends first. Then ask for favors. Test the waters.”
“Good point. Good point. Hear that? No one bring up Pallass just yet. Let’s just walk over—Teliv, how do we proceed?”
“Okay, if you’re talking to the Scalespeaker, you should address them as ‘Scalespeaker’—not by any other title. There’s a seniority in Hectval’s members. That Drake is second, so address her after Scalespeaker Yisht—”
Teliv’s urgent crash-course in formalities resulted in the Council walking over as one unit to Hectval’s delegation four minutes later.
“Scalespeaker! Delighted to be speaking again. Councilmember Lism, at your service. And this time I’m quite pleased to present the rest of the Council.”
And again—they ran into hiccups of an unexpected nature. Hectval’s delegation was nine Drakes standing together with about five Gnolls…although Lism wondered if there was something odd there…but he hadn’t had the same opportunity to talk as Alonna, Tismel, and Zalaiss had.
He expected Yisht to be as friendly as he had been yesterday, if not quite as drunk. But the Scalespeaker took Lism’s claw, shook it once, and then nodded at the rest of the Council.
“In the name of Hectval, I greet you, Liscor’s Council. Your welcome to Liscor has been quite pleasant, thank you. I hope we’ll have time to mingle.”
Lism blinked as the others lined up for handshakes hesitated. The others of Hectval’s delegation murmured greeting, giving very formal bows or even a military salute accompanied by a tail-slap on the floor—some of the Pallassian [Senators] looked quite amused.
No love lost between Hectval and Pallass it seemed. But what was with this frosty reception? Lism tried again.
“Here’s Councilmember Krshia, Scalespeaker Yisht. I was hoping we could chat privately.”
The Drake’s eyes flicked towards Lism. He had his claw clasped to one arm and a drink in the other. He missed the opportunity to take Krshia’s paw, and nodded at her as she lowered it and glanced at Lism.
“Privately, yes, perhaps, Councilmembers. A pleasure, Councilmember Krshia.”
“I as well, Scalespeaker. It is a delight that you find Liscor so hospitable.”
And what did you do with that? Lism saw Krshia try to engage Yisht and he stepped back a second to get himself a drink. Because he needed one and to figure out what the heck was happening? First they were unpleasant, then they were best friends and today they were frosty again!
Was Hectval’s delegation made up of Drakes whose mood changed every other day? Because if so, Lism would rather kick everyone out of here, romance that strange Gnoll he’d somehow found himself liking all of a sudden, and try again tomorrow. Krshia Silverfang was better company than every damn person here even when they’d been at each other’s throats. At least they’d been fellow [Shopkeepers].
“What is going on with Hectval’s delegation, Lism? You said they were friendly! That Drake nearly froze me with her eyes!”
Raekea muttered to Lism as he busied himself at a fancy Pallassian table—and noticed they’d already begun copying Maviola’s technique. Glittering flakes of gold floated on top of his wine. He wondered if he could scoop it out and save it. It had to be worth…
“I have no idea, Raekea. Alonna, Tismel, and Zalaiss might know more. Let’s just be sociable.”
“I see some of the Gnolls with them are hanging back. I’ll see if they’re more forthcoming between us.”
Raekea nodded and Lism peered at the less expensively-dressed Gnolls standing at the back.
“Yes, do that.”
He went over to reengage with the fortitude of wine. It didn’t take long for both Lism and the rest of the Council to find out what was causing the standoffishness. Although the way each member found out was…different.
Erin Solstice watched Grimalkin out of the corner of her eye. The Pallassian mob had come and gone, but more people were still circulating around the inn, and staying, including the Sinew Magus.
He claimed he was here to just check on the weights room’s records when she’d come over and asked, innocently, but Erin had seen the look he’d given Ryoka for just a moment. You could doubt yourself—but Erin felt she was right.
She was waiting for him to pounce. In the meantime, Erin was attending to the needs of her inn. And right now, her job was making sure her guests had a great time.
“The Players are all in this Council business?”
Salamani was disappointed to learn that. Erin smiled.
“It’s about them going to Pallass and acting! Listen—don’t worry! Kilkran and some of the others are in Invrisil. And when Jasi, Emme, Wesle, Yimur, Jexam, and Temile get back, I’ll introduce you to all of them!”
The six were the ones chosen to be the negotiating team. Mainly five to back up Emme—Jasi, Jexam and Yimur as the Gnolls and Drakes and Wesle and Temile as the invested Humans.
“And you can get them to meet with us? And—maybe get autographs? Ryoka, have you heard of them? You get their signature—it’s worth gold.”
The City Runner raised her eyebrows at Fierre and her lips wiggled. She was trying not to laugh as Mrsha tugged on her hand—she wanted Ryoka to meet the Fortress Beavers!
“I may have heard of that, Fierre. And uh—I don’t think Erin will have a problem. It’s not an exaggeration when they say the Players owe Erin everything.”
The Courier and Vampire stared accusingly at Erin. She laughed.
“Sure! Autographs, whatever! They’ll be happy. They’re great people. In fact—they’ve been bugging me for ages to visit the booth with my name on it. Since Tritel and Ci aren’t here to use it—that’s how I paid them—we could watch a play, maybe.”
Ryoka tripped and whirled and had to drag Mrsha back over.
“Erin. You have a booth in their theatre?”
That required another explanation about the Players trying to give her money and invite her to fancy things. Ryoka massaged her brow.
“So, the Players of Celum owe you a favor and you don’t want to even visit the booth named after you? Or—accept money from them? Or see them perform?”
Well, when she said it like that it sounded silly. Erin solemnly put her hand on Ryoka’s shoulder and looked up at her friend.
“Y’know, Ryoka, it’s like this. Plays are cool. Plays are good and fun and stuff. But I don’t live for them. I can see them like…once every few months? Half a year? Really glad it’s taken off for the Players of Celum, but I taught them most of the plays.”
“You don’t live for…you started it! And why don’t you want gold? They have to earn…”
Lyonette nodded fervently, suddenly all on Ryoka’s side. Erin shrugged helplessly.
“But it’s theirs, Ryoka. I just gave them a jump-start. Besides, I don’t need gold. Lyonette and the inn want gold, but I prefer to hold onto my favors.”
Ryoka turned to Lyonette. The [Princess] looked like she wanted to cry.
“So you just gave the Players…help…just because you wanted to be nice. And you don’t want gold or…anything else?”
The [Innkeeper] gave Ryoka a big thumbs-up and a smile. Ryoka wanted to smack her hand down.
“Yeah, because it was cool. I don’t lift weights all day either. Say—have you seen the weights room?”
The Runner’s face went blank. Erin hesitated as she realized Ryoka hadn’t visited the weights room.
“…Which isn’t that big a deal. And uh—totally hasn’t spread to other cities and stuff…”
She edged back as Ryoka gave her a long, accusatory look. It was Lyonette du Marquin who swooped in with the save by stabbing Ryoka through the back.
“It’s still not as bad as giving someone trebuchets, anyways.”
Ryoka actually staggered for a second as the [Princess] murmured on the pretense of cleaning more avocado off Mrsha’s fur. The Gnoll wiggled free and pulled at Ryoka’s hand. Okay, weights room first, then beavers!
Fierre and Salamani had to see this as well. Erin led them down the hallway, chattering all the while.
“Okay, so it’s sort of smelly despite the air-freshening charm we bought. Actually—we had to buy one because whew do people sweat! But we keep it clean and it’s a real hit—”
Ryoka stared at the weights set in the room and the regulars here. Menolit, Relc, before he’d left, a number of [Guards]—
And Numbtongue, Bezale, two of the [Actors]…it was a damned weights room like from Earth! True, it lacked some of the polish—it didn’t have the more clinical look since it was wooden floorboards Ryoka would have expected, and it was lacking a lot of the much more complicated workout devices Erin didn’t know or have the expertise to explain.
But look at it. Erin hid behind Mrsha by lifting her up in her arms and grinning nervously.
“It’s uh—a big hit. Lots of good sales on drinks afterwards. And um—there’s even a lifting list! See?”
She pointed. Ryoka turned and saw the sheet that listed weight-gains. By now, Grimalkin’s little competition had taken on a life of its own among those dedicated to this new thing. And with the lists of max-lifts by gender and species and location posted there each week was the inn’s list. Ryoka read a little note on the top written by Erin.
New rule! You have to have someone witness your lift! Any record-breaking lift must be witnessed under truth spell by the Mage’s Guild. Have fun! Don’t get hurt!
And the lifts. Ryoka stared at the numbers. She was both impressed and shocked. Impressed because the average weight lifted across both genders was high. And yet—the record-breaking five hundred pound lift from Ulta? Lower than Earth’s world record.
“…Probably depends on form. This is insane.”
“Is that a lot of weight? What is this, Ryoka? I heard there was a buzz about some competition between House Ulta and the Walled Cities, but it was this? It was all numbers and lifting things—very confusing.”
Fierre squinted at the list. Ryoka tried to explain.
“It’s how much you can lift in one go. You see? So this number means that someone on the bench press can lift…two hundred and eighteen pounds. Wow.”
She stared at Krshia’s lift weight. And she wasn’t even a [Warrior], just a shopkeeper! Fierre frowned.
“Is that a lot?”
“Yes! Most people can’t do more than…”
Ryoka didn’t remember averages, but she was 218% positive that she…probably…couldn’t break two hundred pounds on the bench press. Even with the magical gains she’d noticed since coming to this world.
“I could probably break that.”
The Vampire girl grinned. Salamani raised his brows.
“I’d love to try that too, actually. It sounds like fun. Do they allow magic?”
“Not for the list. And you can uh, lift two hundred pounds, Fierre?”
Erin stared at Fierre, who was about as tall as she was, and looked thin even with her clothing on. Fierre gave her a blank look.
“Two hundred pounds doesn’t sound like much.”
Half of the gym, including Mrsha, gave Fierre a wrathful look. Well—some of the dedicated [Lifters] were approving. Ryoka put one arm around Fierre and dragged her friend back.
“Hah. What a joker you are, Fierre. That’s obviously too heavy.”
Erin gave Fierre a long look as the Vampire girl hesitated.
“Um. Yeah. I’ll try it later.”
She gave Ryoka a significant look and the City Runner groaned. Well, if the inn was empty, Fierre could break as many records as she liked.
“I’ll try it. How do I do it?”
“Ah! Wipe down the stuff first. Everyone’s complaining about sweat and stuff.”
The Mage Runner obliged Erin—gym etiquette was another developing front that Erin had no interest in. Ryoka walked over.
“Okay, you just position your hands here and here, Salamani. You always want a spotter—I’ll help you lift it up. See? We’ll do it without weights first—always make sure it’s secured. And you want to bring it down, right here without…”
She actually knew how you worked out. Erin snapped her fingers. She’d forgotten she needed to make up a flier that educated people on basic workout techniques! There had been accidents—thankfully all healable with potions, but she didn’t want someone to smash their foot with a weight or something.
“Be right back! Mrsha, what are you doing?”
The Gnoll was doing a bicep curl with a tiny, five pound weight. She flexed an arm at Erin. What did it look like? Erin rolled her eyes and laughed as she went to get some writing materials.
When she came back, Grimalkin was there. The Sinew Magus was watching Ryoka educate some of the other lifters on weights. Erin stopped in her tracks.
“Your friend knows a lot about weights. I haven’t seen her around often, though. This must be Ryoka Griffin. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt. I remember meeting her around the time Grand Magus Eldavin arrived here, but I was distracted.”
Erin halted in her tracks as the Drake turned his head. Even the other lifters were eying him—Grimalkin had more neck muscle than some of them had in their arms.
“Uh…yeah, that’s Ryoka, Grimalkin. She’s a friend. Comes here all the time. You just missed her. I mean, she came before the door to Pallass existed.”
“Interesting. She’s quite knowledgeable. I’d love to talk with her. It seems she—and you—both know about weights.”
“Who, Ryoka? Well, she’s a know-it-all. Knows all about—what’s it’s all about.”
Erin’s mouth went dry. Why was she nervous? Perhaps because she’d done this dance with Grimalkin for a while. But he’d never seemed so—focused as now. Ryoka looked up; she could hardly have missed Grimalkin. Erin opened her eyes wide.
“Really? And does she come from—your home? If she knows all about weights.”
Something had changed. The Sinew Magus had gone from ‘questioning’ straight to—knowing. He looked calmly at Erin. Then he walked over.
“Hello there. Miss Ryoka Griffin, isn’t it? Magus Grimalkin. I think we’ve met. Do you have a moment?”
Fierre and Salamani looked up. Another big name had entered the inn. But Ryoka saw Erin waving her arms in a panic-signal and looked at the Drake. Slowly, she stepped back.
“—Sure. What about?”
Her heartbeat picked up as she saw the Drake study her. Ryoka was braced for anything—then Grimalkin struck her shoulder with a claw like a hammer.
“Wait a second—what magnificent musculature. You—young lady, you’re a Runner, aren’t you? Excellent form! Splendid distribution of muscle fiber! How do you keep yourself fit? The leg muscles I can see, but you’ve kept your upper body in good condition too…although I see a slight deterioration of muscle-to-fat. Well, with these weight rooms we can put you back in physical shape. And you have a strong core…”
Erin, Ryoka, Fierre, Salamani—everyone stared as Grimalkin began inspecting Ryoka’s arms and legs, completely distracted from his purpose for a moment.
“I. Don’t. Get. It.”
Lism bounced off the third of Hectval’s representatives in the small group with Jeiss and Elirr as if he’d run into a brick wall. The Drakes were just clammed up, making small to no-talk and behaving very frosty. He stepped back.
“What’s up with the Gnolls? Teliv, explain.”
There was some dichotomy there. The [Negotiator] whispered as Lism stood by the drinks table, tail lashing with frustration.
“Not part of the delegation, Councilmember. Helpers.”
No wonder they’d been so skittish when Lism went over to introduce himself. The Drake gave a foul side-long look at Yisht, who was speaking coldly to a Pallassian [Senator].
“Damn. But why are Hectval’s people so standoffish? Pallass I can get—you said Hectval has issues with the Walled City?”
“As much as any city does with a major power in the region. They were perfectly fine yesterday. Maybe…”
Teliv’s eyes flicked towards Tismel and Zalaiss. Lism nodded.
“I’m going to ask what in the name of Rhir’s hells is wrong.”
He left the [Negotiator] and went over to Tismel, who was mired in a group of the Pallassian socialites. And—Lism noted—the Wings of Pallass.
As had been observed, Gold-rank teams, at least, Pallassian teams, were invited to most social events. And they went because it was important to be on the up-and-up with clients. If someone knew your face and thought of you well—they’d hire you over another team even if another team was more qualified or higher-level.
Bevussa Slenderscale was a friend of Liscor’s as far as Lism was concerned, anyways. A Garuda—an outsider—but she’d fought for Liscor, went into the dungeon—he was aware she was the Captain of the Wings of Pallass.
It was an open secret among adventurers and…anyone who spent actual time with the Wings. However, Lism was suddenly reminded that the Wings of Pallas had another, official Captain.
“Captain Zassil, I never got the chance to say this, but your team was inspiring at Pallass. I know you must hear it all the time—but you taking on the Wyverns? Flying with hundreds of them in the city?”
One of the Pallassian Drakes was fawning over the Oldblood Drake standing uncomfortably with Bevussa while the other two Gold-ranks mingled with adventurers in a separate group. Zassil saluted—he had been part of Pallass’ army—and smiled tightly.
“An honor, Miss Reiila. We were just doing our duty as Gold-ranks.”
“How modest! But your team’s so splendid. And you—Miss Bevussa, it’s such a delight to meet you. And may I say you have the most vivid coloration?”
The Drake turned to Bevussa, and, as Lism inserted himself into the group, ran a claw down Bevussa’s arm of colored, bright green feathers sprinkled with white and pink at the very tips.
Bevussa shifted slightly. And her face was a perfect smile.
“You’re too kind, Miss Reiila. It is an honor to serve Pallass, my home.”
“You grew up in Pallass?”
The Drake clicked her tongue in admiration. Lism eyed the Pallassian Drake as she admired Bevussa more. He was no expert on Garuda, but he knew Gnolls. And touching their fur like the way that Drake was touching Bevussa’s feathers was a definite problem.
Bevussa excused herself a moment later to get a drink. The Drake turned to Zassil the moment Bevussa was gone and lowered her voice.
“She is splendid. It’s such an excellent move, Captain, adding her to your team. She must be the sight when your team flies. And of course, having a Garuda on your team must satisfy our Garuda population.”
She smiled brightly, nodding to the one Pallassian Garuda [Senator] among all those in the room. Lism gave the Drake a sidelong look—and Zassil—as he tapped Tismel on the arm.
Zassil’s smile looked a bit strained to Lism as he watched Bevussa go.
“You’re too kind, Miss Reiila. C—Bevussa is an exceptionally talented member of the team.”
“Won’t you tell me more about the battle of Pallass? From your perspective? I’m just dying to know what it was like! I wish I had the Oldblood in me to fly about…it looks so tiring!”
Lism retrieved Tismel. He chose a route back past the Gold-rank adventurers, who had a safety group when they were tired of socializing. Bevussa had her back turned to Reiila—which was good.
Keldrass looked exceptionally uncomfortable as he nodded at Lism. The Councilmember passed them by as the two adventurers stopped talking for a moment. They resumed only when he was out of earshot.
“…want to tear my wing feathers out at every event. Did you see that?”
“I did. Sorry, Bevussa.”
The Oldblood Drake took a long drink and Bevussa did the same. There was a reason the Wings of Pallass had a Drake for a captain, instead of a Garuda. And it was purely rooted in the politics of the city. She took another swallow.
“Just had to take a break. Give me five seconds and then I’ll go back to being the pretty bird adventurer. Gah!”
“You could always beg off being sick…”
“I’ll make a break for it in half an hour. It’s not like it’s easy for the rest of the team…do you enjoy being here?”
“It’s more pleasant. Oldblood—it’s mostly about that. I know it’s harder for…”
The Drake nodded at Bevussa and the few non-Drake and non-Gnoll adventurers in the room. Bevussa shook her head. She hated these kind of events. There was a reason the Halfseekers weren’t here. Well—most high-class Pallassians wouldn’t invite a Selphid to an event like this anyways. She walked back over to her group with a big smile on her beak. If someone plucked a wing feather for a ‘souvenir’ again, she was going to stab someone.
“Tismel, what in the name of the Ancestor’s tails is going on with the Hectval delegation? You said they were all over you!”
The two Drakes stood together, whispering. Lism did not like Tismel. The Drake felt like a ‘yes-Drake’ to him. The Cobbler’s Guild’s Guildmaster…oh, what a prestigious position. Not that [Cobbler] was a bad job—it was just—Tismel. The old Council had nominated him.
But the Drake had pulled his weight yesterday and Lism was willing to give credit where credit was due. And Tismel himself seemed more confident. He sipped from his gold-flake white wine as he responded.
“I thought you handled it well yourself, Lism.”
“Handled what? They were as frosty as a [Cryomancer]’s touch out there! We’re not going to be able to push back on Pallass like this, let alone make a lasting connection!”
The other Drake sighed and looked at Lism.
“It’s Yisht you want. Zalaiss and I worked with him yesterday. He’s more receptive than he let on, Lism. Get him alone. See? Just like you intimated. I’ll keep the rest of the Council from interrupting.”
Yisht was indeed excusing him from another conversation and standing by himself. Lism frowned. Was this some weird covert thing? He eyed Tismel.
“Just me? Why me?”
“Yisht was most taken with you. He knows your history. I could do it—”
Lism straightened, feeling a bit of pride seep back into him.
“No, no. If it’s got to be one of us—I’ll do it. Huh. But why…?”
Tismel didn’t get a chance to answer. He and Lism saw Elirr walk over and Tismel cursed.
“I’ll get Elirr. Just head over!”
He hurried off and grabbed Elirr’s arm. Lism checked himself for wine spots. Okay—he began to stride over. And if Tismel was somehow messing with him, Lism was going to toss him out of the Council’s window the next time they met.
Alonna caught the Drake [Shopkeeper] halfway across the floor. Lism sighed.
“I’m meeting with Scalespeaker Yisht, Alonna. Tismel says he’ll be more damn friendly at last…”
“I’m sure he will.”
The Guildmistress of the Mage’s Guild gave Lism a long look. He stared at her, mystified.
The Drake made an impatient noise and searched Lism’s face. She shook her head.
“Lism, you can’t figure it out? Tismel and Zalaiss were talking you up yesterday. Just—gah. Just figure it out. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, anyways.”
She stalked off, tail moving back and forth. Lism stared at her blankly. Then he walked forwards, grumbling.
“Insane idiots all around. Not a word straight—this is why selling goods is so much preferable to—ah, Scalespeaker Yisht. Do you have a moment!”
“Councilmember Lism. Good of you to finally get to me. Held up, were you?”
And here it was again, Scalespeaker Yisht turned to Lism with a jovial smile. Lism nearly smacked himself on the about-face the Scalespeaker had gone through again.
“Er—yes. You know, doing the rounds? Taking stock—it’s the first sort of reception like this we’ve had and we’re a bit unaccustomed to the company. Especially Pallass.”
He couldn’t suppress the annoyance he felt. Damn, was he being too direct? But Yisht was nodding, a smile on his face. He was a [Diplomat]. But—Ancestors, Lism was tired of being messed about. He’d say his piece and if he couldn’t get results, he’d leave. That was how he did business.
“I heard about that. That business with those Raskghar-monsters, eh? And Pallass has custody of them—a Walled City’s throwing its weight around. As usual.”
“We didn’t have contact with Pallass before—this year, really. Is that customary?”
“The City of Invention making its own rules and inconveniencing smaller cities? My friend—you have no idea.”
The Scalespeaker actually put his arm around Lism and steered him away from Bevussa’s group as they moved around the room at a slow walk. Lism saw Tismel and Zalaiss keeping the rest of the Council busy circulating. Zalaiss winked at him. This was the shot. Lism nodded.
“And what can you do to stop that kind of thing?”
“Make friends, of course. Enough cities put their tail down and even Pallass has to accede. Or it comes to a fight. If it has to be done, it has to be done. The Walled Cities do not rule Izril. We cooperate. I don’t mind telling you this—Liscor’s been away from the rest of Izril for far too long. The road past the Bloodfields? Excellent that you got it done. Splendid work, I must say. I slapped myself when I heard of it.”
Now that was the kind of thing Lism liked to hear. He nodded, and eyed the Scalespeaker.
“I was hoping we could talk about the future of trade between Hectval and Liscor. Now the roads are open—there are countless opportunities, as you must agree.”
“Councilmember, you’re speaking my language. Hectval, Drisshia, Luldem—we’re all close by and we lean on each other for support. Trade, aid in times of crises—this is what Drake cities of similar mindsets give each other. Mind you, the alliance was leery of Liscor. Extremely so. But our beliefs were unfounded, as I told you yesterday.”
“Yes, you did say that. I’m glad we cleared the air. Egg on your face and all that.”
The Scalespeaker laughed out loud, attracting a few looks. Lism saw Krshia staring at him and gave her a small nod. Still—what a change came over Yisht when they were together. The Scalespeaker nodded.
“I can’t promise Liscor will just enter the alliance just like that—your city’s farther off and we don’t know you well. But I like some of what I see. Some. More importantly, I like you, Lism. The right minds on a Council. That’s the ticket. At the very least, we can establish friendly relations here. Warn you about some of the cities you’ll find as trade starts coming up the road.”
“Oh, there are some?”
“Bad eggs. Just rotten to the core. We’ve clashed. And Liscor might. How’s your army?”
“Er…st-strong? But absent.”
Yisht waved that off.
“I know all about Liscor’s army. Don’t worry, I won’t hold them against you. I mean, your Watch Captain’s garrison. Believe me—some of these cities will fight. Pallass too. You need to hold your ground if they start raiding you.”
“Ancestors, will it come to that?”
“You have no idea, my friend. No idea. Drake cities fight with each other. I imagine the Humans are too cowardly to do any attacking due to the treaties except at the Bloodfields. And you can hardly loose an arrow at their army when they go sauntering past the walls.”
It wasn’t how Lism would put it. But he was generally on board and glad that Yisht was telling him all this. Good thing Zevara had expanded the Watch! Did they need to increase the budget? Inter-city wars? Well, he knew they happened…but it hadn’t occurred to Lism that opening the road would expose Liscor to that.
“Er—yes, yes. Scalespeaker, I have to be frank with you.”
“As much as you like, Lism. We have the opportunity in private.”
“Thank you. It’s just—first we meet and Hectval shows up unannounced all of a sudden. Then, the next day, all’s mended. Today? Rather…uncomfortable reception. And now we’re friends again? Is there something I’m missing?”
The Scalespeaker gave Lism a slightly embarrassed look. He stopped and the two Drakes stood next to one of the pillars.
“The first part was my fault. As I said, your people cleared it up. I have to apologize again, Lism—may I call you that? I’d like to be on a names-basis rather than titles.”
“Of course. And today?”
“Well—it’s about presentation, Lism. Presentation. Can’t expect us to smile fully, can you? One-on-one? I’m glad it’s you. Tismel told me all about why you’re our sort of Drake.”
The Scalespeaker patted Lism on the shoulder again. The [Shopkeeper]-[Councilmember] smiled, but he was still. There was Alonna, watching him, Tismel nodding encouragement…
“Your sort exactly how, Yisht?”
Yisht rolled his eyes.
“Your election, of course, Lism! It’s a damned shame what happened. Just—Ancestors, imagine if it happened to Hectval? Well, we take care about that thing. But you did your best. Couldn’t stop it, but you were fighting tooth and claw to keep the Council from being stolen.”
“Yes, by those Gnolls. Three of them on your Council? It’s just as well it’s not a majority. That’s how a city dies. Look at Pallass. They’ve got the armored things and those bird-people—well, it’s about numbers. Still, the Walled City—idiots. We’re happy to consult with you on your problems too.”
Ah. Lism’s mouth opened slightly. And it stayed there as the bag of coins that had been building up finally burst in his head. He stared at Yisht as he stared at Krshia, Elirr, and Raekea.
“We were so leery of the damned Antinium as well—and a Drake city being so near Humans? But it’s people. Good people, doing the right sort of thing. I’ll be telling my Council that. ‘Liscor’s on the brink, but there’s Drakes like Councilmember Lism holding onto decency’. Don’t know how you can stand it, though. I suppose it’s for the good of the city?”
“Y—of—there are Gnolls in your delegation, though?”
That was all Lism could think to say. His mind had gone a bit blank. He said things of course. But Yisht? He was giving a Dullahan [Senator] and Errif a dirty look—no wonder they didn’t even try to socialize if they knew how Hectval’s delegation felt.
Yisht looked astonished. Then he laughed again.
“Dead gods, them? They’re not—those are Paworkers, Lism! Staff! Doesn’t your city have them? It’s the help—you thought we had them in our…? Gah!”
He shook his head, looking amused. Then he eyed Lism’s face.
“Something wrong with your mouth?”
Lism’s jaw had been hanging open the entire time. He looked at Yisht. And at last closed his mouth and tried to smile. Uh oh. Lism…didn’t think Yisht was joking.
He was serious?
Once he had stopped grilling Ryoka about muscles, Grimalkin of Pallass calmed down. And Ryoka found herself in two minds.
Firstly—she sort of liked how completely over the top he was about bodybuilding. She liked that, honestly. Him shouting ‘gonads’ loud enough to make Mrsha start hiccupping and giggling was a highlight of Ryoka’s…year?
But she was also wary of him. Erin kept dancing around when Grimalkin’s back was turned—she was warning Ryoka. The City Runner knew that Grimalkin was a [Sinew Magus] of Pallass. A big name. But it began to click when he brought up his resume.
“I’m a consultant to Pallass’ standing forces. I do fight in wars at need be, but my permanent duties to the city are training—I have my own apprentices as well as Pallass’ [Battlemage] divisions and some divisions whom I personally oversee to ensure they reach their potential. Physical magic, my domain, is an overlooked school of magic I’m trying to bring to the front.”
And Ryoka did see. Military? Pallass. They were having a drink after some lifting. Ryoka’s arms hurt, and Fierre looked put out she couldn’t show off. She and Salamani were checking out the rec room and other parts of the inn.
But Grimalkin had invited Ryoka to have a cup and Erin had done another ‘something bad’ dance before leaving Ryoka. Now Ryoka began to see. But she wasn’t prepared for what came next.
“So you consult with…the army? I’m sorry, Erin mentioned having some famous acquaintances in Pallass.”
“I don’t know if I qualify for that distinction. She might have been referring to Grand Strategist Chaldion, or Saliss of Lights.”
A Grand Strategist and a Named Adventurer. Ryoka choked on her goat’s milk. Grimalkin nodded.
“I do know both—Chaldion professionally, Saliss as an…acquaintance. But I’m far less important than either in many senses. However, I do have my own weight in matters of military command. Which is how I instituted the weights program across the Walled Cities—and even parts of the north.”
“Oh. Wow. And that was with Erin’s help?”
The Drake took a long drink of the goat’s milk he’d ordered.
“Yes. She had a level of knowledge about weights and strength training that no one else I had ever met possessed. Astonishing, really. And you seem to be just as knowledgeable. Even more so, Miss Ryoka.”
Aw. Ryoka kept her face still. She couldn’t do one thing here without giving herself away. Grimalkin went on.
“It’s good that we did meet today, Miss Griffin. I’d quite like to ask you to speak more on those strength training techniques. Other devices…anything you might know.”
“Oh, I’m not an expert, Magus Grimalkin. And I’m uh—rather busy.”
And she was prepared to dance with the ‘Erin and I come from the same place’ routine all day. Right up until Grimalkin looked straight at her.
“I’m aware a City Runner must be, Miss Griffin. Which is why I’m prepared to compensate you for your time. Even offer you a long-standing deal. Residence in Pallass? Any number of things could be possible. Because I am convinced no one in the…world…knows more than you or Miss Erin Solstice.”
And there it was. Ryoka froze at the table. She looked at Grimalkin. The way he just said that—
Unlike Erin, Ryoka had a universal reaction to this kind of encounter. She nearly stood up and ran off. Nearly—the Sinew Magus was watching her.
“I—don’t know what you mean, Sinew Magus.”
“False. I rather do think you know what I mean, Miss Griffin. I don’t like to play games. Let me continue with my offer.”
She stared at him. The Drake’s eyes were locked on her. Ryoka sat at the table and saw—someone else was watching the Sinew Magus from behind. A Centaur looked straight at Ryoka and drew something in the air. The glittering words flashed a second—visible only to Ryoka, seemingly.
Palt gave Ryoka a warning look and hurried off to find Erin. And suddenly, the City Runner was aware of how Grimalkin was looking around.
At her. At Galina, who was talking with the Players on the stage. Rose, who was going over soccer practice with Kevin and Joseph…Troy and Leon, talking over something they’d bought.
“There are a number of astonishing individuals at the inn. Miss Solstice besides—I’ve been hoping to speak to you, Miss Ryoka. And extend the offer. I think you can imagine what it entails, but I’d like you to hear me out. And consider—carefully—what I’m proposing.”
“Whatever you think—I’m not interested. I should—”
Ryoka wanted to stand and walk off. But the huge Drake just shook his head.
“Sit down, Miss Griffin. I’m quite aware of everything. And believe me when I say that it’s all become clear. Besides, Pallass is a world power. Where on Earth would you go that has more to offer than the Walled City?”
Someone. Had. Told. Him. Everything.
Ryoka’s ears were ringing. Truth spell? Grimalkin was speaking and she could barely hear him over the sound in her head. Who? Kevin? Joseph? Rose? Or was it another Earther? Had Erin let it all slip by chance?
She didn’t know. Joseph might give everything away for a bottle of alcohol. Kevin might let it slip by accident—Erin might have just told Grimalkin—the Sinew Magus was watching her.
Truth spell? Ryoka focused on Grimalkin, making herself listen.
“…Pallass could be a fine ally, Miss Griffin. All the city asks is honesty. Information. In return, we can provide security. Safety, resources. Perhaps even a way home, in time.”
“To whichever continent you came from, I meant.”
Oh, he was good. Ryoka glanced around and Grimalkin coughed.
“No one can hear us if that’s what you’re worried about, Miss Griffin. I can be discreet. Or would you like me to be even more plain? I would like you to consider allying with the City of Invention. And believe me when I say it can be more than worth your time.”
He knew. They knew. And the Sinew Magus—he didn’t dance. Even Palt could dance, but Grimalkin went straight in for the kill.
“I…who told you?”
The Drake didn’t even blink as he looked at Ryoka.
“That would be confidential, Miss Griffin. If indeed it was anyone who needed to tell me when the truth sits in this inn.”
He was messing with her. Truth spell. She couldn’t lie. Ryoka took a breath. Suddenly, it felt like Magnolia Reinhart in the old days all over again. Only, he knew. And Ryoka was even less sanguine about Grimalkin than Magnolia Reinhart. One was a scheming [Lady] who could be ruthless and employed killer-assassins, yes. But Grimalkin was military.
“So, what? I tell you what I know and I’m protected?”
“More than that, Miss Griffin. Far more. As I said, Pallass is a city with almost unlimited resources. You needn’t run again. Safety, comfort…perhaps even healing for your injuries. Your hand, for instance.”
She jerked. Her missing fingers curled up at the stumps.
“You could heal my hand? What, do you have a Potion of Regeneration lying about?”
His eyes flickered.
“Magical prostheses could be arranged if not the potion. And depending on the knowledge—value for value is a fair exchange, Miss Griffin. I’m sure you can imagine there are any number of things Pallass would like to learn about. If the knowledge is useful.”
“Like what? Name one thing you don’t have.”
She challenged him. How much did he know? Ryoka was in the weeds now—he knew. She had to believe he knew. So the question was—had someone talked or was it still just educated guesswork and spying?
But the Drake was good.
“It would take a systematic search of our knowledge and yours, Miss Griffin. See where parts don’t line up.”
“You don’t know anything, then.”
“Did I say that? It’s standard doctrine not to reveal the entirety of your knowledge to someone not on your side, Miss Griffin. I would like you to be on ours.”
“Pallass’? Or the Walled Cities in general?”
The Drake paused. Not a single expression.
“That’s a determination you would find out if our talks progressed. Let me ask you a question, Miss Ryoka. Do you think you have anything of value to tell us?”
Ryoka shut her lips. But that was an answer in itself. The truth spell—even if she knew it was on her, Grimalkin could get information out of her. He nodded slightly.
“I’m aware you must be incredibly reluctant, Miss Griffin. But believe me. We aren’t the same as a [Lady] of Izril. Pallass is willing to give you autonomy, trade fairly for information given—or act as protectors. It’s not as binding as—”
Aha. Ryoka bit her inside cheek so hard it began to bleed. He’d slipped. They knew about Magnolia! That meant—it was one of the others from the mansion.
She should have let the [Assassins] get them. Who was it? One? All? Grimalkin concluded.
“—remember that value is time-dependent, Miss Griffin. No offer lasts forever. Far better to ally now than when circumstances might be more pressing.”
The young woman narrowed her eyes. So—they had one or more Earthers. And they clearly wanted to know more. They knew Ryoka was from Earth. But Grimalkin might not know that Palt knew everything if he hadn’t stopped Palt from warning Ryoka. Or maybe whomever was giving away secrets hadn’t given away everything. Or they were just dumb as rocks. What would Grimalkin do if Ryoka said no? That last sentence was ominous.
It was a cliché. But she had to ask.
“Is that a threat?”
“Not from Pallass.”
Another calm retort. Oh, Grimalkin the Sinew Magus was good. But he wasn’t perfect. And Ryoka had met the best in the world. Magnolia Reinhart was charming and sly—Grimalkin was intelligent and direct. And because he was so smart and using magic rather than intuition—Ryoka realized something.
Magnolia Reinhart knew. Wistram knew. It was only a matter of time. But Ryoka felt it. Nations had begun to pick up the scent. Oil and steel on the winds. But if you were going to play this game—
Ryoka Griffin began to laugh. Fierre, peering at Montressa and Bezale, glanced over and saw Ryoka Griffin laughing as Grimalkin stared at her. The conversation they’d been having about weight lifting cut off. The Vampire’s eyes narrowed.
Salamani made the Vampire jump. He was looking between Mons and Beza and at Grimalkin’s illusion spell, which replaced the laughing Ryoka with a smiling, talking one in a heartbeat. He narrowed his eyes.
“What in the name of Baleros have I walked into?”
Fierre wanted to know that too.
It was time to push back. Ryoka calmed down after a second. But the laughter had been genuine. She smiled at Grimalkin. The Drake was eying her suspiciously.
“Something amusing, Miss Griffin?”
“Oh. Nothing. I was just wondering—it’s—Leon, isn’t it? Galina?”
Leon was Ryoka’s first pick. Kevin, Joseph, Rose…lowest on her ranks of suspicion. Same with Imani—Ryoka couldn’t imagine she’d ever talk to strange, muscly Drakes. But Galina, Leon, and Troy had always been the least-happy to leave the mansion.
Grimalkin’s eyes flickered. Ryoka smiled thinly. He could have been lying or that could be genuine. She’d tell Erin.
But if the Drake wanted truth—here it was. Ryoka leaned forwards.
“Whoever it was—they didn’t know a thing about anything valuable, did they? They had a lot of talk, and you probably tested them with truth spells. But half of what they knew was probably them telling you what’s possible. No substance.”
“Whatever we know, Miss Griffin—”
She interrupted him. Put a flaw in this. You just had to sow…doubt.
“I’m not interested, Magus Grimalkin. If you knew half of what I know, you’d be far more wary to even ask. Maybe Pallass has what I want. But—I’m going to warn you for your own good.”
She took a deep breath, trying to suppress the quiver of fear in her voice, sound confident.
“You don’t have the best of us. You had better start asking the right questions. Or do you think we’re all the same? Some of us Humans are idiots. Or bigots. Or just plain wrong about everything, like basic mathematics and medicine. I wouldn’t trust Joseph to set a broken bone. If you’ve got who I think you have—you’ve got an idiot.”
Grimalkin’s eyes were on her. Truth spell. Ryoka grinned with all her teeth.
“You think so? Well then, if you know about Magnolia Reinhart, let me ask you something. Why did she let…other people…go? The Deadly Flower of the North? Let go of an asset that would be worth what you’re offering? Let me spell it out for you: she didn’t. I helped get some kids away because Magnolia let them go.”
The Drake looked uncertain for the first time. He shifted in his seat.
“The conflict with the Circle of Thorns—”
“Bullshit. Magnolia Reinhart has as many resources as Pallass. But she has no use for useless things. Or people.”
Ryoka sat back as the Drake’s muscles tensed a bit. Yeah, that was true. Or true enough, wasn’t it? Who was it? Leon? If it was Leon—then it was Leon and Troy? Look at them sitting there—where had they been this morning?
The wind blew indoors. Ryoka closed her eyes and felt the long-held secret bubbling in her. Someday, everyone would know. For now—it was a relief to look at Grimalkin and laugh. Laugh at the surprise on his face and tell him.
“You know nothing still. Whatever you have—you just have children. Idiots who don’t know a single thing that should terrify you.”
Full Ryoka-cynicism. Full contempt. Full ego and arrogance. Look at me. Tell him it wasn’t enough, what he had, and then run like hell. Because…it was too late. If he had even ideas, he knew what was possible with steel and gunpowder and…
The Sinew Magus looked at Ryoka.
“It seems Pallass should up its offer. Miss Griffin, why don’t we discuss this in a more secure location?”
“Why don’t we not? I don’t think I want what you’re offering, Magus Grimalkin.”
The Drake [Mage] paused.
“Surely we can discuss this. Let me introduce you to Grand Strategist Chaldion. He is in a better position to offer you—”
She had no [Dangersense]. But every instinct in Ryoka’s body told her: do not go to Pallass. She stood up abruptly.
“I think we’re done, Magus, don’t you?”
“I’d rather like to insist.”
Oh shit. He was looking at her. It occurred to Ryoka suddenly—what happened if he just grabbed her and went for the door? No way she could ever get out of a grip. She backed up a bit. The Sinew Magus was very still.
And Erin Solstice tapped him on the back.
“Hey. Grimalkin. Are you bothering Ryoka?”
The Drake turned. Ryoka saw Palt watching from the hallway. Erin was there, dusting her palms off of…black powder? Ryoka’s mind said charcoal dust at first, but it was just flour. Her apron was smudged and Grimalkin stared at her.
“Not at all, Miss Solstice. I was just offering Miss Ryoka—”
“Yeah, it sounds like you were bothering her. Ryoka, is this dude bothering you? He’s pushy, isn’t he?”
Ryoka saw Erin widen her eyes and smile. So the City Runner took a breath.
“I wasn’t—happy with what I heard. Big stuff, Erin. I’d rather go.”
“Mhm. Got it. Why don’t you leave her alone, Grimalkin?”
Grimalkin folded his arms as Erin looked up at Grimalkin. She shook her head.
“And what’s this I hear about Pallass keeping the Raskghar? Olesm came by—he’s really mad. Huh, Grimalkin? Huh?”
She poked him in the chest. Actually poked the Drake who had to weigh three or four times what she did. The Sinew Magus stared down as Erin flexed her stubbed finger and winced.
“You’d have to discuss that with Grand Strategist Chaldion or the [Senators], Erin. I’m simply offering Miss Griffin a choice. The same I’d like to offer—”
“Not interested. You know, Pallass can’t just throw it’s big fat weight around and bully us. And you can’t come into my inn and bully Ryoka, Grimalkin.”
The [Sinew Magus] stared down at the [Innkeeper].
“I am representing Pallass, Miss Solstice. I believe we’ve had this conversation before? Pallass is a Walled City. It is not Liscor or Liscor’s Council. You cannot—”
He should have been more careful. Ryoka Griffin felt like Grimalkin resembled her the first few times she’d come to the inn, in a way. Self-confident—not that it was a bad thing. Intelligent. But perhaps too ready to look down on the silly [Innkeeper] for all he knew what she was.
Ryoka had learned the hard way when Erin had punched her lights out. Erin’s eyes narrowed. She looked around.
“That’s true. Like you keep saying, Grimalkin, buddy, pal, we’re not Pallass. This is humble Liscor, small city and all that. And you’re big guy Grimalkin. [Sinew Magus]! Grimalkin the Fist! Look at me, I’ve got muscles!”
“Would you stop saying that?”
He actually began looking annoyed as Erin began to mock-flex in front of him. Ryoka was trying not to laugh. The [Innkeeper] looked up at him.
“Well, I’ve had it up to here with you, Grimalkin. This ain’t Pallass. But guess what? This is my inn. And if you don’t want to respect my guests—you’re not welcome here. So guess what again? Get out.”
She pointed towards the door. Ryoka’s jaw dropped. So did Grimalkin’s.
“You can’t be serious.”
“Totally am. Get out. Go back to Pallass. And that’s another thing. Pallass is going to let Liscor decide about the Raskghar or…”
The [Sinew Magus] loomed. Erin looked up at him. And that was Grimalkin’s second mistake. Erin wasn’t afraid of him. It was incredible, really. But she wasn’t. Even someone who was ‘not afraid’ of Grimalkin would stare at that amount of muscle and ‘not be nervous’. But Erin?
“You listening, Grimalkin? I said—get out of my inn.”
She put her foot down. And Grimalkin staggered. Ryoka saw his feet move—he took two steps and swung back.
“You can’t kick me out of your inn, Miss Solstice. I believe if there’s debts to be counted—”
The [Innkeeper] turned. The ambient noise in the inn was dying down. Everyone was taking notice.
“Yeah, you’ve helped a lot, Grimalkin. Saved my life, punched Beza over there—but you know what? You can be kind of a jerk. And I’ve kicked out friends before. Actual friends. I said—get out.”
This time Ryoka felt the push as if it were the air. She saw Grimalkin walk back a few steps. Then brace. Whatever was happening, he was fighting it.
“You. Are not in a position to stop me. Aura manipulation can be broken.”
He clenched one fist. Ryoka tensed and saw the duo with the hats slowly slide back behind Grimalkin. His eyes flicked sideways and he went still. But Erin waved at Wilovan and Ratici. She strode up to Grimalkin.
She ignored Palt. Erin prodded Grimalkin in the chest again.
“Oh yeah, I bet that’s true. You could smack me, Grimalkin. So go ahead and do it. Hit me. Because you’re right. You can do whatever you want in this inn by force. Funny thing though. The thing about punching people is they remember. So. Do you want to threaten me again, Grimalkin of Pallass?”
“I wouldn’t, sir. Fair bit of warning. It seems quite ungentlemanly. And unless I’m completely in the wrong, you seem to have overstayed your welcome.”
Wilovan smiled brightly at Grimalkin. The Sinew Magus looked around. And he caught on too late.
“Miss Erin. Consider that Pallass is—”
“Walk back to your city, Grimalkin.”
And he did. Slowly, the [Sinew Magus] turned. He could have punched Erin or used a spell. But she was right. The threat of violence only worked if the other side was afraid it’d happen. And Erin? Grimalkin had two Gentlemen Callers, at least four Wistram [Mages], a Hobgoblin with a sword, and an angry Mrsha who’d all jump on him if he so much as tried.
“So you’ll just throw me out? Is that it?”
The Drake spoke one last time as Erin opened the door and he walked through. He faced her from the other side. Erin gave him a sad look.
“Grimalkin. You’re welcome to come back if you change. I like you. But you’re not a good guest. And guess what?”
“You can’t threaten me with Pallass. Because Pallass? I don’t need it. It’s nice. But it’s not essential. And you? You’re no Zel Shivertail. He was better than you.”
Ryoka winced. And she thought Lyonette—Grimalkin just stared at Erin, poleaxed for once, until she called past him.
“Hey Kel! Guards! Tell Chaldion I want a word. In my inn, now. Please and thank you!”
The guards at the checkpoint stared at Erin.
“You can’t just order—”
That old refrain. Erin cut it down as she shouted.
“Oh yeah? Well, the Grand Strategist can tell me himself that Pallass is taking the Raskghar. And if he doesn’t want to—Pallass can kiss the Players and everything else coming from Liscor and Invrisil goodbye. Because I’ve had it up to here with Pallass being rude! No more of it! This is my inn! You want something? Play nice!”
She held a hand up just above her head. Grimalkin and everyone else stared at it. Was—was that a lot?
Still, one of the [Guards] hadn’t gotten the memo that Erin had just smacked Grimalkin with. He sneered at her.
“You think you can order Pallass around, Miss? We’re a Walled City! We have jurisdiction!”
That was it. Erin Solstice snapped. She pointed at him.
“Really? You and what magic doors?”
So saying, she slammed the door in Grimalkin’s face, reached up, removed the mana stone, and put it in her pocket. Ryoka waited for hammering on the door—or something. But of course—there wouldn’t be.
In the silence, Erin Solstice let out a breath. She was a bit red-faced. But she snapped her fingers as she came to a realization.
“Darn. I should have said ‘I didn’t see your magic teleportation doors lying around.’ No, wait—there’s got to be a snappier comeback.”
“Erin. You can’t just close the door to Pallass.”
Ryoka was aghast. Weren’t there Pallassian [Senators] here? Erin looked at her blankly.
“I can’t? Well, I guess I can’t until everyone goes back through. Good point. I’ll close it after that.”
Montressa and Beza came pushing out the crowd. Erin looked around.
“Yeah. For a day or two. Or I dunno, a week? Unless I get Chaldion.”
“You can’t do that!”
The [Innkeeper] scowled.
“Why not? This is my inn. What’s Pallass going to do, send an army over here? They can walk through the Bloodfields if they want! Nuts to ‘em! To them all! Grah! I’m so mad! Where’s that fancy reception and those jerks? I’m going to have a word with them!”
She stormed out of the inn. Ryoka stood there, open-mouthed. She didn’t miss Troy and Leon whispering to each other, because she was watching for it. The others looked concerned; they looked worried.
Ryoka Griffin cracked her knuckles. She walked through the crowd and saw Fierre and Salamani there. They were staring after Erin.
“Whoa. That’s your friend? She’s like—everything in the stories, Ryoka. She has to be mad!”
“That’s Erin for you.”
The City Runner was smiling. If the City of Inventions wanted to take on Erin Solstice—much love to them. Ryoka had heard her friend had beaten a Dragon. True—at chess, but she’d laughed her ass off and wished someone had taken a video. And if Pallass thought it could beat Erin in a standoff—they clearly didn’t know her yet.
She had a smaller war to fight than Erin. She couldn’t look Grimalkin in the eye and waste him like Erin could. But Ryoka could do important, smaller things.
“Kevin. Psst. Kevin. Rose. We have a problem. I hear there’s a special place where no one can enter?”
Ryoka hadn’t found the Earth-room yet. But she grabbed Kevin and Rose and towed them out of the murmuring crowd. They nodded.
“What’s up, Ryoka?”
She told them. Rose gasped. Kevin’s eyes narrowed. Ryoka nodded.
“Can you bring them? Tell them I have a big announcement or something. I’ll be there in five seconds. Tell Joseph, Imani, Galina, get them, please?”
The two nodded. Ryoka was pleased to see and hear that they were more mature. Yes, you could probably trust them. Kevin, Rose, Joseph, Imani at least. Galina too, probably.
Fierre saw them walking into the Garden with a confused Troy and Leon. She watched Ryoka stretching.
“What are you going to do, Ryoka?”
“Oh—it’s just a short meeting. Sorry, Fierre, but you can’t come. I wish you could—but guess what? I get to punch two of the guests from Magnolia’s mansion.”
The Vampire girl stared after Troy and Leon. She turned to Ryoka.
“Wait. Can I come? Please?”
If Grimalkin wanted to play with Earth—he was going to have to find two more candidates. Ryoka Griffin was about to teach them that thing about loose lips. Loose lips got you punched in the face.
“They’re like…domestic help. Not all come from Hectval. Some actually come from the tribes. They commute here to work during some months, go back when they earn enough money. It keeps them from causing trouble—it’s a system we’re quite fond of.”’
‘Paworkers’ was a phrase unfamiliar to Lism and Liscor. Because Krshia and the Silverfang tribe had come here en masse. But Yisht was only too happy to explain.
“We don’t have Liscor’s issue. We have Gnoll-districts, but our Watch Captains keep them well-patrolled. Your population is well past that of Hectval or most Drake cities.”
“I can imagine.”
Lism muttered into his drink. He felt lightheaded. The Scalespeaker moved forwards, confidentially. They were probably out of range of other Gnoll’s hearing even—no, they definitely were. Or Krshia would not look so content to mill about.
“It’s about strategy, Councilmember. We have a history of dealing with such issues. Liscor doesn’t—your city had a huge influx of Gnolls oh, ten years back, didn’t they?”
“Yes. The Silverfang tribe. That’s er, one of their leaders now.”
Yisht shook his head.
“No wonder. Strategy, Councilmember Lism, Strategy. You still have a majority in the Council so let me tell you—”
He used the word, breathed it, ‘strategy’. Like Olesm’s class. Lism smelled a curl of wine on the other Drake’s breath.
“It’s a disgrace, a disgrace that they took over your city. We keep our population regulated. Some are helpful—although there’s always more theft and troublemaking with them about. And the smell—but we have separate districts. That’s the trick. If it’s an election—you redrew the districts. I’m told that’s what the old Council did to save the seats. As for the rest—it’s about laws. How old are the Gnolls? Ten years? Then it’s a thirteen-year mandatory wait for citizenship.”
“What? Thirteen years—”
Yisht shushed him.
“It’s how you do such things. Listen to me, Lism. You can’t be loud about such things. Time was you could just kick Gnolls out of your city for causing trouble. But with that damned King of Destruction and with that meeting of whatever, the tribes get restless. These days, you just institute the right laws. Consider our Paworkers. Lovely, most Drake households have them above a certain wealth class.”
He gestured at the Gnolls, who were, as Lism understood it, everything from [Carers] to [Cleaners] to [Porters] for Hectval’s Drakes. Yisht went on.
“I’m all for Gnolls in the right numbers. They’re helpful if they’re here to work, right. For all the they go on about tribes and complain—they come here to work rather than stay in the tribes, do they not? Then you put them in a uniform, give them a collar—”
Lism nearly spat out his drink.
“Collar? You have to be—”
“It’s a sign of affection. Decorated, you know? Some families give them to good workers. I’m not saying it’ll be easy to get there—frankly, we thought Liscor was a lost cause with the Antinium. But if you have them out there, doing the work that needs to be done—it works.”
Lism saw a narrow band around one of the Gnoll’s necks. And another colored bracelet. The Council’s Gnolls were catching on—Raekea was staring at one of the Gnolls.
The [Shopkeeper] Drake was familiar with collars. You er—put them on dogs. Or you used them in very selective types of adult situations. As…Lism might be experienced with.
But Gnolls? He looked at one of the meek Paworkers, who were ready to help out if need be. And he would just bet that if you handed one a dagger and told them they could stab one of the Hectval delegates and get away completely free—
Lism’s scales were crawling. Scalespeaker Yisht was smiling as he patted Lism on the shoulder. Then the Drake went on to Hexel.
“I can’t believe there’s a Lizard [Architect] in your city, though.”
His voice was a bit louder, perhaps because he was on even safer ground. Elirr’s ears perked up. Lism opened his mouth desperately.
“Master Hexel? He’s the highest-leveled expert we could find.”
Yisht swished the liquid in his cup around and made a face.
“Yes, but even if it’s a matter of expertise or costs…isn’t it a bit—disgusting? Even if it is a high-level [Architect], I can’t really fathom it, Councilman Lism. How can you expect good work from one of them? Unless you double-check everything.”
Elirr was now staring at Lism. So was Alonna. He took a long drink.
“We’ve had nothing to complain about. So. All the delegates are on the level, huh? Ready to offer us support?”
“As much as one can. On Pallass, and in general, certainly with words on this Pallassian issue. And we’re certainly willing to consult with Liscor as we exchange more pleasantries. Ah! The gifts should arrive soon! We have some very fine bows—all made with Hectval’s best woods. On that note, Lism—Tismel and Zalaiss told me there’s some friction in the Council, but Drakes have to stand united. Can’t have scales going the wrong way, can we?”
“That is a saying.”
Ah, so that was what it was. Lism looked around and spotted Bevussa. One Garuda [Senator]—a handful of non-Drakes, really. No wonder he hadn’t seen the Halfseekers. Most of the Pallassians were Drakes. The original builders and inhabitants of the Walled City.
And Hectval still thought Pallass was too progressive to socialize with. Lism saw a second group milling about the center of the room. He tried to change subjects. Hectval wanted to stand with Liscor on the Raskghar issue. That was what you wanted, wasn’t it?
“I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the Players of Celum, have you? Pallass seems very interested in importing them.”
It was indeed the one place where Pallass was coming to Liscor for. Lism saw Hectval’s face turn into a grimace.
“…Perhaps. Well, we were quite taken with Miss Jasi. That would be something to trade for! If we could get some [Actors]—”
“Good Drake actors, you mean?”
“Exactly. And some Gnolls! Just not Humans. Gah, they’re the last straw. The enemy.”
The Drake had finished two cups of wine fast. He looked at Yisht, clearheaded despite the spinning world for a moment. Lism nodded slowly.
“You know Yisht, I said the exact same things as you when the first Human moved into Liscor.”
The Scalespeaker smiled at the compliment. Lism watched the Players of Celum, who had appeared on the news. Such that even Pallass wanted a piece of them.
It was such a curious mix of awe and contempt they had. Because of course—Pallass was a Walled City. And yet—all the socialites still wanted an autograph and wanted the Players in their city. Right up until they could make the Players of Pallass, of course.
And that was when the doors opened and someone walked into the reception. At first, Lism didn’t notice. But she drew his eye because of course she did.
Only Erin Solstice could have bypassed the Watch keeping the onlookers and people wanting to crash the party out. She marched into the reception with an apron on, work clothing, ignoring the aghast looks and murmurs.
“What in the name of the Ancestors…?”
Yisht gave Lism a quick look, but the [Shopkeeper] was just waiting. He felt light as he flexed the claw on his cup and didn’t raise it to stop Erin. He could have. Could have ordered the Watch, intercepted her—
But Lism didn’t feel like it.
Erin Solstice looked around and saw her target at once. She was fuming. Ryoka had a temper. Mrsha had a terrible temper. Lyonette got mad—but Erin was more like Numbtongue, or, heavens forbid, Bird. She usually didn’t get mad.
“Emme! I need a word.”
Erin strode over to the part-Dwarf woman, who was engaged in conversation with the Drake [Senator] Wishill about the plays. Emme looked up, startled, and focused on Erin. Wesle and Jasi—who both knew the score—had stopped talking at once to watch her.
“Erin! What’s the matter?”
“This must be the redoubtable Miss Solstice with the magic door. Is, er, something wrong?”
“Oh, just connection issues with Pallass. The magic door might be down.”
A [Senator]—Errif—dropped his wine glass in horror. Erin smiled as the others stopped talking.
“Don’t worry! We can get you all back! But there’s this issue—Emme, can I borrow you?”
She ignored the sudden babble and towed Emme away. The Dwarf hurried over, whispering.
“What’s the matter, Erin? Something up with the door?”
“Yeah. But listen, Emme—I need a favor.”
“Of course. But is now…? What is it?”
Erin Solstice smiled.
“Cut off negotiations with Pallass. Please. Unless Pallass decides to apologize and make up. I’ll let you know, but I want you to tell them on my behalf.”
The Dwarf woman stared at Erin. Then she slowly tugged at one ear.
“Can you—say that again?”
Erin repeated herself. Emme looked up at her.
“The Players owe me a favor.”
Erin had never wanted gold or fancy restaurants or even the Solstice booth. When she asked for a favor though—Emme grabbed at her hair. Since she didn’t have a beard. Erin had half-expected that when Emme had told her about the Dwarf ancestry thing.
“Erin—this is the biggest chance we’ve had! This is a Walled City! As big as Invrisil! Temile—”
“What’s the issue, Erin? Can we help?”
Temile, Wesle, and Jasi walked over. Erin smiled at them. Old friends.
“I want you to break off negotiations with Pallass. It’d help me out.”
The [Actors] stared at her. Temile smiled uncertainly. Wesle just exhaled.
“That’s a big ask, Erin. Even for you.”
Jasi nodded. Emme stared at both of them.
“You two can’t be serious.”
“If Erin’s opposed, she has good reasons, Emme. And she has the magic door.”
“Mhm. I might shut down all travel to Pallass for like a week, or longer. Emme, I’ll make it up to the Players.”
The [Manager] hesitated.
Erin gave her a serious look as the Pallassian [Senators] milled about. Someone began pointing at her accusatorially and she heard the name, ‘Chaldion’ being thrown about. Erin waved. Then she looked at the Players.
“I can’t promise anything. But if the talks with Pallass fall through for whatever reason, even if you say no—then yes—then they decide to cancel because you offended them or whatever, I will devote all my efforts to getting you guys to perform or make a branch or something in First Landing, or another major city in the world. I can think of like…one…three…a few ones I could try.”
Like Talenqual, Calanfer’s capital, whatever it was, Salazsar, or wherever the Elusive Lot held sway. Erin was willing to bet on it. Emme’s mouth opened rather like a certain Drake’s had been. Jasi and Wesle exchanged a look.
“But you can’t promise that.”
Emme’s voice was strangled. Erin shook her head.
“Nope! But I promise to try. What do you say?”
Emme was at a loss for words. It was Temile who nudged her.
“Do it, Emme. I’ll say it for you if you want.”
She looked at him, faintly. The [Producer] gave Erin a look and she smiled.
“Who got us out of Celum and into Invrisil, Emme?”
That decided it. The [Senators] saw the Dwarf [Manager] come over and clear her throat. They looked down their nostrils at her—their snouts? Whatever you called the front of their Drake-faces as the Dwarf smiled politely.
“I’m terribly sorry, [Senators]. But something’s just come up. We, er—that is to say, the Players of Celum—we’re calling off negotiations until Miss Solstice gets what she wants. I understand there’s some issue around the Raskghar and politeness with the inn?”
“Calling off the—Miss Emme, you’re not serious! We were working out terms!”
Wishill was horrified. The [Manager] gave him an apologetic look.
“Senator Wishill, I am truly sorry, but Miss Solstice is a…benefactor and substantial holder of the Player’s interests. Without her cooperation, we can’t even come to the table. After all—if there’s no door, we can’t go through.”
Erin Solstice smiled as the horrified crowd turned to her. She held up the glowing, yellow mana stone.
“By the way—the door to Pallass is closed until Chaldion comes to talk with me, Zevara, and the Council. You can all go back, but no one’s coming through. And there’s a fee. Si—eight silver per person. You all get to go back free, but that’s the rules from now on. Thanks!”
The Drakes looked at each other. At last, Wishill spoke in a strangled voice.
“Miss—Solstice. We are the Assembly of Crafts—offending us is an unwise—”
He stopped as Erin gave him the blankest look in existence.
“Are you Chaldion? You don’t have one eye. Tell him I want to talk.”
Then she turned and walked off. The people stared at Erin—and then began to wonder if she meant they could go back now—or if she could keep the door closed. And if they had to be stranded at Liscor, this damned backwater—
Lism had himself another sip of wine. The second reception was a disaster as Pallassians streamed back towards the inn. There would be consequences. For Erin Solstice, perhaps, or Pallass.
There always were. Consequences for everything you did. Scalespeaker Yisht was disgusted, having seen it all, heard it all from afar.
“What an outrage. A foreigner telling people what to do?”
“That is a Liscorian citizen, Scalespeaker Yisht. She pays her taxes. Excuse me. I saw you and Councilmember Lism talking. May I join you?”
A female voice. Krshia Silverfang, Councilmember of Liscor, walked over with a polite smile. The Scalespeaker looked at her. And Lism saw the affront on his face. This time—Krshia recognized it too.
“Excuse me, we were talking. Councilmember Lism, you have my sympathies for that—I’m told that Human is famous?”
Lism swayed back and forth on his feet, his tail the only thing that was keeping him upright. He saw Krshia staring at him—and the Council. And Erin Solstice was causing her brand of chaos. Look at her, interfering with Council affairs. An entire city could not be held hostage to an [Innkeeper]! But didn’t Pallass have Saliss of Lights?
“Some call her the Crazy Human of Liscor. I take it you have limited experience with Humans, Scalespeaker?”
Yisht shook his head, curling his tail. He spat.
“Humans. Disgusting, loudmouthed, arrogant—as bad as—”
He hesitated, eying Krshia. Her face went blank. The Paworker’s faces were blank. Lism happily completed the sentence.
“As Gnolls, you mean? Almost as foul-smelling, as crude and disruptive as Gnolls.”
His voice echoed in the emptier City Hall. Hectval’s delegation rumbled. Those remaining looked at Lism. Krshia looked—Lism kept his eyes on Yisht. He saw Erin’s head turning with wrath, but the Scalespeaker looked…
Well, surprised. A bit taken aback. Then he calculated for a second and nodded with a tight smile.
“I’m glad we’re on the same page, Councilmember. As I said, Liscor has been ruled by Drakes, built by Drakes. You have my sympathies for—”
Erin Solstice was stalking over to Lism with a hand behind her back when she saw the purple-scale Drake’s cup slip. A bunch of wine—dregs, really—went onto Scalespeaker Yisht’s robe. The other Drake recoiled and Lism swayed back.
“I am so sorry. My claw slipped.”
“Not to worry, not to worry—that was some sl—”
Lism’s claw, opened, and accidentally moved across Yisht’s face at speed. Erin heard a slap. She stopped.
“I am so sorry. My claw slipped again!”
This time Yisht put a claw to his cheek. He stared at Lism.
“What are you doing, Lism?”
The Drake tossed the wine cup at him. Yisht dodged it and Lism’s follow-up punch laid him down. Erin recognized it—she’d done something like that once. It was not fair fighting. Lism breathed in and out.
Tismel shouted in horror. Hectval’s delegation reached for their largely ornamental weapons. One of the Paworkers looked delighted. Lism breathed in and out as he held up his claws.
“Terribly sorry. Slips of the claw, all. But that last punch—that was intentional.”
Scalespeaker Yisht rose to his feet, furious. Lism pointed at him.
“You, Scalespeaker, owe Councilmembers Krshia, Elirr, and Raekea—and the citizens of Liscor, Gnolls and Miss Solstice, an apology. I’ve listened to you slander them for the last two hours. Not my city. Not my people.”
The Scalespeaker’s eyes widened. He stared at Lism, and then at Erin. The [Innkeeper] peered at Lism. She’d thought it was Lism, but this wasn’t Lism. Was it? Krshia was staring at the [Shopkeeper] too, eyes wide.
“You’re mad. I’m a Scalespeaker, and we are guests of Liscor!”
“Guests send word they’re coming! Guests do not insult members of the Council! Pallass is more pleasant than you lot and they are banned from Liscor for a week! Miss Solstice, that’s an order!”
“Yes sir, Councilmember!”
She saluted him. Lism gave her a look, but Hectval’s delegation was approaching fast. The Drake with ornamental armor was drawing a sword. Lism didn’t back down. He just sneered as he folded his arms.
“I knew this city was beyond hope! I challenge you to a—”
Erin raised a fist and Krshia reached for her side. It was Watch Captain Zevara however, and the [Guards] on duty outside who stormed into City Hall.
“Councilmembers! I heard Miss Solstice—”
The Drake froze as half a dozen [Guards] spotted the naked blade and drew their weapons. They really needn’t have bothered, though. Lism had seen Jeiss, one of the best [Swordsmen] in the city, creeping up on the Drake from Hectval—and Alonna had a bead on him with a wand.
He really didn’t fight fair.
“What’s going on, Councilmembers?”
Zevara looked at Erin with deep suspicion and then at the Scalespeaker, the tableau in City Hall. Lism shook his head. He looked at Yisht and turned away.
“Negotiations, Watch Captain, have broken down. Scalespeaker, I don’t think Hectval or your little alliance has anything Liscor wants, let alone needs. I think that has been made clear.”
“No—Lism! You can’t be serious!”
Tismel was protesting and Zalaiss was staring around in horror. Lism saw the other Drake come over and raised a fist. Tismel halted and Lism shouted.
“Serious? Let’s put it to a vote, then? What does the Council think?”
He turned. Alonna, Jeiss, Raekea, Elirr, and Krshia all glanced at each other. Elirr looked at one of the Paworkers. Krshia sighed. Raekea shook her head, looking disgusted at the Hectval delegation. Jeiss grimaced, his hand on his sword’s hilt and Alonna smiled at Lism.
Tismel and Zalaiss were drowned out as Lism swung around and nearly fell over.
“Then we have a majority! It’s clear that Hectval’s guests haven’t learned basic civility. Watch Captain, escort them out of the city. Politely!”
Zevara stared at Lism. She couldn’t have known what had occurred here—but then, Watch Captains had their own sources of information. She nodded tightly.
“Delegates—it seems your permission to stay has been revoked. I’ll escort you to the inn and then out of the city.”
“You can’t do this!”
It was amazing how people said the same things. Erin saw the delegates arguing—the one with the sword tried waving it about, but Zevara had an entire squad of [Guards]. A double-squad, actually, the Erin Solstice special. She watched the Hectval delegates being prodded off. Yisht screamed back at Lism, red under his scales.
“This isn’t over! You’ve made a mistake, you—you—lizardbrained sympathizers!”
But it was. At least for now. Lism stood there, massaging his knuckles. Erin kept staring at him.
“That’s Councilmember to you, Miss Solstice. It seems—no. I owe you an apology.”
“Oh. For what?”
“I’m sure you can remember.”
Lism turned away. He looked at Krshia. He still didn’t like Erin Solstice, by the way. Or foreigners. People coming into his city…etc. etc.
He just happened to dislike Yisht more.
“So that was a Drake city? I can’t say I care for them.”
Krshia walked over. She looked at Lism. And she smiled as she patted him on the shoulder. Not a kiss or anything—Lism hadn’t quite earned it and besides, Erin was muttering about not getting her punch in a few steps over.
“Well done, Councilmember Lism.”
“Why thank you, Councilmember Krshia.”
They smiled at each other. Alonna nudged Jeiss as the Senior Guardsman decided he needed a double-drink. And to pack up some of the food for his family.
“I take it back. I think they’re good for each other.”
The [Guardsman] grunted.
“It’s still weird.”
One last thing. There was more to be said, and done. Ryoka Griffin’s first day back had been…eventful. But she was staying for a while. It was just that Pallass had received a lesson.
Which was that you couldn’t bully people with impunity. There were consequences. Perhaps there would be for Erin, too. Walled Cities and all that.
But she had friends. Chaldion was a fellow chess player, even if he was a Grand Strategist. Saliss of Lights, Rufelt, Lasica, they were all friends. Was it enough to stall a Walled City’s wrath? Perhaps not.
Liscor stood alone. Hectval’s delegates were shipped off, cursing and swearing vengeance, but not even Lism had any regrets. If anyone looked back regretfully—perhaps it was the Paworkers.
All for later. The consequence—in the immediate now, was a few things.
Chaldion coming to the inn and sitting at a table and Erin walking over, smiling. The Grand Strategist gave her a long, one-eyed look as his eye patch covered the other, artificial eye.
“It seems Pallass owes you an apology, Miss Solstice. Would you like me to apologize or have the [Senators] do it?”
“It depends on whether you were the jerk, Chaldion.”
“Mm. Let me think about it. I assume the Council and the Watch Captain would like a word. Would you like to play a game of chess in the meantime?”
“Sure. What color?”
And later—Erin Solstice let Chaldion discuss the Raskghar with Liscor. She was still keeping to the one-week ban. With maaaaaaybe an exception for Saliss and some friends. But she’d pushed at Pallass. And Pallass had pushed back with Grimalkin.
When you did all that pushing, you tended to see who you ran up against as friends or allies. Erin eyed the group of Earthers.
Joseph, Imani, Kevin, Rose, Galina, Leon, Troy, and Ryoka too. Something was messed up with Leon and Troy’s faces. Erin forebode comment, and the dirty looks the others were giving them.
Oh yes. She closed her eyes for a moment and then looked up.
“I want to trust you. And I’m going to. Okay? Can I do that?”
Palt was not smoking for once. He nodded gravely at Erin. She sighed and closed her eyes. The Gentlemen Callers, as representatives of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, were inspecting the two rooms she’d given them. On the house, as it were. She thought they might not be good guys, but they were…trustworthy. For a certain degree of trust.
For all the degrees of trust and all the beans? …Erin would have, should have given it to Zel Shivertail. But this was what she had today.
Palt cleared his throat and drew a symbol as Ryoka and the others watched.
“You are all under the protection of the Elusive Lot, and the Ullsinoi faction of Wistram. You may have heard Erin had an arrangement—well, she’s asked that I be your formal contact. If you have something to…let’s just say, sell about Earth, something useful—”
Ryoka muttered. Palt nodded.
“You can run it by Erin. But you come to me and we’ll get you anything you could want.”
The others looked at each other. Erin studied the sign. It wasn’t an eye, or triangle, or anything obvious like that. The Elusive Lot’s symbol, the one that Erin had been taught to watch for, was tricky. Just like them.
It was like a ‘U’, which might stand for ‘Ullsinoi’. But it had a distinctive twist to the ends. Nothing fancy. In fact—
It looked like a horseshoe. Erin stared at it for a long while and then looked at Palt. He winked, and went on explaining exactly how his faction would act as allies to The Wandering Inn.
Author’s Note: Am hungry. Am tired. But you’ve heard it all before.
Anyways, there are two chapters left before my break! I think I did the math there wrong. And as I might have intimated, the ‘Hectval-Liscor’ plot was meant to be part of last chapter, but mercy fire and the Raskghar took the slot. And I had to cut one plotline from this chapter…
Well, that just means you have more Erin to look forwards to. This was more about diplomacy…or lack thereof than Erin Solstice, although it had a good amount of it! Did you enjoy? Some parts were harder to write than others, and I might have been more sleep-deprived than I’d like.
But I got it done. As always! And I’ll just say that the next chapter is coming…too soon…but enjoy this one and wait for the next! The art for this chapter is an updated Faerie Flower image by Enuryn, Tomeo’s portraits, and two comics and Erin with mercy-fire by ArtsyNada!
Faerie Flower by Enuryn the [Naturalist]!
Erin before and now, Ieka, Magnolia, [Witch] Erin and more by Tomeo!
Bread, Dawn, and Mercy Fire by ArtsyNada!