7.55 E

(The Wandering Inn is on break until November 3rd for the author’s hands! November 7th for non-Patreon readers. See you then!)

 

Here’s a fun fact for you that I learned today: people are really scared of little girls.

Okay, I was aware of this. There’s…commonalities between worlds. For instance, I’m aware of evil little twins being a staple in horror movies. But while I was aware that ‘scary little kid’ was a horror trope, I wasn’t conscious of that fact. It was like knowing a tomato is technically a fruit, or something.

It never personally affected me. Because I, Laken Godart, am blind. And the idea of a strangely creepy girl standing in my hallway at night? Not really as scary. I’d just walk into her, or more accurately, bump into her with my cane if it wasn’t my house.

I don’t get it. Anyone standing in a hallway at night in my home when they’re not supposed to be there is scary. I think it’s the entire effect.

All this to say that the visual component of horror is lost on me. One of the reasons why horror movies aren’t great is that, in a silent scene, where suspense is allegedly building? I can’t see whatever’s making everyone else so nervous.

Not that I can’t understand fear. It’s just a difference in how you have to scare me. And there’s lots of scary stuff, like dogs off their leashes, losing your way and having no idea where the hell you are—

That was me when I first met Durene. Now of course, I have ‘landsense’, or perhaps ‘[Emperor]-sense’? Durene called it that the other day and I’m not a fan.

But here I am. Sitting, listening to about, oh, two hundred individual complaints brought to me as a whole by Mister Prost. About creepy girls. To be more precise:

[Witches].

“Your Majesty, it’s—it’s not just nerves. No one who’s seen ‘em at night gets a good night’s sleep, and that’s with your Skill sire, begging your pardon.”

“Creepy little [Witch] girls, Mister Prost?”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

The things that an [Emperor] has to deal with…but the [Witches] are an exception, not just me being hands-on.

Witches and Goblins. Two unique…allies? Groups that are part of the Unseen Empire. I believe it’s for the best. My people have reservations.

And to be fair, Belavierr and the Goblin raids did happen. No one should demand that people who’ve lost family or friends to Goblins should welcome them or be expected to forgive. It’s just…

Arguments. Which I’ve had with Durene, Rie, Beniar, two thirds of my advisors. And that group has expanded of late. So when I turn my head, it’s expectantly.

“Witch Eloise, Witch Hedag, do you have anything to say on the—‘creepy little [Witches]’ topic?”

I hear a booming laugh. It’s Hedag and Eloise who represent the [Witches] on my council. They accepted when asked and obviously, they were my first choices. Mavika refused and—it’s honestly for the best. But the [Witches] need representation, especially here. I want them to be more than bound by a pact.

I think I’m doing well. Or they’d tell me otherwise. [Witches] can be both enigmatic—and refreshingly direct. And in this case…

“I think your [Steward]’s fears have merit, Emperor Godart. Or should I say—I’m certain? But it isn’t something solved in a moment. It ties to witchcraft—and we are not of their covens.”

That comes from Eloise. I actually stir.

“Really?”

And here I thought people were being paranoid. But Hedag’s chuckling.

“Oh, your Majesty, we’ve no doubt of it. But it’s one thing to know and another to see, isn’t it?”

“It is indeed, Witch Hedag. Something of a problem with me, isn’t it?”

[Witches] aren’t afraid to be honest either. I smile drily, but Hedag just chortles louder over Rie, Beycalt, and Gamel being offended. The others are used to it, like Wiskeria, who’s sighing.

“I mean, go witness it, [Emperor]. You should be able to tell what your people fear even without vision alone.”

Hmm. Interesting. And since it does come from Hedag, I stand up.

“Does it happen every night, Prost?”

“Around dusk or later, your Majesty. Should we…?”

“Of course. Do I need an escort or is it just scary?”

I’m making light of it. But Gamel and Durene both agree to come with me. I sigh. Eloise just smiles. I can tell she does because she’s taken to tipping her hat up to signal me. A downwards tip means it’s a frown or something. She’s used it more than once when giving me advice.

Clever tricks.

As we leave the ‘throne room’, which is both treasury and throne room—in other words, a part warehouse and a reception area with the wooden throne, now apparently painted, and a place to put Riverfarm’s greatest treasures under guard, I’m still making light of the issue.

Honestly, it’s a relief from all this unpleasant and tedious business negotiating with other settlements. Cities and towns have become aware of the Unseen Empire and everyone wants something—preferably without having to pay.

‘Guard your roads for free? Why certainly, let me just do that in exchange for trade concessions I’d get from every [Merchant] anyways.’

“How many nobles have replied for the party now, Rie?”

As my small group of about eleven walks through Riverfarm at dusk, I try to see what’s changed today. What’s changed this month?

Paved roads. To be precise—twice-paved roads. What a disaster.

You see, when I first laid out Riverfarm in my head, I made plans for it to be far larger. I tried to think of all the basics—wells at numerous points in case of fire, farmland, placing buildings such that you wouldn’t have a smithy next to houses, for instance…

Riverfarm is laid out very neatly; no weird roads or confusing intersections. I can visualize it all from a bird’s eye view. Which is very handy!

But I make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. And one of my mistakes was that I didn’t realize that after the first mad rush to put up enough houses and the essential buildings…people would begin constructing things the way they thought was right.

Case in point: paved roads. Sounds good, right? Only—they used bits and pieces. Stones, parts of masonry from foundation-work, and so on to make one of those roads you get in Europe. Collectively strong, flat-ish—but bumpy as hell and prone to having bits and pieces torn up and needing to be reset.

I hate those roads. They are so difficult to walk on without tripping and they don’t do people in wagons any favors as well. So, I demanded that if we were going to get roads, make them brick! Make them flat and not prone to being torn up.

…Well, it took about four weeks to tear up the old roads and find the right [Bricklayers] who knew exactly how to get bricks of the hardness and durability we needed. Sourcing the right clay?

Gah. But you don’t see me kicking over stones, do you? Not one. I’m not being petty about it either, no matter what Durene claims.

“Nice brickwork. I’ll be interested to see how it takes its first winter.”

I…sense…the eye rolls from Durene, even Wiskeria and Rie. I determinedly do not scowl, and keep an even pace. I’m an [Emperor]. I don’t have many demands, like a golden palanquin. If I want nice roads, I’ll have them. And sewers! No one seems to think they’re a good idea, except for Rie. It’s a ‘Drake thing’, apparently, or a big city idea which is somehow a condemnation.

“We have eleven names after Lady Imarris, your Majesty. None of the Five Families as of yet…but some of the nobility have followed suit.”

“Better late than never. It seems Ryoka’s plan is working.”

It’s amazing how audacious she is. Three of the Five Families, coming here? A party for the fae.

I remember last time. It wasn’t a failure—far from it. But neither was it a huge success.

The fae are dangerous. True, they prevented Durene’s cottage from being covered in the avalanche—and it would have certainly killed us both. But they can be cruel, capricious…

Still, it’s a favor to Ryoka. I owe her one, or so I feel. And…it’s an opportunity for Riverfarm. But the preparations are difficult, her [Messages] sporadic and she herself isn’t exactly contributing hands or money to the cause.

“Ivolethe’s statue is finished?”

“Yes, sire.”

“Good.”

That was on my list of priorities. Near the top, actually. It seems to me that I’d want to be known for keeping my promises, even to the fae in disgrace. As for the rest?

Rie is helping with the party, even though she thinks it’s far too much work. She’s only going along because she believes it’s good public relations for the Unseen Empire—not because she believes in Ryoka’s ritual, or even understands it. She’s reached out and got three names of nobles she knows to come along before Ieka Imarris made her pronouncement.

Ieka. I remember her from riding with Lord Tyrion. Very polite, very knowledgeable. Part of his inner council. A [Mage]—and one of the more powerful nobles outside of the Five Families.

Interested in me—but standoffish. Extremely so. She kept asking questions which I’d deflect. How did Ryoka get her to come?

“We’ll just wait and see, Rie. Have we removed all the iron nails from the party grounds?”

“At great effort, your Majesty, yes. Would you like us to brick the grounds as well?”

Some laughter. Either they’re becoming more relaxed around me or the last sixteen meetings on roads really have left their mark. I smile.

“I thought you had already begun the work? See to it, Lady Rie.”

Hedag starts laughing as Rie hesitates, unsure of whether I’m serious or not. I have to clarify that yes, it was a joke. My words have power.

 

—-

 

The ‘scary [Witches]’ apparently appear around Witching Street—fittingly. It’s late evening and I feel the sun waning on my skin. Ah, the sun’s still taking a long time to set. Far better than winters where it’s gone before dinner.

Witching Street. So-named because most of the new [Witches] who have come to Riverfarm are settled there. And yes, in the new houses, sometimes one or two per house if it’s Eloise or Hedag—often in small groups. Or covens?

Certainly, multiple covens have come here seeking Riverfarm’s protection. It surprised me, honestly. I thought the pact I made with the coven was for [Witches] like Hedag or Mavika—those who were accused of crimes and might be guilty, or might be prone to fear and prejudice.

But Agratha’s coven appeared first, and then roughly two more. The [Witches] seem to think there’s an opportunity here. Especially to raise new [Witches] in peace.

Hence, young [Witches] and the ones like Agratha, who’s an actual [Teacher]—the first one I’ve met in this world.

So far, the [Witches] haven’t given us more problems than the help they’ve been—[Witches] are an interesting combination of problem-solver, [Healer], [Mage], [Alchemist]…but as I come to Witching Street, very deserted except for [Witches] in their houses, the first problem manifests itself.

Few of the Unseen Empire’s people are near the street. They do indeed seem to avoid it if my landsense is correct. I don’t understand why. In my internal vision, the street is much like the rest. Oh, there’s the smell of some [Witch]’s experiment in the air—I cough.

“Ah. One of the apprentices must have fouled a batch.”

Failed experiment. I cough and fan at my face. Still, you’ll smell worse from a tanner, right?

“Any creepy [Witches], Prost?”

I laugh as I turn my head. Prost hesitates.

“Your Majesty…”

…And that’s when I hear it. Sense it, too. In the distance, there’s chanting. I stop chuckling. Fall silent.

Six small [Witches] are skipping down the street. Gamel makes a sound. I sense—behind me—a group of men and women coming back from the fields stiffen, then hurry off in the other direction. Fast.

They’re singing. So, six kids, ranging from as young as nine, to perhaps, a girl who’s thirteen? Singing? This doesn’t sound scary on paper.

But—is the air colder? I feel a chill. And tingling on my skin. Like goose bumps. I twitch—it feels as though there’s a hand on my shoulder.

“What the—”

My voice feels more quiet. I know there are people around me—but suddenly I feel as though I’m standing alone. The street feels wider. The voices echo as the girls skip forwards. Singing and laughing—no.

Chanting.

 

The hats are in the well, the bodies in the dell

The gate is open and goes to hell

 

“Dead gods.”

Someone mutters behind me. I hear laughter, again. The girls are skipping down the street in a line. Then—they stop and start running in a circle around the one in the middle. Giggling.

 

The ghost is in my hat, her corpse is dark and fell

Take the bell and ring death’s knell

And don’t fall in the well!

 

I…feel someone grab my shoulders. I start—Durene is trying to hide behind me. I sense their heads turning, hear more high-pitched laughter.

“…Ah. That’s horrifying.”

I take it all back. I turn.

“Witch Eloise, Witch Hedag? Can you get them to stop that?”

Girls!

Eloise raises her voice. I hear giggling. The young [Witches] stop.

Yes, Witch Eloise?

They chorus as one voice. I hear a murmur from the side.

“They definitely practiced that.”

Wiskeria. Durene meanwhile is giving me a massage—or trying to pull the bones out of my shoulders with her fingers.

“Enough playing around.”

“But we’re not playing, Witch Eloise! We’re practicing our craft!”

Another six-in-one voice. More giggling. I hear Eloise sigh and beyond the basic, primal terror trying to pick at my common sense—it begins to come together.

“Ah. Not yours, Witch Eloise?”

“Not mine, Emperor Godart. Precisely the problem.”

“Well then, I think we’d better reconvene. They don’t stick to Witching Street, do they, Mister Prost? You were saying…”

“No, your Majesty. They wander down other streets. Lights go out when folk’re drinking in pubs. They peek into houses through the windows so you wake up and—”

He shudders. I begin to understand.

“Well, well. And I’ve been laughing it off so far. Creepy little girls indeed. We can’t have this. Suggestions?”

“If you’ll give me permission, I’ll stop them tonight, your Majesty.”

Wiskeria. I nod. This is why you have talented people on your side. People who’re right for the moment. Wiskeria squares her shoulders, adjusts her spectacles, and begins rolling up the sleeves of her robe as she secures her hat. I wait for her to break the younger [Witches]’s spell or—

Enough, girls!

She sprints at the [Witches] and they shriek and run off. I sense them scatter as Wiskeria chases them, calling out all manner of curses—verbal ones—if they don’t come here right now.

“Er…was that a particularly witchy move, Witch Eloise?”

Rie’s voice sounds a bit strangled. Hedag chuckles.

“Nothing for stopping a good scare spell than smacking a head or two, Miss Rie. Wiskeria knows her craft. Let’s head back now we’ve convinced yon [Emperor] there’s something to be scared of, eh?”

 

—-

 

Witchcraft is a strange thing. Sometimes it seems so ordinary. Like Agratha sweeping up honey but leaving it pure. Other times it’s dark and magical. But it always makes sense.

Like—Wiskeria chasing off the girls by hitting them with a broom until they stop casting the fear spells? It makes sense because that’s the least-scary thing I can think of. Also, very practical.

“The issue is that each coven, and each [Witch] is a law unto herself, Emperor Godart. Apprentices are apprentices even so, but—”

“—but if you start telling them their craft, their mentor objects. I have it precisely, Witch Eloise. I’m only curious of two things. Why are they doing it? Not just for fun, it seems. And how much trouble will there be if they’re forced to stop?”

A murmur of conversation among the other [Witches]. I’ve dismissed most of the council for the night. Prost is here as always, Rie, Wiskeria, Hedag, and Eloise. Durene needed a lie down and some time at the pub after that scare.

Joining us, though, are three more senior [Witches]. The one who replies is very technical with that…that…teacher-y voice. A tone of command, really. And of making you feel as though you’re always in the wrong.

“To be precise, Emperor Laken, the young [Witches] are practicing their chosen specialty. It just so happens that the thing they make their spells out of in this stage of their careers is, regrettably, fear.

“Ah. I thought so.”

Scary little girls. And because they’re [Witches], they know they’re terrifying and use it to fuel their magic, like Mavika uses fear, Alevica uses resentment and loathing—

“Like Witch Alevica? I haven’t seen her around. I trust she’s doing well?”

A susurration. The other [Witches] don’t like Alevica much, at least, Agratha doesn’t.

“It would be—regrettable—if the young [Witches] try to emulate Witch Alevica. They hold her in some esteem. We are trying to guide them onto the right path, your Majesty, but their teacher is Witch Oliyaya.”

“Ah. Her.”

I don’t think I’ve ever heard her speak. Nor did she introduce herself. She’s one of the reasons why people imagine [Witches] would want to live in a camp outside of Riverfarm instead of in houses. And indeed—Oliyaya does. Or in a tree, or a swamp hut…I’m rather glad of it. The only time I’ve ever heard her is when she started laughing manically.

“Like Witch Mavika, it seems.”

Another delicate pause. Another witch, Rebeca, another one like Agratha—a teacher, replies quickly.

“Ah, but your Majesty, Mavika is even older magic. She has a flock. Her example isn’t fair to use. Witch Agratha, Devay, and I are attempting to create a school of magic for young [Witches], but those like Oliyaya complicate matters. We would be all too willing to intercede on the Unseen Empire’s behalf, of course…”

And here’s where Eloise tugs on her hat. Downwards. Ah. I hear a grunt from Hedag, a dissatisfied one. And that tells me something else.

There’s a split in opinions here, isn’t there? Eloise and Hedag might not be fans of creepy [Witches] scaring everyone, but they’re not all on board with Agratha’s teaching methods.

Tread carefully. If I pick Agratha’s side, I have no doubt she might use that to push her kind of witchcraft. Which alienates Oliyaya and…

I sigh. But I’ve learned how to do this. And as an [Emperor]’s tasks go, this is one of the most important. I lean on the throne’s armrest, as if bored.

“So I would ask you to manage Oliyaya’s pupils to bring peace to the Unseen Empire’s people at night?”

“If you deem it best, your Majesty, of course we would be happy to oblige. Witches are guaranteed protection, but your laws must be weighed against the craft of [Witches].”

Another telling answer. ‘If I deem it best’. And that wasn’t exactly a promise to obey all of Riverfarm’s laws.

“Perhaps it would be best to tell Emperor Laken why Oliyaya and her pupils like fear first, wouldn’t it, Agratha? Young man he is, and sharp as the [Reaper]’s sickle, but he might not see the issue.”

That comes from Hedag with a bark of a laugh. I smile as Agratha makes a noise of discontent rather like Rie. She was clearly hoping Hedag wouldn’t say that.

“What’s this, Witch Agratha?”

“Erm…only that there are complications in some of Witch Oliyaya’s pupils, your Majesty. All girls may become a [Witch]! It doesn’t change—”

“You can’t see it, Laken Godart. But young Witch Cirsa is the survivor of a fire. Her family perished in the flames and she was orphaned. Oliyaya adopted her as a pupil.”

Eloise spells it out at last. I exhale.

“Ah.”

I wouldn’t have sensed that. I can tell with my landsense where people are precisely, how they’re standing, everything about their postures—not facial features. Not yet, if it’s even possible.

“It’s just features. The child…”

Agratha trails off. I turn my head.

“I take it she has—scars, Witch Eloise?”

“Yes, your Majesty. Which I realize may not be as troubling to you. But they trouble Witch Cirsa. Especially other people’s reactions to them. Hence her decision to play upon them. Most of Oliyaya’s pupils are like that. And she herself.”

“I see.”

It all becomes clear. Small wonder. I feel sympathy now, despite having been scared myself. Agratha and her trio are silent as they wait for me to reply. It’s Rie who helps set me up.

“A tricky situation, wouldn’t you agree, your Majesty? On one hand, we have [Witches] practicing their natural craft. On the other—your subjects are disturbed. Is there no common ground to be found?”

Thank you, Rie. She spells out that I’m aware this will inconvenience me either way. One of the other [Witches] makes a sound as she shifts. I nod.

“It is troublesome, Lady Rie. But as I have agreed—I will make every courtesy and afford [Witches] every due possible. Far be it from me to decide what [Witches] are.”

A tip of the hat upwards from Eloise and an exasperated sigh from Agratha. I suppress a smile. You’re welcome. I wonder how much I just gave Eloise’s camp, if she has one?

“Even so, Witch Oliyaya and her pupils cannot terrorize Riverfarm. Witch Hedag, will you speak to Oliyaya and ask that the scary little [Witches] confine themselves to the only occasional haunting?”

“Your Majesty, all parts of Riverfarm?”

“Mm. No, good point, Mister Prost. Certain streets of Riverfarm may be ‘scare zones’ at night. Some residents do seem to enjoy being terrorized. It adds spice to life.”

Like people who insist on watching horror movies. It’s a happy compromise and sending Hedag seems like the safest bet. I hear more sighing from Agratha’s lot. And once again, Emperor Laken has steered the rocky course of negotiations!

Huzzah. I stretch. I want to eat something.

Anyways. Creepy little girls, even if they are horrifying, aren’t the biggest thing Riverfarm has to deal with. If you want to deal with real problems—well—the next day was even more of a headache.

Goblins are good at giving me headaches. I think they enjoy making trouble for me.

 

—-

 

“Where do I even begin? There’s too much to say…where are you, I guess? Can I ask that? Or is it…dangerous?”

“It might be. But this is the only way we can talk. The safest way…well, how confident are you?”

“Um. S-six?”

Six?

That wasn’t Elena’s voice. Ryoka stared at Palt accusingly. He shrugged.

“The Elusive Lot.”

He whispered back. Elena was arguing with someone on the other side.

“You are all listening in!”

“We’re keeping the spell active! You want to chat on an unsecured spell? We could get you a decent artifact, I guess.”

“Well? Will you?”

“But we want to listen in!”

The argument between Elena and an unknown speaker—Palt was writing ‘Galei’ as Galina frantically transcribed—ended in the background. Galina had experience in transcribing, apparently. Erin was resting her hands on her chin, just staring.

“That’s one of the Elusive Lot. Do you know about…?”

“Yes. I’m um—allied with Ullsinoi. We are.”

We? There are more of you?”

“Yes.”

Ryoka Griffin, aka ‘batman’, was sweating. Elena made a sound.

“I—maybe don’t tell me?”

“The Elusive Lot knows. I’d rate this as a six out of ten myself. But we have to try. Let’s keep anything extremely important secret. But I can tell you we have a safe place. In Izril. In…”

Ryoka looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] shrugged. Ryoka still hesitated.

“—In Izril. If we could get you out, we’d bring you here.”

“How safe is ‘safe’? We’ve heard how bad it is—I saw some terrible stuff myself. Not all of its bad, but I saw…monsters…and Cara—the [Popstar]—she showed me a text chat that apparently happened before I arrived. That’s how we know you. Some people…”

“Yeah. I know. You know…‘asdf’? The…”

Imani flinched. Ryoka chose her words carefully. Elena made a sound.

“I think so.”

“It was Crelers. The—survivor’s with us.”

“Oh. Oh my god—we’ve found more people who survived monster attacks, but you found…? Some people have horrible stories—”

“We have to stay on topic. Sorry, but I know we’re on a time limit.”

Palt nodded. Elena took a breath.

“Okay. You’re in Izril. Got it. Um—there are things we should tell you. I don’t know what you know. But first? Listen—do you have a scrying orb?”

“Yes. We’ve seen all the broadcasts, including the Singer—Cara’s?—video.”

“Ah, right. Well, she’s telling you important things. You caught that, right?”

“Ailendamus, Wistram, er…[Necromancers]? Seek safety with Noelictus, Calanfer, half-Elves, Dwarves? Just in general?”

“There’s only one major Dwarf settlement in the world. And the half-Elves—well, Cara knows some. Yeah. Good. I knew you’d get it. I got it at once, and Cara and I can’t talk. It’s too dangerous.”

“So Wistram is keeping you all hostage? You can’t communicate?”

“Someone’s always listening if we talk. They want Cara to come to Wistram—and no, we can’t leave. We’re told we’ll be able to once Wistram has ‘control of the situation’. But…she asked for volunteers and I came here.”

“Who?”

“Oh, Cara, sorry. She has more Earthers and she was suspicious of Wistram. I volunteered…”

Write this down! Ryoka was waving at the others as they poked and nudged each other. This was huge! And more was yet to come.

Elena caught herself once more.

“Never mind that. Listen. Don’t ever, and I mean, ever say anything about Earth in front of a scrying orb. Or give away who you are! It’s usually safe—Wistram can’t see everything. But—and we can’t confirm this, the others with me—something’s up with Wistram’s scrying television thing. I think…they might be able to see through some of them.”

Ryoka nearly dropped the stone Palt was focusing through. He caught the stone before the artifact could break. Erin threw up her hands.

Illuminati! Aaaa—

“Who was that?

“Someone else, sorry.”

Ryoka had clapped a hand over Erin’s mouth. The [Innkeeper] was pointing at Kevin and gesticulating for him to ‘get a hammer’. Ryoka quickly spoke.

“Are you sure?”

“Nearly. I heard them talking about ‘obscure artifacts’—ones they can’t hack into. They’re…monitoring all kinds of people. The King of Destruction, other nations—even the Antinium.

Oh no. Ryoka felt her stomach twist. That—that wasn’t good. Erin was sitting bolt-upright, focused on the conversation. For the Wind Runner herself? The cost of telling Elena had already paid off.

“We’ll make a note, thank you, Elena. We’ll remove all the scrying devices or be careful to—”

“Actually, I don’t think you need to do this, Miss.”

A startled sound from Elena. Ryoka stopped.

“Hello? Who is this?”

“Master Galei!”

“Hello, Palt! I just had to break in here.”

A friendly male voice—Palt’s master?—spoke up. He addressed the Centaur directly.

“Psst, Palt. How friendly are we getting? We could consult here—but I’d like to hear it from you first.”

The Centaur hesitated and looked at Erin and Ryoka.

“Master Galei? I’d call these significant allies.

Other voices in the background. Ryoka frowned. How many [Mages] were in the Elusive Lot? And listening in? Even Palt didn’t know. Galei murmured.

“…heard him. I say we take it…no votes! We’ll leave you two to talk, Miss ‘batman’. But I just wanted to tell you that if you’re just enchanting a mirror with [Scrying], you’re not in danger of Wistram reversing the spell to watch you. Not if Palt’s doing it.”

“Oh.”

Ryoka looked at Palt for confirmation. Then she snapped back towards the stone she was using to speak through.

“Wait. Wistram is watching us through scrying orbs?”

Oho! She got it! I knew she was smart! That’s five secrets you owe me!

Someone chortled in the background. Palt sighed and reached for a cigar. Ryoka felt like she never wanted to meet the Elusive Lot in person. It was like listening to faeries, a bit. At least in their chaotic insanity.

“Thank you.”

“Here’s Elena again. Also—you have about six minutes left. We can’t keep this up forever. Is this chat going to take long?”

Elena sounded rushed.

“Six minutes? But we have too much to say! Okay—listen—give that back!

Galei’s voice again.

“Ah, I thought so. In that case—we’ll do it later tonight. Mm. One of our warded rooms.”

“Wait, again? You just said—”

Ryoka and Elena were both confused. Galei made a sound.

“I meant, we grabbed Miss Elena not knowing how she’d react or how long this was. We’re casting a linked spell in a damned hallway! It’s not perfect! We’ll resume this later. Miss Elena, you’ll just have to show up in one of our secure areas where we can let you talk far longer without the same risk.”

“Oh. Will—will it be safe? Archmage Feor’s in my faction, Mage Galei. If he finds out…”

The Elusive Lot laughed in the background. Ryoka saw Palt give her a nod as Kevin made a motion. With a resigned look, Palt handed out a spliff to beckoning hands. Erin scowled. Ryoka reached out and Erin smacked her hand down. Like hell Ryoka was going to turn down Palt, though.

Galei turned to Elena on their side of the call. He was a Centaur and he looked offended Elena even had to ask.

“What, communicate without anyone in Wistram knowing? My dear, half of the [Mages] in Wistram could do that. We’re the Elusive Lot. We could dance naked in the hallways while screaming secrets from Earth if we wanted!”

“…Do you?”

 

—-

 

Who is coming to the Summer Solstice party? I have no idea if Ryoka will succeed with her plan to get three of the Five Families—I don’t even know why she’s so convinced it’ll succeed.

But I’m still excited because I know someone is coming. Someone Ryoka told me about a long time ago, when we first met.

Her other friend from Earth. And for that alone, I’d roll out a red carpet. If we had one. We have carpets. They may be red?

“All the way from Liscor. But if they’re not on the way already, how can they get here? Ryoka seems convinced she can just run over and maybe she can, but her friends? Unless they have a magical carriage…”

That’s been bugging me all week. It took me ages to get back—true, we were escorting the Goblins in wagons, and that was the slowest trip you could organize—but it’s still a huge problem.

As it happens, today my answers come from the same source as my headaches.

Goblins.

 

—-

 

Laken Godart’s musings on guests for the mid-summer party, musings on his growing empire, and everything else, were idle thoughts.

But unlike everyone else in the world, at any given time he had at least a dozen people willing to listen, hear him out, and devote every waking minute they had to an idle question.

Such was the power of an [Emperor]. Instantly, Lady Rie signaled covertly to one of her attendants that they should get a [Message] spell to Miss Ryoka Griffin about that matter. Someone else produced a map and began calculating the average speed of people on horseback from Liscor to Riverfarm.

Laken Godart could, if he really wanted, know the airspeed velocity of the Izrilian swallow, laden, unladen, and even if it was a migratory bird. Terandrian swallows were harder of course, but he could probably find that out too.

“Your Majesty, we could send Beniar and the Darksky Riders to escort whomever it is, but only if we have ample time. These visitors—they’re important?”

Lady Rie was not privy to the Unseen Emperor’s every thought and confidence and she resented it. The [Lady] was an accomplished personage in her own right. Not extremely high-level in the [Lady] class, but still more than her level indicated.

She didn’t miss the fact that Durene gave Laken an excited look, or that he himself sometimes slipped up and referred to Ryoka’s ‘guests’ as ‘friends from home’. She didn’t have all the pieces, but she knew there was a puzzle and that was an important first step.

The [Emperor] took his time in replying. And his morning walkabout of Riverfarm meant all his advisors not currently at-work waited with him.

Prost wasn’t here. Nor was Beycalt, Master Ram—those were representatives of significant branches of Riverfarm’s talents. Master Ram for the [Farmers], [Herders], and so on. Beycalt responsible for construction—

Master Helm, the [Blacksmith] of Windrest, was here. When he probably should have been at work. But the man was newly-promoted to his position and seemed to feel that he should be here. He’d either calm down or Prost would take him aside to tell him that Laken preferred he do what needed doing; he’d be summoned at need be.

Gamel shifted, keeping a lookout for migrating swallows, monsters, or anything else that might trouble Laken. Durene was walking along, snacking—Rie eyed her as she crunched noisily on some popcorn.

“Want some, Laken?”

“No thank you, Durene. Ryoka’s friends are greatly interesting to me, Lady Rie. I don’t know them myself. But I consider their visit to be as important as any noble’s. Let’s ask about Liscor—if they leave now, they might still be too late. They certainly will be if they moved as slowly as we did. Can we arrange for one of the coaches that go across Izril?”

Rie had to think.

“They stop at Liscor, certainly, unless it’s flooded, your Majesty. Perhaps that’s what Miss Griffin is counting on.”

Flooded? Wait, Lord Veltras mentioned that and it was damned muddy when we were there…oh, the rains. But I didn’t think that meant it flooded.”

The [Emperor] had to be told about Liscor’s odd weather patterns. He was interested in Liscor—but better at compartmentalizing than he had been.

“Lady Rie, please prepare any notes on Liscor. I know enough about the city from the siege…but not enough, it seems. We’ll discuss it tonight.”

“Of course, your Majesty.”

Rie smiled. Another opportunity to talk privately with Laken Godart and learn more—as well as ingratiate herself. She saw Durene grunt and eye her, but all the [Paladin] did was cram more popcorn into her mouth.

It was Master Helm who volunteered, with voice-cracking nervousness, an important factoid.

“Your—your Majesty! I think there’s a faster way from Liscor to Riverfarm—at least it’d make it a sight shorter, if you’ll forgive me speaking up!”

“Master Helm? Go on.”

Laken turned and the [Smith] found himself at the center of attention. Master Helm, who could cheerfully handle hot steel and shout orders to apprentices in the center of his village, turned beet red with stage fright.

“Er—sire—it’s er—something I’ve heard second-hand, mind. But I um—it comes from Liscor. That is to say, I heard from Halrac there’s a door there. Magic. Connects to Invrisil—never seen it myself, but—”

Laken, who had politely been listening to the confused reply, glanced up instantly. Or his head rose while his eyes stayed shut.

A magic door?

Lady Rie had heard the same rumor. It had been one of those things she’d dismissed as not being able to seperate truth from rumor—but Helm’s retort made her check through her notes.

“I heard the same thing, your Majesty. It seems hardly possible—but I did hear Lady Magnolia used a door to get from Invrisil to Liscor in a day. I thought it was a limited artifact but apparently—there’s a door of teleportation that can take you across the continent in a moment.”

“Remarkable. Is it a relic? Could we get one?”

The [Emperor] was fascinated, as well he should be. Rie pursed her lips.

Magnolia. The name had been sour on her tongue, especially in light of recent events. The woman had more lives than a cat. She had been seconds away from being ended and Lord Tyrion Veltras had let her escape.

Now this business with poisoning his children. Rie felt like the Circle was overreaching. She knew how much power they had and she knew how much danger one of the Five Families could bring. If they took Tyrion Veltras and his House, it would make the Circle incredibly powerful—and their reach was already long. But if not?

“I’ll see, your Majesty. But it would cut any travel down to a scant day or two at most with an overnight carriage.”

That was what she said to Laken about the door. The [Emperor] nodded.

“Well then. A magic door. And it connects to multiple cities, Master Helm? I wonder…could it reach Riverfarm?”

Rie bit the inside of her lip hard. And connect to—Drake cities? She didn’t like it. Not one bit. It was dangerous if everything was true; she’d heard the door in Liscor—already a Drake city—reached Pallass. One of the Walled Cities and principle enemies of the north. They’d been responsible for sending the Drake [Infiltrators] to ruin the north’s lands.

But it was a worthwhile question to ask. Master Helm hesitated.

“I wouldn’t know, your Majesty. I only heard tell of it. But—young Halrac—that is, Adventurer Halrac would know all about it!”

The [Emperor] smiled. And that smile—Lady Rie scowled behind a handkerchief as she pretended to dap at her cheek, even though she was almost certain he couldn’t tell what her facial expressions were.

Ah. Captain Halrac and Griffon Hunt. Well, I owe them a visit about a problem already. Let’s finish our walk and meet them, then.”

He walked on. Rie fell back.

“Beatica, find me everything regarding the magic door and notes on Liscor for his Majesty. Have them to me before dinner.”

“Of course, Lady Rie.”

The former [Councilwoman] of Lancrel didn’t meet Rie’s eyes. She bowed low, and scurried off. And here she had once been a self-proclaimed rival for Riverfarm. Well, she’d assumed she had been, but she was smart enough to throw herself on Rie’s mercy when Laken had returned.

Now she was a useful subordinate. Of course, once a traitor, always a traitor, as the saying went. But…Rie Valerund wondered if Beatica wouldn’t be a good low-level operative of the Circle of Thorns. She might be a first good recruit. The Circle had ways to ensure that old truism about traitors only applied to people not in their organization.

The Circle had yet to spread its roots in Riverfarm. To her knowledge, Rie was only one of three operatives in the area, and the largest at that. The other two had come simply to monitor her work with the [Emperor]. Until now, no one had given Riverfarm a passing thought.

Rie had gotten lucky. Lucky indeed; the Goblin raid had not been planned. But here she was, advising an [Emperor]. It was rising her star as both [Lady]…and member of the Circle of Thorns.

She only wished—well, that Laken were easier to persuade. He couldn’t see, and a melodious voice wasn’t half as effective. She needed him to embrace the Circle of Thorns. Or else, if he became an enemy—they’d cut him. And they could work well together.

 

—-

 

Rie caught up with Laken Godart as he finished his walk and headed into Riverfarm proper. It was now a large town and still growing. Rie had never seen expansion this fast—or successful. But the rumors were already spreading.

The [Emperor] of the Unseen Empire had traded his physical eyes for the ability to see all things. He could speak the tongue of beasts, and could tell if you were lying. He even allowed untrustworthy [Witches], evil Goblins, and more onto his lands because he didn’t fear them…

True and false. True and false. But it was certainly true that being able to monitor all his lands meant that there was little fear of [Bandits]. They kept coming—and [Thieves] too. Laken would find Beniar in the middle of the night and tell him, oh, two hundred [Bandits] were coming here, or a [Thief] had just broken into a house—would you mind dealing with them?

A Skill worthy of an [Emperor]. Rie was jealous. It also made working in secret very hard. She’d been trying to figure out how to induct members of the Circle of Thorns and eventually concluded it had to be done outside of Riverfarm entirely; she had nearly, nearly tried to use a secret basement, right up until she’d learned Laken Godart could see under the ground as well.

That kind of thing gave her ulcers. What else was he hiding? Who was he? And why, oh, why was he so willing to allow Goblins a second chance?

It was an enduring mystery about him. Rie had thought Laken was mad. But apparently, madness was spreading.

 

—-

 

The Goblinlands of Riverfarm had been contentious the moment the first Goblin’s prisoner wagon had rolled into the village. There had been threats. Arguments. People had left over their presence.

They were Goblins. But the [Emperor] had insisted. The Goblins had made a wall. Riverfarm had made a wall.

They had nearly been killed in a standoff that had ended with an angry [Cook] and a ladle. People had first been outraged—then paranoid—then suspicious…

After months, they were—not okay with it. Not at all! If you struck up the right person with conversation, they’d rant about how [Emperor] Godart’s one flaw aside from maybe the [Witches] and his thing about brick streets was Goblins.

But the fire of hatred had been replaced by, well, experience. Not acceptance. You stared at Goblins for long enough as they built their walls, you stayed awake all night holding the sword and watching for them to slip over and slit all your throats to no avail…and slowly the [Emperor] got his way. Hatred became sullen acceptance, which was still a complete willingness to kick all the Goblins out if Laken changed his mind.

And then had come Griffon Hunt. And everything changed again.

The little, grey-skinned Goblin had a poofy hat. This was a fact. You could take the hat off the Goblin if you were fast enough, but she’d probably bite you and hit you with her ladle.

The [Cook] had to have a hat. And Pebblesnatch, the Goblin [Cook], was cooking.

It was a variant of something she’d once heard Erin talking about. Nothing fancy. Pebblesnatch was not a fancy [Cook]. She was young, even as Goblins measured their craft and still learning.

Here was how it went if she could remember it right: you had chicken stock. Which was not, in fact, chicken in your soup like Pebblesnatch’s first three experiments had yielded.

You soaked chicken in liquid and let it release…chicken essence. Pebblesnatch had worked with the fermenting expert, Holdnose, and the chicken stock tasted good. Just in case—Pebblesnatch had added tiny bits of cut up chicken to the broth. Because why not? It was her recipe.

Next—a bit of flour. Erin said ‘corn starch’, but Pebblesnatch had stared at corn for a long time and not found any white stuff. So—flour. You could put flour in soups.

The other bits were easier. Some wild garlic from the Goblinlands. And ginger! The two roots came from Ulvama’s stocks, actually. Pebblesnatch had seized them while Ulvama wasn’t looking. Two bumps on her head attested to the sacrifice paid for good ingredients.

Pebblesnatch had actually figured out how to make garlic powder. It was super dry and she’d removed the edible-but-tasteless shell as a snack. Now she added ginger and the powdered garlic to the stock and mixed it all up.

Her guests kept watching Pebblesnatch to make sure she didn’t wipe her nose with her claws or do something weird. Which she’d never do! Pebblesnatch had learned from the best. You scratched your butt after cooking properly.

She brought the stock up to a simmer after a taste. Yum. Any Goblin would eat this as it was, but Pebblesnatch had learned the joys of cooking. Well, a snobby Mountain City Goblin might not…

The Goblin took this time to admire the stone stove. And the kitchen! What a lovely kitchen! The Human [Cook] was staring at her nervously, but the Goblin had been able to use the kitchen.

What next? Eggses. Lots of eggs. Pebblesnatch whisked them up in a huge bowl. Fat big eggs, small eggs…

Um. Halrac. Those are wild bird’s eggs.

It’s probably edible.

Pebblesnatch ignored her audience. She whisked up her broth vigorously as it simmered. Then—in went the eggs! Not all at once! She poured the blended mixture in and it became little fragments. Mm.

Now she’s licking the bowl, Halrac.

She’s done with the bowl. I think.

You had to lick things clean. The Goblin glared at her guests. Yum, raw egg. She smacked her lips.

Revi needn’t have feared. Pebblesnatch was amazing. She’d gotten a new Skill as a [Forager Cook]. And that was: [Remove Food Poisoning]. No more throwing up or having mad poos after the wrong thing!

Anyways, she was doing this right. The soup was all hot and Pebblesnatch took it off the burner and added some magic.

Hot spices! Green onions! A bit of butter! And done! Pebblesnatch’s Dropped Eggs Soup was done! It had bits of chicken, a nice spice, eggs…and it was a soup!

You couldn’t ask for more than that, could you? The Goblin heaved it over to the table in a big pot and began ladling it into bowls. She stared at her guests for breakfast this morning.

Griffon Hunt examined the meal as they sat in one of the mess halls of Riverfarm. In the Human lands. Not the Goblinlands. And here was Pebblesnatch.

“I’ve never seen a soup like that.”

The Human [Cook] edged around Pebblesnatch and into his kitchen, as if to make sure she hadn’t stolen everything or poisoned it while he was blinking. The other Humans, who’d been surreptitiously watching the Cave Goblin, eyed the glistening soup with the same dubious expressions.

But Halrac? He’d been in an inn and served this exact soup. It wasn’t the same, but the adventurer took the bowl Pebblesnatch offered him. He dipped a spoon into the broth, blew on it, and put it into his mouth.

The [Cook] waited. Halrac’s face didn’t change as he chewed the egg bits, then swallowed. The rest of his team, especially Revi, waited. Briganda pulled Cade’s hand away from his bowl.

“It’s good. And it tastes like the other soup. Just more chicken. I’m almost certain it’s safe, Briganda.”

It’s almost certainly safe. Pebblesnatch exhaled slowly. That was the kind of praise you worked these long hours for. Especially from Halrac. She beamed as the [Scout], of his own volition, took another spoonful.

“The things I do. Are you sure, Halrac? That was a lot of eggs.”

“Doesn’t Ceria eat them raw, Revi? It looks a sight better than most of the cuisine I had as a boy, I must say.”

Typhenous took a bowl and ate with good humor. It was actually a pretty good soup and Pebblesnatch seized a loaf of white bread which would go well with it. Briganda tried some before giving it to Cade.

“Hey, it is good! Nice inn-food. We could have actually made that on the road. Here, Cade. It’s a bit spicy.”

“Spicy?”

The boy was still staring at Pebblesnatch. It was butt-scratching time since she was done cooking. She stared at him.

“Thanks, uh, Pebblesnatch. It looks good. And it tastes…huh. Hey, this is really good!”

Revi’s eyes widened as she took a bite. She relaxed and Pebblesnatch beamed. The Stitchgirl [Summoner] looked around at her team.

“Whew, and here I thought it’d be horrible!”

Pebblesnatch glowered and Typhenous nudged Revi. But the Stitchgirl had never been known for her ability to keep her opinions to herself. Revi sighed.

And then she looked around and saw Riverfarm’s people watching the Gold-rank team eating a Goblin dish with mingled horror and shock. They looked away as Revi glared.

“Halrac, are you sure this was a good idea?”

“Nope. But she kept insisting and it was this or the Goblin’s camp. Which would you have picked?”

“Ah…good idea to have it here.”

The [Cook], oblivious, helped herself to her own dish. She stared around the large mess hall. The Goblins needed to build something this nice! They were working on it with all the wood and such, but everything was so polished. More Skills and time, she decided. She’d tell Leafarmor and Raidpear and Ulvama about it when she got back.

She was in the Unseen Empire’s lands. The Human-part, not the Goblinlands. Pebblesnatch had thought this day would never come—unless she was running for her life. But she had never expected old friends to show up.

Griffon Hunt. Halrac had come home, as well as seeking a mysterious employment offer. He had met Laken Godart and then, when hearing of the Goblinlands, gone to investigate.

And he’d found Pebblesnatch. Or rather, she’d found him. The Goblin’s smile was big on her face.

“…never seen a Goblin smile.”

Someone muttered. Briganda looked about.

“And you never will if you keep your distance. Hey, you want a bite? It’s good soup! What is it, eggs and chicken?”

She waved at the Humans. And most didn’t come over—but one or two did.

Mostly former Windrest villagers. They looked at Halrac as he shrugged and ate. And a Halrac-shrug was good enough for them.

“Is this the Goblin?”

“That’s Pebblesnatch. A Goblin.”

“And you know her?”

Revi rolled her eyes, already out of patience with the same conversation they had gone through countless times over the last week. Typhenous explained.

“She’s an acquaintance, Miss. A [Cook]. She used to work at an inn we stayed at. Her name is Pebblesnatch—”

The Cave Goblin stared blankly at the Human woman and waved. It shocked them, somehow, to know she could hear them. As if they knew Goblins could listen, but not that they really understood.

Halrac was wearing his permanent scowl. Pebblesnatch kept waiting for him to burst into a huge smile or to say this soup had changed him for the better. Maybe not this time?

It was a funny thing. She didn’t know Halrac super well. He was just one of Erin’s guests. But…he had been there. He was from the inn. And when she had been alone in Riverfarm, a face from there was all she wanted to see.

“Thanks for the meal, Pebblesnatch.”

Revi ended up eating two whole bowls. She leaned back with a large sigh.

“Erin is going to flip when she learns Pebblesnatch actually learned how to cook.

“She’s going to flip in more ways than one when she hears about this.”

Halrac pushed back his empty bowl and sat back. The rest of his team nodded. Revi alternatively winced and smiled.

“What do you think she’ll do? Burn down half of Riverfarm?”

Some of the other breakfasters looked up sharply and Revi earned a smack on the back of her head from Briganda.

“Don’t joke about that.”

“Sorry, sorry! Ah, my eye!”

One popped out of its sockets and landed as a bit of cloth in Revi’s bowl. Cade began choking on his spoonful of soup as Revi reached for her eye. Briganda immediately helped him spit up into his bowl.

“Sorry. Anyways, what do we think? We have to tell her, right?”

Revi looked around as she washed her eye in her water cup and put it back in its socket. Pebblesnatch listened with half an ear; she was three-bowls down and currently coma-ing.

“The problem, Revi, is that you were indelicate, but completely correct.”

Typhenous sat back with a sigh. He looked around Riverfarm.

“…And I cannot imagine her attitude will earn her much sympathy around here. Even if we’re doing our best.”

He gestured to Pebblesnatch. Revi grinned.

“Erin won’t care.”

“That’s the problem.”

Halrac growled. After a second, Griffon Hunt all nodded. That was right.

Pebblesnatch was here. So were other Goblins from the Siege of Liscor. Laken Godart had been responsible for the trebuchets that had assailed Liscor. It made sense from the Human perspective. The Great Chieftain Tremborag, Goblin Lords, history with the Drakes, and all that.

But…would Erin Solstice see it that way? They had met Pebblesnatch a while back. And still, they hadn’t [Messaged] Erin to say, ‘hey, we found your Cave Goblin friend, want to pick her up?’

Revi had wanted to on the first day, in the first hour. It had been Halrac and Typhenous who predicted that it might lead to…issues.

Such as Erin Solstice punching an [Emperor]. Such as Erin Solstice leading a Goblin rebellion to mutual bloodshed. Such as Erin Solstice doing anything that she had in the past. Including marshaling Numbtongue to lead a one-Goblin, one-[Innkeeper] raid on Riverfarm that might pull in monsters like Saliss of Lights or…any of her friends.

You could see Erin getting away in Liscor with that—if only because of her history. But Laken Godart? No one wanted to risk it.

So here they sat. Griffon Hunt watched as the Cave Goblin, groaning, lay on the floor on her back. Cade dangled his legs at the table, staring at the Goblin. She wasn’t the monster his Box of Wonders had produced. His mother had tried to explain—some Goblins were evil, but not this one.

That was how the [Emperor] found them. Laken Godart paused in the doorway as everyone sprang to their feet.

“Is…that Goblin well? I’m sensing she’s lying on her back.”

“Bloated, your Majesty. Not dead.”

Rie murmured in his ear. Laken relaxed.

“Ah, good.”

“Your Majesty. Is something amiss?”

Halrac rose to his feet. He was more accustomed to Laken after a week or two of living in Riverfarm. Certainly—Griffon Hunt was willing to call Laken ‘your Majesty’ and stick around for the dirty work.

It had paid off. Briganda adjusted her new belt—which was actually an extremely old Belt of Strength. It made Briganda’s already threatening grip and swing far more intimidating.

And fun fact about good artifacts; it didn’t just enhance her arm muscles, but her back, her legs, everything. Briganda could do a backflip with it on. Or do most of one with armor on; and face plant much to her son’s amusement.

Boots and a belt. Griffon Hunt had taken their cut of the secret escape room they’d found on the first day and the boots were on Halrac’s feet. Typhenous and Revi had both wanted them—and Briganda, again—but they turned out to be non-resizable so they’d only fit Halrac. And even then, they were a bit too big even for his feet.

Boots of Stability. High-grade. If Briganda’s belt was, say, a five out of ten, Halrac’s were a seven on the ‘adventurer’s loot scale’. At first, everyone had assumed they were just Boots of Water Walking. Since you could walk on water with them.

As it turned out, you could walk on quicksand or mud with them and not sink too. Also, if someone rammed Halrac, like, say, Revi with a run-up, she’d just bounce off. Only Briganda could even budge Halrac with them on, and even then, not knock him down.

It wasn’t earthshattering equipment, but it was nice. Whomever the luckless person who’d died in there had been, it was pretty clear they’d been a [Rogue] or [Thief] of some sort. The kind of person who could steal something, backflip or climb over a wall, and run across a river to escape their opponents before hiding in their getaway secret lair and then run out of oxygen and die because the teleport spell broke.

And that was the first thing Griffon Hunt had investigated. The rest hadn’t been as wonderfully rich, but they’d discovered a small gold vein, uncovered two old nests of kleptomaniac animals and monsters—one with a little magic ring that Griffon Hunt had forfeited since Typhenous had a better Ring of Mana—all of which had earned them some share for investigating.

So when they considered telling Erin Solstice, it was carefully because this was a good thing and Griffon Hunt didn’t want to jeopardize it. And as it happened—

“The door in Invrisil?”

Halrac didn’t blink, but Revi traded a glance with the others that everyone, including Laken, noticed. The [Emperor] nodded.

“I have an interest in receiving some visitors through the magic door for a party during the summer solstice. Do you know about the door?”

“We—used it, yes, your Majesty. I don’t know if it could reach Riverfarm, but it can move within…four hundred miles of Liscor? We asked about it.”

Halrac glanced at Typhenous, too-casually. The [Plague Mage] schooled his features and neglected to mention who had helped figure that out. Or that they were on a first-name basis with the owner.

“I believe so, your Majesty.”

Really? Well then—do you happen to know who owns the door?”

“A…[Innkeeper] in Liscor.”

Griffon Hunt saw the [Emperor] raise his brows.

“Really.”

“Yes, your Majesty. Apparently she got it after an adventuring team indebted to her cleared a dungeon.”

“I see. Some relic, then? Rie—”

“I’ll see about the door, your Majesty.”

“Good! And I see you have…Pebblesnatch here?”

Griffon Hunt as a team were dying to put their heads together and figure out how Erin’s name had even managed to come to Riverfarm. And what this might mean. Halrac nodded slowly.

“I was told it would not be a problem, your Majesty?”

“Of course not. I approved it myself. I’m grateful for your—stance—on Goblins, Captain Halrac.”

The man’s eyes flickered. And this was the same [Emperor] who’d assailed Liscor? Well, Erin Solstice might be gratified to hear that. But she still might punch him.

“I see. Thank you, your Majesty. We are making sure Pebblesnatch doesn’t get into trouble. As we said, we know her.”

“From Liscor. It seems a lot happened around that city.”

“…Yes, it does seem that way.”

By now, Pebblesnatch had recognized the [Emperor] and his entourage. She sat up, warily, eying him. Was he here for her famous Dropped Eggs Soup?

As it turned out, she was partially right. When he heard about the soup, Laken wanted to try it and half of his entourage insisted on poison and taste-testing it first.

“Ah, egg-drop soup. With chicken?”

Pebblesnatch’s jaw dropped.

“You know this dish, your Majesty?”

“I think I do. Amazing. Goblin cooking is…no, that can’t be right. I haven’t heard of rice—Lady Rie, do you know what ‘rice’ is?”

“It’s…a Balerosian plant, your Majesty. I’ve had it in some dishes…”

“Aha! We should grow some if possible. It’s quite good. Well, I pronounce a Goblin’s cooking as excellent! Even nostalgic!”

The [Emperor] actually had the audacity to open his eyes just so he could wink. And didn’t that drive Lady Rie insane? He was from Baleros? Or was it a trick? But how had he known what—

“Is there anything you would like us to do, your Majesty? Or should we continue investigating the dig site to the northwest?”

Laken was investigating every underground spot or strange location in a radius around Riverfarm and they were sixteen miles out so far. It wasn’t like every mile had something unique in it. The [Emperor] held up a hand as Gamel proffered a handkerchief.

“Perhaps if time allows, Captain Halrac. But I’d be most grateful if your team—and Pebblesnatch here—can accompany me to resolve a pressing matter in the Goblinlands. I hope with negotiation—and a friendly Goblin—we can find answers.”

The adventurers and Riverfarm’s people stirred. Laken Godart sensed Halrac’s head lift and the Gold-ranked [Captain] eyed him. Laken could not sense what was all in the Goblinlands of course, but he had some knowledge.

For instance, that the Goblins actually possessed the iron-ore deposit there which Riverfarm had begun trading for. Laken had a ‘view’ of both walls, which now encircled all of the Goblinlands with no gaps…and he had people who told him of the growing Goblin settlement.

Yet trouble continued. And Laken felt this one could be…concerning.

“What is the matter, your Majesty? And how may Griffon Hunt assist?”

Laken turned towards Pebblesnatch. The Cave Goblin slowly covered her face with her poofy hat.

“Nothing the Goblins have done, Captain Halrac. It’s just…I do believe there are more of them. A lot more. I’d rather like to know how they got there.”

The Gold-rank team stirred. So did Lady Rie, the entourage, the people of Riverfarm—they all stared at the Cave Goblin pretending to take a nap. Halrac closed his eyes.

“Ah. A good question, your Majesty.”

 

—-

 

A second Goblin tribe had arrived in the night. They had gone into the Goblinlands—over the Human’s walls and been admitted by the Goblin’s walls.

A…fundamental flaw of Riverfarm’s hard work of months was that they had never considered that Goblins might want into the very lands they had worked so hard to safeguard.

This tribe was a medium-sized tribe for the area. In other words, around three times as large as the original Flooded Waters tribe had been; roughly the same size as they had been after Rags took over and before assimilating other tribes.

However, to the more senior Goblins, this tribe represented more than just…other Goblins. Raidpear and Leafarmor of the Redfangs, Ulvama of the Mountain City tribe, and a Flooded Waters tribe [Mining Leader] by the name of Sparkstones were the four Goblins who gathered to meet the Chieftain.

Sparkstones was female, incidentally, and had been part of the Goldstone tribe, whose members even now held positions of respect for their technical knowledge, if not combat or strategic or magical prowess. Pyrite had taught his tribe well.

And she knew this tribe.

“Greystone Tribe.”

She looked at the Chieftain, a surly Hob who smelled of soot and iron to Ulvama. And indeed—his was another mining tribe. The first thing he’d asked was about Pyrite.

Goldstone Chieftain dead.

Dead?

The Greystone’s Chieftain was astonished. And upset. He was a self-proclaimed rival to Pyrite; his tribe had known the Goldstone’s Tribe as the two wandered mining ranges. Unlike Pyrite—his Goblins were specialists in using mineable ore to make weapons of iron, even armor. They were sought-after by other Goblin tribes who paid them to arm their warriors.

Goldstone Chieftain too hard to kill. Mistake.

Dead. Impaled-dead. Sacrifice death. But death.

Sparkstones’ bleak tones convinced the other Chieftain. He had to walk off and kick the nearest Goblin he found. After a brief fight; it had been a Mountain City Goblin, he came back.

Good miner, Goldstone Chieftain. Good miner. Many pretty, worthless stones.

And that was all he said. If he sounded callous; he had seen it before. Even good tribes died.

What interested Ulvama was the state of the tribe, not why the Greystone Chieftain had come. She knew why he had come.

She had summoned his tribe.

The Greystone Tribe was a proper one. It had a [Shaman], it did not have an odd tribal composition, or something unique about it like…every other tribe in the Goblinlands. It was not freakishly strong like the Redfangs with an imbalance of Hobs; the Greystones had seven total and they looked askance at the Redfang Hobs, probably hoping their Chieftain wouldn’t make them challenge the famous tribe to see who was best.

They also had a [Shaman]. She was a [Stoneshaper Shaman], low-level but with the kind of spells that really helped a tribe like the Greystones. Ore detection, melding stone to move the right way, sensing or preventing passage collapses…

She bowed repeatedly to Ulvama, who condescended to let her join the Greystone Chieftain for this meeting. The Hob rumbled.

Good walls. Lots of Humans. Shaman say come. So come. Hunted-death otherwise.

Raidpear and Leafarmor nodded knowingly. So did Sparkstones. Ulvama made an irritable noise.

“What hunters? Where was Greystone Tribe before this? Explain.”

She spoke in the common tongue. Reluctantly, the Greystone Chieftain rumbled more explanations.

To the two Redfang Hobs, Leafarmor and Raidpear, the Greystone’s plight was one that many tribes that weren’t the Redfangs had suffered. His tribe was average-sized. Which meant they sometimes would raid very weak [Trader] caravans, steal, attack villages if desperate—but they never really fought Humans. Indeed, the Greystones lived off of trading with other tribes rather than conflict.

And if a rising tide raised all ships or whatever the saying was, a strong Goblin brought wrath down upon every tribe. The Goblin Lord was dead at the Siege of Liscor, but the Humans had kept eliminating Goblin tribes for months thereafter.

Too many Humans. Too many hunters. Tribe hide. Tribe run. Much running-death. Too-strong Humans come. Gold-ranks. And then…

The Greystone Chieftain shuddered.

Arcsinger.

The other Goblins went quiet. Even Ulvama bit her lip in silence.

Elia Arcsinger, the famous Named Adventurer was operating out of Invrisil. And wherever her famous name travelled—Goblins died. The Greystones had been trading with three other Goblin tribes in the eastern hills around the same time as the Ogre raids. Retaliation from adventuring teams had wiped out the other tribes to his knowledge and sent the Ogres fleeing higher. The Greystone Chieftain had been prepared to do the same—when Ulvama had found his [Shaman].

“Ulvama?”

Raidpear looked at Ulvama. Leafarmor frowned darkly and Sparkstones struck a shower of sparks into the fire she was building, muttering. Ulvama smiled sweetly at Raidpear.

“This place is safe. So more Goblins make it more safe.”

She fooled only the Greystone Chieftain’s…[Shaman]. The other Hobs and Sparkstones exchanged looks. Ulvama’s ambitions had not died with Tremborag. And she seemed keen on building the Goblin’s base of power, here.

The problem was that—Leafarmor dragged Raidpear away to have a quiet argument. Ulvama would have listened in, but she didn’t really need to.

The two Hobs argued. Leafarmor made several gestures spelling out Raidpear’s entanglement with Ulvama in a relationship was affecting his bias when it came to taking her to task for disciplinary issues—especially without consulting the leadership.

Raidpear, less eloquently, tried to defend himself that while he was perhaps affected, his overall commitment to the safety of Goblins was not mitigated by his sentiments for Ulvama. If anything, they offered a valuable insight into her tribe and a parallel bias as it pertained to—

At this point Leafarmor hit him. Ulvama rolled her eyes as the two Goblins got into a short fistfight, egged on by the other Redfangs. She knew this would be trouble. But it was one she was willing to dare.

She did not like Gold-rank adventurers, no matter what Pebblesnatch said. She did not trust the [Emperor]’s words. She wanted Pebblesnatch to come back now. Besides—the Greystones could help mine.

 

—-

 

The Goblins had begun mining the ore deposits they had coincidentally been placed near. That was the basis for the interchange between Humans and Goblins.

Few of the Unseen Empire were good [Miners] to begin with, and while Laken Godart had lucked out that some were of the Goldstone tribe. Now, the Goblins had iron in abundance.

But they craved steel. Nails, hammers, and so on. Cut wood, like the Humans could manufacture and Pebblesnatch so loved. Spices, cooking materials.

So they traded. It had really begun to pick up as Griffon Hunt arrived. Pebblesnatch being willing to gesticulate and point at things the Goblins wanted—along with a few other Goblins—meant the Humans would bring things the Goblins wanted, the Goblins would put bags of ore on the ground, and they’d point and go ‘nuh’ until both sides were reasonably happy.

It also helped with matters like crime—such as there were between Goblins and Humans. Goblins stealing from farms and warehouses had precipitated a lot of bad will and since Laken Godart wasn’t able to imprison or punish Goblins as easily as Humans, he’d instituted an easy system.

Any Goblin who was caught stealing was ‘ransomed’ at their body weight in ore. Until then, the Goblins received no supplies from the Unseen Empire. The Goblins considered it a good alternative to being shot—and it stymied the thefts.

After the second portly Hob was caught sneaking out of a henhouse at night with a bunch of eggs and five hens, an enraged Sparkstones had come down on the thefts. No more! Unless it was a really small Goblin who could get some produce, that was. But no more!

All this to say that when Pebblesnatch raced back into the Goblinlands to tell Ulvama that the Humans wanted to know why there were more Goblins, there wasn’t an immediate rush to battle stations. The Goblins, like Griffon Hunt, had realized there was a potential here for a good thing. Not a perfect thing. A thing born out of blood and death. But they’d be silly to turn it down because of that.

“Pebblesnatch, tell Humans other Goblins come because they hear it is safe.”

Safe? How Goblins hear?

Leafarmor folded her arms. Ulvama rolled her eyes.

“Goblins hear.

“Emperor is not stink-mind. Emperor knows no Goblins escape.”

“Goblins listen to the wind. Tell [Emperor] that.”

Pebblesnatch opened and closed her mouth. And how was she supposed to say all that? She did her best; Ulvama had been teaching her.

“Emperor stink-brain.”

Ulvama raised her smacking-hand and Pebblesnatch leapt behind Raidpear. The Hobgoblin smacked his lips.

“Pebblesnatch make good foods in Human-land?”

Dropped Eggs in Soup! Pebblesnatch nodded eagerly. Ulvama’s ears perked up. But hold on! They weren’t done with this Goblin issue!

…Unfortunately, everyone else seemed to be. The Greystone Chieftain was consulting with Sparkstones—mostly about what they could expect to mine and how the food situation was looking. He brightened up as Sparkstones pointed at Pebblesnatch.

“Dropped Eggs? Mm. Make, make.”

Leafarmor ushered the little Cave Goblin over to her cooking area—considerably less fancy and hygienic than the Human ones—but Pebblesnatch had Skills now. The [Forager Cook] happily grabbed the biggest pot. She was so glad she’d tested out her recipe on Griffon Hunt first!

Raidpear. The Humans. Pebblesnatch tells them first.

Ulvama plucked at Raidpear’s shoulder. They had to be assuaged! The Redfang looked at her blankly.

“Mountain City thinking. Humans get angry anyways. Not Pebblesnatch fault.”

She blew out her cheeks. Mountain City thinking? It was so much harder for Ulvama to find support—and Raidpear was no Tremborag, undisputed ruler of the tribe who thought along the same lines. Leafarmor had as much authority as he did.

Frustrating! She had been able to command thousands of Goblins at her whim, and the entire tribe through Tremborag! The [Shaman]’s magical body paints began to glow as she got annoyed.

“Pebblesnatch tells Humans—”

Ulvama tells Humans herself. Ulvama has best words.

Leafarmor twisted as Pebblesnatch adjusted her hat and prepared to work the wonders of culinary magic. Ulvama hesitated. But Sparkstones looked up with the Greystone Chieftain, Raidpear’s ears twitched as he kept his silence—

She’d gone too far this time. The [Shaman] bared her teeth as the other Goblins regarded her expectantly, and then turned away. After a minute, she turned and stomped off towards the Human’s lands.

It wasn’t just that it was a mix of tribes and not the Mountain City tribe alone. It was that—Raidpear, Leafarmor, even the Greystone Chieftain, were not the kind of Goblins to inspire the others to action. They had not the ambition, not the drive. Ulvama needed…a [Chieftain]. Or for that damn door to start working.

 

—-

 

“Anything?”

“…It looks like she’s gone back to making that soup.”

What? I thought she was going to ask about the new Goblins! What do we do?”

Revi lost her temper as Griffon Hunt waited on the Human walls. Halrac said nothing. He was watching from a vantage point…which was Briganda’s shoulders.

The Unseen Empire had yet to put up towers, which would have given their [Archers] an unparalleled shooting position. And that was because Laken had let civilians make the damn wall. The Goblins had sniper towers, but Halrac didn’t want to stand on the ones Riverfarm had in progress.

“Halrac, you’re a lot heavier than Cade. You going to take much longer?”

Briganda glowered up at Halrac. He didn’t look down at her.

“Stop moving. I think one of them’s coming this way.”

“Pebblesnatch? One of the Redfangs?”

“No. The [Shaman].”

“Ah!”

Typhenous smiled and stroked his beard. Revi looked at him in disgust.

“You old lecher. That’s a Goblin.

“Is it my fault if I admire body art, Revi? Incidentally, have you ever met some of the [Sailors] in ports with those amazing tattoos all over?”

“Not impressive, Typhenous. I’m a Stitchgirl. String Folk can put all kinds of tattoos on their body.”

“Yes, but that’s just thread and ink, isn’t it?”

“So’s an actual tattoo. Ours are just easier to put on and remove.”

“That’s my point.”

“Silence. Let’s hear what the [Shaman] has to say. Typhenous, you’re on defensive spell duty. Mind she doesn’t hex us or cast a charm spell.”

Halrac hopped down. He stared at the [Shaman] making her way warily over with a dozen smaller Goblins as backup.

“She’s pointing at you. You want to go alone or do you want us?”

Briganda observed. Ulvama pointed at Halrac, and then pointed to the neutral zone, and beckoned as she walked forwards with her staff. Halrac grunted.

“I’ll hear her out. Revi, Typhenous—”

“Yeah, yeah. We’ve got your back.”

The [Scout] descended from the wall and walked forwards as Ulvama waited, staff in hand. Halrac’s face did not change. He knew she was watching him—and his empty hands, probably to make sure he wasn’t holding the invisible bow. Halrac did not arm himself.

But neither did he smile as he stopped across from Ulvama.

He did not like the female [Shaman]. She did not like him. Halrac…had some feelings for Pebblesnatch, who had practically clung to him. But Ulvama? He and she were the kind who’d killed each other over the years.

As if sensing his thoughts, Ulvama bared her teeth.

“Human. Afraid of more Goblins?”

“His Majesty, Emperor Godart, wants to know where they came from and why they’re here.”

Laken had asked Griffon Hunt to intercede since they knew Pebblesnatch. Also—the Redfangs tended to respect the Gold-rank adventurers, albeit grudgingly. Ulvama bared her teeth.

“Far away. Goblins hear of safe place for Goblins. Goblins come. Smart-[Emperor] surely thought of this?”

She spoke with that halting awkwardness of Goblins. Or at least, pretended to. Halrac’s eyes narrowed.

“How did they hear about the Goblin’s encampment here? His Majesty was sure no Goblins had left or entered the area until now.”

Ulvama scratched at the ground with the butt of her staff, drawing something. Halrac was unmoved; Typhenous or Revi would call out if she was casting something. The [Shaman] peeked up, then scowled as she saw Halrac was unmoved.

“Goblins hear things. [Emperor]…[Emperor] sees everything around Goblinlands? And in Goblinlands?”

“Who knows?”

She scowled at him. Halrac saw her flick a claw dismissively—

“[Hex Eater]! Halrac!

Typhenous pointed his staff. Halrac dove to the side as Revi pointed her wand and shouted.

“[Wind Orb]!”

Ulvama’s eyes widened. She raised her staff and the orb of wind burst in midair. The Goblins behind her shouted and raised their weapons. One reached for a horn as Halrac lifted his bow, coming out of his roll.

Stop! Do not blow a horn, idiots!

The [Shaman] shrieked at the Goblins. One choked, lips pursed as he tried to suck the breath back in. At the same time, Typhenous was shouting Halrac down.

“It wasn’t a mind-hex, Halrac! Hold! Hold!

The [Scout] lowered his bow slightly so he was aiming at Ulvama’s leg. The [Shaman] was tensed—her eyes flicked upwards at the old [Mage].

“What was it, Typhenous?”

Briganda was tensed, ready to leap down there. The Goblins were muttering too. The [Plague Mage] chuckled, and in a carrying voice, informed Halrac and the Goblins what the spell had been.

“It was…a flea hex. A minor spell as they go. The [Shaman]—Ulvama?—was trying to attract some onto Halrac.”

“Oh, dead gods.

Revi sighed. Halrac stared at Ulvama. The Goblin pursed her lips, looking peeved.

“Wasn’t there a flea outbreak the last time a Goblin thief was caught and the Goblins had to pay a fine?”

“I think there was indeed. Well, it was slickly-done. And it would have worn off after twenty minutes. Hard to pin on Miss Goblin.”

She bared her teeth at Typhenous, then Halrac.

“Little prank.”

The [Scout]’s eyes narrowed. He put down his bow and the Goblins relaxed, including Ulvama. But Halrac’s scowl was warningly dour.

“I’ve had enough games. You’re quite well-spoken for a Goblin. Why are the Goblins here? Give me a straight answer.”

Ulvama chewed this over. At last, she spat.

“Fine. Goblins came because they heard about ‘Goblinlands.’ Too many Humans hunt them to the east. These Goblins are [Miners]. [Smiths]. They will make more ore and iron for your Humans. Happy?”

“No. But I’ll carry your words to Emperor Godart. How many Goblins are there? How many Hobs? And how armed are they?”

The [Shaman] spat answers and then stomped away. Revi was impressed as Halrac walked away.

“Wow, you actually got her to speak. Apparently that’s Ulvama. She hates Humans more than most.”

“I’m aware.”

Pebblesnatch had pointed her out on Griffon Hunt’s one tour of the Goblinlands. Not far in; just around the outside so she could show them some things from afar. Halrac climbed up the walls and for a moment, stood with his team.

“So? I guess it’s up for the [Emperor] to decide if he wants more Goblins. Let’s tell him. And about the fleas?”

“Tactfully, Revi. No doubt the [Shaman] will stop now her bluff has been called. We’ll bring it up in the throne room.”

“Hah. Nice throne.”

“Don’t laugh. He’s an important client, Revi.”

She ducked her head silently. Halrac looked back at the distant Pebblesnatch which he had seen while on Briganda’s shoulders.

“She looks happy.”

Briganda offered cautiously. Halrac nodded after a moment.

“Happier than I thought a Goblin would be. They’re fed, no one’s actually attacking them…”

He trailed off. And then there was Ulvama. Typhenous stroked at his beard and Revi bit her tongue.

“So, do you think it’s okay? To leave them like this? Just…for a while?”

The Gold-rank Captain folded his arms. Revi went on.

“We’ll just monitor them until we can get a break. In a month, or if another team shows up. And then…we ask to take Pebblesnatch back to Invrisil. Go through the door, Erin’s happy, and we can let her know there are more Goblins here that don’t need rescuing.”

Typhenous nodded. So did Briganda—the issue was Halrac. He stared ahead.

“It’s lying by omission. She would want to know.”

“Halrac! She’ll come here, punch everyone, and cause a riot! You know Erin! She’ll find the Goblins, hear [Emperor] Godart out, and then go, ‘I’m the Face-Punching Consequences girl’ and hit him!”

“The face-punching…”

Typhenous chuckled at the look on Halrac’s face. Revi blushed.

“You know what I mean! She says stuff like that! Look—we’re here. Let’s just watch the Goblins. It’s not like there’s more space back at Liscor, is there? Or that Watch Captain Zevara is keen on having more?”

All valid points. Halrac rubbed at his hair. Was it really okay? He saw Typhenous nodding, and Briganda’s shrug of amiable indifference. Revi looked at the guarded Goblinlands and her face went sober.

“Anyways. It’s not just Erin we’d have to watch for. It’s Numbtongue.”

That was the closing argument. And a good one. If Erin Solstice could accept the Goblins were in a better place—Numbtongue had lost his friends, his tribe—his team at the Siege of Liscor. And the person behind part of that army was here. Halrac wondered what he might do.

“…Fine. Let’s go tell this [Emperor]. And—not a word about Erin Solstice. We don’t tell her, we don’t tell him. If we’re keeping confidences, we do it both ways.”

“Fair enough.”

The others sighed as Halrac led the way back to Riverfarm. That was an adventurer’s brand of honesty for you—as honest as it got, anyways. Revi stretched.

“How much loot do you think’s buried around here, anyways?”

“We got that [Thief]’s Chest of Holding opened. It was trapped. Apparently it’s got scrolls. We’re entitled to a pick—no doubt General Wiskeria will want some, but there is apparently an intact [Firestorm] scroll in there.”

“No way. Really?

Briganda turned to Typhenous eagerly. The [Plague Mage] saw Halrac turn his head.

“Typhenous, we’ll aim for that. You’ll be in charge of it. Not Briganda. Don’t let her touch one.”

Halrac! I was young!”

“What happened?”

“It was before your time, Revi. Briganda burned down our camp and half a forest.”

“I—didn’t know you could activate them by speaking while holding it! I didn’t open it or anything!”

And now they were going to get a scroll and more loot they’d hopefully dig up. The Gold-rank team thought about that.

“You know, Lady Valerund told me that if we could pull in another Gold-rank team she’d make it worth our while. Think we could get any more? Or do we not want to share?”

Revi glanced at the others. Halrac thoughtfully watched a bunch of birds flitting from branch to branch. Now, if this was Liscor, they’d be too terrified to sing…

“Certainly, at some point it would be refreshing to have another Gold-rank team here, in case we run into another Creler nest or a considerable threat. Riverfarm is growing and where there’s this much industry, threats tend to pop up…”

Typhenous comment elicited a wary nod from Briganda. She gestured at her belt.

“But—loot, Typhenous. We’re pulling it in.”

“Obviously, we can wait. But if we were to tell another team…”

The [Shield Maiden] blinked and then smiled.

“…They’d owe us a favor. Smart. A big one too, for a plush job like that.”

All the Gold-ranks nodded. Oh yes. There was such a thing as debts and this—far from being the no-pay, grunt-work job they’d assumed—was a wealthy job with minimal danger and high reward. A team might owe them a lot of favor for something like this.

Like…enough favor to join them on a quest to investigate a Dragon. Not that a Belt of Strength and some Boots of Stability were enough for that. Halrac was trying to figure out how you blocked dragonbreath when you didn’t even know which type. Fire was presumable from what a certain [Innkeeper] had said, but did you want to take that risk?

“Favors, right. Who might we tell? The Horns? The Halfseekers?”

Revi rubbed her hands together eagerly. Halrac made a sound.

“They’re hardly the only teams we know. And they’re not the most professional. We could reach out to some established teams.”

“If it’s Todi, I’ll take off my ears before I have to listen to him on shared duty—”

“Todi’s at the bottom of the list, Revi. I’d rather take a good Silver-rank team first. Or a new Gold-rank team.”

“Good. So…? Briganda?”

“The Onyx Bucklers. Um, who’s professional? Damn—I heard Kerimane disbanded his team…”

“We’ll talk about it. I doubt any team off Izril would want to come all the way here—”

“Halrac, Halrac. With the kind of loot we’ve been getting? If we dig up even another medium-grade artifact we can claim in the next month, I know Chandrarian teams who’ll rush over here and owe us a major favor. Let’s just see what that dig site holds, hmm? The [Emperor] says it looks big. Treasure vault?”

“Keep your expectations low and be careful, Revi.”

But even Halrac couldn’t keep a smile from his lips. Artifacts and loot and egg-drop soup. Everything was looking up for their team. For the Unseen Empire? The Gold-rank team returned to Riverfarm proper just to find a second group had arrived.

Bringing…trouble. Although not necessarily for Griffon Hunt.

 

—-

 

“There’s a lot Wistram doesn’t know, I think. Or most of them don’t. They pretend to, but you just have to ask multiple people. Play on their egos. And they’ll wink or reveal…the point is, I’m almost positive they don’t know what brought us here.”

“Do they have any theories?”

“Lots.”

Elena was sitting down this time, which was helpful. And also not surrounded in whatever black abyss the Elusive Lot had conjured. She had a notepad, a seat, and even some snacks and a drink while she talked.

She did not have anyone else from Earth with her, unlike the mysterious ‘batman’, who had told her others were listening in. If Elena revealed anything—and it was probably not going to be to Aaron—she’d do it afterwards. Anyways, this was mainly her telling her new ally abroad important information.

Elena consulted her notes. She’d been hard at work trying to figure out what was most important to say. Firstly, how they’d all got here.

“There are lots of theories. The biggest ones are that there’s some kind of interdimensional rift that opened and sucked us through. A naturally reoccurring phenomenon or some huge ritual-level spell. What caused it? Well…it might have come from Wistram, actually. But not the [Mages] on the lower floors…have you heard about the Golems?”

“The entrance exam? Yeah.”

Palt shuddered. Erin remembered Ceria telling her about it as well. Elena gulped and went on.

“You have? Well…people have always said they think [Mages], even [Archmages], could still be living up there. Like Archmage Zelkyr. If there was a grand spell that could have teleported us here…”

“But it’s not confirmed? There are no traces?”

“Nope. There are other theories too. But the other real threat is um, the second thing I wanted to bring up. How much do you know about Rhir?”

“I know there are some Earthers there. Has something happened to them?”

“You…could say that. Blackmage—Aaron—isn’t in direct contact with them. The Blighted Kingdom keeps everything locked down, and even Wistram isn’t able to just waltz in. But there’s bad news coming from Rhir. One of the Demon’s biggest threats apparently healed—or came back to life and Wistram was freaking out about it.”

“I heard about that…they think this person could have done it?”

“They call her the Death of Magic. She was on a short list of names of people they thought could cast a spell of that magnitude. She’s…at least Level 70. Probably Level 80? They say she learned magic from Dragons. An [Archmage] of Wistram—a rebel who joined the Demons when the Demon Kingdom was founded…”

Ryoka sat back. But Valeterisa had intimated…she lifted the stone up and spoke urgently.

“There’s a living [Archmage]?”

“Yep. That’s the stuff Wistram likes to keep quiet.”

Well, so much for the Archmages being dead. With Az’kerash, that made two. Ryoka drummed her fingers on the table.

“Okay. Thanks for letting us know. But there’s not much we can do to investigate. And no one here’s going to Rhir.”

“Right. And if I learn anything…but Wistram doesn’t know. Moving on—well, if we’re talking big secrets Wistram has, in general, the scrying orb was the huge one. But I wanted to tell you—they’re almost certain the King of Destruction has an Earther.”

Erin waved her arms frantically. Ryoka nodded. Gazi. Oh no.

“Got it.”

“You do know about the King of Destruction, right? Because they’re really nervous of him, even if all these nations are declaring war.”

“We’re aware. But he’s far away.”

“…Okay, moving on. About the Antinium—Wistram thinks they’re like, the biggest threat Izril has to face. They’re weak, but Wistram keeps putting them high on their list. It’s like—King of Destruction, Death of Magic, Antinium in that order. The Antinium aren’t that bad compared to the ones on Rhir—if they’re still around. Ever since Wistram helped wipe them out at sea—”

Ryoka looked up. Palt stared ahead, avoiding her gaze. And especially Erin’s.

“Elena, how do you know this?”

“I asked. The [Mages] let things slip when they’re quizzing us about Earth. By the way—someone’s buying sulfur. A bunch of it from the big markets. Wistram is tracing it—but all they knew is that it went to Chandrar.”

Fuck.

“Yeah, right? Anyways, listen. Not everyone here is on the same page about…secrets from Earth. I think six people know how to make gunpowder—although two might be talking out their asses. But…we’re not united. I’m trying to get them to agree to keep quiet, but a lot are from other nations or they’re frightened kids and Wistram is bribing them…”

“Are we on the same page that giving Wistram firearms is bad? Is the Elusive Lot?”

“We’re thinking about it. Miss Elena has been arguing with the Council and Archmages. She’s quite persuasive.”

A sly voice. Not Galei or Taxiela. Palt was listening, shuffling his hooves too quietly to be heard. Elena paused and then went on.

“Cara’s on the same page. Look—if you could reach out to her, she’d be a valuable ally. I could give you one of my code signs. And…could we really leave Wistram?”

“The Elusive Lot…seems to be on board?”

Ullsinoi is on board, Miss Elena. Not because we’d like to get rid of you. Far from it. We just believe—oh, what’s that saying? Don’t put all your potions in the same basket. Especially the explosive ones. We’ll talk.”

Elena’s voice didn’t immediately take over after that. Ryoka was fiddling with a quill. What to ask? What to ask? There was a lot that was so specific. How much did they know about the Antinium? But the Elusive Lot were listening.

They couldn’t know—even if they knew Ryoka and Erin were in Liscor—how close the Antinium were to them. Even Palt probably couldn’t explain that, if his look of guilt said anything either way.

Not total trust. And too many questions for answers. At last, Elena sighed.

“I’m sorry. I was trying to look up magic spells or—secrets I could tell you. But we’re just…they’re having some of us take classes as students. Most, actually. Some are inventing things—I think they want us to feel like we’re part of Wistram.”

“Sounds like classic indoctrination.”

“Yeah…yeah, but it’s working. Lots of kids—I told you some survived horrible, things, right?”

“Tell me about them. What’s it like at Wistram? Let’s start there, if we can’t think of anything.”

Ryoka heard a short intake of breath from the other end. Elena hesitated.

“It’s not bad here. Really. We’re all divided up into factions, but we see each other regularly. Wistram—it’s like a bunch of different groups, all fighting over how to do the same thing. Aaron was the first. Aaron Vanwell. He’s Blackmage.”

“What’s he like?”

“…He’s never left Wistram. I don’t think he gets it when we talk about monsters. But he’s a good guy. Younger than I thought, Cara too. He’s about, oh, nineteen? I think the last count was that there were around forty one of us—about half are over eighteen, the rest under. It’s really split. We have a girl—a kid. She popped into—we have this therapy session because when she arrived…”

Ryoka listened with Erin as Elena spoke. Sending a message to the first person she could chat to on the outside world. Erin looked at Ryoka and unspoken—the thought flashed between the two.

They had to do something. Even if it was only to help. And that was because Erin was Erin and…Palt thought the exposure to the outside was good for the Earthers trapped in Wistram. Only—was it Elena being drawn to the outside, or the outside being drawn into Wistram?

Palt wondered what the Elusive Lot’s game was. He had told Ryoka and Erin you could trust them, and you could! They were practical, loyal to some degree, and intelligent. But they were still a faction of Wistram. He wondered if their end goal was to really get Elena out…or reel someone else in.

 

—-

 

A snuffing, panting thing comes up to me to investigate. I hold still.

What do blind men and Runners have in common? We don’t like strange dogs off their leashes. But then again…I scratch at the huge Aldasian warhound’s head and it makes a happy noise.

I do like dogs. And guide dogs are a wonderful companion for some of my friends. Anyways, the [Lord] who brought this pack here gave me some of his love of animals.

Lord Gralton Radivaek, surly and even oafish to anyone that walks on two legs—friends to furry, four-legged animals everywhere. Even cats. But he doesn’t breed cats.

“There you go. Good fellow. He’s blind so don’t run about. That’s Draugmot. Named him after a Draug his mother brought down.”

“Dead gods, he’s huge, Gralton! His Majesty should not be in—would you call off this—this chaos?

Lady Rie sounds exasperated and put upon; she’s trying to hold her ground as a dozen dogs mill around her.

Some of my subjects are watching from far, far away. And I can understand why.

Packs of dogs can be a terrifying thing if they turn on you. And these dogs? Some are smaller, like smart terriers or, well, a griffon-dog that Gralton brought who’s currently surrounded by Griffon Hunt. But some are Aldasian warhounds, or part-wolf mixes that are probably as big as actual wolves from my world due to magic and the variance in dog breeds.

“Stop barking at me, Rie. His Majesty told me to come over whenever I felt like it. We’re allies. And I’ve brought him a gift.”

Gralton growls back; I hear muffled laughter from the side.

“Lord—Lord Gralton! This one won’t stop climbing on me!”

Durene is gently trying to remove a huge puppy trying to lick at her face. Gralton laughs and it’s a pleasant thing to hear.

Dogs. Nearly four dozen dogs, of many different breeds. Gralton stormed into Riverfarm an hour ago, as I was waiting for Griffon Hunt to investigate the Goblin situation. And guess what?

“So they’re all for Riverfarm, Lord Gralton? To what do I owe this pleasure? And I’ll happily accept this gift. But why exactly?”

“The kennels are filling up. Most’ve the breeds we had enough to repopulate. Thought your Unseen Empire needed dogs. They’ll be good ratters instead of that crow-[Witch], herders, guards…anyways, there wouldn’t be any dogs to give if you hadn’t sent the [Witches].”

The man clears his throat, awkwardly.

“Thank you, your Majesty.”

I smile.

“You’re welcome. And we are allies, Lord Gralton. About time it paid off after that long ride north, right?”

“True!”

He even laughs like a dog barking. And then Lord Gralton’s striding about, keen to introduce me to all the dogs he’s brought.

No poodles or Chihuahuas I’m glad to note. They don’t exist for Lord Gralton—he was offended I even asked if he had them.

“What, lapdogs? Damned sorry things. They can’t live except to be fed and pampered. I’ll keep them, but not raise them. Closest I’ll get is a thinking-pug. One of the Melull breeds.”

“Melull?”

“Smart dogs. Close to lapdogs—but let ‘em loose in the wild and they’ll survive. Smarter than any other dog in the world. They can draw, understand you perfectly—[Mages] loved to have them.”

An entire world of dogs unbeknownst to me is Gralton’s kingdom. Myself, I’m just pleased to have his gift. Certainly, animals are welcome to the Unseen Empire. And Radivaek-dogs are like Walchaís horses, apparently. Famous across Izril, even the world.

“Lord Gralton, this is a magnificent little Griffon!”

Revi calls out from where she’s petting the dog her team was named after. Fun fact—since I only heard it, I always thought it was ‘Griffin Hunt’. But apparently it’s a play-on-words.

“Griffon Hunt. Didn’t your team buy some dogs from me years back? What happened to them?”

The [Lord] clasps Halrac’s hand and the [Scout] nods.

“We let them go to a [Hunter]’s team, Lord Radivaek, after the incident in the north. We wouldn’t have let them die or abandon them.”

“Oh, the plague thing. Well—good. I’d have to kill you if they got eaten by a Griffin!”

Gralton laughs and only Briganda, the mother-warrior, joins him. I’ve heard of the team’s past—the old man, Typhenous, is shifting his feet and looking down.

“Your team used to use griffons to hunt…Griffins, Captain Halrac?”

The [Scout] turns to me and nods—then remembers I can’t see. Perhaps because I’m so able to ‘look’ at people because of my landsense. Well—I caught the nod so yes, I can see as well as any person! Just don’t ask me to read your features. Or tell you what color anything is.

It’s better than nothing.

“Yes, your Majesty. Griffons are excellent hunters and guide-animals. More than that—they’re good at sniffing out Griffin nests and provoking them into attacking.”

“Really?”

“That’s how we used to ambush Griffins, your majesty. A griffon runs out and barks and the flying monster goes after it. They’re too small for a meal, but they can taunt monsters.”

“Smart dogs. Smart team. You freelancing or does Laken have you working for him?”

“They’re on a contract, Gralton. Digging up artifacts.”

“Speaking of which…we should get to the next site. Your Majesty.”

Halrac bows. I assume he’s delivered the report to Prost about the Goblins. It must not be dire and Gralton’s here, so I bid them farewell.

“Gold-rank team. And they’re working for you for a song or do you have more gold than I thought?”

Gralton grunts. I walk with him, surrounded by a furry, panting horde.

“Oh, they’re working practically for free, Gralton. I think we pay them a few gold per week.”

How? Did you rescue them from the snow as well?”

I smile as he twists to stare at me.

“No, they’re content to work for cheap so long as I give them half of what they dig up. Secrets in the ground.”

Gralton listens as I explain about the landsense and then he exhales and swears.

“I’ve had dogs sniff out buried monsters and treasure before, but every damn seam and passageway? You’ll leave Izril without any secrets left to find!”

“I can’t go deep, Gralton. Anything long-buried stays there and I hope there’s nothing like a monster down there. An [Emperor] has to improvise.”

“Sure enough. Sure enough. Listen, Godart. I came here for two reasons. Why don’t you and I feed the hounds and we’ll discuss it privately? How’re the Goblins doing, by the way? Still building damn walls?”

That’s Gralton for you. Better than Rie? Well, I don’t suspect Gralton of trying to poison Lady Bethal Walchaís or ordering Wiskeria to attack the Goblins. I know it’s only Ryoka’s supposition—but I’m beginning to believe it if only because Rie’s the only person who’s ever given me the impression she’s got more yet to hide. [Witches] are different and besides—they weren’t here when it all went down.

Which begs the question of course: why? Well, one thought springs to mind. And that’s a name I’ve been hearing on a lot of people’s tongues.

Interesting. I just had a thought. I have never heard Lady Rie mention them.

 

—-

 

“The Circle of Thorns. They’re popping up on everyone’s tongues. You heard about Lord Tyrion’s boys?”

“No.”

Lord Gralton turns to stare at me. I sit there, feeling like this is another ‘obvious thing’ I should know about. But…don’t.

“No one told you? Not Lady Valerund or…no, she’d be the only one, wouldn’t she?”

“She hasn’t brought it up. Perhaps she thinks it’s not important? I heard about Lady Reinhart surviving an assassination attempt, but I’m not looking outwards.”

“You should on this. I came to ask about it myself. Veltras is getting desperate. He asked me to get a message to you—I don’t think he knows you’ve got [Mages] with [Message] spells of your own.”

Really?

We’re sitting together in my private chambers—in Riverfarm. Durene’s cottage is still a place of residence—but more seldom do each of us stay there. We have a rather large home in Riverfarm, as close to a mansion as there is, despite me objecting to the unnecessary space.

As it turns out, it’s necessary to let Bismarck and Frostwing have the freedom to move about. Not that Bismarck gets to roam around indoors all the time; he’s generally ‘helping’ by the fields. The [Farmers] can actually get him to pull a plough if they guide him with food, but he’s mostly there just as a mascot. Who eats too much.

Frostwing is shrieking at the dogs milling about the backyard. I tell her to quiet down so we can talk and she moodily flies to the roof. Frostwing is another way I can monitor the Goblins, by the way. Although she never actually flies over the Goblinlands—they’re aware she’s my bird, but I’m not going to risk a Goblin with a bow shooting at her.

“Tell me about this, Gralton. What about Lord Tyrion’s sons? I know he saved Magnolia Reinhart…”

“From the Circle of Thorns.”

My eyes don’t narrow since they’re closed. But my brow definitely creases. Lady Rie did not mention that.

“Hmm. I only heard it was an assassination attempt.”

“I guess my ears are sharper.”

Radivaek takes a huge bite of the mutton he’s sharing with his dogs. I motion for him to go on as I turn in my seat.

“Durene? Can you find Lady Rie? Tell her I’d like her to come here to consult on Lord Gralton’s issue. And tell…oh, Prost to come too.”

“Anyone else?”

She’s out, feeding Frostwing and Bismarck in the yard. I think. Rie and Prost are my go-to confidants. Then I have a thought and call back.

“Eloise and Hedag, of course. Wiskeria too. And if she’s here—summon Witch Mavika. Tell her it’s about [Witches].”

Gralton is looking at me as I turn back towards him.

“You really did embrace the [Witches]. You know—in some parts adventurers are paid to chase them off.”

“And do villages drown [Witches]? Burn them at stakes?”

“Sometimes. And if you’re going to lecture me about Goblins…huh. Sounds about damned right. People always say [Witches] bring plague, bad luck, stillborns…wonder how true that is.”

I don’t have much of a smile, but I’m glad he sees it my way. And while we wait for the others to arrive, Gralton catches me up on what no one’s told me. Then he gives me Tyrion’s plea.

 

—-

 

By the time they arrived, Laken Godart was unable to sit still. He was pacing. And—angry. Furious.

Enraged.

“Those cowardly—”

The next part was a stream of invectives in a language no one knew. Durene might have recognized a few words at best, and the language since Laken had been teaching her.

But Lady Rie? She stopped in the doorway, listening hard. That wasn’t made-up. Nor was it Drathian. She’d asked for a sample and it wasn’t even close.

“Your Majesty? What is—”

Enter! No questions, Rie!”

The [Emperor] whirled and snapped. He was angrier than Rie had ever seen him in recent memory. Only a few times had she ever seen him this furious. Catching the edges of his mood, she sat. Suddenly—Lady Valerund was worried.

The rest entered. Prost sat alert, Durene sidling in after Hedag. The [Witches] sensed the [Emperor]’s mood; how could they not? They were watchful.

Mavika came last. She wouldn’t have except for how Laken had phrased his request.

The bird-like woman was, in her way, as much changed by her class as Radivaek. More so, in fact. A huge raven perched on her shoulder and Rie sidled away from her. It was Mavika who spoke in her sibilant voice.

Why did you call me, [Emperor] of men?”

A reminder. Laken Godart turned. For once, he wasn’t about to play even-handed, calm counterpart of Mavika.

“Because I want you to listen, Witch Mavika. Gralton—please—tell the others what you just told me.”

The [Lord] was only too willing. In silence, the others listened. And Lady Rie felt the uneasiness in her stomach turn to—well, something like fear.

“Lord Tyrion’s sons are poisoned. The Circle of Thorns is holding ‘em hostage unless Lord Tyrion bows to their demands. He doesn’t say what. But he asked me to appeal to Emperor Godart. His words are…let me check.”

The [Dog Lord] found a folded piece of paper, carelessly crammed into his vest. He stared at it, and then read it out loud slowly.

“…hope Emperor Godart will recall any debts and the goodwill of House Veltras in this hour of need. If there is any [Alchemist] or [Healer] of such Skill as to be able to assist…he wants you to help find the cure.”

Rie stirred. This—was not good. The look on Laken’s face was murderous. She had feared this would happen. She hadn’t imagined Tyrion would reach out to Laken himself. It proved how desperate he truly was.

Damn Gralton. This was why Rie had omitted the Circle of Thorns as much as possible around Laken! It was not…

Not a good look. To put it mildly. Not all of the Circle’s highest members moved alike. Someone had ordered Magnolia’s death. Someone else—not the same person who’d ordered the assassination—had ordered the poisoning. That much Rie knew.

There were reasons. Good ones. The Circle…but Laken Godart had been introduced to them in the worst way possible. Rie covered all this with genuine distress for the two boys.

“Your Majesty—”

“You knew about this Lady Rie? And neglected to mention it in your daily briefings?”

All eyes turned to Rie. The [Lady] answered, as if bound by truth spell.

“I…apologize, your Majesty. I did not think it was pertinent. I assumed whatever one of the Five Families were to deal with was removed from Riverfarm’s affairs and that of the Unseen Empire.”

“I see. In the future, anything of note in Izril should be directed towards me, Lady Valerund.”

She inclined her head humbly. But it did not escape her notice; Laken Godart had been genuinely surprised by the news. So did he have sources of information outside of Riverfarm that were so specific? Or had he really known how to make trebuchets all by himself? Or was it so sporadic?

Intrigue was a game of learning and watching what you gave away. However—it was different depending on who you played against. And right now, the [Emperor] was too furious to be subtle.

It didn’t mean the game wasn’t going on. But Rie had a sinking feeling. She told herself that there was little he could do.

“Poison. Terrible things. Many a Terandrian dynasty has suffered from that sort of thing.”

As if you wouldn’t know. You come from those very houses on Terandria. Rie saw Eloise innocently sipping her tea. As if a pointed hat took away her past.

“Poison, your Majesty? And Tyrion Veltras is appealing to the Unseen Empire? But surely he has [Healers]. [Alchemists]. All of the Five Families could cure most poisons.”

Wiskeria looked uncomfortable. Laken shook his head. Radivaek bared his teeth as he tore another strip of meat off to feed to a waiting dog.

“They tried. Last count over forty dead [Healers] and [Alchemists] ran afoul of [Assassins]. No one’s even identified what’s making the boys sick before they get knifed in the back.”

“[Assassins]. And they’re actually threatening the Five Families?”

The [Paladin] was incredulous. Rie shook her head. A half-Troll [Paladin]. Well, that might explain why she had so much trouble charming Laken Godart if that was his…taste. Almost as bad as Wuvren—

“Threatening the families of [Alchemists] and so on, Miss Durene. And your Majesty, I caution you. Even the Five Families have been affected by the assassinations. Riverfarm is…vulnerable. Despite your protections.”

The totems couldn’t stop one of the Guild’s finest. They could walk across the ground invisible, or teleport in, or fly. Rie—didn’t want Laken Godart to incur the Circle’s wrath.

Beyond her fears of him doing something rash, though, Rie was still a bit confident. And that was because—she explained the issue.

“Reaching Lord Veltras’ manor is a long trip, your Majesty. Doable in any other time with speed—even overnight! Especially with a carriage, or dedicated travel-specialist. Lord Veltras himself could make the journey in—but these are not safe times. Any [Healer] or [Alchemist]…or [Witch]…would be exposed.”

She nodded to the four [Witches] in the room and saw three pointed hats turn in affront. Mavika’s didn’t. She just narrowed her eyes.

“Is that so, Lady Rie?”

“If Lord Veltras cannot do it—as I said, the situation is horrific, your Majesty. But I do not think this is Riverfarm’s time to strike at a foe like this…Circle of Thorns? They’re unknown, perhaps not even Izrilian…”

Don’t overplay your hand. Rie shut up. Gralton rumbled as he sat back and tossed the bone to the fighting pack of dogs, who raced outside after it. Rie was grateful that Prost closed the door.

“The Circle of Thorns. Well, that’s the second time they’ve intersected with Riverfarm in a meaningful way.”

Rie felt perspiration begin to touch at her neck and back. Did he mean…?

“Witch Mavika, is this the same group that attacked your coven? Wiskeria’s?”

Oh. Rie relaxed a bit. Mavika nodded. Her voice wasn’t a hiss, but it was low, intent, as was her posture. Like a bird eying a rival.

“They named themselves that. As if it were to strike fear into the coven. So they said. The ones I hunted said little of value. They were tools.”

She killed the Ranks. Low-grade [Assassins] which the Guild could replace. At very little cost. No doubt they’d swarmed the poor [Witches] of Wiskeria and Mavika’s coven. Rie bit her lip.

When she was one of the Petals, the highest position on the Circle’s inner council, she’d apply more finesse and grace to how they handled things. Sometimes the Circle was a delicate kiss, other times all the elegance of a sledgehammer on a hand. The inner members were a varied lot in styles.

“Then it seems the [Witches] owe the Circle a grudge. As for Riverfarm? The Unseen Empire has no personal issue with any particular noble—and few favors as well. House Radivaek and House Byres are our allies. Lord Tyrion’s house is…affiliated. But I don’t know if I owe him any favors. That’s my stance.”

The [Emperor] calmed down a bit. Lady Valerund exhaled silently. Good, he was being logical. That was wh—

However. Anyone who stoops to poisoning children and hostage-taking is as good as an enemy. How would you trust someone like that?”

Damn! And everyone was nodding along, including Rie. Prost, Durene—well, they were righteous [Farmers]. Wiskeria believed in law, which was commendable, but foolish, Eloise was smiling and doing that obnoxious tip of the hat.

And Hedag? Oh, Rie rolled her eyes as the [Witch] with the axe laughed.

“Well said, Emperor! But if words were deeds, we’d not need for the Hedag. Do you intend to swing at this Circle? For you’ve surely seen what happens when the axe comes the other way. The Drake’s fires are louder than the [Assassin]’s blade. But the other will come for Riverfarm.”

“Well put, Witch Hedag. Emperor Godart, I encourage you to think over this matter. I would not wish to endanger Riverfarm—or put one of our [Witch] allies to undue risk! Which I assure you will come if we enter this situation unguarded!”

Rie jumped in a touch breathily. Laken’s head swung towards her.

“I’m well aware that the Drake [Infiltrators] were a direct result of our attack on Liscor, Lady Rie. Neither am I ignorant of the dangers of [Assassins].”

Oh, but you are! You have no idea how the Guild’s best can operate! Rie wished she’d told Laken more, now. A Level 50 [Assassin] could walk into Riverfarm and leave nothing living. Perhaps one of the [Witches] could fight someone like that. But this was not how it was supposed to go!

“Lord Veltras is calling for any favor he can, your Majesty. However, the fact remains that in order to cure his sons, an antidote for a poison that is unknown is needed! Someone must go to House Veltras, to the west. And the only specialist I could name in Riverfarm with that level of knowledge would be…”

She glanced to one side. And everyone looked at the old [Lady] with the cup of tea. Rie nodded at Eloise. But what she was really thinking was—

If I have to, I’ll let you ride to House Veltras, Eloise. And you will not make it.

That was the best solution she could imagine. Laken made an effort which Rie would publicize, and the Circle wouldn’t be interfered with. Laken’s fingers drummed on the table.

“Is that your belief, Witch Eloise? Who among the [Witches] in Riverfarm are good with poisons? In Izril?”

Eloise’s eyes flicked towards Laken and then at Hedag and Mavika. The two gave her silent looks Rie tried to interpret.

“In Riverfarm? I believe you mean, cures, your Majesty. Wiskeria, for instance, knows poisons. Cures are much harder. You can mix swamp water into a cup and hope it makes someone sick, but neutralizing a poison…if it were simple, I’d name Agratha, and half a dozen other [Witches].”

“And for this case?”

“Probably myself. In Izril, there are oh, a number of experts. I know of someone as accomplished as I am in both poisoning and curing. But—I doubt she would consent. Among the healers, then, I’d be most suited in this region.”

Eloise’s eyes slid sideways to Mavika and the older [Witch] shook her head slightly. Rie’s eyes narrowed.

Another expert? Well, it didn’t matter. She’d have to arrive at the mansion and there was at least one of the Faces there ready to halt anyone.

“Really? Then, Witch Eloise, do you think you could cure a poisoned [Lord]? Two of them?”

“Yes.”

What a fast answer! Eloise sipped her tea with the unshakable confidence that made Rie very nervous. She went on.

“In time, certainly. But as Lady Valerund says—the issue is not merely me attending to these two poor children, but arriving there in one piece. And I fear, your Majesty, that the journey is too dangerous for me to undertake.”

Rie exhaled. Laken frowned.

“Really, Witch Eloise? What if I were to offer Witch Mavika the chance to oppose her foes and her price? Certainly—if I couldn’t name it myself, House Veltras can. And an escort? Beniar, Griffon Hunt—”

“No, your Majesty. Please, hear Witch Mavika out.”

Eloise gestured to Mavika. The [Emperor] stopped and Rie was rewarded with a look of genuine frustration.

“Surely, Witch Mavika, you could escort Eloise that far?”

The bird-[Witch] looked uncomfortable. She folded her arms as her raven glared around the room.

“Each one to their task, Emperor Godart. If you ask me to kill one of this Circle’s agents, this I may consider, with spell and malice and wing and claw. But if you ask me to protect—it is not my craft, and not what I do. An [Assassin] is honed to kill. That is not my craft or will.”

So she’d fail. Everyone interpreted this after a moment. Laken emitted a frustrated sigh. Eloise adjusted her hat again. And Rie was…

Impressed, really. Look at these two [Witches], being practical. They didn’t outright say they understood how dangerous the Circle of Thorns was, but they were refusing all the same. Well, she had heard [Witches] were a sensible lot.

“Even if it’s not your specialty, Witch Mavika, what about…an army? Let’s say you, a Gold-ranked team, Lord Radivaek?”

“I have dogs. Not that I’d pit them against poison-wielding bastards. But go on, Godart.”

“Witch Hedag, your role strikes me as protection. What about you? Other [Witches]?”

A booming laugh from Hedag, but she shook her head.

“You mistake me, Godart-boy, although I see how you came to the conclusion! But think of a Hedag. A Hedag comes once there’s rot to be found and hacks it away. If I protect—it’s those that cry out for help, from small evil. Small men and women. Not flashing blades. Not a hero’s lot.”

“Gold-ranks as well, your Majesty. Griffon Hunt is certainly capable, but Captain Halrac and his team are specialized for monster-slaying. It is not impossible, but I caution you…”

Rie trailed off delicately. She was waiting, and rewarded as Laken sighed. He was losing his temper. Durene looked just as angry—but Laken shook his head.

“I begin to see why even the Five Families are having trouble. Safeguard someone all the way there to try to cure them, eh? I…understand, Witch Eloise.”

“Thank you, your Majesty.”

She stopped fidgeting and adjusting her hat. The [Emperor] shook his head.

“Gralton, thank you for bringing this to me. I don’t know…I’ll see what can be done. Why don’t we break? It’s about lunch anyways and I need to clear my head.”

“I could punch something. Is that tree still needing to be uprooted?”

Durene growled. And like that, the meeting ended. Mavika stalked out of the house—her raven left her shoulder with an angry caw, no doubt reflecting her emotions. The [Witches] were silent as they left.

“I—shall attend to my duties, your Majesty. Mister Prost?”

The [Farmer] walked out with Rie, shaking his head.

“A terrible thing, poison. And to those two boys, Lady Valerund.”

“Terrible indeed, Mister Prost.”

He really meant it. He was an honest man, as far as Rie could tell. It was one of the reasons why she liked Riverfarm. An honest [Emperor], people who were hardworking, able to rebuild time and time again—this was what Izril needed.

The Circle was there to do what honest, hardworking people never thought of. Rie exhaled. She’d have to monitor Laken Godart closely to make sure he didn’t take it in his head to do something stupid. The Circle was aware people would come to Tyrion’s aid.

By land, by sea, by magic—nothing was going to reach him save as the Circle willed it. Rie knew some of the plan and she had no desire to watch the Unseen Empire suffer. It was very, very good that the [Witches] were sensible.

She hurried off to communicate with the Circle and get updates. And that was Rie Valerund’s big mistake. She should have been watching more carefully.

 

—-

 

When Lady Rie is gone, I sit back down. Gralton’s left, Durene’s gone off to vent her fury, and so is everyone else.

I think that confirms it. Lady Rie seemed passionately concerned for Riverfarm—but she leaned a bit too hard on the ‘let’s not anger the Circle, shall we?’ angle. A bit too little shock and concern for two children dying of poison, or so I feel.

Or maybe I’m just biased because I think I’m right. Time to find out. I stretch and, just in case someone’s listening via spell or in person, remark to myself.

“I think I shall go for a walk. Gamel? I’m going to have a walk in the forest. Have a horse readied for me, please?”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

My [Knight] appears and after a few minutes, I’m off. Let’s see…along the Goblinlands is probably good. Few people go that way, and there’s a nice forest we cut in half with those damned walls.

 

—-

 

Pebblesnatch stared down at the [Emperor] of Riverfarm from the wall. She was in one of the towers, hiding from Ulvama. Pebblesnatch had stolen her magical dyes as food coloring for her pot and Ulvama was ready to smack her silly.

She’d come across the [Emperor] quite by chance. He was busy discussing some Human-problem with Gamel, the young man who was keeping him company. They had another escort of [Riders] keeping a great distance. Pebblesnatch had keen ears though, so she heard Laken and Gamel talking.

Someone was sick? Oh no! But they could cure them—but they couldn’t because of [Assassins], whatever that was. Some kind of…of…monster? Evil Humans?

Pebblesnatch listened to Ulvama shouting furiously behind her. You know, if she was more kindly disposed towards this [Emperor], and if Ulvama was less irate—and if Pebblesnatch had the lexicon to express herself—she would have told Laken that Ulvama was great at healing stuff.

She could cure Pebblesnatch-induced food poisoning, Goblins who got sick from mushrooms—she was really good at it! Too bad Laken Godart wasn’t able to order Ulvama around like his subjects.

Still…maybe this was Pebblesnatch’s big chance? Ulvama could cure this person, everyone would be happy, and Pebblesnatch, after taking her due credit, would be so beloved she’d get enough ingredients to make anything she wanted! The Humans would let the Goblins go into the empire and there’d be no need for all these walls!

Then maybe the sad little [Witch] and Pebblesnatch could be friends. The Cave Goblin began to slither out of her tower to begin this chain of events. She’d learned this kind of optimism from Erin Solstice, incidentally. Cave Goblins didn’t usually have such convoluted plans of things going right.

As Pebblesnatch hopped along the Goblin’s wall, waving and shouting at the oblivious [Emperor] in the distance, she saw someone picking her way towards the duo, having bypassed the escort waiting politely behind. Laken Godart held up a hand and there…Pebblesnatch saw an old Human woman with a hat walking towards him, with a basket in one arm.

Oh. One of the [Witches]. The tea-[Witch]. Pebblesnatch began to climb down, undeterred. Then—something swooped out of the skies, making her duck.

A raven alighted on a branch over the [Emperor]’s head, cawed once, and turned into Mavika. Pebblesnatch froze. What’s this, now? The [Emperor] motioned Gamel away. He turned—and Pebblesnatch watched in fascination.

 

—-

 

It doesn’t take them long to get to me. Well, we walk for about twenty minutes and Gamel’s mandatory escort of some of the Blacksky Riders is shadowing us—but they wouldn’t stop a fellow member of the Unseen Empire, would they?

Witch Eloise is gathering herbs. Mavika’s appearance is more dramatic.

“Your Majesty?”

Gamel’s caught off-guard, but I just nod.

“Gamel, I’ve been expecting them. Keep the Blacksky Riders from noticing them. Say I’m…meditating. Collecting my thoughts. I’ll signal you when it’s time.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

He hurries off. Good man, Gamel. He doesn’t ask questions. I sigh, and turn to Witch Eloise.

“So what do we call that? Tug up for ‘smile’ or ‘yes’, tug down for ‘no’, and spin your hat around for…”

“I had to be obvious, your Majesty. I do apologize.”

Eloise actually blushes a bit. She was making all kinds of mad signs while she told me to my face that she wouldn’t risk her neck. I nod.

“Witch Mavika. Are Wiskeria and Hedag not coming?”

The two older [Witches] look at each other and shrug.

“Neither one need participate. We are the [Witches] who matter here, Emperor Godart. Did you notice the malice coming from your [Lady] sworn?”

Mavika’s tone is brusque. I nod.

“Ah. I wondered if you could sense that. Lady Rie…is not all she seems, is she?”

“Few people are. I’m quite glad your Majesty did not need to be told. Well, better the [Spy] you know. I was reluctant to speak more in that place, Emperor Godart. Not that our intuition proves anything.”

Mavika jerked her head, clearly of a different mind. Eloise shot her a quick glance.

“—She was simply disturbed by the idea of opposing this Circle. We would not like to make pronouncements, would we, Mavika?

“Well understood, Witch Eloise. My conclusions are my own. And I have been aware of this issue for a while. Let’s put that aside for one moment. What else would you like to say?”

Durene is going to beg to be the one to thump Rie on the head. Or…what will I do? Argh. But I was warned. He told me there would be at least one, and…

Well, enough of that for now. Eloise looks around and to my surprise both she and Mavika sit along the forest trail. I end up sitting too.

“Frankly, your Majesty, we spoke no untruths. It’s unwise to lie as [Witches], let alone in the presence of truth spells if there are any about. Mavika would fail to guard me against what I assume the Guild of Assassins could send, especially if they were forewarned…even if not, the roads are certainly watched and each person who could help Lord Veltras screened.”

“Really. So—is the answer more [Witches]? Or one you don’t see coming?”

Mavika grinned.

“The other [Witch] who could certainly cure any ills would die ere she reached House Veltras’ manor—without the need for [Assassins]. And that was if she deigned to leave her home. Which she will not. Not for all of Riverfarm’s riches.”

“…Well then. I assume you have some answer?”

Brightly, Eloise smiles at me. Oh, it was wise to put her on my inner council. I shuffle the order around in my head. Let’s say—Prost for commonsense things, Wiskeria for intelligent matters, Rie for possibly untrustworthy advice…but I’ll say that Eloise is now my most knowledgeable, trustworthy advisor.

Shame.

“As I said, your Majesty. The journey is too dangerous. I would never, ever risk it, even if I had House Veltras’ army riding to escort me. That is…such a bold move it would simply escalate the matter. Lead to open conflict.”

I nod, slowly. Yes. The Circle wouldn’t back down. It’d be a running battle with damned armies of [Assassins] and far more danger, even with the Five Families’ support. Not a smart move.

And [Witches] love to have smart answers. Straightforward ones. I almost smile myself. Some commonality between [Emperor] and [Witches] there.

“And how would you solve this?”

“Witch Mavika has sent her crow familiar to fly to House Veltras. In the meantime, with your…permission and at your request, I am willing to decipher the poison that afflicts Lord Hethon and Lord Sammial.”

I blink.

“What is the airspeed velocity of—no, never mind. House Veltras is to the west, not the north, isn’t that right?”

“Not nearly as far as First Landing is from here, no, your Majesty. But I may begin solving the riddle of poison at once. If—it is your will. Because as I am sure you know, Emperor Godart, there will be reprisals.”

Now Eloise looks at me and I catch the full implications of her warning. I sit back, thinking.

“I have two questions. What will you ask, [Witches]? And will you accept your risk if I accept mine?”

Eloise and Mavika smiled. For answer, Mavika tips her hat up and gives me a direct, disconcerting stare. I can’t see her face, but I’ve had Durene describe her eyes to me and I can feel them on me now. Bird’s eyes, overly large in her face.

“The Circle has made enemies of [Witches], Emperor Godart. For that alone, we would dare it. But also because we have made a pact, here, and if [Witches] die, it is only because an [Emperor]’s will is thwarted. Is that not so?”

“No one will be killed on my lands, Witch Mavika, without me doing everything to stop it.”

She nods, quite pleased. Eloise is next.

“As for the price, your Majesty? Well, as we said, it could be an act of [Witches]. However…if the Unseen Empire would like to involve itself in our action—”

“Take credit, you mean.”

Perhaps a little too direct, there. Eloise looks a bit offended.

“Declare itself the beneficiary of [Witches], and my work at your request as an example of that pact, your Majesty. We would accept that. And…some land.”

I’m sure if I could see them, both Mavika and Eloise’s eyes would do that ‘glinting’ thing I’ve read about. I always wanted to know if it was actually a physical motion or just an impression.

“Land, Witch Eloise?”

“Land, your Majesty. In perpetuity. A place for [Witches].”

“…You don’t just mean, Witching Street, [Witch] Eloise. Do you?”

She smiles. I know she does.

“We may discuss the issue. But if we were given a…small forest? We would consider ourselves in your debt.”

I sit back. [Witches] want to practice witchery more witchily than before. Okay…but if it’s between Lady Rie and Eloise, I know which one to pick. So I smile back.

“We can discuss forests, [Witch] Eloise. Or other locations. We have an agreement in either case. Now—how can you safely uncover the illness? And what might you suggest we do when the cure is found?”

The [Tea Witch]—if that is her class—chuckles. Mavika makes a sound like a bird.

“It is struck, [Emperor]! Let it be that neither [Witch] nor ruler regret this.”

She takes off. Is she literally flying? I hear Gamel and the [Riders] exclaim in alarm. I’ll have to ask. Eloise is slower to rise.

“Oh, it won’t take too long, hopefully, your Majesty. You see, the Circle might be aware of [Witch]’s unique talents, but I doubt they know all of our tricks. Finding what ails the young [Lords] Veltras is not easy. But I am very good. I’ll need help. But I don’t need to be there.”

“What then?”

She laughs as I offer her an arm.

Divination.

 

—-

 

Divination. Not [Scrying]. Nor is it like the class [Diviner]. It was something partly lost in this day and age. A different kind of magic. A different technique and way of looking at things.

It looked—

Well, it sounded like cheating to Laken Godart. But that was also very witch-y.

At first—it had all the hallmarks of a true ritual straight out of the fairytales. Eloise did not waste time. Nor—it seemed—had she thought Laken would refuse her.

Multiple covens had come to Riverfarm. Even if not all the members were here and there were more young [Witches]-in-training than before—there were any number of adult [Witches].

Almost all of them were here. Mavika, Oliyaya, Agratha, Devay, Rebeca, Eloise, and more. Wiskeria was admitted into their number; only a handful had been excluded like Hedag.

The others were watching. Apprentice [Witches], a small sea of pointed hats, sat around an inner circle. There was Eloise, with a small magical fire, a pot—multiple pots with ingredients simmering away, emitting noxious fumes—

It was why they were outside. The [Witches] had found a perfect glade. It was, in fact, the forest they would rather like to have. So they worked their magic here.

Laken Godart was one of the onlookers. Durene had come too, and was nervously watching while linking arms with him; just in case she squeezed his hand too tightly.

It began with a chant. The young [Witches] took it up first. It was a whisper. Two names, echoing around the ground in uneven harmony—but it was a harmony.

Veltras. Veltras. Sammial Veltras. Hethon Veltras. Veltras, Veltras…

A susurration of sound. Laken’s skin began to prick with nerves. As far as he knew—Lady Rie was occupied. Prost had that job. And this area was being watched. He’d deployed the Blacksky Riders to keep everyone five miles away from the forest.

But this—the air felt thick. It was only late noon, but the shadows of the canopy seemed to thicken.

The glade had been breezeless. Now, a low wind blew up around the sitting [Witches]. Laken spotted Nanette’s figure, whispering with the others. He could not see her face and he didn’t want to interrupt Durene to tell him what his landsense couldn’t.

Veltras, Veltras. Poisoned be, reveal to me.

Now, the inner circle moved. Eloise sat in the center. She raised something and gazed into it.

A tea cup. Of course. But the contents were swirling. And Laken saw tea leaves moving about, forming shapes, as he walked along the edge of the ritual. Durene hurried after him.

[Tea Omens]. Whatever Eloise saw made her grimace.

“Fennel root.”

Her voice was normal—the whispering in the background died down. Mavika handed it to her.

“I see sweat and labored breath. Coughing which does not cease. Paleness about the lips. Blood on the cloth.”

She announced the first symptoms. Eloise nodded. Wiskeria’s eyes flickered.

“Fever. But the coughing…”

“I will fight it. Sage’s Grass. A brew to eat away at anything made of arsenic, first.”

The [Witches] murmured their acknowledgement. Laken heard voices, speculating.

“…Basilisk’s root, perhaps…”

“What do they smell of, Mavika?”

Incontinence and foulness, like the gas from swamps.

The [Crow Witch] was watching elsewhere. Eloise was—half-listening. She shook her head. Turned up the heat by putting one of the small pots on a burner. She made tea in the second. Or so Durene whispered to Laken, and that was one of the smells he caught.

“A cure all?”

Oliyaya’s voice was surprisingly normal for when it wasn’t cackling. Laken asked Durene to describe what—if anything was unusual about Oliyaya.

“Her—hands.”

“To see what magnitude of poison we are working with. It should narrow it down…now, to test it. Witch Oliyaya, to you.”

Eloise’s voice was quiet. She turned and handed the first of three brews to Oliyaya. Laken frowned. Had she made the cure already?

No—this was the essence of divination Eloise had meant. The whispering began again.

Veltras, a cure for Veltras—

Show me your fate.

The [Witch] spoke. Then she laughed. It was sudden—high-pitched, mad laughter. Durene jumped and grabbed Laken.

Death! No chance at all!

She tossed the pot’s contents to the ground. Laken heard the sizzle as whatever it was met the flames. The other [Witches] murmured.

“Next!”

The second brew made Oliyaya hesitate.

“A flicker of life among the weeds. A single moment in a hundred.”

“And that was the cure-all. More potent than we thought.”

A [Witch] sitting next to Wiskeria murmured. Laken was fascinated. The third brew?

Death, again!

Oliyaya discarded the contents. The apprentice-[Witches] murmured as Eloise began to prepare her brews anew. Oliyaya sat back.

“One more chance I have yet to see.”

“Then take this. A bezoar’s gift. It will surely fail if the [Assassins] know their craft. But how do they die?”

Mavika handed her something. Oliyaya took it and shook her head.

“The bezoar’s gift in vain. Even with it—the [Lords] wane.”

Laken Godart was fascinated. So this was divination. But how did it work? He heard some of the younger [Witches] asking that very question, witnessing the true Skill and skill of their elders.

“I sense a Skill amid this. Break the chains, Eloise.”

Mavika hissed at Eloise. The [Tea Witch] paused, then nodded.

“I require a gift. Witch Rebeca.”

“I will break the [Assassin]’s hold, Witch Eloise. Give me your brew.”

The audience watched, spellbound as the pot changed hands. The second [Witch] murmured. And Laken was beginning to understand. He leaned forwards, and even Durene forgot her nerves—

“And we can see, young [Witches], how each [Witch] is performing the divination using a combination of Skills! Witch Oliyaya is using her [Prediction of Success] Skill in combination with Witch Eloise’s herb craft.”

Witch Agratha clapped her hands together as she decided to take this moment to lecture the audience. Half of the [Witches] sitting there turned and gave her dark looks.

Rather like someone who decided to explain every trick as a stage magician performed it, Agratha went on as Witch Oliyaya glowered at her.

“You see, Witch Oliyaya can only use her Skill so many times, but I will be using [Renew Skill]—a very useful Skill if put in conjunction with other Skills. This way, Witch Eloise will be able to test out numerous brews and see how effective they are. We are isolating the poison by the cure—”

Witch Agratha. The ritual is ongoing.

Mavika hissed at her. The [Witch]-[Teacher] hesitated. She made a sound of discontent.

“Ah…yes, Witch Mavika. I just thought it was ideal to teach in the moment. We’ll review this later!”

She beamed at her pupils. Laken was informed by Durene that the other [Witches] were rolling their eyes at this point.

“Different kinds of craft, I suppose.”

He saw why Eloise wasn’t a fan of Agratha. And also—why Agratha had not been invited to the same gathering as Belavierr. Totally different style. Also—Laken wondered what Belavierr would have done if Agratha had decided to explain her magic.

He wondered if Agratha could.

Ah. Skillbreaking works. But—there’s some magic in it! The cure needs more. More! The children have a fly’s chance caught by deadly web, but it grows!”

“Would you say that’s a one-in-ten chance, or one in a hundred still?”

Agratha got another dirty look from Oliyaya and the others. The [Witches] murmured. Eloise looked around.

“I have none of the rarest materials. Witch Devay? I seek your aid.”

“I have seen some of what you seek, Witch Eloise. What do you wish?”

“Mithril dust. And—have you witnessed Darcaw’s Pearl?”

“No, Witch Eloise.”

“Then—”

Laken saw through Durene, a phantom substance appearing in Devay’s empty bowl. This was where the magic began working with Skill. The other [Witches] had to help Devay.

“A half-cure for a half-sickness. We must account for that.”

Another [Witch] murmured. And Laken got it again, before Agratha whispered her explanations. The [Witches] were supplementing any lack of Eloise’s ingredients.

On it went. After the third pass, Oliyaya had to take a break. Another [Witch] took over from her. Not with the same Skill—she used another Skill as Eloise did. [Tea Omens] provided more enigmatic answers than Oliyaya, who was using Mavika’s proximity to the children to ascertain the odds of success.

Oliyaya wouldn’t have been able to divine at the range without a physical link with Mavika, who could share Skills with her raven. And the [Tea Omens] Skill could be vague. The other [Witches] began producing their own means of divination. Frustratingly, Agratha’s medium was a clacking abacus.

But it was Eloise who worked. And her knowledge of herbs craft and—Laken realized—poison was what was leading her to identify the increasingly narrow set of poisons that could produce the effects in Hethon and Sammial.

Both in cure and symptom. Laken Godart had to leave after the eleventh try—already an hour and a half had passed.

“I think they’re narrowing it down. Tell me at once when they’re certain, Durene. No matter where.”

Oliyaya had gone from predicting ‘certain death’ to ‘a young man’s chance of taking a mortal wound’, to ‘the toss of a coin’. Of course, the [Witches] wouldn’t be satisfied until the cure was close to 100%…

…Although if the two boys were too sick, it might never be a certain thing. They’d find out. Meanwhile, Laken Godart decided to put the next part of the plan into motion.

“Lady Rie, thank you for coming on such short notice.”

She sat across from him warily, watching Laken Godart’s smile. The [Emperor] had summoned her and so Rie had come.

She was no fool, however. The sudden absence of every [Witch] in Riverfarm and Laken himself giving orders she was not privy to?

“Has something come up, your Majesty?”

“Just now. Excellent news, Lady Rie. I actually went after Witch Eloise to ask if there was anything more that could be done. She had no idea—but it was Witch Mavika who recalled an old magical ritual that might actually isolate the poison from afar.”

“An…old ritual, you say? Well, your Majesty. That is splendid news.”

The [Lady] smiled. So did the [Emperor].

“I asked them to begin at once, naturally. Eloise seems to believe there’s a chance. And this is so much less involved than risking life and limb, isn’t it?”

“…Absolutely, your Majesty. What a splendid idea. I am so glad Witch Mavika recalled a powerful magic such as this.”

The [Emperor] sighed. He stood up and, with casual certainty despite his closed eyes, turned his back to Rie to face the window in the room where they were sitting.

“It is. It is. And it is the right thing to do. Children should not be poisoned. That is despicable and heinous. We can all agree on that, despite the risks.”

“Of course, your Majesty.”

Rie Valerund watched the [Emperor]’s back. Grimly, he waited. He sensed, after a moment’s delay, an old [Mage] sitting outside tug once at his beard. Laken sighed.

“I’m glad you agree, Lady Rie. I truly am.”

“Was that a test, your Majesty?”

Lady Rie smiled, or at least put a smile into her voice. Laken laughed, a bit guiltily.

“Would you believe me if I said that sometimes I do have to check? After Sacra, you know, I gained a few Skills that help me learn how to hold my own in regards to truthfulness.”

A small sigh. Of relief?

“I thought so, your Majesty.”

“Well, I was hardly uncertain of you, Rie. I was just unsure if you thought it was wise to test the Circle of Thorns in this way?”

The [Lady] hesitated. She bit her lip and went on after a delicate pause.

Truthfully, your Majesty? I fear what they might do if Witch Eloise aids Tyrion Veltras. The Circle of Thorns attacking the Unseen Empire—the thought of it terrifies me.”

Tug. Laken decided that while he’d keep a mental eye on Typhenous, Rie was too smart not to tell the truth. She went on as he nodded.

“While I am completely in favor of the sick children living if at all possible, I fear the reprisals. Riverfarm is not yet able to engage with this…Circle of Thorns, your Majesty. Or to move Izril at large.”

Nice way of putting it. Laken nodded a few times.

“It is tricky. However, as [Emperor], I had no choice at all, really, Lady Rie. If I could help and I did not? If I were Tyrion Veltras, I would never forgive such a thing.”

“I…can see that. Not that he would find out, surely?”

“Secrets, Lady Rie! Secrets have a tendency to get out. I only hope the Circle of Thorns will…direct their ire elsewhere.”

“Your Majesty?”

She blinked a few times. Not that Laken could know this. The [Emperor] sighed as he turned back to face Lady Rie.

“Of course, as soon as Eloise reveals the cure—if she can, rather—I intend to tell Lord Veltras. But it stops there. Eloise has told me herself that she probably lacks the ingredients to manufacture the cure. And even if she made it—who would pick it up?”

“I—I see. So you intend to provide Lord Veltras with knowledge of the antidote—this is clever, your Majesty! And well thought-out! I believe it may work!”

The [Lady] grew excited again; audible relief in her voice. Laken nodded solemnly.

“It’s all Riverfarm can do. As you said, there’s no point in making the Circle of Thorns my enemy yet.”

Truth and truth. Smile. The [Emperor] paused.

“I wonder if the Circle will think of it that way.”

Lady Rie Valerund sat there. That she did not reply was due to many thoughts running through her head. Chief among them was that she was the only person whom Laken Godart was speaking to about his plans regarding the Circle of Thorns. Then again—she was the only really qualified person here besides perhaps Eloise, and the [Witch] was busy.

Then again—was it a ploy, or genuine, or…? But Lady Rie’s indecision only lasted a moment. After all, you had to tell the truth. So she sighed.

“I cannot imagine, Emperor Laken. Truly, one can’t predict what the Circle of Thorns might do as a whole. But—I should imagine that this is the most Riverfarm can do without arousing their full wrath.”

“That was what I thought, Lady Rie. We’ll have to see, of course. I’ll put the Unseen Empire on alert. But I thought you should know first. I value your counsel.”

“Thank you, your Majesty. As you know, I have every wish that the Unseen Empire prosper—with my help, small as it may be.”

The [Emperor] smiled again. Then, Durene crashed through the front door.

They found it! Oh, hullo, Rie.”

 

—-

 

Later that day, Tyrion Veltras, disheveled, unkempt, rose as his [Majordomo] burst into the bedroom unannounced. The [Lord] rose from the bedsides where he had kept watch and Ullim whispered to him.

“—Certain? Can he—no.”

The [Lord] found a second wind just as the Circle of Thorns received a message that someone had complicated their plans. But—as their informant tried to assure them—not significantly!

The [Witch]’s recipe was a very complicated alchemical brew. Not unheard of—but meant to neutralize a five-poison blend. And it called for either Skills or alchemical ingredients so rare that she herself didn’t have them, mithril dust being the least rare by far.

And that was as far as it went. It was already more than enough. Tyrion Veltras rose from his vigil. One last chance. No longer did he need someone to come here.

The [Assassin] with the mask ducked back into her rooms as he bellowed an order.

“Send to First Landing! Send to other cities! Bring it here! By spell or beast or by horse or on foot!

His private, desperate appeal between the noble houses of Izril became a public [Message]. Wistram picked it up.

A cure for House Veltras. Poison and treachery and two children’s lives. Who would hear it and dare the Guild of Assassins? Within the hour, Tyrion Veltras, who had waited so long and tried so much to no avail got his answer.

 

To Tyrion Veltras from First Landing, regarding Delivery of Cure request:

Your delivery has been accepted.

Couriers outbound.

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I’m on break! Also, I hate bugs. I really hate bugs. I see one larvae-thing inchworming around and I think I have an infestation.

I…don’t think I do. But you never know! It’s like [Assassins], always hiding in the last place you expect!

Anyways, that was why this chapter was hard. Me taking time to check cupboards and stuff…I’m still paranoid. But there’s no obvious [Assassin] squeezed into my saltshaker, so I might be good.

Ahem. I’m on break until the 3rd of November! But don’t fret! The Patreon poll for the next side story should be up right before this chapter goes live! So if all went well, you can vote on what you read next!

See you then. Until later, I’ll be relaxing and resting my very tired mind and hands so I can deliver more good chapters! And…staring around for bugses. And [Assassins]. See you in a week!

Today’s art is brought to you by ArtsyNada, who I’ve commissioned to do Rasea Zecrew in her poster-recruitment pose! (Artsy has also done other arts, like a kiss between Elirr and Hexel for free! Free!) Also, images of the Walled City and more by mg, and a picture of Laken and Durene by GridCube, among others! Give it appreciation!

 

The Kiss and Rasea by ArtsyNada!

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Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns
Commission info: https://i.imgur.com/OmNDuK8.jpg

 

The Walled Cities, Crelers, Wyvern Lords, Cognita and more by Mg!

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/henodus2

Ko-Fi: https://ko-fi.com/henodus2

 

Fast Food, Laken and Durene, Honor, Skateboards and more by GridCube!

 

 


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94 thoughts on “7.55 E

  1. Leave a typo for [Witches]! Or cures! Or cliffhangers! (Unless you’re catching up…then just hit the next chapter and find out what happened!)

    (Caught readers: Pwnster7757, Gorexn, R4wlo, belthanyl, Kaitiaki, GreatGreedyGuts, MrWiggles, Maladal, Gecko13, Tarun Elankath, Aox, ChronoMager, afkcuzbookiscool)

  2. Enjoy the break! Rest, relax and recover! I’ve enjoyed this month’s chapters quite a bit, they’ve been a highlight through some tough weeks. Thanks for the great work!

  3. So Ryoka brings Magnolia, Erin brings Malviola and now Laken gets Tyrion. We’re three for three baby! Now we just need some Wall Lords and Ladies in the mix and there’ll be a proper party going down

    Also enjoy the break, you deserve it! :)

      • Probably not. I’m guessing we wont be seeing Eldavin in a while since Teriarch went to sleep, buuut correct me if I’m wrong isnt the Eldavin puppet still walking around like a part of Teriarch is still awake in it, if so then maybe…

    • Are we reading the same story?
      Erin brings Maviola El
      Ryoka brings Tyrion Veltras
      Magnolia Reinhart is a No Show
      I was expecting our friend from Salaszar to be the last one but he hasn’t made an appearence. So maybe some vampire family will join as the third party?

      • Nah, I see Teriarch- I’m sorry I mean Grand Mage Eldavain teleporting her back to the party, and probably half of the Drakes attending the peace talks…because Solstice effect on the Solstice during a Solstice party is not going to be a simple thing.

        • Might just be a guess at the future plot. I wouldn’t be shocked if Ryoka became integral in delivering the cure (maybe with her flying suit). Otherwise Laken is bringing Tyrion since if he invites him Tyrion simply couldn’t not attend.

    • With Leka and Rie certain to bringing in more Circle of Thorns people, 3 house heads, two of which are recent targets of assasination or compulsion, gathered in a village that recently brought great offence to the circle.

      Said village allso having really limited militairy potential, a significent part of which (Griffon Hunt) also having dual loyalities to the Earther faction which will be strongly represented at the party, and the (neutral?) host may or may not support.

      It’s as explosive of a [Witch]’s brew as you could ask for. It makes me aprehensively ponder who among these go living out of the closing chapters of book 7.

      • Given how the fae acted when someone was attacked at the last party I can see this being a massacre for the circle if they tried something

        • But it’s not only they who would be agressors here is it?

          Given their habit of playing pranks and somewhat bloodthirsty nature I would not be suprised at all if one or more of the Fae just went up and told representatives of the houses who of the guests were part of the Circle just as a “prank bro” because they though it’d be funny.
          We also have a lovesick Leka, Erin is helping Magnolias enemies circumvent her Trade War skill, Erin potentialy in the same room as Tyrin “let the goblins loot Liscor” Veltras, and a dozen other minor but significent conflicts in this group.
          To round things out there are allso a milion ways having a group of earthers, with some people who know them as earthers, among a group of fae and nobility that doesn’t know about earth could go wrong,

          From where I stand it looks about as stable as a bathtub of home made explosives.

          I can’t wait

          • I mean would it really be a party worthy for the King of the Fae without it having a major chance at going up in flames.

            By the way it doesn’t seem like Magnolia plans to go to it any longer considering she just left for the south. However there is an even older Izrilian noble family whose daughter just arrived to the inn…

            Also not to mention those ‘special’ guests that Erin and Laken have unknowingly invited.

              • The Dead Gods from Winter Solstice although they might not be so dead next time considering the Summer Solstice theme of rebirth.

                Erin has Tamaroth’s coin and told the trio to come again whenever they wanted.

                Most Laken chapters after the Winter Solstice have a line or two like:

                “Durene is going to beg to be the one to thump Rie on the head. Or…what will I do? Argh. But I was warned. He told me there would be at least one, and…”

                We are never told who the ‘he’ is but he gave/offered Laken a lot of critical information about running an Empire and his Class. That and it’s been hinted that ‘he’ is still lurking around the Empire by the dead [Witch] the Coven contacted.

  4. I wonder what pebblesnatcher is doing as the [witches] found the cure. The goblin is trying to come up with her own Erin Solstice approved brand of helping.

    I doubt it would work out… But being told “your sons were saved because of a goblin [chief] with a pitch hat” might be a bit hard to explain.

    Still love that now the goblin [shaman] wants the Wandering Inn door up and running now. That is going to be hilarious when Erin goes through the door without anybody being warned about it.

    Especially when everyone asks “how” she got there.

  5. Such good drama, but frustrating to read how secret keeping is preventing story plots from moving forward, for example, Erin and Numbtongue meeting Pebblesnatch, the cave goblins and remnants of Red Fang tribe. Speaking of which, wheres Badarrow and the scary one?

    But, I’m also kinda happy because I dont want Numbtongue to leave the inn and become chief of goblinlands, even though he’s by far the best candidate. Well, if the door gets up and running at least he could come back often to visit Mrsha and Bird for legendary play sessions.

    I wanted Saliss to be the one to create the cure for the Veltras’, to get Tyrion started on reconciliation with the Drakes, but having Laken become the new pivot for the group that attacked Liscor and the goblins through kindness and saving lives is even better, imo.

    In brief, things didn’t happen the way I had wanted them to, but Pirateaba’s version is better than my wishings.

      • Disagree. Pretty sure Chaldion is smart enough to understand the value of putting Tyrion Veltras in debt to Pallass. He’d have authorized it in a heartbeat.

        • I don’t know that he would be in debt to Pallas as a whole so much as Saliss who Chaldion resents not having full control over. He doesn’t accept Saliss for being a turnscale, so I would imagine helping Tyrion would be far worse. Its not just that he would be working with the lord, he would actively be preserving the bloodline, where as if the kids die with no interference from the drakes, and given what we know about Tyrion, there is a real chance that if his sons died he might be too busy trying to war with the guild and the circle to father more kids. This could lead to the end of one of the five families, or at least it being handed over to a lesser bloodline. That would pay dividends for generations.

          • Lesser bloodline? That is racist crazytalk, even as I understand you’re just talking fantasy stuff.

            The Veltras house is already long diminished from their former [Beast Tamer] glory. Also, similar breaks of “direct bloodline” happen in every dynasty every few hundred years, and that is talking about peaceful times.

            The Five Families have survived for longer than Earth’s history has been recorded, OF COURSE there are a few thousand Veltras family members to pick up the slack. In Izril, I’d suppose it’s more about the inherited knowledge and the wealth, that make the title of [Lord] strong itself.
            Not a magic bloodline++. That would be a Terandrian thing.

    • Yeah, I was cursing Magnolia’s short-sightedness when she was reviewing with her retainers and deciding there was nothing she could do. Of course it never occurred to her to inform *Erin*, because why would she think of some simple Innkeeper as an important person?

      But Erin would have had Saliss on the way within 5 seconds and I’d like to see the Assassin’s guild stop *Saliss*.

      • To be honest I don’t get Magnolia’s passive stance. Like it doesn’t matter how friendly she gets with some of the drakes if her position as a high ranking lady is seen as shaky and letting the Circle run roughshod on the two strongest of the five families isn’t a good look when you are trying to forge alliances. Like right now how can she convince the walled cities that an alliance can lead to lasting peace when she can’t keep herself safe from her former minions?

        • Yeah, evacuating/abandoning all her holdings because of some jumped up assassins seems way overboard. Why should any of her subjects stay loyal when she runs at the first sign of trouble?

          Also, why doesn’t she have any support from the rest of her family? They don’t like her but this is literally an attack against the matriarch of the family! Regis should have unlocked the vault and armed the retainers appropriately for war!

          • Didn’t she mentioned that most of her servants went south to arrange things with the drakes?
            So the ones legt are to weak to fight of the assasins and would just be killed like fodder.

            It think she didnt agree with her family/that ghost grandsomething and left to do her stuff on her own, what she has she built alone. The family doesnt help her unless its something big like goblin lord, I bet that ghost just wants her to come back and ask for help so he can control her/ do things his way.

    • Worth noting that this could *still* happen.

      If the Couriers don’t make it through, it’ll be public enough news that Erin is bound to hear about it.

      • The news is already pubic. Tyrion sent it to everyone he could after he received the ingredients list.

        Also that would be a laugh with Erin. The assassins are all busy with the Couriers from First Landing, they actually manage to stop them all, the classic villian speech of ‘you have failed’, and someone from Liscor (Ryoka, Salamani, Hawk) just walks in with the cure and/or a mana stone for the door.

        • Its not that public. Laken didn’t know about it, and I doubt Erin is on Tyrion’s contact list. The person most likely to have heard would be Malvolia, and she basically stepped away from her family responsibilities so she probably has no clue or her now young brain would 100% be blazing her way to the Veltras estates. I kinda think we are going to get the Goblinhome Goblins, maybe pebblesnatch, sneaking to Tyrion with the door jewel. Not sure if Veltras lands are closer or farther than the Empire though.

          • It became public after Tyrion received the recipe for the cure: “His private, desperate appeal between the noble houses of Izril became a public [Message]. Wistram picked it up.”

            So Erin might very well be all “let’s help that jerk.”

            I am curious, how this will pan out. Great chapter.

          • AFAIK, Liscor and Goblinhome are about at the centre of the continent, and is a seriously very long way away from Invrisil. The kind of distance that takes a courier and/or enchanted carriage all night to cover, and normal people all month. OTOH, both Riverfarm/the Goblinlands and the Velras lands are in the same vague region of the world as Invrisil is: a distance from each other that could be covered in a couple of nights by Ryoka on foot, or a couple of hours by anyone with Skills – Mavika’s’s raven flew the distance in a couple of hours anyway, it seemed. However, for the goblins (who don’t have Ryoka’s runner’s form or stamina) to travel to the Veltras lands on foot would still be a day’s journey at least, unless they’re riding giant dogs the whole way.

  6. Halrac thoughtfully watched a bunch of birds flitting from branch to branch. Now, if this was Liscor, they’d be too terrified to sing…

    This made me wonder about a Mavika encounter with bird.

    • I’m a bit interested in the witches meeting Erin.

      The witches seem to feed on emotions, and Erin makes fire which spreads emotions.

      Wondrous fare might be a hit too.

  7. It’s a bit unrealistic that no-one is talking about the door in [Goblinlands]. That part has been really dragging…waiting forever for a reveal.

    I believe Veltras lands are within the door’s reach ? Someone needs to deliver a door first. The [Antidote] can piggy-bank over it.

    And if [Assassins] want to attach the Inn, it wouldn’t go well for them – even for the Faces. But Erin needs to remove the Ban on Pallass first – and keep Grimalkin in the Inn.

    Looking forward to [Couriers vs Master Assassins]. I guess this time, the Couriers are going to die as these are Level 40-50 guys they are going against. But, hey, there are too many characters already, so [Exit Stage In Large Numbers] is a good thing for the story.

    • I think the question is How many will die rather than If. This is some serious shit the Circle Of Thorns is pulling. And it didn’t sound like having the antidote known and couriers on the way with it diverted much from the plan.

      • I am not convinced the curier will die- the message came from first landing, and I would be very surpirsed if Pirateaba introduced Valceif’s mother only to have her yell at Ryoka.

  8. Hmm. The last time the Circle had an executive meeting, one of the members had a distinctly doggy accent. But i suppose one can be a member and still act against what one regards as a wrongful act by others.

    Which might be the solution to the threat: unlike Wistram, factionalism in the Circle could lead to unrestricted escalation.

    • Lol, I love that idea. Though I’m pretty sure Imani will get a heart attack, considering Pebblesnatch only knows Erin’s kind of artery-clogging cooking.

      • I’ve been wondering how Erin’s skills would interact with her owning multiple Inns, like a franchise chain, or another branch. Could she just go into the Garden in one and come out in the other without the need for the magic door?

  9. I’ll be very surprised if the recipe they sent to the couriers was the real one. The fact that Laken straight up told Rie which antidote they planned to use when he was 95% sure she worked for the Circle is suspicious. Right now I lay odds that Lyonette is going to be the one who smuggles the real cure into Veltras’ household under the pretext of meeting the boy she’s arranged to marry.

  10. I appear to be in the distinct minority among early readers, but the entire plot line concerning the Council of Thorns vs. Tyrion/Magnolia strikes me as a forgettable detour into territory well-plowed by many, many other authors — atrocities committed by nobles when they conspire and feud. I have enough faith in the process to believe that it will all tie together somehow, but it just strikes me as a unusually bland use of words that could be deployed elsewhere. The Council forfeited any claim to sympathy with its tactics; we’ve learned that several previously sympathetic characters (Lady Rie) are deeply, possibly irredeemably tainted by association; and Tyrion is by far the least interesting of the anti-heroes in the story (even the King of Destruction is at least a cardboard stand-up with a bit of flair).

    The chapter is of course well-written, but I find the subject matter to be terribly dull and am totally ready to just move on (although of course I don’t want Tyrion’s ill-fated children to die).

    • My only gripe with the Tyrion subplot is that it seems to be used to give another feather in Lakens cap. All of Izril is unable to cure two boys, but no worries, the blind Emperor is here to save the day, ain’t he great.

      Sure, that’s almost certainly mostly because i hate how he never seems to actually suffer any setbacks for the shit he pulled (yes, i know, drakes firebombing his village, don’t care, even that did not stick).
      Seriously, fuck that guy.

      I did enjoy goblin bits and the Griffin Hunt trying to figure out how to tell Erin without her coming down and punching the emperor.

      • All of Izril *was* able to cure the two boys: if not, the Assassins wouldn’t have bothered killing everyone who tried. In fact, I’d bet every major city and many towns would have multiple healers up to the task. But only the [Witches] were both willing able to (literally) divine the cure without the Assassin’s Guild noticing in time to stop them.

        Though the delivery of said cure has been left to the Runner’s Guild, which will be a nice bit of the Assassin’s Guild’s earlier antagonistic behaviour towards Couriers coming around to bite it IMO.

        As for the Empire: what exactly would you consider a setback if not the firestorm? With the Empire’s current state of growth, any disaster short of total conquest will be quickly recovered from.

        • Runners Guild and Assassins seem to understandably have a long lasting rivalry going on. With assassins trying to intercept important messages and deliveries for decades if not centuries. They also both struck at each other openly not so long ago. Veltras situation is just a good reason for runners to start the next round.

          If they don’t take it their reputation will plummet and make most high profile clients unwilling to pay for their services. Yeah, low level runners will still get minor work but couriers reputation will be ruined.

        • Not the empire, Laken, the two are not synonymous.
          Every setback seems to be followed instantly by things getting even better for him, we don’t really see any conseuqences that stick.

          And inability to get the cure to the patients is same as inability to to cure them.

    • I guess I haven’t read the same stories as you, as aside from a handful of light novels and ASoIaF (which I haven’t read) I don’t know of any stories wherein feuding nobility is a major plot point.

      That said, it seems to me that focus is still primarily on the major characters, with the plots and scheming being more background details.

      • You mispelled ‘adults’.

        The one redeeming trait of our cliche warlords is that at least they’re pragmatic instead of anime tier idealists that would run a bakery into the ground, let alone a kingdom. The ants and drakes DO want to wipe out the humans and colonize the smoking ruins and there are far worse evils in Chandrar than slavery.

  11. “Couriers Outbound” is my new favorite dramatic line. And I’m hoping for Pebblesnatch to become a [Witch], perhaps someday soon. She’s already brewing poisons!

  12. “Of course, once a traitor, always a traitor, as the saying went.”

    There is another saying, Lady Valerund, one about flocks of a feather…

  13. “Couriers outbound.”
    Couldn’t have ended the chapter better. You’ve got me grinning in anticipation yet again. Well done.

  14. God, this answered more questions than it created, but the questions it created are so interesting that it’s hard to care…

    Good writing, keep up the great work!

    • Nr. 1 on my list are the Bloodfeast Raiders.

      I dislike the King of Destruction, because of his warfare-addiction. But he does show compassion in places.

      The Circle of Thorns seems to lust for power. Politics… *sigh*

      Both are despicable, but topped by the Raiders sadism. Those just kill for the fun of it… so, yeah….definitely top of the ist.

      • To me, the biggest problem with the King of Destruction is only that he supports slavery. Wars are a basic fact of life in Chandrar, so his dream of uniting the continent at least… well, it has the vague potential to make a positive difference, if he or his people decide to care about building something to last.

        As for the Circle of Thorns, it also has a reasonably noble goal: being a check to the power of the Five Families. It seems in recent times the Circle has been taken over by a rogue element who has some other goal and is thus pushing to do things differently, but it sounds like even most of their own members don’t support things like killing children – they just don’t have a good setup to stop the takeover.

        OTOH, the raiders have no redeeming feature.

        • I kinda feel the opposite. The raiders are selfish murdering assholes, but at least they are straight forward about it. It’s hard and needs high levels, but it seems possible to track them down and bring them to justice. The Circle is a shadow organization seeking to gain power with no over site or morals and they will use any means to undermine those who don’t bow to them. That’s the type of organization who would probably hire the Raiders to attack their political rivals.

        • On top of the whole slavery issue is that i just don’t see Flos having anykind of vision beyond “conquer everything everywhere”.
          What happens next?
          Instability, civil wars, mismanagement, famine.
          That’s what is going to follow.
          Probably during his reign, or at latest once he dies. Flos has nothing to tie his new mega nation together beyond “do as i tell you or die”.

        • I love the king of destruction. I am rooting for him to conquer the whole world and kick the evil meddling Wistram’s behind for them. Don’t see anything wrong with Roman type slavery. Slaves were valuable assets and treated well, not like the horrifying American slavery. I always find it ironic that people say they hate slavery yet they glorify pirates and Vikings who are the biggest scumbags in human history, worse than slavers.

    • definitely the king of assholes.

      the circle are bog standard noble assholes spreading misery around and diffrent from

      “lets go genociding and start a four-way war that burns that continent” Tyrion and

      “lets loot the entire continent kill millions and once it is not fun destroy the few meager benefits of my massacres only to start again when I feel like it” flos

      mainly in that their victim count is tiny By comparison and their goals are far smaller scale so the damage they cause is proportionally minor.

      On means they will resort To they certainly aren’t worse then what we saw of Tyrion or flos, just (again) working on a much smaller scale so they will poison kids and blackmail a ruler instead of butchering cities and forcing rulers to serve by sword like flos or just wholesale going genocide-lite and piss on the ashes like Tyrion with slave armies of the lesser races marched before him as cannon fodder and wholesale planned slaughter of cities.

        • Flos is the worst. He reminds me of king Haggard from the lost unicorn: a broken, hollow, empty man who has only one thing that brings him joy (war/unicorns) and has dedicated himself utterly to that one thing no matter who it hurts.

          Flos doesn’t build anything, he has no interest in starting a dynasty or even in his empire surviving his death. He wants to conquer both Innworld and Earth just to prove that he can.

          He doesn’t really care about any of his subjects: he didn’t start the war with Belchan to avenge the Gnolls but just because he wanted to go to war, as proved by the fact he refused the offer of surrender AND to administer real justice (only to the guilty), not an Old Testament style kill-them-all massacre. Remember the Raskghar? They get to be tried by [Skill], magic and law to determine which ones are actually guilty. Flos would have drowned Belchan in blood, civilians and children included, for something they were not really responsible about.

          I doubt he even cares about his Seven. Sure, he pretends like it but would he listen to them if they told him no on anything that matters? We already know this: both Trey and Gazi were against selling PoWs into slavery but he threatened Trey until the young man gave up. Apparently, the same thing had happened much earlier with Gazi, so she didn’t even bother trying this time.

          Oh, also don’t get me started on his act of being a “noble” king that doesn’t do dishonourable things. Remember the Minotaurs? They fought him honourably, without any treachery or atrocities, but he still went mad and tried to massacre them all, without giving any quarter (refusing a surrender is universally recognised as a war crime) just because they bloodied his army a bit and cost him a victory. A man that’s only “noble” when he’s winning is not noble at all!

          • Refusing to grant quarter was common enough on Earth for many centuries, that the phrase ‘no quarter’ has it’s own wikipedia entry.

            This started to be commonly accepted as a war crime _after_ World War I.

            King Raelt refuses to grant quarter to a cut-off half giant and kills it instead. This not because he’s cruel, it’s because he thought it over briefly and found himself with no means of feeding and/or securing the giant. he doesn’t like it, but its the only real choice he had…

  15. Great chapter, very interested to see where Pirate takes the plot from here. Generally speaking, I feel like it might go one of these three ways:

    1. Justice Prevails
    This is basically the path we’ve seen happen with the Couriers thus far: Couriers get sent out, and the package gets delivered, come what may. We’ve seen this repeatedly, with the previous incident with the Assassins, and with the Antibiotics being delivered to Baleros.

    Ironically, the fact that Couriers haven’t seemed to fail thus far makes me want to distrust it happening again, because Pirate likes to throw in twists, and thus the possibility of…

    2. Sometimes, Evil Wins
    I see this as the path where Tyrion is forced to choose between his Sons and his Pride, as in this path the Couriers fail for whatever reason, and there’s nothing to be done except for Tyrion to make a choice. Either sacrifice his kids or sign the contract. We’ve seen this happen sometimes in the story, where sometimes the bad guys win and the good guys have to take their lumps then move on as best they can.

    Of course, in the Wandering Inn, it’s pretty rare that we’ve seen the ‘Bad Guys’ win. Thus, it might be that the Couriers fail, but the Circle still loses because all along it was…

    3. Smoke and Mirrors
    I see this as the path of trickery, where the Couriers being sent are a gigantic decoy, and thus, while they might fail, it ultimately is made irrelevant due to said decoy status. This we’ve seen happen sometimes in the story, less often when Erin or Titan isn’t involved, but perhaps the Witches and Laken will come up with something sneaky. We’ve seen the Ravens be able to get close enough for the Divination to happen, so perhaps they can also be used to quietly deliver a cure from the Witches while the Couriers attract all the attention and get stopped, or somehow manage to trick the Circle into thinking the Contract is valid when it’s actually made invalid somehow, and thus Tyrion gets the cure from the Circle but is not bound to become their hound.

    Not sure which direction this will go yet, or if there’s some kind of alternative possibility that I’ve missed. I’m hopeful that it’s not option 2 though – I’d much prefer that the Circle loses big-time here – and this would be a sensical way for Laken to manage to invite Tyrion to the Solstice party.

    • The big other pathway I can guess at would be if the Tyrion boys level up from the suffering and earn something to get rid of the poison or somehow get fused with it such as with Yvlon Byres and her silver armor arms. What do you think, is this a viable theory?

    • The big other pathway I can guess at would be if the Tyrion boys level up from the suffering and earn something to get rid of the poison or somehow get fused with it such as with Yvlon Byres and her silver armor arms. What do you think, is this a viable theory?

      • To level up, they must do something, anything. Right now, they’re unconscious and struggling to breath so I doubt the System will reward them with [Skills] or levels.
        The servant of the Quaras that started drinking poison proves you can unlock classes that way but it also shows you just be the one to do the action.

  16. my question is where mrsha will go? Cause the the gathering of the tribes will happen at the same time as the party.

    I’m almost certain erin will be going to riverfarm to cook her wondrous fare, but if the author is being obtuse about her meeting laken she can cook the food in the inn and just get ryoka to deliver her food. With Ieka going to the party it’s highly likely that there would be a bunch of thorns member in the party as well and with the help of laken curing tyrion’s kids he can be invited to the party to repay the favour and if magnolia attends as well that’s 2 possible enemies by the thorns in one place, and they could also target laken because he foiled their plans. So that’s 3 people they would want to kill, so it’s far from safe for mrsha to be at.

    Then there’s the gathering of the tribes which I’m fairly positive the raskghar will be going to the way it’s being setup or at least intercept gnolls on the way and feed to power up while heading to the gathering. and krshia invited erin to come along with her much earlier in the story so in theory erin could come along and bring mrsha with her and just have her wonderous fare delivered.

    So which danger would the author terrorise mrsha this time? Cause apparently having her entire tribe killed among other things is not enough to give her crippling ptsd compared to the “earthers” and that’s the only way you could build character for people in the inn world.

  17. Exactly one year ago I bought the audio book of the first volume on audible and after a long break following the third book (because reading actually got in the way of school) I finally caught up with the story!

    This series is honestly amazing. What impresses me the most are the long going story lines and the world building. It pretty much always feels realistic and planed, which I’d expect from a published book where you can go back to earlier chapters and edit in some clues but not necessarily from a web series.

    I could say a million more things but I’m going to cut it short: I love The Wandering Inn and while I’m a bit sad that I now have to wait to read the next chapter, I very much look forward to it!

  18. Laken Godart could, if he really wanted, know the airspeed velocity of the Izrilian swallow, laden, unladen, and even if it was a migratory bird. Terandrian swallows were harder of course, but he could probably find that out too.

    Thank you so much for this!!!!

  19. Haha, honestly yeah, I thought it was all images like the illuminatis eye . I was going “is this Lord of the rings…? No, that makes no sense. ”
    I do t know how you would re’adress, what is a reference & what is meaning then to say it in its moment. It’s telling a story, but we don’t get told it because it’s cinematic ?

  20. I decided to reread from the beginning. It’s funny, I never realized how fast things progressed. I also missed so my hints do early on. (A reference to Ryoka, running like the wind long before anything like that developed. Etc)
    The funny thing is, I now can’t see Erin as anyone other than Anya Taylor Joy after binging The Queens Gambit (which was sooo good. I highly recommend it to you Pirate!). She would make a perfect Erin in an HBO or Netflix The Wandering Inn adaptation, lol.
    Anyway, missing the characters so like I said. Powering through it from the beginning and loving it all over.

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