7.56

(The Wandering Inn, Volume 3 – Part 1 is up on Amazon! Check it out and consider leaving a review—the audiobook should begin recording in January, 2021!)

 

The wind blew in her hair, lifting it up and letting it stream behind her. Not at her back, and not blowing so hard that it was unpleasant—but an acknowledgement, perhaps, that she was going too fast for the breeze to keep up.

It felt wonderful, to sit and experience the cool air rushing across her body. Feel the wind tug playfully at her clothes. Relax, and see the world go past her.

Ryoka Griffin had forgotten what it felt like to ride a bike. Her body hadn’t, but her mind hadn’t remembered how nice it was, even compared to the joys of running.

Because when you were running, you were always in the moment. Even when you were on your runner’s high, you were focused. Biking—you could relax and let the machine carry you down the road.

Especially this particular bicycle. Ryoka did another rotation of the pedals after a little bit and the flagging momentum picked up. And oh, it took a long time to slow.

Frictionless wheels—or as close as Hedault and Pelt could engineer while keeping some kind of grip. Enchantments on the pedals to make high gear feel like the lowest one. Insanely light materials…

The Wind Runner of Reizmelt rode what Fals had called the death of Runners. Perhaps it was and perhaps it was not. Perhaps—the future was bicycles for some, roller-skates for others. Now wouldn’t that look funny?

A little paw adjusted the handlebars slightly. Ryoka reached out, but Mrsha scowled at her as she steered the bicycle.

“Okay, okay. Just don’t crash us.”

The Gnoll was completely focused on her task, unlike Ryoka. Her job was to keep the bike straight. So far they’d crashed four times. Yet, Mrsha clearly loved sitting on Ryoka’s lap and riding along.

“You think we should turn back yet?”

The Gnoll girl shook her head as they rode past a staring pair of pedestrians. Ryoka waved at them.

“Sorry! Ask in Celum!

They were demanding to know what she was riding. Ryoka stared ahead. Mrsha was smiling.

“You really like this, don’t you?”

Duh. Mrsha stared incredulously at Ryoka. The bike wobbled—Ryoka rescued them before they went down again. Mrsha returned to keeping them straight.

She would be all over the place when she had hers. Erin had already put in an order for a tricycle with the Kevin-Pelt-Hedault-Selys alliance. And it was probably the most effective parenting decision she had made all year.

Mrsha was wearing clothes. She had also combed her fur, watered the plants, had not stolen anything from other people’s plates, and she had even helped set the table for the diners. That was because Lyonette had made it clear that any Mrsha-mischief wouldn’t revoke her dessert privileges—a halfway effective tactic at the best of times—but revoke the chance of a new bicycle.

Oh, such terrible threats that adults came up with to control children. Ryoka just enjoyed the ride. She had spoiled Mrsha nonstop and she knew Lyonette didn’t approve. But what else was Ryoka going to do? Not give Mrsha most everything she wanted, spend time with her?

Kids should not be given everything. Nor should they be without discipline, structure, etc. etc. Nor should they have to go through half of what Mrsha had.

It was a relief that she could still laugh silently at a bug bouncing into Ryoka’s mouth, so much that she nearly fell off the young woman’s lap.

“Okay, okay. I think we’re far enough. Let’s head back.”

Ryoka decided that was enough after spitting it out and washing out her mouth. Mrsha sighed, but they went back the way they’d come, passing the awestruck pedestrians again. Ryoka cast a glance over her shoulder.

They had been riding towards Liscor, ironically, having left Celum for the morning ride. But the pass towards which the Floodplains began was almost invisible.

The High Passes loomed. The mountains stretching up into the sky, and higher than any mountain from Earth. Ryoka cast a glance over her shoulder.

If Mrsha wasn’t there—she would have been tempted to ride into the second pass, where only adventurers and fools trespassed.

There be Dragons. Or at least—one. But Teriarch hadn’t responded last time she’d come out here. Ryoka had burned a Potion of Haste and an Octavia-brand Stink Potion. She’d called for nearly twenty minutes, but his cave hadn’t opened.

Was he asleep? Or not in the mood to entertain guests? Ryoka had thought he’d have visited the inn after she left. But maybe…

She swallowed that tiny bit of worry. Teriarch would show up probably when she least expected it. For now, and today—she rode back with Mrsha, enjoying the morning breeze.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn this morning had a number of important guests. The kind that made Lyonette hurry about, taking customized orders. She put down a mushroom risotto in front of the first vegetarian that Erin had ever served—well, the first one who had asked for ‘no meat’ as a sticking point. Even Palt ate meat.

“Look, I’m not going to say it again.”

The person across from the vegetarian breakfaster was annoyed. Or maybe in that stage just before actual annoyance—certainly heated. It was rare for Kevin, the easygoing [Tinkerer], to be anything but optimistic. However—they were arguing, the four of them, as Ryoka wheeled the bike in and Lyonette ran back into the kitchen.

“We’re not calling it ‘Splendiferous Gearage’ or ‘Liscor’s Custom Steelworks’. These are terrible names.”

Hedault paused with a bite of his risotto to his mouth. He and the Drake who had one of Imani’s breakfast specials in front of her looked hurt.

The Dwarf, who had ordered a still-sizzling sausage breakfast, was on Kevin’s side though.

“Especially because I’m not using steel as the main component of all these gears. I’ll use damn iron when I please—it’s false advertising!”

“Exactly, so—”

“We’re not calling it ‘Kevin’s Bike Shop’. That’s even worse.”

“I didn’t say it had to be Kevin’s—”

Selys snorted. She, Hedault, Pelt, and Kevin all glared at each other. The four shareholders in the ‘Untitled Liscor-Invrisil-Pelt Enterprise’ were having their first real argument. About the name.

Manufactorium. People like fancy names. Call it that. Something Something Manufactorium.

Pelt growled. Selys threw up her claws.

“That’s one third of the name, Pelt! I thought you were going to make a list! Okay—how about ‘The Wheels of Liscor’?”

“Again, this isn’t necessarily going to be based in Liscor, Miss Selys.”

Hedault adjusted his spectacles with a sigh. The Drake folded her arms.

“If I’m paying for it—”

“You’re paying for it. Good for you. I’m the one shaping steel. Me and my apprentices. I’m not going to work outside of my forge.”

Pelt chomped down on his breakfast as Kevin accepted his plate from Lyonette. She shook her head as Kevin reached for his notes.

“Okay, Kevin’s Bike Shop was really a bit of a joke. Seriously this time—how about ‘The Rolling Spokes?’ I think it’d be—”

He broke off as Rose groaned and picked up her cup to throw it at him. The debate continued as the reference sailed comfortably over the heads of the other three. Meanwhile, Lyonette hurried over to a figure sitting decidedly by herself.

“Um—this is a new dish. Imani calls it ‘Flyfish Quiche’, Miss Xrn—”

The Antinium twisted in her seat and looked at the composite fish-acidfly slice of quiche that Lyonette was gingerly holding out. She stopped staring at Ryoka as the City Runner put the bicycle away in the [Garden of Sanctuary]. Thieves and the bicycle were a huge problem. Two people had tried to steal it, and five had gone on joyrides.

“How appealing. Thank you, Lyonette. Is this the correct fee?”

Xrn extended her hand. She was holding exact change. Lyonette nodded.

“Um—yes. I can take the payment—but you could pay when you’re done. Thank you, M-Miss Xrn.”

The [Princess] stumbled over the Antinium’s title. And indeed—Xrn of all the Antinium possessed that factor that not only attracted eyes to her, but gave her an exclusion zone of empty seats this morning.

She was the Small Queen of the Antinium, and unlike Klbkch, she did not try to blend in. The azure-shelled Antinium smiled.

“You may call me Xrn, as I have said, Lyonette. Thank you for informing me about payment. Oh, and take this.”

She handed Lyonette two more copper coins. Lyonette stared at them curiously. Xrn nodded to them.

“I did not have to pay, but it seemed fitting. I believe this is known as a ‘tip’?”

Lyonette opened and closed her mouth. Xrn did not have to…? Oh, but wait. Normally no one even noticed—

“T-thank you. Well, if there’s anything I can get for you—”

“More of this flavored rum, thank you. In a larger cup, please. And please ask my companion what she would like to eat. I will pay for that too.”

Xrn waggled the empty glass at Lyonette. The [Princess] took it.

“Of course…”

People stared at the glass as well as Xrn out of the corner of their eyes as Lyonette went to fill it. Drassi was glumly bartending since Pallass was off-limits for all but a few.

“Fill up a larger cup, Drassi.”

“With the flavored rum? But that’s…”

The two furtively stared back at Xrn. She had, by Lyonette’s count, downed about four shots of the flavored rum drink that Rufelt had given to Drassi. It might have been water.

Actually, that might not be a far-off comparison in actual truth. Lyonette recalled Pawn observing it was difficult for him to get drunk. Wasn’t Rxlvn invented to get Antinium intoxicated? And Xrn was Centenium—

“Just fill the cup, Drassi.”

And another thing. Xrn sat there, munching happily on the quiche. Her eyes glowed with pleasure, reflected by the colors in her eyes. They changed, sometimes. Pawn told Lyonette that he’d dared to ask and Xrn had once told him that the colors in her eyes weren’t always the same for the same emotions.

“Color changes meaning depending on time and place and nuance. Why should it be the same each time? Would you cast a spell the same way each time? You would? Well then—that is the difference between how you understand colors and I.”

Lyonette would have dearly loved to parse that one. She felt like it could aid her magical studies somehow. But right now she was getting Xrn everything she wanted. Because the Small Queen was waiting for her breakfast partner.

And reluctantly but soon, Ryoka Griffin slid into the seat and was presented with some granola and yogurt. She was a bit warmed up from her ride. But she wasn’t exactly hungry.

“Ryoka Griffin. There you are.”

“I’m here, I didn’t run off.”

“This time. Shall we continue our conversation? A few things of note have happened since yesterday.”

The Small Queen watched as Ryoka lifted a spoonful of her bowl. For her part—Ryoka Griffin shifted nervously.

“Really? Um…like what?”

“Hm. The Walled Cities attempted to destroy one of the Queen’s new Antinium projects. The Armored Hive has been damaged. Several Named Adventurers participated in the raid. They killed Antinium—no Individuals—and lost a number of [Mages] and [Soldiers] to Klbkchhezeim and Wrymvr. Then Klbkch took a near-mortal wound in the fighting. His body was severed across the chest and the Queens are attempting to rebuild his—”

Ryoka’s granola was coming back out as she choked. Xrn watched with considerable interest. She took another happy bite of quiche.

“No Named Adventurers were slain, alas. Klbkch and Wrymvr must have decided that was too provocative. They are playing games.”

What?

The City Runner shouted. She saw heads turn as she shot to her feet. Then—just as fast, Ryoka’s head swiveled around.

“Why are you telling me this out here?

“We are private.”

“We are? Are you casting spells?”

“Mm. Just ones to prevent others from listening in.”

The Small Queen’s eyes glowed. Ryoka sat down—people were staring at her.

“They could be reading our lips.”

“They would fail, even if I had lips. We are not able to be overheard, Ryoka Griffin. The same as yesterday. Your [Illusionist] could not pierce my veils. Nor can anyone else. I would know if they tried, anyways. Five have so far since you sat down.”

“Wh—really?

Xrn made a fluttering sound—a laugh. She raised her mandibles and opened them.

“Probably not you. They try to spy on me constantly. I think the magic comes from Wistram…see? Right here.”

She traced something above her head. Ryoka saw the air light up—and a wisp of color appeared, light pink, and as thin as…she stared as it vanished upwards.

“Is that—?”

“I never know where it is from. But my maps make me believe that most come from Wistram.”

Different magic for a different spellcaster. Ryoka sat back down. People were staring, but Ryoka realized—they did have that look of confusion on their face. They could see her—but perhaps not anything else? She looked at Xrn. Ryoka wasn’t about to run away, or lie, or obfuscate with the Small Queen. She had promised Klbkch, a long time ago, to help the Antinium.

Also—she’d tried all that yesterday. Xrn was unavoidable, unable to be outrun or hid from—she’d dunked Ryoka in a river a few times, then they’d had a long chat after she wiped out a Rock Crab nest.

Good…times.

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice couldn’t see what Ryoka was saying to Xrn. Not that she read lips, but they seemed to blur over in her vision if she focused too hard. Ryoka had stood up, then sat down, now she was learning forwards and…

“I’m gonna do it. I am!”

“Sure you are.”

The [Innkeeper] scowled over at her fellow peeker—they were peeking at Ryoka from the Garden of Sanctuary’s door.

“I’ll do it! Give me a club and I’ll smack Xrn on the head and—”

Fierre passed Erin a club. The [Innkeeper] went cross eyed.

“Wait, where’d that come from?”

“Some of the gear we got from Archmage Valeterisa’s mansion. Remember? The Archmage, who’s probably less dangerous than one of the Antinium’s leaders?”

“Um…”

Erin swished the club back and forth. The Vampire girl watched her.

“Okay. I’ll rush in, hit Xrn—”

“And die?”

“—and tell her ‘you can’t bully Ryoka!’ How’s that?”

Fierre eyed Xrn. She looked up at Erin. The [Innkeeper] had been trying to psych herself up the last few minutes.

She was…nervous around Xrn. Not afraid! Sort of afraid.

Very afraid. Xrn was hard for Erin to deal with and she was doing the same kind of pressuring as she’d done to Erin when she first came here to Ryoka. Only—more so this time. Erin wasn’t going to stand for it, of course! She just had to figure out how she was not going to stand for it.

“I did tell you what happened yesterday, right?”

“You, Palt, and Salamani wouldn’t let me come to ‘rescue’ Ryoka from Xrn. Right, right. And?”

“And we tried to insist she back off. Politely.”

“Mhm.”

“And she threw Salamani a hundred feet straight up.”

“Right. That’s why he’s sleeping in.”

Fierre shuddered. And that had been Xrn being playful—according to her. The Small Queen did not take it easy in anything she did. So much for being a Vampire. Some species were just plain cheaters.

She licked her lips as she stood, peering behind Erin. Fierre sniffed—Erin sidled a bit to the side, ostensibly to let her see. The [Innkeeper] glanced at Fierre and then at Xrn.

“Er—okay, I’d actually do it to Klbkch. But if I, y’know, bonked Xrn on the head. Lightly. Not with a magical thing, just like, a rolling pin? How mad do you think she’d be?”

“Do it. I’ll watch.”

Erin licked her lips for completely different reasons involving fear.

“D-do you think she has any weaknesses? Like—to cute things?”

“Didn’t she web Mrsha to the ceiling? Doubt it.”

“Right…”

 

—-

 

“Let us talk about Wrymvr, Ryoka Griffin.”

“Not Klbkch nearly dying?”

The Small Queen waved that off.

“It is clearly a ploy to motivate the Queens. He would not take that kind of injury with Wrymvr about. No, I wish to talk about Wrymvr.”

“I don’t know if I can help—”

The Small Queen looked at Ryoka.

“I do not know if you can. If you can, volunteer information. I simply wish to talk about him because he annoys me.”

Oh, vent. It was such a…Human emotion. And Xrn was certainly more nuanced than Klbkch in some ways. Less—in others.

She had leaned her staff against the table, but Ryoka was sure the staff was just a catalyst. The Small Queen used it; it did not define her. Nor did she practice magic like anyone else. Even Teriarch might have been impressed by her.

She was a [Thaumaturge]. A class that Ryoka hadn’t known existed until Xrn told her she possessed it. Her magic was varied, powerful, and didn’t follow the same…rules as other [Mages]. Or rather, a different set of rules.

Case in point: she had cast a spell to kill the Rock Crab yesterday. Ryoka shuddered.

[The Bindings of Belavierr]. A spell that had ensnared the crab with familiar threads, unbreakable no matter how hard it had fought. Ryoka had asked where Xrn had learned that spell. And she had said—

“I do not need to learn a spell, only call for it. Well, that is the magic I learned from my class, given to me by Skills. Magic in general is just—changing the world. Like you can do with a shovel, or fire, or water.”

“Wrymvr. Wrymvr annoys me. He and I have never gotten entirely along. I wish, sometimes, that Galuc had lived rather than Wrymvr. He would have been more agreeable. And made Hives that would have never fallen to petty [Earthquake] spells.”

The Small Queen mused aloud. Ryoka hesitated.

“Is it—callous to talk about them like that?”

“To wish death on Wrymvr? Perhaps. But I do not care if his feelings are hurt. He will regrow them. Besides, he is difficult to kill. I hoped Zel Shivertail could do it—I attempted to make that happen.”

“You wanted him to kill Wrymvr?”

The Small Queen sat there, alien, smiling at Ryoka.

“Yes. I had hoped dying would return him back to his senses, even if it meant him losing body and levels. He is a warmonger. While Klbkchhezeim and I attempt to find a way home—he is more concerned with the Twisted Antinium, who unleash experiments onto cities. Drive us closer to war. You see—he believes the only way to return home is to take each Walled City and turn them into rubble. To build more Hives? Destroy, to be perfectly safe. He is a simpleton, but he was never made to plan ahead.”

“I uh—it does sort of sound that way. Is he just—like that?”

Xrn tilted her head left and right. She liked conversing, another difference between her and Klbkch. He had treated it as a means to an end, but she had made Ryoka teach her a half-dozen tongue-twisters and patter songs and socialized before getting down to business. Well—that was probably to stop Ryoka from hyperventilating to death, anyways.

“You mean, less intelligent? Mm. Yes. Certainly less than me. Depending on how much brain matter she packed into Klbkchhezeim—but the Free Queen’s work aside, Klbkchhezeim was meant to think. Wrymvr was designed to protect Queens in war. He is straightforward, simple, arrogant. But powerful. I am more destructive. Half the Centenium were more destructive than he, and we were not all made for war. But no one among us was meant to survive like Wrymvr. He has never died.”

“Well, yeah, his nickname is—”

Xrn pointed at Ryoka and the City Runner shut up.

“You misunderstand me, Ryoka Griffin. Wrymvr has never died. Not once since his creation. Hence the name we gave him. You see my body? Made by Shaper Queens in Rhir, superior to the one Klbkch and the others lost at sea?”

She gestured at her form. Ryoka studied it—there was a level of…what, artisanship? that you could tell the other Antinium lacked. A superior quality to the carapace, not to mention the eyes and so on. Xrn nodded.

“It is a copy, perhaps even an improvement on my original body. I have died, Ryoka Griffin. Once. Wrymvr? Never.

“Then—is he stronger than you?”

Another tilt of the head.

“Do you mean ‘could I kill him?’. That would be pointless. I am more destructive, more varied, better at leading and planning and, ironically, adapting and everything else you could imagine. Wrymvr is better at surviving. And singing.”

Singing?

Xrn’s antennae twitched and her mandibles lowered.

“Only by a bit. I tell you this, Ryoka Griffin, to persuade you that you must help me and the Antinium. As we established yesterday, without your interference, the Antinium will set out on a path neither you nor I wish to occur.”

War with the cities. Xrn had laid it out in a logical way for Ryoka, much as Klbkch had, but more directly.

There were two sides to the Antinium. The Queens, especially the Grand Queen, whom Xrn did not seem to like at all, who were focused on war with Izril as a means of rebuilding the Antinium and returning to Rhir with a vast army.

Then there was the Free Queen to some extent, Klbkch more or less, and Xrn, who dreamed of returning to Rhir to retrieve lost Antinium knowledge. They would bring it here—and rebuild the Antinium. Conquering Izril? An afterthought. Their goal was only one thing:

Return home. Destroy the sleeping god buried in Rhir.

“You told me you died facing the sleeping—”

Xrn lifted a finger. Her eyes turned—not black, not any color. The magical lights just winked out, leaving them blank and that was terrifying. Ryoka bit her tongue at once.

“Our enemy. Wrymvr escaped that by chance, Ryoka Griffin. But know this: the living Centenium marched that day. The Centenium marched upon it with the First Queen and the largest host of Antinium ever known. And we died.”

She leaned forwards.

Do you think the army that should have landed on Terandria’s shores was vast? Two hundred ships we sent, to colonize Terandria. That army was dust and ash before the one we sent against our enemy. And. We. Died.

Light flickered in her eyes. Swirling blackness and two motes of grey light. Pupils, within her multi-faceted insect’s eyes. They locked on Ryoka. Twice as terrifying.

“That is why you will help me. Because your enemy is my enemy. Because our enemy would unleash horrors like Crelers and has done so without end. It will not stop until the world dies—or it. Or it wakes up.”

Ryoka’s mouth was dry. She just wanted to eat her granola and hug a Gnoll. This was far too early in the morning for this kind of conversation.

“Why don’t you tell everyone, then? I asked Klbkch—”

“Why would they believe the Antinium? And secondly—even if they did? It would strengthen it. The First Queen decreed that only the Centenium and Queens should be told what they fought because it gained strength with every mind that knew. And even then—magic and might cannot even scratch it. It births the horrors of Rhir as it…sleeps.”

So, create an army of Antinium on another continent. Come back and figure out a way to overwhelm or contain. That was the Antinium’s initial plan. It had gone off the rails when they died at sea. Now—they were a threat to Izril. But Ryoka couldn’t help but believe Xrn when she said that she didn’t care for the Walled Cities or conquest. The point was to kill a god.

To kill…

“Back to Wrymvr. Do you know where a Dragon is, Ryoka Griffin?”

Xrn sat back and Ryoka nearly died again.

“No. Why?

The Centenium happily ate from her quiche.

“It might be able to kill Wrymvr. Dragonfire humbled him once. The sea could not drown him, but neither could he best the Kraken, only survive it. He has lost to all of our greatest foes. But lived. I heard from Klbkchhezeim that Erin Solstice might know where the Dragon is, but she denied it. Wrymvr should die. If he dies—he will know mortality, and that, I think, will make him wiser. A Dragon could kill Wrymvr. Or…something buried deeply. Perhaps in your dungeon. Are you aware of what might be down there?”

Ryoka pushed back her bowl. She was not having breakfast anymore.

“No. What? What do you know?”

The Small Queen smiled back at Ryoka.

“Nothing. But I know what is found in the deep places. I told you, Ryoka Griffin. The Antinium came of Rhir. We were created by our foe, just like Crelers. Just like everything else. Time and the First Queen gave us freedom to rebel. But time corrupts. The deeper we dug, the more we found waiting for us. We have found their like twice in Izril—many times in Rhir.”

“Things?”

Xrn nodded, as if oblivious to how much skin was trying to crawl off Ryoka and hide under her bed.

“They exist across this world. Things of good intention and ill. Changed by time. The other species call them ‘Old Things.’ I think your dungeon may have something like that. Why else is it so malevolent? That thing they call Face Stealer—I have tried to kill it three times. It lives. It could come up from the dungeon and kill every person in Liscor, I think. Klbkch and the Queen held it off many times—sometimes by feeding it thousands of Soldiers and Workers. You seem remarkably carefree with such threats around.”

Ryoka shuddered.

“Can you—can you stop giving me nightmares for five seconds, Xrn? I know what you’re fighting. I’m sold. Please—please stop convincing me.”

“Then help us.”

“I’m willing to—”

Xrn reached into her side bags. She put something on the table. Ryoka stared at a blank piece of paper. Xrn added a quill, and ink.

“Trebuchet. I will also accept ballista designs. For Bird.”

“I can’t just—”

“You know how to make them?”

“Look, I, what I meant was—”

Xrn scooted the paper closer to Ryoka. She tapped it with one finger.

That is aid, Ryoka Griffin. Not words. Material. Immediate. Tell me how to make a ship. Give me the designs of this bicycle…no, that seems less useful to the Antinium.”

Her eyes drilled into Ryoka’s—still in pupil-mode. Ryoka felt like Xrn was grabbing her soul and trying to squeeze it for answers.

She was intense. And what made Xrn scary was that she was right. Ryoka couldn’t dance around being an ally with her. You were either helpful or not in Xrn’s mind. And Ryoka—

Bop.

A rolling pin made less loud sound compared to Erin’s voice, squeaky with nerves. But it did bop the Antinium on the head, between her antennae. Xrn’s glowing pinpoints of light unscrambled.

Ryoka and Xrn turned. Erin Solstice stood there. She was pale—and turned paler as Xrn slowly twisted in her seat.

“Is that an attack, Erin Solstice?”

“Noooooooooooo. Just—a warning bop! That’s all! Definitely not an attack!”

Erin lowered the pin in a hurry. Ryoka stared at her. And then at Fierre, who was pressing her hands to her mouth, clearly not expecting Erin to have actually just done that.

What was that line about consequences? Xrn regarded the pin. She felt at her head. Then she stood up so fast Erin squeaked.

“I see. Then. Is it war?

Erin backed up, babbling so fast that she nearly fell over the chair behind her. Xrn watched her—then opened her mandibles and lifted them. She made the fluttering sound again.

“That is a joke. I am quite amused. Did you see that, Ryoka? Klbkchhezeim was always so humorless.”

She sat back down. Ryoka saw Erin leaning on a table to catch her breath and clutching at her heart. Xrn laughed again.

“Individual Antinium. That is Erin’s gift to the Free Antinium and why I do not insist. You though—I will press you. You have not been useful until now, Ryoka Griffin. Give me something.”

She looked at Ryoka. The City Runner’s eyes flickered to Erin. She saw Xrn waiting, smiling—then jump slightly in her seat.

It was a commonality between species. Erin had sidled over, and then, with two fingers, poked Xrn right in the side, about where her belly would be. Ryoka waited for Erin to die.

“H-hey. Stop picking on Ryoka…”

Erin saw Xrn reach for her staff. The [Innkeeper] threw her hands up—

“Hold on! I was just—”

Pop. Erin Solstice vanished. Ryoka shot to her feet.

Xrn!

“I simply removed her. I am willing to entertain her, Ryoka Griffin. But not right now.”

“What did you—”

Xrn shrugged as Hedault turned to stare and Fierre ran away to hide. She pointed.

“Up.”

 

—-

 

Aaah! Aaaaah!

Erin dangled from the edge of Bird’s tower. Bird stared down at her.

“Hello, Erin. How did you do that, please?”

 

—-

 

Ryoka sat there, feeling like she was trapped. Really—she was. She had to give Xrn something, or tell her, right here and now, that she was not the Antinium’s ally, even insofar as it pertained to killing what might or might not be a god, sleeping in Rhir.

It all made sense, too. Ryoka put her head in her hands.

“Just—just give me a second to think. You know I’m unwilling to give you big things, Xrn. It’d make the Antinium…”

“You have three minutes.”

“Th—”

“I gave you all of last night.”

Ryoka thought. Trebuchets? Gunpowder? Rocket fuel? Okay—she didn’t know that last one. Nor could Ryoka make a ship, although she could probably give some tips that Anand—who was making them?—probably needed.

None of that. Absolutely none of that. Ryoka had a new theory about bringing tech from Earth to this world. And it was this:

Kevin should do it. Erin should do it. Ryoka Griffin should not do it. It wasn’t about competence, it was about who had the better track record. But something?

Ryoka did have…something…

“Xrn. You know I’m from…Earth, right?”

It felt so weird to say. But Xrn just nodded.

“Klbkch has repeated his entire conversation of substance to me. Go on.”

“Well…there are more.”

“I am also aware of that. There are seven, not including you or Erin Solstice.”

“Y-you are? How did you know that—”

“Aside from the fact that this Kevin has created a new device, and that Joseph plays a new game with unmatched knowledge and the group is a group of seven?”

“Ah. Well, um, here’s the thing. There are more of us. In Wistram.”

I see.

Xrn’s eyes glowed a bit. Pink and gold.

“This would help Wistram. Much in the way you seem to refuse to help the Antinium, would it not?”

“Y—well, I don’t know they’re doing that—”

“But there are more. Many more, then. Interesting. Is that all? Because that is not enough.”

“No…there’s one thing. You see, Xrn. We’re in contact with someone from Wistram. I can’t tell you who or how—but listen. This is helpful. I’m giving you a lot. So—Wistram is spying on you. Through your scrying mirrors.”

Xrn had been scraping her plate with her fork for the last bit of quiche. Ryoka saw her hand moving the fork stop. Dead still. Perfect muscle control.

She looked up.

“And you are sure?”

“Yes. I mean, almost. Our person said the [Mages] were discussing images of your Hive—and if what you just said about the Walled Cities attacking is true—”

“They were uncannily informed about our position. They have not been before. I put up wards to make their scrying spells unable to simply scan the Hives—unless they knew exactly where to work from. All of this substantiates your information. They are watching the Queens. Listening to their words and discussions. Which means anything they have spoken of is known.”

“I don’t know how much they know. I just—Xrn? Xrn?”

The Small Queen sat there. Ryoka wondered how she was feeling. What she was going to d—

“I have just informed the Free Queen. We will take steps. This information is what we desired, even if I had no notion of it, Ryoka Griffin. Good. What else?”

The Centenium looked up. Ryoka stared at her. Xrn had processed the information, relayed it, and—

Not a flicker. She just waited. Ryoka passed a hand over her face.

“Don’t I get a reprieve?”

Xrn looked at Ryoka, moving her head to regard the young woman from every angle.

“I did not think it pertinent to ask, but in your world, does the word ‘ally’ mean someone who is consistently deficient in giving actual aid and support to their allies?”

The young woman stared back at Xrn.

“Um. We’re pretty bad at it as a species, so yes?”

“Oh. I see. Do your best.”

 

—-

 

By the time Erin Solstice got down from the roof, Ryoka and Xrn had finished their talks. It had taken Erin a while. Not because Bird was particularly delayed in pulling her up; she’d appeared just outside his tower. Rather, Erin had been forced to sit with her head bowed in a corner to avoid puking for about ten minutes.

Teleportation—or Xrn-portation—was not pleasant. It was like being shaken by a giant rapidly, like you got after riding some of those topsy-turvy rides on the amusement park too fast in too quick succession.

“Xrn! I’m not giving up! Please don’t teleport me. But you can’t just—

Erin strode over to Xrn, prepared to run into her garden and hide. She found Xrn leaning over the table, eagerly asking questions. Ryoka—a more relaxed Ryoka—was giving her answers.

“You’re going to have to find a specialist. No, I have no idea what the dimensions are. But there’s your answer. Hell—it is going to be hell with your Queens. But that—you really don’t know?”

“I am not a Shaper Queen. But it makes sense. They had different methods of isolating materials.”

“I don’t know if alchemy is close to chemistry, Xrn. But there you go. I doubt the periodic table would be helpful to you, anyways. But…”

Erin stared at Ryoka. The young woman was sketching something on the table. Something the Antinium needed that she had gotten from previous conversations with Xrn. And the Small Queen had pressured Ryoka into giving her. Not bombs. Not siege weapons. But—Erin peered at the design Xrn was inspecting, and Ryoka labeling each part of.

Bop!

She hit Ryoka with the rolling pin. Quite a bit harder than she had with Xrn. It was a real tap. Ryoka grabbed at her head.

Motherf—Erin! That hurts like hell!”

“Well, what is that?

Erin pointed at the microscope and demonstration of convex lenses. Ryoka grabbed for the pin.

“It’s for the Queens. Don’t hit me again! Give me that—”

It was a Ryoka-solution to a Xrnian problem. Don’t give the Antinium much new from Earth—aside from the means to enable the Antinium to do what they’d already been doing. Which was advanced chemistry.

“We had been using alchemist tools to allow the Queens to work. But the right materials were still difficult to source, let alone render into usable…see the problem. None of the Queens ever asked me for that. But then—the Silent Queen does have a weaker magnifying spell, yes. I enchanted a hoop right at the beginning. Nothing of this scale…glass?”

“Glasses are based on that. Erin—put that down—”

You hypocrite!

Erin raised her bonking pin. Xrn raised her staff. Erin—lowered her pin and backed up.

“I’m trying to—I’m doing my best to help and not mess things up, Erin. I’m sorry.”

Ryoka looked miserable—and more anxious as she turned to Erin. The [Innkeeper] looked at Xrn. She sighed.

“Ryoka, I’m not mad about that.”

The City Runner looked at Erin.

“No?”

“I like the Antinium! I’m not sure about chemistry and stuff—ooh, that’s iron, isn’t that? Fe. Recognize it anywhere.”

Erin pointed at one of the easier elements on the table. Xrn filled in the box—Erin had interrupted Ryoka. Erin turned to Ryoka.

“I’m just worried that Xrn is pressuring you. In which case—I’d do something about it. And you lecturing me. Because that’s, y’know, sort of annoying. But I get it! Xrn—please don’t teleport me again. I nearly threw up.”

“I will consider it.”

The Small Queen was smiling. She was greatly pleased once she and Ryoka had settled on something they could agree was fair to share.

“This is useful, Ryoka Griffin. Especially being able to see the minute details. What has plagued the Queens—all of them—is that they are unable to work with fine detail. Shaper Queens are far smaller—some barely larger than I, with specialized appendages. All the Queens sacrificed themselves to create the first Antinium of Izril. Maintaining the purity of samples of iron and other ingredients is essential and has been beyond them without specialist Antinium to aid their focus. As well—disease.”

“Disease?”

Xrn flicked an antennae, vexed.

“I do not have the word for it. The same thing as disease, yes. Tiny, tiny things that interfere with proper growth. Eat what the Queens try to make. They are unable to keep their working spaces clean, even sealing air away. I do not have the word for it.”

“Microorganisms? Sterile?”

That came from Erin. Xrn stared at her. Ryoka smiled. What was rare to Antinium was still common knowledge to someone who had taken high school science. At least in theory.

“Do the Antinium not have anything antiseptic, Xrn?”

The Small Queen hesitated.

“Everything the Antinium used in Rhir was lost. And the Queens were taught to use that. So this…sterility substances, these antiseptics? They would have been produced by dedicated Antinium or created. No Queens, including myself know how the First Antinium worked up to later stages.”

“So…you don’t use rubbing alcohol? Heat? Soap and water?”

“…Does that work?”

It was fascinating. Like talking to, well, someone from an advanced civilization who remembered airplanes, but forgot how to operate a butter churn. Well, Ryoka wasn’t sure if that analogy was entirely 1-1, but she ended up just giving Xrn a rundown on…basic stuff.

Stuff you didn’t think you needed to know. People used soap in this world! Erin had bought some the first day she was in Liscor! But there were things like telling Xrn that yes, soap and water helped kill a lot of microorganisms, or freezing temperatures, that was mind-blowing to Xrn.

“No. Cold works on the little things that bother the Silent Queen so much? This cold?”

The Centenium pointed her staff at the table. She projected a stream of frost—Ryoka saw the frozen air hit the table and frost it over. Erin yelped!

“Hey! Watch the—oh, wait, I can fix whatever happens. Never mind. Yeah, freezing does it, right, Ryoka? Heat, cold, bacteria die either way.”

The City Runner coughed. She hated to be that person in this conversation, but she had to correct Erin here.

“Actually, Erin…freezing just puts them into stasis. They’re not dead unless it gets really cold. And some can survive lower temperatures than others…I’d hate to see a magical bacterium. It’d have to be really cold.”

“Aw, really? I could have sworn they said in science class—”

“It’s a common misconception.”

Xrn peered at the two young women. She tapped the staff on their table for their attention.

“Frost or heat is within my power. Ryoka, how cold?”

Ryoka had no idea. She shrugged.

“You don’t need to get that cold or hot, Xrn. I think the antiseptics—how cold could you get?”

She was sort of curious. The Small Queen’s eyes lit up. Motes of blue and white floated across her eyes like snow.

“I do not know. Shall we find out?”

So saying, she drew a small circle around the table on the floor that began to glow blue. Erin looked at Ryoka. The City Runner waited, but the [Innkeeper] just folded her arms.

“You’re not going to stop it, Erin?”

“Why? This sounds really fun! Hey, Mrsha! Want to see some magic?”

The Gnoll child ran over and Erin made her back up. Xrn was walking around her magical circle. And as if lured by the siren call, more [Mages] appeared.

Like cockroaches. Palt scuttled out of the kitchen as Montressa and Bezale came down the stairs. Xrn regarded them—and Salamani, peeking from the bannister, and Hedault, who’d turned in his chair to watch.

“Is that, ah, magical circle fully completed, Miss…er…Mage…Magus Xrn?”

Montressa fumbled for addresses. Clearly, she was wondering if she should be treating Xrn like an enemy, and clearly she didn’t really want to—she’d heard about Salamani. Xrn looked at the circle.

It had none of the runes, intricate symbology to create a magical barrier, or anything else like the one Valeterisa had made for the cells. Ryoka saw Xrn flick an antennae.

“This is my magic circle, Mage Montressa. The cold will stay within the boundaries.”

“But there’s no…”

Palt muttered. Xrn looked curiously at him.

“It will stay within the boundaries. Do you need more for your circles?”

‘Sick burn.’ Kevin mouthed across the crowd to Ryoka. She nodded. The [Mages], disconsolate, muttered but watched as Xrn cast her cold spell.

“I do not know how cold I can make this. Is this table fine to chill, Miss Erin?”

“Erin—”

Lyonette looked wary, but the [Innkeeper] laughed.

“It’s fine. I’ve got [Partial Reconstruction]! Hit it, Xrn! Get it really cold! Kill those microbe jerks!”

“Who’s she killing? Fraerlings? I can’t see.”

The crowd muttered. People were watching, having an excuse to gawk at Xrn. Most of Liscor’s inhabitants could treat her like Klbkch—albeit more removed. Some, however, like Ferris—

Well, the [Thaumaturge] was doing something. Ryoka heard her muttering.

“What spell? What spell? [Frost Wyvern’s Breath]? [Cenidau’s Complete Chill]—what is a Cenidau?”

“That’s a Terandrian Kingdom. Have you not heard of it, Xrn?”

Palt started. He eyed Xrn. She looked at him blankly.

“Why would I need to? It must be cold, then.”

“Extremely.”

“Ah, then that is better. [Cenidau’s Complete Chill].”

Xrn tapped the table happily. Ryoka saw her staff flash. Something appeared—a tiny mote of frost on the table. Xrn regarded it, checked her staff, and stepped back.

“That took a bit of magic. Very cold indeed.”

Everyone stared at the spot of frost. Mrsha began to giggle in Erin’s arms. Then—the frost began to spread.

Ooh.

Ryoka watched as the frost covered the table. It seemed like it was getting colder—the wood began to crack. And the air frosted over—someone reached for the edge, and Bezale stopped them.

“No one put a hand into there. Are you mad?”

The Gnoll complained.

“But how will we know how cold it is?”

“Put something else into there. Anyone got a stick? How about a hotdog? Imani? Im—

Here!

Imani had been watching. She hurried into the kitchen and came back with a hotdog on a long poker with a wooden handle. She handed it to Bezale. The Minotauress put it into the magic circle just as the wood turned completely frosty. Not more than that—Hedault murmured.

“It must not have enough water to freeze more than that. I wonder what the spell might do in a larger, more humid environment. Mage Bezale. I don’t think—”

Bezale yanked her hand back with a roar of pain. Everyone turned to her as the poker hit the ground.

“Beza?”

My hand!

It was burned! No—a cold burn! The kind you got from grasping—Ryoka stared. The wooden poker handle? But it had been in there—

The poker lay on the ground, in pieces. The metal had snapped and broken like cheap glass where it had hit the ground. The hotdog?

Menolit, after producing a pair of workman’s gloves, picked up the hotdog. Really, more of a sausage since the…unique…composition of hotdogs was not yet invented in this world and the healthier and thus inferior sausage still ruled.

“Ancestors, it’s cold. And it’s…yep.”

He tapped it on the ground. It made a hard sound—then cracked in half. More like powder—it wasn’t just frozen cold—

Everyone turned to stare at the table. It, the floorboards, all coated in a layer of frost. Xrn’s barrier innocently held back what was inside from…

“Um…”

Drassi tossed a mug. Ryoka saw the condensation freeze as it went up in a gentle arc. It landed on the table, a perfect toss. Or should have.

The table cracked. The slight impact shattered it to pieces. It landed on the floorboards. And the floorboards—

Erin, Ryoka, and the audience stared into her basement. Xrn peered down.

“Ah. I forgot to ward the floorboards. Is that cold enough, do you think, Miss Griffin?”

She looked up at Ryoka. The City Runner stared back with a dry mouth. And she realized—Xrn was not unaware of the stares. The Centenium was also…telling a joke.

Xrn smiled. Lyonette looked at the hole in the floor and table which was not coming back with [Partial Reconstruction]. She began to write Xrn’s bill.

 

—-

 

Now that they were staying at the inn, Wilovan and Ratici had assumed their presence would qualify as the safety-element missing at nights.

They had been reluctant to of course; it was wrong to get too involved with your target, even if they were actually under protection. But it hadn’t turned out poorly yet and they had no choice.

As they came down for late breakfast after a very late night—they saw Antinium busily repairing the hole in the floor.

 

‘Caution: Hole. Watch your step!’

 

A helpful sign had been put up; Erin had lots of spares. She’d even made a little rope fence around the spot with chairs. Ratici and Wilovan peered at it and gathered what had happened.

“It occurs to me, Ratici—”

“Hey, you two. Can I get you anything?”

The two paused as Drassi came over; the bartending job was sort of hard to pick up in the morning. They ordered, had some very fine-smelling risotto placed in front of them, and began to eat as they continued the conversation.

“It occurs to me, Ratici, that we might have been in error in our assessment.”

“Wilovan my friend, I’m hardly inclined to disagree.”

The two nodded to each other. They’d assumed at first that the Tallman had some big plan, to have them stay here. Then they’d concluded this was a (well paying) waste of their time.

Now? They peeked at the Small Queen of the Antinium. The two Gentlemen Callers wondered if they’d been swindled out of a lot more gold. Or was the Tallman unaware of how crazy this inn was?

“Ratici! Wilovan! How are my two favorite crooks?”

Erin Solstice made the two jump. Not because they didn’t sense her coming up from the side, but because she was loud.

“Miss Solstice. A good morning to you. Could you, er, keep your voice down, though?”

Wilovan winced as heads turned. Erin looked blank.

“Why? Oh. But I thought—”

She looked at Palt, Fierre, and the others who could pick out Wilovan and Ratici at a glance. Wilovan huffed.

“I can…see where you were misapprehended, Miss Solstice, but we normally don’t advertise our status as fellows who sometimes stray on the wrong side of the law.”

Sometimes?

The [Innkeeper] gave him a teasing grin. Ratici chortled and Wilovan coughed.

That was the second disarming thing. This young woman, who had many sterling qualities, was so strangely likeable. And more than that—she saw them for who they were and still liked them.

Wilovan and Ratici were polite, well-dressed, and usually mild-mannered people. So being liked wasn’t unknown to them. But being liked for who you were? When people knew you were the Callers? That—that was odd.

Even so, it was inconvenient. A few stares prickled Ratici, but he pretended it was some joke of Erin’s. The [Innkeeper] was resting on the table.

“Am I to understand that hole in the floor comes from this morning, Miss Solstice?”

“I didn’t know, Wilovan! Xrn made it.”

“The…lady over yonder. I see. The Small Queen of the Antinium. Who you seem to be on a first name basis with.”

“Yep. Is that weird?”

Wilovan hemmed and hawed, not willing to say ‘yes, absolutely.’

“Even in our lines of work, Miss Solstice, the Antinium are not something that’ve ever cropped up. One feels it’s like Demons in the inn, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

Ratici leaned over as he fished for a handkerchief. Erin looked up.

“Demons? Have you ever met any?”

“Not myself, Miss Solstice…”

The two were delicate on that point. Erin looked at Ratici.

“Do they have wings and horns? And uh—flaming stuff?”

“One doesn’t inquire, Miss Solstice. Wings, horns…”

Erin wasn’t sure how to ask if they were really demons. She settled for a mildly stern look towards the two Callers.

“Why’re you two so surprised Xrn is here? Liscor has Antinium. You two are the bigshot bigwig hat guys from up north, right?”

The two paused for a long moment. Wilovan’s lips moved soundlessly. Ratici shook his head.

“Miss Solstice, we don’t tend to advertise we’re about. Meeting you, this stay—it’s been rather unique. And if you don’t mind us saying so, we tend to draw the line between ourselves not for our protection, if you understand me.”

“Oh. But am I going to be in danger?”

“Not immediately. But we do come from different worlds, Miss Erin.”

She laughed at that. For reasons neither Gentlemen Caller quite knew. Erin looked at Wilovan and Ratici, and put her hands on their shoulders.

“Yeah, we do! But there’s no reason we can’t be friends, right?”

The two could only sigh at that. Yet she was attractive. In a way that didn’t define itself purely physically. People had been drawn to this inn. So many odd sorts.

Hedault, Pelt, two master-class artisans. Montressa, Palt, Bezale, Salamani, [Mages] of Wistram. The Callers, Xrn, Antinium…

And more. Ryoka was watching as Kevin sketched out Mrsha’s tricycle and she urgently wrote suggestions and he tried to incorporate them—or politely ignore some.

“I can’t put swords on it, Mrsha. And it won’t fly. How about color? Puce is…where did you learn that word? Do you know what puce actually looks like?”

Mrsha did not. But Kevin had a great idea! Which he totally didn’t come up with to stop her from grabbing his quill every two seconds to make her adjustments to her bike.

“I have a basic paint program on my youknowwhat. Why don’t you find the perfect color on it? And I’ll finish the bike and you can choose what color it is, okay?”

He shooed Mrsha towards the secret rooms—now with air vents. Ratici, had, of course, already found them, but he still hadn’t been able to figure out what was going on inside. He watched as Mrsha excitedly bounced into the Garden.

“Do you think you could get in, Ratici? Asking purely as one professional to another.”

“Hm. I’d have to really take a crack at it, Wilovan. On the surface? The asking price would be too high for most to even bother.”

“Interesting. Miss Drassi? Could I trouble you ever so much for another sandwich? Thank you.”

The two sat back with a sigh. There were some things to complain about, but they’d miss this service. And the food was getting better! If only there was some fine company…Wilovan had seen a wonderfully built Gnoll woman, but she was alas, spoken for. As all good women were.

 

—-

 

Mrsha happily ran towards the laptop as Kevin sighed and went back to his work. Mrsha raced into the secret Earth-rooms and found…

Numbtongue was hunched over with a blanket on his shoulders, playing on the laptop with the touchpad. He didn’t say anything as Mrsha waved at him.

Numbtongue, hey, Numbtongue! I need to use that!

He ignored her when she crawled onto the table to sign. She reached for the keys—he swatted her away.

He was playing the game! The game with the guns! Mrsha glowered. Then she eyed Numbtongue’s features. How…long had he been playing?

Thanks to Palt and the other [Mages], who resented being used as walking batteries, you could recharge the electronics practically all day. Numbtongue growled as Mrsha tried to push at him. She signed furiously.

Let me use it!

“Go away. I’m winning.”

He was on the hardest difficulty, playing—Mrsha grabbed the laptop. Numbtongue shot to his feet with a roar. He was going to lose his life and the record! The two fought for it. Mrsha found herself pressed against the floor by a foot while Numbtongue played. She wriggled.

Mrsha the Computer Wizard would not be surpassed! She had to have a turn! But Numbtongue seized the laptop, avoiding her lunge, grabbed her, pushed her out the door—and then sat against it while she howled and pounded on it, demanding to be let in.

 

—-

 

“Numbtongue did what? Well…he was um, playing, wasn’t he? Yes. I know, Mrsha. I’ll tell him. But you can’t just grab it. Oh, you didn’t grab it? Did you ask first?”

Lyonette was having the first inter-family dispute. And it was rather familiar to the fights she remembered her mother having to break up between her siblings. Mrsha was actually in tears.

Whether she was that distraught Lyonette very much doubted. But the Gnoll was upset that Numbtongue had wrongfully…not allowed her to use the laptop because it was ‘her time.’ She demanded Lyonette fix the issue! Now!

“How about we talk it over with Numbtongue? And you have to talk, Mrsha. Okay?”

Lyonette sighed. Mrsha stomped her feet and folded her arms. She marched with Lyonette over to the Earth-rooms. She was going to give Numbtongue a piece of her mind! She was gonna—

He was gone. Mrsha looked around. Lyonette sighed.

“Uh oh.”

Numbtongue had correctly anticipated Mrsha would bring reinforcements. And like any Redfang, he’d chosen his battleground. He was gone.

“Mrsha, we’ll talk to him when he gets back. Mrsha, no, really—”

But the Gnoll was on the scent. She followed Numbtongue back through the door to the [Garden of Sanctuary]…and promptly lost it.

Darn! Teleporting doors meant that there was no continuous trail! Mrsha was getting angrier. He could be hiding in the jungle or—or in his room, or—

Erin! Erin, Numbtongue is mean! Find him!

The Gnoll furiously came over to Erin and demanded she help as Erin was chatting to Imani about stupid poo-things, like new recipes and ingredients and budgets! Erin looked down, distracted.

“What? Numbtongue, mean? That can’t be right. Did you ask him to make you a [Warrior] again, Mrsha? You know he takes it seriously. Listen, I need to talk to Imani—”

The Gnoll grabbed Erin’s leg as the [Innkeeper] yelped. She would not be ignored! This was serious! Erin, exasperated, looked down.

“Mrsha! Okay! Okay, I’ll find Numbtongue. Imani, I’m sorry. One sec?”

The [Cook] was highly entertained. She saw Erin close her eyes. It still wasn’t second nature. But Erin could sense where anyone was in the inn. She sensed…

“Numbtongue. Numbtongue…Numbtongue’s…um…not in the inn.”

She opened her eyes. Mrsha looked up indignantly. What? That couldn’t be right! Erin was lying to protect him! Tall-people ganged up on the kids! But Erin shook her head.

“He’s out of the inn. And he took the lap—the youknowwhat? Well, look Mrsha—”

The Gnoll ran off. She wasn’t going to let him get away with this! He was outside!

The outhouses weren’t occupied by Goblins and Mrsha smelled no Numbtongue trail. She raced back, sniffing. Aha! The door! He’d gone to his mining spots!

…But she smelled no Goblin when she threw the door open there. Mrsha was about to snap!

“Mrsha, calm down. She’s throwing a tantrum, Ryoka.”

“Over the laptop?”

The Gnoll girl whirled. She was not! She just wanted what was hers! By right! She fumbled for the mana stones as Lyonette tried to pick her up.

“Mrsha—don’t you slash at me, Miss! Or no bicycle! Calm down this instant or Kevin will be working on something else, understand?”

Mrsha looked up. Her angry face…crumpled. She curled up into a ball and began to sob silently.

“Everyone is ganging up on me! It’s not fair!”

The pity-party was slightly offset by the fact that Mrsha had to sign to be understood by Ryoka and Lyonette. Either way—Ryoka was highly amused. Not unsympathetic. But she just hadn’t ever seen Mrsha looking so—so childish! It was almost good to see.

It was the wrong thing to say to Lyonette, though. The [Princess] just gave Ryoka an exasperated look.

“If you were around more, you’d see more Mrsha tantrums than you wanted, Ryoka. Mrsha. Mrsha, stop flailing right now…”

Ryoka eyed the sword Lyonette sometimes carried around. She wanted to tap the [Princess] on the shoulder and ask if she could stab herself with it. It might make her feel better.

“Ow.”

She—deserved that. But that was the second time Lyonette had done it. Ryoka rubbed at the phantom-pain in her chest.

“Lyonette…”

“One second, Ryoka. Mrsha du Marquin. Stop this at once.”

The Gnoll stopped. She sniffed, but she sat up, stopped hitting the ground and looked woefully up at Lyonette and then Ryoka. The City Runner was impressed.

“Wow. You—call her Mrsha du Marquin, Lyonette? Isn’t that—”

“What?”

The [Princess] rose to her feet, Mrsha clinging to her. She gave Ryoka another look. And this time the Wind Runner saw the hostility there.

“She’s my daughter. Shouldn’t I?”

“I didn’t say that—”

“Then what were you saying, exactly?”

Ryoka opened and closed her mouth. Only that it was exposing Lyonette’s name and wasn’t that dangerous? But that hadn’t been how the [Princess] took it—or chose to take it. And it revealed something.

“Lyonette. Do you have—a problem with me?”

The [Princess] stared at Ryoka for a long moment. Her eyes flickered and she gave Ryoka—well—the look Ryoka gave to idiots. Lyonette put a huge smile on her face, clearly fake.

“Why, Miss Griffin, why would I possibly have a problem with you? At all? For any reason? It must be in your imagination.”

Okay. Ryoka blinked. She’d missed something…

“I—I’m sorry if I’ve said or done something recently. I can’t think of what it is—”

“Of course not. Let’s not worry about it, Ryoka. You’ll leave in a week and it’ll be fine.”

Lyonette snapped back as she removed a handkerchief to clean Mrsha’s face. Ryoka felt like Lyonette was busily knifing her in the stomach. With words.

“Lyonette, I’m sorry, but could you tell me what I’ve done to make you so upset?”

If you don’t know, don’t ask!

The [Princess] snapped. She rounded on Ryoka, pointing a finger at her.

“You wouldn’t, would you? Just leave it, Ryoka. Not everything needs to be solved. I’m busy and—”

At this point, Mrsha dragged on Lyonette’s blouse and the young women—both of them—looked down. Mrsha had stopped crying. She was waving her paws frantically.

Stop fighting!

Both of them realized Mrsha had been trying to get their attention. And the tears of ‘no laptop, no Numbtongue’ were threatening to turn into real ones. Lyonette instantly lowered the finger.

“Mrsha! Don’t cry, don’t cry. It was just—”

She shot Ryoka a look and Ryoka nodded. She came over and Lyonette let Mrsha grab her hand.

“We were just angry for a second, Mrsha. It’s fine.”

The Gnoll girl was a bit too old to be lied to that effectively, even with both of them smiling and trying to comfort her. The two looked around.

“I wonder where Numbtongue has gone. If he has the youknow—the damn laptop—he can’t take it out in the open.”

Lyonette nodded, seizing onto that.

“Let’s find him. Mrsha tracked him to this door. So he has to be…Mrsha? Can you help us find Numbtongue?”

Mission: Find Numbtongue To Avoid Mrsha Crying was a go. Mrsha sniffed as Lyonette checked the door. Not Esthelm or Liscor…Celum neither. Wailant’s farm was Ryoka’s real guess, though. Lyonette’s too.

But he wasn’t there. Mrsha shook her head twice.

“Invrisil, then? I can’t believe it. But maybe—”

The door opened. Mrsha’s eyes widened and she pointed. He was there!

Invrisil? Ryoka looked uneasily at Lyonette. But Invrisil…there seemed to be a leap in logic here.

Numbtongue was a Goblin. Invrisil was a Human city that was not Celum or Liscor. Not cool with Goblins. So how—?

“Excuse me, did um, Numbtongue come through here just now?”

Lyonette found the [Innkeeper] who ran the Player’s Retreat, Master Veeid, and waved urgently to him as Mrsha sniffed around. He looked puzzled.

“The G—no. No—but then, someone did come through just now…wait a second.”

His eyes opened wide. He slapped himself on the forehead.

It was him! Only—

Only, Numbtongue was wearing his disguise. Lyonette and Ryoka’s jaws dropped. The armor disguise he’d used in the live show! Mrsha stomped her feet and threw her paws up.

Do you see? Do you see the lengths evil Numbtongue will go to in order to keep the laptop from my earnest possession? The treachery, the gall, the conceit—

…Is what Ryoka vaguely got from her indignant signing. She might have extrapolated some words, but the heart was there.

“Well, I think he’s gone a bit too far, don’t you? Do you know where he is, Master Veeid?”

Lyonette propped her hands on her hips, a bit put out at the level Numbtongue had gone to. Master Veeid hesitated.

“About that, Miss Lyonette…the thing is…”

 

—-

 

The thing was that he was right next door. Literally in one of the private rooms, helmet off, playing in a corner as Kilkran and some of the actors stared. Numbtongue had a bowl of expensive snacks and the other Players were working, relaxing, or watching him with fascination.

Numbtongue!

The Hobgoblin had contracted a disease for which there were few cures. It was called ‘gaming addiction,’ colloquially known as ‘I really want to finish this game and I’ll be damned to Rhir if I let that little Gnoll ruin my win streak.’ Such that he’d made the move of exposing the laptop to the [Actors].

Mrsha tackled him. With a real growl of annoyance, Numbtongue tossed her off.

“Numbtongue…Redfang. Stop that this instant!”

Lyonette marched up to Numbtongue and folded her arms. The Hobgoblin unpaused his game and went back to playing.

Numbtongue—

“I’m busy. She can have it in…”

The Hobgoblin didn’t finish his sentence. Lyonette’s brows creased. Behind her, Mrsha punched a paw into her other paw. He was going to get it now!

“Numbtongue, give me that laptop. We need to discuss—”

He swatted her hand down. The [Princess] recoiled. Ryoka saw Kilkran move backwards. The [Actors] got the vibe.

“Numbtongue. Please stop playing. Now.”

The Hobgoblin paused his game again. He looked up.

“What?”

“You are going to close that, come with us, and we’re going to have a talk. Right. Now. Alright?”

Lyonette’s smile was the kind she’d given Ryoka just moments earlier. Ryoka was waiting for the invisible knife. Numbtongue met Lyonette’s eyes.

“No.”

“Excuse me?”

Her eyes widened. The Hobgoblin looked at Lyonette, not even bothering to make it a staring contest.

“I’m not your child. And you’re not my Chieftain.”

He put the laptop on his knees, and quite deliberately, went back to playing. Ryoka heard a tiny explosion. She saw Lyonette take a deep breath. She reached for the laptop—fast. He swatted her hand down.

Mrsha the Laptop Seeker…tugged at Lyonette’s dress. She’d changed her mind. She didn’t want to use the laptop after all. But it had been a long time coming. Here was law and order and Lyonette. There was Numbtongue, who, as it turned out, had acquiesced to her laws of the land. He was, after all, an adult in his way, not a child, and…

And she was a [Princess]. Lyonette went for the laptop. Which was really a mistake.

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice was blissfully ignorant of the ensuing drama around the laptop for a while. She was concerned with another matter.

“So…is there anything to do?”

Fierre gave Erin an innocent look as Xrn left the inn to convey news of great import to the Free Hive. And it was a question that stumped Erin.

“Chess?”

“Um. I don’t really want to play.”

“The scrying orb?”

“I…don’t know if I need to watch it right now. I get my news from all over. Informant, you know?”

“Uh—uh—I mean, there’s the weights room, the rec room…”

At this point, Fierre coughed.

“Anything outside of the inn, Erin? I’m sort of…I mean, the inn is great. But there’s more to do, right?”

It stumped Erin. The Wandering Inn didn’t have all your needs? How could it not?

Well, actually, she got it. It was just that the inn had most of what she wanted as a homebody. On Earth, she could just play chess all day and not go outside once unless her mother kicked her out. But Fierre? She was more of an outdoors-type…ironic given her skin condition. And Vampire condition.

And that complicated things. Because Erin had some good ideas if you had to ask her. Not the best—but it was all stuff like—go on that cheese and wine tasting thing in one of the villages with that nice farmer!

Whoops. Might be a problem depending on whether Ylawes had been here and gotten that well. Ryoka had told Erin about that.

Public baths? No problem! They were sunlit, beautiful, had running water that might or might not qualify, and you got naked. Probably smiled at people with your teeth.

Pallass? Er—pass.

Go shopping? That was so broad and not something Erin actually did, so her mind fizzled out there. Visit a friend? Well, Erin’s friends…

“Um. Erin? I can just go into Liscor—”

“Oh no. You’re my guest! Are you bored? How long have you been bored?

Erin flung up her hands. Fierre saw her rush over to Salamani.

“I’m a bad host! We’ll—we’ll do something interesting!”

“It’s fine, Erin, really! I just wondered if you had any suggestions!”

“I do! Loads! P-Pelt? Wait, we can go watch Pelt smith something? Or—or Hedault! Why don’t we—”

The two [Artisans] paused on their way out. Pelt looked at Erin. Then at Fierre and Salamani.

“I don’t let people watch my work. Piss off.”

He stomped out. Hedault shook his head.

“I have work to do, Miss Solstice. My enterprise is also not catering to voyeurs—Miss Lischelle-Drakle, I will have your order ready with Courier Salamani’s tomorrow…”

He stepped out. Erin looked around frantically.

“Erin, it’s fine. Really. I’ll go out. Or Salamani…”

“No! I have to entertain you…! Just kidding. Okay, fine. Sorry, guys.”

Erin lowered her arms. She gave up. Fierre smiled—edged back from Erin a bit, and looked at Salamani. He shrugged.

She was definitely not Ryoka. Erin had a flair for the…dramatic. The silly-dramatic, rather. Ryoka got dramatic in a different way. She got anxious, in her head—Erin was fun.

“If you guys want to go to Pallass, I can try to let you through—but they’re pretty mad so only Saliss can actually go through. Sorry.”

“Invrisil will do. Have you ever been, Fierre?”

“No, actually. So there’s plenty.”

The Vampire girl grinned. She opened the door to Invrisil as Erin waved them off—just in time to hear a shout. Numbtongue had just put Lyonette in an arm-bar.

Erin missed the shout because she had closed the door and was sighing. Time to upgrade the inn’s entertainment center! Or see if her mystery opponent was up for something. After the Xrn-incident, she felt like she had time to relax. She wondered if Mrsha was done with the laptop—Erin could go for a movie or music.

That was Erin’s plan. And it was just as well that they weren’t best laid, because she was interrupted by the door opening.

Not the magic door. For once, it was the regular door.

The regular door, the unsung hero, the neglected child compared to the magical door. Downgraded from an entrance to the restroom door—and the occasional and rare visitor on foot. Nevertheless, it opened now and someone stepped through.

Watch Captain Zevara. Erin turned.

“Zevara?”

The Drake halted. She eyed Erin and her set face became resigned.

“Miss Solstice. I don’t know if it’s good I found you here or not. Please don’t make this any harder than it has to be.”

“What? What are you—huh.”

Erin peered past Zevara. And she saw the Watch Captain wasn’t alone. There was…Embria. Twenty members of 4th Company, Beilmark, Jeiss…five other Senior Guardsman and a lot of regulars.

“Um. I didn’t do it.”

Erin saw the fuzz—on Tkrn’s body and about half the people lined up behind Zevara. The Watch Captain sighed.

“Miss Solstice. You are not under arrest. However, I would appreciate you stepping aside and not doing anything. I am going to arrest two of your guests and—”

Palt did nothing wrong! He’s a good guy! It was Saliss who gave the drugs to—you can’t arrest him!

Erin panicked. She thought this was about Saliss yesterday—but Onieva had paid his fine, or so she’d said! Poor Drake, she’d passed out at a table. But Zevara was trying to shush her.

“Miss Solstice! Would you be quiet? It’s not either of them!”

“Oh. Then wh—”

The [Innkeeper] paused. Oh. Oh.

Someone—and there was no point naming names—might have shouted about ‘crooks’ this morning. Loudly. With people—sometimes the Watch, like Relc and Klbkch had been—who stayed at the inn. Erin’s heart sank.

“Hold on. You mean…Ratici and Wilovan? But they didn’t do anything. I just called them—I mean, they are—but you can’t—”

“Move in slowly. Miss Solstice!”

Zevara yanked Erin outside. She spoke in a quick rush.

“I am not arresting those two because you called them crooks. I am arresting them because it has come to my attention they both fit the description of the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, a well-known Human gang in the north.”

“But that—”

Zevara gestured and Beilmark put a paw over Erin’s mouth so the Watch Captain could finish.

And that yesterday, the Guildmaster of the Jeweler’s Guild was knocked out on his way home and hundreds—possibly over a thousand gold pieces’ worth of jewels stolen from the Guild’s vaults where it was being processed! As well as his personal possessions! No one in the Guild saw anything—nor did the Guildmaster, who has protective charms. Two high-level criminals pulled off the heist.”

She waited. Erin made a muffled noise and Beilmark let go, wiping her paw. Erin Solstice looked at Zevara. Then over her shoulder.

“…Oh.”

“They are not going to be thrown in jail just on the basis of that. However, we will question them extensively given the ability of criminals to evade spells. If they’re innocent, they only have a brief incarceration to fear.”

Zevara nodded and more [Guards] moved into the inn. Erin looked past Zevara and kicked the ground.

“But Zevara, they’re my guests. And they’re here to—”

“Stow it. Please, Miss Solstice. You can’t harbor criminals. Goblins aside—if they committed a crime…I will arrest you if you try to stop us.”

“Okay.”

The [Innkeeper] hung her head. The Watch Captain looked at her. Then she swept past Erin with a nod. She took her position; the Watch had opened the side doors and were lining the hallways after 4th Company. They were ready to charge as soon as Zevara went in first—she could freeze one of them.

Erin watched them go. The group was tense—then Zevara kicked the door open.

City Watch! Do not move!

Embria and 4th Company rushed in after her, ready for a fight. Palt ran for it along with a few individuals of nervous dispositions or guilty consciences. The Centaur vanished into the kitchen as the Watch streamed into the inn from all sides. One group even went via the tower—Bird watched them charge down the stairs.

“Whoa. No way.”

Zevara had not taken chances when she’d heard what level the Gentlemen Callers might be. Not only had she mustered the Watch and 4th Company’s best, she had recruited the newest branch of the City Watch.

Guardsman and [Sergeant] Yellow Splatters led the Worker-Soldier patrol up through the basement. Their newly instituted squad’s first mission was this.

It was a perfect raid from all sides. It really was. Erin listened to them shouting, the chaos. Then she stared past the place Zevara had been.

The thing was…Ratici and Wilovan crouched behind an outhouse. She’d seen them—sensed them, rather—as Zevara was talking.

Two high-level criminals were indeed good. Not enough to take on that many [Guards]—or want to do it, but that wasn’t their skillset, was it? They’d sensed the Watch coming and made their escape.

How? Erin could have managed it with her [Garden of Sanctuary], but she had no idea how the two Callers had done it. If she had to guess though—she thought they’d teleported into the outhouses and then slipped out stealthily.

Sweep the upper floors! Watch the windows!

There were [Guards] on the outside, covering the hill from below. Ratici and Wilovan stared at Erin. She stared back.

“Did you…?”

They looked at her. Faces unreadable. Just—alert. Erin looked over her shoulder.

“The door?”

Secure, Watch Captain!

A voice from the inside. Zevara was cursing.

“They might have gone through to Invrisil. But I want this inn swept! Damn. Perimeter—check the outhouses! Of all the stupid—”

A squad of [Guards] rushed outside. Past the [Innkeeper]. They flung open the doors to the outhouses—then thought to circle around. There was an exclamation. Zevara whirled.

C—

She rushed outside, sword drawn. Zevara’s breath was drawn to exhale—she saw a [Guard], shamefaced, shaking his head at her.

“Guardsman?”

“I…stepped in some crap, Watch Captain. Nothing here.”

Zevara saw him wiping at the grass. Someone had been really upset while waiting for a turn. Or it was little Ekirra. Again. Zevara looked around. She eyed Erin. The [Innkeeper] hadn’t moved.

“Did you find—”

“Not yet. Stay there, Miss Solstice. Sweep the inn!

So they did. The Watch, 4th Company, and the Antinium squad searched the inn from top to bottom, rooms, everywhere—they gave up after fifteen minutes. Either the two were gone to Invrisil already and they’d just been missed—or they were beyond the Watch’s ability to find them.

Annoyed, Zevara stomped out of the inn. She thanked Erin, briefly. For allowing the Watch to do their jobs. The [Innkeeper] looked down. She murmured something and the Watch left.

“Watch Captain.”

“Councilmember?”

Jeiss bared his teeth in a grin as he walked with Zevara. He watched as the Watch Captain kicked down the hill. The Drake rolled his eyes back at the inn.

“A thought occurs we missed a hiding spot.”

“We scoured that inn from top to toe. Even the basement, Jeiss. They could have gotten to Invrisil.”

“Yeah. But there’s one place we can’t go, could we? You didn’t ask about that.”

Embria stared at Zevara’s back. The Watch Captain rubbed at her neck scales.

“No.”

“And, Watch Captain?”

The Drake stomped down the hill. She snapped back at Jeiss.

“Do you think it looks good if the Watch finds the criminals and can’t arrest them, Jeiss? Or—if we had to arrest someone, do you want to go down that road?”

The Councilmember scratched at his helmet. Then he shook his head. He had nothing to say to that. Zevara grumbled as she kicked down the hill.

“If I have to ask a second time, I’ll arrest her.”

Embria raised her brows. This was unlike Zevara. She heard 4th Company grumbling, wishing they’d missed the scrap. But since the duo matched the identity of the Gentlemen Callers, est. Level 40+ [Thug] and [Thief] from their intelligence—she thought that was bravado. It occurred to her, briefly…

Zevara might not have actually wanted to arrest them that badly either.

 

—-

 

Ratici and Wilovan stood together on the street. They looked at each other sidelong and shook their heads. Without a word they began walking. Towards—well, home.

If home was ever a place, it was a place they knew in any one city. So in that sense, varied, but always home. As close as it got for them.

Invrisil’s streets were bustling. There had been a bit of a hubbub in the inn—not The Wandering Inn, but the Player’s Retreat—but they’d left without getting involved.

They said nothing. It had been fast. Splendidly done. You had to admire that, so you did.

 

—-

 

“Did you…?”

The [Innkeeper] trailed off. They looked at her. Faces unreadable. Just—alert. Erin looked over her shoulder.

They were prepared to move. Only a few [Guards] on the door to Invrisil. If it was out of mana they ran for it, across the Floodplains or hid. But it depended on her, on what happened next. Wilovan tensed—

A hole opened up in the side of The Wandering Inn. The two saw green grass beyond. A beautiful place. They stirred.

“The door?”

From inside, voices. The two Gentlemen Callers looked at Erin Solstice. They exchanged a glance—the kind they’d shared before countless life-or-death moments. Then they ran.

 

—-

 

The Watch had searched the inn, but obviously, there was one place they could never gain access to. The door had opened after they’d left and the two Gentlemen Callers had walked out. The [Innkeeper] had asked again.

“Did you do it?”

The look she gave them was pleading. Uncertain. You could see it in her eyes.

It was just a Guildmaster and some money. A mugging of someone who had a lot to lose and wouldn’t miss this much—a former Councilmember of Liscor, at that. That was how you could justify it. If you were going to.

The truth was…

It was a safe house that the duo came to. Only, it looked like an ordinary shop, albeit closed, the glass display waiting for some object that the shopkeeper—clearly behind in arrears—had taken down.

They had a key. One, each. Wilovan unlocked the door, Ratici walked through. They stepped into the shop—

And there was a second door there. Strangely—you’d never see that if you peeked through the glass into the shop.

Funny thing, glass. You could enchant it to look like all kinds of things. And a low-grade enchantment was harder to notice than something massive.

The second door looked a lot stronger than the first. It was metal, for one thing, and had a sliding slot. It was not entrusted to a key alone.

Ratici knocked. No codes, no passphrases. The two waited as someone slid the panel open.

“Ah, good evening gentlemen. Terribly sorry to keep you waiting.”

“Good morning, in point of fact, sir.”

Wilovan tipped his hat up. The figure chuckled.

“Is it? Time passes by. One moment—”

The door opened. The two walked through, and the [Gatekeeper]—in reality a doorkeeper—shut the door smartly. They stopped in the second waiting room.

“Anything I should know about that would be embarrassing or inconvenient to have missed, Callers?”

The man who walked around them with an amulet, carefully sweeping it from head to toe, was older. But the kind of old that suggested he’d lived through everything that had tried to kill him, rather than simply matured. Unlike the Callers, he wore no hat.

“Nothing, sir. We did happen to run into a particularly interesting person, but Ratici swore we ran afoul of nothing.”

“Well, we’ll just see, won’t we? Hm. Hm. I’m getting some powerful residue. Stood near a spell, did you? Also, teleportation?”

“A man finds interest in various places, sir. We had to excuse ourselves just now.”

Ah.

The old [Gatekeeper]’s eyes sharpened. He had a knife. Ratici knew it because he sensed the holder on the old man’s wrist. One knife.

“Should I be expecting company, then, sirs?”

“I should think not. But then again…”

“If it comes calling, it comes calling. You’re clean.”

The two tipped their hats. The [Gatekeeper] settled back; he had a chair here, a lovely padded one, and food, drink—non-alcoholic—and anything he might wish for his duties.

Beyond that they asked no names and told no stories. He was not one of their gang. Rather, you could call the old [Gatekeeper] a hired specialist, on retainer for the fine services he provided. No one got through that door with him about that wasn’t invited.

Invrisil’s Watch—if they somehow knew about this spot, and if they decided it was a really good idea to raid this place? They’d need an army to get past that old man and his knife, let alone break down that door.

Only when they’d passed through to the next room did the two finally speak. Wilovan adjusted his hat, sat down with a sigh on the nearest chair, and shook his head.

“A fine mess, Ratici, that’s what it is.”

“We’ve had to abandon the contract.”

The Drake nodded. The two sat for a moment.

Did you do it?

“Callers. Fine day to you.”

Someone strolled up at once. The two Callers looked up and about. What they saw was a rather large…home.

Yes, a home. A communal home that varied from city to city, but where fellows of a similar nature gathered. They all had hats, of course. They cooked, cleaned, slept, ate, talked, and returned here. They were a gang—and something akin to a family.

But no family member would ever come here. And the Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings, for all they made their beds here, would never die here. It was always outside. Here was simply safety.

“Teor, isn’t it?”

The young man was smartly dressed—you had to be, especially if you were new. Show willingness and all that. He kept his boots shined and polished black, and his vest had not a single thread out of place. For a hat? He’d chosen a triangular one, a tricorne. Not colorful, but a bit avant-garde.

Flashy. But then, Teor was suited to the role. Each Brother had a class, a role, a specialty. Teor’s was to make sure a Brother in trouble got out of said trouble. Even if it meant Teor took the heat.

“Yes, Mister Wilovan, Mister Ratici. Delighted you remember me. But I thought you were—excuse me. I happened to notice you were engaged and I thought you’d be at the job…as it were.”

The young man corrected himself. The two older Callers chuckled. And their conversation attracted a few heads.

Six more Brothers were in the immediate vicinity. They’d tipped their hats on seeing the Callers, but now two more came over. They listened as Wilovan sighed and took his hat off. In this place, you could, without it meaning more than you wanted to scratch your head.

“We happened to run into trouble. Nothing that calls for dirtying the vest—but we found ourselves unwelcome. Rather a fast turnout and large one, for such a city. Ratici?”

“Drake cities. The Watch Captain must be sharp. Some decent folk in the mix. Rather bothersome if they pressed their objections to you up close.”

The others nodded. Oho. If the Callers said that, they’d keep their noses clean around Liscor. Decent folk? You had to watch out for them.

“What can we do for you, gentlemen?”

Ratici shrugged.

“We need a fine sort to keep posted on our escort. At least one—if it’s not us, Wilovan?”

“Make it three.”

Three? But Teor instantly volunteered, as did two more off-duty Brothers. They listened as Ratici filled them in, and Wilovan.

“We may need to hide the hats, gentlemen. I know, I know, but we are under contract.”

“We could—hire out another group?”

“Perhaps. Let’s see how our replacements do. Could be they’ll need to move out swiftly. In which case we’ll make an urgent request between friends to—Wilovan?”

The Gnoll smoothed at his hair, exasperated.

“Somileirr owes us a favor. If need be, we’ll call it in. Hopefully we can put some unobtrusive fellows in the right place. Teor, Crimshaw, loitering. Unobtrusive, sir.”

He turned to the last hatted man, who was so unobtrusive that sometimes a weary Brother would get into his bed, thinking it was empty. The man tipped his hat.

“As you say, Mister Wilovan. Unobtrusive.”

The three strolled out. And it was done. Wilovan and Ratici relaxed; they could refresh themselves, talk, catch up on a particular sort of gossip, or do what they pleased. They’d upheld their contract. It was just…they exchanged a silent look. The look on Erin Solstice’s face had been familiar, that’s all.

Disheartening. Just a tiny bit. They sighed, and began to lay plans to carry out their job to the best of their abilities. Even if it didn’t mean them.

 

—-

 

Erin waited a bit, after she let them go through. The Gentlemen Callers had stepped through. But they’d not answered her question.

“Did you do it?”

And to that—Wilovan had turned. She’d tried to read him, but the Gnoll had just tipped his hat, his face a bit embarrassed. A bit…somber.

“Does it matter, Miss Solstice? Deepest apologies and our gratitude. We won’t forget it.”

Then they’d left. They hadn’t answered her question. But for that moment, when she’d seen them crouching there, they had looked tense.

Like a deer in the headlights. Rats with the cat about. Fine fellows. The Honorable Hatmen, she’d called them. But right then and there she’d been reminded what they were.

Criminals. Unlike Goblins, or Antinium. The look they’d shared was guilt. So Erin had wondered.

“Darn. And it was my fault.”

Erin drooped. Just cause she had such a big mouth and she’d thought it was funny to…she heard the guests behind her talking in the common room. Erin trudged in.

“Hey guys—”

She saw overturned tables, a slightly rattled clientele, and a very embarrassed Palt being assailed from all sides.

“What’s this now?”

Imani was rubbing her side. Palt had galloped into the kitchen and—

“You idiot. First Erin, now Imani! Are you trying to kill all of us?”

“I am so sorry—it’s instinct! I forgot and—”

Palt was so red Erin nearly laughed. Nearly. Bezale was shaking her head in disgust.

“You could have hurt her if she’d dropped that hot oil on herself, you idiot. Montressa, get me one of those spare signs. I need to write one. ‘Caution: Beware of Falling Centaurs’.”

They were really giving Palt a hard time. The Centaur had shut up, possibly hoping to get it over with. Erin shook her head.

“Sorry for the mess, guys. It—was about Wilovan and Ratici. My fault, sort of.”

“Because they stole a bunch of jewels? I’ve never seen the Watch raid something like that before. But then—it’s [Knights] in Terandria, usually. The local guard isn’t so…proactive.”

Montressa turned. Palt sighed and shook his head.

“Did they get out?”

“They got to Invrisil, I think.”

Erin avoided the other’s significant looks. Fierre scratched at her head.

“Wild. Drakes really do have aggressive Watches. I’ve seen raids, but that was fast. Was that an important person who got hit?”

“Um…yeah. They said the Guildmaster of the Jeweler’s Guild. He got robbed and so did the vault. Without anyone seeing?”

“How much gold?”

Fierre misinterpreted Erin’s look as she flicked open her journal.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ll ask. Just good to know what the local values are. Hm. Must have been a lot if it tempted the Callers. They’re…no, nevermind.”

Erin looked at Fierre. But then she went back to the chaos. The Watch hadn’t really overturned tables since they could just check if anyone was hiding beneath—but the inn was a bit messy.

“Clean up. Silveran, take the second floor and clear dirt. The rest of you, with me on tables. A…free round.”

Ishkr, reliable Ishkr, was on the job, though. He looked at Erin for confirmation. She nodded.

“And like, milk for kids. Sorry, everyone!”

“Just another day at The Wandering Inn! This is what I pay for!”

Menolit shouted good-naturedly from his table. Erin heard laughter—and she saw most of her guests looked far from worried. Rather, they were amused, talking, collecting money—

“I knew this place couldn’t go for a week without something like that involving the Watch. Pay up!”

An old Gnoll was demanding money from some reluctant bettors. Erin shook her head. Was this what her inn had come to? Entertainment?

Speaking of which…she narrowed her eyes.

“Where’s…Ryoka, Mrsha, Lyonette, and Numbtongue? They’re not in the inn.”

She could tell. The others shook their heads.

“Weren’t they in Invrisil, Erin?”

“Huh. Yeah, they were looking for Numbtongue. I wonder…”

Erin went back to the door. She peered through.

“Hey, is N—”

That was when she heard the commotion.

 

—-

 

Numbtongue! I am warning you—

Lyonette was pretty impressive. Ryoka had no idea why she was angry at her. Or rather—too many ideas sprung to mind. But she could respect the [Princess] on a lot of levels.

For instance, face-down, in the arm-bar that someone had taught Numbtongue—she was still trying to threaten him.

The Hobgoblin had triumphed. Rather easily, too. He was stronger and faster and…Ryoka was hesitating.

Did she try to get Numbtongue off? She was fairly certain he could kick her ass, especially since he had Skills. Even without, probably. The [Actors] were standing back. And Mrsha—

She jumped on Numbtongue. He swatted her off. They were fighting.

He was holding Lyonette down, rather. But this had started over a laptop and now it wasn’t so funny. This had probably been a long time coming. But Ryoka was hesitating, and the Hobgoblin was eying her.

“Numbtongue. Will you let go of Lyonette?”

“Not if she bosses me around. I am not a child.”

The [Bard] grunted. Lyonette struggled—but he had her dead to rights. Mrsha bared her teeth. She opened her mouth and bit. She was getting vicious. Numbtongue yanked his free arm out of the way of the teeth. He glared at Mrsha.

“Mrsha—”

Ryoka was wavering. She looked from the Gnoll, who was reaching for a wand, to Numbtongue, who was tensed—to the [Actors]. Wesle was hesitating.

Then someone pushed through the crowd.

“There you guys are. What—”

Numbtongue looked up as Mrsha leapt, wand flashing. Ryoka grabbed Mrsha. She struggled, but then someone had yanked the wand out of Mrsha’s paw.

“Mrsha! Stop that! What’s going on here?”

Erin Solstice stood in the doorway. The Hobgoblin and [Princess] stopped fighting. Mrsha stopped thrashing in Ryoka’s arms. Erin stared at the [Bard] holding the [Princess] down.

Numbtongue—hesitated. Lyonette, red-faced, made a sound.

“Erin—I’m handling this.”

“Numbtongue? Ryoka? What’s going on? Is that—”

Erin eyed the laptop. She listened as Ryoka gave her an explanation. The City Runner saw the [Innkeeper]’s brows cross.

“What?”

She looked around. The Hobgoblin gave her a defiant look. He kept his lock on Lyonette. As if to say ‘what? I’m not doing anything wrong here.’

Mrsha was spitting, trying to get out of Ryoka’s arms. The [Innkeeper] turned to Mrsha first.

“Mrsha, stop.

Predictably, the white Gnoll girl didn’t. Ryoka had been telling Mrsha that the entire time. She was too angry, and—

Mrsha. I said, stop.

The Gnoll girl—stopped. Ryoka saw her go limp and, panting, look at Erin. The [Innkeeper] stared at Mrsha.

“Don’t attack Numbtongue. Let me talk. Understand?”

Mrsha hesitated. Then she slowly nodded. Erin looked at Ryoka. The City Runner slowly put Mrsha down.

“Numbtongue. What are you doing?”

Erin walked over to Numbtongue. Lyonette had stopped fighting. But the Hobgoblin refused to let her go. He gave Erin a look mixed with various emotions. Guilt and defiance and a bit of embarrassment. Or was it shame? Maviola would have known—she hadn’t been around today.

“Not being bossed around.”

“Mhm. So you put Lyonette in an arm-thingy?”

Arm bar—Ryoka nearly said it and decided they didn’t need corrections. The Hobgoblin tried to shrug in his position on the ground.

“She attacked me.”

“So you’re defending yourself.”

“…Mhm.”

“Over the lap—the artifact, huh?”

“…Yes. But I’m not a child. I do what I want.”

Erin stared down at the Hobgoblin until he fidgeted. There was a lot you could say here. Ryoka had been searching for the right words.

Yes, Numbtongue was like an older sibling, but Lyonette shouldn’t treat him like a child. The entire fight being over the laptop was stupid to begin with. Mrsha had been bratty, but Numbtongue really shouldn’t have taken the laptop out of the inn, especially to Invrisil! For that matter, the Goblin and [Princess] had really escalated when they didn’t need to and why does Lyonette hate my guts?

But she hadn’t said all of that. A calm, rational explanation didn’t actually work. This was all about little grievances, heated emotions—how would Erin fix that? She had no aura here—or if she did, it was far weaker. She couldn’t make Numbtongue let go.

“Numbtongue. You’re a big Hobgoblin, not a kid. That’s true. And Lyonette shouldn’t boss you around and you absolutely get to do what you think’s right. That’s all true.”

Erin squatted down with a sigh. The Hobgoblin half-nodded, but he was waiting. The [Innkeeper] stared at him, right in the eyes.

“I just have one question. Are you defending yourself? Or bullying?”

As questions went—that was probably above one of Lyonette’s word-shanks. The Hobgoblin blinked at Erin—then he released Lyonette. She rolled away at once and Mrsha rushed over to her, checking to make sure she was alright.

Bully.

The word sounded so odd, especially applied to a Goblin. Erin knew where to poke him, though. The Hobgoblin stared down at the laptop and his video game. And as these things happened—it suddenly felt very petty. Was it important? Yes, in many ways. Competitively, having fun, and so on.

Was it worth putting Lyonette into an arm bar, causing this fuss, and…the Hobgoblin looked around. Erin sighed.

“You okay, Lyonette?”

“I’m fine, Erin. But—”

“Why don’t you not say what you’re going to say, Lyonette?”

The [Innkeeper] silenced her. She looked around.

“What a mess. Sorry, guys.”

“It’s nothing, Erin. Honestly, we were surprised when Numbtongue came in—but he’s welcome to. Er…sorry we didn’t help out. Not sure exactly what it was about.”

Kilkran was a bit red in the face. Ryoka realized the [Actors] were all here—well, a lot of the cast—and grabbed the laptop and shut it fast. She hurried it into the inn.

“Everything okay, Ryoka?”

The City Runner growled. She had to pay silver both ways! Even just to put the laptop in! Damn Magnolia’s rule—she looked up as Fierre peered into the doorway.

“Yeah. Just a little fight over something stupid. Lyonette and Numbtongue got into it. Hey, Troy.”

Wh—I didn’t do it!

“Shut up. Here, put this away.”

She tossed the laptop at the young man. Troy caught it and nodded, backing up fast. When Ryoka returned to Invrisil’s side of the door, she saw they’d migrated to the common room.

Now tempers were cooling, both Lyonette and Numbtongue were ashamed. And Mrsha too. Of course—they processed it differently. The Hobgoblin was very embarrassed—especially since it had been his fictitious game that had started all this. Even going as far as hurting Lyonette and Mrsha, who’d been attacking him after he hurt her mother.

Mrsha had tried to punch and kick Numbtongue, who was her favorite Goblin! And…she might have started all this.

Shame to go around. Except maybe Lyonette. She was still just mad. The look she was giving Numbtongue was incendiary.

Erin looked a bit exasperated. But she’d been a far more effective voice of reason than Ryoka. The City Runner felt a bit useless as she sidled into the conversation.

“…No one’s right. We’ll have a family meeting about it, okay? Okay?”

All sides were nodding. A family meeting later, to discuss the first actual fight between them. Someone would also probably have to tell Bird why everyone was upset.

It was funny—from the outside—childish, concerning, and more. But it was small drama even so. Erin breathed out. Not exactly like Xrn or the Callers.

“Sorry. Again, Emme. Jasi. I know you’re busy.”

“It’s fine, Erin. Little fights? I remember nearly biting Grev when he stole my favorite cutting knife. We fought about that for a month.

Jasi laughed. Grev, who had been watching with his feet up on a table, called out.

“She smacked me silly twice! Didn’t stop me from keeping it. A fellow needs to protect himself on the street!”

“You never even poked anyone with it, just waved it around!”

The [Lead Actress] snapped back. The others laughed.

“Really, Numbtongue. You came here, though? I thought it would be the Strongheart’s.”

Erin looked at Numbtongue. The [Bard] was still red in the cheeks. Wesle came to his rescue, laughing with practiced naturality.

“Numbtongue’s been coming here more and more. We promised to host him at a restaurant with his disguise—salt birds, right? And he’s welcome to it. I keep telling you, Erin…you don’t take any of our favors!”

The [Innkeeper] rolled her eyes.

“I don’t need all the stuff you want! And that goose was great, Kilkran, but who eats salt-baked birds all the time? Besides Bird.”

“Miss Solstice, you wound us! I’d take you to any restaurant in the city! Any attraction! Gelato? The menager—er, wondrous shows, our plays—which you’ve refused to watch in their proper setting! But you refuse each time! It’s enough to break a man’s heart.”

Kilkran pretended to swoon backwards into two [Actor]’s arms. Pralcem instantly dropped his side of the huge man. Amid the swearing and laughter, Erin chuckled along.

“I know. I know, but I’m a homebody. I will visit the booth! Promise! I do wish I’d gone to the restaurant—another time, maybe?”

“What restaurant? What booth?”

Ryoka hadn’t heard of this. There was so much to catch up on—and the Players, love em, but—they weren’t exactly highest on the list. Erin tried to explain.

“Oh, they have that booth named after me, remember?”

“I know, but the restaurant?”

The Djinni’s Spoon? Ryoka, after hearing the name, instantly wanted to go. And she was amazed Erin hadn’t gone.

“It’s just—it’s fancy, I’m running the inn—”

“So you’re too busy to go to a play?”

Erin flapped a hand as the others jeered good-naturedly.

“Ryoka! Whose side are you on?”

“Not the side that stays in your inn when friends want to take you on a night in Invrisil. Erin, have you ever actually toured this city?”

“Um. Well—about that—in my defense—”

“Erin Solstice, you have to let us show you around sometime! Just promise!”

Erin threw up her hands.

“Fine! Fine, I’ll let you host me sometime. And go to the booth.”

“…You have a booth and free tickets to the Players of Celum’s performances any time you want? Do you know how much a standard groundling-class ticket costs?”

Erin jumped. Fierre was standing behind her, jaw agape until she covered her pointed teeth. The [Innkeeper] turned.

Salamani, Fierre, and a number of other guests from the inn had followed her into the Player’s Retreat, having heard the commotion. Kevin, Rose, Montressa, Selys—even Joseph and Palt and Imani! They were all queued up.

“What are you all doing here?”

“We wanted to see what the fuss was about. I came because I heard Numbtongue was beating Lyonette into a pulp. What’s this about Erin’s booth? Is she selling it to more Couriers?”

Kevin volunteered cheerfully. Erin put her hands on her hips.

“For your information—Octavia?

“I’m being sociable. Hi, Ryoka. What happened to Numbtongue?”

Octavia rubbed at her eyes and yawned. She and Joseph were in the ‘I wake up when I wake up’ camp of The Wandering Inn, and so had just emerged for breakfast. The others listened and laughed at Erin.

“She doesn’t like leaving her inn. It’s as bad as getting Selys to visit Pallass—which incidentally, she loved.”

Montressa teased the Drake. Selys looked embarrassed.

“I hate to say it, Erin. But the Players have been begging to get you to watch a play. Why don’t you?”

“I’ve seen their plays! Love ‘em, but I have watched them put on every performance—”

“While running your inn! In a lovely theatre—but not our dedicated stage where we have makeup and we’re at our best! We’re putting on Elisial tonight, Miss Solstice. Tell you what. Come watch us!”

“I dunno…do you actually have a booth for us?”

The Players looked at each other with frank disbelief. Did they have a booth? Was all of Invrisil not talking about the booth which could never be rented, even by the nobility? No matter how much you—

Erin didn’t know. She honestly didn’t. She bit her lips, she listened to them trying to persuade her—Ryoka felt moved to intervene.

“If you don’t go, can you at least let us go? I’d love to see a play, Erin.”

The [Innkeeper] blinked.

“Well, sure. Why not? If that’s okay, guys?”

“For a friend of Erin Solstice? Of course! We were going to get Numbtongue in the booth first—and wouldn’t that cause a scene? The masked figure in the balcony? Rather like the Phantom fellow from that play Galina is having us adapt—Wesle, my role, incidentally. I’ve claimed it.”

“You’re welcome to the singing, Kilkran.”

Wesle rolled his eyes. Fierre glanced up.

“Wait. Could I come with you?”

“That was my thinking. What about it, Salamani?”

The Courier’s eyes lit up.

Really? I was trying to get tickets, but I’m on reserve for another month!”

“You haven’t seen our plays? You’re a Courier, aren’t you, Mister Salamani? The Solstice Booth—”

Erin looked at Fierre and Salamani. She snapped her fingers.

“You want to watch plays? But you said you were okay with the inn, Fierre!”

“If it’s the ones in Invrisil—”

The Vampire girl tried to justify it. Erin shook her head.

“Well, sure! Of course! Please let Ryoka and Fierre and Salamani watch, guys.”

“…Hey Erin. Erin?”

Someone tapped the [Innkeeper] on the shoulder. Erin turned. Imani whispered urgently into her ear. The [Innkeeper] frowned.

“What, you too?”

She looked at Kevin, Rose, Joseph—even Troy and Leon peered through the door. Imani nodded; Galina was obviously still in the inn with Temile.

“We’ve never actually toured Invrisil. And I really want to see the Players in the theater.”

“But we see them in the inn every night…”

Erin wasn’t getting it. Wesle shook his head, looking amused and exasperated.

“Erin, all deference to Temile aside, there’s a huge difference between the inn’s stage and ours.”

“Like TV versus the real thing.”

Ryoka muttered in the young woman’s ear. Erin sighed.

“Well, sure! They’re all friends. Can the booth—?”

You haven’t even seen it!

The [Actors] roared at Erin. She jumped. What did she think a booth was, standing-room for two people only? And then Palt sidled over.

“Erin—I have a huge favor to ask. Personally…”

She turned. Then the [Innkeeper]’s eyes narrowed. Selys, Montressa, Bezale, they were all lined up behind Palt.

“…You guys too?”

They nodded eagerly. Erin looked around. Lyonette had Mrsha in her arms. Numbtongue was standing awkwardly apart from her, but both were looking her way.

“I’ve been meaning to, Erin. And Mrsha wants to…we might not all fit, though.”

“Well then, we’ll kick out another booth.”

Emme interrupted them. She looked around, counting heads.

“Two booths is more than enough!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Kick someone out? That’s not good. We can split it up—”

“Erin. We’ll give them better seats or refund them. But you have to come, too. We’ve been waiting to do this for ages.

Jasi interrupted her. The [Actress] looked around, a gleam in her eyes.

“Tell you what. If you all want to watch tonight—convince Erin to let us take her out to Invrisil. And we’ll get you two the best seats and take you with us. That’s restaurant, attractions—”

All heads turned to Erin. The [Innkeeper] raised her hands, a hesitant grin on her face.

“Erin?”

Ryoka was looking at her. She wanted this. This sounded…great. The [Innkeeper] looked at Ryoka.

“Come on. I don’t want to be a bother, Ryoka.”

“We don’t get tickets if we don’t get you, Erin.”

Imani pointed out. The [Innkeeper] hesitated.

“But restaurants? Okay, I’ll go to the booth.”

Not a five-star restaurant? Are you mad? Or high? Did Saliss get to you, too?”

Rose stared. Montressa and Bezale blushed. Erin hesitated. Ryoka peered at her. This was beyond mere reluctance. Erin spread her hands.

“Look guys, I’m flattered. But there are like—a dozen of us here!”

Ryoka’s friends, the Earthers, her family, the [Mages]…Erin gestured around.

“It’s way too much. I didn’t want to make the Players spend money on me! A fancy restaurant? Attractions? We can’t just—”

“Erin. Are you crazy? Hang the expense!

Wesle seized her. That was why she’d refused? Jasi grabbed her other arm. The [Innkeeper] started, but Mrsha propped up her legs with a grunt. The Players of Celum clustered around as Kevin ran to get Galina. Erin struggled, but Ryoka was grinning and the [Innkeeper] was the only one against the flow.

“Let go, guys! Guys? Okay, I’ll go! But casually! We can like, go window shopping. We don’t need to pay for a huge restaurant. That’s expensive! I’ve never been to a fancy place, even back—let’s not make a big deal about it. Guys? Guys?

Oh, for an [Innkeeper]’s reluctance! For modesty, for misapprehensions. She’d delayed and refused. But it was long overdue. So long in fact—that the moment had been building. The Players abandoned their rehearsals. Erin’s friends, new and old, clustered around.

Casually? The Players of Celum swept out of the inn, carrying the protesting [Innkeeper] with them. They were going to turn the damn city upside down for her!

 

—-

 

If Erin Solstice had a flaw, it was that she was reluctant to spend her energy…on herself. She had, on numerous occasions, started the equivalent of riots. Brought a parade into Liscor, mobilized aid for Esthelm.

And she was willing to do all of that. Just not for Erin Solstice. It never occurred to her that one of the people—many of the people who she’d helped so much—would want to do the same for her.

Or that they might be better than her at it. It was her fault, really. A month or two ago, when the Players of Celum were still newer to Invrisil, Erin might have been able to insist on them having some restraint.

But they were the thing within Invrisil. And another fault of Erin’s—or a misconception.

They meant every word.

“The Wandering Inn, tomorrow. Yes…your best inventory, please. I will see you there exactly at…”

Hedault the [Enchanter] was speaking to a [Merchant] who had put everything aside to hear the [Enchanter]’s request. One did not ignore Hedault when he offered you the opportunity to sell something. The [Artifact Merchant] was nodding eagerly. He’d heard of the inn. Hedault was writing down the appointment—and blocking off a lot of his precious time for his clients—when he heard the noise.

“It’s the Players of Celum! All of them! It’s like a parade!”

Someone shouted. Instantly, heads turned. Fans, admirers, and those attracted to the attention drifted down the street. Hedault himself did not. He tried to get the [Merchant]’s attention.

“The time will be—Merchant—”

“The Players?”

Then the noise overwhelmed his voice. Hedault turned. The Players of Celum? He’d heard of them—had never attended their plays—and he was vaguely aware that the stars of the Players could generate inconvenient crowds wherever they went without bodyguards. But what was the fuss? The [Enchanter]’s brows snapped together. Then—

“Ah. Excuse me.”

Hedault removed his spectacles. He wiped them, fastidiously cleaning them with a cloth. They were enchanted not to get dirty, but it was a habit. He put them back on.

Nope. It still looked like a parade. Hedault stared as the first carriage rolled past. The [Actors] were clinging to it, walking along. And there came performers, tumblers, putting on a performance—

“They’ve hired half of Invrisil’s performers! They’re saying someone’s going to be in the Solstice Booth tonight!”

“The Solstice…?”

Hedault’s head turned slightly. It couldn’t be. Then he focused on a familiar voice. He saw an arguing Dwarf striding along, pointing up ahead.

“That’s right! A performance! Line walking, lights—her best routine! We’ll pay for it! And can we get a reservation at the Djinni’s Spoon? Or the best restaurant you can think for…let’s see, can we rent it? We’ll trade premium tickets for the plays of your choice! We’ve got guests! Eltistiman, what’s the news?”

“Barelle the [Bard] has agreed to perform for the restaurant. Is the [Tumbler] going to do her performance?”

“Just up ahead! Damn, we’ll never be able to go shopping! Kilkran! Andel! Stop encouraging them! Get all the [Bodyguards] out!”

A line of people were preventing the crowd from stopping the [Players] as they ground traffic to a standstill. Jasi, Wesle, Kilkran, they were bad enough in small groups. But this was all of them.

Andel was standing on top of one of the carriages, signing autographs and hurling them into the crowd with Kilkran. People were fighting over them.

And at the center of it, shell-shocked or hugely entertained—or waving—were the guests.

Ryoka Griffin, sitting next to Fierre, who was open-mouthed with delight. Palt, trotting along and waving. Montressa and Bezale, staring about in delight. Kevin, Joseph, Leon, Troy, Galina, Imani, and Rose, some furtively recording the scene with their smartphones.

Mrsha bouncing on Lyonette’s lap as she stared at the colorful Humans all dressed up, cartwheeling and flipping past the slow moving carriage, providing entertainment enroute. Numbtongue in his costume, looking around just as excitedly. Lyonette sat like a…[Princess], dignified, but with a flush of excitement in her cheeks.

Selys looked astounded. Salamani was enjoying himself. And there were a few hangers-on who’d begged an invitation and got it. Krshia, who’d run up from Liscor dragging Elirr, Hexel, and Octavia, a Human that Hedault didn’t recognize from the inn, Drassi, Menolit

Some odd representatives there. They’d begged favors, snuck into the event, all on the name of one person at the center of it. Jasi was waving and trying to speak as, on the other side, Wesle blew a kiss and winked. Hedault stared at Erin Solstice.

Then at the scene. The street was a rush of noise and lights and attention as the procession made its way forwards. Emme was speaking with dozens of people at once. Restaurant? They were fighting for the honor—and the publicity! Shows? The group would have to split up, if only because no one could move with all the Players in force, but they’d be entertained until Elisial began! And their guest of honor and her friends—people were already pointing.

The Solstice Booth. It wasn’t a hard connection to make. Hedault had made it in less than a second when he’d heard of it. But at last—you had to ask who that was that the Players were fawning over.

The inevitable was happening. Erin Solstice was the center of tens of thousands of eyes. Visiting nobles who had their reservations at the Djinni’s Spoon cancelled, Lady Ieka’s coach, which had to stop for the VIP’s—

 

Behold. Look, and see the person we owe it all to. Our great friend. Chellise, one of the [Actors], jogged up to Mrsha.

“Here! Go ahead and shoot them off!”

Mrsha took the wand and waved it. The Gnoll saw a glowing will-o-wisp fly upwards. It spun in a crazy pattern into the sky and exploded. Her eyes went round with delight. Numbtongue grabbed one, and more lights illuminated the street.

Hold that pose, Miss! For the Player’s friends!

A [Speed Painter] was desperately capturing Galina on canvas. More entertainers hurried forwards, all too willing to accept the gold the Players were practically throwing away. If you had the gold and clout Invrisil would light up for you.

The only people not here who could have been were those like Olesm and Maviola, Ishkr—who was on inn-duty, having volunteered for it, Bird, who just wanted leftovers…

There they are! Dead gods! Erin! Erin! Let us come, please? We ran as fast as we could when Selys sent us—

People shouted and pointed, thinking more entertainers were on the way. The [Bodyguards] keeping the crowds back turned to this new threat—and backed up apprehensively. To their relief, the Players recognized the new group and waved them on.

Maughin, Jelaqua, Moore, Seborn, Ulinde, all squeezed into the procession. Anyone who knew Erin Solstice was being let through.

“Whoops! Excuse me, Miss. Are you with the inn’s guests?”

The [Guard] let a creeping Gnoll come through behind the Halfseekers. Liska hesitated and checked her apron. It had the inn written on it. How handy!

“Yes. Yes, absolutely.”

“Right this way, Miss.”

Ishkr would kill her later. The Gnoll happily swung herself up into one of the open wagons an [Actor] had commandeered. She saw vendors handing out food to anyone who wanted it and waved.

And all of it, all of it was for Erin Solstice. Hedault gave up trying to get the [Merchant]’s attention. He wrote a note, attached it to the man’s shoulder with some magic, and looked around for an escape route. He had to get those artifacts appraised and evaluate their cost. No time for him to join the chaos.

Besides which—he looked back. There she was. So many eyes on her as Jasi pointed to say ‘this is my friend!’ And Wesle stood up to shout for them to hurry up and clear the roads up ahead.

Hedault was no expert on interpersonal communications. He was, by his admission, not a people person. But still—he was fairly certain as he stared at Erin Solstice’s face.

“…Hellish.

The [Enchanter] looked at the [Innkeeper]. Then he shook his head and walked away. And the procession, the attention?

Well, for the [Innkeeper] it only got worse from there.

 

—-

 

Picture the scene. No—this was the scene. One of many.

After the procession, which had involved a woman cartwheeling across a rope across two buildings above the [Actors], and an [Illumination Mage]’s magical lightshow—and Mrsha shooting her illusionary lights nonstop, they’d reached the restaurant.

The Players had to eat for the night’s performance to digest in time. But it was going to be nonstop courses, so that was food and entertainment until then! And if they couldn’t roam the city because of the crowds outside the Djinni’s Spoon, well then, they’d damn well bring the city to them!

“Okay, can you do one of all seven of us? Imani, Imani come over here!

One of the higher-level [Artists] was doing a portrait of Kevin and the other Earthers as they posed together. They had to grab Joseph, who kept up his conversation with one of the staff, who was hanging on his every word.

“It’s easy. Anyone can make a football—I’ll show you. I have one in my bag of holding, I think—”

They passed by a Gnoll, who was staring at a floating treat with Jelaqua, Ulinde, and Salamani.

“You see, it’s made of a sugar and lighter-than-air materials. Go ahead and have some. And our next course…”

A floating candy passed by another group listening to the manager. Fierre snagged it and broke it in half. She passed one to Ryoka as the man talked.

“The history of the Djinni’s Spoon actually contains two Djinni. I have their names and dates of purchase right here. As well as their natures—they’re not all the same. Let’s begin with the first one…”

Ryoka saw Fierre chewing as she tried to take notes. Maughin was listening as well with his head; his body was keeping Jelaqua company. She glanced over and Montressa was trying to shout-communicate with Eltistiman.

“It’s what I’m saying! There’s potential in Liscor to—do you mind me casting a localized [Hush] spell? Look, I know you’re with the Players, but the opportunities here—you’re not from Wistram, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter. We want to operate our own network and you’re—”

Their voices faded out as a bubble of calm emerged around them. That was inconvenient for the Hobgoblin, who was trying to shove food under his helmet. He moved over from his table to the [Actor]’s.

“…Going to write a new play. But I’m always running into roadblocks. This Phantom story—I had one just like it!”

Andel was complaining loudly. Numbtongue nodded as Lyonette, Kilkran, and Menolit all joined the writer-actor conversation.

“There’s always someone who’s done the same thing before you. You just have to make it your own.”

The [Veteran] opined sagely. Andel nodded and sighed.

“But the Phantom is so polished. I was thinking for my next piece something at sea—or based in Chandrar? How do you know Erin Solstice, by the way? I’m sorry, we haven’t met…”

“Er…”

The group ducked as a flashing object nearly hit all of them and bounced off the table. Numbtongue caught it, threw it back.

“Sorry!”

Palt called out. He handed the ball back, shamefaced, to the [Juggler]. The half-Elf grinned and showed Palt what he’d done wrong.

“You’re fairly good at this. The trick to the triple loop is…”

Palt! Stop interrupting the show!

Bezale roared. She and Seborn and Wailant and Viceria were drinking. Just drinking. Bring more, and bring it faster with something good to eat!

And that was just one moment. Mrsha leapt off the table and raced over to stare open-mouthed at the illusionary war that two entertainers were conjuring with artifacts and spells. They were taking requests from Pralcem and some of the [Actors]—

“Throw a Cyclops in there! Make them fight the [Knights]! Go for it!”

A miniature monster roared across the battlefield and charged towards a group of armored figures. Mrsha stared, goggle-eyed, and then one of the entertainers asked what she wanted! She began to write furiously.

What spectacle. What delight! Erin Solstice saw little of it. It was a blur to her; she had the impression of Wesle and Jasi tugging her about. It was when she saw the restroom—handy plumbing and actual bathrooms, a luxury—that she rushed in.

There she threw up. Well—nearly. Her stomach heaved, but not everything went out. Even so—Erin spat.

“Ugh…”

She clutched at her stomach. It was roiling. She’d never felt like that. Even Xrn’s teleportation hadn’t done that. But this—she was breathing too fast. Her heart was pounding out of her chest—

Erin? You okay in there? You’re going to miss the first course! I told you we shouldn’t have given her all those candies, Grev. That and the carriage ride…

Jasi knocked on the door. Erin started.

“What?”

“You’ve been in there ten minutes! You okay? We have potions if you’re feeling sick!”

She’d been in here a minute! Seconds! Erin started.

“C-coming!”

She wandered back out and was lost again. It was…far too much.

Everyone else was enjoying themselves to some degree. Even those who weren’t largely social—Ryoka included—could find something here. She had been sticking with Fierre anyways. The two had fun together, which was the point.

“Oh wow. Blood pudding. Ryoka, I have to…”

But Fierre did lose Ryoka at some points. The Djinni’s Spoon had tossed out every dish it had, and Fierre attacked the almost-untouched dish. Ryoka abstained.

“This is insane.

She thought she’d been to events back on Earth—and she had now and then. But the Players were properly rich and well-connected. Ryoka looked around for Erin. She saw Mrsha and Selys hurrying over, pursued by Lyonette.

“It’s fine, Lyonette. It washes out! Let’s dye a pattern, Mrsha! You too, Lyonette!”

Ryoka saw them hurrying over to a [Magical Tattooist], who was doing temporary work on more than just skin. The Players had brought in so many entertainers! She saw the guests availing them nonstop of the services. No one was demanding a price; they’d get it from Emme.

“And this is me? How wonderful. Is this how I look? I see. I see. Thank you.”

Ryoka Griffin…stopped. She turned her head slowly.

No.

Someone was inspecting a miniature sculpture of herself, made out of wood. The [Carver] had even given it color. It was striking. Olive—skin, not olives, although Maughin was filling his plate with them for some reason—tone, delicate features.

Vibrant, just, beautiful hair. Blue hair. Well, not blue…azure was a better color. And that voice.

Ryoka Griffin turned and saw a Human woman tucking the sculpture away. She turned. And her eyes were only one color—a pale pink. She stared at Ryoka as she lifted the glass to her lips.

“Oh. Hello.”

“X—”

The Human woman smiled at her. Ryoka stared. She was here? Xrn tilted her head, just like she would have as an Antinium.

“It is the hair, isn’t it? No one else noticed, however.”

“How? You can shapeshift? Is it an illusion or—”

The Small Queen smiled. It was an unfamiliar expression on her face, as if she didn’t know how to make all the muscles work.

“Is it so surprising? I am a magic-user. Of course I can hide.”

“I didn’t know—I’ve never heard of you doing it.”

“Of course not. If you did, everyone would always be so careful. This is good food. Would you like a shrimp? I did not think Humans ate bugs. But I am much entertained. I will take some food back for the Antinium.”

Ryoka looked around. But Xrn’s comments were lost in the chaos. Kevin, Leon, and Troy were staring at a contortionist—a Naga. Which was either cheating or brilliant.

“This is insane. Do you do this often? The Walled Cities?”

“No it is not insane. Sometimes, and not in the Walled Cities. It is too dangerous if I were found out. But Invrisil is fine. At least, with a magic door so close by.”

Xrn took a swallow of food and bit the shrimp’s head off. Ryoka watched her crunch happily.

“How? Is this your magic?”

“Yes. Why are you so surprised at what I can do, Ryoka? I told you. I am a [Thaumaturge].”

“I don’t see how you can do so much. None of the other Wistram [Mages] can do what you can. It’s like—”

Teriarch’s magic. Ryoka bit her lip on that. Xrn’s eyes twinkled. They changed color to bright gold. She answered as she found a tray of some kind of delicate sugar glass spiders…which were walking about. Only Jelaqua and a few others like Numbtongue had tried them. Xrn began shoving them into a bag of holding without a moment’s hesitation. She answered Ryoka as one of the [Waiters] stared at her, then hurried into the kitchen.

“I do not cast magic the same way as [Mages]. Because my method and understanding is like red and blue.”

Not night and day or some other analogy? Ryoka hesitated.

“Some similarities?”

Xrn twinkled at her.

“Yes. Magic is not like how they understand it for me. Because I am different.”

“In what way?”

The Antinium sighed. She pointed upwards.

“What do you think I see, Ryoka Griffin? I see how magic flows. I see how to use it. I see what other [Mages] have yet to learn. Ooh. What is that?”

She stared at one of the salt-geese and hurried over. Ryoka pursued.

“But that doesn’t explain—you can cast any spell you want to, or so it seems. How do you just make spells?”

Xrn considered that as she nibbled on some salt. She gestured with her hands.

“I think it is the misconception of magic of other spellcasters in how they use it. For them, spells are boxes you fill with the right things. You can adjust the box. But boxes they remain. I treat magic how I please. If I need a box—I make a box. This should not surprise you, though. You use wind magic like I do.”

She looked at Ryoka. The Wind Runner blinked.

“I do?”

“Of course you do. Or rather…the wind moves because of you. Interesting, interesting. I did not notice that. You’re not doing it. Magic shapes itself because you are there. Interesting. I have seen that before.”

Xrn peered at Ryoka. Then lost interest.

“Alas. If only you were Antinium. If only Antinium could cast magic. I would have made an army of spellcasters. Regular Antinium have no…storage for mana. We are not made like you or animals. We possess nothing to shape the world. Even the First Queen did not know what she made; I was an experiment, the Centenium made to harness magic. Few others were ever made like me. Now, I am alone.”

She stood there. And her Human features betrayed what Ryoka hadn’t spotted on her Antinium ones. Melancholy. Xrn smiled after a moment.

“Perhaps that too can change. But even an Individual cannot form a mana center…unless it can? Do something.”

She poked Ryoka in the chest. Ryoka stared at Xrn. Same Antinium, different body. She had…an answer. Ryoka took a breath.

“Have you ever fed an Antinium a diet of mana potions regularly? In increasing amounts? I’m told that other people do that.”

Xrn stopped crunching sugar glass spiders. Her eyes focused on Ryoka.

How fascinating.

Ryoka wondered what she’d just done. Or if that was nothing. But someone clapping her hands loudly from the stage at the front of the room made everyone look up.

Attention! Everyone shut up for a moment! That means you, Kilkran!”

The hubbub died down. Emme pointed to the figure on stage.

“I present: Barelle the [Bard]! Who has graciously agreed to give us a performance! He will be putting on Ten Comedies of Terandria, his own work!”

Ladies and Gentlemen. And [Actors] too.

Barelle the [Bard] spoke and Ryoka felt a tingle run down her spine. Now there was a voice.

It was true that the Players had upstaged Invrisil’s entertainment scene with their newfangled plays. But Invrisil had always been the place where high-level entertainers came. Like other major cities of Izril, it was a tourism hub.

The City of Adventurers was more renowned for its high adventurer population and thus shops and services than, say, First Landing or Zeres, trading ports or ancient capitals of Drake and Human might. But it still attracted the rich and powerful from far and wide.

Both as guests of the city and performers. Barelle the [Bard] was one such. He got a laugh from the Players for his copy of how they addressed their audience. And he had a lyre.

He strummed it now and Numbtongue looked up. But like everything of this world—magic added a second element.

Barelle’s lyre was a modification of the standard, seven-stringed lyre. And while Numbtongue might have vouched that his guitar was an advancement of one of the older instruments—they both had the same origin in how they were made.

Yet Barelle’s lyre had fourteen strings. Seven were the regular ones, delicately strung, possibly Pegasus hair or some perfect material along the work of art that was his lyre. But seven more lay behind the ordinary seven.

Each one was a different color. Each one glowed. And when Barelle plucked the one shining like ivory, the sound it made—

Silence. Mrsha, trying to punch more room into her tummy, looked up. Numbtongue stared. The [Actors], guests, all listened.

That sound—was not normal. It had no chord Ryoka could place. It was eerie, higher-pitched. But Barelle played—one ivory note, five mortal chords.

And he had his audience spellbound.

“It is my honor to perform for fellow tellers of stories today. I am looking forwards to your performance of Elisial tonight—and I will do my best to entertain you now.”

The [Bard] announced with a smile. He plucked another string, this one bright green, and the air came to life. It was the sound of spring. Ryoka had to know what the lyre was. Would the fae—? Surely they would love it. This was a storyteller to tell stories worthy of them.

“Eat, speak, dine, and of course, enjoy. I only ask that you give me time to perform without having to compete.”

Everyone nodded at that. Barelle went on.

“I am a [Fartraveller Bard], a [Bard of Stories]. I have been both. I have seen terrible tragedies, walked through war, and spoken with those who fought against legends, both monsters and men like the King of Destruction. I have performed for [Kings] and [Beggars] and been humbled by both former and latter. Tonight though, I think we have no time for such stories. Nor shall I compete with Elisial!

“Too right, because you’d lose!”

Andel spoke up. There was a laugh; Ryoka felt like kicking the [Writer]. But Barelle chuckled along.

“We all tell stories. So today, while you sup, I shall relate ten comedies of Terandria. Fools and fantasy all!”

He plucked at a third magical chord. This one was bright, like a yellow canary’s feather. And when it hummed—it sounded like the very essence of laughter. More followed, provoked by the sound itself.

Now this was entertainment! Two thirds of the room immediately drifted over. Including Xrn. She looked back at Ryoka and nodded to Barelle as if to say—‘see? This is what I meant.’

This is magic too.

Ryoka got it. Barelle looked across the room. He smiled—

And made his first mistake. Not that he could have known.

“But first, an ode. I was asked to make a brief sonnet, some poor verse to honor the guest of the hour! A young woman who—as I understand it—fits with every story and legend I know! I should be honored to speak to the woman herself—”

Every head began to turn. And the [Innkeeper], who had been relaxing next to Grev and Jasi and Wesle, suddenly stiffened again. Barelle was looking at her. He played a fourth note. This one pulsed like midnight, and the air darkened. Like that of a stage in itself.

“A young woman who led an army to battle. Who rescued adventurers from a dungeon. Who—and I have seen this myself! Fought Wyverns in the City of Inventions. The very same young woman who helped create the Players of Celum! There are those who change this world for good or ill. Flos Reimarch. Mihaela Godfrey. Xrn, the Small Queen.”

His eyes flickered. Ryoka started. But Barelle continued without missing a beat.

“This young woman has done so much already. Already—three cities and more are connected, across hundreds of miles thanks to her! Already, a team of adventurers reached Gold-rank for her help! I am speaking of course, of Erin Solstice. And to her, I shall play—”

Erin Solstice heard a roaring sound in her ears. She saw Barelle, in a shroud of…mist? Speaking. And people were looking at her. Applauding…Erin didn’t hear it.

The [Bard] began to play. Erin took a breath. Then another. Jasi was beaming. Grev looked smug. Wesle—Wesle picked up on it. Everyone was watching Barelle and he was concentrating as he played, using the magical notes sparingly. But his eyes were on his audience too.

“Erin?”

But she didn’t hear Wesle speaking. Barelle had begun singing—but he stopped. Erin saw him lower his hands. And then everyone was looking at her again. The [Innkeeper] tried to rise. Jasi was touching her arm. Erin looked around. She took another breath—

And then she fainted.

 

—-

 

It was her fault. A few minutes later, when Erin woke up in the staff room, that was the first thing she said. Of course—it was jumbled, what with everyone asking how she was, concerned—

Ryoka got it. So did Jasi, Wesle, a few others when they saw the problem. But it was all Erin’s fault, obviously.

She should have said it. She had put off the Players for so long, and the trouble was they’d believed her. When she should have said the truth.

Which was that this—this wasn’t what Erin wanted.

Kilkran couldn’t even understand it. He thought Erin was sick. Something gone down wrong? Others sort of got it, like Jelaqua opining that Erin had ‘had too much excitement’ while she comforted a worried Mrsha with Moore.

But it was the half-Giant. Ryoka, Seborn…probably Viceria to some degree. Numbtongue at times. Hedault for sure.

It was that Erin did not enjoy huge crowds. Or all the attention being on her. She was, in a new parlance that Rose kept telling to non-Earthers, an introvert. Which was an odd thing to call Erin.

Erin, the [Innkeeper]? The same young woman who ran a huge inn? Who…was really bad at managing staff? Who liked to sit with her friends rather than talk to everyone at once? Who, up till coming from Earth had played chess…

That made more sense. Still odd. Still strange, to people who lived for attention. Because they thrived on it. Erin on the other hand—could wave a flag in the middle of a street, stand down a riot. If she had to. If it mattered.

This grand party was not for her, anyways. She wasn’t someone who came from a big city, or who went to parties all the time. Erin Solstice woke up. She saw the others keeping her well-wishers back.

“Erin? Are you okay? I’m sorry if we overburdened you—”

Jasi was looking at Erin. The young woman babbled.

“I’m—not—I have to—”

The [Actress] drew back. Erin tried to breathe. Again, the world grayed out around her. She felt dizzy, sick. She had to go! This was too much, too—

Calm. The calming winds from Pheislant’s shores/Makes me return evermore.

Someone sang for a moment and Erin heard it, over the pounding of her ears. The others drew back. Then—Barelle the [Bard] was sitting there. He had played on his lyre. A blue chord, deep as the sea. But gentle.

“Miss Solstice, I apologize for my performance. It was a poor one and I took it too lightly. Another sign I have yet to master my craft.”

The [Bard] sat there. Erin looked at him. She inhaled—and realized everyone else was gone. He’d ushered them out of the room.

“Oh. I’m—I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I also have to apologize—I exiled your friends. They meant well, but I think less people would be helpful, don’t you?”

The [Bard] looked at Erin. She nodded meekly.

“I’m sorry. I ruined your performance. I didn’t mean to. It was just—too much. I’ve never done that before. Ever.”

“Fainted?”

She nodded, blushing. She’d never…and she’d fought Skinner! She’d been in far worse situations. She was reminded of the Christmas party…why did it always happen like that?

“You strike me as someone who does poorly at events not of your choosing. Fight your battle where you want. Mihaela Godfrey, who was in the news today, was like that. She could walk into a room and demand attention, but throw her a surprise party and she’d run off rather than deal with it. I should know—I was booked for one and she left after two minutes.”

The [Bard] winked. Erin felt a bit better. She knew he was trying to encourage her. And it was working. She took another breath. Then she tried to swing her legs off the couch.

“I should get up. Reassure everyone—”

Sit.”

The [Bard] was commanding without his lyre. Erin sat. She inhaled. And after a while, she felt better.

“…They’re wrong. Whatever they told you. I’m not like—someone from stories.”

“Oh, really?”

The [Bard] was adjusting his lyre. In the main part of the restaurant, it sounded like the staff were doing their best to regain the night. Erin heard the fwoosh of someone grilling something hard. Barelle nodded to Erin.

“What you perceive about yourself is not what others see. But tell me, Miss Solstice. What makes you unworthy of the praise?”

Erin didn’t even have to think. She shook her head.

“It’s just not true. Those things happened—but it wasn’t me. I’ve never been a heroic, super-brave person who can solve things. I have never beaten those monsters or saved anyone alone. All I have done on my own is kill people. But I have amazing friends. Heroes have stayed in my inn. And I fed them waffles.”

He laughed. Erin tried to smile.

“I’m sorry. I should have just said ‘no’ and let everyone else have the party. I’m bad at them. I can throw a party—in my inn. But out here?”

She shuddered. All those people staring at her.

“I don’t want to be treated like that. I get nervous. Horribly sweaty. I’d rather be…”

In her room, playing a game of chess with her opponent. Curled up reading Mrsha a story. That was fun for Erin.

The [Bard] nodded understandingly.

“And that is perfectly fine. I confess—Miss Emme talked you up so much I thought you would love my performance. I should have looked at you first. Again, I apologize. It is my job. I’ll leave you; I just wanted to check up on you. Shall I tell your friends you’re well?”

“Yes. Please. Thank you, and again, I’m sorry.”

The [Bard] smiled.

“Miss Solstice, we’ll certainly speak again. If only because your unusual friend seems to want to inspect my lyre. How ever did you find a fellow student of the craft among Goblins?”

She stared at him. Barelle winked.

“[Know Thy Audience]. I’d better earn some gold.”

He left. Erin wanted to talk to him. She—had nearly asked him to stay. But wouldn’t that put upon the [Bard]…that Wesle and the others had hired to perform for her?

She hung her head. She was bad at this. At being the target of gratitude. And it was a skill. Erin felt embarrassed. Ashamed. And still.

She looked around the fancy restaurant. This wasn’t where she wanted to be. She should have told them that. They loved it, the Players. This was big dreams and Hollywood. Erin…

Stood up. Just for a moment. She took a breath.

 

—-

 

Ryoka Griffin stopped before she entered the back rooms to check on Erin. She needed Barelle to perform at the Solstice party! Unrelated to Erin…well, she’d be there…whatever! He seemed used to the request.

“The [Emperor]? Certainly, Miss Griffin. We’ll talk, shall we? But I do need to get up on stage before Miss Emme hamstrings me—”

Ryoka pushed into the back room. Yes! Also, Barelle was definitely onto Xrn. He’d kept away from her the entire time. He seemed more curious of Numbtongue and vice versa. She hoped it wouldn’t come to anything.

But this was a party and Xrn—Ryoka pushed into the back room. She looked around. Then she swore.

Erin—?

Predictably, the [Innkeeper] was already gone. The back door was ajar. And Ryoka Griffin suddenly had a problem.

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice was just going for a little walk, really. She knew it was bad—but she had to leave. She could predict her friends flooding in to check on her. She just—needed to step outside.

There were [Guards] outside the inn. No, [Bodyguards]. Including…

“Redit?”

The [Bouncer] turned.

“Miss Solstice? Everything okay?”

The line of guards was blocking anyone from intruding on the party not on the list. Erin hesitated, then smiled.

“Yeah! Just going for a quick walk. That okay?”

Redit exchanged glances with the other [Bodyguards].

“You’re the guest, Miss Solstice. Need an escort?”

“Naw. They don’t know me, right?”

Erin peeked at the crowd staring at the restaurant. Redit grimaced.

“They’ve got the [Actors] memorized. Some might pick you up, but—Channe, Channe, get over here.

A female [Bodyguard] jogged over. She was the most built half-Elf Erin had ever seen. She also carried brass knuckles.

“Problem, Redit?”

“Can you give Miss Solstice a [Veil of Inconspicuousness]? She wants to go for a walk.”

The half-Elf gave Redit a thumbs-up. Erin expected some magic, but the half-Elf drew a box around Erin with her finger.

“Good for two minutes. If you’re going, Miss Solstice…just wave and we’ll grab you, don’t try to push through. Good way to get an elbow in the face if we don’t recognize you in time.”

They were playing a prank on her! Erin was amused, but she stepped into the crowd. They focused on her…they looked past her, bored.

“Does anyone see anything? Where’s the guests? Let us in!

They went back to chanting. The [Bodyguards] held the line. Erin slipped away, tickled pink. Well, what a cool Skill! You learned something new every day.

And she wondered if her inn Skill could tackle that? Her aura. How strong was Channe versus Erin? If she tried to, say, help a little Gnoll steal cookies and Erin was guarding the jar? Erin bet that ‘inconspicuous’ didn’t help if you were on high-alert for anyone.

But it was perfect for this! Erin sighed in relief. Two minutes. She’d go for a ten-minute walk, and then, properly braced, she’d be the perfect guest. She really did have to say sorry. It was just—not her, y’know?

“Y’know?”

Erin looked around. Someone stared at her. She gave the person a smile and they walked past her, shaking her head. She liked that. Well—not that, but Erin liked not being the center of everything unless she had to.

If the Players had rented the restaurant and they’d had a more low-key thing, it probably would have been fine. If Erin could have been a guest in the theatre in the crowd, not in the super-popular booth…she probably would have accepted.

“I’m stupid.”

The [Innkeeper] kicked down the street. She just didn’t want to impose. But she’d imposed by not imposing. Figure that one out. And—it really was an imposition.

“You mean to say, sir, that our entire booking for the night is cancelled?

A man was standing in the street, staring towards the Djinni’s Spoon. He looked rich. Although…Erin eyed him as she passed by…he was wearing armor. Armored cloth? It looked like someone had decided to create a suit of cloth that could function as armor.

Impractical, but magical. His servant or whomever it was, was cringing.

“It appears our booking was overturned by the—the Players of Celum.”

“The ones whose play we’re supposed to attend tonight at such cost? Wonderful.

The man sighed. The people around him did not look amused. One put a hand on his side.

“The honor of—”

“Leave it, man. Leave it. No duels in Invrisil! Not now. What are we going to do for food? Send to the other restaurants. Why was the entire place booked, pray?”

As the man stammered, Erin resisted the urge to go over and poke the guy in the side and apologize. She did not—because that would be a bad idea. But see? Did you see what they had done? This poor group of…rich people…with enchanted swords and fine dresses would have to go to a four-star restaurant instead of…

Erin decided her pity was better reserved for herself. She walked past the group. Further into Invrisil. And promptly got lost.

 

—-

 

“Oh no. Oh no. Hey, does anyone know where the Djinni’s Spoon is? That way? Thanks!”

Twenty minutes later, Erin was jogging back the way she’d come. She was asking for directions, which she should have done fifteen minutes ago! But she’d gotten lost, thought she knew the way back, went completely the wrong direction by taking too many lefts—

She hadn’t wanted to ask. Again, she could run up to people, scream in their faces about Shield Spiders attacking, and lead the counterattack. But Erin would prefer not to.

She hurried down the street. This wasn’t a good part of Invrisil. How did Erin know? Less glass. Less…people. Less nice looks. She could have sworn—

Erin looked around nervously. Was that a scream? How bad was Invrisil’s crime? She felt nervous and reached for her side. The streets were emptying out.

“Lost your way, Miss? Need an escort?”

A man smiled at her. It was the kind of smile…that suggested a lot of things. Like ‘I could help’, and perhaps ‘if you don’t let me help, I could turn mean.’

“I’m fine, thanks!”

Erin smiled at him. He walked over.

“No need to be worried, Miss. I could help—”

Erin pulled out a knife and a jar of acid. The man focused on Pelt’s specialty kitchen knife. And the glowing jar. He sized up Erin.

The Level 44 [Innkeeper] looked at the…spot where the man had been. He was hurrying off. His [Dangersense] told him that little jar was more than he wanted to deal with.

Erin was not in danger. Some of the people eying her up decided they had better things to do. The [Innkeeper] put the jar back. She had healing potions, some alchemy stuff, and acid.

I’m trying to go back to my restaurant! Anyone wants to stop me, they can drink acid!

She hollered. A few figures loitering around an alleyway disappeared. Those might have just been pedestrians or residents who had no nefarious designs on Erin to begin with, but she’d just upgraded her threat ranking from ‘stupid tourist’ to ‘well-armed lost person’, to ‘potential mugger’ in her own right.

Oh, how the tables turned. Erin stomped down the street.

“Rather be mugged than have this huge party thrown for me. Grumble grumble grumble grumble…

She stopped saying ‘grumble’ as she heard a shout. No, a scream. Erin whirled. Knife! Jar of acid! Instant d—

Oh. It wasn’t her. Someone else was in trouble.

[Thief]!

What a common phrase! And yet—Erin had never actually seen the scene playing out in front of her. An older woman was pointing at a fellow running for it with her actual purse. It was such a cliché that Erin wished she had a camera to take a picture.

“Whoa.”

The woman was crying out for the man to stop. No one else was stopping the man. Erin raised her jar of acid.

Then she stared at it. Jar of acid.

She raised her knife. Then she eyed it.

Pelt’s knife. Darn! She looked around. No frying pan. No—that potion was explosive—did she not have a non-lethal throwing object? She looked for stones, rocks—why were there no rocks?

The [Thief] was already past her and turning. Erin ground her teeth. Maybe if she aimed for a leg? But Pelt’s knife would probably sever bone. Maybe—it was too late. Darn.

She couldn’t catch the [Thief] if she ran, anyways. He was fast and Erin was shorter than Ryoka—and also not Ryoka.

She heard the woman cry out one last time. Then—a curse.

Blow my hat clean off—Teor, the bag!

Someone bellowed right next to Erin. She whirled—and a man with a hat, slight, inconspicuous, shouted. He was pointing after the [Thief]! She nearly stabbed him—until she saw another fellow burst out of nowhere. He charged after the thief like a blur. And he was wearing a tricorne. A triangular…hat…

Erin heard a shout, a scuffle, and ran. She was aware of the man behind her moving back, but she was armed and ready for—

The young fellow emerged with the woman’s bag. Erin paused and saw the [Thief] had been neatly wrapped up.

…In that someone had just thrown him into the wall and he was currently lying on the ground, making a wheezing, moaning sound. Erin eyed him. She eyed the young man. He halted, instantly lifted his hat.

“Miss. Excuse me.”

He trotted down the street. Erin saw the distressed woman, who’d been desperately running after her purse, stop uncertainly. But the young man—Teor?—tipped his hat.

“Your purse, ma’am. Terribly sorry to see such a thing happen.”

“Oh. T-thank you?”

She backed away. The young man tipped his hat again. Erin stared as he walked back. A bit shame-faced, actually. A second fellow appeared out of an alleyway.

“Teor. The next time you should see a lady in distress like that, don’t wait for the order.”

“I’m sorry, Crimshaw. I was about to, but I was under the impression—the apprehension that our job…”

“It’s what’s right and proper, Teor. Weigh it, but if it’s that—”

“Yes, Mister Crimshaw. Of course, sir. I’m terribly sorry. It won’t happen…”

Erin stared as the two men—both with hats—suddenly glanced up. They tipped their hats towards her and gave her an innocent smile. Which fooled her not. She looked around.

Nothing behind her. Nothing to her left, to her right…Erin did a slow rotation. And at last, her eyes focused on the fellow stepping around her.

Aha!

He sighed. The inconspicuous man finally became noticeable to Erin as she concentrated. He was hard to spot!

“Good evening, Miss…terribly sorry to get in your way. Let me just…”

He tried to walk down the street. Erin pointed at his back.

“Oh no you don’t! You’re one of them! The—the hatmen!”

Teor and Crimshaw looked up. Erin tried to remember.

“The Brothers of…of…Serendipitous Meetings! I knew it! Where’s Wilovan and Ratici? They sent you, didn’t they?”

The man with the hat tried to escape.

“I think you have the wrong fellow. I’m sorry, but I truly have to go, Miss. Hate to be rude, but—”

Erin narrowed her eyes. Crimshaw, Teor, and the third hatman tried to stroll off. They were quick, professional.

But this was her in her element. Erin began to walk after them.

 

—-

 

The Honorable Hatmen of Invrisil—and other parts of Izril come to that—had an unexpected guest. They did not like unexpected guests.

And true, the [Gatekeeper] could keep an army off them if he had to. But Teor still hurried in, hat in his hands, to address Wilovan and Ratici.

“I can’t make up for it, sirs. I take full responsibility—but there’s a bit of a problem—”

Ratici and Wilovan looked up from where they were relaxing, their usual suits off, enjoying the impropriety of being. They listened. They looked at each other.

Five minutes later, Erin Solstice walked into the Brother’s safe house. She should not have been able to enter. Wilovan and Ratici had, in fact, been telling Teor to turn her away.

“How did you—”

Ratici stood up. Erin looked around.

“Whoa. So this is your place? Wow. It’s like a secret hid—wait a minute. Yeah, that was stupid, even for me.”

She slapped her face. The Gentlemen Callers stared. How?

Erin walked over.

“Hey Wilovan, Ratici. You put those Brothers on me, right? We have to talk about that. I mean—they did the right thing—but it’s getting weird. That guy was on my butt the entire time and I never noticed! It’s a tiny bit creepy.”

She pointed at the inconspicuous [Stalker], who was in fact a [Shadow] since [Stalker] was too predatory for their group. The man looked hurt.

“I made no affectations towards your rear end, Miss Solstice. We’re here to protect. I swear on my hat.”

“Miss Solstice. How did you get in?

The Brothers were staring at Erin. A woman in their safe house? It was—not unheard of. But a gentleman did not bring a lady here if he happened to find company. It was disrespectful to everyone. The only people who entered of a feminine persuasion were other people who might need a place to hide out, other gang members who wanted to negotiate and so on, by invitation, and [Cleaners] if the situation got truly desperate.

Erin winked.

“That old guy? Amel? I talked him into it. I wasn’t a threat and he searched me for magic stuff…he’s holding onto my bag of holding and other gear. I’m unarmed!”

She said that like it wasn’t astounding she got in anyways. Amel? Ratici’s jaw was hanging open.

“We pay him not to let people in!”

“Yeah. Well, don’t blame him. He knew I knew you two. Plus. I bribed him.”

“With what? A diamond the size of my face?”

Erin snorted.

“No, with something he wanted. Tickets! Jasi gave me some to give out. Three. For him and his grandkids. And an autographed card with a signature of her and Wesle on it.”

The Gentlemen Callers stared. This…was a kind of talent that ran opposite to theirs. Ratici and Wilovan sat there. Then they hurriedly put on their hats, vests, and looked around.

“Company, gentlemen! Straighten up! Let me present…”

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice was procrastinating. She knew it. But the Gentlemen Callers offered her tea, and she really did want to know about the Brothers.

She thought they were good people. At the very least—one of them had gone to stop that [Thief]. Petty crime was common in a city. And apparently, the Brothers didn’t stand for it.

“Of course not. Should a man stand by if a lady—or other fellow for that matter—is in distress?”

Wilovan looked offended just at the suggestion. There were nods around from the crowd of hatted men sitting and sipping tea. Erin looked around.

“But you do hit people on the head and steal their money.”

The Brothers coughed. An [Enforcer] that Numbtongue would have known leaned forwards earnestly.

“Delicately, Miss Solstice. The right application of force is an art. And we do it to people in a way such that they wake up inconvenienced. But not dead. Safer all around. We might be a menace, but only to some sorts.”

“I see. And a [Thief]?”

“Steals from the sort that won’t mind it. Let me be clear, Miss Solstice. It’s only to do what we vouchsafed to you before: sleep well at night. We are not…”

Ratici trailed off. The room fell silent. And there it was.

Erin had never really met criminals. She’d met monsters. Goblins, Antinium. But the worst criminals she’d met were Pisces, the imposter who had been Regrika Blackpaw, and…Lyonette. This was a different lot.

The [Innkeeper] sipped from her cup of tea. She looked around and eyed Teor. The young Brother was in disgrace.

“So…Teor would have rescued that old woman’s purse if I wasn’t there?”

“I should in any circumstance barring a greater need, Miss Solstice. I’m new, and still learning the ropes, as it were.”

The young man looked embarrassed. Wilovan nodded.

“The Brothers…take recruits. The right sort.”

“Honorable?”

There was that pause again. Wilovan carefully sipped tea.

He and Ratici were the only two non-Human Brothers. Erin wondered if they were unique, or just rarer. Certainly, the Brothers were based in the north. Aside from that—they were cosmopolitan as could be. Well, among the male gender. So…very exclusive.

“Depends on your definition, Miss Solstice.”

That came from the older Brothers. But Teor seemed to want to object. And Erin saw that.

“The Brothers only go after rich targets?”

“Only rich—well, that’s a matter of practicality, Miss Solstice. But there’s a second qualifier. Only…the sort who we feel it’d be a disservice not to inconvenience.”

Ah. The Brothers probably didn’t rob rich children. Erin smiled. And then she came out with it.

“So you’d never just rob a guild, right, Teor?”

“Absolutely not, Miss Solstice. That’s livelihoods at stake. If we went after the Guild, it’d be—”

Too late, Ratici shot the young man a warning look. Teor’s lips compressed. Erin lowered her cup.

I knew it. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Every eye turned to Wilovan and Ratici. The two looked at each other. At last, Wilovan sighed.

“Gentlemen. Terribly sorry, but might we have a moment?”

The others cleared out. Erin felt bad for Teor, but she had to know. Wilovan and Ratici sat there. After a moment, Ratici produced something.

“Sugar?”

“Oh, thanks.”

Erin had been sipping gently. She took a cube from the bowl. Stirred it.

There they sat. After a moment, Erin broke the silence.

“I asked if you did it. And you said ‘does it matter’? Why’d you say that, Wilovan?”

The Gnoll sighed. He adjusted his tall hat and sat back. Ratici grimaced. It was the Drake who spoke first.

“Miss Solstice. I never brought it up because a fellow shouldn’t pick at details—but you calling us the ‘Honorable Hatmen’—”

“Did I hurt your feelings? I do that. I’m sorry.”

The Drake almost smiled. He adjusted his seat, looked down, looked up at her.

“No. It was pleasant. But untruthful. We are not honorable.”

“Says the guys who take from the rich—”

“And keep it for ourselves. Honor among thieves, I’ve heard the saying. I think you have, Miss Solstice?”

She nodded. Ratici shook his head.

“The point is that it’s a joke. We do what we do and it is still mugging. Just a particular sort. Perhaps you might find that better than—the Sisters of Chell—but they have their honor. We are both on the wrong side of the law. As for why we ran?”

He looked at Wilovan. The Gnoll removed his hat, pulled some hair off, and looked at Erin.

“We’re an unscrupulous sort, Miss Solstice. Why do we run if we didn’t commit this crime? Because we’ve done something. In our cases—enough so that any Watch Captain not bought and paid for would put us away forever regardless.”

And there it was again. Guilt. Erin stopped smiling.

“Oh.”

“We rob certain sorts. We…don’t hit the Jeweler’s Guild usually because the staff get punished. Also, that was a small take, frankly.”

Erin’s brows rose. Wilovan hurried on.

“But sometimes, a plan goes wrong. Sometimes there’s less…scrupulous sorts to lighten their purses. Sometimes another gang decides they want our cut. When they do—the hats come off. That’s what they say of us. ‘The Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings are perfect gentlemen. Until the hats come off.’”

“Oh.”

It all made sense. Erin sat back. The two Callers looked at her, expectantly. It was Wilovan who said it.

“We are not good men, Miss Solstice. Thank you for helping us get away. But if you should expect it of us—we will let you down some day. Sooner than we’d all like. I’m grateful for your generosity. But it would have been better if we were just unobtrusive the entire time our contract ran. Our failing.”

“I get it. And you’re right. If you had stolen stuff—I wouldn’t have been sure I wanted you in my inn. Even if it was a jerk from the old Council.”

Erin muttered. The two nodded. You see? Uncertainty. It was better not to mix. Ratici pulled his cap lower. Erin sat there for a moment. Then she looked around.

The Brothers were watching surreptitiously at a distance. They all looked the other way—but they were trying to be gentlemen. And even gentlemen eavesdropped. Erin smiled slightly.

What a silly group of guys. What a funny gang…she sighed as she stood up. The two Callers stood to walk her out. Erin turned and stopped them.

“Ratici, Wilovan, Brothers. I don’t know you too well. But from what I’ve seen—we might not see eye to eye. And I don’t like crime. If you did something in my inn, I’d do something about it. Even if I saw it. Even if you were mugging some jerk like Lis—like some jerk. Because I don’t want someone to break the law like that around me.”

They nodded. Erin went on, looking at both Callers earnestly.

“You are criminals. But I’m sure of this. There are worse people in the world than you. You probably aren’t good men.”

She met their eyes. Then the [Innkeeper] smiled.

“…But I don’t think you’re bad guys.

The two blinked. The Brothers stirred. And then—Erin winked. And that was it.

They chuckled, and then laughed. Erin looked at the two Callers as they blinked at her, then smiled and tipped their hats. That was all.

“You can visit my inn. Zevara’s probably not cool with you—but there’s criminal and evil. I have Goblins. Just don’t steal anything in Liscor, please.”

“Miss Solstice. May I just say you’re the most interesting [Innkeeper] I’ve ever met?”

Ratici peered at Erin. She laughed at him.

“I might be. But how many do you meet? I just like weird duos, I guess. The first people I met at Liscor were…”

She trailed off. Nostalgia, regret…but she was smiling. This world changed. She saw, for a moment, a big, burly Drake with scars, and a Worker-Antinium, jostling to reassure her that Relc was not a Dragon. Then it was gone. And a Gnoll with a top-hat was smiling at her.

They could still be friends. Erin looked at the Brothers. Then at their home.

“Do you guys hide here all the time?”

“We are criminals, Miss Solstice. We do have our entertainments. But a fellow on the wrong side of the law…”

Erin walked over to Crimshaw and peered around at his room.

“Yeah, yeah. But you can’t be cooped up forever! You should get out more. In fact…”

In fact. She looked at the Brothers and her eyes twinkled. Erin might not be good at expressing her feelings. But she was good at improvising. And she just had an idea that would solve her dilemma and do something nice. And wasn’t that why her friends liked them? She looked around.

“Say, fellows. Do you like fine art? And um…food?”

The Brothers stared at her. Offended, for the first time by the question. Did they like—? She might as well have asked if they liked hats!

 

—-

 

Later, and yes, it was later, Ryoka Griffin looked at Erin Solstice’s embarrassed smile. The search party—those who weren’t looking and causing havoc—stared at her with wroth. Ryoka turned to a stranger no one had ever seen before.

“Can I borrow…? Thank you.”

Xrn handed Ryoka her staff. Ryoka smacked Erin on the head with it.

Ow! Ryoka, that hurts like—was that how hard I hit you?”

Erin clutched at her head. Ryoka raised the staff again and a man cleared his throat.

“I’m terribly sorry, and we of course take full responsibility. Just a bit of a to-do after a lady got her purse snatched.”

A man tipped his hat at her. Erin eyed Wilovan and the group behind her.

“…Erin. What is this?”

Eltistiman looked like he was about to laugh or run. And if the hats came off…he probably would. But Erin was beaming in that way of hers.

“I brought guests! I thought you said I could bring whoever I wanted! And for the play?”

“Yes, but—”

Emme and Grev, who knew something of who these strange men were, spluttered. But Erin insisted. And as it happened—the Brothers were the best of guests.

Dinner was nearly over, anyways. So the group marched towards the Season’s Theatre. People stared. They took note. And yes, it was attention and yes, people stared at faces. It bothered Ryoka more, the second time.

But Erin Solstice was laughing now. Relaxed. Because some of the people who were being stared at were men who tipped their hats, bemused, even stunned at the attention they normally never got. For a second, the Brothers stood in the limelight. Their hats were plain, but well-kept. For a moment they dazzled like stars.

Then—and then—the group filed into the booths. Erin Solstice sat, without anyone announcing on stage that they had a special guest. But people stared. They pointed. Because of course, they noticed the booth was full.

The Solstice Booth! They stared upwards…at Joseph, Galina, Troy, Leon, Montressa, Bezale, and some others. Erin sat in one of the other booths, Mrsha on her lap and Lyonette and Ryoka’s with the Hatmen, Palt, Imani, and watched and laughed and sighed.

 

—-

 

It was a good night after all. Inevitably, word would spread. You couldn’t take back microscopes, but there was good for the ill. The Brothers tipped their hats to Erin after the play and the seven-minute standing ovation. They disappeared and the group strolled back to the inn, flushed, talking excitedly. The cast were going to sign autographs for an hour, as they did, and meet them there.

“That was—amazing! It’s so much different on stage, and with effects!”

“And when you’re not distracted and no one’s talking?”

Lyonette was smiling too. Erin had to admit that was true. Ratici and Wilovan strolled along at the back, and the Gnoll was talking with Bezale—flirting, rather. The Minotauress was rebuffing him, but not very hard.

It was a fine night. It had been not-so-great in places. Erin had to admit. But like she’d told Saliss—the good and ill had to mix.

Speaking of which…Tyrion Veltras had been popping up in conversation all night. Ryoka had heard his name and since he was on her short list of people she needed, she turned to Fierre.

“What’s this about? I thought Couriers were coming from First Landing to deliver the cure. Did something happen?”

She saw Fierre staring at her. Ryoka hadn’t heard? Neither—as it turned out—had Salamani. They’d both been occupied. The Vampire girl bit her lip.

Erin had a different thought as Ryoka mentioned Tyrion. She looked around. Shame Maviola hadn’t been here, and Olesm. But it was time. They’d met—but it was really time to get Maviola on board with Ryoka’s plan.

Tomorrow. Let it be…tomorrow. For now, Erin thrust open the doors to her inn, ready to begin the second phase of her party, on her terms, in her place.

“I’m back! Numbtongue’s here! We got him! Don’t worry, Ishkr!”

The Gnoll looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“I know.”

Erin laughed. She motioned the others into the inn.

“I forgot to tell you—sorry. Or did someone else? There was this thing—ah, the family meeting! We’ll do it tomorrow.”

She saw Lyonette and Numbtongue exchange a glance. Ishkr leaned on his broom, eying the incoming horde with resignation. He had been enjoying the peace and quiet. He saw Liska trying to sneak past them and his eyes narrowed.

But Ishkr still smiled. The Gnoll had a secret. Two, actually. But the other one was a short-term secret. Not his sister’s woes. He nodded towards the inn.

“I know Numbtongue is back, Erin. He’s been here ever since you left. You just missed him.”

Erin blinked. She looked at Numbtongue. She looked at Ishkr.

“Hah. That can’t be. He’s right…”

The Gnoll winked at her. Erin stood there. Numbtongue was here? But he was—her eyes widened.

Ryoka saw her run down the hallway. Numbtongue was faster. He burst through the door. People turned. And there—another Hobgoblin was sitting. Two of them. They turned. And the one who you could mistake for Numbtongue, if you were an idiot and thought all Goblins were the same, rose to his feet.

Numbtongue?

Badarrow got no further because Numbtongue tackled him. And Erin skidded into her inn and saw Snapjaw laughing—then look up.

Then the real drama began.

 

 

 

Author’s Note: Believe it or not, I thought this and next chapter could be 1 chapter. How silly. But the author is sometimes silly!

You might be able to tell that this chapter sums up both other side stories. It doesn’t give all the fun bits, but that’s okay. It’s two chapters that lost plus ½ of the chapter scheduled. You do that math.

Hope you enjoy! The next chapter should HOPEFULLY not be this long, but I am in good form for now. Thanks for reading! I’ll leave you with some good stuffs!

 

ArtsyNada has done it again! She’s done another comic, of Imani and Palt’s food woes, as well as Xrn! We also have Eris, who’d done pixel art of Ryoka expression a very common reaction, and Numbtongue! Lastly, but certainly not lastly, AuspiciousOctopi has done a number of very relevant pictures like Fierre, Fuzzylips and Jasi, and more! Thanks so much for the amazing art!

 

Wonderous Fare, Fierre, Hexel, Fuzzylips and more by AuspiciousOctopi!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/auspiciousoctopi/

DeviantArt: https://www.deviantart.com/auspiciousoctopi

 

Facepalm and Numbtongue Animated by Eris!

 

Cooking Woes by ArtsyNada, and Xrn the Small Queen!

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

 


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98 thoughts on “7.56

  1. Leave a typo for acting! Arts! BADARROW. And Snapjaw!

    (AABS Readers: Pwnster7757, Gorexn, Zeta, Aox, Seeker of Yorp, Maladal, CasualCultist, Metamere, GreatGreedyGuts, MrWiggles, Gecko13, Vento, Mishal, Onyavar, Tacit Candor)

    • Oh No! I have to wait for another chapter?? I’ve been reading this non stop since I found it from a reference on a random post somewhere! Finally caught up.. I’m an addict! Thanks so much, I gave 0 idea how you keep doing it, but now I’m down to only 2 doses a week, not hours and hours every day! 💕

    • Not sure if it’s a typo, but it seemed off to me.

      “Erin looked at Ryoka. The City Runner waited, but the [Innkeeper] just folded her arms.”

      Would it not be Ryoka looking at Erin, to see if she’d disprove? Not that it’s inconceivable that Erin would be looking at Ryoka, but the flow seems off if it’s that way.

  2. I forgot to mention this, but Kevin’s Bike Shop is…not a name I’m going to go with. Maybe. Open for suggestions! Leave them here or be square! Which is bad for bikes! I think.

    • ‘Wheelworks’. Cause then you can make the slogans like “Wheelworks, where the real works are from” or “Get the real works from Wheelworks” Plus it also means selling other things, like the skateboard make more sense.

    • Hmmmm….

      Enchanting Transportation for the Wordly Gentleman.

      Bike Peddlers.

      Oh – oh! So, all four of them are so different! Different cities, different cultures, different professional backgrounds – even different worlds (though only half are aware of that)! But what brought them all together? The Wandering Inn!

      So how about – something that references that.

      Wandering Gears?

      Wandering Wheels?

      Wanderlust Vehicles.

      Wanderful Wheels?

      Or – or! People will obviously copy them if it’s successful! So something that shows that they were the very first!

      Innovative Vehicles, Inc.

      Prime Mover. Get it? Cause that was supposed to be the first movement that created the universe? And also they make things to help people move?

      I may have read this after having drunk one too many glasses…

    • – The Izril Bicycle Company (boring, but it’s not some small bike shop, it’s a grand continent-wide enterprise! maybe even a franchise?)

      Or if it’s a silly shop name:
      – Gearz
      – Wheelies
      – Wheelie Good Bicycles
      – Spokes
      – Cycle Paths (a maybe-appropriate pun!)
      – Pedals
      – The Missing Link
      – Revolutions
      – Trekkers
      – Speed Works
      – The Hub
      – Wheeler Dealers
      – Vicious Cycles

    • The Liscorian Cycling Manufactorium

      The Magical Metal Manufactorium

      The Nonstop Pedal Shop

      The Speedy Cyclic Center

      The Pedal More Store

    • PHeKS (Bicycles, Bicycle works or Consortium) for Pelt, Hedault, Kevin, Selys
      High Passes (Bicycles, Bicycle works or Consortium)
      Named Ranked (Bicycles, Bicycle works or Consortium) since that is the upper end of the tiers.

    • if Hedault, Pelt and Selys are all backers:
      –Tri-City Transport

      If there will be more new items than just transportation pieces:
      –Tri-City Products

    • Hi, loving it all.

      My offering is to call them Wheelers because they have wheels. Bikes, trikes, pedal carts (something like the Flintstone cartoon cars).
      I can imagine a scene with local liscorians complaining about the metal menaces rampaging about the floodplains as the machine is currently stored and stolen from the Inn.
      The store that offers these wheelers is manned by Kevin next door to Octavia’s store and gets called the Wheeler Dealer and the advertising sign is something like ‘Get yer custom made Wheeler, designed by Kevin, dwarven made by Pelt’s Forge in Celum, mage work by Hedault of Invrisil..”

      After a while they get referred to as the insane wheelers.
      Aka the Innsane Wheelers..

      Lol
      Just pictured the newly formed bike gang with headquarters in the Inn. Mrsha the druid explorer with her goggles on and bandanna on over her mouth to stop bugs. She is sitting on her tri-wheel with her wand and paper n pen in the front basket under the handlebars and wearing the red fang warriors red stripes on her fur over her arms and forehead. Numbtongue in his Wheeler Warwagon in his full disguise armour with his guitar strapped to his back over his cape and sword on his hip with Bird in the backseat. Two of Birds hands gripping Numbtongue and the others armed with bow and arrows for stray birds. Both Numbtongue and Bird have their goggles, bandana and red fang red stripe markings on their armour/carapace. Ryoka has a racing wheeler with go faster stripes and lightning runes on it.. Erin is in a sidecar that can be attached to a two person tandem bike that has Lyonette and Pawn pedalling.
      Lol
      Sorry about that image of the redfang wheelers.
      Lol
      Zevarra and the Watch will need their own Wheeler Mounted Patrol to maintain the peace..
      Dear lord I wish pirateaba could write this out. It seems it would be such great fun..(as well as some hilarious mischief and mayhem)
      Imagine Bird and Pawn explaining to the new paired worker and soldier watch members at the accident where Erin’s Wheeler is crashed into
      Lism’s shop because Pawn attempted the wheelie that Erin explained etc etc.

    • Horseless Carriages.
      Reference to the invention when originally invented in our world but subtle and explains the product to the uninitiated.

  3. Really great chapter. Not a lot of drama stuff happening on the Erin end, aside from introverted anxiety and a bit of immature squabbling with Numbtongue and Lyonette, but it was really great to have a chapter with a more chill premise that just has dramatic stuff interrupting it every two seconds. Ryoko is back and things are good? Xrn is here and she has questions! Ryoko getting along and having fun with Mrsha? Lyonette was here already and she’s already answered her own questions about Ryoka by way of frustration and bias (sidenote: those two really need a heart to heart. Dunno if they’ll ever get one though)!

    Erin finally going to witness the glory of the super OP stage and performance in Invrisill? Actually, no! She’s got stagefright (ha) from all the attention and passes out! But it’s sorta okay because she reached out to the gang of sorta honorable hat-wearers and gave them a moment in the limelight.

    I was SO excited by the ending of the chapter. Really looking forward to how the Goblinhome plot progresses, Badarrow’s explaining everything to Numbtongue, and how the other redfang (embarrassing but I can’t remember his name right now) went overseas with the Knights. Then Numbtongue talking about his soulbard abilities and what THAT means for Numbtongue’s goblin ghosts. Though Numbtongue might be unsure and want to wait until meeting Rags to tell all. And that’s assuming he even agrees to just leave right away for Goblinhome. Badarrow is probably expecting him to come with them right away, so there might be some tense moments if/when Numbtongue hesitates, but I feel like Badarrow will understand at least a little, since he was also at the Inn for a while.

    All in all, a wonderful chapter.

  4. This chapter was awesome! High quality even for the normally great writing. I could really feel how out of control and wild the march through the city felt to Erin, and the build to her fainting felt completely natural. I love how she made herself feel better by making the situation even more ludicrous by adding the hatmen.

    “Have you ever fed an Antinium a diet of mana potions regularly? In increasing amounts? I’m told that other people do that.”

    This part of the chapter made me go “oh shit.” I had mostly glazed over the part where the… ogres? Whoever built up their big magic mojo by drinking mana potions. Like oh neat world building and an interesting racial quirk. Microscopes were okay for the Antinium though probably less useful for the kind of chemistry they do. Sterilization and microbe theory was much bigger, that was a game changer historically. But magic using Individual Antinium takes the cake, especially if they’re taught to be Thaumaturges (or whatever that base class is).

    Reunion next chapter, woo! Badarrow went south after the battle didn’t he? I’m forgetting Snapjaw entirely, I may have to go back through those chapters.

    • Just remembered where Badarrow and Snapjaw were after posting, derp. Definitely need to reread those goblin chapters now that the stories intersect again.

    • The mana potions for antinium thing probably isn’t THAT big a deal, since mana potions are in limited supply, and they gain levels very slowly, and the process is gradual. Even if they had unlimited mana potions they might be lucky to have a few dozen mages in their low twenties a decade or two from now, I’d imagine. Xrn might find it useful herself though.

      • It might be different for Antinium than Ogres level wise. The antinium would have easier access to potions than just hoping to run across adventurers who can afford them, but are also weak enough to take down a group of ogres while also not being smart enough to avoid a group of ogres. Plus they could probably throw a crap ton of gold at Octavia and get her to make whatever she can when not training with Saliss. Heck maybe they’ll just try and buy sage grass off Walliant and see if they can just grow mana buy eating it.

        Then if they actually manage to get the mage class they can level from dungeon fighting/buying magic books to learn like most races. I could be wrong, but my reading is that the main thing keeping Ogre mages from developing more is lack of access to potions which grow their power, and lack of access to tomes which would grant more spells and prompt leveling.

      • Individuals level up fast.
        They manage to get a few individuals with mana, and sky’s the limit.
        Sure, it’s a big if, but not impossible, and as long as peace lasts, and if they can keep this under wraps with the new knowledge about the mirrors, then it could be a major gamechanger, especially with XRN’s unique understanding of magic helping guide the new antinium mages.

    • I’m imagining the ants going full DBZ/ Black Clover and undergoing training from hell to create a team of ultra-specific magicians to take on threats while their queen cooks up some SCIENCE!

  5. Got to love how Erin was not responsible for this bout of chaos and how you see the introvert shy from the limelight. Also Erin is now well known in three major cities.

    As for the running position offer? Wind runner next objective after the inn.

    More importantly we wait to get the full chapter goodness of seeing Badarrow, Numbtounge, and Snapjaw all finally sit down and talk about what had happened after the battle.

    Also no idea if Rags is nearby or doing her goblin chieftain duties in building Goblinhome at the moment. Because lets face it… We have two small goblins that need to be reunited with Erin.

    The Goblin Knight sadly is going to have to wait a bit longer.

  6. I’m pretty happy we are getting more Goblin and Antinium focus at least for a bit. I loved Erin getting in touch with the Doctor, and the seven getting worked into the inn, but man have I been craving some advancement for the two races that are treated like monsters. Laken’s goblins are great and all, but honestly that group is all Pebblesnatch as far as I’m concerned.

  7. I just reread a chunk of it.
    “Not only had she mustered the Watch and 4th Company’s best, she had recruited the newest branch of the City Watch.

    Guardsman and [Sergeant] Yellow Splatters led the Worker-Soldier patrol”

    Can we talk for a moment about how important that innocuous line is?

  8. So a [Thaumaturge] just picks [Magic Skills] from the [World Skill Pool] and does not study Magic formally. She doesn’t even KNOW the origin of the [Magic Skill]s she picks up. Pretty, FREAKING OP, though probably limiting if you don’t have a skill for the situation. Also there will be likely a limit to her power, since at some point you need to dig deep into theory in order to scale power beyond what you sense and see.

    But a [Thaumaturge] beats all [Mages] today, since they are gimped without the high-tier T6 and above skill-books. The [Mage] class does far better in a world with knowledge-sharing and is highly gimped in a world with restricted knowledge. I suspect Xrn would have been rivalled by the [Grand Mages] and [Archmages] > 200 years ago. But she will wipe the floor with any [Modern Day Wistram Mage].

    I really hope Ryoka tells her who Belavierr is!

    • I think Xrn has the theory down. It’s just a different set of theories. A different magic system. We know Innworld has 2 magic systems. Probably more. There’s Mages and Fey as the two that pop up the most often, but they aren’t the only ones. If I had to guess Xrn is probably closer to Fey just without their millions of years of building their own system behind her. So, she cheats. She pulls spells directly from The System’s catalog of all spells it has. So far Xrn and Fairies are the only beings we’ve seen directly interacting with the system. If that is in fact what she was doing.

    • I think Xrn is… only capable of casting a single spell.
      Her magic is “simply” spamming the equivalent of [Wish] or [Miracle] spells (or the ability to do so) to emulate all the other spells.
      And if that is not overspecialization taken to it’s most extreme yet simplest form… I don’t know what is.

  9. This chapter felt like a full course meal. I haven’t had lunch yet and I feel full. Nutritious storytelling?

    Thanks Pirate.

  10. “Erin saw the fuzz—on Tkrn’s body and about half the people lined up behind Zevara.”

    …. I had to read that multiple times before I got it and then I giggled because I felt dumb.

  11. I have been looking forward to The Goblin Reunion since chapter 6.01. To know it’s only three days away reminds me of being a kid before Christmas.

    • Pshaw, I’m glad Menolit is finally getting the true regular experience. He is quickly becoming one of my favourite background characters

  12. In this post I want to debate character death in tWI. Nothing that has directly to do with this chapter, but a meta-critic of plot development.

    As far as I see it, tWI is a soap opera fantasy. The whole plot I can see is just Erin gaining more and more reputation as Innkeeper, reaching out and meeting all other formerly disconnected sidestory characters. All these characters are ultimately replaceable and can die, except for Erin. But, they don’t really die, do they? And we don’t want that, either.

    Killing off Ryoka, Mrsha, Lyonette, Laken, and dozens of other key characters? Relc, Klb, Pawn, Olesm? [b]Not going to happen, and I would be apalled.[/b] Then, many more characters that we readers don’t have an intimate connection with, still have outstanding plotlines that may not be interrupted. For example, Ishkr can’t just suddenly be killed in a mugging offscreen, because there is still a secret connected with him. The Wistram Earthers, the Rhir Earthers, the Pop Star Earthers, the UN Earthers? I’m not seeing Cara, Aaron, Luan, Geneva, Daly, Richard, Thomas… in any real danger, and these are all B-plot. Other Earthers in these PoVs range from C-to-E plot importance.

    Who was the last “important” person to die, recently? In the sense of “well-established character of either inn-world-political or reader-world-emotional importance”?
    I say it was in the Human-Goblin-Siege of Liscor in Volume 5: Headscratcher, Shorthilt, Tremborag, Reiss, Pyrite, Garen. Lots of important Goblins, half of them already revived in Numbtongue. Before that, it was Zel’s permadeath in Volume 4. Naturally, Brunkr. And Klb, Ceria and Calruz in Volume 1, but we know how that turned out.

    I don’t really want [b]any[/b] particular character to die, and certainly not to die for no reason. But during Volumes 6+7, I gradually lost the fear and suspense that was present throughout Volumes 1-5. In 6.67, I was certain Pisces was gonna die. Yes, I was relieved he didn’t, but I was biting nails. In 6.42M, I was already hopeful that Magnolia’s death would rock the boat. Tyrion-ex-machina nullified that possible impact, causing a zone of calm.

    The recent deaths were of C-plot importance, at best. Stan and Isceil died – the Horns and the other Wistram mages survived. Sacra died – Reynold, Ressa and Mags survived. Ulyse died – Flos, Mars, Teres and Gazi survived. Cirille and her friends died – Tom, Richard, the Blighted King and his advisors, all survived. The Named Adventurers and the Centenium all survived their scrape, too. I never felt Saliss or Klb were in any danger, there. Mihaela survived, too. I am able to fearlessly read the chapters, and that lulled feeling is in itself odd.

    My whole point here? The story, while still very captivating and entertaining, ultimately lost most of its suspense.

    I’m seeing the following events for Izril: Summer Solstice and GnollCon are scheduled. Not as death+drama festivals, but something might blow up. The Bloodraiders are a wildcard. Little else. Yes, there’s that hostage situation with Tyrion. But with Laken’s intervention, I can’t see it go wrong. My guess is that Ryoka will deliver the medicine herself, and she always survives. Possibly even with Bloodfeast Raiders involuntarily shielding her from Guild Assassins.
    In Baleros: UN meeting Niers. In Wistram: Trey breaking out Amerys. In Chandrar and Terandria: War, duh.

    Remember how Volume 1 built up to the Dungeon TPK; Volume 4 to the battle of Invrisil; Volume 5 to the Siege of Liscor. In a meta-reading way, I’m waiting for a dramatic change. A big shoe to drop, but I can’t see any such shoe in the wide sky; and I am trusting Pirateaba won’t surprise us with a sudden stomp out of nowhere.

    • Well, the Solstice ritual in Rhir is bound to cause major worldwide disruption. How major is an open question, but from what the recalcitrant mages said, it could potentially be catastrophic.

    • I get what you mean but I think even the “not really dead” and “literally resurrected” parts were well done:
      – they hit hard when the “deaths” happen, the readers grieve alongside the characters who mourn the fallen;
      – nobody gets resurrected immediately or without being changed by the experience, there’s always a cost even to the fakeout deaths.

      Sure, we know Erin will survive till the end but everything else is fair game even though all readers have grown used to people being saved somehow ALMOST always. There’s this delightful element of uncertainty. Alternatively, the certainty that even a fake death will mean serious character developmen, for example: Toren’s “died” twice so far and he’s been a different person after each. Yellow Splatters also. Calruz is no longer the character we first knew…

      In my view the only character who hasn’t been changed by his near-death experience was Olesm (other factors are responsible for his character development) and even that seems natural!

    • That, in my mind, is a very good thing. The ‘suspense’ that a character may die means it’s impossible for me to get invested in them. Or rather, for me it’s the opposite: I go into a story assuming that no significant characters are going to die, and in the very few cases where that assumption is betrayed, I simply lose interest and stop reading. To me, it’s the literary equivalent of a jump scare: it’s only effect is the tension produced by your own anticipation for what now might happen, and it offers nothing of value to the story.

      • I agree. Some cases, like with Brunkr, the reaction and extended plot thread about the character’s death and how it affects other characters makes their death ok and even a powerful gut punch. I was invested in the character, and the book seems to recognize that and commiserate with me. But in other cases, where the character dies and the story instantly moves on, it’s just disappointing. I was really invested in Cirile and her team’s characters. I liked watching them grow and learn to work together. Then they all died with little ceremony or consequence. Sure they got the ghosts scene, but that was just one scene. Nobody seems to remember them. Now, I have no interest in Rhir anymore, and tbh I don’t see a reason to read upcoming Rhir chapters.

  13. Ryoka getting bullied really annoys me because it keeps getting me angry and then making me feel like I shouldn’t be angry. Since Ryoka has been putting off helping the anitnium for so long and Godfrey got her legs broken, the only one of her bullies I can really be pissed at is that psychopath courier girl.

    I think the part that really annoys me is that any comeuppance is always because of what others do. I’m pretty sure Fals still doesn’t know the extent of her injuries back in the beginning. At least when she accepts mistreatment because of her fetish for ancient magical beings it tends to be funny.

    • I feel the same about Ryoka getting bullied. I wonder if Ryoka told Xrn about what Teriarch said about their ‘god’. It was unclear whether Xrn heard this and agreed or if Ryoka is saving this as an information leak buffer to prevent Xrn from interrogating her further. I think Ryoka may be under an obligation to help anyway because of this threat although I wish that Xrn didn’t bully Ryoka or Erin in the pursuit of it.

      • Tyoka lied and said she didn’t know any dragons because she promised Teriarch. The problem with the Xrn and Ryoka situation is that Ryoka has really been dragging her feet on the Antinium situation and Xrn is…well the revelation a while back that Klbch is apparently the most diplomatic Antinium by a mile explains a lot. Xrn may be a bit more sociable but even Wrymvr feels more like a normal person than she does.

        • Oh right! Ok, do you think she’ll tell Klb about Teri’s words of wisdom when he gets back? Also do you think that she’ll find a way to get Xrn off her back through Klb?

          • Honestly, I’m not so sure what she’ll tell them because she can’t tell them about big T without breaking a promise and even then it was a casual line that might well just mean it isn’t technically a god.

            Honestly, I think the Xrn bullying has already been mostly handled. She’s given quite a lot and seems willing to help now. The problem with Xrn is that Ryoka wasn’t actually justified in refusing to help since she wanted to and had promised. She was just worried and Xrn being Xrn decided to bully her to get past that stage. With the chemistry help, Wistram blocking, and magic tips, Xrn does actually have a lot of projects to work on now. Not to mention Anands boat. I don’t think Ryoka will try to stop helping or that Xrn will be as pushy anymore. I may be misjudging Xrn, but I feel like she saw Ryoka as someone not doing her part which is more serious among Antinium and treated her accordingly.

            Remember, Xrn decided not to push Erin because of all the things they had gotten from her, I think Ryoka is falling into that category as well.

            • Sure thing, I feel better about the Xrn situation now, thanks. I also kind of wish Xrn would get humbled at some point from the way she has been acting. The reason why I thought Ryoka would be willing to tell Klb would be because he has already revealed his knowledge of Teriarch and Ryoka had admitted it to him before she made the promise. If Klb had not told Xrn about Teri yet then I thought that technically Ryoka could tell Klb without ‘revealing’ Teri’s secret to him.

  14. GGG!
    GAMER GOBLIN GANG UNITE!
    GO GOBLIN GAMER, GO!
    GAMER GOBLIN WOO!
    GAMER GOBLIN HEY!
    GAMER GOBLIN WOO!
    GAMER GOBLIN YAY!
    GGG!

  15. Thinking in books, dose that mean some things were more of a wrap up of the “scene.” Then a set up at all? I have to wonder if you will go back to some things that came up at the end of the last one, like that eather at one of the villagers nearby the inn, the perfect place to put someone . There was some others but that one sticks

  16. The battle for Liscor was so long ago I completely forgot: did Snapjaw clash directly with Erin on the battlefield, so either of them has a grudge against the other?

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