On that day, it began with meetings.
The Wandering Inn was as of yet dark as the Worker crept up through the inn. He noted how messy it was as he edged through the common room. No blood, though. Which Bird took to be a good sign.
He hadn’t been here. He had, in fact, been away from the inn most of the day and night. He’d even missed his precious salt-bird, and he hoped Erin hadn’t forgotten.
The Worker slowly walked up the stairs. First floor—Erin, his room, and others. But he hadn’t been there. He’d been in the secret place with some other co-conspirators. Working on the secret thing. Then he’d gone to the Hive.
It was too dangerous to try to work in his room. Little Mrshas kept wandering in and all that hammering and so on would be noticed, even as thick as the walls were. Also—the explosions.
Anyways, Bird had learned something.
Ballistae were hard to make.
This was an observation he’d solemnly shared with his other Worker-Antinium in the Painted Antinium’s barracks. Officially, Bird had quit the Free Hive. But he came by now and then because no one had ever stopped him but Klbkch.
“Ships are also hard to make float, according to Anand.”
Belgrade had relayed that to Bird. Since the [Hunter] had no interest in ships, he’d listened as Pawn, Belgrade, Garry, and Bird all tried the newest recipe from Garry’s kitchen. Worm In A Blanket. Only, the blanket wasn’t a blanket, but bread.
The worm was a worm.
The point was that Bird needed to try again. Also, he needed more wood and better rope than the string they used in candles. He passed the second floor, with the Players of Celum and some of the guests. Onto the third…
Hm. A new room was occupied. Bird peered at the new nameplate, but it was too dark since the sun had yet to rise. He walked towards the final staircase leading to his yet-unfinished tower. The early hour didn’t bother him. If he didn’t get morning birds, he’d get night birds, with their soft furry bodies and weird wings. There were always birds.
The sun was rising beyond the High Passes as Bird opened the trapdoor to his tower. Someday, there would be a much bigger tower. Taller, with a ballista and other things. For now—
Someone was in Bird’s tower. He stiffened. Was it the annoying Drake again? Who was in his tower? Bird looked up—
And there sat Badarrow. The Hobgoblin was stringing his bow, lounging in the hammock Bird had made and staring out across the lightening Floodplains. You could tell it was Badarrow.
They looked different, Numbtongue and Badarrow. One had longer features around the nose and different facial bones. One weighed more than the other, and Badarrow tended to be more Pisces-like in how he behaved. They wore their paint differently, dressed differently—only someone who didn’t know Goblins could ever mistake them.
Bird stopped. He peered at Badarrow. The Hobgoblin looked up.
“Good morning. Badarrow.”
Slowly, Bird walked around the Hobgoblin. He looked around for birds, turned to peer at the Hobgoblin again. Badarrow strung his bow.
“Lots of bats. You hunting?”
They’d done this before. Bird paused in stringing his bow. He looked Badarrow up and down. And up and down again. Then he reached out and poked him.
The Hob swatted away the finger. Bird hesitated, then spoke.
“You have been gone for a while, Badarrow.”
The Hob shrugged nonchalantly.
“Just for a bit. Got any good birds?”
The [Sniper] turned his head to hide the grin. He’d asked Numbtongue for the words to say that properly. Bird tilted his head back and forth, antennae waving for a while. Then he replied.
“…I shot a big flying bird the other day. A goose. But it was a pet. I still got to keep it. I will give you some later, if you want, Badarrow.”
The Hob sat up, aimed, and loosed in one motion. Bird saw a large Dropbat fall out of the skies. Badarrow grinned.
“Snack. I’ll get.”
He turned, to head down the stairs. As Badarrow opened the trapdoor, four arms encircled him. He paused.
“Huggy. I am glad you are alive.”
Bird squeezed. And Badarrow grinned and laughed. The laughter—woke the young woman who’d been dozing with her windows open. She started for a second.
Had it been a dream? But then she heard the laughter and the voices. She lay back, but the smile on her face drew her out of bed. And the inn awoke. To laughter, relief. Someone who hadn’t actually been dead wasn’t dead. But it more felt like they’d come back to life. They’d returned, a lost friend, a guest.
Family. And all was well.
Bird was still holding onto Badarrow when they came downstairs. He had two arms free, but he hadn’t let go.
“If I let go, he might vanish. He is back. Look, Erin. I found him.”
“You missed him, Bird! You were gone all last night! I looked for you, but you were off!”
“I was…doing nothing eventful at all. Yes. I went for a walk.”
On another day, Erin Solstice would have investigated that lie right away. But she just filed it for later. She beamed and decided to hug Badarrow too.
“Get off. Too much hugs.”
The [Sniper] added another word that Erin didn’t recognize in the Goblin’s tongue. She beamed and kissed him on the cheek.
“You’ll get more hugs!”
The Hobgoblin growled and blushed. But he’d been smothered nonstop all night and it didn’t look like the rain of kisses was going to end soon. Forecast: affection.
Erin was pulling out food from the kitchen.
“Here, Bird. And Badarrow, since you’re up. Saltbird. I mean, one of those geese from the Djinni’s Spoon—”
Bird let go of Badarrow to stare at the encrusted bird. Badarrow peered at it too, very interested. Erin winked.
“Imani’s asleep. You have to meet her properly too, Badarrow! She runs the kitchen so you can’t just walk in, but she’s still sleeping. This is a ‘saltbird’. You don’t eat the salt, unless you want to. Help yourselves!”
She knew from experience that Hobgoblins tended to have second stomachs no matter how much they ate. And Bird had informed her that he’d forgotten to eat an acutal meal for the last sixteen hours. Where had he gone?
Erin brought out drinks, blue juice, to find that the two had become three. She paused, just for a moment.
Snapjaw looked up. The Hob eyed Erin as the [Innkeeper] smiled. Snapjaw didn’t exactly lean back, but she sidled over.
“Human kiss Badarrow?”
The [Sniper] clarified. Snapjaw shrugged. She’d been lured by the siren call of food.
“Erin Solstice. I am Snapjaw.”
Erin blinked. They’d introduced themselves, but again, in that flurry of Mrsha clinging to Badarrow’s head and Numbtongue shouting, demanding to know where Rabbiteater was, if the others—now she looked Snapjaw up and down.
Big head. Snapjaw did indeed resemble a certain [Sand Mage]’s creations, although Erin just equated Snapjaw to other figurines from her world. And my, what big teeth she had!
“Snapjaw speaks good words.”
Badarrow informed Erin. His words were better, but Snapjaw sounded fluent. She bared her teeth at Erin.
“Badarrow wanted to come here. Chieftain wanted to come here. You are Erin Solstice. The Human with the flag. I saw you, before.”
“Bef—oh. You were…”
Not a Redfang. Nor, Erin thought, on the side of the Goblins who’d come with her. She would have remembered, and the way Snapjaw spoke?
The Goblin Lord. She looked at Badarrow, uncertainly. He shook his head.
“Goblin Lord dead. Garen dead. Snapjaw—”
He shrugged as if to say ‘it’s how it is’. Neither forgiveness nor condemnation. Too many Goblins had died. Erin nodded.
“Well, Snapjaw. I…hope you know you’re welcome. You and Badarrow. Anything you want, tell me! Just be careful with the others—it’s safe here, usually.”
“I know. I read sign.”
The [Big Eater] pointed. Erin beamed.
“You can read? And…here, Bird, don’t do that.”
The Antinium was angling his head, trying to bite off a huge piece of the goose. Erin went for her knife and Snapjaw and Badarrow produced theirs at once. Snapjaw eyed Erin’s kitchen knife.
“Thank you! Here—have a piece of goose, and for you, Badarrow…let’s eat. Quietly—everyone’s asleep.”
Snapjaw chewed her bite slowly, rather than gulping it down like Erin had assumed. She smiled hugely though.
“I know, right? Badarrow, help yourself. It’s so good to…”
Erin trailed off. She pinched herself surreptitiously. But after the sharp pain, he was still there. And Rags was alive. And Rabbiteater…
Crunch, crunch. Erin turned and saw Snapjaw eating a pile of salt off her plate. Erin opened her mouth. Snapjaw shoveled what might have been a fatal dose of salt into her mouth, and crunched happily. There was not enough saliva in the world for that bite, but she licked her lips and went for a second.
The new things and old things. Erin turned to Badarrow. She looked at Snapjaw, whom he was regarding so fondly.
“Oh! No way!”
For once, Erin got it without having to be told. Badarrow looked away shyly. But Erin was beaming.
People who weren’t beaming: Numbtongue, when he first awoke. When he thought it had all been a dream and he was lying on the battlefield, dreaming a happy dream before the stranger with no eyes found him and told him to live. Of course, then he beamed as he ran downstairs.
“And where is it? In the High Passes? Is it safe?”
“Safer than anywhere else. Lots of dangerous things. Just not Humans. Adventurers. Chieftain is smart. Has many traps. Big rocks fall trap crushed thing that looks like Goblins. Very bad-bad. Got away.”
Snapjaw’s voice floated up to Numbtongue as he stared at the quartet. He relaxed. Badarrow turned and beamed. Erin looked up too. She had not their night vision, but she knew.
“Numbtongue! Come down! Did we wake you? Sorry!”
He was about to say they hadn’t. Numbtongue hurried downstairs, staring at Snapjaw, who eyed him with half-wariness, Badarrow, whom Numbtongue had too much to say to—
He sat next to Erin. They were brothers, Badarrow and he. But something had changed. Not their affection for each other. Just—something. But both wanted to talk, so much.
Yet—the second person who wasn’t smiling? Numbtongue looked past Snapjaw and saw the ghostly figure, real and unreal.
Reiss. The Goblin Lord sat there, looking at Snapjaw’s back. Numbtongue shifted. He had not said to Badarrow half the things he had done or seen. And this? The Goblin Lord broke away from looking at Snapjaw and he said the same thing as yesterday.
“Don’t tell her that I am here. Please.”
She was smiling and grinning and chewing on salt. Reiss looked at her with sorrow and shame and regret. Numbtongue’s smile slipped for just a moment.
Erin thoughtfully traced the line of his sight. As did everyone else, but they affected not to notice. Everyone had secrets.
“So—is it within four hundred miles of the inn? That’s all I’m asking.”
Snapjaw and Badarrow replied after a long pause. They had not given details. Erin took a deep breath.
“I could give you a magic stone. If you thought it was okay—”
Badarrow nodded instantly. Snapjaw was more coy.
“Maybe you give us the stone, sure. Or we ask Chieftain if she wants the stone. Chieftain likes Human. But Goblinhome is secret.”
“I get that. I do. And I completely agree. Just—stay for a while, please? And when you go, take all the food you want! Promise?”
Snapjaw nodded and smiled.
It was hard to hate someone who indulged her love of food like Erin. Still—she remembered. This was one of Reiss’ deaths. And Numbtongue—was eying her. She wondered if they’d have to have a fight to the death. Probably not—but a few such duels had occurred between the Goblin Lord’s forces and Redfangs or other Goblins who couldn’t accept it.
“Let’s go back to Rabbiteater. Where is he?”
“North. Lost track of him. With shiny [Knights].”
Numbtongue stirred. Yes, they’d gotten to this too. Badarrow grimaced and Snapjaw looked down.
“Bad spirits, Rabbiteater. Should have come here but too sad, thinking Numbtongue dead.”
“How far? We should find him.”
The [Sniper]’s ears twitched. We. He looked at Numbtongue.
“Far. Very far, very fast. On horses. But—magic door?”
He glanced at Erin. Numbtongue nodded.
“We’ll bring him back. Promise.”
Erin nodded slowly. Definitely. Rabbiteater and Badarrow had lived. She felt—
She felt so much that she was going to start crying. Again. And she hadn’t stopped for two hours last night. To stave that off, because she didn’t want to distress anyone, Erin looked at Snapjaw. She’d happy-cry later. Or sad-cry, as the case might be.
“So you’re an…[Eater]?”
Snapjaw had, with a bit of help from Bird and the Hobs, eaten almost all of the salt-baked goose. Bird was gnawing on bones—she paused in chewing hers to pieces with ease.
“Yes. I was a [Biter]. Now, [Eater]. I eat, I get strong.”
“What, that’s it?”
The female Goblin grinned at Erin.
“Best class. You have more food? Badarrow say—says, all the time—The Wandering Inn has pizzas, more food than anyone can eat. Kindest Human, too. I laugh and laugh.”
She peered at Erin innocently. The [Innkeeper] laughed and Badarrow blushed. Erin got up.
“I have tons of food. More than—well, you can certainly have a pizza! Hold on!”
She brought out one in five minutes, after heating it up. Snapjaw took a bite, a small one, chewed, and smiled. Then she began eating.
Not fast. She didn’t eat fast, Erin noticed, unless she had to or it was something like the salt. But she never stopped. Nor did her stomach seem to be the limiting factor of her intake.
She ate, she grew stronger. And she loved to eat. She broke off from the pizza to look at Erin solemnly and tell her that she had excellent food. Erin was delighted! She only hoped that Mrsha didn’t decide to copy Snapjaw’s class.
The five were talking as the sun rose. Snapjaw revealed one of her Skills—[Body: Restore Stamina], as well as a Skill close to Hawk’s [Physical Overdrive]. However, both relied on her stores of energy from food.
Erin decided Snapjaw should have some of the lovely roasted corn Imani had made—Ryoka had provided some amazing corn she’d gotten from a farm up north—a lasagna, and some ice cream. Everyone else was already full.
And soon they had company. A Gnoll raced downstairs, saw Badarrow, and leapt into his arms. Only then did Snapjaw lose her big smile as she ate. She stared at Mrsha and Erin saw her guilt as the Hobgoblin slowly edged away. Mrsha didn’t even notice as she resumed the kiss-storm and hugs.
Time enough for that. And the Garden. And…Erin saw other people filing downstairs. People peripheral to the Goblin event, who were not happy to see Badarrow and Snapjaw specifically, but happy that Erin was happy. She waved at Palt, Imani, who was eying the huge amount of food the Goblin was eating, and the others.
Yet there it was. There were dark spots in the sunshine. Things you had to reckon with. But do it together.
The last person with no smile that day heading for The Wandering Inn was Maviola El. She walked slowly.
Not…with physical exhaustion or limitations. Just over a month ago, she would have had to be pushed; walking was beyond her, then. And for years, her body had refused to let her dance or move with a spring in her step.
If it was tiredness, it was tiredness of the soul. And…more than that, the fear of it still clung to her like a musk.
Terror. Again, not the kind you thought of. Immediate horror? No. This was a dread, like waking into a nightmare.
Maviola El was old. Her body was still young—but that was because she had reverted to the actual Potion of Youth. Not the…
Names were important. The [Lady Firestarter] tried to come up with a proper name for the two. She was no [Alchemist]. But one she would call a ‘Potion of Youth’. It gave you…temporary youth. Your body returned, and you could relive that glorious energy, that time in your life. It was not forever; it was a thing for the old.
One last hurrah. But the second potion that Saliss of Lights had made was different. Call it, then—a Draught of Time’s Return. Yes, something like that. Because it took you back. Not just body, but mind.
Soul. And it terrified Maviola El, the older. She still remembered everything with perfect detail. She had blazed as she had as a young woman, more reckless, and perhaps more alive, more daring.
But more foolish as well. It had been like being possessed by her old self. And it frightened her.
Saliss had promised to try to keep her alive longer. He had managed it with a new ingredient.
Erin’s mysterious yellow flowers that were so magical. He had simplified his Potion of Youth. But the cost! The cost was her. It frightened Maviola, because she feared he could make the potion, and many more doses. Enough to keep her alive longer? If he leveled and if the flowers could be grown in profusion…
But no. That was a terrible path. The same path she had refused. And worse—the choice was even clearer than when the Spider had come to her, the Temptress. Maviola had felt it.
For Maviola to live, this Maviola would die. And in her place would spring forth the same young woman who had lived nearly a century ago. What was the most sinister part of all of this? Saliss offered it out of good intent.
And it tempted Maviola. Could she not…live? Did she not deserve to try? To fight death, that unfair thing that snatched children away with the same careless malice as the old?
She had one last true Potion of Youth. The other…Saliss had offered her another. Maviola looked down.
One shone like golden sunlight in her hand. It was unreal, a color of magic that dimmed even the viridian liquid in the second vial. But one would lead her down…
One more year. If I had one year, I could teach Olesm everything. Maybe find a solution that didn’t take me from me. I just need time. So many have managed it…
She clenched her hand—but lightly. Afraid to crush the two vials, as if she could have shattered the enchanted glass. Maviola was afraid.
So she came to the inn where her trial had begun. And found it revolving around someone other than her. Well, that was fine.
“We have so much to do! Where’s Ryoka? Fierre? Oh—Maviola! Look! We’ve got two more guests!”
The [Lady] stopped in her tracks. Of all the things—she looked at Snapjaw and Badarrow. Bright Goblins too. Close to the level of Chieftains, or a Tribe’s best warriors.
“What madness are you bringing here, Erin?”
The [Innkeeper] stopped and looked Maviola up and down. She was rushing around as her guests came downstairs.
Maviola remembered visiting the inn as younger Maviola. Erin Solstice, even the little Mrsha-child had noticed the change. Erin looked at her.
“Did Saliss’ potion wear off? Is he helping? He’s been weird the last few days. I haven’t seen him since two days ago, but…”
“It wore off. And yes—he has been helping. I feel more like myself. Do you—what’s this about?”
Maviola shuddered and reached—forgetting she no longer wore the shawl that kept her warm all the time. Sitting in a chair, giving orders…being wheeled about by Zedalien…
But she had to remember the decades since she was young. Better to be old, surely? But looking at Erin—Maviola wanted to blaze like that. To forget what a lifetime of regrets had made. She looked at the Goblins. She caught the [Innkeeper]’s sleeve.
“Their kind was what the Goblin Lord was made of, Erin.”
The young woman turned back.
“I know. Snapjaw was Reiss’ lieutenant.”
Maviola’s eyes widened.
“And you let her—”
“Do what? Live? She’s not evil, Maviola. I don’t think Reiss…they’re Goblins.”
“And they crave a King. You—”
The [Lady] cut herself off. Erin was looking at her defiantly.
“Isn’t this what you told me to do, Maviola? Take care of people? Make them better? I’m doing just that! Even if it’s just feeding Snapjaw. She ate like—more than everyone else combined.”
She pointed at the [Big Eater] who was indeed putting away hamburgers now. Imani seemed to be trying to clear Erin’s fast-food stocks out using Snapjaw as the disposal method.
“I—there is danger, Erin. But I—”
Maviola hesitated. And she felt two Maviolas trying to speak through her. One—her—wanted to tell Erin that there was a difference between Goblins and other species. Her generosity and aid was not best used impartially!
The other wanted to give Goblins a chance. Perhaps she’d been wrong? Yes! The younger her would have tried if she’d met Erin. She might be wrong about the Antinium. She had been wrong in some points about the Drakes, she realized, after meeting Olesm.
Perhaps the younger Maviola was the better. Not scarred by so many failures. And yet—Maviola El, matriarch of the House of El, raged against her younger self. She had not lived to be cast aside!
Erin looked at Maviola and saw the dilemma. She turned.
“Why don’t you talk to Snapjaw and Badarrow before you make a decision, Maviola? Come on—you look like you’re exhausted.”
“I am. A bit. I’ve…Saliss’ potion has its drawbacks.”
Erin brought Maviola over to a table. The [Innkeeper] sat Maviola down.
“I can see that. Sorry for being snappy—you look awful. Where’s Olesm? Drassi! Something hot and Imani-breakfast for Maviola!”
“At work. I came because…I apologize too.”
“Well, it’s good you came by. You haven’t really stayed—you were all ‘I’m young, let’s go hike fifteen miles!’, so I couldn’t get ahold of you last week.”
Maviola smiled a bit as Erin mimicked her. She had been all that. And Maviola distinctly recalled challenging that Drake [Wing Commander] to a duel? She’d had more bruises than she could count after that! Idiot.
“I’m sorry if I did anything—the potion does change me.”
“Well…if it helps you, that’s fine.”
Erin conceded. She glanced towards the stairs.
“It’s just good you’re here, Maviola. Remember I wanted your help?”
“With what, exactly?”
There were any number of things Erin had asked Maviola for help with. Erin blinked.
“The party at the Summer Solstice, remember?”
“I told you I wouldn’t make it till then.”
“You said you were off by a few weeks. Well?”
Maviola bit her lip. Damn that second potion. Damn magical flowers. Damn choices.
“I—what about it?”
“The person who needs your help, Ryoka, is here. You met her, right?”
“The City Runner from your…home? Of course. She has no levels, does she?”
“She has no aura for me to read. At least—not in the same way. They are like that, those who refuse. Harder to use Skills on, sometimes. Certainly, harder to appraise.”
The [Innkeeper] put her hands on her hips.
“Well how about that. Ryoka’s upstairs. She really needs to talk to you. And your help, Maviola.”
The [Lady] grimaced. She didn’t really understand what was going on; Erin had not explained well. Winter Sprites and a party with the [Emperor]? But she nodded.
“Send her to me when you’re done. I’ll…”
She looked at Snapjaw.
“I’ll wait here for a bit. And listen.”
And think. Oh, there was so much to think about. As The Wandering Inn filled up, Maviola thought of her mortality. Izril. And…the rot amid the flowers.
She knew of Tyrion Veltras. She had seen his appeal. Erin Solstice had not. But as the inn filled, news of it came in. The larger world, whilst the [Innkeeper] generated her own significance. Neither less important than the other, Maviola knew. It was just that everyone talked about one, and it was broadcast. But the magic here was no less valuable. The potential…
As guests came in from Celum, Invrisil, Liscor, Esthelm, and not Pallass, a child was left unattended. It crawled across the floor and Mrsha peered at the baby again. The little red-haired infant was picked up by her mother.
Mrsha shook her head sadly. Some people never learned. She looked up to the stairs. Badarrow was back and he’d brought a funny female Goblin who ate a lot! Now all that she needed was…Ryoka Griffin.
If you knew Ryoka Griffin, you might understand. Understand why, on this day, Fierre watched her friend carefully. Why she feared.
The City Runner sat there. Her head was spinning. Still spinning, a day after she had heard of Mihaela Godfrey’s failed delivery.
Well—she hadn’t the time to process it with Erin screaming and crying and shouting about Badarrow’s return. That tended to take up the room, so Ryoka had asked Fierre to tell her the rest this morning.
Now—she felt sick.
“She’s alive, Ryoka. Alive.”
Salamani sat on a chair as Ryoka and Fierre sat on the young woman’s bed. The Courier also knew. He looked disturbed.
“I don’t know how they got her. Fierre, do you know more? My friends didn’t have specifics. Well—they were worried. The Runner’s Guild in First Landing is practically dead.”
“The news I have is that Mihaela took five Couriers including Lacel the Leaper, who accepted the request.”
“Didn’t he get his legs broken by the Guild? He must have gotten them healed by a [Bonemender Healer] fast.”
Salamani frowned. Fierre nodded, never looking away from Ryoka.
“They went down the main road in force.”
“Stupid. They had to know the Guild would come after them.”
“I think Mihaela wanted to punch through them rather than have them attack the rear. That’s just speculation. She must have thought they could use her Skill. But the [Assassins] laid a trap. I heard there were hundreds attacking at once.”
“Does the Guild have that many?”
Ryoka looked up slowly. She remembered the [Assassin] she’d met on the rooftops. He hadn’t been…the best. But he hadn’t been trying to kill her, either. Fierre bit her lip.
“The word is the Guild can toss [Assassins] at a problem if they need to. They have…links. And they take on a lot of recruits. Lots of bases.”
“I see. But they…got Mihaela? How? She can move as fast as a lightning bolt.”
But—she had been coughing even beating up on Ryoka. All she had to do was stop at the wrong time. The City Runner closed her eyes. Fierre went on after a moment.
“They left her alive. Both legs broken though. That’s a message.”
“Nagas. Of course it is. It means they’re not playing games. Two Couriers dead. Lacel wasn’t—that poor idiot. He wasn’t the best. But he was a Courier. I’d have placed odds on him if the Guild weren’t involved. And the rest?”
Fierre hesitated. She looked at Ryoka’s face. She was…but her friend looked up.
“Show me, please, Fierre?”
The Vampire girl wavered. But Ryoka would be able to find it anywhere she wanted. It was playing on the scrying orb in the rec room with Wistram News Network. She nodded.
Lord Tyrion Veltras stood in front of the ‘camera’. Ryoka Griffin stared at the man’s face.
She hadn’t actually known what Tyrion looked like. There were portraits—she’d gone off them in her list of the leaders of the Five Families.
Magnolia of House Reinhart.
Tyrion of House Veltras.
Ulva of House Terland, once Petra and Ulva, the Terland Twins.
Raymon of House Wellfar.
Deilan of House El—or perhaps Maviola El, former matriarch and still living, sitting in the common room below with a cup of tea in her hands.
She had known only one of them personally and hadn’t appreciated who Magnolia was for a while. Now, the man who was said to be her counterpart stood there.
He looked…wan. But Ryoka saw his posture was perfectly straight. A refusal to bow? Yet—
“I am Lord Tyrion of House Veltras. I will be brief. Just over a week ago, my sons, heirs to House Veltras, fell ill. They were poisoned. Held ransom, as is House Veltras unless I agree to terms. I have attempted to cure them, but every [Healer] and [Alchemist] I sought fell victim to the Guild of Assassins. The Circle of Thorns.”
It was a public appeal. Ryoka Griffin felt like she was watching a statue speaking. Save for the cracks. Tyrion paused.
“I have ascertained the nature of the poison and the cure for Hethon and Sammial—my sons. The recipe has been sent to every Mage’s Guild across Izril and other cities in the world. There is little time, however. I ask for any courageous individuals to manufacture the cure and send it to me.”
His eyes flickered.
“The Guild is targeting Couriers. They have sunk two ships at sea. I will offer House Veltras’ fortune to those who deliver the cure within the next few days. Any longer—”
He stopped. His eyes stared straight ahead. Past the viewer.
“—I appeal for aid. Thank you.”
That was all. Fierre closed the box on the orb and put it away. She had seen many things as well.
Lord Tyrion Veltras, the famously inflexible leader of the north—practically begging for aid? She saw House Veltras’ reputation crumbling. And more—
“None of the Five Families can help? They have damned armies.”
“They’re afraid. Also—if they move, they become targets. They poisoned Tyrion’s sons. What will they do? Tyrion Veltras could probably ride to First Landing himself and grab the cure, but his sons might be dead by the time they return. He could surround his manor. The Guild would just cover it in a poison cloud or something.”
Fierre bit at her fingernails. Her stomach growled and she’d just eaten. Insane. But—but—
She looked at Ryoka. Salamani, who had not known Ryoka long, glanced at the City Runner. The Courier, after a moment, shook his head.
“He sent that right after Mihaela fell. But I don’t think many Couriers would risk it. And the [Alchemists] and [Healers]? They have to be terrified for their lives. The Guild is bigger than I thought. It’d be suicide to run that delivery, right?”
Ryoka Griffin sat there. Salamani looked at her. She didn’t meet his eyes. She was clasping and unclasping her hands. Fierre looked at the stumps where two of Ryoka’s fingers were. She had gotten that trying to outrun the Goblin Lord.
She had not known Ryoka from the beginning. But she knew her friend. And—Ryoka Griffin was locked onto the place where Tyrion’s face had been. The Lord of House Veltras.
“How old are his sons?”
“Ryoka…you’d never make it ten miles. It’s too far. The Guild isn’t playing games.”
Salamani opened his mouth. He was catching on. Fierre saw Ryoka look up.
“I’m not stupid, Fierre. I know…”
Some things were terribly inevitable. But this time—the Vampire girl began to speak. Trying to tell Ryoka. This time? Not this time. It wasn’t about being crazy. Every blade in Izril was waiting. And luck? Your luck would run out. Even if it didn’t, could it turn aside the hundredth arrow?
But Ryoka—was Ryoka Griffin.
Lord Tyrion Veltras sat there, for a while. The appeal was on repeat. Had been, since yesterday. He’d checked to make sure.
No one was coming. Two people had tried. One, a Courier, another a [Captain] from a Terandrian port. Neither had announced it.
The Courier had found the [Healer] lying dead in her burning shop. The [Captain] had been murdered in the cabin in his boat.
His appeal. Tyrion watched himself. He looked odd. The man did not make a habit of staring himself in the mirror. So stiff. So…
He’d offered all the gold he could think of. Artifacts? He’d give them away to whomever made the run. Could he have offered a land reward? A title from his estates? Tyrion tried to think of any incentives he might have made. Certainly—Couriers from other continents might have dared it. Seve-Alrelious had offered—but he would take too long against the typhoon. By sea would take too long.
His sons had days left at most. Tyrion was searching for any alternative. They were dying and he was looking for a way out. Playing games with their lives.
Could he have offered anything else? But what struck Tyrion now—was how he looked.
So still. So impartial, appealing for his son’s lives. The man stared at himself. And he wondered why Tyrion Veltras wasn’t weeping. Other men had broken down on campaign to hear their mothers had died, to lose a friend in battle, a horse.
Not a single tear from this stranger. And now—Tyrion wondered about something else.
Tears. Tears…had he ever shed any when Salva died? He remembered clutching her body to him. Screaming for them to find his sons and kill whoever had done this! But—had he wept, as he buried her? As he swore vengeance and begged Magnolia to know who it had been? To make sure it was the Drakes before he decided to make them bleed?
No. Not at the pyre. Not at the wake. Not afterwards, not telling his sons, who’d been shocked and silent. Not in the times after when he mourned and missed her.
It blurred your vision when you had to aim at the target. Steady hand. Like you were tilting—
Tyrion stared at his hands. He touched them, one with the other.
He couldn’t stop shaking. As if he had the most terrible chills.
Jericha was watching him. Tyrion jerked. He tried to stand, caught himself.
“Lord Veltras. You should eat. Rest.”
“Later, Jericha. Where—where is the [Assassin]?”
The woman hesitated.
“In her rooms.”
“I will see her. If Hethon and Sammial worsen…they have days. Let them hold out. They must. We must wait to see if the antidote may arrive. We must.”
He turned to her. He had to explain.
“It is not for me, Jericha. The contract would bind House Veltras to the Circle like a blade. Not just me. But you, the forces—we would be the blade of these people.”
Wielded in defense of Izril, or so the [Assassin] claimed. Jericha looked at Tyrion.
“We would not desert you, Lord Veltras.”
“That is not why. Jericha. I have no love for the Circle and they know it. We would be a blade. But what do you do with a sword when it breaks? A weapon you do not love?”
You would use it and toss it aside. Duty compelled Tyrion to refuse, to try. But—he would leave Hethon and Sammial naught but the ashes of his house.
But they would be alive. Tyrion strode from his quarters. He entered into the [Assassin]’s room after she bade him enter.
She was lounging, her feet up. Tyrion stopped.
“I have an appeal, [Assassin]. I would like to renegotiate the terms of the contract.”
“Lord Tyrion Veltras. Renegotiate? Now?”
She clicked her tongue. Tyrion stared at the mask she always wore.
“Surely your masters would prefer me to sign now, rather than risk the worst?”
Her eyes flickered in the gaps of the mask.
“Well, I can certainly take your appeal to them. They aren’t disposed to agree—but if you were to be persuasive, I could ask.”
“Do that. Please. I would be willing to sign. Now. If—”
“Hold on. Kneel.”
The [Lord] stopped.
“Kneel. Or bow. If you want me to send your terms, kneel.”
She waited, smiling behind her mask. Lord Tyrion stared at her. Then, slowly, he knelt.
The [Toxin Expert] would remember this for the rest of her life. A worthless orphan from Chandrar, and one of the Five Family’s heads was kneeling and begging. She laughed, giggling to herself. Worth it! Especially for someone who had nothing to regret or look forwards to.
“Well, go on.”
The man spoke behind gritted teeth.
“I would be willing…to sign the contract. A more powerful clause. Renounce my…position as head of House Veltras and serve this Circle as it needs.”
The [Assassin] sat up. That…was something.
“Really? And what do you want for such a generous offer?”
“My House will not follow me into oblivion. Not one of my retainers is to suborned. Nor my sons. I will serve your Circle in any capacity they might wish militarily.”
“Oh my. You are desperate.”
He said nothing more. The [Toxin Expert] thought.
“You know, my masters just might accept that. With some provisos. They want Lord Veltras after all. But perhaps they might accept.”
Tyrion’s head rose.
“Then—please appeal to them. I will sign within the hour. I…humbly ask you to do this.”
The woman looked at Tyrion. And perhaps she had gone a bit mad with power. Or the Circle had chosen the wrong person to negotiate. She was mad enough to poison Tyrion’s sons. So she started laughing.
“Not so fast, Lord Veltras. I’ll appeal to my masters and they will weigh your offer carefully. They might accept. However, you’ll promise me something before I carry your words off. On your son’s lives. Between us.”
The [Lord] looked up. The [Assassin] winked one eye behind her mask.
“What do you want, [Assassin]? Gold? An artifact?”
She was almost tempted to ask for the Banner of House Veltras just to see his face. But—she shook her head.
“What I want, Lord Veltras—is a child.”
He looked at her blankly. The [Assassin] made a gesture.
“I’ll be generous. Give it one try. Here and now.”
“Are you mad?”
Her voice was almost hysterical. She laughed and laughed. He looked at her as if she was insane. When she pulled herself upright, the [Assassin] shook her head.
“I’m an [Assassin], you silly little [Lord]. I’m going to die sooner rather than later. But I’d rather change all of House Veltras. An heir. It’s a gamble. But I’ll be content with that.”
He just looked at her. Stared and stared. The [Assassin] was almost out of breath with laughing. The Guild wouldn’t send her on a death-mission with an heir to House Veltras in her.
“I…cannot agree to that.”
He spoke slowly. The [Assassin] sat up.
“Oh, really? So you would let your sons die, Lord Veltras? Or am I too repellant for you? I assure you, you’ve only seen my clothing. And there are potions for that. Besides—you might want another heir. You’re about to lose the two you have.”
It was the wrong thing to say. The [Lord] rose. The [Toxin Expert] saw him stride to the door. She shouted after him, annoyed.
“You’re running out of time!”
The door slammed shut. The [Toxin Expert] sat there, breathing heavily, coming down from the high of audacity. She gritted her teeth; she’d overplayed her hand by mentioning his sons. But she knew—the Guild was all-in on this. First Landing’s Guild was being watched. Every major Runner’s Guild—every person who could manufacture the cure. Every Courier. Yes, every single one.
Lord Tyrion Veltras would not receive a Courier’s aid. If one even sneezed in his direction, they’d be taken down by overwhelming force. She relaxed in that knowledge. He might just sign the contract. But she’d made him an offer…
What Lord Tyrion Veltras needed, the one flaw in this perfect encirclement was the outside help the Circle and Guild couldn’t account for. The cure had been leaked thanks to irregular specialists with a grudge.
[Witches]. If there was—any possible hope—it was that someone made a cure. And that someone who wasn’t on the Circle’s radar could deliver it.
Not a Courier, who was being watched. The next best thing. A City Runner then, on the verge of being a Courier but who hadn’t been certified as one. One brave or foolish or…something, enough to listen to his appeal and risk it all.
Lady Ieka Imarris was not fanning herself. In fact, the fan was shut in a drawer and she was sitting in a chair. She stared down at the City Runner in front of her.
“Your name is…?”
Persua smiled and bowed, ostentatiously.
“Persua, Lady Imarris. And I am honored to make your acquaintance!”
Ieka stared at Persua until the young woman’s smile wavered. The [Lady] lifted a hand.
“Well, Runner Persua, my personal [Alchemist] is hard at work. The cure will be ready within the hour. I trust you have a route planned?”
The young woman had a sulky expression on her face for a moment. But then she gave Ieka a sycophantic smile.
“Of course, Lady Imarris. And I have made ample preparations, as has my client. Would you like to hear it…?”
Another pouty look. The City Runner annoyed Ieka on several levels. Firstly—she clearly knew that Ieka was persuadable by members of her gender. She kept making flirtatious moves and she had dressed rather provocatively. However, Persua seemed to be under the impression that Ieka swooned for anyone.
Secondly—she was simply overconfident and too full of herself. Ieka was itching to cast [Acid Orb]. As she always did with anyone who she didn’t like.
Thirdly, she just wasn’t Ieka’s type. Far too petulant and arrogant. But Ieka wasn’t going to kill her. In fact, she was at this very moment waiting on the [Alchemist] to finish his work on the cure for Lord Tyrion Veltras.
What a stroke of genius it was. Ieka Imarris had not been happy about the poisoning the moment word and her orders had come down through the Circle’s ladders of authority to do nothing. She’d even considered…but then she’d received her second set of orders. And she’d thought it was brilliant.
To turn a City Runner into a Courier and ‘rescue’ Tyrion in his hour of need? And if Persua failed…Ieka thought Tyrion would sign the contract. Ieka eyed Persua and the City Runner smiled prettily at her, caught out in looking around Ieka’s personal room.
She might be the Circle’s agent. Or just some idiot who’d been given several artifacts. And Ieka didn’t want to expose herself by inquiring too much into which it was. Either way—Persua was useful.
One of the [Maids] approached with something on a little pillow. Ieka took it as Persua started forwards. She held the vial, regarding it. Still warm from the process. Her [Alchemist] had worked on it for two days straight. She hoped it was good, for the boys’ sake. She showed it to Persua.
“Here is the antidote for Lord Veltras. My personal [Alchemist] has synthesized eight doses with my help. Far more than is needed. Give no indication you are delivering to him.”
“Of course, milady. And don’t worry about my safety! I’m rather well protected. And a good Runner.”
Persua smiled. Ieka eyed her again.
The young woman had a few decent Skills according to Ieka’s appraisal. But nothing to warrant that level of confidence when Mihaela Godfrey had just been stopped. Artifacts? Ieka had been slowly appraising Persua from head to toe. At last, she found what she was looking for.
Aha. Wait. That can’t be—
The layers of obfuscating magic revealed themselves to the [Mage Lady] as she finally identified what ring was on Persua’s index finger. Ieka’s eyes widened as she handed the vial to the [Maid], but she covered it.
A Ring of Protection? No—a minor one. But that—that was the highest grade of protection! It was all-encompassing, hence the name. Magnolia had to have been wearing a greater one when the [Assassins] went for her.
A Ring of Minor Protection was an insane gift. Ieka was almost tempted to kill Persua just for the ring. No wonder she was so confident. And that sealed it.
The orders had come from one of the Circle’s highest members. Ieka only wondered if the rest of the Circle knew. If so—it was a brilliant stratagem. Either that, or the Circle was divided.
“Best of luck, Runner Persua. I…hope…you will survive. The odds are greatly against you, but Lord Tyrion is a personal friend.”
“I shall tell him you did your utmost to deliver this to him, Lady Ieka.”
Ieka Imarris sighed. If Persua succeeded—she would well and truly have Tyrion in her debt. If. Ieka had some wind of the Guild’s orders and she knew more than Persua. The City Runner probably thought she’d have an easy time of it, and that the [Assassins] wouldn’t go after her.
The truth was that she’d been marked as a lower-value target. No Faces were going to try to murder her, but a lot of the Ranks might give it a try. Well, good for them. Ieka wasn’t sure who to root for, but she supposed Hethon and Sammial deserved the cure…even if it meant this was their hero.
And away the cure went. Ieka sighed. Plans within plans. She personally hoped Lord Tyrion just signed the damn contract. But either way—
She wondered what Ryoka Griffin would have done. If Ieka could have chosen—she would have chosen Ryoka, or perhaps Delanay d’Artien. But the less they had to do with the Circle, the better. Ieka was far kinder than the Circle. They’d deployed to major cities in force. There were a lot of their best [Assassins] in Invrisil. Just as well, really.
…She wondered if she could arrange for someone to steal the ring from Persua once the run was done.
Maviola El stood next to Ryoka Griffin. The two kept on eying each other. They had not met—at least not in the way they really should have. Nor was this the moment.
Ryoka Griffin looked up, eyes wide. Badarrow was standing back, hand on his dagger. Snapjaw had retreated too. Maviola El was more appraising.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
It walked. The glowing eyes. The titanic body. A machine made of magic and metal. All it needed was a giant gun and Ryoka Griffin was all set to believe there was a battleship in orbit and this had all been science fiction rather than fantasy.
“That’s one big Golem.”
Fierre breathed. The huge head swung towards her. The Steel Golem—Autonomous Class—halted on the creaking floorboards.
“Well, the inn’s certainly strong enough to support the weight. Not all are, Miss Solstice, is it? But this beauty comes straight from the Illivere Federation. Not Magus-Crafter Femithain’s personal work, but it comes from his workshop. It can fight, perform manual labor—even clean itself! In tests, it’s killed Wyverns by itself. Not that you’d want to let it do that, but anything up to a Wyvern won’t be much trouble.”
The [Artifact Merchant] was not Selys’ friend from Liscor, Farri Slightly, but a prominent [Merchant] from Invrisil. He was here with his stock, in The Wandering Inn.
So was Hedault. The [Enchanter] had requested him to come here. Now, the Golem rotated its head.
“Looks nice, but it’d never keep up with me.”
Salamani sighed, eying the Golem up and down. The [Merchant], whose name was apparently Xerimedial, one of those flashy names for someone who sold to adventurers and the very rich, turned to him.
“I regret to say that Golem Horses are out of my immediate stock, Mage Salamani. Most go for heavy-duty Golems. The kind you don’t need to repair often.”
“Does it have a self-repairing function? And um—what’s the alloy of the armor? Looks silvery.”
Fierre waved her hand urgently. Xerimedial or ‘Merchant X’ as Ryoka refused to call him, beamed and turned to her.
“Well, Miss Lischelle, it isn’t self-repairing—that would put this Golem far out of range of even most of my clients. But a skilled [Smith] can repair most damage and Illivere has a four-year warranty. Parts and service at a discount! As for the armor—I don’t believe silver is a large component.”
The Vampire girl nodded slowly.
“And…I can afford it?”
“With credit, you would have about…fifty eight gold pieces left over. But yes. At Merchant Xerimedial’s prices, it is still certainly affordable. However, I would counsel you to negotiate.”
Hedault’s pronouncement made Xerimedial’s face sour only slightly. He was, in truth, in the best of moods. Because Hedault had brought him three clients with gold burning a hole out of their bags of holding. Fierre rubbed at her lips.
“It’s far from Reizmelt—”
“A Golem could make the journey fast, Miss Fierre. If you care to step outside, I’ll show you it’s max speed. It can run—although that tends to tear up streets.”
Fierre eyed the very sunny outdoors.
“…I’ll pass for now. Ryoka, what do you think?”
“Huh? Oh, sorry—I was thinking.”
Ryoka had never played some of the popular figurine-based tabletop games on Earth. She had labeled it as mostly a guy’s game, and for collectors and assemblers at that.
…Golems now, she understood the appeal. She’d collect this sucker all day. She turned to Erin.
Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper] and owner of the inn whose ceiling the Steel Golem’s head was threatening to tickle, looked over at Ryoka. She worked her mouth a few times.
“…How rich are you?”
Hedault sighed. Ryoka, Fierre, and Salamani had given him their artifacts to appraise and the [Enchanter] had had a field day. It hadn’t been hard, really. Low chance of curses and the fact that it was all gear from individuals he could actually look up meant that it had been a smooth job.
The hardest part had been Ryoka. And others. He stared at a little Gnoll peering at him. Mrsha had been warned about trying to grab Hedault’s special wand. The [Enchanter] vaguely shooed her away. Mrsha refused to go.
“It’s one Steel Golem. I’d pay for artifacts, myself.”
Maviola pronounced. Merchant X’s face fell slightly. He wasn’t used to people who referred to Steel Golems as a unit of measurement.
“True. But for my job? I’m…do you have smaller models?”
“Certainly! Wood, Clay…and we have other artifacts on sale! You are my clients of the day, Runner Ryoka, Miss Fierre, Courier Salamani!”
The [Artifact Merchant] was selling his goods since Hedault had advised the three not to ask for only gold. Rather, he was willing to exchange their artifacts with Xerimedial’s help. The three would take a loss, but they’d get what was useful.
Ryoka still had a small plethora of potions and other running tools, but she was only too happy to give up the armor and weapons in exchange for things she needed.
And as it turned out—what she needed was what Erin and her friends needed. The [Innkeeper] was flustered as Ryoka made the pitch.
“What—you can’t just give us all of your hard-earned money, Ryoka! You earned it!”
“Erin. I’m offering it to you. This is just like the Players thing—no, it’s different. This is useful. It could save lives.”
“I can’t take it. I w—”
Erin got no further because Numbtongue came up and put his claw over her mouth. Erin looked around. He and Badarrow were crouched over the pile of gear.
“This bow. Which is better?”
Badarrow urgently held up two bows. Hedault brightened.
“The bow on your right amplifies the force of each draw. On the other hand, the bow on the left has a rather unique enchantment which spins the arrow without lowering momentum as its fired.”
“Ooh. Oooh. I want that bow. Hedault, Hedault, what does this arrow do?”
“Arrow of Frost. Radius…”
The [Enchanter] liked Badarrow and Bird. They asked refreshingly straight questions without wasting his time. Merchant X on the other hand…had a pained look in his eyes as he smiled at the Antinium and Goblin threatening to take the objects he wanted to add to his inventory.
But he was smiling at them. He’d probably smile at a Creler to sell that Golem. He turned to Erin, who had sidled over to the Golem and was trying to measure how many Erins would go into it. Mrsha the Mountaineer was trying to climb up a leg. Lyonette dragged her away.
“Miss Solstice, is it? This Golem could be a fine addition to your inn. Imagine—a worker that never needs to rest or sleep! That carries out orders like obtaining firewood, defends your inn—”
…He didn’t know his audience, though. Erin’s smile turned waxy.
“No. No…Golems. Thank you, but I’m not interested in…”
She hesitated. The Steel Golem just stood there. Erin peered up at it. Not like a skeleton’s head, but…Ryoka was turning Merchant X down too until the same thought occurred.
“Maybe. Do they think?”
That would…change things. Xerimedial hurried to assure Ryoka that they did not.
“I have heard rumors Illivere managed to create a Sentient-class Golem. However, that’s just hearsay based on one of their Golem Fights. Newest thing. I think Wistram is running a segment on them later this week. These Golems? Not a chance of rebellion!”
Again, the wrong thing to sell the Golem. Ryoka relaxed a bit.
“‘…Break my chains’, huh.”
She wondered what a certain [Driver] would have made of them. But the Golem would eat most of her funds. She shook her head.
“Fierre and Salamani are the ones interested in a Golem.”
“I want to see the cheaper ones.”
“And I’ll look at spellbooks.”
The [Merchant] hurried off. Meanwhile, Hedault was helping the three Goblins—Snapjaw was poking at Badarrow and pointing at things she wanted—select gear. Erin was dithering.
“But guys—that’s Ryoka’s!”
“And when bad things come to inn, we’ll kill them for her.”
Snapjaw happily twanged Badarrow’s bowstring on his new bow. He waved a claw at her; he and Bird raced upstairs to try it out.
It looked like some of her gear was going to arm the Goblins. That was fine with Ryoka—so long as she could afford a few things.
“I have your orders, Miss Griffin. You requested along with my appraisal and crediting of funds, a, ah, ‘defensive artifact’ for some individuals including standard Runner’s gear. Wonderfully vague.”
Hedault gave Ryoka a long stare. The City Runner smiled.
“I trusted an expert, Hedault. Mrsha, Mrsha! Don’t walk near the Golem! It’ll smash you! Come over here! I have something for you!”
“Ryoka? What did you get for Mrsha?”
The [Princess]’s irked voice made Ryoka remember they’d never settled things. She met Lyonette’s gaze.
“Nothing. But I did ask Hedault to find something Mrsha might need. Like…an artifact to keep her safe.”
Erin looked up. Lyonette’s brows raised. That…was hard to argue with. Mrsha the Wizard developed a huge smile.
“Oh man. Artifacts? Like what? How about a mithril shirt, Hedault?”
Crunch, crunch. Everyone turned to Kevin. He was eating from a bowl of popcorn with the Earthers. They weren’t in the way—Snapjaw edged over and grabbed a bowl for herself, sniffing at the yeast in a perplexed way—but it was weird to have an actual peanut, or rather, popcorn gallery.
Hedault gave Kevin a more forgiving look of patience. Erin looked excited at the prospect too, but the [Enchanter] just shook his head.
“That would not be the most effective protection. Nor do I believe a chain shirt would be at all pleasant combined with fur.”
Mrsha winced. She glared at Kevin as if he was trying to rip out all her fur!
“What then? I’m all for an enchanted amulet or ring, Erin. If Ryoka’s paying for it?”
Lyonette looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] nodded after a moment. Hedault shook his head again, sighing. The non-[Enchanters] and the notions they got in their heads.
“Amulets fall off. Children have a habit of losing rings as well. A bracelet is usually the most effective solution, especially if they are comfortable and designed to resist removal. As it so happens—I have my suggestion here.”
He produced a bracelet. The world of enchanting services was a vast one, and as he fastened the jade-metal bracelet around Mrsha’s wiggling paw, Hedault explained.
“Fall protection, arrow protection—this is known as an ‘impact bulwark’ enchantment. It activates if anything strikes the wearer over a certain velocity. One calibrates what that velocity of motion is; for children in day-to-day accidents I calibrate it rather low. Even so, a bookshelf falling on her would trigger it. But a high-impact event like—”
Mrsha swan-dived off the table. Ryoka grabbed for her, but too late! Mrsha went splat and there was a flash—
She bounced off the floor and delighted, picked herself up! Lyonette lowered her arms.
Oh yes! An impact shield? Ryoka saw Mrsha’s eyes light up. She looked around and everyone instantly got out of the way.
Mrsha could, in fact, activate it at top-speed by colliding with Ryoka’s shins. Anything less and it was Mrsha who smacked her little head into a shinbone and ran off crying. The potential to turn the little white monster into a knee-high hazard aside, Erin and Lyonette loved the idea.
“It might actually save her. Especially from Rock Crabs and stuff. Is that your best one, Hedault?”
“This is the highest-grade enchantment I can produce. In kinetic force, it would be about 82.4 Etherons.”
That came from another bystander. Palt, Montressa, and Bezale had been watching, but now that thing started getting technical, they entered the conversation. Maviola was nodding too. Ryoka had to ask the layman’s question.
“Etheron? What does that measure? Can you convert that to pounds of force?”
The others gave her arch looks that made Ryoka want to slap the backs of their superior heads. Montressa explained to the audience.
“Doesn’t work like that, Ryoka. Magical measurements recharge, so that’s a value of resistance and time it recharges. It’s like—you could hit Mrsha with a sledgehammer every…Bezale?”
The Minotauress was already doing sums on a piece of parchment. The [Spellscribe] looked up.
“Every forty two minutes. Or hit her three times in quick succession to drain it. The average Human male below Level 20, that is. I could probably manage it in two swings at full force. With a six hour full recharge time in an average mana environment? You went with 0.8 to 1.2 mana-density, yes, Master Hedault?”
Everyone stared at Mrsha. The little Gnoll signed emphatically that she did not appreciate their unit of measurement!
“Well, why don’t we try? Let’s get her, guys!”
Rose saw an opportunity to ‘help’. Kevin chortled and the Earthers went off. Mrsha’s eyes widened and she ran as they threatened to test the enchantment’s limits. Ryoka sighed—but Hedault was producing her gear now.
“That’s physical protection. The other standard accompaniment is magical. I have standard anti-hex charms for Miss Ryoka; her gear actually encompasses most of what I would prescribe, so I have selected the best objects.”
He showed Ryoka the artifacts from the cells. She peered at them. Erin raised a hand, like the shy ignorant student in the lecture.
“Only hexes? What about fire and stuff?”
The others chuckled. Erin raised her kicking foot and Palt shuffled away. Montressa explained again.
“Magic is harder. You can either go elemental—fire, heat, electricity, acid—and normally only one of each. But then you have to worry about hexes, indirect spells like [Scrying], [Appraisal] if you don’t want to share your class…it’s impossible to do everything. Too much magical interference. You know the rule about artifacts.”
“There are exceptions. The Heartflame Breastplate is a splendid example of how to combine all the elements. I have been studying the masterful work for Drake [Enchanters]…but creating a [Flameshield] spell of that caliber is quite beyond me. However, this is a fine all-encompassing Amulet of Resistance, Miss Griffin, if you’d prefer to wear one artifact to reduce the number of objects and magical interference. My design.”
He offered Ryoka an amulet. Not jade this time; she thought it was Truegold, which she’d seen, mixed with a strange cerulean center. Gemstone or…?
“What’s it do?”
Erin peered at the amulet as Ryoka put it on. Then she raised a hand to strike Ryoka. The City Runner fended her off as Montressa explained.
“It’s like a constant aura that messes with anything trying to interfere with your natural magical field. No hexes, scrying spells can’t latch on—standard, but pricey.”
“Like Valceif’s dream catcher charm.”
Ryoka studied the amulet. Everyone went somber for a moment there. Hedault cleared his throat.
“That—was a more advanced version. String magic and shamanic charms versus a [Mage]’s enchantments. If you wish me to, I can provide one for Miss Mrsha. However, you are rapidly exceeding your credit.”
“Does Mrsha need a super anti-magic bracelet?”
Erin conferred with Lyonette. The [Princess] made a face.
“Probably not. But the bracelet?”
“But it’s Ryoka’s…”
“Erin, so help me but I’ll hit you with your own pan. You need one too! So does Joseph, Kevin…Ryoka won’t pay for all of it. We have our own budget! Master Hedault, there’s a…very good artifact I have for anti-scrying and appraisal and so on. Or will have. Could you complement that? And Erin might need some rings. To prevent appraisal among other things.”
Hedault turned to Lyonette as Erin dithered. The Wandering Inn was about to spend for artifacts. Erin refused his suggestions, though.
“I have a cool ring Saliss gave me, see?”
She showed Hedault. The [Enchanter] inspected it.
“Anti-appraisal and scrying. Not hexes. Is…”
There was a second ring on Erin’s hand, Ryoka realized, as she felt at the amulet. Hedault was looking at it. His eyes narrowed.
Ryoka saw Erin lower her hand quickly. She covered the copper band and Hedault blinked, shook his head. Ryoka frowned. Had she known Erin had another ring…?
It slipped her mind and Hedault relaxed. He turned away from Erin to Ryoka.
“Ahem. Where were we? Miss Griffin, I have a few other objects you may be interested in. Such as…”
He showed Ryoka some worn boots from Merchant X’s stock. Erin started giggling.
“Boots of Speed? I don’t think you know Ryoka, Hedault.”
“I’m aware of her…predispositions. But the magical effects…”
“I like my feet. See?”
Ryoka lifted one foot and waggled her toes. Hedault gave her toes a look of pure disgust. He produced an ankle-bracelet with a similar, weaker effect instead.
“Give me a second to find Mrsha. We might downgrade her bracelet’s strength just so she doesn’t get a fat head, Hedault. Figuratively or literally. I’ll tell Joseph to come over for the anti-scrying artifact, at least. People…scry him?”
Ryoka promised as the [Enchanter] conferred with the others. She was a bit distracted.
Tyrion Veltras’ appeal still weighed on her. Fierre was similarly occupied haggling for a Golem for her work—was she actually going to buy one?—but she kept watching Ryoka.
It was stupid. It was suicide. Ryoka knew Mihaela. And yet—she couldn’t shake one thought. Even as she’d laughed at Mrsha, even as she thought about what that Golem might be able to do against a tank—lose, unless that was some strong armor—she’d been unable to shake the thought eating away at her.
Those poor kids.
“Excuse me, Miss Ryoka. I think we should have a word. You wanted to see me?”
Someone tapped her on the shoulder. Ryoka turned. She saw a woman, only a bit older than she was, with hair black and streaked with ember-orange. Ryoka stopped.
“My name is Maviola El. I know who you are. And where you come from. Erin Solstice has told me about you. But I don’t believe we’ve properly met.”
Ryoka’s mouth went dry. Something about Maviola was as intense as…Xrn. Like Magnolia Reinhart in her way. She was old and the wind stirred around Ryoka.
Something a tiny bit like Teriarch? Ryoka nodded slowly.
“I think that’s right.”
Fierre bought a Golem. Erin stared at it. It wasn’t the twice-as-tall-as-a-person monster made of steel. Hers was iron, just a bit taller than Joseph, compact.
“The big one wouldn’t fit in my office. This one’s still strong enough to punch someone through a wall. And look! It’s even armed!”
The Golem had a shield and hammer. It swung and blocked with a decent amount of speed. Erin saw Snapjaw watching. The Hob clearly thought she could beat it in terms of Skill—but good luck beating an Iron Golem to death.
“That’s amazing. Are you buying anything else?”
The Vampire flashed Erin a huge grin—then turned her head. She was more at home with the smile, though. She might have thought it was out of place among Humans and it was by and large—but Gnolls and Drakes had similar grins.
“Well, I’m keeping one set of armor. Two—actually. I’m going to give one set to my brother. And a weapon and some gear—the rest goes into the Golem and some work-related artifacts. I’ll just accept gold and buy it er…from the right dealers.”
Erin nodded knowingly.
“Black market stuff, huh? Sneaky. Anything good there? We’re buying a lot of artifacts.”
Lyonette had just paid Hedault a worrying amount of gold from the inn’s coffers, in fact, and Mrsha was sitting on the floorboards, arms folded. She was sulking. They’d downgraded her bracelet from the highly-expensive one Hedault had given her.
And—they’d asked Hedault to add a tracking charm. That was very cheap, but Mrsha had already tied it to Bezale’s horn without the Minotauress noticing.
“Salamani’s got a spellbook, right?”
“And some other artifacts. Looks great, in short. Where’s Ryoka? Hedault wants to finalize her purchases.”
Erin looked around.
“I haven’t seen her. I think she went off with Maviola? Bird. Bird! Stop hoarding Ryoka’s artifacts! You get a bow, Badarrow gets a bow, Numbtongue gets his amulet. She needs her money!”
The Goblins and Antinium stopped furtively trying on artifacts. Snapjaw waved and Erin clarified.
“And Snapjaw can keep that shield. Ryoka’s too generous.”
“She is all that. But she says how much she loves this inn. And…how much all of you matter to her. She was afraid to come back.”
Fierre murmured. Erin looked sideways at her.
“Ryoka says that?”
“When we have a drink. She gets sentimental.”
The [Innkeeper] laughed.
The Vampire girl flashed her a grin. Then she looked around for Ryoka as well.
“I’m…listen. Um—I don’t know how to say this, but um—there might be a problem with Ryoka.”
“Does she need you-know-what’s? I have some from Krshia. Or is she depressed? Wait—wait—did she punch someone?”
Fierre looked blank until Erin clarified that she was asking about periods. The Vampire shook her head.
“Not that! I mean…it’s about Tyrion Veltras. I shouldn’t have shown her. She’s—do you know what I’m talking about?”
Erin shook her head slowly. Fierre bit her lip.
“Come over here and let me show you. It’s on the news. It’s…”
Lyonette looked up as Fierre pulled Erin away. She abandoned Mrsha whining and begging for one of the artifacts like Cade’s Box of Wonders that Merchant X was tempting her with. She followed Erin and saw.
“So you’re actually Maviola El of…the House of El?”
Ryoka felt stupid saying it like that. Maviola nodded.
“And you come from Earth.”
Ryoka flinched and looked around almost reflexively. But they stood in the Earth-rooms anyways. Even so.
“Erin told you, huh?”
“Me. And Selys. I believe she thought it was time. And to be fair—I won’t carry the secret long.”
“H—if I can ask—how long is it until…?”
“About one or two weeks more. It depends.”
On what? But Ryoka was afraid to ask just that. She bit her lip.
“That’s…cutting it real close. Really close. One more week, or even two would be better.”
Maviola El raised a brow. She studied Ryoka, looking her up and down.
“I do apologize that my death cannot be delayed for your party, Miss Griffin. I have tried to make arrangements for my demise, and I have too much yet to do. But a party is not high on my list of priorities.”
The Wind Runner flushed.
“I didn’t mean—did Erin explain everything? It’s not just a party.”
“Oh, she mentioned some grand ritual involving the Five Houses to revive…a Winter Sprite? And the [Emperor], of course. Miss Ryoka. Who told you that something like that was possible? Moreover—a Winter Sprite for a friend?”
Ryoka realized they were talking at a disconnect and fumbled in her belt pouch.
“No! Erin didn’t explain properly—here. Winter Sprites aren’t just…floating elementals. They’re actually…”
It was hard for Maviola to grasp. Especially because she didn’t see Winter Sprites. Also, she had to be shown Ivolethe’s statue and grapple with the fact that Winter Sprites were actually a race of the fae who came into her world to bring snow and were in fact a magical people from both her and Ryoka’s worlds…
At some point, Ryoka saw herself from afar. Holding a little statue of a faerie and pointing to it, trying to convince Maviola that she had a Winter Sprite friend who’d sacrificed her life for Ryoka and that she needed a party with the three foremost nobles of the realm on the Summer Solstice and she wasn’t crazy—
She lowered her hand slowly. Maviola El was smiling in that uncertain way of someone who wasn’t sure Ryoka was entirely sane.
“I see. So—Winter Sprites, which have never been recorded as being aught but bringers of weather…are people. And one singled you out. And they look like…”
She nodded to the figurine.
“Miss Griffin. Do you…have flights of fancy? I would believe the rest, but this ritual to summon the King of the Fae? Who told you that?”
“A…Grand Magus Eldavin.”
“Whom you personally know. Well, that at least is believable. But the rest? Miss Griffin, how much have you prepared for this party?”
“Well—I had Magnolia Reinhart coming. I think. Eldavin was going to invite her.”
“And you’ve sent out invitations to how many nobles?”
“Twelve? I asked Lady Ieka for help…”
Maviola’s head rose.
“Ieka Imarris? Ah—the favor you did for her. But—I mean, Miss Griffin. I assume this [Emperor] is helping you. But have you not sent out an invitation en masse? Not reaching out personally, but a formal letter? You—do realize a noble family will not drop everything to attend a party with only a week’s notice? Let alone travel that far? Even a month would cut it close.”
Ryoka’s mouth opened and closed. Maviola’s eyes flickered.
“I see. And how many servants will attend?”
“Laken—er—the [Emperor] is taking care of…”
“Does he have accommodations for the nobility, their servants and guards? Does he have an escort? A menu of refreshments to be served? Has he gifts, decorations, entertainment for the days of festivities—since surely no [Lord] or [Lady] will travel all this way for one night. And if—if you only needed three of the Five Families, why did you not petition the House of El or any other family when you learned of this grand quest?”
Ryoka stuttered. There was no excuse. Maviola El appraised Ryoka. And her tone was the Matriarch of the House of El.
“Miss Ryoka Griffin. You may be worse than Erin Solstice at planning for the future. Erin Solstice does not like to think ahead. But she could pull a plan out of chaos in less than an hour if need be. You had weeks, over a month to prepare. And I do not believe your story.”
It was true. Ryoka felt weak at the knees.
“I was just—running. I thought if I completed enough deliveries—”
That was what she knew. That was what she did. Maviola pursed her lips.
“I’ll grant you that you woke the Archmage of Izril. But that was for Ieka. Her great-aunt matters in many ways—but even she could not move the Five Families so easily.”
Her great-aunt? Ieka’s…Ryoka couldn’t focus on that. Maviola looked at her, not unkindly.
“I am sure your friend did exist, Miss Griffin. Mostly sure. But tell me—if she is alive, just not able to see you, does it matter so much? As your Grand Mage said—wait until winter and do it properly.”
I want to see her now. And you’ll be dead by then. Ryoka Griffin said neither of these things. She looked at Maviola El.
“I need your help, Lady El. I—I made a huge mistake. I’m not good at this. I don’t know the rules or how to put it together. Is there a chance it could work?”
“Ryoka Griffin. Why? The Drakes just attacked the Antinium. Wistram is taking what I now know to be children from another world. The Meeting of Tribes is about to begin and the King of Destruction has awoken. The Death of Magic returns on Rhir. Why do these fae matter?”
And there Ryoka had it. She clutched the frozen statue and looked at Maviola.
“Because—one of the things they brought were the faerie flowers Erin owns. And they gave them to her by accident. The fae are immortal beings who have granted immortality to people before, Lady Maviola El.”
The [Lady Firestarter]’s head had been turning towards the door, moving away. Now—two orange irises focused on Ryoka.
“What did you say?”
Ryoka Griffin took a breath. Then let it out.
“Maviola. There are stories of the fae on my world. A world without magic. I didn’t think they existed until I met them. But I asked—and they come from the same legends I know. King Arthur of Camelot. A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The play the Players of Celum put on! They might have touched my world—or maybe the stories are so famous they leave echoes. But if you want to meet the same folk who treat with Dragons—immortals of that age—please, please. I’m begging you, please help me. I’ll do whatever it takes.”
The Lady of the House of El saw temptation again. A shadow of a dark blue hat. Eyes that revealed layers of separation from death. For a moment, Ryoka channeled a spectre—
And then Maviola felt the wind blow in this room with no windows or doors to the outside. It stirred her hair. And her spirits unaccountably rose, from Ryoka’s words alone. The certainty there.
Perhaps. Not all that was old was evil. Maviola closed her eyes.
“…Even if I could make it, Ryoka Griffin, and lent you my aid—the Five Families are not so easy to collect in one place. Magnolia Reinhart has fled Izril for fear of her life.”
“I know. I was counting on her. But you’re one of the Five Family’s heads. You would count, even if you retired, I’m sure. And—I know how to earn the favor of a second one.”
The City Runner stared at her hands. They were quivering, a bit. But that certainty from this morning—Maviola El looked sharply at Ryoka Griffin. She saw more of Ryoka in that moment. And she realized—
“Oh no. No. That’s terrible.”
Erin Solstice stared at the appeal as it was rebroadcast. Noass and Sir Relz were covering the story. They had…an odd relationship with the appeal.
It was news. Heartbreaking, relevant, and thus news. But they still, amid agreeing how morally reprehensible it was, had to add that it was Lord Tyrion Veltras, a traditional enemy of the Walled Cities who was making the appeal.
Erin didn’t miss that. Lord Tyrion. The same man who’d…she looked at Fierre.
“He’s the guy who brought the army to Liscor, isn’t he?”
The Vampire girl looked at Erin and remembered another story about the [Innkeeper].
“Yeah. They call him the Lance of the North. Among other things. He’s like Magnolia’s counterpart. When the Humans fight the Drakes—Lord Tyrion usually leads the charge.”
Because of him. Erin looked at the man’s face, memorizing it. She owed him…too much to say. And yet—
My sons. The [Lord] appealed. Erin took a shaky breath.
“Oh no. You showed this to Ryoka?”
Are you mad? Lyonette was giving Fierre the same look. The Vampire girl caught on to their expressions. She bit her lip.
“But she would have seen it anyways. I told Ryoka—this isn’t like the Archmage. This is—the Guild took down the best Courier of the north. Mihaela Godfrey. Ryoka knows…”
“She just ran a delivery to wake up the Archmage on that isle that killed countless people. You think she’d weigh the odds? Ryoka Griffin is insane. Erin…”
Lyonette breathed. Erin felt a cold pit in her stomach. No. It was different. [Assassins] and this Circle of Thorns—even Erin knew how bad it was and she didn’t have her ear to politics. Ryoka had to have a better idea than Erin of the risks, let alone the distance.
…But it was Ryoka. And Erin knew her friend.
“There’s no cure though, right?”
“Someone found out the recipe. Word is it was the Unseen Emperor of Riverfarm. Somehow. But no one—not even his people—is manufacturing the cure. People have tried, but—”
Fierre drew a line across her throat. Erin breathed.
“Okay. Then…there’s nothing to deliver. That’s…”
Good? She looked back at Lord Tyrion. Then his two sons died. Erin refused to say that. But if there was nothing to deliver—
“It’d be certain death, wouldn’t it, Fierre? You know the odds. How much worse is this than the isle?”
The Vampire girl bit her lip.
“Honestly, Erin—I’m almost certain every Courier has a target on their back. In theory—and this is me talking objectively—a City Runner who’s really fast has a shot if they didn’t scream they were taking the cure. Get in range of House Veltras’ standing forces and you could deliver the cure if you didn’t mind the repercussions. But—the instant the Guild knows, and they’re watching for that cure—you die. Their [Assassins] aren’t playing games any longer. They’ve killed Couriers. Archmage Valeterisa’s mansion is meant to keep people out. This is far more dangerous.”
“I see. Got it. Thanks. So—”
Erin looked at Lyonette. The [Princess] was calming down. No cure. So…
They both had the same thought at the same time. Erin turned and ran. Lyonette was hot on her heels.
“Octavia! Don’t do anything! Octavia—”
The [Alchemist] jumped as she looked up from her counter. She listened to Erin’s garbled explanation and Lyonette raised her sword threateningly. Octavia protectively covered the mix she was working on.
“That’s a Potion of Invisibility! Don’t you dare! Make a cure? I wouldn’t know where to start! I’m not an antidote-mixer! What, do you think I’m mad? I don’t want to be cremated in my shop!”
Erin relaxed. Lyonette wiped a bead of sweat away.
“Good. Just—don’t. Erin, do you think Ryoka might…?”
“Probably not, if there’s no cure.”
Which was a good thing? Again, Erin had to stop and look at herself. She just didn’t—she knew Ryoka. And she knew what Ryoka’s big quest entailed. But this seemed…
Erin returned to the common room proper. There, she found Ryoka Griffin and Maviola El, along with the others. Badarrow looked up and walked behind Erin. He hid behind her—while pretending not to hide.
Erin saw Snapjaw advancing. She had…one of Bird’s feathers. And she was trying to tickle Badarrow. The [Sniper] snapped something at her, but Snapjaw was relentless.
The [Innkeeper] giggled. Stoic Badarrow, like this? She looked at Snapjaw. And then at Numbtongue.
“Erin. Showed them the garden. I want to show them hill. Now?”
The [Innkeeper] saw the [Bard] smiling. But then he pointed towards the open doorway. And Erin saw Badarrow and Snapjaw look up.
Reiss’ statue. Headscratcher, Shorthilt’s…they were there. And the Garden had told them the truth. Rabbiteater and Badarrow had never had statues there. Erin took a breath as her chest constricted.
“If—of course, Numbtongue. Do you want…?”
“We go. You come in a bit?”
The Goblins looked at each other. Snapjaw’s eyes moved uncertainly to Erin. The [Innkeeper] nodded.
“Go. I’ll come after.”
Numbtongue nodded gratefully. Badarrow looked at his brother, not fully comprehending. Then at Erin. Numbtongue beckoned them into the [Garden of Sanctuary].
“Oh. The statues.”
Fierre finally caught on. She had seen nothing and no one personally on that hill. Erin nodded slowly. And it occurred to her—she wondered—
Perhaps the first owner of the [Garden of Sanctuary] had made that hill on purpose. Surely—she had made it for the same reasons Erin used it.
It was just another reminder. Erin saw Ryoka looking after the Goblins. She was standing apart from Maviola, looking distracted. The [Lady] turned towards Erin and strode over.
“Your friend is mad, Erin. She’s as reckless as I was as a girl. Worse, in some ways. A Gresaria—only without the chariot and fighting ability. And she could use both if she wants to live.”
“What? Oh. You talked with Ryoka?”
“Her plan has more holes than a rat-infested warehouse of grain. But—I’ll try to help her. I already have. Still, she’s got it in her head to try to deliver Tyrion Veltras’ cure. I told her to forget the idea. There is no cure and if there was—”
Maviola El looked back at Ryoka and shook her head.
“—not her. Not alone. She’s a brave City Runner. But she’s no Courier. To get to Tyrion Veltras at this point, you need an army. And there is no cure.”
She said it again raising her voice. Ryoka turned to look at her and made a face, but she nodded. Erin exhaled.
“Just so long as—I mean, that’s not good for Lord Tyrion. Will he be okay?”
“He may have to submit to whatever demands are placed on him. But I think his sons will live. What a disgrace, that one of the Five Families—that any House should be brought low by such threats! But the Circle has always existed. They have seldom been so brazen, though.”
Maviola’s eyes were flashing. She turned away abruptly.
“I need to send some letters out. Keep an eye on your friend, Erin. We will be talking further.”
“So you’re going to make it to the Summer Solstice?”
The [Lady] visibly hesitated. She looked back at Erin. Then she raised a finger. A spark of light for a moment. It shone…and Erin’s conflicted heart became peaceful for a moment.
Hope. A fire Erin had yet to learn. Maviola turned away.
“We’ll see. My, my. Why couldn’t you all have come two decades ago? Make that four. Six? Olesm, I have to go to the Mage’s Guild.”
She swept past the blue Drake meekly looking around. He jumped—Erin turned and saw Olesm Swifttail.
The [Strategist] turned as Maviola left the inn in a rush of motion. He saw Erin advancing.
“Erin. Hi there. I came after Maviola. Um—looks like she’s busy. I’m not here on the city’s business.”
“Right. I hear you’ve been running about nonstop.”
The Drake grinned.
“You know how it is. Maviola, all the expansions, the new Council…I keep meaning to drop by, but—I didn’t think that was such a good idea.”
“I get it.”
The two looked down at the floor. Erin glanced up. Olesm, her first chess opponent, friend, not-friend…he was scratching at his head, trying to think of something to say. Impulsively, Erin reached out. She put an arm around him.
“Come on in, you silly [Strategist]. I don’t hate you. We just don’t agree. How’s Maviola? Don’t run off!”
Olesm started. Then he smiled at Erin.
“I wasn’t sure…”
“Tell you what. You come in, have something to eat—Drassi, can you get one of Imani’s appetizers out?—and we’ll talk. If anyone’s still mad, they get to hit you as hard as they want and then we’re cool.”
The blue Drake halted.
“That’s a joke, right?”
Erin laughed and nodded. She led Olesm to a table and sat him down. Indeed—Lyonette gave him a stern look, and Selys, who’d arrived in a flurry to check on Golem prices herself, gave him a long look. But time…the election seemed far away, or far enough to try again.
“Maviola’s fine. Well—we had a lot of long talks about—everything. But—but I can’t just walk away. I really like her, Erin. I do. And we’re receiving threats from that Drake city who sent those envoys. They are really mad.”
“Oh yeah. Lism decked that guy! That almost made me like him. Almost. Say—you missed this huge thing with the Players of Celum yesterday! They put on this huge celebration for us, invited us to a play—I threw up and fainted.”
The [Strategist] eyed Erin.
“I heard about that. Maviola was spitting fire that she missed it. Literally. Did you know she can do that?”
“No way. Can she spit blood? Tell me she can—then it’d get everyone else off my back and onto hers!”
Erin laughed and Olesm started chuckling. They relaxed. Drassi brought out some…Erin peered at them. Olesm frowned.
“Wait. This must be new. Your new [Cook], right? What are these, Drassi?”
They were fried chips served with a cheesy dip, like you’d find at any fast food restaurant! There was a salsa next to it in a little bowl, and an avocado dip to round out the dips. Imani poked her head out of the kitchen.
“I can make whatever I want, Erin! I can’t believe you never made them! It’s not hard!”
Erin threw up her hands. Betrayal! She looked around.
“Oh no. The food spies will be all over this—”
Sure enough, Imani was launching her nacho craze today. And people were ordering them…Erin saw some of them already eying the door. Then—she heard Imani’s voice again.
“Excuse me! We are now selling nachos with a variety of dips. Feel free to have a sample. We have cheese, salsa, avocado—and more! Fish dips, sweet, savory, sour—anything you want! And if anyone would like to know the recipe, please apply for a short lesson! Only six silver per customer!”
Erin’s jaw dropped. The food spies ready to make a break for it hesitated. Then a Gnoll raised his hand.
“Did you just say—‘lessons?’”
The [Cook] appeared.
“Absolutely. Ingredients, lessons—I’m selling the written recipe too.”
Erin started, but then she realized. They were going to steal it anyways! Only now—the food spies were looking at each other in horror. If you didn’t need to steal the dish, what would happen to their job security?
“I have to tell master—”
A Drake [Apprentice Cook] went for the door. And a food spy blocked him.
“Why don’t you sit down?”
“What are you talking about? You heard her.”
“It’s my job on the line, buddy.”
“Well, too bad—”
They began fighting with each other. Erin watched—until she saw Bezale striding for the group, cracking her knuckles. They ran for the door, already shouting and arguing. Imani watched with great satisfaction. She looked at Erin. The [Innkeeper] gave her a wave.
“I need to raise her salary.”
Olesm was nodding, mouth full of salsa and chips.
“That’s some [Strategist]-level thinking by that cook. This is really good, Erin.”
“They’re just nachos. Not super my thing. Fattening. But hey—I’m glad you like them. So…”
Erin trailed off. Olesm paused in eating. And the two said it at almost the same time.
“…want to play a game of chess?”
What else was there to do? They looked at each other and laughed. After all—that was how they’d met. Olesm sat up.
“I’ve been practicing, you know. Maviola’s pretty good. And I’m still running the newsletter. Even without your games I get plenty of submissions…”
“Yeah, well, I’ve been practicing too. And I’ve missed you! Anand’s gone and Belgrade can’t come all the time…”
Back to the past. But into the future. As Erin and Olesm sat for an old game of reminiscing, two Goblins now added to the inn’s ‘no killing Goblin’ list, Ryoka Griffin jogged for the door in Invrisil.
She wasn’t going to…she just wanted to check. An anxious Vampire saw her go. And the [Princess] watched Ryoka and scowled.
There was no cure in Invrisil. The Runner’s Guild was also very quiet. Almost like a wake.
When Ryoka asked, the [Receptionist] gave her a terrified look.
“No! We don’t have one! And—don’t ask!”
The hairs on the back of Ryoka’s neck prickled. She turned her head. And only then did she wonder if some of the Runners loitering about were…
“Miss Ryoka Griffin.”
Someone walked out of the Guild’s back rooms. Ryoka saw an older man, with a slight limp. The Guildmaster of the Runner’s Guild emerged from his office. He looked straight at her.
Ryoka had forgotten his name. He was a former Courier, she knew. Like Mihaela and Tekshia come to it, the best Guildmasters were retired veterans.
“I’d advise you not to ask such questions. Not today.”
The Guildmaster looked at her.
“If we had a cure—we would be under siege at this moment. As it is, no [Alchemist] or [Healer] in the city will entertain the suggestion. And I have banned Runners from asking. For their safety—and that of the [Alchemists] and [Healers].”
Ryoka’s mouth closed.
“It’s that bad? I’m sorry, I was in Liscor…”
The Guildmaster just shook his head. He turned around, walked back into his office without another word. Ryoka looked around the Guild. She’d just jogged over and in. Now—
Every Runner in the Guild was staring at her like she had horns growing out of her head. They looked away at once. They were just sitting or standing, not the usual bustle of activity.
“Are they really threatening the entire Guild?”
The [Receptionist] refused to answer. And Ryoka realized—it was worse than she’d thought. She’d assumed…
“Ryoka Griffin. The Wind Runner who woke the Archmage of Izril. Good to see you’re still not giving two coppers about what other people think.”
A familiar voice and an eye-catching outfit. Ryoka turned.
“The same. I was hoping to see you!”
The stylish City Runner smiled. He strode over and Ryoka clasped his hand.
“Thanks so much for getting me to Lady Ieka. It worked!”
“I heard. Izril heard your name. Stake me sideways, but I didn’t think you had more than a one in ten chance of pulling it off. But that’s why we run. Did you just arrive?”
Ryoka’s smile slipped. Ah, right. The Emergency Runner who only ran for adventurers or dire needs. Also—came from a vampire hunting family.
“Er—no, I was in Liscor. I know the inn with the door—say, Delanay, what’s the news about this Tyrion thing?”
The young man gave Ryoka a sharp look as he adjusted his crimson leather jacket. He jerked his head.
“With me. Good thing you weren’t here to ask that earlier, Ryoka. You missed trouble. And Persua, which I regret. I would have loved to see that.”
“Persua was here?”
Ryoka started. Delanay grimaced.
“She was. And—the Guild.”
“Three of their lower-ranks. Just walked in for a while, armed to the teeth. To send a message. And—keep quiet about it for a bit until we get down the street. And keep your eyes open. You’ll see what I mean.”
Delanay led Ryoka out of the Guild. This time—coming out and aware of the mood within, she felt the prickling on her back begin. Ryoka looked down the street.
Pedestrians. Just loitering. Walking about their business—although now she looked—
Some people were hurrying past the Guild. Invrisil’s citizenry. Those who knew about Tyrion Veltras and the standoff. Or just who caught the mood in the air. But some people were strolling. Or talking—casually eying Ryoka and Delanay up and down.
They looked completely normal. A [Baker] dressed for work, talking with a pair of [Laborers]. A young woman reading one of the newspapers at an outdoor café…
But they were far too relaxed. Ryoka gulped.
“Walk on. They know we have nothing. And eyes left.”
Ryoka glanced left—just in time to see a group of people squatting in an alleyway. Delanay glanced at the gang of sixteen or so casually loitering toughs. They waved at him. He snorted and his hand stole to the crossbow and sword at his side.
“The Guild’s got both. Show of force around the Runner’s Guild. They’re not stopping any deliveries—but no one’s in the mood to deliver. You really didn’t notice?”
Ryoka bit her lip. She had not.
“I was just checking—”
“If you went to any of the [Alchemists] or [Healers] to ask you’d have a knife in your back before you finished knocking. Do you know Master Albre?”
“No. Is he…?”
“He was an [Alchemist]. He’s dead. So are four City Runners. They all went to ask; planning a joint run, I think, or just curious. That was this morning.”
The city of Invrisil was quiet as the two City Runners walked away. Ryoka looked around.
“This is insane. It’s like they have the entire city hostage.”
“The Watch isn’t doing anything. And that’s true enough. If Magnolia Reinhart were here, it would be a battle. She wouldn’t stand for it. But without her? No one’s stirring anything. I hear the smaller cities aren’t like this. It’s only…First Landing, Invrisil, the bigger ones. And you. If there was a you-know-what, would you actually have taken it then and there?”
Delanay grinned at her, tipping up his hat. Ryoka protested.
“I’m not that stupid. I just wanted to know. I didn’t think asking would—what about you?”
The Emergency Runner grimaced.
“Was I thinking about it? For a few hours. But I’m not that fast. And frankly—my gear is meant to fight monsters. It’s not proof against enchanted arrows. I just wanted to tip you off. Where are you staying again? That magic inn? I’ve been meaning to visit it.”
“Oh. Er. The Wandering Inn? Yes…”
Why don’t you not? Fierre was there. But Delanay was nodding.
“Let’s go there and talk. Four hundred miles between me and Invrisil will loosen my tongue. And a drink. Dead gods, I’ve been cooped up with what I want to—later. I want to visit, anyways.”
“You do? You don’t have any emergency runs to do?”
“Even adventurers want to see how this plays out. And I bet you’ll have half of the Adventurer’s Guild in Liscor. Is it really only six silver to enter? Because I’ll pay that gladly.”
“Yes…what do you mean about the Guild?”
Delanay gave Ryoka another quick look, as if to see if she was joking. When he saw she wasn’t, he grinned.
“Everyone’s going to visit. Did you not hear about the Players of Celum filling the Solstice booth yesterday?”
I was there. Ryoka felt a tingle on her spine. She walked back towards the inn. And she saw—with the sun nearly midway overhead—
“Is that a line?”
The Player’s Retreat had a line of people trying to enter it. Redit the Bouncer was admitting them one at a time. Ryoka stared. That hadn’t been there half an hour ago! Delanay grinned.
“Why are you so surprised? Everyone wants to see what this inn is about. The smart ones, at any rate. Erin Solstice? Solstice booth? I hear that’s the [Innkeeper]’s name. You know her?”
“She’s a friend.”
The Emergency Runner did a double-take. And Ryoka felt the winds shifting. The Wandering Inn had been there for a moment. But today—
“Oi. Where are all these people coming from? They’re cramping my space!”
Mrsha signed furiously to Ekirra. The little Gnoll nodded, getting the jist of what Mrsha was saying.
At first it had been a trickle. Then a rush. Then—the magical door had gone dark and needed to recharge, hence the lineup in Invrisil. They were coming through from the City of Adventurers. Mrsha, who had a play date with Ekirra and Visma, scowled over her posh cup of tea.
They were playing ‘inn’, which was like ‘house’ only sometimes Visma, who was playing the [Innkeeper], announced there was a monster attack and Ekirra and Mrsha had to beat off the monster attack before they went to sweeping up or arguing about pay rises.
Games imitated life. Mrsha was playing on the second floor, which in theory wasn’t that much of a trafficked area. She’d set up a mini-inn with Ekirra and Visma with some wood and blankets and stuff she’d pilfered from Bird’s room and the others. Only, their playing kept being interrupted.
“Excuse me, is the bathroom…?”
An anxious Human guest came up the stairs. Mrsha furiously held up a card. The man took it.
“Downstairs and out the door—er, thank you!”
He hurried off. Mrsha put her face in her paws. Visma solemnly added a cracker to her plate.
“Order up. That is fifteen gold coins.”
“I’m not paying!”
Ekirra joyfully howled. Visma stared at him.
“Pay. Or my Goblin hits you.”
Mrsha made a fist. Ekirra, grumbling, dug in his ‘pocket’ and produced some lint. Visma was reaching for it, then pointed.
“Oh no! Creler attack! Run for your lives! Sacrifice the others!”
She, Ekirra, and Mrsha all screamed and ran from the imaginary Crelers. They tumbled down the stairs, abandoning their inn.
“Crelers, Crelers are—”
Visma joyfully shouted—until the three came to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. Ishkr dropped his tray. The Antinium helping him drew all four daggers.
“Everyone into the Garden! Get to c—”
Lyonette whirled, drawing her sword. There was a scream from the kitchen and Imani ran out. The inn’s patrons whirled, hands on their weapons. Visma, Ekirra, and Mrsha froze as everyone stared at them.
“Stop! False alarm!”
Palt raised his voice and magnified it. He blew a spell across the inn; a cloud of calming vapors stopped the maddened rush towards the door. Visma backed up. Ekirra, Mrsha, and the little Drake stared as the guests stopped panicking. They decided to run back upstairs.
Chaos in The Wandering Inn. Erin sat back down after the miniature heart-attack that the three kids had caused. Olesm did too.
“Dead gods. I nearly—”
He had an enchanted war horn in his claws. He’d been about to blow it. Erin pointed at it weakly as Lyonette stormed up the stairs after the children.
“Er—if you’d actually blown that, what would have happened?”
“The Watch would have locked down the city and begun arming themselves for a fight? Probably at maximum alert since I would have blown the highest alarm.”
The [Innkeeper] could only imagine what that would be like. She laughed, shakily.
“Those crazy kids. They were just playing…”
The two looked around the inn. People were returning to their seats. And it was noticeably more…crowded. Erin blinked. She’d played four games of chess with Olesm and he’d tied one, lost three. But he was noticeably better.
“Wow. Lots of guests today.”
“Do you have to…attend them?”
“Nah. I’m the boss. That means other people do it. Neat, huh?”
Erin looked around the inn, watching as Ishkr reassured the guests, and Silveran put away his blades to mop up the mess. It was indeed obvious at a glance who was new and who was not.
The regulars didn’t bat an eyelid at the sniveling Hobgoblin blowing her nose as Badarrow and Numbtongue shared a drink in a corner. Or Silveran with the mop. They’d been ready for a fight, like Menolit, who’d overturned his table to use as cover for the Creler-fight. The veteran was shamefaced, but he wouldn’t be charged; that was coming out of a certain little Gnoll’s allowance.
The new guests—mostly Human from Invrisil—were giving the Goblins and the Antinium a side-eye. But Ishkr’s sister, Liska, still without a permanent job, had a new task as she welcomed people into the inn.
“Hello. Welcome to The Wandering Inn. Please read this sign. Also, be aware we are at maximum capacity. If you would like to watch the Players of Liscor, they are currently performing Phantom of the Opera and will be continuing the performance all day…”
In a monotone voice, Liska pointed to a pair of signs as a bemused group of guests entered the inn. They read the signs, hung overhead and along the hallway just in case they missed the first one.
No killing Goblins.
Also, no killing Antinium.
“What an inn. Is that the [Innkeeper]?”
Delanay shook his head as he read the signs. Ryoka heard complaints from behind her. Some rather rich-looking people were arguing with Redit. He’d let them through since he recognized Ryoka.
“It’s an entire thing here. Don’t pick a fight, please, Delanay.”
And please don’t let Fierre come over to find me. Ryoka’s head was on a swivel as she entered the busy inn. She saw someone standing over a broken table.
“[Partial Reconstruction]! Don’t worry about the food, Menolit. Food’s cheap. Okay, where were we, Olesm?”
Erin wandered back to the game as the table righted itself and the broken dishes floated back into place. Ryoka wondered what had caused that.
“Damn kids. Don’t they know about the tale of the Gnoll who called Creler?”
Menolit grumbled as he sat down. Apology drinks and a replacement meal came to his table and he brightened up. His Gnoll companion raised his brows.
“He got eaten?”
“Right. If you’re going to scream about them…”
“Erin! Erin! I have someone to introduce to you! Meet Delanay d’Artien! A great Runner—who helped me meet Lady Ieka.”
Ryoka raised her voice as she dragged the Emergency Runner over. Delanay saw Erin turn and she smiled.
The Wind Runner nodded desperately. She raised her voice.
“His family’s noble. They come from Noelictus. Hunter’s Guild, right Delanay? Used to hunt all kinds of evil stuff. Like House Byres! You know, like Ylawes and Yvlon?”
“Oh come on, Ryoka. I don’t stand on formality—Miss Solstice? Delanay d’Artien, at your service. Delighted to be here—are those the Players of Celum?”
The young man was flustered. Erin laughed as she grabbed his gloved hand. If Ryoka was acting off—well, she’d seen a familiar pale face coming her way.
Fierre turned even whiter as she heard Ryoka. She stared at her friend and almost ran upstairs.
“You know Yvlon and Ylawes? Small world! They’re friends. So that means you are too! Nice coat! You’re cool with Goblins, right?”
“If they’re not trying to kill me? May I ask about…”
Delanay was meeting Erin for the first time. That usually threw people for a loop. Ryoka jogged after Fierre after muttering a quick apology. She found the Vampire hiding in her rooms, after slipping past Lyonette, who was still lecturing the three children.
And Delanay was only the first guest of note.
The Wandering Inn was on the radar. How did Selys know about radars?
She knew the future. Radars. You needed radars. Also, skyscrapers. You could build high. Airplanes—airplanes were the future.
The Drake felt like she had pierced the veil. There was another world! Sometimes she had to stop and just remind herself this was reality.
“And now everyone sees how popular this inn is.”
The Drake was craning her neck to look around. She thought it was great, for Erin. More money! Erin had been so nervous to buy basic charms. But she needed a lot more enchantments.
Heck, Selys had realized how much money she needed. She had more money as an [Heiress] than she could ever imagine. And she needed more.
Golems were expensive. Selys had talked to the [Artifact Merchant] and she was in the market for some. She was in the market for…the Drake’s buildings in Liscor were already pulling rent money, but that was long-term income. She was in the process of hiring one of the Humans to manage all the apartments for her.
What she really wanted was to hear from the Horns. They were enroute to the village Pisces thought matched the description of her Skill. But there was so much more to do. The bike shop, for one thing—that was going to be big. And Selys was a co-owner!
She would have dearly loved to talk more with Hedault and Pelt. But Selys had let them get back to work. Kevin now—she could bother Kevin. The Drake looked around. She saw a rush of staff moving about. Ishkr, Drassi, since she was still not allowed to work in Pallass—
Her [Reporter] friend was arguing with a Human man, actually. Selys blinked. A new guest from Invrisil?
“Look here, Miss. I’m a Gold-rank Adventurer. Todi. Todi’s Elites? I’d like to talk with this [Innkeeper]!”
“Erin’s busy. I’ve never heard of your team, sir. Look—we get Gold-ranks all the time in here. That’s not exactly special.”
The man, Todi, stared. He looked so crestfallen Drassi patted him on the shoulder.
“If you want to talk to Erin about this business opportunity—I can ask her. But I think she’s er, busy. Like I said.”
Playing chess. The man deflated.
“Well…okay. I’ll just…”
He sat back down. It looked like he’d fought tooth-and-nail to get into the busy inn. There was a queue outside and the bouncer was letting through only the best of guests. Selys eyed the man. He had his head in his hands.
“Damn, damn. I should’ve—how was I supposed to know those Horns were…?”
He was muttering to himself. Selys’ head swung around. She stopped walking towards Kevin and approached.
“Hello. Excuse me, did I hear you mentioning the…Horns of Hammerad?”
Todi looked up. The swarthy Gold-rank Captain blinked at the Drake.
“Er. Yes. Yes, I did. Are you the [Innkeeper]? Erin Solstice? My name is Todi. Captain Todi of Todi’s Elites. I wanted to ask if there was anything—”
“Oh, no. I’m not Erin. I’m Selys. Sorry.”
Todi deflated back into his seat.
“Damn. Sorry, Miss. Sit if you want. Do you think there’s any chance I could talk to the [Innkeeper]?”
“And ask what?”
Selys sat. Todi shrugged, with little hope.
“About…deals? Do her a few favors? Be—someone like the Horns, Griffon Hunt, the Halfseekers—everyone’s talking about how each one came here and made their fortunes. Lost some good people—but made it because of this inn. My team’s had a bad run. We had to abort the Wyvern hunt in the High Passes twice—got kicked around by some damn [Witch]—I was hoping we could get whatever it is that’s here.”
“You mean, being friends with Erin Solstice? Sorry. I don’t think she’s that free. You could meet her, but…it’s a busy day.”
Selys glanced at Erin. She was playing chess. And yes, Erin could probably spare time to meet with the Gold-rank Captain, but Todi had, in a short moment, presented himself well to both Drassi and Selys. And neither Drake was particularly inclined to go to bat for him.
Baseball. She should invest in manufacturing gear for baseball and soccer! Selys went to make a note. Meanwhile, the Gold-rank [Captain] sighed.
“Damn. What do those teams have that mine doesn’t? My team’s fine! We’re not reckless morons like the Horns, but we get the job done.”
Selys’ head rose and she narrowed her eyes.
“Excuse me? I happen to know the Horns. They’re dear friends. What do you have against them?”
Todi choked on his drink. His head rose and he gave Selys a look of instantaneous regret.
“Damn. Put my foot up my mouth again, haven’t I?”
“Too right. Wait a moment. Are you that Gold-rank that bothered them in the Guild? You are! I heard all about it from Pisces!”
The Drake’s tail lashed. She stood up. Todi reached out, then he ran his hands through his hair.
“I just—look, Miss Drake. Please tell me you’re not someone hugely important?”
“I employ a lot of people. And I just put a down payment on a Golem. Important enough for you?”
Selys enjoyed the man’s groan. He sat there, looking miserable. Selys was compelled to throw him a bone.
“What makes your team better than the Horns, pray tell?”
“I never said that. I just said ‘we’re as good as the Horns’.”
Todi muttered. He took another long drink and grimaced.
“Damn. But that’s nice. What is the blue stuff?”
“Blue fruit juice. Amentus, I think you call i—”
Todi nearly spewed his drink out his mouth.
“Amentus? That’s what nobles drink! It’s poisonous if you don’t harvest it right!”
“Well, it’s cheap here.”
The Captain looked at his drink and sighed.
“Luck. Luck and friends. That’s what some teams get. And mine? Look, Miss…”
He waved his mug at her.
“I know I’ve Crelered up my introduction. But give me the chance to explain. At least about adventurers.”
Selys hesitated. She sat down.
“You’ve got my attention for as long as my friend’s playing cards.”
Kevin was losing his week’s wages to a Drake with a bowler hat on, and a Gnoll with a borrowed tricone. It wasn’t exactly the most stealthy get-up, but the inn was full.
“It’s like this. My team—Todi’s Elites—ever heard of it? No?”
Todi took another draft and sighed.
“We’re Gold-ranks. But I change out the team members constantly. People come and go—I’m the only constant. I own a bunch of gear. Scrolls of [Lesser Teleport], Wands of [Fireball], and so on—a lot of our budget goes into making sure we have those at all times. You earn a lot less in my team, but you can join up for a single encounter and leave. And it’s safe. We never attack Adult Crelers, big threats—the Wyverns were as bad as we wanted to get and even then, we played it safe. Bugged out both times we thought there was trouble.”
“How brave of you. Did you say ‘Gold-rank?’ I happen to know a bunch of Gold-rank teams and that sounds like none of them.”
“What’s wrong with my team? That we’re not brave to the point of charging a pack of Gargoyles with a water flask filled with piss? What’s wrong with being cautious? That’s how I survived. You want a hero? Go find a [Hero]. I’m Captain Todi and my team won’t do any of that. What we will do is wipe out four hundred Eater Goats on a rampage, without casualties, and with minimal cost. We’re good at killing lower-level monsters. You want guard duty? We do it. No fuss, no drama.”
Selys blinked. That…was an interesting perspective. Todi went on, seeing he had her interest.
“Gold-rank means a lot of things to a lot of people. Ever heard of the Silver Swords? They’re maniacs. Don’t charge a copper penny for work and they’ll fight any monster you want because it’s just. Why does my team—why do adventurers have to be like them? Who made that rule?”
He leaned forwards, speaking urgently. Even passionately.
“They risk their lives against odds no [Gambler] would take, Miss Selys. That’s not fair on the rest of us. Gold-rank should mean elite, hence my team’s name. But not like that. I’m all for the Silver Swords. They’re brave bastards. But call them heroes. Don’t make what they are the word for Gold-rank.”
He sat back, and sighed, looking tired.
“I just want to make my team famous for doing the job. Get rich. Retire and have a family in a decade or two at most. That’s all. We kill monsters. We still risk our lives and do free work when it matters. You want to slay a Giant, Miss? Go find those teams. But you want reliable? Boring? Hire Todi’s Elites and forget about it aside from settling the bill.”
He sighed. Selys looked at him.
“And that’s why Erin’s not going to like you. She likes the crazy types. Those are her friends.”
The man groaned.
“Wonderful. What a waste of six silver—although that’s a cheap ticket to that play. Maybe I’ll watch it, and earn something for my trouble. Don’t need a two-gold ticket for that, do I? Sorry for wasting your time, Miss.”
He nodded at the Players and rose. Selys hesitated, and then waved at Todi as she passed.
“The players put on a performance multiple times. Sit back down, Captain Todi. You’re not the Horns…but how much do you charge?”
The Captain turned, perking up a bit. He was not Selys’ first choice, or the most likable at that. But there was no reason to ignore him. After all—the Horns might be Selys’ friends, and brave and generous—
But she’d be the first to admit they were as unpredictable as two Mrshas in a sack.
Octavia Cotton was working on the first Potion of Invisibility according to her new recipe from Master Saliss. She was humming, despite concentrating hard on her work.
The thing about working on the potion was that even with Saliss’ perfect step-by-step notes and detailed measurements—it wasn’t the same as how Octavia would have to do it.
Different Skills, even beneficial ones, made for different results. She’d have to experiment. But she would master the potion and earn a lot of money off of it if she could make the ingredients cheap.
Alchemy was like that. Even if they lost great individuals, ingredients and recipes lasted when spells and other things fell apart. Techniques survived. Octavia turned to reach for the ruby dust—
A black-clad hand offered it to her. The [Alchemist] absently took it, put it in the mixture, and looked back.
A Drake garbed in thick, dark clothing was staring at her. Octavia dropped the potion.
The [Assassin] rescued the vial. He put it on the stand and Octavia backed up.
“I—I—oh Stitches. Please don’t—”
The noise from the common room intruded in the background. Few people were visiting her shop, but the door was always open. Oh no, oh—
“You’re not going to be killed, Alchemist Octavia Cotton. I was simply inspecting the premises. And your potion. Not the cure.”
The [Assassin] hopped off the counter. She hadn’t seen him appear—but Octavia wouldn’t have noticed much while working.
“I—who are you? The Guild? I didn’t—”
Octavia didn’t calm down, but she did stop moving as the Drake looked at her. He exhaled through the mask covering his face.
“I am one of the Guild’s agents in Invrisil. They sent me to check on you. After all—you are known for your cure for the Yellow Rivers. I would have been forced to do something if you were making the cure.”
“I’m not. I won’t—”
The Drake rolled his eyes.
“I know. I wouldn’t have revealed myself, either. Only…”
He hesitated. Octavia saw him adjust his mask.
“You won’t see me again, Miss [Alchemist]. But I joined the Guild to pay for my family. They live in Zeres. Thanks for making the mold. Please don’t make the cure. I don’t want to have to kill you.”
He vanished. Octavia didn’t see him—but neither did she see the door to her shop open and close. She inhaled—exhaled—inhaled—then went for one of the Calm Tonics that Palt had taught her how to make. Her hands trembled as she got back to work.
They were in the inn. Oh, stitch my soul. Erin—
A voice. The [Assassin] reappeared. Octavia froze, but he had some gold and silver in his claw.
“…If that potion works, can I buy it? What’s the price on…?”
The [Innkeeper] frowned at her board. She had a feeling something was off.
“Aha. Six moves. Right there. I move up here and…”
Olesm groaned as she spotted a pattern in his pieces.
“Would you like to rub it in with more salt, Erin? Just peel off my scales and pour it in.”
“I knew something was wrong! It was my chess-sense.”
She waggled her arms. Olesm sighed. He pushed himself back and reached for a nacho—
The basket was empty. Olesm stared about and saw a white paw with the last nacho—covered in cheese—vanish under the table.
“Mrsha! You again!”
Erin laughed. Mrsha shot away, trying to chew and run. Olesm shot up.
“I need to refill my basket. One second. Get back here, you!”
He missed the little Drake and second, brown Gnoll, slowly appearing over the side of the table. They stared solemnly at Erin. Then Ekirra grabbed the dips. Visma grabbed Olesm’s plate. They ran off.
“Those sneaky kids.”
Erin chuckled to herself. Then she looked around.
“Whoa. The inn is hopping.”
It was so full! People were here to see the Players of Liscor—in fact, Pralcem was here with Andel to take notes on the play and attracting a bunch of attention for that alone. Galina was on stage, playing the heroine while a Gnoll sang to her.
Erin couldn’t hear it, though. A new addition to the inn—temporary, but Lyonette had hired Hedault to finalize it—was to divide the [Grand Theatre] into a sound room and silent area. Ward runes that Montressa had put up blocked noise from both sides of the inn.
Thus, you could have all the chatter you wanted and a solemn inn experience. A [Darkness] spell and the mood was set. And if you wanted—someone could deliver some food. Although nachos had been instantly banned due to the crunch.
That was just one thing in the inn. So many people! Erin frowned. Lots of people. She had a strange feeling in the back of her head, though. As if…
Before she could trace it, someone stopped in front of her table. Erin blinked upwards at a familiar face.
“Excuse me, Miss. Would that happen to be Strategist Olesm Swifttail of Liscor you were just playing? Author of the magazine, ‘Chess Weekly?’”
That was what he’d called it? Erin blinked up at the man in expensive clothing. No—armor made of cloth? She recognized him. But from where?
“Um. Er. Yes, that was him.”
“I knew it.”
The man snapped his fingers with a smile. He looked fancy. And Erin remembered where she’d seen him.
“The restaurant! You were the guys who didn’t get your reservation!”
The man did a double-take.
“I don’t believe we’ve met, Miss. You’re Strategist Olesm’s opponent, yes? Would you mind allowing me the next game once you’ve finished your match?”
“Oh—sure! Of course! Are you a reader of Olesm’s magazine? I’m Erin, nice to meet—”
“What rudeness! Marshal, allow us to introduce you!”
Someone blocked Erin’s handshake. A man in armor thrust himself between Erin and the other man. Erin peered at a bristling mustache. Then the same group as last night blocked Erin.
The man in the back sighed. He was purple-and-silver haired. Not the white of age—although he did look to be in his forties—but some genetic hair color. It was striking. He wore the shaped cloth armor, and he stood very tall. Erin saw a hawkish nose, piercing yellow eyes—
He looked like Yvlon or Ylawes, a bit. The product of what Lyonette had told Erin were unique Skills. Certainly—the man oozed his own aura.
Erin could…sense it. Thanks to Maviola’s training, she could tell more than just if someone was strong. This man had his aura—tightly contained—as did two of the armored people with him. [Knights]? His aura though, felt like…droplets.
“Is something wrong?”
The [Knight] in front of Erin glared.
“Miss, do not casually address the Earl of Desonis! You are speaking to the Marshal Altestiel of Desonis, and as such, his proper title—”
“[Knight]. Enough. We are in this young woman’s inn. And this—is Erin Solstice.”
The Earl interrupted the [Knight]. And his entourage started. They blinked at Erin.
“This is the owner of the Solstice booth? The one who cancelled—”
A loud whisper from the back. Erin saw a woman in spectacles peering at her. The [Knights] blinked. But the Earl—Altestiel—was watching Erin with keen eyes.
“Of course she is. And that was Strategist Olesm of Liscor. Miss Solstice, my apologies.”
“No problem…your Earlship?”
Erin gave it a shot. She saw one of the [Knights] actually rub at an ear and stare at her. Someone snorted.
“Let us not stand on ceremony. Altestiel will do if I may address you as ‘Erin?’ Did I see you playing chess against Strategist Olesm?”
“Wh—oh, yeah. Just a few games.”
“Are you…you’re an Earl from Desonis. And that’s…a kingdom in Terandria?”
Erin was very taken aback. What was one of them doing here? That outranked a [Lord], right? One of the [Knights] opened his mouth furiously and the Earl made a sound. It was close to a whistle, but muted. Instantly, the [Knight] straightened.
“I would hate to get in your way, Miss Solstice. And I do apologize for my subordinate’s rudeness.”
“Not at all. Um…”
“Erin! You have to get Mrsha to stop stealing my food! It’s not funny! Argh! Where’s my condiments?”
Olesm came back with a full basket of nachos and had a fit when he saw the theft. Erin looked at him blankly.
“Olesm. You’ve got guests. This is the—”
She looked around. The Drake turned, but the Earl and his group were gone. They were sitting back down. The man inclined his head and raised a finger to his lips.
“…Someone wanted to see you. A fan, I think.”
“Oh. Well—are they here?”
“Um. They wanted to play you after this game…”
Olesm turned pink under his scales.
“I don’t want to keep them waiting. Let’s continue, Erin. Who were they? W—did they just step out?”
“They’ll come over after we’re done. Uh…check.”
The distracted Drake’s face fell. Erin was winning this game, like the others. He did his best, but Erin had not only had an advantage on a technical level, he was now preoccupied. She…smashed him.
The Earl came back after Olesm was studying his loss.
“Quite impressive. Strategist Olesm? My name is Altestiel. I am a huge, humble fan of your magazine. I’ve travelled to Invrisil in hopes of meeting you. Could I ask for a moment of your time?”
The Drake stared up at him. He had some sauce on his tunic, crumbs around his mouth, and—flustered he stood up.
“A reader? I’m delighted to meet you! Olesm Swifttail—but you already knew this. Are you? Altestiel? Well met! Where are you from? Is that your group?”
“My escort. Half of them play chess well. We’d be delighted to play a match against you. And your magazine—I’ve bought every issue. Wonderful commentary and games. My condolences for the attack on Liscor—and congratulations on your new class.”
“You know about—I—I—thank you!”
Overwhelmed, Olesm shook the man’s hand. Erin was out of her seat and watching carefully. Olesm didn’t miss how obviously rich Altestiel was—or the fact that he had two [Knights] escorting him and Ilvriss’ equivalent in subordinates.
“May I ask who I am meeting?”
The Drake slowly met Altestiel’s eyes. The [Earl] smiled.
[Knight Marshal of the Rains] Earl Altestiel of the Kingdom of Desonis, one of the kingdoms to the east of Terandria and out of the immediate Ailendamus-Dawn Concordat conflict, sat across from Olesm the [Strategist].
He had come via First Landing with a small escort to meet Olesm. To. Meet. Olesm. The Drake was so nervous he could barely place his pieces.
“You came all this way…?”
“Desonis is at peace for the moment. And I am not always needed.”
“I—know you. Your storm campaigns are textbook in Manus!”
Erin whispered to Palt. The Centaur had spotted Altestiel. The [Illusionist] nodded.
“He’s a weather-strategy expert. You go up against him, you’ll fight in the rain and muck while his people don’t even feel it. Not the best [Strategist] in the world—he’s a [Knight Marshal], close to a [General] in nature. But really good.”
“Whoa. Good for Olesm.”
Palt eyed Erin, but the [Innkeeper] meant it. Altestiel didn’t seem like a jerk, either. His entourage were a bit Pisces-sniffy, but he was an [Earl].
“What’s Olesm’s odds, Erin?”
Erin couldn’t help but shrug. Why did people think that levels mattered in chess? They did not. And Olesm had been playing nonstop. He breathed chess.
“They both look good. I can’t just appraise them from like, the way they sit. But I wouldn’t say it’s out of Olesm’s claws. Say, Palt…there’s something on my mind.”
She felt that prickling again and turned her head. But there were so many people…Palt raised his brows, then stepped back.
“Excuse me. Miss Erin Solstice? My apologies for earlier. Would you care to play a game of chess whilst Earl Altestiel and Strategist Olesm are busy?”
The same woman with spectacles approached. Her hair was proper silver. And she was…Erin blinked.
“Are you a [Strategist]?”
“Yes, Miss. Strategist Kiish at your service. I would be gratified to play a game of chess with you. I see there are multiple chess boards—you clearly play yourself?”
“Sure! I love to play!”
Erin brightened up. She pointed and the two sat at a table. Palt peered at Kiish. And he saw something.
The [Strategist] sat down, and adjusted her spectacles.
“Miss Solstice, would you care to play an Unrestricted game, or a Skill-less game? Magic-less?”
Erin was blank. Kiish hesitated.
“…Are you aware of the game types of chess? We can play without using Skills. Or artifacts or other magical aids.”
She gave Erin a long look, as if this was common knowledge. Erin hesitated.
“I don’t have any of that stuff. I mean, sure. Let’s play Unrestricted!”
“That would be me using my Skills, Miss Solstice.”
“I know. That sounds like fun! Do you have some?”
The [Strategist] turned and gave some of her companions a long look. She smiled slightly.
“As you wish…”
Palt smirked a bit. Skills and magic only worked so well against Erin. Most Skills were probably predictive or which allowed chess players to analyze the board fast, especially if playing speed-chess. But it didn’t make up for Erin’s expertise in the game.
Still—he watched as Erin moved forwards a chess piece. Palt’s eyes flickered. Because he had noticed something.
Earl Altestiel was playing a close game with Olesm. But Kiish had chosen a table after some deliberation behind Olesm. And every now and then—the [Knight Marshal]’s eyes would flick up.
He was watching Erin play. And he did not have long to wait.
Strategist Kiish stared at her board, in a state of shock. She had played Erin in a speed-chess game, using her Skills. It was, as everyone in her group knew, her absolute specialty since her Skills allowed her to make rapid decisions despite the tight timer.
“I…how did you…?”
It was something of a stupid question because she had seen Erin patently outplaying her. But the [Strategist] couldn’t handle it. Erin wiped at her brow. Nothing like a good game of speed-chess to get the blood pumping!
“Please—play me again. I’d like to—”
“Kiish. My turn. If you would accept my challenge, Miss Solstice?”
One of the two [Knights] sat down. Erin blinked. Then she smiled.
“Well, of course! Unrestricted? What about a normal game? Timer of two minutes? I wish I had a proper counter…”
“I can fulfill that role, Miss.”
One of the underlings spoke up. Erin blinked. They took this game seriously! Which she approved of! She played, oblivious.
Skill levels. Palt was no great chess-player. But he could tell that the group from Desonis were good. Really good.
Which meant Erin was crushing them like flies on the wall. Because they were probably better than Olesm had been before Erin had met him, especially with Skills.
But they didn’t have Earth’s chess strategy and lessons backing them up. Nor were they even half as experienced as Erin—even if they’d played day in and day out since the game of chess had been invented.
The skepticism and amusement the Desonis group had brought to the table turned into concentration. And then—grudging respect. And then awe.
Olesm and the [Knight Marshal] played three games. Olesm took two, and stood up, trembling, to shake the Earl’s hand.
“You are a magnificent player, Strategist Olesm. I am considered the best player in my kingdom by far—and I’ve challenged all of Terandria’s finest players to the south. I daresay you might give the Lord of the Dance a strong challenge.”
The Earl was admiring. Olesm was beaming.
“Thank you, Earl Altestiel! But you’re so well-read. And your strategy—”
They’d been talking chess and actual battlefield strategy. Olesm was a teacher in one regard, if a humble one, the Earl an unquestionable leader in the other. Altestiel chuckled.
“But chess is such a wonderful game in peace. Do you think there’s any chance our games could make it into the magazine? I would be delighted to perform one of the analyses of the games.”
“I—I would be so honored. Of course, Earl!”
The [Strategist] was star struck. And the Earl was vastly engaged—but then he looked towards Erin.
She was replaying Kiish. The [Knight Marshal]’s eyes sharpened.
“I wonder, though. That young woman—Innkeeper Solstice seems quite good at the game. Do you think I might trouble her for a game?”
“Erin? She’s…quite good. Better than me.”
Olesm chose his words carefully. And the Earl—nodded. He walked over and Kiish looked up.
“Knight Marshal—excuse me, Miss Solstice. I believe the Earl would like to play you—”
Olesm’s head turned. So did Palt’s. Aha. But Erin just looked up at Altestiel and shook her head. She beckoned to Kiish.
“Don’t be silly! We’re playing. No one interrupts a chess game, no matter how much a big shot they are.”
“Very true. Strategist, Kiish, do your best. Miss Solstice, are you an expert in these speed-games?”
“I like them now and then. Kiish is really good. I might lose this one.”
“She is using all her Skills and you are not.”
The earl observed quietly. Erin laughed.
“That’s what makes it fun! She’s just playing at her best! It’s not cheating. Chaldion’s as close as it comes to cheating.”
The group fell silent for a moment. Someone spoke.
“You’ve played Grand Strategist Chaldion?”
“He comes in here now and then. Not this week, probably, but you might be able to play him?”
“…I should surely wish to. If that could be arranged. But I think you may be a rather fitting opponent, Miss Solstice. Not that I could beat Strategist Olesm.”
“Well—you weren’t using your Skills.”
The [Innkeeper] gave Altestiel a sly look. He blinked. Olesm started. And then Altestiel smiled wider.
Kiish lost. She had a chance, as Erin pointed out, but her nerves got the better of her. And then the [Knight Marshal of Rains] sat down.
“A Skill-less game?”
“Unrestricted. I want to play your best. What about a speed-game to feel the waters? Then we can try a regular one.”
“That sounds quite delightful. I accept with gratitude.”
Erin was smiling wider than ever. Palt sighed. He could stop her. But—why? Just look at her.
She knew who he was. But knowing how good Altestiel was just made Erin happier. She sat there, arranging her chess pieces with long experience. And when she looked up—
The pressure was on him. Perhaps it was like experience. Or an aura—just not one Palt was familiar with.
Look at this expert. Erin Solstice, the monster of chess. And the Earl, unlike his subordinates, did not take her lightly. He never had, Palt realized. He began activating his Skills.
Erin began playing her best.
The first game of chess was fast. The two agreed to the lowest timer possible. You’d call this a Bullet Chess game—if you were from Earth. One minute per player, max.
That was the fastest kind of move since neither player could slow down. Without Skills you were in trouble. And Kiish had pulled Erin to the brink at that speed; even an expert from Earth would have trouble at top speed where you could make mistakes.
But there was one thing that even Altestiel hadn’t predicted.
Erin had one Skill she could use.
“Oh. Oooh. Ooooh.”
Bird stared. Belgrade, Olesm—all the chess fans who sometimes challenged Erin and watched her games were crowded around. The Desonis group were silently cheering their leader. The game moved fast—
And it moved slow. Erin Solstice lifted a chess piece. She was smiling. Laughing. Even talking. This—
The [Knight Marshal] stared at her. The pieces sounded like thunder in his ears. They talked. Conversation between the chess pieces touching the board. He had been prepared to learn the first game, win the second. But he threw all of his Skills and his observations into this first game.
She provoked him. Don’t throw this first game. Challenge. Me. For this was their first game. Their best game.
An [Immortal Moment] for an immortal game. One they might remember forever. If only you gave it your all.
Palt watched. With Skills, the [Knight Marshal] was—Olesm was annotating the game with Kiish and the others, frantically, making whispered commentary. It was magnificent. It was the highest level of play, it was—
…Sort of boring if you didn’t like chess. It was still chess. Mrsha stared at the board for an entire minute and padded off. Erin had boring hobbies. But good for her.
Chess wasn’t for everyone. But those it was for—
Erin spoke. Altestiel exhaled. Sweat was beading on his brow. Kiish dabbed at it. The room exhaled.
“That was a great game. Fumbled it at the end. Right here. When I moved that bishop—”
The [Innkeeper] sighed. She was pointing. Altestiel nodded. The silence around them broke into murmurs.
“Of course. Not speed chess? I don’t think I could use…that Skill again.”
Erin smiled shakily up at him. The Earl felt like a Giant had shaken him. He nodded.
“Permit me a moment to refresh myself.”
“Of course! Drinks! Drassi—and the outhouse is—”
The scandalized looks from his retinue aside, the Earl stepped back. He did indeed walk outside. Just to calm down.
He was Earl Altestiel. The same player who’d taken second in the unofficial tournament between the best players when chess had first emerged. Who had taken Lord Bel to seven of ten games in the finale.
And this inn had the opponent who made Altestiel sweat when he’d been ice-cool during all those games. Worse—no, better—
He had played his best. But it looked like Erin Solstice had just begun to get into gear. The Earl laughed. Then he turned to Kiish.
“Kiish. I have an order for you. I was right. So…”
He walked back inside for the second game. Then—Altestiel focused everything into the game. Erin was stretching, accepting a non-alcoholic drink of course. Light snacks were important to keep your brain going. Just don’t get anything on the chess board!
One of his Skills was on cool down, the second could only be activated five minutes in. Altestiel began sweating again. He was falling behind. It was a fundamental lack in the basics. Because Erin just had more knowledge of chess patterns. But close. Close—they went at each other, talking seldom, mostly just focused.
He lost. His entourage actually moaned, as if he’d taken a wound in battle. The Earl just sat back as Erin laughed and offered a hand to shake.
“Great game, another?”
He glanced up at her. She smiled. Not gloating—a tiny bit of victory, well-earned—but mostly just the love of the game shining in her eyes.
He nodded. The board was set a third time. And as the Earl sat back, relaxed now he’d well and truly lost, preparing all the questions he wanted to ask—he had to learn more—he raised a finger.
It was just a casual gesture. But Kiish stepped back. She was a [Spellwater Strategist]. Superior to [Strategist] Olesm in combat, if not chess. She executed the [Knight Marshal]’s orders in that moment and only Palt noticed. And he just sensed the mana moving—not the spell.
Forgive me, Miss Solstice. But I came here to find you, as well as Strategist Olesm. Though I did not know if you were here. The Earl adjusted his posture. He moved his seat back. Rested one elbow on the table, and smiled towards Kiish.
Erin was looking down at the board. Laughing, munching on a nacho while she showed him an opening. The [Knight Marshal] looked up.
Well, it wasn’t that sound. But it was close to that. Kiish stepped back. Her fingers were a blur as she pulled out a piece of specialized magical paper. Ink ran from a special holder as she drew.
Vision became ink, thanks to the spell. The [Knight Marshal] stood, on the pretense of getting a drink.
The [Strategist] handed it to him. He regarded the mage-picture.
“Wonderful, Kiish. Now…”
Altestiel wrote for one moment, handed it to her. She walked out of the inn. Back into Invrisil.
It was just a tiny thing. And the picture went to only a few people. Only a few. But the first one—the only one—via very private [Message] was this. Altestiel’s note only had one word.
To Niers Astoragon, Titan of Baleros from Knight-Marshall Altestiel of Desonis:
And the picture was attached. The Earl walked back to the board. He sat back down and with certainty, prepared to learn from the Titan’s famous chess partner. Chess—and more. He had no plan other than that.
Some people were just chess lovers.
All things being as they were—it was a night to remember. And perhaps not Fierre’s first—but new enough that she was wide-eyed.
A [Knight Marshal] from Terandria? All these people flooding into the inn? And—the Vampire girl paused in watching Erin play.
Three [Assassins] in the inn. One in Octavia’s shop, two in the common room.
It was something Erin had sensed, but the chess game was occupying her. Palt might have noticed—or not. He was distracted and he wasn’t exactly a fighter.
Fierre on the other hand? She was an information broker. More than that, she was inherently suspicious. Also—a Vampire.
She could smell them. Their blood, hear their beating hearts. All three were invisible. No—not quite invisible. But using some kind of cloaking to blend with the crowd unless you really focused on them.
Fierre knew they were there. She’d checked on Octavia to make sure. And she was not the only one wise to them.
“So you’re an [Archer]? Respectable, respectable, sir. We’re just fellow card players with Mister Numbtongue. I’ll raise that bet. Ratici?”
Wilovan tipped up his tricorne and the [Thief] calmly took a sip.
Experts in their fields had ways of tracking even the most elusive. Maviola El would have surely read their ‘fire’ or whatever trick she employed. Todi was frowning at a stone on his wrist as he spoke to Selys. Montressa was nudging Bezale as she sat next to Wilovan. The [Spellscribe] might have been distracted.
It was all…Fierre’s fingers drummed nervously on her table. She looked around—then abandoned her seat.
Delanay d’Artien was animatedly talking with Numbtongue.
“You like crossbows? Izrilians tend to think they’re not as good as bows, but there’s less training needed.”
“Mhm. Badarrow doesn’t. [Sniper]. I have crossbows.”
The Vampire girl peeked up from the edge of the table as Numbtongue pointed to a wall.
“Secret compartments. Got five over here. See—”
It was all a disgrace. That was surely what she’d say.
Deilan El sat, watching the replay of Tyrion Veltras practically begging for aid. He had gone silent. Time—time was running out.
The scrying orbs could be engineered to replay sights. Well, the good ones, that was. Even take still images. Deilan El, the new leader of the House of El shook his head.
“Disgraceful. Zedalien. What would Maviola do?”
The half-Elf bowed slightly.
“Something troublesome, I’m sure, Lord Deilan. But she did not choose you to be her clone.”
“Yes. That is true.”
Deilan knew Maviola had chosen him because he was more cautious then she was. He would never have backed the Kaalblades project, for instance. Her ideas had sometimes paid off well—and she was a skilled negotiator, amazing at balancing a nonexistent budget, powerful, canny—
But she took risks that had beggared the House of El, much like her predecessors. She’d had to take risks because they were in so much financial debt and uncertainty. But she’d decided Deilan was the best to replace her.
He wondered if it had simply been a matter of choosing the least inept. He did not feel like a second Maviola, or even a Tyrion or Magnolia.
And look at them now. One fled, the other begging for aid.
Deilan didn’t know what to do. He was unsure…if his life were endangered. Certainly, the House of El could replace him, new as he was. Would the Circle go after him?
“Am I under qualified for this position, Zedalien?”
“The uncertainty of youth, Lord Deilan. Not one of your predecessors did not ask that question.”
The half-Elf heard Deilan laugh.
“This is why we need half-Elves, Zedalien. Please reconsider.”
“My time is through, Lord Deilan. But my replacement will serve the House of El.”
Deilan nodded slowly. Even so. Even so—this was a crisis. And something had to be done. But…he closed his eyes.
“There’s nothing for it.”
He stood up. And walked off to send a [Message].
At the same time, Maviola was trying to muster the Five Families for Ryoka’s impossible mission. She was reaching out to people she knew. Gresaria for Wellfar, but it was still hard.
“Thoughtless girl. Headstrong, always rushing about. No plan other than to run and hope it works out.”
Maviola was insulting Ryoka as she wrote [Messages]. But she couldn’t help but feel like every accusation was something she’d heard hurled at herself at that age. It was true Ryoka could be more thoughtful. But she was young. And youth…
For a second, Maviola felt like she was in her chair. A flickering fire not of her make warming her old bones. She turned—
The [Lady] stood there. A baby, red-haired, gurgled in her arms and tried to climb onto the counter. Two [Guards], looking quite nervous, flanked the [Lady].
She was in disguise. That was to say—her dress was not silk, and she was not adorned with much richness. It was a terrible disguise, though. Desinee was still Desinee.
Nevertheless…Maviola folded her arms as her niece stared at her.
“Desinee El. I should have known my family wouldn’t be content to let me die without haunting me to my grave.”
The [Lady] flinched, but she looked at Maviola defiantly.
“One of us should be here, Grandmother! I—volunteered. I wasn’t going to say anything—”
“You don’t have to. I saw my great great grandson wandering about on the floor.”
Maviola made a disgusted sound. The baby—Qibby—gurgled at her. She reached out and he grabbed her finger. Maviola touched his small head—he already had his father’s face—and then glowered at Desinee.
“And why are you bothering me?”
“Um…um…Deilan, that is, Lord Deilan wanted me to ask—”
Desinee stammered. Maviola might look younger than her, but the glare had ruled the House of El longer than Desinee had been alive.
“He wants advice? Tell him to figure it out! Either it works or it doesn’t. Just don’t get people killed. So long as you do that, it works out.”
Maviola was incredulous. The nerve of Deilan! Had she chosen wrong? But—then Desinee spoke again.
“It’s about Tyrion Veltras.”
The [Lady Firestarter] paused. She handed the slips to the Gnoll [Receptionist] and turned back to Desinee. One of the [Guards] bowed; she sniffed.
“Pay the Guild would you, man? I was putting it on the House of El’s credit. But I might as well settle up.”
“At once, Lady El.”
They meekly scurried past her. Maviola stepped away with Desinee. The [Lady] jiggled her child.
“The Circle of Thorns—”
“But they have the Guild—”
“And they fought with Magnolia’s grandmother and they’ve been on Izril since we were. Yes, yes. So what? They do not threaten one of the Five Families. If I were in charge and Gresaria and I were your age, we would be hanging [Assassins] like grapes off a vine! Petra and Ulva would be fighting as well. And Cirike—”
She paused. Dead names, that Desinee had only ever heard, no faces to match. Maviola shook her head.
“Each generation. Magnolia and Tyrion, the terrible duo born of the Antinium Wars. Both idiots in their way. One can make money, the other swing a sword. But neither are well loved. Ulva hides in her House, mourning Petra…”
It was the same refrain. Desinee nodded.
“But Grandmother. What do we do? We could…”
She clutched her son until he started crying. Then Desinee held him and stroked his head, whispering to him.
“You’re holding your weakness, Desinee. Of course your enemies will aim at it.”
Maviola felt weary. She shook her head.
“It’s not for me to decide. I—am not matriarch.”
Lies. You live! And while you live, Deilan lives in your shadow! Her younger self whispered to her. Maviola clenched her fist. It would be so easy. But she turned away.
“Desinee—there’s no cure. I had the same talk with a young idiot. If Deilan wants to intervene—why? Tell him to ask himself that. Is it because it is wrong, morally? Because it damages the Five Families and thus the House of El? Because they might go after him next?”
Desinee hung on Maviola’s words. The [Lady] looked back at her.
“And then tell him the reason doesn’t matter! If he moves—if he fights—do it with a damned plan! Ryoka Griffin—Deilan is twice her age! But you’re both children. If you are going to dare this Circle, do it with a plan or not at all!”
Ryoka Griffin would die, running alone. You needed…Maviola closed her eyes as Desinee bowed.
“Grandmother…won’t you sit with me? At least with Qibby. You still have time.”
The [Lady] stared at Desinee, and the baby. She reached out and then lowered her hands, shaking her head.
“Go, Desinee. And tell Deilan not to bother me. If I sit with you—I will never rise.”
Her time was up. The [Lady] sniffled, but Maviola strode away. Maybe—but just as well. Just as well. Because Ryoka Griffin…was a fool with a heart. The worst kind. No one had said she was wrong to want to help, did she? Just—
Maviola El strode into The Wandering Inn as the last visitor arrived. She heard Liska’s tired refrain.
“Hello. Welcome to The Wandering Inn. Read this sign—oh. It’s you. Nevermind.”
The [Lady Firestarter] walked forwards and saw nudity. Saliss of Lights cavorted into the inn after her.
“Maviola! Just the Human I wanted to see. Tried my other potion?”
“No! And I’m not in the mood for this, Drake.”
“There’s always time for fun, Maviola. Besides—is Erin here? I just wanted a word. Then I’m off.”
To where? To dance on the gates again? Maviola made a noise of disgust. She saw Liska yawning and the glowing yellow stone for Pallass.
No one had told the Gnoll not to check Pallass, although Erin’s aura kept almost everyone out. So Saliss bounded into the inn. Liska was just reaching for the stone to change the door when it opened.
“Where is he? I’ll murder him! I’ll—”
Someone else blew past Liska. Maviola blinked.
Here came trouble. Here came drama. Saliss was making a beeline for Erin, who was lecturing everyone about chess patterns. He’d nearly reached her when the second person from Pallass came through.
He was not on Erin’s good-list. But such was the level and fury of this individual that he’d breached her aura.
Xif the [Alchemist] charged after Saliss. A white-faced Octavia, sitting and waiting for Erin, saw the [Alchemist] holding something in his furry paw.
He might be an older Gnoll—from Pallass. But some things about [Alchemists] held true. The Gnoll had a club. When [Alchemists] got mad, they sorted it out.
“Saliss, you lizard! You wretch! You stole my work!”
“Xif! I thought you couldn’t go through!”
Saliss whirled. People in the inn turned to stare. A naked Drake and an old Gnoll with a club was eye-catching. Xif swung at Saliss with wild abandon!
“You can’t do this!”
“Hold on, Xif. I think we’re under the wrong impression here. Just give me five minutes and I’ll—”
Saliss backed up, dodging Xif easily. The Gnoll was howling, panting. He’d chased Saliss across the city.
“What’s going on? Hey! You’re not supposed to be in here!”
Erin shot to her feet. Marshal Altestiel rose. He held up a hand and his followers held themselves back.
“It was my work! You can’t just claim credit! I’d already made it! You—you—”
“Someone stop him! Before Saliss hurts him!”
Ishkr, Menolit, and Wilovan all grabbed Xif. They gently pulled the older [Alchemist] back. Saliss was grinning at Xif’s clear fury.
“What’s this about, Saliss?”
“Oh—just making a stopover. Look, Erin—shut up, Xif!”
“No! It’s not fair!”
The [Alchemist] struggled weakly. Erin turned to Xif.
“What’s the problem?”
“Oteslia! The [Strategists] of the Titan! They have that sick Selphid!”
Everyone blinked. That was old news! But it was still something they’d all seen. Erin blinked.
“They needed a cure for blowfish poison! And I made it! They sent to Pallass for the best and Saliss refused, so I’ve been supplying them with the antitoxin agent for the last weeks! But then Saliss came by—”
“Xif. Xif, let’s just shut up and—”
The Named Adventurer tried, but Xif was too angry. He bellowed the rest.
“He walked into the Merchant’s Guild yesterday and said he was making the blowfish antidote! Bought up all the ingredients on the pretext—he’s not making the antitoxin! It’s my work! He’s just lying to make himself look good!”
“I never said you weren’t—”
“Hah! You’ve been pretending to! Why are you buying mithril dust if it’s not to make an antidote of some kind? Everyone’s saying Saliss is helping the Selphid in Oteslia. You—you—”
Xif’s mouth stopped running as his exhaustion caught up with him. Also, his mind. The inn…developed a silence.
Not everywhere. Some people were muttering, shaking their heads, taking bets on whether Xif clocked Saliss. But it was people in the know who looked up.
Octavia breathed. Saliss was grinning widely, and murderously at Xif. The Gnoll [Alchemist]’s jaw worked.
“You’d only need…”
Erin Solstice saw Maviola El’s eyes widen. She sensed…Erin looked around. Three? She noticed too late.
Fierre bit her lip so hard her teeth nearly met. Mithril dust. That was one of the ingredients for—it was so rare you only needed it for a few things. So the Guild could watch whoever bought it.
They had been. But—it had never occurred to them that the enemy of Tyrion Veltras might—
She looked about. And there she sat. Ryoka Griffin’s head rose.
“I—I think I’ve made a mistake. I’ll…just be going. Saliss. Ahem. Sorry for the misunderstanding.”
Xif began to back up. Saliss gave him a wide, happy smile.
“I’m going to burn your shop down for real this time, Xif. Promise. Well…I suppose the cat’s out of the bag. Who does that, anyways?”
He spread his arms wide. His claws open. He turned—
“I suppose I should come clean, Erin.”
She looked up at him. The [Alchemist], Saliss, looked at her kindly.
“He seemed so sad. And I was bored. Sometimes…”
The Drake looked at her sincerely. Then he bowed.
No, he folded up in slow motion. A dagger stood out in his claws—he’d caught it at the last moment. The [Alchemist]’s hands blurred.
Something flickered past Erin’s face. A thin stream of—an [Assassin] collapsed. Octavia stared at the Drake screaming, clutching at his face as the acid burned.
Another leapt—but the second jet of acid struck him across the chest and he screamed. The first was already dead, smoking. The third [Assassin] ran for the door, pushing past Liska.
“And here we go. Excuse me, Erin.”
Saliss of Lights walked for the door. The [Assassin] was fumbling for the stone. He whirled—Saliss blew more acid across his face.
“A solution to 90% of my problems.”
He laughed. Liska backed away from him, eyes wide. Saliss adjusted the dial. And walked into Invrisil.
Drama. A frozen inn. Badarrow was aiming his bow at the strange Drake’s back. Numbtongue was tense in his seat.
Xif stared in horror at the dead [Assassins]. But someone moved in the silence.
Fierre was too slow, for once. Ryoka tore out of her grasp. She followed the Drake.
Through the door. Into the street. The Drake had left a hole in the crowd. He was walking—
The loitering pedestrians. The casual gangs. They turned, appraising the sudden shouting. The crowd. They saw the naked Drake coming at them. Sauntering down the street.
They were not prepared for Saliss of Lights. He had two jars in his hand.
“Come on! Try it! I bathe in acid! No, really, I do. Keeps the scales polished.”
The [Alchemist] was shouting. The [Assassins] hesitated.
Three tried it. Saliss hit them with acid so fast they were screaming—then still, smoking forms on the street. He walked on.
Straight into the Runner’s Guild. The [Receptionist] stared as the Drake paused to do a victory dance.
“Hey. I’m Saliss. Look, I know this isn’t common. But—here.”
He handed her a vial. The [Receptionist] stared at it. At him. Saliss dangled it, then put the clear liquid on the receptionist’s desk.
What is that? But she didn’t need an answer. She knew. They all knew. Runners, Couriers, [Assassins], and more, oh my. Saliss of Lights turned. And on his smile—Ryoka Griffin stopped, panting.
“I believe that was one cure for Lord Tyrion Veltras. Delivered! Just looking for a good Runner to bring it.”
Saliss leaned on the counter. He looked around, still holding the acid. Waiting.
“So? Any takers?”
Author’s Note: I still didn’t get quite where I wanted to. But this is a good stopping place. I think…well, we’ll see if next chapter encompasses it all. If not, you know, this is a web serial.
And this is short-er than last chapter! By two thousand words, true, which is still longer than average. But I made myself a promise and I did it!
Funny story. I thought it was Friday, which goes to show how I’ve lost track of unimportant things. The Unus Annus channel is ending, hence me sharing that. If you haven’t heard of it—it’s too late.
Memento Mori. A good theme for this chapter. And the next one. So it begins and ends. I think you know what might happen next. Or do you?
Have a good night and see you next time!
Tonight’s art comes to you from ArtsyNada, who has done one last comic about how half-Elves speak to beavers! Also, Scap has commissioned two art pieces of Numbtongue and Erin! Last and certainly not least, LeChat has created some amazing work and Enyavar has colored some of them! Credit where credit is due—take a look and leave praise!
Beaverspeak by ArtsyNada!
Numbtongue by mpart1919, commissioned by Scap!
Erin by platinumft, commissioned by Scap!
Flying Gnolls, Peslas, Knives, Zel Shivertail and more by LeChat!
Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0