Interlude – The Innkeeper’s [Knight]

(A podcast talking about The Last Tide is out, featuring one of our Discord moderators, Blue Juice! Check it out here!)

 

War had come to Terandria. Ailendamus vs the Dawn Concordat.

It was one of several wars in the world. But this was an actual war on the ground, rather than a war in treaty only. There were a few ‘wars’ that had been going on for centuries by kingdoms removed far from each other. For instance, Khelt was technically at war with about six Terandrian Kingdoms.

But no one was marching armies. Ailendamus was. The first forces had already moved across Kaliv’s border, torching, raiding, fighting with the Griffin patrols. Already, the Wing of Shame, led by the infamous Griffin Prince of Kaliv, had fought several unofficial battles with Ailendamus’ forces.

The Dawn Concordat was still mobilizing armies. As was Ailendamus, in many ways. This would not be as short as the Forty Six Minute War of historical fame. Both sides were preparing for an extended conflict that might deplete resources. Ailendamus did not want to make a point, or stop at humiliating their opponents, or grabbing a single border spot.

They intended to go all the way. Or so many like Knight-Commander Calirn feared. Ailendamus had swallowed two kingdoms whole already. Absorbing the Dawn Concordat might make them a Terandrian superpower, the first in a millennia.

Who would stand against Ailendamus at the moment, though? Pheislant? Noelictus? Ailendamus had fought both in strictly non-war settings and beaten both in actual wars. The other kingdoms danced on the edge, a parody of the Reim-Jecrass conflict. Although Ailendamus had made it clear that even indirect aid would put a target on any other kingdom’s back.

Still. Still—the Dawn Concordat was not alone. There were always brave souls, people who would champion a cause against great odds. Crusaders of orders founded to take up causes.

[Knights].

 

—-

 

The first [Spring Knight] went flying past the landing party that had disembarked from The Narwhal’s Bow, an Ailendamus Galleon-class ship. The officers and [Sailors] stared.

[Knights] did not normally fly. Nor did the figure in green armor seem capable of unaided flight. And as it turned out—nor had he flown by himself.

Escape attempt!

One of the [Sailors] shouted belatedly. The temporary military camp beyond was abuzz with shouting. The [Knights] were trying to escape!

The Order of Season’s armor shone with the colors of summer on another [Knight]. A Summer Knight, resplendent in yellow and orange, was fighting with a sword, keeping a group at bay.

They’d made an escape attempt at last, after having recovered from the battle at sea. The fact that they’d been allowed to keep their armor on had been a grave mistake; a group of two dozen [Knights] fought forwards, shouting.

The Order of Seasons! To the horses!

A female voice—another Summer Knight—was leading the lot. The navy hesitated. They weren’t at sea and [Knights]? The [First Mate] of the ship, who’d come personally, raised a hand.

“Bows! Hit them in the legs—”

Some of the [Sailors] aimed, forming a defensive circle around the officers. But they never got a chance to join the [Soldiers] in their fight.

Another [Knight] was fighting with a mace and shield, battering down a [Soldier]’s guard. He raised the mace to deliver the final blow and turned as he saw something barreling at him. He whirled, placing his shield—

The fist deformed his helmet and dropped the [Spring Knight] like a sack of stones. The other [Knights] turned as a huge man roared into the fight. The same fellow who’d tossed Ser Markus like a sack of wheat.

Put ‘em down, boys! Come on, you armored ponces!

He spun on one heel and belted another opponent across the face. He was fighting barehanded, but his fists deformed unenchanted metal. A [Knight] came at him with a sword and he blocked the strike on his forearm and checked the other figure to the ground with one arm.

…As it turned out, the commander of the land forces might have been careless, but only because he didn’t see the armor as adding to the Order of Seasons’ threat. Indeed, it was a giant of a man. Hyperbolically; he wasn’t an actual half-Giant, although he was well over six feet tall.

Also—huge. Heavyset. He had to be three hundred…possibly four hundred pounds? And it was a mistake to say it was all fat. Indeed, as another [Knight] rushed forwards with a roar, the [General] charged into him and sent the figure flying.

“Take down the [General]!”

The female [Summer Knight]’s blade glowed, the plain steel beginning to deform with the heat.

[Aura Blade]. The specialty of the Order of Seasons. The [General] spotted the threat and grinned.

“Aha!”

He strode forwards, as his rough-and-ready soldiers and officers put up more of a fight than the Order of Seasons were expecting. They weren’t perfect, military [Soldiers], but they were experienced, decently leveled—

And of course, they far outnumbered the group that had been captured at sea on their way home. More [Knights] went down, subdued by the sheer numbers.

A few kept fighting. Summer Knights, the experienced Spring Knights—and a figure in plain metal armor, not as decorated as the others. A foreign [Knight] from Izril. He stood with his back to the female Summer Knight.

Face me, [General] of Ailendamus!

Talia Kallinad raised her sword and saluted the [General]. He just charged at her. She pivoted—

“[Lance Thrust]!”

All the force of a charging [Knight] on horseback put into a fast blow. The huge [General]—who had hair like armor on his thick arms—stopped his rush.

“[Steelguard Block]!”

He blocked the sword, swearing as the tip struck his arm and singed his hair. Talia recoiled; she’d cut fairly deep, but her sword’s tip hadn’t even hit bone!

Two Skills met, but both had a dozen more. Talia jerked back her blade, noting the blunted tip. The steel was suffering from the burning heat she was infusing into it. But she still increased the temperature, using her [Aura Blade]. The man clearly had skin like iron! She had to burn him. She whirled the sword.

“[Swallow’s A—]”

She stumbled, making an incoherent noise of pain. The other [Knights] turned. Talia began to fold up as the [General] shoulder-charged once more and threw her down. He didn’t give her a chance to fight back—he stomped on her chest and went on, roaring.

For Ailendamus! Give it to ‘em, boys!

What had happened? If you had time to process it, one would have realized that the [General] had, in fact, used a Skill without having to shout its name. In fact, he’d used [Flash Punch] before Talia could activate her second Skill, combined with [Extended Reach: Three Feet]. The combination of both Skills—

Well, the point was Talia was down. The other [Knights] faltered. She was their best fighter! Two put up their blades, realizing that even if they made it to the horses, their comrades would be left behind.

Yield! Yield!

The [Soldiers] disarmed them, as the [Knights] tossed their weapons down and knelt, raising their arms. More began to surrender.

One kept fighting. He was the [Knight] in plain armor. He’d already downed three [Soldiers] despite them fighting in groups, using potions and falling back. He’d seized a short spear and was using it while holding a dagger in the other hand.

He didn’t fight…like a [Knight]. Not setting himself, using his sword and shield and holding ground. Rather, he lunged into combat, willing to grapple and stab his opponents at point-blank range. Retreat, pivot—if anything the armor seemed to slow down his natural fighting style.

“There’s a brawler. Back up! Back up, you idiots!

The [General] saw the [Knight] spin. The other Order of Seasons [Knights] were calling out, but he wasn’t listening.

“Ser Solstice! Lower your blade! Ser Solstice!”

The foreign [Knight] turned. He saw the [General] coming at him. The helmeted visor portrayed nothing of the man inside. But perhaps—was there a crimson glint? Certainly, a cold stare seemed to emanate from the visor.

The [General] grinned. He charged—and Ser Solstice, known to some as the Goblin Slayer, moved to meet him. He brought up the spear—then dropped it in a feint.

[Grand Slash]!

It was just a dagger, but suddenly it had an arc as wide as a greatsword’s! And the force! The [General] reared backwards.

“Shit—[Rolling—]”

He rolled under the blade, suddenly agile as a fox. The [Knight] caught himself as the [General] came up. He had a dagger—but he’d seen how strong the man was. So he spun—

An armored foot caught the [General] in the face. The man staggered—and an armored gauntlet crashed into his nose. Then came the dagger, stabbing in the side. Ser Solstice was a blur of blows. He raised his fist, aiming a finger at the man’s eye—

The [General] caught the fist. He twisted, but the [Knight] refused to give up. Even as he moved, he stabbed again, going for the man’s neck—

The huge head came down in a head-butt that the [First Mate] heard from dozens of paces away. The impact made everyone wince.

A metal divot in the [Knight]’s helmet. Yet still—he struggled, despite the probable concussion. He went for a punch—and the [General] let go and punched as well.

Both fists connected. The [General] didn’t even blink at the blow to his shoulder.

The [Knight] lay on the ground, motionless.

“Tough bastard. Anyone recognize his armor?”

The [General] kicked him onto his back as the [Soldiers] advanced. The others were surrendered or being tended to. Some scratched their heads.

“Dunno, [General]. ‘Es got no insignia. Balls like an ox to challenge you, though. Rest are Season’s lot. You want we should kick the crap out of them?”

“Nah. Just tie ‘em up again and don’t let them get a hand on a blade, you idiots!”

The [General] cursed. He caught sight of the naval officers and sighed.

“Here’s more salt-sucking worms. See to it!”

He stormed off as the [Knights] were taken into custody. This time they were being stripped of their armor—at least their helmets. They’d just arrived in the war camp, off The Narwhal’s Bow, and had launched their desperate escape attempt with a stolen knife. A [Soldier] bent for the unknown [Knight]’s helmet—

“Stop!”

The authoritative tone from one of the [Spring Knights] made the man hesitate.

“What’s the problem?”

“Don’t remove his helmet. That [Knight] is the Goblin Slayer of Izril! Ser Solstice! He’s sworn an oath never to remove his helm!”

One of the Order of Seasons’ [Knights] barked. The [Soldier] scoffed. He reached for the helmet—

And the [Knights] stirred. They looked ready to fight again, even the ones who’d just surrendered. One of the officers, a [Captain], raised a hand.

“[Knight]’s honor and stuff. Leave it.”

He was familiar with Terandria’s knight-orders and their touchy pride. If it meant not having to beat the armored people into a pulp a second time…the [Soldier] shrugged and got three of his friends to help drag the unconscious figure into a tent.

This was the scene. This was the moment. The Order of Seasons’ [Knights] found their wounds bandaged—broken bones set, rather than tended to with a healing potion, to make their escape harder. They were glum.

From the ship battle at sea with the Ailendamus fleet, to their escape attempt on land as they’d disembarked to the coast, to this. At least they would be ransomed. Their names would be taken, their families and their Order contacted for a hefty sum, and they’d be allowed to go free.

That was how it worked. Someone would remove Ser Solstice’s helm eventually. A small infraction, but they were [Knights]. Common [Soldiers] would not get this luxury.

Talia would be incensed, with her defeat as well as their failure to join the Dawn Concordat and disgracing her Order when she woke.

Ser Solstice…the Goblin Slayer…and as he was called by his friends, Rabbiteater, would awake to the news of his inevitable ransoming and know it was his death. He had had one chance. Only the ‘knightly vow’ he’d taken had saved him. But when they asked his name, checked his identity?

He should never have surrendered. He should never have come here.

The Goblin sat, dizzy and sick. Waiting for the truth to will out.

 

—-

 

The naval landing party approached the [General]’s tent. The flag of Ailendamus and his personal crest—a bear’s paw—was flying. The sight of the twined lances like arrows made the [First Mate] reflexively salute—then he knocked on the tent.

“[General]?”

The man was inside, pouring himself a drink of wine. There were a lot of things to say.

Firstly, that he hadn’t removed the armor of the prisoners. Second, the fact that the man ran a clearly lax camp—not much military discipline? Third? Drinking by day?

But the [First Mate] was no [Captain] of Ailendamus. And while they were on the same side, the sight of the huge man beating [Knights] down with his bare fists checked any rebuke from the navy’s representative.

“General Yerzhen, isn’t it? I’ve come at the behest of Bombard-Captain Legoris, of The Narwhal’s Bow to confirm you have possession of the prisoners. The escape attempt was ah—”

“Who’re you?”

General Yerzhen looked up after a moment, and the [First Mate] realized not a single word had been heard. Yerzhen rubbed at his head once.

“Damn helmets. That last bastard had a thick one. Must’ve been a Skill or good steel. Who’re you? Ah, navy idiot, aren’t you? Yeah, we have the prisoners. Sod off.”

That level of disrespect was too much, even for the [First Mate]. He straightened.

General, I am the [First Mate] of—”

“Piss. Off. We’ll ransom them. Hey!

He bellowed and one of his officers came running. Yerzhen offered the man a cup of wine—which was accepted—and talked while downing one himself.

“Get the [Knights] ransomed by tonight. Go to the Order of Seasons and get—what is it? Two hundred gold a head? Four hundred? They don’t want to do it? Families. Then we’ll just toss ‘em in one of the prison trains otherwise.”

“Got it, [General].”

Yerzhen turned to the [First Mate].

“There. Happy?”

Technically, that was all the [Captain] had sent the naval team to do—and perhaps get a sword and shield as a trophy. But the [First Mate] felt the navy’s pride had been stung. He glowered and put a tiny bit of that into his voice.

“General Yerzhen, I feel that given the escape attempt, you should take more precautions—”

“Precautions? I’m the one who has to ransom the bastards! Go hop on your boat and row off!”

“The Fleet of Ailendamus will not be disrespected—”

The [First Mate] had a hand on the shortsword he carried, ignoring the risk and his nervous company. He ducked as Yerzhen hurled his entire bottle of wine at him. The [Sailors] saw the [General] whirl and backed up, leaving their officer to face the man’s wrath as he strode across the tent, bellowing.

Lance-arrows take your damned fleet! You’re the bastards who caused trouble for me! His Majesty’s so wroth with me, he has us guarding prisoners and toadying about! All because one of your salt-for-brains [Admirals] went and attacked Nadel and gave away our war plan!”

He prodded the [First Mate] so hard the man staggered. Suddenly, the pieces fit and the officer paled.

This was General Yerzhen, who’d been implicated and then cleared in the disastrous attack on the Lord of the Dance. Foreign saboteurs had orchestrated the entire thing, but the [Admiral] had been relieved of command.

And the man who’d been impersonated, who had in fact been in the right spot. Ready to attack Calanfer until the plan had been leaked?

Yerzhen of Ailendamus. Or, as some called him, Yerzhen, the Bear. The Bear-General of Ailendamus, who could bend steel with his hands.

“What’s his name? Admiral Deckless? I’ll rip his head off if I ever meet him…he on your ship?”

“N-no, General. I apologize for—”

“We’ll ransom your prisoners. They want to escape? They can get past me, a [General] of Ailendamus. Think that’s likely? No? Then get out.”

Yerzhen was in a terrible mood. He saw the naval crew make a swift retreat. The [General] went back to his drink, pulling out a bottle of gin this time. But no amount of alcohol could cover the disgrace he was in. And it wasn’t his fault! He’d done everything perfectly. If he ever found out who’d impersonated him…

His hands clenched and unclenched as he strode around his war tent. The mood in his camp was equally despondent. The rough and ready ‘Bear Brawlers’ as they were affectionately known were a seasoned group, not as professional as some groups, but experienced. Sidelined because their [General] was in disgrace.

[Illusionists] could be terribly cruel.

 

—-

 

At the same time, in Liscor, a group of children were playing a war game of their own. Children played games, across every species.

And they tended to take from real life. So in this case, instead of being [Soldiers], they were the Watch.

‘Guards’ would have to fight bad guys, who used to be just ‘Humans’, but were now more nuanced. Sometimes they were monsters, other times, evil [Necromancers].

The game was very complex. If a [Necromancer] killed a [Guard], for instance, the [Guard] became a Zombie. Or a Draug—but that was often cheating.

[Mages] got to cast spells, and adventurers got to play too. There were about thirty children, running about the inn.

Customers were complaining, but the kids were also playing in the garden for the wonderful variety it offered. They hit each other, tossed each other into lakes, or pantomimed the hitting in lieu of actual striking. There was a gender imbalance in who actually hit each other, and several young boys of every species had gotten into a brawl twice. Ekirra was nursing a scratch on one cheek that Limi, a Drake boy, had given him.

Now, a group of guards were fighting off evil Humans coming to besiege the city. Mrsha, who’d lugged a ‘trebuchet’ towards the ‘city’, which were two overturned tables, was under fire. The defenders were pelting them with wads of cloth, towels—

“No dirt! No dirt!”

Ekirra yelped angrily. He scrubbed at his eyes and the dirt throwing stopped.

“This is getting out of hand. They’re making a mess!

“Aw, let them. They’re having fun.”

Erin was more blasé than Lyonette, who disproved of all this ‘roughhousing’ which was not how Mrsha should behave! Also—Erin wasn’t going to clean this up.

“The guests are paying for a relaxing experience, Erin.”

“No they’re not. They’re paying for weird shenanigans. This is part of the deal, right, Menolit?”

“Absolutely. Five gold says the kids take the city.”

The Drake was betting with Wilovan and Ratici. Erin wanted to know how he’d gotten that much gold. But the adult’s concerns were not that of the city under siege!

Indeed, the defenders were outnumbered five-to-one, and their rain of projectiles had nearly run out. Now, the attackers were about to break into the walls. That was when a little Drake emerged from the side.

Visma! She was neither guard nor evil Human soldier. She had…Erin paused in working on her new menu, where she was writing in a new dish—the Oteslian Trench—for vegetarians.

What was Visma supposed to be? The kids had codifying items, like a ‘helmet mug’ or a ‘wand’—Mrsha had a real one—but Visma just had an apron…and a small frying pan…

The Drake child raised it over her head as both sides stopped fighting.

I am the consequences! Raaaah!

“Run!”

Ekirra yelped and both sides fled into a screaming anarchy. Menolit hammered the table in fury, but the ‘Erin’ was running about, dispensing justice and organizing a mob to beat up all non-Goblins.

“Is that—is that supposed to be me?”

The seasoned guests were laughing their tails off. Erin didn’t know if she was supposed to be offended.

“That’s not fair! You can’t use the Erin in a siege!”

“You used the Erin in the last battle! We get to use ours!”

The defenders of the city shot back. Mrsha glumly nodded. That was fair. She fled as Visma chased her.

“I’m spitting blood! I’m spitting blood!”

She had gotten her hands on some ketchup. She was flinging it around. This prompted Lyonette to raise her voice.

“That’s it! That’s too much! Visma! Enough! Vis—”

Too late. The Drake girl joyfully hurled a clawful of ‘blood’. It splattered, half hitting Mrsha…

The other half hit the table behind Mrsha. A gentle rain of condiment splattered all over [Knight Marshal of the Rains], Earl Altestiel of Desonis, his two [Knight] bodyguards, and half of the table. And their food.

Visma stopped with the sudden guilt of someone who knew that something terribly wrong had occurred. Mrsha as well. They stared up at the adults as a Human man rose, flushing with fury.

“Earl! You children—”

They fled behind Lyonette as the [Princess] practically ran forwards.

“Towels! Liska! And water! I am so sorry, Earl—”

Altestiel wiped at a smear of ketchup on his chin. His aides were already using cleansing spells and enchanted handkerchiefs. He waved the outraged [Knight] down as the man was bellowing.

“Do be quiet, man. They’re children. I believe you’ve been struck. Play dead. We’re all casualties. Or—what, does the blood boil ours in our veins?”

He smiled as the [Knight] wavered. A terrified Visma peeked out as the Earl laughed. She relaxed slightly and volunteered the answer.

“You have to join the Erin-army! You’re only free if you do something crazy!”

“There, you see?”

The Earl chuckled. Strategist Kiish looked horribly offended at…everything.

“Milord, we could arrange a private room if you wish to dine here—

By here, she clearly meant ‘in this cesspool of wanton disrespect and filth’. But the Earl just fixed her with a stern look.

“Kiish, that would completely defeat the point.”

The Earl sighed. They just didn’t seem to understand. Sometimes he despaired of his loyal, competent, yet…narrow-minded aides. Ask them to destroy the enemy’s fortifications and they would give you a hundred solutions. Ask them to find the value in this inn? They would rather sip tea in a fancy Invrisil café.

This was The Wandering Inn. And today…it was chaotically calm. The kids, somewhat subdued, moved their playing to the higher floors and the garden. Now that the battle for Liscor was over, they’d probably play ‘dungeon death’ with Facestealer.

“I’m Facestealer! Me! Me!”

Ekirra howled as the others tried to get the position. Meanwhile, Mrsha had gone over to Palt and was tugging on his leg.

“What? Mrsha, I’m busy—”

He was making more of his products, rolling powder up, inserting magical plant bits between tobacco, and so on. He also had a few mushrooms from the Wailant farm. But he obligingly bent over.

Palt, can you cast [Darkness] on the second floor for us? Pwease?

Mrsha’s handwriting was accompanied by a cute little heart. Palt chuckled at the bare manipulation in the writing.

“Don’t you have the Shadow Loaf?”

Mrsha shook her head rapidly. She didn’t know where Erin had put it! And besides, they wanted darkness! Then they could creep about, hiding from the ‘Facestealer’.

“Oh, alright then.”

Palt heaved himself to his hooves with a sigh. He passed by Numbtongue, who was practicing on the guitar. The Hobgoblin demurred when Mrsha asked him to help play.

A fun, grand time. Erin Solstice was a bit miffed about her role in the games, but she let it slide. She wandered over to a blue Drake playing chess against an Antinium in a corner of the inn.

“Olesm! Any news from Maviola?”

The Drake and Belgrade looked up. Olesm shook his head.

“Not yet. She’s still on her way. Saliss too?”

“Yep. A lot slower since they’re not like, running all the way back, right? With [Haste] potions and stuff…”

“Miss Erin, hello.”

“Hello, Belgrade. What’s up?

The [Trapsetter Tactician] stopped waving one hand.

“Has Miss Ryoka sent word?”

For a moment Erin’s smile faltered.

“…She’s still recovering, I think, Belgrade. No word from her. I’m sure she’ll be sending [Messages] by the time Saliss and Maviola arrive. Like, tomorrow. Right, Olesm?”

He nodded.

“That’s when Maviola thinks she’ll arrive. Tomorrow or the next day. Ryoka will be awake by then.”

Surely. Erin sighed, but Ryoka was fine. Being tended to…Maviola and Saliss were coming back, and the Circle and Guild of Assassins was being taken to pieces.

The worst was over.

 

—-

 

The reason why Wilovan and Ratici were here was because their job had yet to end. And they were watching the door. Because they didn’t think the Guild of Assassins were going to take this lying down.

In fact, they had rooms, and some good fellows were keeping an eye on Invrisil’s side. Similarly—they were reassured by the presence of a [Strategist], the Earl…even off-duty [Guards] and people like Menolit, who was a [Veteran].

What was very interesting though was…The Wandering Inn had no lack of notable guests. Normally, the cycle went in ebbs and flows. Something weird or astonishing happened, like the advent of pizza and the inn filled. Then…after all the excitement, it emptied for a while.

Breathing room. But after the battle for Invrisil, the ebb had never occurred. The inn was crowded. The [Innkeeper]—no, the entire building, the place, the landmark—was becoming a place where you went, rain or shine.

And speaking of rain…Earl Altestiel himself was a face that put even the Faces to shame. A name far larger than Lord Alman of House Whatever.

Chaldion had made an appearance only yesterday, Grimalkin was re-invited although he had only come to check on the weights room lists…

It was not only the Titan of Baleros who took note. Although certainly, Wilovan and Ratici represented his will and eyes in the inn. But he had let the moment pass him by. His visit was beyond due. Yet if you didn’t strike while the iron was hot…

“Pelt! Come on in! Come on in! What’s the occasion?”

Erin was greeting the Dwarf. He stumped into the inn.

“Don’t make a fuss. I’m just here to consult with Kevin. What’s the first order? Also—ale. Make it three mugs. What do you want, Kevin?”

Look at the bustle! Kevin spread out his designs and the list of orders. After much deliberation and infighting—Khelt was still on top.

“We need six bikes. Not all the same model…take a look at my off-road designs. Can you make…?”

“Do I look like an amateur? I have steel! I have stockpiles of good metal! Give me the numbers. Where’s my ale?”

Fierre was running over numbers in her head. Liscor or Invrisil? Or Pallass? …No. But how much was a lease on a small place if she—?

Palt was trotting back downstairs, carefully, as a cloud of darkness enveloped the second floor. Hexel had cause to complain about it—he was on his day off!

It seemed like one of those days. Erin was telling Silveran to check for Hedault if Pelt was here. She really should have been checking the metaphorical windows.

A storm was coming.

“Save me a game, Belgrade!”

The [Innkeeper] called out to the Antinium. She saw more people waving for her, but noticed Altestiel first. The Earl had waited for her to be free.

“Oh—hey, Altestiel.”

Earl!

Kiish whisper-howled. Erin ignored that since Altestiel never seemed bothered, even pleased by the title.

“Thanks for being so cool about the ketchup. Are you here for anything? Can I get…someone else to get you something?”

She saw him smile at that. Altestiel’s hair—purple and silver, his yellow eyes—not to mention his ghost green-white cloth armor mixed with the light cherry pink of the sigil of Desonis were a striking combination. He seemed at ease in the inn’s humble chairs as he might be in royal comfort.

And he was an Earl. She knew Ilvriss had been the same, but his…rank was more apparent to her now. She had more of a sense of his level, and power.

And here he sat. The Earl looked around the inn and nodded.

“I’d be delighted to play a game of chess if you had time, Miss Solstice. As ever.”

“Of course! I’m always up for chess!”

Erin was happy, especially because Altestiel was an opponent she had to concentrate against. She could and had smoked some players while not even looking at the board, cooking and cleaning. But Altestiel was one of the few who could challenge her and beat her with anything like regularity, especially if he used a Skill.

They went over to a board that was already waiting. Half of the retinue wanted to follow, but the Earl made them sit, much to Erin’s relief. They weren’t bored, for all they seemed to think the inn was beneath them.

When they saw their liege lord would be occupied, some went to the weights room, another went to play cards, and some more to watch the play in the other half of the inn. The [Silence] spell and a curtain really did do wonders to make the actor’s setup feel like a different place entirely.

“It’s great to have an opponent who’s free. Um—I mean, I have the chessboard…a different opponent, then.”

“Yes. The magic chessboard. Quite an interesting thing, isn’t it?”

Despite her canny chess opening, Erin had walked into that conversation. She hesitated as she placed a piece.

“…Yeah. Any ideas who might own it?”

“A few. But I would not like to guess. Anyone can commission a magical chessboard with the means, of course.”

“Mhm. Well, they’re a good player. Beat me yesterday.”

It had been a good game. Erin was just frustrated she lost. She was competitive where chess was concerned. Altestiel smiled, thinking over his next piece.

“I cannot think of many who could beat you in a game of chess. That narrows it down quite a bit. But again, it would be speculation. An educated speculation, but…I have to say—it was worth travelling this far to meet you, Miss Solstice. My only regret is that I will have to return to Desonis soon.”

“Really? Aw. Your vacation is ending?”

Kiish, who’d refused to go too far, coughed. Altestiel hesitated and his genial, rather smoothly-calm expression flickered.

“I—may have extended my stay.”

Another pointed cough.

“Her Majesty—”

“Kiish? Why don’t you stand over there?”

Altestiel pointed. Kiish hesitated, then slunk off. She peeked at them as Erin eyed Altestiel.

“Marching orders?”

He actually laughed at that.

“My [Queen] is capable of giving them to me. But we’re not at war—it’s just this Ailendamus business. She would rather have me closer to home, rather than separated by a sea if the worst came to it.”

“Oh, the war. Right. Um…how much trouble are you in?”

A loud cough. The Earl’s smile really twitched.

“Kiish? I will make you wait by the outhouses. Nothing to worry about, Miss Solstice. A bit of royal displeasure fades.”

Erin raised her eyebrows. The [Knight Marshal] looked at her, and then sighed.

“—The royal decree may have come yesterday. You see, we’d been nearly a month over our projected time already, travelling, touring before reaching Invrisil. But one day won’t trouble her Majesty. No matter what kind of…threats…she may make in anger.”

“Uh oh. Why are you staying, then?”

The Earl paused. It was a rare moment when he was being routed in words—thanks to Kiish—as well as on the chessboard. Refreshing, really. If it was another opponent who wasn’t so enjoyable? He might have been rather annoyed, or at least, competitive.

But he wasn’t just playing chess. The Earl Altestiel of Desonis was, if you asked Olesm or his adjutants, or many of his enemies, a rather clever man.

A [Knight Marshal]. Not low-level. He solved problems, and those problems were sometimes entire armies. He was clever enough to read the signs placed all over the inn. To ask questions about the history.

—Still, his opponent was nearly impossible to read. The outer layer? Of course. The challenge was one no one had managed yet, to his knowledge.

Another man might tread carefully. But the Earl had a royal order threatening to drag him back—and the [Knights] would do it if it came to it, despite being in his service. Moreover—Altestiel was Altestiel. Unlike Lord Bel, he didn’t dance.

When it came to it, he played his hand and let the rain fall. The [Knight Marshal] sighed and mustered his best cards.

“You know, Miss Solstice. The answer is…you. Desonis is far from Liscor, or even Izril. I would hate to be out of touch with such a fine chess opponent. And an interesting person and place like this!”

Erin’s fingers slipped on a pawn. But then she looked up and smiled.

“Thanks, Altestiel! I wish you could stay a bit—but maybe we can play chess via [Message]? You know chess notation, right?”

“Strategist’s Olesm’s magazine has educated me as to it. Such a complex system. I wonder where he got it from?”

“…Mhm…”

Erin avoided the gaze. Altestiel waited; he could handle the awkward silence. But so could she.

“Your move.”

The [Knight Marshal] checked the board.

“It is indeed. Miss Erin Solstice. Do you know much about Desonis?”

“…It’s got a [Knight Marshal]?”

He laughed. Erin clarified.

“And it’s on the coast. But um—no.”

“That is quite fair. Desonis is rather waterlogged, in fact. Many tributaries—if you have a map, it looks like fingers, bits of land instead of a solid coastline. Marshy would be an uncharitable way of describing it. I’m told some Lizardfolk feel right at home, and we actually have a small population.”

Hexel nodded as he passed by the table. Altestiel made a small gesture towards him and the Lamia grinned and bowed slightly. The Earl went on.

“We specialize in fishing, as many coastal nations do, but we also have some rather fine sky-buildings—that is to say, highly elevated architecture, to deal with the flooding that often occurs during monsoon seasons. And if I might say so—Desonis pottery is rather well-sought across the world. Excellent clay and other deposits in the marshes, you see.”

“Ooh. That does sound nice. I’d like to visit someday.”

“I should like that quite a bit. A shame your door has not nearly the reach. And teleportation on that level is…impossible for all but an Archmage. It would tax even my finances.”

The Earl sighed. Yes indeed. Then he looked at Erin.

“But I would be delighted if that ‘someday’ were sooner, Miss Solstice. Have you ever considered travelling?”

Erin hesitated. Olesm’s head rotated slightly at his table.

“Well—to the other Walled Cities? But it’s far for even that. It sounds very far to Terandria.”

“Could I offer you an escort? Passage, lodging?”

“That’s tempting! Maybe when I have time…someday. Sorry.”

Altestiel smiled as Erin looked up guiltily.

“That is the problem, isn’t it? You’d have to have a sufficient reason to travel about. Well, Erin…it may be indelicate of me to put it just so, considering we have only met, but I hope you might consider it seriously. I would be delighted to entertain you. And I think you might find Desonis to your liking. I cannot transport your inn across the world—but I would arrange any number of other alternatives. Lodging for however many guests? A second inn?”

Erin Solstice hesitated as she reached for a knight in trouble.

“That’s—super generous, Altestiel. But we’d be an inconvenience.”

“I assure you, it would be my delight.”

Kiish was edging closer slowly, a frown on her face. Belgrade poked Olesm; the Drake was just listening. Palt hesitated in rolling up a cigar.

Wait a moment here.

Altestiel looked at Erin. She smiled faintly.

“…That’s really nice of you, Altestiel.”

What a perfect, airtight defense. Deliberate or not, no wonder they’d fallen. Better than a wall of pawns. Altestiel just smiled.

“You are a remarkable player, Erin Solstice. And it seems I must say it outright. Would you consent to me courting your affections, Miss Erin? However briefly I have—I’ve been rather taken with you.”

Erin placed the knight. She sat back, smiled at Altestiel. Then she rubbed at one ear.

“…Huh?”

Crash. Olesm had fallen out of his seat. Altestiel’s smile was like the moment he’d ordered the halberdiers into the flank and committed his entire line to holding off the enemy’s front, eight years ago.

“I would like to court you, Erin. With your permission.”

She froze in the act of tugging at an earlobe. The ambient conversation in the inn…slowly went silent.

What had he just said? Casual eavesdroppers, other people sensing the moment, looked up. Someone edged past the curtain and [Silence] spell and interrupted a play.

Hey! Get over here and listen—

Erin’s mind was blank. She opened and closed her mouth like a goldfish. Altestiel himself was somewhat taken aback.

Asking to court a [Lady] was common enough. Asking her directly? He’d thought it was a masterful act. But Erin’s stupefaction was either a Level 30 [Actor]’s Skill or genuine.

“Earl!”

Kiish broke the silence. Erin and Altestiel realized everyone was staring.

Numbtongue, Palt, Olesm, Belgrade, Lyonette, Ekirra and Mrsha on the stairs, Hexel by the door, Menolit, Kevin, Hedault, Selys—Pelt was drinking and laughing his butt off—looking.

Erin immediately turned crimson. Altestiel? He coolly raised a finger.

“Privacy, please? This is rather rude.”

Everyone immediately turned away. Then realized they’d turned away.

Erin started. The Earl’s aura felt like cool water, touching everyone but her. In this inn—it was the second-most powerful aura. She hesitated. But the question was…she stared at Altestiel.

“Are you serious?”

“I am indeed. I wouldn’t lie about something like this, Erin.”

She hesitated. He was in his early forties! He was—she stared at him.

“You’re really serious? But why?”

“Because I find you fascinating. I’m only asking to court you, Miss Solstice. And I believe I did have to ask. Nothing more. Would you consent to let me tender you my affections, however poorly?”

“N—why?

The Earl didn’t look away, at Kiish, his other companions, all of whom really wanted to get a word in edgewise.

“Erin. You are one of the most unique people I’ve ever met, and in a positive way at that. You could charm a Creler, I believe.”

“No I can’t.”

He smiled, ignoring the comment. The Earl looked Erin up and down. He saw her, perhaps more clearly than most people.

“I could go on. But I would like you to believe, Erin Solstice, that there is something you possess that is deeply attractive. Would you at least let me explain why?”

She turned bright red. He’d said that with a straight face. In front of people! Numbtongue stared at Altestiel. The man was cool as—rainwater. As slick as a puddle. Or some rain-analogy.

Erin Solstice had no idea what to say. ‘No’ was her first instinct. But why? It was just…sudden.

Olesm expected Erin to say no. He waited with sheer confidence, willing to applaud Altestiel, but convinced it would be a no. He waited for it to come in a second.

Then five seconds.

Then twenty…

After a full minute, Erin looked at Altestiel.

“Me? But wh—”

“Are you unwilling to even consider it a moment? If that is your answer, I will accept it, Erin Solstice.”

The [Knight Marshal]’s face fell. He hesitated, then stood slowly. Looking…

“You clever bastard.”

Palt murmured. That was what was missing. Erin looked at Altestiel. Then she stood, flustered.

“No! I mean—”

Everyone waited on her response. Erin looked around, and then, beet-red, muttered.

“Okay?”

And Altestiel took The Wandering Inn by storm.

 

—-

 

“I feel as though I’ve failed you, Ser Solstice.”

Talia Kallinad was flushed with embarrassment. It made Rabbiteater feel embarrassed for her. Also—dead.

He was going to die. But the Hobgoblin had thought that many times. It was almost a friend’s thought.

“Why?”

“I…we should have continued to fight. As it is, we will be ransomed. At cost. I think my family will pay your ransom, but it is a [Knight]’s shame. This is not how I hoped you would see the Order of Seasons, at our lowest.”

The other [Knights] murmured agreement. They were all sitting, cuffed, in a tent. Not in full chains, and not treated too harshly; they’d been tended to with rough military medicine and even given food, albeit gross food for the [Knights].

Good for Rabbiteater. And most crucially—they’d let the ‘Goblin Slayer’ keep his armor. The other [Knights] were partially disarmed, all helmets off…

It wouldn’t last. Talia indicated the [Soldiers] on guard in front of the tent.

“If we had fought…”

If, if, if. Rabbiteater thought back to the moment it had all gone wrong.

Ailendamus ships at sea. They’d told the [Captain] to pull over and surrender the [Knights], even though his was a neutral vessel. Talia had ordered him to lose the pursuit.

They’d fled. A fight had broken out. A fireball had burned the sails, and three ships had drawn alongside. It would be a fight three-to-one, perhaps in the water.

Not exactly ideal for the [Knights], with their horses belowdecks and most not at home with naval combat. Talia had conferred with her Order and elected to surrender.

Rabbiteater could have opposed it. But the odds of survival…

“What will happen?”

“You will be ransomed, Ser Solstice. No improprieties will be taken. The Order of Seasons would not stand for that and Ailendamus is not entirely morally corrupt.”

A Spring Knight raised her voice to address the [Soldiers] outside. They ignored her. The others explained.

The thing was…they needed to know who Rabbiteater was. They would ransom him, expecting a [Knight] to be able to pay something or be imprisoned.

But who would pay Rabbiteater’s ransom? And even if they did—

“I regret your vow may be broken.”

Talia finished. Rabbiteater nodded. He should have just jumped ship and abandoned them.

But he’d been playing [Knight].

Playing [Knight]. A good way to put it. Rabbiteater was a Level 5 [Knight]. Not a high-level one. Not…a [Champion].

It was time to be honest. The Hobgoblin turned his helmeted head to look at Talia.

She had a huge black eye from where she’d been hit. No healing potions until they were ransomed.

“Talia. I have to tell you something.”

“Yes, Ser Solstice?”

“I…lied. I am not…a [Knight].”

The Order of Seasons stirred. They all looked at Ser Solstice, who they had embraced as their own. Talia’s eyes flickered.

She did not seem very surprised, but a bit.

“You mean, you have not our class, Solstice?”

That was her name for him. Solstice. Knight Solstice, Ser Solstice. Even that would become a lie. Rabbiteater shrugged. A Goblin’s answer.

“I have the class. Level 5. But I am not…a knight.

He tried to explain to her what he meant. It was hard; he was no Numbtongue.

He just didn’t feel his class. And that was probably why he’d stopped leveling. The more he understood about their culture, the harder it was to be one of them.

They embraced such different things than the Redfangs, than Goblins. Knightly virtues. A code of conduct. A way of fighting—ideals that Rabbiteater loved.

But he was not them. He was a Goblin, in disguise. He had no [Lord]. No [King]. No Order. He’d abandoned his Chieftain.

He’d lost his tribe, his people.

His brothers were dead, but for Badarrow.

He said these things, in ways that Talia could understand, or so he hoped. She nodded, slightly.

“…I see. You are not a [Knight]. But you gained our class. Thus…it is a strange thing. A [Knight]’s class should not be so easily bestowed. My friends?”

She looked at the other knights. One of the Summer Knights frowned, trying to scratch an itch on a knee with his elbow.

“I’ve heard something of the like, Dame Talia. But perhaps Ser Solstice fulfilled most of the requirements. So long as a man is of good character, has armor, and a cause, is he not a [Knight]? That is a question for an Autumn Knight to ask.”

The others nodded. Rabbiteater just shrugged. Perhaps Goblins had no [Lords]—at least not in the same way, so he didn’t need such things. Perhaps he was close as it got.

Did it matter? It did to Talia. It did to Rabbiteater, really. He looked into her earnest eyes as she scooted around to face him. Even bound, sitting cross-legged, there was something in her that drew him to her.

Righteousness, perhaps. Not just…arrogance. But a belief there was right and wrong. And that you could do the right thing. That was why he’d followed her across the sea. Also, because she smiled at him.

“I think, Ser Solstice, that you split hairs too easily. You may not feel yourself a knight. But if you have the class, then, Ser, you are a [Knight]. And one worthy of respect, for all we are different in many ways!”

The others murmured agreement. Rabbiteater? He laughed.

“If I take my helmet off—you will not say that.”

And then there was silence. Rabbiteater’s nerves vibrated. His heart beat. But he was tired of the lie.

Talia looked at Rabbiteater. Did she see a crimson flash of light between the visor? Perhaps not. She looked at him.

“…If, Ser Solstice, I were to judge you only by what I see, not the content of your character, I would be a poor [Knight] myself.”

So she said. He yearned to believe her. Rabbiteater just shook his head.

“Remember that. Please.”

“I have already sworn it.”

Then came the officer, and the group of [Soldiers] accompanying a [Mage]. They pointed.

“You. Come with us. Let’s get this over with.”

The first Spring Knight was hauled to their feet and marched, with some civility, to have their words and name taken and confirmed. To be ransomed. Rabbiteater closed his eyes.

“Ser Solstice. House Kallinad might ransom you along with me. I will tell the officer to do so—it is hardly an imposition.”

His eyes cracked open and hope blossomed. But only for a bit. Talia looked at Rabbiteater.

“However, Ser Solstice. Should it come to it, they will ask—is there anyone who might ransom you?”

Rabbiteater thought of a smiling young woman. A place to be safe, until it wasn’t. He closed his eyes.

“…I don’t think so. I left it behind. Can’t ask.”

He had no right to ask. He’d left them all behind to do what?

Play at being a [Knight]. Talia nodded.

“I see.”

 

—-

 

Crisis. Crisis in The Wandering Inn.

What was new? But no—seriously.

This was different.

Earl Altestiel, the cunning [Knight Marshal of the Rains] had made his move and cemented himself in the annals of guests to the inn. At the very least, he’d managed to render Erin Solstice speechless.

And yet, Selys couldn’t help but feel that this was all hilarious. At last! At last—she looked at Drassi, who’d rushed over at the news.

At last, here was some earth-shaking drama that demanded all their attention…that wasn’t actual death or monsters.

Because it was a big deal! Even if it wasn’t an Earl, that had been a dramatic scene. And as a consequence, Erin’s allies had flooded out of the woodwork.

Ah—to be more specific, it was Drassi, Selys, Montressa, Bezale—it would have been Krshia if she were still here—Visma, Mrsha…Lasica, Lyonette, and even Viceria!

Reinforcements for the wayward [Innkeeper]. Okay—some of the reinforcements might not be as helpful, but the female gender had come to Erin’s defense.

If only to buy time from the Earl’s dramatic statement. He seemed content to give Erin a few minutes—it had been twenty—and word was spreading.

Selys wondered what his next move would be. He had been, in her opinion, exceptionally clever in how he’d gotten Erin to agree to even let him court her. Just getting past that hurdle had stopped…

She glanced past Erin, who was talking with the others, and saw a bunch of heads immediately turn.

There they were. The usual suspects. The people who’d taken the news the most seriously. All the ‘might-have-beens’, the ‘not-yets’, or the maybes.

Palt. Olesm. Numbtongue? Yes, Numbtongue! And for some reason, Dawil.

“Dawil?”

Selys frowned. The Dwarf had come with the Silver Swords and arrived at Invrisil after their dramatic fight with the [Assassins]. The Dwarf was stroking his beard.

“Why are you here?”

Olesm hissed at the Dwarf. Dawil eyed him.

“Why are you here? I thought you were hooked up with Maviola El?”

“I’m not! I mean—I am! I’m just here to—to watch the Earl fail. And see how it happens.”

Olesm huffed. Similarly, you could argue that Palt was out of place. He kept looking towards the kitchen. But there he was. Dawil just shrugged.

“I’m five minutes back in Invrisil, and not only did Miss Solstice lead the Black Tide into the city, she’s got Master Pelt and Master Hedault working on that bicycle thing. And this! I’m throwing my beard into the competition. Think I’ve got a chance?”

Ylawes rubbed at his face. Selys shook her head, although…she gave the Dwarf like, four times the odds of the Drake standing next to him.

“Is that Culyss?”

Drassi whispered. Selys grimaced.

“Yes.”

Word had spread. Most were here for entertainment, but it seemed like people had decided that the courtship of Erin Solstice was now a competition—put your hats in or be silent! Wait—

…No, Wilovan and Ratici were standing outside of the ring of bachelors. Ah, good. Meanwhile, some people were just confused.

Erin was one of them.

“But why me?

She asked for the umpteenth time. At this point, even Mrsha and Visma punched her lightly on the butt. Erin jumped.

“Erin, you are amazing. You’ve never had anyone court you?”

“No one’s ever asked, Lasica. Not like that!”

“Well, they should. Rather than hovering around like acid flies over a rotting corpse.

The [Chef]’s words made half the bachelors standing around flinch. Numbtongue just folded his arms. He didn’t seem sure if he fit in.

And frankly—two species were confused about the proceedings here. Pawn walked over.

“Lyonette, can you expl—”

The [Wall of Femininity] blocked him from interfering with Erin as she tried to rally. Lyonette broke off and tried to explain—Belgrade was hovering as well.

“It’s courtship, Pawn.”

“Ah, you mean, like—”

I’m here! Am I late? Dead gods, I can’t have missed it!

The door slammed open. Everyone flinched—and Jelaqua Ivirith strode into the inn. She inserted herself into the group. Ulinde—did not follow. The Selphid walked over with Seborn and Moore, shaking his head; he was a male Human today.

“Why is everyone making a huge deal about this?”

Erin looked around, trying to breathe. Mrsha handed up a card, solemnly.

Because it’s funny.

Lasica read. She swatted at the little Gnoll and Mrsha bounded away. Lasica would have chased after her, but that would have given Rufelt an apoplexy, for all she wasn’t even showing her pregnancy yet.

“Children. But you’re right, Erin. This is ridiculous.”

“Exactly. They should just walk over to you, announce their intentions, and present gifts or ask you to join them in activities! The Earl was half-right—he just shouldn’t have left you hanging!”

Lasica gave Bezale the side-eye. The Minotauress clearly had a different perspective on this than the Drake.

My point is that this is too much. Erin, if you don’t like it, tell this Earl to stop. Otherwise—enjoy the attention.”

The [Innkeeper] looked at the [Cook]. Viceria half-nodded and smiled.

“Do you want to not be courted?”

“Yes! No! I don’t want to make him upset. I just said yes—”

“That’s not the point, Erin. Is this so unfamiliar?”

Montressa put in. The others nodded. Erin hesitated.

“…What am I supposed to do?”

“Enjoy it?”

“Listen to what he’s saying?”

“Stop asking ‘why’?”

“Reciprocate?”

The group turned towards Drassi. The [Reporter] held her claws up.

“Only if she wants to!”

From the looks of it, that was the last thing on Erin’s mind. Which was…in itself curious. Selys had long observed that Erin seemed to lack even a single romantic bone in her body. Heck—Selys might have had the ill-fated relationship with Hawk she felt very bad about now—but she had wanted, well, romance.

Wasn’t that a natural thing? From Jelaqua to Bezale to Lasica to…well, the kids were kids. But even they pretended to play ‘inn’, and such.

Each in their own style. It was definitely wrong to say it was all one thing. For instance, Rufelt was not Wailant was not…Maughin. But the commonality was there. Short-term, like Drassi’s flings. Long-term marriages…

“Erin, do you want to…fall in love?”

Selys put it into a simple question as direct as the Earl’s. Erin stared at her friend.

“What kind of question is that?”

“A pertinent one? If you’re going to be all Dullahan about it—”

“Hey, that’s speciesist!”

“—you should let people know. I guess the first question—the only question is, Erin—do you want to be in a relationship?”

Erin opened her mouth. Selys went on.

Someday. Ever?

Fierre offered a blood sausage to Mrsha as she sidled up. The Gnoll sniffed it, and declined. Apista buzzed about—she wanted in on this too! Fierre ducked.

Everyone else waited. This was the question. Heck, Krshia Silverfang might have turned around right there and then to join in. Maviola would have ridden in and Ryoka would have probably crawled out of her coma if only she knew this was what was at stake.

As it turned out, the answer was easy. Erin Solstice’s gaze cleared. She looked at Galina, Rose, Imani, around at the others, and then at Selys. It was a whisper, but it was certain.

“Yes.”

Selys exhaled.

“Then I guess that’s one problem solved. Now we just have to figure out everything else.”

The Drake was a bit relieved. She hadn’t been sure, entirely sure what the answer would be. She looked around as the others debated.

“Well, Erin should hear the Earl out. Poor man’s got to go. It’s flattering, really.”

“I’d be intimidated. An Earl?

“That’s like Goblin Lord, right? Very important?”

Drassi shrugged.

“I don’t kn—”

She jumped. Snapjaw was there. She stared pointedly as Badarrow talked to Numbtongue. He looked around and waved at her. Snapjaw folded her arms.

…Yes. Look at that. Then why hadn’t Erin…? Some were obvious. Olesm had been obvious like the sun. Palt? Ditto. Now, it might be preference. But while Selys could have believed that about another Human, Erin?

Let’s see. Goblins’, and there had been as many as five, but you could understand that. Olesm…Palt…and Culyss?

No, he didn’t count. Selys sighed. She was curious to wonder how the Earl would approach this. He was clearly smart enough to get past Erin’s first defense: obfuscating obliviousness. But could he go the distance?

For that matter—whose side was this group on? The answer, it appeared, was obvious.

They were on the side of the most interesting thing that had dragged them away from their jobs and everything else. The possibility of the L-word. Or possibly the R-word. Not so much the sex word.

But the possibility there was love. Or romance. Or…at least watching the wagon-pileup that might occur. All these things were valid reasons.

“Okay. If he wants to…I don’t know. Lasic—Montressa, Drassi, Selys. What am I supposed to do?”

“What do you mean, ‘do’, Erin?”

Drassi bent down. Lasica folded her arms.

“And why did you ask them?”

“I thought you’d forgotten how dates work—ow!”

Lasica smacked the back of Erin’s head. The others chuckled. But it became clear to almost everyone that the issue was now more than Erin’s objections to being romanced herself.

She was clearly nervous. Afraid. Erin, who had done so much. And why?

Why not? Had not each and every one there not felt the same trepidation? A countless number of fears.

What if I embarrass myself? What if I ruin things? What if I’m hated? What if—

A commonality they all could understand. Well, perhaps not Mrsha or Visma. They looked at each other. And Montressa had it. She glanced at the shuffling Centaur, at Kiish, who’d returned to stare at Erin as if all this was her fault.

“Erin. I think what you should do is just…relax. Can I give you a hand with that?”

“If I could, I would, Montressa. I just don’t know—”

“Don’t do anything. Just be…[Calm].

It wasn’t any other kind of spell. But the glowing hand made Erin jump—then relax.

“…Hey. That’s better.”

Erin exhaled. Selys saw Drassi give Montressa a thumb-claw up. The [Aegiscaster] nodded.

Next came Jelaqua. The Selphid actually had some good advice as Erin breathed and Mrsha and Visma ran off to find Lyonette. Belgrade had vanished upon hearing a condensed version of what was happening.

“Erin, just relax. Have fun! No one’s expecting anything of you so you don’t have to promise anything. But…take it seriously.”

Erin nearly needed another [Calm] spell.

“H-how, Jelaqua?”

“Well…imagine if you think it’ll work. Look around.”

Erin did. Jelaqua pointed.

“Think it’d work out with that Drake?”

“Culyss? No.”

“Well, there you go. Hey! You! Out! You’re not needed!

Jelaqua shouted at Culyss. Erin tried to stop her. But the point, however made, worked.

“That’s right. Just—Erin. Just see how it goes. Do you think there’s even a chance? Haven’t you daydreamed about stuff like that before? Like…”

Selys closed her jaws before she could give anything away. Erin looked at her friend.

“Okay. I’ll try.”

That was all they wanted to hear. Lyonette strode over.

“Erin. Out of your clothes.”

“Oh wow.”

Menolit’s head snapped around. Erin grabbed her apron and stood up.

“Lyonette—”

“I mean, in your room. What are you, children? If Earl Altestiel is going to court you, you owe it to him to at least not wear…”

She gestured at the floury apron and clothing speckled with Erin-blood from the game and some dirt from gardening. Erin sighed.

This is where it gets complex!”

“Putting on clothes?”

“Yes! I mean—what’s appropriate. Do I super-dress up? It makes me nervous.”

“I could cast [Calm] again.”

“Maybe [Mind Blank], Montressa—”

Bezale nearly got kicked down the stairs by Selys, who hadn’t forgotten their first encounter. Chastened, the Minotauress joined the group going up to Erin’s room. The [Innkeeper] was protesting.

“I just don’t know—”

“That’s why you have us. And you need us, Erin. Especially if your taste in clothes is as bad as your cooking variety. What do you have? If we need to, we can get someone to buy a decent…”

Lasica chivvied the others into the room.

 

—-

 

It took only ten minutes to get Erin into decent clothing. Which—after she’d kicked out most of her ‘helpful friends’, was a more stylish take on jeans and a t-shirt. Well, that was too casual. It was more reminiscent of the loose garments favored by City Gnolls of both genders combined with an open, short-sleeved (yet high necked) blouse. Fierre had suggested that one for various reasons.

Liscorian style. Lyonette wanted something more formal, but that, to Selys and the others, was suggestive. The Earl hadn’t asked for anything and he’d rather sprung it on her. Just something nice.

As Erin descended the stairs, it began in earnest. The doors blew open—

And Garry came striding into the inn.

“I am told that someone is trying to take Erin away to another continent to marry her! I wish to court you, Erin! Do not go!”

He had a cake. Selys stared at it.

“And so it begins. The courtship gifts. At least someone came prepared.”

Bezale’s comment zinged over the suitors once more. Erin hesitated.

“Garry…there are so many things that—is that cake insect-free?”

“Maybe.”

The [Innkeeper] had expected nothing less. She bit her lip, but the [Calm] spell really was helping. How silly! And yet—she looked over her shoulder. There they were. She supposed she’d always known. Okay—she’d sort of been deliberate about not knowing. But—

Numbtongue? The [Bard] met her eyes, and then looked past her. Erin hesitated.

Really?

But there he was. What had Jelaqua said? Imagine…Erin turned back to Garry, her mind going elsewhere for a moment.

“Look, Garry. It’s just—I’m letting someone court me. I’m not even dating! Wait, is this a date?”

She turned back to look at the others and got a mixed response. Erin threw up her arms.

“The Earl’s not even here! It’s not like I need a cake! What flavor is it?”

“A cherry-cheesecake blend.”

“Oh, really? I’d actually love a slice if it’s bug-free…”

Then came the sound. At first, it was low. It had been building, but as Erin stepped forwards to investigate the dubious cake, she heard a murmur. A rushing sound.

The rain began to fall on the roof of The Wandering Inn. Everyone looked up.

“The [Weather Mage] didn’t predict rain today.”

“That’s Invrisil, Wilovan.”

“Ah, quite so, Ratici. Yet I recall Liscor’s skies were right clear a moment ago.”

It was just rain. But…everyone slowly looked towards the windows. Erin hesitated. Garry looked around with the cake in his hands. And it occurred to Selys, belatedly, that she had made one mistake in prepping Erin.

She’d forgotten to ask how an Earl might court someone, tactful or intelligent as he might be. Slowly, every guest went to the windows or the doors. The [Innkeeper] just walked outside, past Hexel, who was measuring the new portal-room out with his apprentices. The [Architect] saw Erin pass and he winked.

“An exciting day.”

“Is it?”

She looked at him, with trepidation, one hand on the door. The Lamia regarded Erin thoughtfully.

“I should imagine you’d like this more than most, Miss Solstice.”

The rain fell harder. Erin heard it drumming. Like her heart, despite the spell.

“But I—don’t know if I can answer them. Why would I like this?”

“Because it’s them showing you how much you matter to them. Well, young men do it poorly. We’ll see about Earls. But if their hearts are in the right place—friendship isn’t a bad place to start. Or do you dislike them?”

Erin looked around. A faint smile crossed her face.

“I suppose they’re okay.”

She winked at a Hobgoblin and got an embarrassed grin. Two, really, but Snapjaw elbowed Badarrow so hard it went away.

That made more sense. Then she opened the doors and saw.

 

—-

 

The morning’s clear weather was being replaced by rain. Rain, despite the clear skies of the morning.

…And the clear skies of now. Watch Captain Zevara stared. Just ahead of the inn was a localized weather front.

Rain, falling from the clear skies. It had turned grey, but not cloudy. Not dark. And there was light. Oh yes. And one more thing.

“Is the rain…purple?”

She saw the tint in the weather. But no one answered her. Jeiss whistled slowly.

“Now that is an entrance, Watch Captain.”

He pointed down.

 

—-

 

The Marshal of the Rains stood in a ray of light, as the wind and rains blew around him. His company had spread out and were lifting wands or artifacts towards the sky. Directing the weather—

But the rains were his. They fell around Erin as she looked up, mouth open slightly. A gentle rain, flurrying. And then—caught by the mist and droplets, the sun touched the prisms.

And there were rainbows. They cascaded from the beams of light emitted from Kiish’s wand. Arcs of every color, hanging in the air.

Double rainbow? More than Erin could count. And as she stepped outside—the curtains of rain parted. The grass was wet underfoot, but Erin’s only touch of the rain was as she put out a hand and felt it at the tips of her finger.

An invisible umbrella surrounded her. No one else. Rain got in Olesm’s eye as he leaned out the window and he cursed.

“Um…Altestiel?”

He hadn’t changed his clothes. But he had added to them. A mantle sat on his shoulders. So familiar yet subtly different that Numbtongue and Badarrow started. A cloak—or perhaps a veil, so thin it was—of water.

Colored water too, looking misty and the palest ice blue imaginable while still being transparent. Luminous on its own.

“Whoa.”

Erin halted. But the Earl walked towards her. He had been standing on a hill just opposite The Wandering Inn. Yet—instead of walking down the valley and up the hill, which would have been less dignified and taken longer, he walked out.

Into the air. Onto a path of water. A road, like the light-bridges of Embria’s 4th Company. Erin rubbed at her eyes. Then she turned to Montressa, who was standing stock-still behind her.

“…That’s impressive, right?”

The [Aegiscaster] nodded slowly. The [Water Bridge] carried Altestiel forwards. He stood in front of Erin as it built itself out of the rain.

“Miss Erin Solstice.”

He swept her a courtly bow. Faintly, Erin looked up at him.

“I thought you weren’t going to make a big deal about this.”

“Did I say that? Besides—I often do this.”

His eyes twinkled. He held an arm out, bowing again.

“Miss Solstice. I’m told it’s safer these days. Pray—would you care to walk with me?”

In the rain? But it didn’t touch him. Erin looked at the colors and softly falling rain. The wind blew around her. And she felt—

That sensation you got when you stood, in the center, or watching a fabulous storm. Admiring the way the wind blew over a million blades of grass, moved the trees. Watching the rain fall a trillion drops each second.

Nature, all-encompassing. Unsurpassable. And awe inspiring. Erin might have been intimidated. But then she remembered what the others had told her. Hexel’s words.

And she looked at Altestiel. Really looked at him. He looked around, with the same youthful excitement in his eyes. He was dressed like royalty. He walked on water.

…But for a moment, Erin saw a boy who loved to stand in rainstorms. Maybe that’s where his class had started.

“Walk? And do what?”

“Talk. Tell me more about your favorite games of chess. Or I’ll talk about rain. Did you know it rains ice from the skies in the far north?”

“Hail?”

“You know it?”

Erin laughed. She stepped out, and then bounced on the bridge of water. It was buoyant, a bit slippery, but not as much as you’d expect!

“Whoa! This is so cool!

“I know, isn’t it? I walk around like this all the time when I have a chance. Her Majesty calls it showing off, but she’s just jealous.”

“Wh—wh—”

Montressa watched Erin hesitantly take a few more steps, asking if she could fall. The [Knight Marshal of the Rains] gestured and the bridge moved with them. And they began to walk. Across the Floodplains, escorted at a distance by Kiish and the others.

“Dude.”

Kevin looked at Joseph, who was open-mouthed. Well—almost everyone’s mouth was so wide open Apista could have flown in and out. Palt stared after Erin. She was actually…?

Someone put a heavy hand on his shoulder. The Centaur jumped. Bezale looked down at Palt and shook her head at the [Illusionist]. She gestured out of the window as the rains and rainbows followed Altestiel and Erin.

“You had better work on your gift, Palt. I would tell you I’m rooting for you, but that Human has class.”

She walked off as Mrsha happily ran about in the rain.

 

—-

 

Ser Markus and Dame Talia were being interrogated when Ser Solstice was brought in. Not dragged, not shoved into the chair, although he was bound and watched. By more [Soldiers] than either [Knight], the two noticed with some dismay.

But then, the Bear Brawlers had seen Ser Solstice fight. And they respected someone who fought with his all-or-nothing improvisation. It was painful to say, but the Order of Seasons with their discipline and expertise with their chosen weapons had not done as well in the mad chaos of the escape attempt.

Ser Markus was a bit dizzy; he’d been thrown like a bowling pin from one of the northern kingdom’s games by that [General]. But they’d given him some water and time to mutter his name and persons to contact.

“Sit here. No sudden moves. Hey, where’s the third [Mage]? Get him in here!”

“He ate something bad. One sec.”

The [Soldiers] were rough, crude, and still—they had well-maintained weapons and a casual confidence about them. That [General] hadn’t been the only one to take down the [Knights]. They were good [Brawlers] as well as [Soldiers].

“Why is Ser Solstice here? I told you that House Kallinad would pay his ransom and mine—”

Talia was outraged. The officer, a [Captain], who’d been taking down her details shook his head.

“House Kallinad’ll pay more than the Order of Seasons, but why do we have to go to one? You. Get money from both if you can, that’s the smart way. We’ll just see if this ‘Solstice’ fellow has anyone who wants to pay to keep him safe. That’s all.”

“Disgraceful. The Order will not forget this, nor Pheislant!”

Talia fumed. It was a considerable threat given the fact that the Order did crusade to right grievances. It was not wise to offend a [Lady] of a powerful family, either. Yet the [Captain]’s reply was a snort.

“And? There’s a lot of stuff they ‘haven’t forgotten’. I didn’t hear Pheislant declaring war.”

He smirked. Talia turned red with fury. The table she’d been sitting at began to smolder—and the [Soldiers] checked themselves.

“Stop that!”

The Summer Knight subsided and her aura faded. Ser Markus only wished he had command of his aura like hers. But both were more concerned about…

 

—-

 

Rabbiteater. The Goblin sat there, still in his armor. He could hear the Humans murmuring. That was a good way to look at it.

Humans. And he was a Goblin. They were all—

The [Captain] turned and Rabbiteater stirred. Wait a second. That was a half-Elf. He’d just been speaking so casually that the Hobgoblin had missed his pointed ears. He didn’t look as…fancy…as Falene. On the Elven Dignity Scale, he was really close to a Ceria. Unwashed face, stubble…

Half-immortal beauty. He gestured at Ser Solstice with a frown.

“Hey. Why’s his helmet on? Get it off and get his name.”

“His oath—

Someone shut up Talia with a prod from the butt of a spear. It was the [Lieutenant] who replied.

“This one’s some famous ‘Goblin Slayer’ from Izril, [Captain]. Unusual situation. Wiped out dozens of tribes by himself, so I hear. Swore an oath never to take off his helmet.”

Really?

And so it began again. Rabbiteater closed his eyes. The Order of Seasons was not shy about lauding him—or their fellow [Knights]. They’d told variations of his cover story all the way across Izril. The [Captain] listened with interest.

“What’s he done? You—Slayer. Got a tongue?”

Silence. Rabbiteater sat there. The [Captain] frowned.

“Don’t make this hard. When the [Mage] comes, we just want your name…Ser. We’re not savages. You tell us who to send a [Message] to—we’ll get your ransom, you’ll go free. We’ll feed you, make sure you don’t drop dead. Can’t say fairer than that. If you were a common [Footsoldier] we’d not be as nice.”

Rabbiteater folded his arms. The [Captain] exhaled.

“We’ll make you talk one way or the other.”

“Go ahead and torture. Have ten fingers. Start with them.”

The Goblin [Champion]-[Knight] put his hands on the table. He stared at the gauntlets. Even taking them off would reveal him. But the worst would come…

The [Captain] stared at the Goblin Slayer. He looked over his shoulder. One of the [Soldiers] whistled.

“They give ‘em steel balls in Izril, huh?”

“Or fat tongues.”

“Ser Solstice, I know you’ve sworn your vow. Don’t be unreasonable!”

Talia hissed. Markus joined her.

“He has sworn an oath, sirs. If you respect [Knight]’s vows at all, let him keep his helm! Ser Solstice would rather perish or be tortured than remove it!”

“Tree rot. This is stupid.”

Exasperated, the [Captain] swept his hand through his hair. Rabbiteater didn’t expect him to acquiesce. They were captives. But…he did.

Because Rabbiteater was a [Knight].

“Fine! It stays on! We don’t need to lop off a finger. Dead gods. Just get that [Mage] in here!”

The other Ailendamus [Soldiers] murmured as the [Lieutenant] took over. Rabbiteater heard them whispering.

“Heard he’s killed more Goblins than a Named Adventurer. Over a thousand Hobgoblins slain by his hand.”

“Who told you that?”

“One of the [Knights]. Swore she saw him kill an Ogre in battle with a single blow. Threw his weapon. Fights with anything he’s got. Sets traps—a Goblin’s worst nightmare.”

“Huh. Do you think he takes requests? My home had a Goblin tribe problem…”

See how they looked at him. Respect? Pity? Curiosity?

They were wrong about him. Both his captors and his friends.

He was no [Knight].

He was not the Goblin Slayer.

He wasn’t even Human.

He was a Hobgoblin, a Redfang, far from home. He had lost his tribe, lost his brothers in arms. Lost…

What…what was he supposed to be doing again? Rabbiteater wished it had not come to this.

Then the [Mage] arrived. The [Lieutenant] conferred, and the [Mage] just shrugged.

“I don’t need much. Let me just set up the [Truth] spell.”

It was a glowing light. Even Rabbiteater knew truth spells. The color binary was yellow and purple for whatever reason. But it was always the same.

Yellow was truth. Purple was falsehood. Any mix was a half-truth. The [Mage] sat back as he conducted the interview with the [Lieutenant]’s help.

“All we need to know is who to contact. And…a name to give them.”

“His oath—”

Would you two shut up? We’ll use whatever he wants! Goblin Slayer! Ser Solstice!”

The [Lieutenant] barked. Rabbiteater saw Talia was writing a [Message] on a scroll, corresponding with the Order of Seasons or House Kallinad. He supposed he’d have to do the same.

But the first step was harder than it looked.

“Who do we contact, [Knight]?”

“No one. No one to ransom.”

He had hope he’d live if House Kallinad would pay for him. That his [Knight]’s vow would keep his helmet on because of the Human’s silly rules. The [Mage] sighed, exasperated.

“Tricky one, huh? You get one in every ransom group. Everyone thinks they’re all alone. But they always have someone who’ll shell out gold for them. You have someone like that, Ser Knight.”

“No. I don’t.”

The truth spell was yellow. Only a hint of purple. The [Lieutenant] hesitated.

“Pretty clear to me…”

“Nonsense! He just thinks that. Truth spells aren’t infallible. Let me jog his memory.”

The [Mage] seemed to be taking his job seriously or it was a point of personal pride. Maybe he was a [Ransomer]?

The [Mage] leaned forwards and Rabbiteater saw he had a hawkish nose and a rather weak chin. Olive skin…distressingly attractive pink irises that didn’t fit his rough-and-ready appearance.

“Family. Everyone’s got family. Where’s yours?”

“Dead.”

Talia stirred. So did Markus. The Goblin Slayer had never talked about his past. The [Mage] glanced at the spell.

Half-truth. He sighed dramatically.

“Fine. Let’s take it one by one. First…Mother?”

“Dead.”

“…Father?”

“Don’t know. Probably dead.”

“Siblings?”

“Dead.”

The [Mage] checked himself. They were all complete truths.

“Er…were they accidents? Disease? Natural causes?”

“Oh come on, Telich—”

The [Lieutenant] hissed at him. Rabbiteater looked at the [Mage]. The truth spell tempted him.

“Murdered.”

Yellow truth shone through. The [Mage] hesitated. Someone muttered a word.

Goblins.

The story was being pieced together by the audience to the legend of the Goblin Slayer. The [Mage] cleared his throat awkwardly.

“Right. Well…no ransoms there. How about…your people? Your city? Your sworn [Lord]?”

Rabbiteater had pledged to help Rags. But his Chieftain? He thought of that glorious Goblin and closed his eyes.

“All dead. Everyone I had is dead. Murdered.”

“Lancearrows bugger me, this is depressing.”

Someone murmured in the background. The [Mage] himself looked distressed. But he noticed the telltale mix of colors in the truth spell.

“But there are some alive, aren’t there?”

Rags, Badarrow, Snapjaw, Calescent…

Erin?

It was true. Rabbiteater was silent. The [Mage] tapped a finger on the table.

“One of them would pay for you, wouldn’t they?”

The Hobgoblin doubted Rags was accepting [Message] spells. He thought of Erin and shook his head slowly.

“I left them. I will die here. Do not—deserve—to bother them.”

His truth shone from the spell. The [Lieutenant] looked at the [Knight] and turned.

“I need a moment.”

The [Mage] shook his head. He’d seen ‘loner knights’ before and such, but this was a new one, even on him. He looked around.

“Hey—you. Toss me that flask, right? Ale? Someone pour this bugger a drink. Then…let’s figure out who’s out there. If any.”

A flask and dirty cup was produced. Rabbiteater found a drink in his hands—and a straw. But the questioning continued, to find a name. The [Mage] wanted to know who remained. Purely out of professional curiosity this time. And in time…he sent a [Message] to Liscor.

 

—-

 

The Wandering Inn was a flurry of activity. Many people were just discussing the grandiose gesture. The Earl and Erin were still walking the Floodplains.

Even so—opinions were divided.

“Showoff. Who likes grand gestures like that? It’s not how I’d want to be courted.”

Menolit looked annoyed. One of the female Gnolls snorted.

“And you’re an expert? Oh—also, you’ve had so much success yourself.”

The [Veteran] looked incredibly hurt.

“I’m just saying…and I have had success! But who likes that kind of fancy thing?”

“Some people do. It seemed to work on Miss Erin now, didn’t it?”

“Certainly makes it harder for the competition.”

Every head turned towards a flustered Drake looking around in his bag of holding, for something…anything. Olesm sensed the eyes and looked up. Menolit and the gossip circle turned their heads.

“He’s not got a chance. No prep, nothing. Missed his chance. Disgraceful for a [Strategist], really. But I have seven silver on my guy.”

“…Which guy?”

Menolit gestured. And Numbtongue was there. Intently listening to his advisor.

“You have to give her something pretty.”

“Mm. This?”

“That’s good. What about two?

The Hobgoblin eyed the cut emerald. That was a good point. He was glad Visma was advising him on this kind of thing. He fumbled around in his mining sack and produced a sapphire.

“This?”

“Do you have anything shinier?

In the Antinium corner, Lyonette was shaking her head playing her ‘advisor’ role mainly by trying to talk Garry out of baking another cake.

“Just…just tell Erin you like her, Garry.”

“Should I not make a grand gesture? Romeo says many kind words.”

“That’s a play. And that might work. But not on Erin.”

Lyonette was wavering. Half of her wanted to say that Garry didn’t understand courtship and that the issue wasn’t the same and that Erin wouldn’t abandon him. The other half? Well—she and Pawn? So why not?

She was more amazed that Erin had gone along with Altestiel, [Calm] spell or not. Lyonette would have assumed it would take a Tier 6 spell to have Erin let her hair down. Speaking of spells as well…

If Olesm was not courting Erin and purely here to watch Altestiel fail because he had Maviola and he was completely over Erin…and Numbtongue was making an effort, and Garry was looking for flowers with Bird—Palt was talking with Imani.

The two had not joined the rush. Or the fun in watching and speculating whom Erin might choose. There were more prospective suitors. Dawil had produced a rather fine bouquet of brandy in a crystal decanter. Ylawes was giving him grief.

“What are you doing, Dawil?”

“Having lots of fun, lad. Having lots of fun. And who are you to say I don’t have a shot? Because I’m a Dwarf? That’s heightist.”

The [Knight] threw his hands up. Imani half-smiled.

“Looks like a lot of people want to court Erin all of a sudden.”

“The Earl’s opened the floodgates. They don’t really have a chance. I’d say…there are only a few who might.”

“I think you’re right.”

The [Cook] did not look at the [Illusionist]. She spoke, in a very calm, deliberate tone.

“I think—I think a lot of people are more worried that Erin would fall in love. Even if she’s not loved…a lot of people like her.”

“Us included, right?”

“Of course. She’s a terrible restaurant manager. But she’s kind and generous and…brave. That’s why you like her.”

Dead silence. The Centaur stared past Imani. He took a long inhale on the cigar.

Yes.

Imani nodded. Her face was composed.

“You never said anything.”

“Erin’s tricky.”

“Mhm.”

The Centaur shuffled his hooves.

“…It’s not as if there were other reasons.”

“Right. But you liked her. You…you should give her something from Baleros. I know you have trinkets. Something fun. A little mage-gift.”

Palt started. He looked at Imani.

“You think I should give a gift?”

“And confess. The Earl proved you have to or she’ll just ignore you. Go on.”

“And you’re…”

Okay with that? Palt didn’t say it. If he had, Beza and Montressa might have broken all four of his legs. Imani stared past Palt.

“I don’t think it matters, does it?”

“Of course it does.”

She looked up at him. Palt flinched.

“Then what am I supposed to do? Wait here? I’m not a second-best prize.”

She turned and walked away. Not into the kitchen, but upstairs.

“You damn donkey. I thought you were tactful. Or at least, intelligent!”

“Mule’s ass. You’d better watch your tail at night.”

Montressa and Beza shoved past Palt, going after Imani. The Centaur opened and closed his mouth.

He bowed his head. Then looked up.

The rain had returned. Palt…waited. He just wanted to see. So did Olesm. Numbtongue glanced up. Dawil produced some beard oil.

Erin Solstice was laughing when she returned to the inn. Just—laughing. Giggling at a joke Altestiel had made. She did not look swept off her feet. But what was better and worse depending on how you looked at it—

She looked at ease.

“Water bridges are so cool. Mrsha, you have to try them! You can slide down them like…a slide!”

She waved her arms. The Earl smiled.

“What about that game of Go, then?”

The proverbial ball was in his court and he was going for a second point. Erin looked around as the Earl pointed to a waiting chess table—

Erin! I am courting you!

Garry and the Antinium. The [Chef] pushed past Altestiel. He had a dandelion plucked from the Garden in one hand. Altestiel stared at the Antinium. Kiish’s jaw dropped in horror.

This was the competitive field? But before Erin could so much as blink—or laugh—Numbtongue had appeared.

“Here. For you.”

He offered her an emerald orb. So exquisitely clear and perfectly shaped by Pyrite’s techniques that it made even Altestiel do a double-take. A marble of emerald, in which were caught only two imperfections; a tiny bit of amber and a gap of air.

It glittered in the sunlight speckled with rain, a prism of its own. Erin oohed.

“That’s so nice, Numbtongue. But it’s too much. Really—”

“Do you like it?”

Erin hesitated. Badarrow and Snapjaw, the cheering squad, were silently nodding their heads. Be honest.

“Yes, but—”

“Take it.”

The Hobgoblin put it into her hands and closed her hand on it. Erin looked at the gem. It really was a Hobgoblin’s gift. Both worth something—and useless. A shiny trinket. Good for adventurer bait.

Then she looked up at him and realized what it meant. She looked at Garry. At Olesm, inching over. Dawil coughed.

“A token of my affection, Miss Solstice?”

He offered her the alcohol. Erin stared at it. Then at the Dwarf. Falene had her head in her hands.

“Dawil! When did you get here?”

“Just an hour ago. May I offer you my sincerest compliments, Miss Solstice?”

Altestiel looked like he was unsure of whether to laugh or take this seriously. Erin too. But then she looked around and realized—

But for Dawil, they were serious. Her smile faded. Her blood pressure went up.

And she noticed Palt wasn’t joining in. Montressa listened to the swearing and clattering on the stairs and smiled.

“Well done, donkey.”

 

—-

 

What did they see in her? Why had the Centaur stopped pressing his suit? Perhaps…because he saw something. Sensed he might fail? Or realized there was something better?

You would have to ask him why. It could be, simply, that when the chips were down, the stakes raised, he realized he liked the idea of Erin more than the person. Especially since the [Innkeeper] had a standing policy against cigars and smoke. And she cooked garbage food.

Or something else entirely. Yet if he was one—why the Earl? What did he see? He could have courted any [Lady] or even royalty across the world. Beautiful women. Intelligent geniuses.

Why her?

It was like some kind of comedy. Or—alternatively—a standard event in The Wandering Inn. But Strategist Kiish couldn’t believe her reality.

She…had her history with the Earl Altestiel, her sovereign [Lord]. That was not unrelated, but Kiish had made her peace with it. Even so—

“Mm. Nice crepe mixture. You um—you—you sure you don’t need a hand? Guys?”

Erin smelled the sizzling crepes she was making for lunch. She saw Garry insert a spatula and flip the nearly-done one over. The delightful sizzle was accompanied by a plop as Olesm dropped his.

Numbtongue peered at his batter suspiciously. The Earl was determinedly ladling a portion onto his pan.

“I’m quite engaged. But could you show me how you’re supposed to cook this, Miss Solstice?”

“S-sure?”

They were making food. Garry had, by a reasonable argument involving food, gotten Erin into the kitchen. She had accepted, if only to escape the rush of suitors and buy time.

…They had followed her in and were ‘helping’ make lunch. Erin’s skin was prickling. This wasn’t like normal. They were serious.

“Bacon crepes.”

Dawil happily adjusted his pan as he stood on the stool. His crepes had tiny bits of bacon in them. Erin eyed him.

“Yeah. Good for you, Dawil.”

She looked at Altestiel. The Earl seemed to be having fun. That was the weird thing. He winked at her as he saw her expression.

“This is quite fun. Kiish and my people won’t let me so much as touch a pan. I’ve never actually learned how to cook. Am I doing it right?”

“Yeah. What, you’ve never touched a frying pan?”

“…I actually think this is the first time in my life. That’s regrettable, isn’t it?”

Erin just stared at Altestiel. He looked like he was having genuine fun. And perhaps—

Were they still on the date? Was that walk in the Floodplains a date?

It had been fun. Erin had been unsure of herself for the first six minutes, nervous, awkward—right up until the Earl demonstrated the slip-and-slide nature of the water bridges and slid down a hill like a kid. Then Erin had joined him.

And they’d talked! Mostly about chess. He did love the game and had quizzed Erin intensely on the game of Go, which he’d been hesitant to pick up because there wasn’t as much documented strategy. Erin owed him a game of Go.

All that was fun. Was that…?

Erin supposed, the question was, could she see herself doing more than that? And the answer was…

 

—-

 

“Okay, so Go allows you to place a piece wherever. But the same strategies apply in the small area. That’s actually sort of easy—you’ve seen capturing pieces.”

“In a sense, simpler than chess since each go piece is static. You simply surround and conquer.”

Altestiel nodded. Erin grinned.

Numbtongue, Garry, Dawil…no one else was there. Well, that wasn’t quite right. Two [Servants] were waiting just out of sight. And Kiish was probably still lurking about. Like a ghost.

But the dining room was quite splendidly lit. The fireplace was second fiddle to the mage lights hanging in the air. Erin kept glancing around the furnished room. It was so…rich. Yet comfy! What really impressed her was the grand dining table. It could fit all of Altestiel’s guests who came to his home.

They were sitting by the glass window instead. A magnificent glass frontage that looked out onto Desonis’ swamps. And it was more beautiful than Erin had imagined, even with Altestiel telling her all that.

His mansion, like most of the architecture, was high off the ground. So the style was to have these open windows or terraces that gave you a long look across the scenery. In the sun and spring, the marshes bloomed with color. When it rained, it was an awesome sight.

Erin sat next to Altestiel, placing stones and showing him a standard move.

“It’s just that you’re playing the entire board while fighting the small encounters. You can’t let your opponent build up on any one side—”

“Splitting your attention. I hate it, thank you. This is why I have [Strategists]—to fight the areas I can’t devote my attention to.”

“It’s just like chess. Stop being so hesitant. Let’s play!

Erin elbowed the Earl as he sat next to her. Altestiel sighed.

“You only say that because you’ll beat me the first twenty games. I insist on using my Skills.”

“If I beat you—promise you won’t make it rain?”

“I promise nothing. If I beat you, what do I get?”

“Stop it.”

Erin elbowed again. She turned to look at him—

 

—-

 

“Um. Miss Erin?”

Garry waved a hand in front of her face. The [Innkeeper] started. It was just…

A daydream. She looked around. And saw Altestiel beaming over his crepe—which he’d accidentally folded in two.

She nearly shot out of the kitchen. What was that? Erin had—well, she’d done what was suggested! Could she see herself and Altestiel…?

“Erin, this is the silliest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Lyonette had been watching from the kitchen’s entrance. She saw the [Innkeeper] rushing at her and Erin dragged her into the Garden.

“Lyonette. I need your help.”

“I’m not making your suitors go away. Reject them if you don’t like—”

“Tell me about Earl Altestiel. Please.”

Lyonette hesitated.

“What?”

“You know the Earl, right?”

“Of course. He’s a famous figure in Terandria. Do you know how much?”

“No. Tell me about him.”

The [Princess] stared at Erin. She did a double-take, looking back at the kitchen. Oh. Oh. Then she took a deep breath.

“Okay. Well then. I don’t know as much as his people, but his reputation is plain. He’s…”

She stopped, searching for the right word. Erin waited.

“…Moody. He might be influenced by his class, or his personality influenced the class. It’s hard to tell, often. But he’s like…water. Slow to anger, rather genial. Very liberal—you can tell by how he just adapts to the inn. Still, there’s stories of his temper. He doesn’t calm down fast. He’ll rage for weeks if court rumors are anything to go by. And he holds grudges.

“How so?”

Lyonette grimaced.

“Well, he once kept invading a nation and started a war after six battles without the crown’s permission. All because he was feuding with this other [Lord]—”

“A war? How did it turn out?”

Erin didn’t know. She didn’t know about him. Her jaw dropped. Lyonette nodded.

“It ended when he killed the [Lord] and won the entire war. I know you’re from Earth. But it’s amazing you don’t know…”

Lyonette looked at Erin. And that was the thing. Erin shook her head. She stood there for a moment.

“Tell me about him, please? I don’t know anything about…not his history. Was he married? Does he have family?”

She listened. Trying to make sense of the man who found her so intriguing.

 

—-

 

It was ill-planned. Perhaps overconfidence on the part of his opponent. Or simply—the knowledge that if they didn’t take this spot, their reinforcements, the heavier [Knights] stalled in the storm, would never advance further.

Either way, the first ships from Pheislant had left Desonis’ fleet in the waters, or fleeing into the distance. The Earl Altestiel stood, watching them advance.

Loose! Target that [Mage]!

Kiish was shouting, the command of the archers at her disposal. They had the high ground; it was a steep hill and the six thousand [Soldiers] under his command were entrenched.

Yet the enemy was still disembarking from their ships. The first wave had already begun to climb, warded by spells, shields up.

But the rains fell, making the ground muddy. And the Earl?

Forwards at a walk.

He whispered. The line of spears advanced. They had to—they had to fling the enemy down the hill. But there were ten of Pheislant for every one of Desonis’ forces.

“Hold for fifteen hours.”

He repeated it to himself. Kiish turned to him.

“Lord Altestiel—we should secure your retreat.”

He ignored her. Behind her, his banner was planted in the ground. His words had been spoken for all to hear.

“I will die here before I retreat past this spot.”

Heavy infantry were struggling upwards. Idiots. Desonis’ line was moving down the hill. Spells exploded in the air as his [Mages] gave them cover. The [Marshal of Rains] spoke again.

The line will advance at a trot!

Faster now. And the Earl’s legs moved too. Kiish reached for him, but he was bounding down the muddy terrain. Ignoring the slippery ground as his enchanted boots carried him through the ranks of his forces.

“Force them down! Charge!

He leapt past them, surging down the hill at the startled first wave. His sword plunged through the first faceguard, and the hill ran red with blood.

 

—-

 

Erin listened to Lyonette’s tale. She had not been there. Nor—perhaps—had Altestiel really charged the first rank by himself as the stories Lyonette had heard in court made out.

But he had fought.

“He held out for fourteen hours.”

“Wait. Not fifteen?”

The [Princess] of Calanfer shook her head.

“…Actually, they carried him half-dead off the field. Full retreat. His forces were nearly routed. But they held for fourteen hours. By the time Pheislant had marshaled the full invasion, Desonis had brought all they needed to bear. He was called a hero. I think we burned pictures of him.”

“Wait, what?

“Oh, Calanfer was on Pheislant’s side for that war. But we thought it was a brave victory, even so.”

Erin rubbed at her head. Lyonette made everything so complex. But that was Altestiel?

“And he’s here, making bad crepes in my kitchen?”

“They looked okay to me. But…yes.”

“Why? He’s way too famous to be here!”

“So was Zel Shivertail. And besides—I remember someone else who went charging across the mud with an army. And you did fight from the front.”

Erin’s mouth did the goldfish thing again. But that wasn’t heroic. That had been desperate. Despairing…

Yet they tell stories about that and get everything wrong.

She wondered what Kiish or Altestiel would say about that battle. Maybe they’d tell it like she would tell…

That was the [Knight Marshal of the Rains], though. A powerful man. A war hero. Certainly one of the more influential people in his kingdom.

He’d asked to court her. Erin paced in the garden for a moment. And he was making crepes. He’d walked with her on the Floodplains and was still here, even after Garry had practically shoved him aside to talk to Erin. Willing to do the dance and not order everyone to move aside. And he surely could unless Erin stopped him, with his aura.

Why?

Perhaps because he wanted to see more of her. And perhaps because he likes what he’s seen.

That thought was practically Lasica in tone and nature. Yet, Erin had to agree with it. That was so—so—

Mrsha wandered into the Garden, to wash her paws in the pond. She’d tried making crepes too, but with limited success. She paused and then padded over to Erin. She produced her notepad, scribbled for a moment, and then handed Erin a note. She could have signed and often struck a balance between the two, but she had no word for this in her lexicon, yet.

Erin looked at the brief word in cursive.

“Tomato.”

Erin put her hands to her cheeks. They were hot! She glanced into the inn, into the big kitchen where the cooking was going on.

Oh no. She was taking this seriously. Selys or whomever it was had put the idea into her head. Altestiel—she half liked him. She didn’t know him as well, but…

She looked at him, at the Antinium furtively inserting flies into his crepe.

 

—-

 

“Erin. It is morning. What will we make to eat today?”

A voice woke the [Innkeeper]. She groaned and rolled over in her bed.

“Garry! I’m sleepy. Do I have to cook today?”

The [Chef] shook his head.

“If you are tired, I will make you breakfast in bed.”

He walked towards the kitchen. Erin hugged him.

“Garry! You silly Antinium! You’re too nice. Come here.”

She threw her arms around him. The Worker started. Even now, he looked surprised and pleased by the hug. He patted her arms.

“You must let go, though, Erin. I have to make you sustenance.”

“Well, then, I’ll make you sustenance. And we’ll both make Bird his chicken-and-eggs.”

“Very well.”

They walked into the kitchen, and Erin slapped his hand down as he reached for the dried flies. That was the one downside of Garry’s cooking…

 

—-

 

It was easy to imagine. Garry and Erin were so natural. They’d done stuff like that. It was easy to imagine that in the future. But even as Erin could visualize a fun moment with him—not a relationship.

Because that would be more than what they were. And what they were was perfect. He was her dear friend. Her chess companion.

More than that?

 

—-

 

Garry leaned on the doorframe. He was nibbling on a rose. Actually eating it. He had everything right. And everything wrong.

“Let’s have the sex, Erin. I have studied a book.”

Erin—

 

—-

 

Her mind actually shut down at this point.

No. Never in a million years!”

Mrsha’s face fell. She lowered the plate and the crepe with the smiley drawn in ketchup. Erin caught herself.

“Not you, Mrsha! I was talking about—I’ll have your crepe! So yummy! Ketchup and…crepe…great. Really.”

She coughed. This was getting out of hand. But now someone had opened Pandora’s box, it couldn’t be stopped. She looked past Garry. Sorry, Garry. But it was an impossibility. Like Bird—or Pawn, or Belgrade or Anand or anyone else.

But was he serious? Because…she could picture that. At least—some of it.

 

—-

 

It was a cold winter. The kind where even The Wandering Inn’s floorboards would freeze without a fire running. Erin hopped from foot to foot.

“Aah! Aah!”

The fire was just starting, but she hadn’t slippers! The pain! She’d rather be stabbed—oh no, wait. She’d rather not.

But it really sucked. Where were her slippers?

Mrsha! Mrsha, where are my slip—

Erin saw him sitting in the cold common room in the dawn. Somehow, that damned Hobgoblin had the nerve to be only in boxers, not even a shirt!

But the giant blanket he’d taken from upstairs more than made up for it. And the growing fire—Erin hopped over.

“Numbtongue! Have you seen my slippers?”

“Nope.”

The Hobgoblin was munching on something. Erin looked around. Then realized this was foolish.

“Hey, budge over.”

He obligingly scooted over on the chair. Erin sat right next to him, shivering.

“So…morning.”

“Mhm.”

She leaned against his chest, as he obligingly wrapped the blanket around her. Erin looked around for Mrsha the Slipper Thief and…

 

—-

 

“No.”

But it was softer. Erin shook her head. That was weird. This was getting out of hand. But she had to ask herself.

Did she like Numbtongue?

Oh yes. But did she like him as more than…Numbtongue? There was the question. And once again, Erin ran into the same roadblock. A telling one.

Altestiel—Garry—well, Garry was different. But Numbtongue?

 

—-

 

Goblins had a direct way of hinting at intimacy. He’d offered her a complimentary backrub. Which Redfangs knew how to do surprisingly well given that they often trained until they were sore. And as Erin was relaxing, he sidled over to her.

“Mm?”

The monosyllabic word conveyed a lot. As did his posture. Erin blinked.

He poked her in the side. And she…

 

—-

 

Nope. She had nothing more to go with. Well…she could extrapolate. But beyond that spot was uncharted territory. Mostly.

She…was afraid to imagine more. And yet, look around. Were there people she admired? Loved?

A part of them—yes. Absolutely. She could see it even in the ones who weren’t ‘suitors’. Like—

 

—-

 

The tobacco smoke was heavy in the air, the drinks giving a flush to the cheeks. The inn was full of laughter, raucous, arguments, the rolling of dice.

But they went quiet as she took the stage. The woman, in her late twenties, nearing thirty, winked as she took the magical microphone.

“This one’s out to my favorite Hatmen of Invrisil!”

Erin Solstice winked. And a pair sitting at a table at the center of the room looked up and tipped their hats. They were surrounded by other hatted men, and indeed, most of the guests in the crowded inn had a hat. It was all the style in Invrisil.

The band struck up a fast beat as the woman began to sing.

She was performing on the stage with a hat and bright suit ensemble. And yes, she had a fedora with a ribbon tied around the base; she was performing with a band in a jazzy club that The Wandering Inn had turned into.

Erin twirled a cane as she tipped a hat to Rat—Wilovan, and blew a kiss that had half the audience reaching for the little heart. Because that was a Skill?

[Kiss of Love]. Yeah, yeah…

 

—-

 

…That one was a stretch. But could she imagine it?

 

—-

 

“Okay. How do we prank them?”

Erin peeked around the corner. Dawil chortled as he stroked his beard. Falene was reading a book as Ylawes polished his helmet. The Dwarf whispered as she leaned down and the two laughed so hard they nearly gave themselves away—

 

—-

 

And Erin realized. These were all daydreams of things that were all too easy to imagine. Because they could happen. Prank Falene and Ylawes? Each one—except for the vaudeville dancing on stage thing—was realistic.

But if you wanted to be realistic…

 

—-

 

“Erin, my dear, the [Queen] is expecting our presence.”

“I don’t wanna.”

Erin was wrapped up like a caterpillar in blankets. She was playing chess with an opponent from afar. The Earl strode back and forth, nearly tearing his hair out as the [Tailor] fussed with his clothing.

“Erin—it’s the most important event of the year!”

“But I want to play chess. You know I don’t like social affairs.”

“My love, my rainbow-in-the-rain. We do this every time. And please, please don’t make a scene. Can I ask you to at least address them with proper titles? We don’t want a repeat of the last war, do we?”

“Aw. But I was playing chess—”

Erin rolled out of her blankets with a scowl. Her hair was messy, she hadn’t chosen her clothing—the Earl knew they were going to be very unfashionably late.

 

—-

 

Yeah. She could be a jerk. Erin strode around the garden. She had bad sides. They had bad sides. She could just picture it. Take the same stretch-example, for instance—

 

—-

 

It was four in the morning. And it wasn’t the inn’s table.

It was a comfy table. A small one. Meant for a family. Or just a couple. You could be family with only two. Couldn’t you?

The others were like family. They’d come by. Friends, companions. Hats hung at the door in this safe place.

Laughing and smiling in the good times.

Now—she sat there. As she always did. Waiting.

The door opened. A figure walked in. She rose.

“Wilov…?”

He stopped. He must have forgotten this always happened. Erin walked over towards him, but he halted her.

It was just in the way he stood. He didn’t meet her eyes.

His hat was missing.

“What happened?”

“A spot of…bother.”

He exhaled. Erin wanted him to sit down. But he stopped her. Something dripped to the ground.

“Not there. Not—there. I can’t.”

He did not want to sit in that happy place. Not with blood on his hands.

Who was it? Did they…deserve it? She was too afraid to ask. Was it a [Guard]? An accident?

A child?

The silence between them stretched until it could break. In the silence, blood dripped to the floorboards. Leaving a stain by morning.

 

—-

 

“Enough.”

That was all Erin Solstice said. The last imagination ended. Too much. Too real.

Maybe not the family. Not the romance. But that lay at the heart of her relationship with Wilovan and Ratici.

It hurt. The what-ifs. Because they weren’t just ‘ifs’. You—could you look at the person the same way again? If you imagined trying to build your life around with them?

She had not considered Olesm. Nor did she now. Erin stood in the garden. And her breathing was hard.

This was why she hated it. Because it wasn’t light. She looked at Altestiel and wondered what ten years might be. Not tomorrow. If she could forget the future, she could enjoy now.

Erin walked back into the inn. Five minutes had passed since her talk with Lyonette. Seventeen since she’d gone off—everyone was having lunch. And her convivial, go-with-it attitude was gone.

This was how she felt in the past as well. This was…

Not fun. Erin dreaded going back and talking to Altestiel. It was almost a relief to see the Street Runner panting and calling for her.

“Miss Solstice?”

“That’s me, yup. Me.”

The Drake pointed towards the door she’d run through.

“Urgent [Message] waiting for you in Liscor.”

“What is it? Ryoka?”

Erin began to stride from the door. The Street Runner didn’t know.

By the time Altestiel came out, followed by the suitors with crepes of dubious quality—Erin Solstice was gone.

 

—-

 

It took only twenty minutes to connect. Rabbiteater had expected to be led away, but he just sat there. Ser Markus was led away after his correspondence was done. Talia remained—perhaps delaying her correspondence to watch him.

He had been given a quill. The [Lieutenant] in charge of the ‘negotiations’ had written a brisk [Message]. Rabbiteater could read it—although it took him a little bit to figure it all out.

 

To Erin Solstice, [Innkeeper], The Wandering Inn, Liscor, Izril:

A [Knight] going by the alias of Ser Solstice, or the Goblin Slayer of Izril has been captured in battle with Ailendamus. Per the rules of engagement, his safety and possessions will be assured provided a ransom of no less than 100 gold pieces. Failure to deliver the sum will lead to his internment as a prisoner of war. Please respond within the hour; failure to do so may lead to complications.

 

“Don’t worry, Ser. It’s just to motivate them.”

The [Lieutenant] reassured Rabbiteater. The Goblin was silent. A hundred gold? It might not be much for a [Knight]’s family.

But it was too much for Erin. He debated using his manacles to try choking the officer to death. But he’d never get out of the tent with so many soldiers.

“Lieutenant. Are we giving away the cloak and axe? That’s good gear.”

“Depends on the ransom. Shut up.”

They’d taken his cloak and axe. Rabbiteater shifted.

“My brothers gave them to me.”

An uncomfortable silence. The [Lieutenant] didn’t look at him.

“I’m sure House Kallinad will pay the equipment fees.”

“They will. This is unnecessary extortion.”

“Every piece of gold goes towards our forces, milady. A hundred gold may be trivial to you, but it would pay the wages of every man in this tent for a year. More.”

The [Lieutenant]’s retort meant he missed the first inky letter appearing on the page. Somewhere, across the world, an [Innkeeper] was writing on an expensive scroll. Rabbiteater’s eye widened.

He did not want this.

He wanted this.

He missed her.

The [Innkeeper]’s fingers trembled on the quill. The [Scribe] was overseeing the writing. But he had let her write. She hesitated as she wrote.

 

This is Erin Solstice. I might know a Ser Solstice. I’d think of him like my family. But how do I know it’s him?

 

Rabbiteater jerked. He had thought—the [Lieutenant] turned and stared at the page.

“Ah! A response. Hm—do you have proof?”

He looked at Ser Solstice. The Goblin’s fingers trembled as he tried to write. A clumsy scrawl, but Talia had helped him, and Numbtongue.

 

I am Ser Solstice. I do not know how to prove I am me.

 

The [Lieutenant]’s mouth worked as he read.

“Er—I think a personal name or details would be—”

The reply was quick. Almost gentle. He could see her writing each word.

 

Hello, Ser Solstice. Do you like to eat rabbits?

 

His eyes widened. The [Lieutenant] looked purely confused. The Goblin’s fingers trembled.

 

Only as food.

 

“…Is this confirmation?”

“Yes.”

The Ailendamus officer relaxed.

“Ah, well, then.”

He scribbled industriously.

 

Miss Solstice, the fee is a hundred gold pieces, with additional fees for the artifacts under Ser Solstice’s purview at his time of capture. If you are unable to pay the full price, please state so and negotiations may begin.

 

Erin Solstice sat there. Rabbiteater.

Rabbiteater was alive. Far north? He was off the continent! Badarrow had been mistaken. And captured? She looked at the [Mage].

“Do you know where he is?”

“Terandria, Miss Erin. I’m sorry, but it’s too far even if we wanted to tell. And Mage’s Guild policy…”

“Got it. How would I send gold?”

“Um—if you brought it to the Mage’s Guild. Or if the Merchant’s Guild gave us a guarantee—”

The ransoming was new to the Drake [Scribe] as well. Erin nodded slowly. Her pulse raced.

“Understood. Thanks.”

She looked at the scroll again.

“My friend.”

 

—-

 

This was no imagination, but a true story. A moment in time.

“Hufflepuff is—it’s this thing in a story. It just means you’re a hard worker. Y’see, I call you that because you’re not like Badarrow or Numbtongue or…”

“Mm.”

Rabbiteater sat in the kitchen as Erin peeled potatoes. Pebblesnatch was frying them up. The [Innkeeper] was trying to explain to the sad Goblin. Before he was a [Champion]. When the Cave Goblins had been freed. There were a lot of mouths to feed. Erin reached for some salt for the cheesy potato dish.

“Not too much there, Pebblesnatch. We’ll still bake it…look, Rabbiteater. It’s just…”

“I am worst.”

The Goblin nodded. He was no wordsmith like the [Bard]. No brave and emotional fighter like the [Berserker]. Not as skilled as the [Weapon Expert]. Nor a [Sniper].

He was just Rabbiteater. He did not excel. Rather, he could do a lot of what the others could do. A better shot than anyone but Badarrow. Better at hand-to-hand fighting than anyone except Headscratcher.

The reason they were talking was because he’d heard Erin calling him the strange word. Now it made sense. Erin glanced sideways at him.

“It’s not an insult—well, in this story, see, people make fun of them because their talent is ‘hard work’. They’re like…the common crowd. They’re not the smart ones, or the brave ones. Or the jerks.”

“Mhm. Good ordinary Goblin.”

“No.”

Erin tossed a potato peel at him. Rabbiteater caught it, and munched on it. She shook her head.

“It’s not an insult to me. Because…I’m a Hufflepuff, Rabbiteater. Me too.”

He looked at her.

“But you smart. You…are…smart.”

He corrected himself. Erin smiled.

“Not according to the online test. I’m 40% Hufflepuff, 60% Gryffindor. But everyone gets Gryffindor. And really—I’m good at chess. I was talented. But you don’t just ‘win at chess’ because you’re smart. Even the smartest people in the world would lose to someone who played chess and knew the patterns. That’s why I like it. It’s not a game for geniuses. You probably do have an edge if you’re really smart…but it’s like you.”

“Chess?”

Hard work. And you’re good at so much! That’s why…don’t tell anyone else, but I’m rooting for you more than the others.”

She winked at him. Rabbiteater wondered if she said that to the other Redfangs. Maybe. But she smiled at him and he believed her. He went back to peeling potatoes. And that was all. Erin hummed as the only Redfang who had time to learn to cook helped her make dinner.

Her great, brave friend.

 

—-

 

They all were. Erin’s eyes were overfull. The [Scribe] looked at her.

“Sorry—can I get some room?”

“Of course, Miss. I’ll just…call me if you need me.”

She nodded. Her brave Goblin protector. Headscratcher. Shorthilt.

He was alive. In danger. More than anything—more than being courted, given gems? She pulled out the emerald and wondered how much it would go for. She could pay. She would pay.

But she wished she could see him. Her fingers were tight on the quill.

 

Okay.

 

The response was hesitant. Erin could see there was someone else writing another response; the Goblin’s response was slower, clumsier. It was him writing. They were talking. If only…

 

Is that an affirmation that the ransom can be paid? For both artifacts, the addition in gold will be—

 

Erin scribbled over the writing and it stopped. She dipped her quill in ink.

 

Ser Solstice, have you been eating well?

Yes. Good food.

Two hundred gold pieces per artifact, at two coming to a full total of—

Shut up. Ask Ser Solstice if he remembers the guy who keeps playing the guitar.

I remember.

—500 gold pieces! 500 gold, due within two days.

He’s getting fat. I think he misses you.

 

Silence. Rabbiteater hunted for his quill. He’d dropped it. His hands were trembling.

 

He is fat?

Getting fatter. Also, needs deodorant. That’s…smelling stuff for sweat.

Miss Solstice, can you pay the fee?

He is well? Is there…anyone else?

I met a guy who likes to shoot arrows. But no. I miss you.

I’m sorry.

Ailendamus will accept the payment to any Merchant’s Guild—shut up shut up!

Are you okay? Why did you go, Ser Solstice?

 

What did he say to that? The Goblin hesitated.

 

Okay. No need to pay.

Ignore that. We’re willing to accept 400 pieces contingent on immediate payment for both [Knight] and equipment.

Cross out his words again and you’ll regret it, buddy.

 

The [Lieutenant] stared at the line and at the [Knight].

“Who is this?”

The Goblin didn’t answer.

 

Sorry. Had to go.

I think I understand. I’ll pay. Can I help you?

You gave me too much already. I left. Is okay.

No. We miss you. Are you with [Knights]?

300 GOLD PIECES. RELEASE UPON DELIVERY GUARANTEED. PAY VIA MERCHANT’S GUILD AND SEND CONFIRMATION TO GENERAL YERZHEN ARMY. END OF COMMUNICATIONS.

 

Erin stared as the paper stopped glowing. She tried writing, but the scroll had deactivated. She looked around and huffed.

“How rude!”

For a moment. Then—she looked at the paper and took it in. Ransom? Hostage? He was in disguise, then. She shuddered. Then she shot out of her chair.

Rabbiteater!

 

—-

 

“Ridiculous. The Earl shouldn’t be competing for her hand. She should either accept with incredible gratitude or decline!”

Kiish was still furious. People were looking for Erin—she’d vanished. You had to watch her. Take your eye off her for one second—the Earl was doing well. But the cracks were showing in his strategy.

To be fair, he’d gotten far. But she couldn’t even understand why it was an issue. One of Desonis’ [Knights] was of the same opinion.

“No disrespect to the [Innkeeper]. But Miss Erin Solstice is…an [Innkeeper]. Her Majesty won’t allow this even if his lordship petitions her.”

“Exactly. What does this offer Desonis? She has a reputation, I will own, but her actual value? If you compare her abilities to one of Lord Altestiel’s Skills…”

The small group of grousers really should have watched their flanks. The Earl waited at the table behind Kiish. Like some bad play, she didn’t notice he was standing behind her until their silence and stares made her turn.

“Strategist Kiish. I must say I understand your complaints. I certainly expected them. But I’m disappointed in you. You, of all people.”

“Milord—”

The [Strategist] stood up. The Earl’s yellow eyes were clouded with disapproval. Her tongue halted in her mouth.

“Be silent. And I will explain since it is not clear. Did I hear you call Miss Erin Solstice…insufficient? Weak? Useless to Desonis?”

“My lord—I was only referring to the fact that you command armies. And she is…”

“An [Innkeeper].”

Altestiel finished the sentence. Kiish nodded, nervously. The Earl sighed.

“…What is her level?”

“Earl?”

“Her level, Kiish. Estimate it. She’s blocked from [Appraisal]. But what is her level? Estimate it.”

The woman’s lips moved. She had to guess…

“At least 30. And if I would guess? Over 40. Kiish. My loyal [Knights]. My company. Who here is over Level 40? That exalted barrier few in their lifetimes may breach. Show of hands.”

The Earl raised his. He looked around pointedly.

“If she were a [Lady], would anyone complain? What kind of Skills would she have if she were a [Princess]?”

Lyonette froze in front of him, with a tray of drinks. Altestiel’s smile was directed all at Kiish. He accepted a glass and took a sip.

“Her level speaks for itself.”

“But her Skills, sire?”

One of the [Knights] ventured dubiously. He gestured outside. The Earl could call storms, create bridges of water. Altestiel nodded.

“I’ll grant you that one, Merwood. And my answer is: her Skills are weaker than mine. Her class is not [Marshal], [Lord], [High Mage]—that does change things. But consider this—that Garden. She took the Skill that royalty have had. That is hers.

The others looked at the [Garden of Sanctuary], which was being used to play tag with children. Silence. The Earl nodded.

“A weak class? Perhaps [Innkeeper] is. But—Kiish. Have you ever met a Level 70 [Farmer]? Level 60?”

“I’ve heard tell of ones over Level 50—but no, Earl.”

“Then how do we know if it is a weak class? It seems to me that Miss Erin Solstice has the right abilities for her nature. Or could you—or even I have unified the Black Tide to fight for me? Created a place where Goblins, Antinium, Drakes, and Humans walk about in peace?”

The [Knight Marshal of the Rains] smiled. And that was why. Kiish hung her head. Her dislike had blinded her. Whereas Altestiel had admired from the start.

“Her Skills.”

Altestiel murmured. He shook his head.

“I think—it’s because she can’t display them well.”

“Milord?”

“I’ve heard of her fire. Not seen it myself except with that delightful Minotaur Punch drink. But…a Level 40 Skill, wielded by an [Innkeeper]? She has few active Skills. And in that…she reminds me of the King of Destruction. I wonder what the true power behind Erin Solstice’s Skills looks like. I should like to see that.”

The company from Desonis was silent. One of them spoke at last.

“Then you are intending to pursue your courtship?”

“To the end, Merwood. Now, are you here to help me or get in my way?”

They looked at each other. Then stood. Kiish sighed.

 

—-

 

“You’ve all failed. You know that, you um…Antinium. Right?”

Lasica was sitting at the bar as Rufelt did some side-bartending just to keep his paw in. They’d been watching the courtship of Erin and the [Chef] was talking to Garry.

“Was the cake not enough?”

The [Chef] was consulting Lasica and the Drake had to own—she was not at home with Antinium, but a fellow [Chef] was a fellow [Chef]. And she respected both Imani and Garry’s efforts and creativity. Not Erin’s.

“I’m sorry, but you never had a chance. Maybe in the future…but the Earl’s lost.”

“How so? He appears to be ahead.”

“Ahead. What is this, a game?”

Lasica snorted. She shook her head.

“He had one chance. He did well. But he had to sweep her away. He managed to impress Erin. But he didn’t manage it. Now everything with a pulse is after her.”

She gestured at Dawil, Numbtongue, Olesm…Garry looked at Altestiel, other Drakes, Gnolls, Humans who wanted to try their hand.

He didn’t get it. Lasica clarified.

“They’re like damn ants swarming ov—er…bees around honey. And Erin’s the honey. Does that make sense?”

Apista flipped up her stinger, offended. Rufelt chased the bee away from his drinks and his wife. Garry’s mandibles opened.

“Oh, I see. We are getting in each other’s way?”

Belgrade and Pawn, his wing-ants, nodded, taking notes. Lasica sighed long and loud.

“Not just that. How do you think the honey feels? Er…Erin? Making a grand show, giving her gifts—Dawil had better not sing that song. Or that Gnoll.”

She glowered, pointing two serenades out. Garry tilted his head.

“Why?”

“Do you think it’s always pleasant to be fought over? For that matter—there are too many people watching and trying to get her to choose.”

“Why is that bad? Erin should make her choice, should she not? That will relieve the pressure.”

Belgrade raised a hand. He flinched as Lasica glowered at him. The Drake adjusted the intensity of her glower.

“Why does she have to choose because you all want her to? Boys!”

She sighed. That was only one argument though. The truth was…Lasica cast about. And pointed once more towards something in the inn.

“The truth is though…not all of you are a good match. I can see him with Erin more than most of you.”

Garry deflated as he saw who Lasica meant.

Kevin. He paused, a Mrsha-crepe in his mouth as everyone stared at him. The worst part was—it did make sense. Kevin had a bit of Erin-energy.

“I must withdraw my suit, then. Do I leave the cake?”

Lasica looked at Garry and shook her head.

“Why do you want to court Erin anyways? Do you think she’d leave you for the Earl? Really? He’d have to drag an entire Antinium Hive over the water and I’d love to see that. He never really had a chance.”

“I was afraid.”

Garry mumbled. Lasica shook her head.

“Do you think Erin Solstice is petty enough to just leave you?”

“Now, now, dear. You’re being too harsh.”

Rufelt admonished Lasica. But it made Garry feel better. He decided he would stop courting Erin. Besides—he’d heard about sex from Pawn and it seemed so inconvenient.

Then the door opened and Erin Solstice stormed into the inn. Dawil whirled.

“Ylawes! Falene, enchant my voice! Erin Solstice, by beard’s oil and combed curl—

Half a dozen suitors rushed forwards, with hastily-assembled gifts. The [Innkeeper] saw the mob. She blinked.

“Enough.”

She walked through them. Garry saw the people slow as they tried to crowd in front of them. As if suddenly weighed down.

The jovial, carnival-air of the inn faded. Altestiel’s head snapped around. Olesm stopped fidgeting and reached for a [Message] scroll on his side.

Lyonette felt it too.

“Erin? Is something wrong?”

“Rabbiteater’s been captured on Terandria. I have to pay a three hundred gold ransom. I’m too busy for dates. Lyonette—we need to pay it now.

Erin strode for the [Garden of Sanctuary]. There was a crash as Numbtongue fell out of his chair. Badarrow rose from his seat as Snapjaw cursed.

What?

“Miss Solstice—”

Altestiel rose. He made for Erin. Again, he was smart enough not to charge after her through the door. Rather—he put a hand out and touched the invisible barrier at the door as Lyonette, Mrsha, and the others raced through after Erin, shouting questions. The Earl called out.

“Erin. Allow me to send the fee from Desonis at once. Kiish—contact the Merchant’s Guild and have it sent posthaste. It will also allow us to confirm your friend is safe. You cannot simply trust every force at its word. But I can ensure there will be honesty if there were any doubt.”

His hand suddenly passed through air. The Earl stepped through the doorway as Erin turned.

“You’d do that, Altestiel?”

“Your friend must be a [Knight].”

The Earl remarked slowly. But he hadn’t missed that it was the two Goblins who’d gone after Erin fastest. The [Innkeeper] hesitated.

“He’s…”

“A Goblin. Wearing armor.”

A second of hesitation. The Earl ignored Numbtongue and Badarrow’s looks.

“It is not exactly a hard conclusion to come to. I have seen the disguise that Numbtongue employed.”

He’s smart.

Mrsha signed up to Lyonette. The [Princess] eyed Altestiel. He was. Worryingly so. And what was more—

“The confirmation should arrive in five minutes, Earl. Apologies—the Merchant’s Guild is on the job.”

Kiish smushed her face into the Garden’s door before speaking. She clutched at her nose and glared at Erin. The [Innkeeper] hesitated.

“Wait, you paid them?”

“I have a line of credit. Pray, would you tell me more about the situation? It is entirely possible they might be close to Desonis—or that we could at least communicate if they were to reach a major city.”

The Earl gestured towards a table. Erin hesitated. She looked at him again. Numbtongue touched her arm. He was nodding and looking at her pleadingly.

“Of course. Thank you, Altestiel.”

He smiled. And Erin realized he was still courting her. She couldn’t help but feel that if there was a way to make her like him—

It probably was through the Goblins.

 

—-

 

And like that, it was done. Rabbiteater blinked.

“Say again?”

“They…just paid the ransom. Guaranteed by Desonis. Wait, is that right?”

The [Lieutenant] was shocked. Not to mention discomforted. Not even the Order of Seasons had that fast a line through the Merchant’s Guild, but the money was good. He regretted lowering the price at once.

But there was no renegotiating. The ransom had been confirmed through Ailendamus’ diplomatic lines. Which meant it was now a matter of the kingdom’s integrity to make sure the Goblin Slayer was repatriated with armor and dignity intact.

Done, done, done. And no one had taken off his helmet. Talia Kallinad relaxed.

Rabbiteater was just miffed. He immediately put it down to an Erin Solstice thing. Which needed no explanation. He believed.

But he wasn’t happy. He wanted to pick up that quill. Talk to her.

He wanted to say sorry.

He wanted to know what to do next. As they led him back to the tent and he sat with the Order of Seasons, who treated him like a friend, one of them—the Goblin was miserable.

 

—-

 

Erin Solstice sat across a Go board, playing with the Earl.

“So…he’s okay?”

“I have confirmation via Ailendamus. It would be a diplomatic incident if a [Knight] were to be disgraced. Regarding the helmet…”

The Earl drummed his fingers on the table.

“If your friend has kept his secret, I doubt they will do anything at this point if he does nothing untoward. I can insist, and arrange communications. Kiish, put pressure on them through one of our [Diplomats].”

“I have sent word to the palace. Her Majesty would like a word, and Master Erimith will attend to the matter himself. But he is ah, being summoned.”

“Ah. He’s in his seventies. Old. Probably napping.”

The Earl nodded to Erin. He was so—decisive. It was like…Lyonette? Or maybe herself. Terandria wasn’t Erin’s area of expertise. It was Altestiel’s. He knew ransoms and…politics. So he was helping solve her problems.

The thing was? Erin was super-grateful. There were just two things and she’d finished with one.

The first was trying to figure out if the Earl was doing this to butter her up. But as far as she could tell, he was genuinely trying to help, courtship aside. And he seemed to like her without pretense.

She felt like she would be able to tell. That was her job. She was in her inn. She had the measure of Altestiel. And he was…cool.

And second? She didn’t feel like it was resolved.

It was too neat. Rabbiteater got freed? Ransom paid, he was on his way, doing whatever he was with strange [Knights] abroad. Hurrah!

But…she wanted to talk to him. More than play Go—she made another mistake and Altestiel capitalized on it. Unlike her imagination, he actually liked this game, possibly more than chess! And he was pressing her hard in her preoccupied state.

Caution: Imagination might not match reality.

“We’ll organize it and have a result within the hour, Erin. I hope this is helpful, not intrusive.”

And there it was. The day crystallized like this, as Erin reached for a piece. She looked up. And met Altestiel’s gaze.

Layers. First layer? He had to know she was grateful for his help. Perhaps it was calculated. She thought it was genuine.

Second layer. He liked her because of her deeds. Because of her level. He was dreadfully smart.

Third layer? She thought he did have affection for her. Frightening as it was to think that. Because…they had similar interests. Because he was a kid who liked to dance in the rain as much as he was an Earl.

None of the parts disqualified the whole. On the whole? Erin liked Earl Altestiel a lot. She thought she would in any circumstance, even if he had not come to Invrisil when he did. Even if she had not had his help in the siege. She could even see how they fit together, for all their differences.

So she took a breath. A long, painful breath. Then another for good measure. Then she remembered to exhale.

Altestiel looked at her oddly. But they were sitting together, in a small area of space; both auras keeping the others back. Erin felt it was unconscious on their parts. A desire for space. Perhaps because she’d known this moment was coming.

She placed a piece. Altestiel reached for his black stone.

“Love is a weird thing, Altestiel, huh?”

His fingers slipped on the stone. The clatter was loud. The Earl caught himself.

“What was that, Erin?”

“Love. Liking someone romantically. Weird stuff, huh?”

“…Indeed?”

Sudden squall in the middle of a battle. Unexpected breeze. The [Knight Marshal] looked at Erin. She regarded his stone.

“You’ve been great today. I mean…courting and all. I just have a question. Because—helping Rabbiteater, all this stuff? Chess? Am I in love with you?”

Olesm was choking on his fries. The Earl’s fingers simply curled around the smooth, polished stone. He waited. Erin looked up at him, meeting his yellow eyes with her hazel ones.

“I don’t know. Am I supposed to feel…something else? Because if I am, I love everyone like I love Mrsha, or no one at all. And that means you as well.”

“Ah. I see.”

She nodded. The Earl’s face clouded. Erin looked at the pieces.

“I don’t know how to explain it. Sorry, Altestiel.”

“Go on.”

He waited, gently. Kiish pumped her fist in the air, then looked around and collected herself. Erin ignored the onlookers, pushing them back in her mind. This was just for her and him. He’d earned that.

“I…here’s how I can say it. Chess. It’s like chess. You know, there was this guy who fancied me who once said that if he beat me, we should date. I mean…I kicked his butt, but come on.

“Not exactly appropriate.”

The Earl coughed, almost hiding a smile. Erin glowered.

“My soul isn’t in the chessboard or anything. The chessboard is only a piece of wood. Even enchanted wood. I didn’t marry it. I hated it, when I was younger.”

“Younger?”

His eyes flickered. Erin missed that.

“Yes. I loved it, and then hated it because it was all I was. Just someone to play and win or lose. So I quit. Then I came back because I did enjoy it. But it’s something I really…really…like. I don’t know if it’s love.”

She regarded the stone as she put it down. Altestiel placed his.

“There are more important things to love than a game. I’d trade playing chess for the rest of my existence to bring just one of them back.”

“So would I.”

He murmured. Erin didn’t know who he was talking about. But she did. As she thought of her next move, she spoke. It helped to play. She had to be honest since she was concentrating on the game as much as her words.

“What I’m trying to say…is that you couldn’t win me over with chess. Not even if that guy was the best chess player in the world. A Grandmaster’s Grandmaster. That wouldn’t ever work. Because it’s chess. I’d be like, ‘he’s good at chess. Okay’. And I’m sorry. But I really liked walking with you. You helping—I think we’re friends. But I don’t think it changed how I felt. I just know you like me.”

She looked up at him. He exhaled, slowly.

“As rejections go…I have had far worse. Many delivered in ruder ways.”

She ducked her head, embarrassed.

“I’m sorry. I just don’t feel—”

“So you said.”

He sighed. Erin tried to clarify.

“If—if it were possible? For someone to like, be someone I’d want to fall in love with right away?”

Half the population in The Wandering Inn listened from afar. Erin put it into words, piece by piece as she cornered one of Altestiel’s formations.

“If there was someone to fall in love with—I guess they’d have to be grander than anyone I’ve met before. Sorry, Altestiel.”

Grander?

He sounded hurt for the first time since she’d talked to him. Erin glanced up. Oh yes, a kid with a storm. She shrugged.

“I meant…even grander than an Earl. I couldn’t—see myself falling in love anyways. Not if I was worried about…”

Rabbiteater. Erin gulped.

“Someone who could protect them all. All the people who’ll tear out pieces of my heart if they die. How am I supposed to love someone and be selfish for me while they’re out there?”

She’d taken the copy of the conversation with Rabbiteater. It crumpled in her pocket as she gripped it. That was what she wanted.

“You can’t protect them with gold alone. You’re too weak. We all are. If there was someone who could capture my heart with who they were alone—it would be someone who could promise me they will not die. Or if they do—it will not be in vain. Who could give meaning to this world and what happens. Does that make sense?”

“It does. Strangely, it does.”

Altestiel was looking at her. Erin realized what she’d said and blushed. But the Earl just shook his head. A bit mystified.

“It—does make sense, Miss Erin. However, I don’t believe what you’re describing is love at all. Perhaps—inspiration. Someone you could follow. A…[King]. Or [Queen]. But I could never love a vision like that. It is a dream, a beautiful one, but without…”

He gestured. The [Innkeeper] ducked her head.

“Yes. I suppose I don’t know what love is, do I?”

“Have you felt it?”

“I don’t know. What—what is it supposed to be?”

The Earl sighed. And he seemed smaller then. If there was a final blow—it was that. He raised his head, looking at the board that was suddenly out of his control. He met the [Innkeeper]’s eyes.

“To me, Erin Solstice? Love is wanting to hold someone. To know how they think. Love—is listening to them breathe. It is wanting to know them. Lust is part of it too, I suppose. Burning infatuation, as much as long held respect and admiration. I have not loved well, so I confess I am a poor one to answer it. How it starts—is a desire to talk to someone.”

He looked at her. Erin became a tomato to Mrsha and ducked her head.

Oh. So that was how it was. Garry snapped his fingers in understanding. The Earl went on.

“Love to me…love is wanting to split who you are and combine it with them and be better for it. That is what it seems to me in older couples. When it sparks, it is childish, romantic. Heated. An obsession of wanting to know, even if that will not turn out for the best. Does that make…sense to you?”

He looked at her. Erin smiled briefly. That was good enough.

“Yeah, Altestiel. But then, I don’t think I love you, then. And I don’t feel that spark.”

The [Knight Marshal] nodded silently. Erin was glad he didn’t look…exploded…by the admission. He and she hadn’t known each other too long. He just looked greatly disappointed. She went on.

“I’m willing to try. As friends. But I’m afraid you might never find what you’re looking for. If that’s okay…I’m fine with it. But I don’t want to hurt you by what I am.”

Palt nodded with a sigh. Imani passed the cigar up to him and he took a puff. Olesm hesitated, and Numbtongue nodded.

“I should be delighted to be your friend, Miss Erin.”

The Earl smiled. But then he sighed again.

“…I see. I don’t have enough time. I did not have enough time.”

“Probably.”

The [Innkeeper] smiled, regretting it just as much as he. Altestiel lowered his chin—then slapped his knee.

“Damn. I should have come here straight away! I shouldn’t have waited. Why did damned Ailendamus have to make war? My [Queen]—I should just extend my visitation another month.”

“Um…I don’t know if that’s right.”

Altestiel folded his arms, ignoring his suddenly-worried company.

“I don’t answer solely to the crown. If she hadn’t forced my hand—one month of actual conversation? I could play chess! Level! It’s ridiculous.”

“I’m sorry, Altestiel.”

“It’s not your fault. This entire event—damn Desonis’ marshy palace. I’ll go tour Chandrar.

He snapped.

“Earl—”

“Your Lordship—”

“I’ve had it with the crown’s damned orders! You can tell her Majesty that just because she’s been divorced twice, she needn’t interfere with my delights! Get me a [Message] scroll!”

Erin’s jaw opened slightly. The Earl glowered about. She’d thought he’d handled the conversation really well. But was—

Was he sulking? Erin could almost see the raincloud over his head! Wait a moment—

A bit of water hit her on the head. Altestiel sat there, muttering.

“Just one month—I’ve never met anyone as talented as you, Miss Solstice.”

“But just in chess—”

It’s simply unfair. Damn this day.

He slapped his knee. Erin thought it was the most childish thing she’d ever seen.

She liked Altestiel even more. He sulked like Mrsha would if she could speak! Erin started laughing. The Earl looked affronted and the rain began to spread, pattering off his enchanted clothing.

“I don’t appreciate mockery after being let down, Erin. You wound me.”

“Sorry—”

And so it was done. Olesm looked relieved.

“Told you so.”

Selys smacked his arm. Hard.

“You idiot.”

She felt bad for Altestiel. Not least because—it wasn’t even half a date and Erin laid that on him? Ancestors! No wonder she was alone!

And yet, the Earl’s depression did not last long. The rain stopped. He was soon laughing with Erin and badmouthing his [Queen] only a bit.

The truth was it was a failed venture from the start. A romance in a day? That was one of the movies on Kevin’s laptop and even Selys knew that was fake.

Altestiel had probably known it from the start. But he was the kind of person to go down swinging, even against hopeless odds.

The others knew it too. The smart bookies were collecting the money from the day’s bets. And paying out to the odd winner who’d predicted just this outcome.

Drassi scowled as she counted out coins for Hedault and Dawil. She glared at the Dwarf.

“You bet against yourself!”

“Yes I did. And I had a lot of fun and made money.”

The Dwarf smugly sipped from his mug. Then he looked at Erin and sighed. He nudged a green shin.

“Take a note for next time, lads. Do it right. The door’s open.”

A Hobgoblin looked down at him. Dawil squinted up—then edged over and elbowed Numbtongue. And the Dwarf made one mistake.

 

—-

 

It was never that simple. The [Knights] were in the tent when the group of [Soldiers] entered.

“There he is. Come on—”

“What are you doing?”

“We’re seeing what’s behind the helmet. We’ve got a bet on it. Don’t worry, we won’t show you [Knights]. Not a word! Just me—and it’s a truth spell, right?”

One of the [Soldiers] turned. And Rabbiteater recognized the [Mage] with a jolt in his chest.

Telich with the truth spells. The [Mage] was rubbing his hands.

“Get him to the interrogation tent. You two—stand watch.”

“This is an outrage! He is a prisoner of war and a [Knight]! Hey! I demand—

[Silence]. The spell enveloped the [Knights]. They surged to their feet—but the other [Soldiers] knocked them down, subduing the shackled [Knights]. Talia shouted wordlessly as four grabbed Rabbiteater.

Ah. Behind his helmet, the Goblin smiled.

He felt better this way. This felt right.

“We won’t harm you. It’s just a single look. Inquiring minds are willing to pay to know…apparently you know someone important, Ser.”

The [Mage] assured the silent [Knight]. He hustled Rabbiteater into the tent. The Hobgoblin was tensed.

One [Mage]. Four [Soldiers]. They were flanking him and had a grip on him—and he had manacles on arms and legs. But…they had made a mistake. He let them escort him, shuffling. He tensed as the flap opened—

And saw ten more [Soldiers], all co-conspirators, waiting to see the truth behind the helmet. Rabbiteater untensed. He looked around then laughed and sighed.

“Ah.”

The [Mage] ordered them to put him in the chair. Four held him down—the Goblin was just waiting. Open the helmet. He at least had his teeth.

“Someone help me get the helmet off! Damn! It’s locked! Even the visor! Someone’s got a secret. You, you—”

 

—-

 

Something was wrong. Erin Solstice listened to Altestiel’s complaints. She was smiling. Laughing. But she felt it.

Rabbiteater. She stopped smiling.

Yes, Rabbiteater. That was the thing that had hung over her. In this day of weird failed courtships, something had become plain to Erin.

Why—was she spending her time looking for something she didn’t need? That she might want now and then—when something mattered more?

“Altestiel. Thanks for your help. I’m sorry I…well, sorry it didn’t work out.”

“It was doomed from the start.”

The Earl looked up and the [Innkeeper] nodded. She looked around the inn.

“If there’s anyone else who wants to court me—you can try. But I’m not really interested. If I was—wouldn’t I court you?

Her audience looked at each other. Lasica rolled her eyes. Erin went on.

“I’m just busy. That’s all. I have friends. Great friends.”

Oh boy, she’s going to do the glory speech.

A voice from the back. It sounded like Menolit. Erin laughed. But the tingling in her head…it felt like a ringing bell.

[Dangersense]? But she instinctively sensed…it wasn’t her in danger. Altestiel glanced up, frowning. Erin inhaled.

“Yeah. Something like that. But—it’s so hard to keep them safe. I can while it’s my inn. But it’s so hard out of it. And I’m not cool with that. I’d like to protect them everywhere. Even if it’s impossible, I want to.”

She clenched a fist. Palt stopped smoking. Mrsha’s leg began to jitter on the table as Lyonette held her. The Gnoll’s ears perked up.

“I won’t remain the same forever. Nor will I ever let them die. If I have to struggle—and beg every favor in the world, I won’t let them go. No matter how far you go.

Lyonette hesitated. She glanced at Mrsha.

“Dear, stop that.”

The plate of fries was jittering slightly. Lyonette saw the glass of water trembling. She looked at Mrsha. Wait a moment. The Gnoll wasn’t even touching the…

“Erin?”

Altestiel rose. The [Innkeeper] was breathing in and out. Numbtongue, frowning, felt the wall.

“What in the name of Nagas—

Hexel shot out of the hallway in alarm. He looked around.

“The entire inn is vibrating! Is it an earthquake?”

Then he saw Erin Solstice. Her brows were creased. She was concentrating. So hard she nearly burst a blood vessel. She was straining—

“What are you doing, Erin?”

Selys murmured from the side. The [Innkeeper] closed her eyes.

“I saw them all doing it. It’s a clever trick. If they can do it, why can’t I? I just didn’t know how it worked.”

Worked? Numbtongue glanced at Badarrow.

“This might be dangerous. Trying to force a Skill is—”

Altestiel was knocked over by the two Hobgoblins. They surged forwards, Snapjaw behind them. Hovering around Erin. She reached out and grabbed their wrists.

“I don’t need to see anything. Distance is just…”

 

—-

 

They were prying at the helmet. The bear-[General] had dented it such that it was hard to open. But they were slowly prising it off him.

Rabbiteater was distracted. He was waiting. But he felt it. A pressure in his head. Painful.

“What—what—”

“Don’t hurt him. The General will have our heads!”

“We’re not! He’s just complaining to trick us. Hurry up!

Perhaps they felt it. The three men strained. And the Goblin tensed. The others were holding him fast. But he felt like—a familiar hand was reaching for him. It felt like—

“Erin?”

 

—-

 

Her nose began bleeding. Not a cool nosebleed either. Both nostrils. Altestiel made a sound.

“You’re pushing too hard! Stop!”

She ignored him. It felt like—a barrier that was deforming in her head. Like it was made of plastic. She pushed harder.

Why? She looked at the two Goblins. Around the inn. She pointed at the sign.

They were here. They stood in this place. And I will never forget it! This inn will not forget they were here. My silly friends. My heroes. My protectors.”

The words of Ser Solstice were clenched in one fist, the paper crumpling. Erin shouted at him.

“You were right here. I asked you to die for me! Okay? Enough? It’s never enough! You will always be here. Even when you leave!”

The statues in the garden. Numbtongue’s claws dug into her shoulder. The ghost of the Goblin Lord watched. Slowly, he reached out and touched her shoulder.

Then there was light. Selys was wavering, wondering why Erin was so upset. She threw up her claws as she rushed towards Erin along with the others.

Flame. It burned around her, a flash so brilliant the others put up their hands to shield their eyes. Erin did not reach for it.

It was not a color they knew. For a moment—then Selys stumbled. The floorboards, the walls!

The inn was shaking.

What is happening?

Bird shouted from his tower. Below, Erin Solstice raised her hand. She broke past distance. Reaching out.

She was no [King]. But he had sat in this inn! He was her guest!

And she would never forget that. She shouted the words into the sky.

[Boon of the Guest: Zel Shivertail]!

Altestiel’s eyes widened. Lyonette gasped.

 

—–

 

The visor popped up. The [Soldiers] stared—and then recoiled.

G—

The Goblin sat there. Eyes wide. Blinking into the light. Had he heard that right? The [Soldier] reached for his sword as the [Mage] jerked, his fingers to his temple.

“Impossible.”

It’s a fucking—kill it! Kill—

The other [Soldiers] didn’t know what the three had seen. They moved, to stop the disgrace to Ailendamus’ name. Seeing the crimson eyes and green skin, recoiling. The ones holding Rabbiteater tightened their grip.

Too late. Too slow. The four [Soldiers] went flying.

The [Mage], Telich, stared blankly as a figure rose. He saw the visor close. Then a crimson flash from between the visor’s slits. He looked blankly at the [Soldiers] on the ground.

“What are you doing? Wh—”

Rabbiteater grabbed him. Telich cried out.

“[Flame J—]”

A claw like a razor severed his throat. It had gone through the steel gauntlets! The Hobgoblin stared at his hands.

Kill it! Kill the Go—

He lowered the dying mage. He saw a [Soldier] jump at him, snarling, a spiked brass knuckle aiming for his head. He was so—

Rabbiteater punched and stepped back. He saw the man’s head snap back—back—

The dead Human dropped like a sack onto the ground. The other [Soldiers] stared in horror.

“But he was a [Brawler]—”

They looked at the [Knight] as he regarded the claw sticking out of his gauntlets. A razor’s edge. Yet—his armor was gleaming. Reinforced.

An arrow bounced off the chest plate. The figure had already been dodging. He leapt forwards. The [Archer] put up his arms to block.

The second blow broke both arms and the man’s face. The [Knight] whirled. The [Soldiers] stared in horror at the crimson light shining from his visor. One of them whispered.

“Ailendamus save us.”

 

—-

 

Prisoner escape!

Again?

The bellow came from General Yerzhen’s tent. He emerged to see the army’s camp in chaos once more.

The [Knights] were free! They’d broken out of the manacles! How?

The answer was Talia Kallinad. Her armor was glowing from the heat of her aura. She’d melted the manacles on her and her comrades. They were burned from the heat. But they fought with a furious intensity.

“What’s happening? They were ransomed!”

The half-Elf [Captain of the Fist] was incredulous. Then he heard the shouts.

Ser Solstice! Where is he?

“Those damned idiots!”

The half-Elf shouted. Yerzhen looked at him.

“What?”

“The foreign [Knight]—”

There was no time to explain. Nor did the Bear of Ailendamus wait for a response. He just growled.

“Tell me later! I’ll murder whoever started this! First I’ll break all the bones in their bodies!”

He charged towards the [Knights] with a roar. The half-Elf [Captain] knew where to go. Not after the [General].

“You lot! With me!

He roared. Two squads of the Bear Brawlers raced after him towards the interrogation tent, the only conceivable place where they would take the Goblin Slayer. He was going to murder whoever was in charge, probably the [Mage], Telich, who liked to skim money—

The [Soldiers] burst into the tent and saw a dozen bodies on the floor. Dead. They stared at the figure in armor. He was flexing his hands. And—he had a sword in his hand. He’d been adding a throwing axe and a buckler to one arm. Daggers to his belt.

The emotionless visor swung around as the [Captain] and the [Soldiers] stopped. The [Knight] looked at them.

Goblin Slayer.

“No.”

The figure leapt. The half-Elf put up his fists. He was a [Brawler], who could fight with bare hands or street weapons as well as a sword! He lashed out—

“[Mach Punch]!”

The [Knight] caught the fist. He seemed as surprised as the half-Elf. The [Captain] tried to pull back—

 

—-

 

Rabbiteater adjusted his grip, and flung the half-Elf by his arm through the air. He was pretty sure he’d broken the man’s wrist.

But he hadn’t killed him. The first few punches he had—even without meaning it. He was—stronger. Faster! Incomparably so. The [Soldiers] stared.

Rabbiteater nearly drew the sword—but something in him told him.

Punch. He made a fist, stepped in—and one of the men collapsed, eyes rolled up in his head. His jaw might have been broken, but he was alive.

The second slashed with a sword. He saw the [Knight] make a claw out of his right hand—he slashed through the sword.

“Impossible—”

Rabbiteater was impressed too. He looked at his claws, sharper than steel. Then he turned.

Somehow—it had been Erin. He didn’t know how. But—

The camp was in chaos. The [Knights] were fighting. But the [General]—Rabbiteater turned as he heard the familiar roar. He began to run.

Two more men went down, punched into tomorrow by a single blow. The [Knights] were hemmed in, fighting once more.

A repeat of this morning. The [General] kicked one in the chest plate and caved it in. Markus grabbed his comrade—then they spotted the [Knight] who’d stopped.

A half-Elf was on his feet. His right arm hung broken, the wrist’s bone snapped. But his left hand was raised.

“Enough.”

The other [Soldiers] held back. Was that—? They stared at the [Captain of Fists] as he and the strange Ser Solstice squared off. The [Knight] took a step—

[Flicker Step]! [Minotaur Punch]! [Double Strike]! [Enhanced Impact]!

It was a step and haymaker punch. The kind the [Captain] had used to fell [Knights] in actual battle. It caught the [Knight] off-guard.

The fist crashed against the jawline of his helm. The [Soldiers] cheered. There was no stopping that! He might be d—

The second punch broke the half-Elf’s jaw. The [Captain] nearly dropped. He sagged, his jaw hanging loose.

General Yerzhen turned.

“Ulne?”

The [Knight] saw the [Captain] swing again. He had a tenacity to match a Redfang. But he was slow—Rabbiteater hesitated. His strength—

“Protect the [Captain]!”

[Soldiers] of Ailendamus, good [Soldiers], grabbed the half-Elf and dragged him back. He was out almost before they caught him. The others spread out.

“Don’t get close! He dropped Captain Ulne with a single punch!

Crossbows! Where are the [Mages]?

Rabbiteater whirled. Talia and the Order of Seasons were shouting for him.

Ser Solstice! To us!

There was no surrendering now. The [Captain] aside—the [Soldiers] were dead. Their blood was up.

Rabbiteater raised his fists. He still felt—tingly. And he felt a hand on his shoulder. He kept looking there. Looking for Erin—

But there was no time.

Back! All of you! No one else dies! If he got Ulne, then he’ll get through me!

The Bear of Ailendamus roared through the ranks of the [Soldiers]. He halted. And Rabbiteater looked at the [General] of the army.

His [Dangersense] began to tingle. Even with whatever was in him?

“Huh. Either you leveled up or something’s happened.”

Yerzhen’s eyes narrowed. The [General] stopped, regarding Rabbiteater. Could he see it? Did he know what had happened? Rabbiteater didn’t know himself.

“Sorry.”

He meant the [Captain], not the others. Yerzhen clenched one huge fist.

“Never met a [Knight] who said ‘sorry’. You lot! Stop the other [Knights]. The rest of you—keep this one from running. We’ll make it a fistfight!”

The other Bear Brawlers cheered. They formed a ring, confident suddenly, cheering on their [General]. Rabbiteater recognized the ritual, if not the details. It was like a Redfang fighting ring.

“Well, come on. They call you the Goblin Slayer, huh? I’ve fought Hobs before. And Chieftains. Even the great hulking bastards.”

The Bear General smashed a fist into one hand. Rabbiteater wavered.

Even…?

The power infusing him suddenly felt strained. He looked at the man and checked his own weight. He realized—he might weigh less than half the Bear General’s weight. Armor or not.

But the strength! The two stared at each other. Then Rabbiteater drew the sword. He slashed as he went for the dagger.

This time Yerzhen caught the blade. His eyes narrowed. He tore it from Rabbiteater’s grasp and then snapped it with his bare hands.

“You’re going to need a better sword. Come on, Ser Knight. Show me what you’ve got!”

Bear! Bear! Bear!

The [Soldiers] were chanting. Rabbiteater hesitated. Then he tossed the throwing axe behind him. Daggers too. He raised his fists. Then he charged.

The first punch was so fast even with his enhanced reflexes he barely ducked it. Rabbiteater threw an uppercut—

Yerzhen blocked it with a grunt. He stared at Rabbiteater, then threw a hook. The [Knight] dodged back.

It was just a blur. Rabbiteater faltered. Yerzhen swore.

“It’s a thrones-damned Skill buff! Too bad it wasn’t a capstone level, huh?”

He shook out his hand. Rabbiteater stared at his fist as if it had let him down. The Bear grinned.

“It’s not that easy.”

He charged with a roar. Rabbiteater made the mistake of attacking. His fist hit the man in the shoulder and then the shoulder-charge threw him to the ground. He rolled—

Talia saw Yerzhen’s fist crumple the side of Ser Solstice’s helmet. The figure staggered. She shouted.

No!

 

—-

 

It occurred to Rabbiteater that he had underestimated Yerzhen. He had no idea what level the man was. The world flashed as he stumbled.

The fragmentary thoughts in the nanoseconds of consciousness turning on, off, resetting the power and rebooting—

Maybe he’s better than Garen Redfang. Ridiculous! Or was it?

He was…

A [General]. Half a second. Rabbiteater’s head lowered—the helmet was dented against his head. Then he saw the second punch coming at his head.

He jerked backwards, fell on his back. Yerzhen stomped. Rabbiteater rolled away.

Everything was slower. He was faster now—he heard the roar of blood in his ears. The cheering [Soldiers], one noise. He surged upright, threw a punch.

It rocked the huge man. Rabbiteater saw it. Yerzhen’s eyes crossed for a second. Rabbiteater threw a second—

 

—-

 

—Landed. Landed? His mouth was full of blood. He tried to sit up and realized he was on his front.

“Dead gods, that’s two punches! The [General]’s killed [Knights] with one!

Someone was shouting. Rabbiteater pushed himself up.

“I want my axe.”

It was like fighting Badarrow with arrows. Fists—bad. He looked around—then saw the Human charging at him. Rabbiteater dodged—went flying again.

Properly flying. He hit the ground. Stared upwards.

Level 40 [General], then. There was no way…he was a Level 29 [Champion]. Level 50?

“…cause you’re just…”

Someone said something? He turned his head. Saw the fist coming down.

The blow to the back of his head hammered him into the mud and dirt. Talia shouted as the armored figure collapsed. She saw Yerzhen raise his arms, roaring to his army of countless thousands.

 

—-

 

“It’s because you’re just borrowing it. It can’t compare with the genuine article. Not yet, at any rate.”

Rabbiteater jerked. He opened his eyes. He looked around and nearly fell out of his chair.

He was leaning back in it, rocking on two legs. He sat forwards. The chair landed.

The table held an empty plate. A mug that had dregs of milk. A meal? Rabbiteater looked for the speaker.

Zel Shivertail sat there, taking his ease. He was picking at his teeth delicately.

“Huh?”

“It’s because you’re borrowing my strength. I don’t fight with my fists. Claws. See?”

He showed Rabbiteater his claws. The Hobgoblin turned. Zel looked at him.

“But I’m not here. And you have to roll. Left.”

“Lef—”

 

—-

 

Rabbiteater rolled left. The foot smashed down where his back would have been. Yerzhen cursed. The Goblin surged upright, but the kick sent him stumbling onto his feet. His head—

 

—-

 

“…you think is happening?”

The Drake shrugged. He looked around.

“No service. This inn hasn’t changed much. But I rather liked the [Princess]. Did I know she was a [Princess]? I don’t think I’m quite real. Half-real. Made up of what she thought of me. Filled in by the Skill, rather. Isn’t that right?”

He turned in his seat. Erin plonked the steak down and folded her arms.

“Hey! I’m doing my best! I’m not even sure if I’m here.”

Zel nodded. Rabbiteater rubbed at his eyes. He realized he was out of his armor.

“…Why a steak? At least bring me something Imani’s made. If I came back from the dead, could you at least bring me a new dish? Thank you.”

“Gah! You’re like Grimalkin. Sorry.”

Erin threw up her hands. Zel rubbed at his head.

“I remember Grimalkin of Pallass. He challenged me to a fight like this. I refused.”

He looked at Rabbiteater.

“He has two hundred pounds on you. Even with [Boon of the Guest]—he’s got at least ten levels, you know.”

“I know. But I had to fight.”

“Like this?

The [General]’s voice was commanding without even trying. Rabbiteater ducked his head, flushing, as if a senior Hob were telling him he was an idiot while still being nice. Zel shook his head.

“Sometimes you have to. I understand that. But look at him. Even with my strength and speed and toughness—”

 

—-

 

The Bear of Ailendamus kept charging. He was big. His body could absorb punches. He had weight. Rabbiteater had a [Boon]. But he wasn’t—

Dodge! The [Knight] went back, weaving, ducking punches. The Bear was slower and he roared. He tried to shoulder-charge and Rabbiteater tumbled. The cheering [Soldiers]’s voices grew a little less loud. Rabbiteater threw a hook—the Bear General went for a trade.

 

—-

 

Down again. Zel sipped from a bean soup. Erin was distressed.

“He’s losing! Can you help him?”

“I’m helping enough. Rabbiteater’s finding his pace. I don’t know more than you do. Are you here?

“Maybe just my Skill. Maybe me? I don’t know! Rabbiteater! Get up! Give him the old one-two!”

“Ignore her.”

Rabbiteater was panting, sitting at the table. His arms hurt. He felt dizzy.

“What am I supposed to do? Do…?”

“Stand up. It’s not over. See? Look at him.”

“Too tired. Is this real?”

Zel Shivertail stood up. He walked over. His claw grasped Rabbiteater’s neck—but gently. He turned the Hobgoblin’s head.

 

—-

 

Look at him.

Yerzhen stumbled. Just for a moment. Rabbiteater stood. Panting, he made claws—

 

—-

 

“Not like that.”

“But your claws—”

“He’s not trying to kill you. Have you seen him use a Skill?”

Rabbiteater hesitated. Zel had grabbed his hands.

“If you draw blood, he’ll try to kill you. He’s making this a fistfight. Beat him there.”

“But he’s so tough!

Zel glanced at Erin, irritated.

“He’s more dangerous still. Listen. Rabbiteater has a chance.”

He looked at the shorter Hobgoblin. Placed a claw on his shoulder and leaned down.

“He’s a [General], but he’s not acting like one. If he were a [General] leading an army he wouldn’t fall no matter how many punches you threw. Not if it mattered. He doesn’t think he’ll lose. He’s overconfident. You can take him. But you’re running out of time. This boon is going to fade.”

“We’re using it up, I guess. Stronger, shorter. And it’s far away.”

The inn was already fading. Zel reached for the bowl of bean porridge and took a bite. Then he put it down.

“Good enough. You’ll only get one shot. If the [Soldiers] see him fall or Yerzhen thinks he’s losing he’ll use a potion and end the fight. Provoke him. Do. Not. Fall.”

 

—-

 

The muddy [Knight] charged with a roar that silenced the Humans. The Bear of Ailendamus stared incredulously. Then he bellowed and roared.

Both men drew their heads back at the same time. They met and the head-butt made every watching person wince.

Yerzhen staggered. But the [Knight] dropped as though his strings were cut. Falling—

 

—-

 

“Not yet. Get up. You’re a [Warrior], aren’t you?”

“It’s hard.”

The Drake was holding onto him as Rabbiteater swayed. Refusing to let go. The [General]’s voice was a bellow, like Garen Redfang’s.

Stand up! Don’t you have something to fight for?

Talia?

 

—-

 

Yerzhen stared as the buckling knees straightened. The [Knight] looked up at him. Yerzhen seized his shoulder.

Bastard!

The two heads collided.

 

—-

 

“I was so afraid you were dead. I miss you.”

He lay on her lap.

“Had to go. Everything…”

“Yeah. Why are you sad, Rabbiteater?”

He looked up.

“I don’t know what to do.”

“Isn’t this what you want?”

Erin looked into his eyes. He half-shook his head.

“It’s Human things. Human fights. Is—I am not a [Knight]. See?”

She understood, this Erin. Without him having to explain. Maybe it was part of Erin. Part of him. And part of Zel, listening.

“I get it. You don’t know if it’s okay to…go so far away. But Rabbiteater. I would never make you protect me.”

“But what am I supposed to do?”

Zel snorted. Erin laughed.

“Silly. You’re supposed to do what you think is right. Why do you think they made you a [Champion]? Why do you think I love you? Just tell me this. Do you want to lose?

 

—-

 

Hells…[General].”

The Bear turned. The [Knight] was looking at him. Dizzy, the [General] whirled. The third impact was the loudest.

Ser Solstice’s helmet deformed. But it was the Bear-General who stumbled back. He shook his head—brought it down with a roar. And he stumbled away.

Then he raised his fists. The [Knight] stepped in. He punched the huge man in the chest, swung, locked arms, was knocked back. But he kept coming.

Yerzhen took a punch to the jaw. He roared and clubbed Rabbiteater along the head. The [Knight] staggered—

And took the uppercut on the jaw. He stood there, poleaxed.

 

—-

 

“My brave friend. My [Champion].”

Erin stood there. The world had become just a few feet around her and Zel. The [General] nodded.

“Listen. If you’re a [Champion], you’re a [Champion]. If you’re a [Knight], you’re a [Knight]. Who said they know what being a [Knight] is? They’re Human. Perspectives differ. I’ve seen cowardly, poor [Knights] and the bravest [Warriors] and everything else.”

He was kneeling. Erin grabbed his shoulder.

Who cares if you don’t have a [Lord]? You can be my [Knight].

Rabbiteater looked up at her.

“Even now? Even after everything?”

She looked at him.

“Because you left? Nothing will ever change. You might not be fancy. You’re a Goblin. So what? You’re my [Knight]. My [Champion]. I’ll never let you be anything less. And I’ll never abandon you. No matter how far you go.

 

—-

 

“Dead gods. Is your skull mithril or something?”

Yerzhen panted. The [Knight] shook his head. This time—the [General]’s face caught a fist. He swung—ducked.

A hit to the belly that made the man nearly spew. Kick—the [Knight] spun.

 

—-

 

Stop holding back! You’re fighting like a [Knight]! Fight like a Goblin! Cut loose!”

The [General] was howling in his ear. Erin in the other. Stand. He had to—

 

—-

 

The Knight of Solstice rose. He howled again. Yerzhen felt a flash of unease. He jabbed—

The Goblin jumped and kicked him in the chin. A roar from the [Soldiers]. Yerzhen stumbled. He screamed. The [Soldiers] groaned. The [General] had just been kicked between the legs!

Bastard!

A hammer’s blow from above. The heaviest hit so far. The [Knight] fell.

 

—-

 

“You have to come back! You can’t fall down! Get up! Get up!

She dragged him to his feet with the [General].

 

—-

 

“What the—”

The [Knight] rose before he’d even dropped. And his fist—

Yerzhen stumbled back. He raised his guard—

Another blow rocked him back. Then another. The [Knight] punched. One! Two! The fist went under the man’s arms, hit the chin.

Again! He drew a fist back and hit the man in the chest. Keep going! It all felt—was he sitting in the inn?

He pivoted around a desperate fist. The counter put the [General] on the ground. Rabbiteater waited for him to rise. He saw the Bear of Ailendamus roar and charge.

I never should have made you think you had to protect my inn.

Erin whispered in his ears. Rabbiteater charged at the [General]. He kicked the man as he charged, knocking him down. The Hobgoblin leapt on Yerzhen’s chest. Hit him—he was knocked backwards as the [General] threw him off.

Stand and fight.

Zel Shivertail lifted him up. Yerzhen stared up as the [Knight]’s fists flashed in the light.

One. Two. Six. Ten—the [Soldiers] were rushing forwards. The [General] was rocking back on his feet, carried over by the blows. Rabbiteater swayed.

The Bear of Ailendamus fell onto his back. In the silence, Rabbiteater saw the frozen [Soldiers], staring up at the deformed helmet. They backed away.

“Good enough. And good job, Rabbiteater. Straighten your back.”

Zel Shivertail clapped him on the shoulder. The [General] was approving. Rabbiteater stood straight. He would have fallen, but Erin was there. She looked up at him.

“I’ll be waiting for you to come back. Have an adventure. Do good things. Fall in love. Be silly. Make mistakes. But come back and tell me about it, okay?”

“Okay. I promise.”

He reached for her. But she was gone. The [Knight] stumbled. Then he remembered.

He kept his back straight. The [Soldiers] backed away.

“The—the [General]—”

If he took a single step, he’d fall. He was dizzy. He heard the babbling voice in his head.

 

Level 32—

 

Yes. That was what they’d mistaken. He was not just the Goblin Slayer. Not just Ser Solstice. He was their warrior. They had made him.

Rabbiteater raised a hand and roared. The [Soldiers] fled, dragging their [General].

[Champion]. The Goblin laughed. He swayed—

And the racing figures broke through the camp.

Ser Solstice!

Talia Kallinad aimed the spare horse his way. The Order of Seasons was mounted! She had his cloak, streaming behind her, and the axe in her hands. He stared at her.

“Stop them! Stop…”

The [Soldiers] were too afraid to get close to the [Knight] who’d brought down Yerzhen. Talia slowed. She jumped from the saddle, reaching for Rabbiteater.

“He beat the Bear of Ailendamus?”

Voices. Rabbiteater heard the others talking.

“He can’t ride. You—Markus. Get him moving! Cut a path forwards! Move! Move!

Hands were helping him into the saddle, urging him along. The horse ran next to another. Rabbiteater just sagged against the horse.

“Nice Skills.”

He wondered what Erin would say. Then—the last voice spoke to him. Saying something that made his eyes flutter open.

[Knight-Errant Level 9!]

A knight-errant. A word he barely knew. A [Knight]. But one…who went on quests. A silly [Knight], on an adventure. Who would one day go home.

Believe there was something right. Ahead of him, Talia was riding, glancing back towards the limp figure. Rabbiteater adjusted his helmet, broken nearly to bits. Around him, the Order of Seasons raced like an honor guard.

The light was fading in the evening. The [Knights] streamed away from the camp, and would soon be hard to track. Not that pursuit was organized or coming. The Goblin heard a voice.

“Ser Solstice. Ser Solstice…”

“Bean porridge. What?”

“Your helmet, Ser Solstice…”

Helmet? The Goblin felt at it. It was dented but—what? He looked up. And realized he could see the face of the [Knight] helping him stand in the saddle more clearly. Ser Markus. The Knight of the Spring looked Rabbiteater in the eyes.

“The visor’s up.”

“Oh.”

Slowly, Rabbiteater lowered it. Ser Markus looked at him. Then at Talia, two more who’d helped get him into the saddle.

“We had better get you another helmet.”

Was he blind? The Goblin, the [Knight], the [Champion], wanted to laugh.

“You saw.”

He waited for them to dump him out of the saddle. Ser Markus looked around. He spoke towards Talia’s back, the other two.

“I saw a [Knight] beat a [General] with his bare hands. I’ve seldom seen greater valor in battle.”

Hear hear!

One of the other [Knights] shouted, oblivious. Rabbiteater looked at Ser Markus. Then he laughed.

 

—-

 

Somewhere else, Erin Solstice sat, weary. But she was smiling. She felt…he was safe. That was all. She sat there, in her room, and looked at an imaginary Goblin.

“Come home someday. Don’t take too long, okay? I’ll be waiting.”

She smiled as he asked a question.

“…I promise.”

 

 

 

 

Author’s Note: I declare this to the one of the most AMBITIOUS return-chapters ever. Also, long. Also, two chapters in one.

Parts might be weaker for having to combine both storylines. But it was literally 2 votes of difference and I thought both side stories were too good to pass up!

Did I fail? Did I succeed? I hope you enjoy. I might take off two weeks after December, just so you know. For the New Year! Call it my Christmas present! I’m warning you in advance!

But I’ll get to more later. Rabbiteater’s levels, more consequences, more story! Until then—I’m going to rest. Whew! Ambition. That’s my downfall. Ambition.

Thanks for reading!

 

The art for this chapter is by ArtsyNada who has a very pertinent image, and a scarf!, Brosciple of Brodin (is that right?) who’s done AMAZING Antinium, Toren, and a young Badarrow, and…Pie. Who has done an accurate Mrsha and Lyonette interaction. Give them all laudations! Is that word right?

 

Deodorant and Scarf by ArtsyNada

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/illudanajohns/

Ko-fi: https://ko-fi.com/illudanajohns

Commission info: https://i.imgur.com/OmNDuK8.jpg

 

Hungry by Pie

 

Toren, Young Badarrow, and Antinium Soldiers by Brosciple of Brodin!

 


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169 thoughts on “Interlude – The Innkeeper’s [Knight]

  1. Here I was reading.. thinking.. ohhh this is dragging on… I don’t care about this part… it’s taking so long…. so slow and unexciting… and then you went and smashed me like Rabiteater smashed the general! You fucking aced this chapter aba. BAM BAM BAM!

    If you keep setting the bar higher and higher yourself at this pace, you’ll be the first to make it to Mars! Watch out Elon!

  2. So Eris is still in protagonist relationship hell, ie. never gonna get some. It seems we can only expect the boring standard cliche relationships in the romantic area, something will always come up to dissolve it ie. Secretly Evil, Distaracting Event, Paramour Dies…. etc.

    • while I think the fact that other characters are allowed to genuinely have relationships makes it less egregious, but the story has almost explicitly stated that Erin will not have relationships until the final arc of the story (or perhaps even up until the epilogue). Although the story is allowing for the possibility of friend dates (to test out how the audience views ErinX[Insert Character Here] as a pairing perhaps?), but they won’t go anywhere until final arc of story or the epilogue~

  3. Love erin’s thinking there.

    “All those guys do it so I can too”

    lyonette should take note here, in another twenty levels or so she should be able to do this, probably much sooner if she can somehow piggieback on Erin tossing her own boon.

    being able to throw the boon this far just quadrupled its value, just needs more practice or levels or supporting skills on the other end to improve the distance/time trade off (or stick to the same continent she is on I guess)

    kind of not fair on the poor general, trying to unknowingly beat zel shivertail in a fistfight, even a lesser version and without magic equipment was not something to try with only the passive buffs from being a high level general and passive skills.

    (Considering what zel takes to kill I honestly wouldn’t be too sure using a skill would have done enough to counter the opening the general would create in his defenses when he is shocked it doesnt drop him.

    rabbiteater took multiple wrecking balls to the head with the only effect on his combat ability being physically pushing him down for a moment and was running with at least some of the skill set that let zel keep trucking too much worse)

  4. What a time to catch up.
    Amazing chapter for an amazing story.
    I have been addicted to it since I found it.
    Thank you for all the awesome stories pirateba!

  5. Didn’t like the relationship stuff, at all. Anime style was how some other commenter put it. Which is not intrinsically wrong but for me does not really fit the story. The whole line about someone who can protect everyone cheapens Erin’s character immensely. What a contrast with her incredibly poignant heart-to-heart with Teriarch in some earlier chapter, of which the conclusion was that you cannot save everyone but there’s still value in trying.

    Loved the Rabbiteater storyline. If Erin does not level up from that…

    • I see where you are coming from, but for myself I paid more attention to the “someone I would want to fall in love with right away”. That is, someone who Erin would try to make a relationship with despite not feeling the “spark”. I think it was just her way of saying that she’s not interested in a person for what they can do (as a counterpoint to Kiish), so grand gestures could never substitute for a real relationship to be built in the little time they had before the Earl would be called away. She might make an exception if a person could literally solve all the problems for her, forever, but even he recognized that this would be transactional and not love (she would hope to fall in love with that person, but it would be secondary at that point). I don’t consider this to cheapen her in any way, and in fact reinforces her discussion with Teriarch; no one can save everyone, and thus by extension no one can “win” Erin just like that. A real romance with Erin would have to be built over time, when she can feels she can act for herself, in between all the crazy moments for others. It takes more time than he has with her, even if she did feel the beginnings of attraction.

  6. Well I liked it. As an interlude it was fun, and Erin being too preoccupied with the constant chaos and her friends to be willing to make a romantic partner a big part of her life makes perfect sense.

    • Agreed, not willing to give a part of her heart to someone out of fear of it breaking or feeling untrue to all the others she loves, seems very real. People forget Erin is not native to this world and is sorta still an outsider, she’s just trying to make a place that feels like home, love and all that would get in the way. I don’t think its anime to have an MC that swings a little more Ace.

  7. Another fantastic chapter. Read it twice. I’m so hopelessly hooked on this story. I wish though that some character story arcs could be wrapped up, otherwise there’s quite a lot going on for me. In fact some plots that I’m tired of I just skim the dialogue. Battle scenes and fights are my least favourite. Love the Goblins, although what is rabbiteater up to?

    I thought at one point the inn was going to teleport to Terandria.

    Would it be possible to have a flying inn? I know brid has been working on his tower, and the build is bing stalled by him to give the workers what they desire but cannot ask for. Perhaps there is more to his build. Howls castle is not the only moving miozaki structure, theres also Laputa, or what about Disneys Up. Could bird have somthing else up his sleeve. I could imagine this.

    I also thought the blend of stories worked well in the chapter. Somtimes the jumping perspective is just too much for me and I have to do a double take.

    I’m not fussed about the erin fan service. Her relationships will develop naturally through character dialogue. If it is important to the story it will be there. Otherwise, its not that important.

    From chapter 1 I’ve always thought about earthers getting home. But what if they accept their lives as they are, would that be so bad? Then what is their story arc?

    Perhaps Erin’s arc is actually complete. She has more than mastered her environment. Could her arc be to complete the arcs of the remaining protagonists, BlackMage, Ryoka, Laken. Never been that taken by Twin Trouble. The floundering children found by Magnolia seem to have matured, perhaps they can leave the nest now.

    I do miss Picies etc, but if that story is complete then that’s ok, but there are several plot points in this area that are still open. The necromancer and his chosen, the stitch which, the link to terandria, the heartflame armour, and poor torren. Ot wasn’t his fault.

    And what on earth is this party all about, Ryoka wants to ‘save’ her captive immortal bbf? I hope there is some good plan here and not just typical reactionary Ryoka. She’s supposed to be smart after all. Did teriarch give her some ideas, a negotiation strategy. Hmm, who else is good at strategy.

    • I don’t think getting back to Earth was ever supposed to be part of anyone’s arcs tbh. Luan seemed pretty upset about getting separated from his wife, but few of the others have ever expressed any care whatsoever about Earth except insofar as life in the Innworld is pretty difficult.

      Erin’s ‘apparent’ inciting incident from the first few chapters never struck me as being about ‘not being on Earth’ – she never seemed especially bothered by that – so much as just ‘being in constant danger’. You could argue that that’s been resolved, but from everything I’ve read since, it seems like she cares more about the danger to her friends than she does to herself. Maybe her ‘real’ inciting incident was actually when Relc killed all those goblins and she put down the sign declaring war on Innworld’s morality, and if that’s the case, her story is no-where near resolved. I feel like the fact that ‘No Killing Goblins’ is literally the story’s tagline gives a hint about that.

      As for Ryoka, I was a bit confused about that, but she explained it a few chapters ago. Ivolethe isn’t in any danger and doesn’t need saving, but Ryoka IS and DOES – she needs to get her friend back not just because she’s her friend, but because she’s her only key to having any real power on a timeline that would enable her to survive what’s coming.

      • Many Earthers had “go back home” as a goal: Erin herself, the groups in Rhir, Chandrar and Baleros… practically everyone who shows up willingly at Wistram is baited with the promise of a way back and/or safety.

        However, we do know for certain (Luan and the UN group) that the [System] does some kind of mindfuckery to keep them from remembering and missing home. It’s definitely not natural. So that’s one factor for people giving up on trying to get home.

        The other part is that Innworld is literally fantastic, in all senses of the term. What’s the highest you can hope to be on Earth: a mere billionaire or leader of a country. In Innworld there are no limits, you can become anything imaginable! Seriously, a [King] has powers greater than what a god from the Greek pantheon would be expected to have and there are even more powerful classes. Or you can just brute force a mundane class like [Inkeeper] into something truly awe-inspiring.

        Some people don’t have family or friends they love to keep them tied to Earth, like Ryoka. Or that murderer. And even the ones that do are getting mind wiped.

  8. Okay, I loved this chapter but Erin has a really unusual idea of love:

    “Someone who could protect them all. All the people who’ll tear out pieces of my heart if they die. How am I supposed to love someone and be selfish for me while they’re out there?”

    “You can’t protect them with gold alone. You’re too weak. We all are. If there was someone who could capture my heart with who they were alone—it would be someone who could promise me they will not die. Or if they do—it will not be in vain. Who could give meaning to this world and what happens.

    That’s not love, that’s worship! She basically wants a guardian angel/god. Altestiel was close with his suggestion that’s the type of admiration a [Monarch] can earn in Innworld but I really think that not even the King of Destruction, certainly not Emperor Laken, can measure up to this!

    So who’s left? Even Teriarch isn’t all powerful. Erin x Tamaroth the God of Rulers/Ruler of Gods? He’ll have to offer her something a lot more than an umbrella of sunlight but most problematically, I don’t see what she can offer him.

    • I don’t think thats her idea of love, as much as what she would require to be in a relationship with someone she doesnt love.

  9. So. What happens when you assault and try to kill someone after you’ve accepted their ransom?

    What happens when innkeepers boon of the guest invokes a certain archmage?

    Though this was an incredible chapter.

  10. As usual for the Erin’s chapter, I like it ! :)

    Btw, doesn’t it seem Erin combined an [immortal momet] with her boon gift ? I mean, the discussion in the inn was long, no ?

  11. Thank you for the chapter Pirate, it felt a little weird jumping between the two perspectives until the end given how life threatening one was compared to other. Still you did a great job, thank you.
    Also if I may make a request, in the future if you’re going to do a very spoiler heavy stream like the one this Wednesday could you please make the titles less enticing? I may not have a right to say this but when I say the title I was very curious, popped in to see what was up not entirely realizing it was a writing stream and received a very heavy and sever case of spoilers for the next two chapters.

  12. What do you think that Rabbiteater reaction will be, when he finds out what does Knight-errand mean? I had to Google it, to be sure. But that is really beautiful detail. I hope he will have this class and it doesn’t evolve. A wandering knight for the wandering inn. Love it.

  13. Love the chapter, the semi-conscious dialogue at the end was very well done I thought, not a huge fan of the romance but it’s not something I want removed all together.
    I was wondering if Pirate was ever going to do a heart system, so if you like a chapter you can click the heart button at the BOTTOM of the chapter. Bottom of the chapter because you would have to read it to heart it. It’s just an idea (like a poll sort of for ppl without money :) ).
    Anyhow, good work!

  14. Stunning chapter all around, might be in my top ten if I made a top ten lol the two ideas for a chapter blended incredibly well and have given Erin a much needed clarification on that ambiguous love life she kept ignoring. I can’t wait for her to rock the boat across the capstone elite again like this.
    “AN INNKEEPER DID WAT?!”
    She can’t get skills every level but at this point she just needs to use the ones she’s got right now like the earl said.

    Someone else said it started off slow and meh but that made the ending so much better, especially with rabbit eaters story being a little more loosey goosey. The goblin stories always make me a little depressed cause any one of them could die and the other goblins wouldn’t even cry

  15. Fuck, the fistfight was damn good, I dont deny that, but I dislike how the victory there kinda came from erin’s buff. The way I see it, she’s been the crucial factor in a whole lot of fights now, against the assasins, Skinner and she’ll most likely be pivotal in the gnollmoot as well.

    I want to see others be heroes as well, with just their own power and at most only emotional support from others. I know he couldn’t have won without the buff, but you could have shown some of that redfang skill from him.

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