The longest day of the year was a special moment.
A time of meetings. A time of power. Of magic.
On the day of the Summer Solstice, The Wandering Inn was filled with the grieving. A lost young woman who was neither dreaming, nor dead.
Disaster. And broken promises.
Lyonette had not left the inn. She had not gone for the great party in Riverfarm. This was not a time for parties. No one else had gone, either.
Maviola El was dead.
This day, the sun rose, burning with the colors of glory. A flame so distant. That burned all the brighter because one day, it too would go out.
It burned across more than one world.
This day was an important day.
Daly Sullivan, no relation to the [Popstar] of Terandria, was in a bad mood today. He was restlessly checking the new, prototype steel-limb crossbow. Paige had installed sights.
Crossbows. He stared at it, listening to the aggrieved argument. He scratched at his arm and stared, for a second, at the bug bites covering his skin.
Over seventy on his body. He looked around and snapped.
“Someone toss me the bug balm, would you? I’m starting to itch again.”
Someone did. Daly cursed as he slathered the ointment on his skin. The rest of the Bushrangers were equally as chewed up. Their bug spray—in fact, charms—had gone dead during this last mission. They’d been eaten alive in the undergrowth while trying to remove an infestation of baby Hydras.
‘Baby’. Hah. Daly had been in a foul mood. And that was before trying to kill a regenerating monster, let alone dismember it until the flesh stopped regrowing.
At least they had bags of holding these days. Small mercies.
However, he was in a bad mood for more than just that reason. Someone was dead.
He did not know her. And yet—he knew her. The shock had not been followed by deep grieving. He had never spoken, actually, physically, spoken to Erin Solstice.
But she was from home. And she…
A foul mood had engulfed the Bushrangers, who were privy to some details of the classified information in the United Nations company. No one wanted to start keeping secrets, but leaking the fact that another Earther had died wasn’t great for morale. And that Joseph was actually from Earth and there were more?
Well, she might not be dead. But his dark mood continued. He heard it in the air as Dawson, Kami, Tofte, and the others aired their grievances. At last, Daly couldn’t stand it any longer.
“Oi. All of you, shut up and stop whinging.”
The others looked up, glaring his way. The Captain of the Bushrangers glared back, in no mood to be nice.
“What the fuck are you so mad about anyways, eh, Dawson? You’re mad because you didn’t get to haze Luan and the new recruits? Take that—shove it up your arse and jump in the harbor.”
“Come on, Daly. We’ve been fighting and adventuring for months. Luan just gets to stroll on in and—”
“Show all of you up? Looks like it. Me included.”
Daly scratched at another bite, irritably. Luan had gone off to get them treated by Geneva; he’d been worried one was infected.
He’d gotten eaten more than the others. A hundred bites, poor guy. But some healing potion or tonic would clear him up. Daly was only waiting to make sure he had no budding infection. Take the potion when you were in Geneva’s presence. Luan had first go at it.
No one was happy in the Bushrangers—at least, the ‘old guard’. Old guard, as if they had done this for years.
“It’s just not fair. We have Skills.”
They were mad because Luan had volunteered to help with their mission hunting Hydras. Not people—but he’d been out of sorts since he kept having to dodge [Bounty Hunters] who wanted that stupid claim on him the Iron Vanguard had posted. The only way to overturn it was to match the bounty and the United Nations company didn’t have the funds.
So he’d come with some prospective new rangers. Someone had gotten it in their heads to make it a tough mission. Weed out the idiots who thought this was fun and games—especially those who hadn’t seen actual fighting and been found after the United Nations company settled in Talenqual.
It was stupid—but there was some logic to it. Daly had told Siri and Tofte to ensure it didn’t get out of hand. Sure enough, the bugs, the hiding and stalking for two days had made some of the new recruits give up the moment they got back to the city. The Bushrangers had done a forced march of nearly thirty kilometres there, and again on the way back.
No huge packs, bags of holding and stamina potions—but still. It was exhausting, especially the lifting of Hydra meat, fighting, setting up traps—
No Rustless Vanguard or the other teams that sometimes joined with theirs for this mission either. Dullahans moved too slow, and the Hydras hadn’t necessitated splitting the rewards. So, a no-fun, all-Human experience. That Drake and some of the ‘non-Earth’ volunteers had been left behind as well on clinic guard-duty to allow the Earthers to be themselves.
What made Dawson and the others so hopping mad was that despite not having Skills and being almost as green as the other prospective adventurers, Luan had marched there and back, and outdone all of them in terms of keeping his energy up and being the most active member.
“He was going to the Olympics, Dawson. What’s there not to get?”
“As a paddler!”
“Say that when he’s about and he’ll smack you. Say it closer to me and I’ll do it. So what? He was in better shape than we are now. Still is.”
The others grumbled. It amazed Daly. He’d seen how fast Luan was on the water. They all had. You wanted to say that Dawson—decently in shape, good guy most of the time—was a match for one of the world’s top athletes? Even if that was in water?
“You know those terrible rugby players, basketball, baseball, football—whatever you want? The ones who’re in the worst teams in the sports leagues, Dawson?”
“Want me to start a list, Daly? What’s the point?”
“You bring them to a college team. High school team. And they’ll destroy the competition. And that’s the bad players. Luan’s in good shape. Deal with it.”
The Bushrangers stopped quarrelling as the door opened. Luan emerged, bug bite-less and stretching.
“Next. Sorry it took so long. Turns out…we have leeches.”
Dawson exploded. The others checked themselves. Luan grimaced.
“Below the skin. Get a thorough check out. I’m off. Daly—your team’s got nerves of steel. I only wish you had skin like that.”
“Get us some Stitchfolk and we will. Thanks, Luan.”
The [Expert Rower] smiled as he grasped Daly’s arm. The [Axe Warrior] resisted the urge to scratch at his bites or stare at his skin. Geneva could not come fast enough; Siri was in the checkup room like a shot. Luan shuddered.
“I’m not doing that again. And I think those idiots chasing me gave up. I’ll do a delivery. You have my sincerest respect.”
Had he been taking lessons from Ken? Or listening in? Or perhaps that was just Luan. The others fell silent as he bade farewell and jogged out the door. Heading to the harbor. Daly rubbed at an arm, thought he saw a strange, subtle bump under his flesh and stood up.
“Okay. Everyone, pipe down and let’s draw lots who’s getting into Geneva next. Last person picked, we’ll give them a mercy by letting them set themselves on fire.”
The others clustered around. Tofte moaned.
“I hate this continent. Why can’t we take aquatic jobs with Luan?”
“Crelers in the water, Tofte.”
“I hate this world.”
Luan jogged down to the harbor where his boat was in storage. He paid the [Harbormistress] his rental fee; he’d already gotten a juicy delivery request. Gold, for an experimental scroll in Talenqual. He was going to drop off some of Geneva’s pre-made cures in their doses at the same time.
He’d meant what he said to Daly. Endless respect for his group. Enough that he didn’t mind the hazing; he’d had it done before in other groups. Plus—they’d failed.
He got into his boat, looking around for [Bounty Hunters]. But he’d gotten sharp and no one had really noticed he was in the city as far as he could tell. The Bushrangers had arrived before dawn today and headed straight for the clinic.
Quickly, Luan got in the boat and began to, well, row. Two strokes and he was shooting past an incoming ship. The [Captain] of the low-riding cutter whistled as he saw the City Runner flash past.
“Now that’s a fast boat! Who’s that Sea Runner?”
“Luan the Rower. Talenqual.”
“Write him down—are those enchanted oars?”
Luan grinned as he passed out of earshot. Not enchanted. Just skill. Just practice. Just Earth technology and magic, making the boat and equipment light as—if not lighter—than the top-of-the-line stuff from his world.
And Skills. He skimmed out of the harbor, moving faster than any other craft, even those with magic wind in their sails. They waved at him, and the [Rower] raised one hand for a second, calling out.
He felt safer now. Once he had a head start, the [Bounty Hunters] usually gave up. Luan sighed as he left the jungle-swamps of Talenqual’s land behind and headed into the rivers and sea. No less dangerous; there were giant crocodiles, sea monsters, sea-[Raiders], and yes, Crelers in the water.
But it beat leeches under your skin. He shuddered and checked his gear. Crossbow, a few artifacts—a map, and so on. Luan began to row, using a magical compass as a guide, and mirrors to check around him.
However…he never noticed the group trailing him. Because the second craft was invisible.
…And then Ryoka Griffin woke up.
She had been dreaming. Unhappy dreams, nightmares, amid the nonsensical ones. Of running. Of Ferin.
Of falling. Even in her dreams, she knew she had to make it. She was crawling along the ground, fighting for every inch of ground. And she knew not how far—or how much longer.
She had to make it.
In her sleep, the young woman had been straining so hard the rest of the world seemed far off. She was reaching for the vial. Trying to lift it upwards. Only—it wasn’t Tyrion Veltras who reached for it. It was Mrsha.
Then Lyonette, face disapproving. Erin—
A voice spoke, as Ryoka was fumbling with bloody fingers. Ferin was trying to capture it with a loop of wire. It didn’t really make sense—but she was knocking it aside as it sliced off her fingers with its sharpness, trying to pick up—
“Pick up what?”
Someone asked. Ryoka had no answer. The voice was curious.
“You nearly died, didn’t you?”
That was definitely so. Ryoka’s closed eyes flickered. In her dream, she saw Erin bending, smiling, asking her.
“But it’s time to wake up. You’ve been sleeping too long.”
She was awake. The voice disagreed. And after a second—it sounded peeved.
“I want to speak to you. Stop saying ‘no’. Wake up. I command you! We’re nearly there. Stop dreaming!”
“Sammy—Jericha said she’s healing. We should leave her alone.”
Another voice. Suddenly, the first was younger. The second older, but more hesitant. The first made a foot-stomping sound. He coughed.
“She’s going to miss her own party! Did you hear me? I said—”
Ryoka had just found the vial. But it had turned into Ivolethe’s statue again. She let it drop into the wind—
It was an order. A command, however young. The power of an aura. Ryoka’s eyes—
—opened. She inhaled.
And woke up.
The two young [Lords] recoiled as the young woman sat up, her black hair flying about as she reached for the vial—then a healing potion—then—
Sammial backed up a step. Hethon, his older brother, stared at Ryoka Griffin. The City Runner, his mysterious savior. The one who had brought the cure, who looked maybe Chandrarian or Drathian and had no background.
She looked around, dazed. Then tried to leap forwards. Since she was lying under bed sheets in the inn, she tangled and spectacularly went over the footrest of the bed into a crashing heap.
Sammial breathed. He’d never seen someone face plant like that. She had not failed to disappoint, and it was the first five seconds of her waking up.
“Wh—where am I? What—”
Ryoka looked around, dazed. Hethon tried to bow—Sammial ran up.
“You’re awake! I knew it! Wait until I tell father what I did!”
He was going to be in such big trouble. Hethon saw the Wind Runner’s eyes focus on him. She stared.
“I’m Hethon. This is Sammial.”
The boy was trying to untangle Ryoka and only making it worse. She stared at the two of them.
The two young boys faltered.
“The…ones you saved? The ones you brought the cure for?”
She’d forgotten their names! The young woman tried to hide it at once, but it was obvious. Hethon exchanged a look of dismay with his brother. And here they’d been told she was a brave person who’d come all this way for them! Certainly, father had insisted on the best [Healers] and even taken them all this way.
“Er—Hethon and Sammial…Veltras?”
Ryoka’s mind started to focus on the facts. The two young [Lords] nodded.
“I’m Sammy. Sammy, not Sammial. This is Hethon. My older brother.”
Sammial added, to make sure she got it right. The young woman looked like she needed all the help she could get.
“I made it? I did it! Did I? Oh, dead gods. What happened to—”
She lurched up—fell down. Her legs and arms were weak from, well, nearly a week and a half of inactivity.
So many days had passed. She had no idea. Ryoka looked around, as if Hawk, Salamani, and Tritel and Ci were right behind her.
“The other Couriers. They were right with me when the [Assassins]—Ferin—what happened to them?”
She looked at them. Hethon blinked. Sammial wrinkled his forehead, as if missing a step that should have been there. There was no ‘milord’ or ‘sire’. But he answered, as if she were a peer of the realm.
“The—the Couriers fought bravely, Miss Griffin. House Veltras saw to them. They almost all survived.”
Hethon wavered. Tactfulness in the face of death was not something the young boy had ever had to learn. Sammial—didn’t even try.
“The Moonlight Rider died. But his horse lived. He sacrificed himself for the horse. Everyone was talking about it. You nearly died too. You were shot by three crossbow bolts. Jericha said that if one was an inch to the left, you’d have never walked again.”
Ryoka stared at him. Abruptly, she sat down. Hethon and Sammial realized she was in her undergarments and turned their backs instantly.
Hethon peeked over his shoulder. The Wind Runner’s face was a sudden mask of grief. And—it looked too familiar. Guilt and grief.
The worst was yet to come. But neither one knew that.
“Tritel—was anyone else…? Hawk. Salamani? The [Witches]? My friends?”
She turned to them, her eyes flickering as she realized they might not know. Sammial turned around, then turned back for her modesty.
“All safe. The Guild of Assassins tried to kill some of the others. Like your [Farmer] friend.”
She shouted his name. Hethon winced. Ryoka went up again—
“Don’t worry! House Veltras saved them! They protected everyone! The Guild’s strongholds are burning and father says he’ll hunt down the Circle of Thorns—those that haven’t surrendered already.”
Sammial boldly informed Ryoka. She stared at the two [Lords]. Around the rather rich guest room of…an inn? A shuttered glass window, the [Lords]—Ryoka’s mind began to piece more together.
I’ve been saved. I’m somewhere in safety. Lupp is safe. Lupp was in danger?
Tritel’s dead. I have to—to—how did Hawk even get there?
Ferin must be dead. Or…
More thoughts occurred. Grief, guilt—but sudden urgency, too. She had to get ready for the party! Tell Erin and Mrsha and the others she was alive! How long had she been out? Ryoka looked around—then stared at the two boys.
“…Why are your backs turned?”
They were facing the other way. Hethon muttered, the tips of his ears flushed.
“You’re half-naked, Miss.”
Ryoka looked at her undergarments.
She grabbed the blanket. Looked around for clothes; there were none to hand.
“Where’s my bag of holding? My gear?”
“Jericha has it. I’ll get her.”
Hethon marched towards the door. Ryoka blinked, swaying. She felt so…weak! Well, she’d been shot. Fallen out of the sky, run for days on end—
“Both fine. The Drake went home. Father says it’s almost a shame he didn’t die since he’s the enemy, but he’s offering money for everyone who helped.”
Ryoka relaxed a bit. Sammial peeked, seemed to decide the blanket had restored Ryoka’s modesty, and turned about.
Ryoka heard the wheezing sound. Familiar—she saw the young boy double over and reached out for him as he was struck by a fit of gasping coughs for air.
“I’m fine! Don’t touch me!”
He shoved away her hand. No—his voice had stopped her. Sammial inhaled, his cheeks flushed. Ryoka had heard a rattling cough in his lungs.
“Father says I would have been worse if not for you. I have a [Healer] now they’re not all cowards.”
Sammial panted for breath. Ryoka opened her mouth—but he had decided it was his turn to ask questions.
“You saved me. Me and Hethon. Father will reward you for that. But I want to know why you did it. Was it really for this party?”
“That’s right. I—needed a favor.”
“So it wasn’t for fame or money? That’s what some people said.”
Sammial informed Ryoka with a child’s bluntness. She shook her head, slightly.
“I just needed a favor. And—it was the right thing to do.”
She felt embarrassed, saying it like that. Sammial stared at her. And like a child, he nodded.
“So you were brave because it was for us? But you didn’t even remember our names.”
“I just woke up.”
Why was she talking to this kid? Ryoka looked around—then decided to wait for clothes and ‘Jericha’. Sammial wrinkled his brow.
“Would you have done it for anyone?”
“So not just because we’re important?”
“I guess? It wasn’t purely altruistic.”
“I don’t know what that means. Explain it. And stop using complicated words!”
Ryoka blinked again. Was he—was that an aura? Or was she imagining stuff?
“It means—‘doing good things for nothing’. I did want something from your father. Where is he? Where am I?”
Sammial ignored the question. He stared at Ryoka, looking at her.
“So you brought the cure because you wanted a favor and to do the right thing? Do you want gold?”
If you’re offering, I’ll take it. Ryoka half-shrugged. Sammial tilted his head.
“Are you lying? I don’t feel you’re lying. I can tell, you know.”
“I’m not. I did it because it was the right thing to do and because I needed a favor only your father could help me with.”
Ryoka half-rose. At least to look out the window.
“Did you help father because you’re a slut?”
The Wind Runner paused, one hand on the windowsill.
Sammial was looking at her innocently.
“That’s what the other City Runner called you. She said you did this only to seduce father. And that you got all the other people killed because you were a selfish, greedy bitch. That’s what she said. Then Jericha hit her and tossed her out. I got to watch the guard kick her out. She kept coming back so they had to drub her. She was nasty.”
He said that with some satisfaction. Ryoka’s mouth moved.
“Which City Runner?”
“I don’t know. Purse-a?”
“Yep. She had the cure, but she was late. Father told Jericha to offer her some money, but she threw a fit and called you all kinds of names. What’s a slut? No one will tell me, even Hethon. Because he doesn’t know either.”
Ryoka’s mouth opened and closed. Persua had been here with the cure? How uncharacteristically brave. And—thrown out and beaten?
Well…even in the darkest night, there was a silver lining indeed. Ryoka shook her head.
“I’m not a—don’t use that word.”
She almost smiled at the thought of Persua mouthing off and—dead gods, why didn’t I wake up for that? Then Ryoka was reminded of something.
Whore. Only, it wasn’t someone calling Ryoka that. It was something the fae had once said to Ceria…
The fae. The party. Ryoka’s smile vanished.
“I have to go. Thank you for telling me, er—Sammy. Is your father…?”
She strode for the door, adjusting the blanket so it wouldn’t reveal anything. The boy blocked the door.
“Stop! I didn’t give you permission to leave! I have more questions! Can you control the wind? You cannot leave a [Lord]’s presence without my permission!”
Ryoka felt someone tug on her shoulders and legs invisibly. She looked back at Sammial. He was scowling at her with regal displeasure.
What a little brat. Ryoka was reminded of herself. She shook her head.
“Sorry, kid. I’ve got to go.”
“You will stay! I command it!”
Ryoka walked to the door, opened it a crack, and looked outside. Sammial stared at her back, open-mouthed.
“I said—why isn’t it working?”
“Sorry. But I have to know—”
The Wind Runner swung the door all the way out and stepped through it. Then she saw a woman—a [Mage]?—striding up the stairs behind the second, older boy. Hethon Veltras and Jericha stared at Ryoka. Ryoka blinked.
“Oh. Um. Hello?”
The aide to Tyrion Veltras looked Ryoka up and down, mildly shocked. She saw Sammial stomping his foot behind her. Ryoka looked at Jericha. The woman gazed at Ryoka, then at her slipping blanket. She offered Ryoka a change of clothes.
“You are awake, Miss Griffin. Just in time. Lord Sammial, Lord Hethon, please exit the room and allow Miss Ryoka Griffin time to change. I shall inform Lord Veltras at once.”
Ryoka took the clothes. Sammial reluctantly left the room. Hethon stared at his mysterious savior. Jericha closed the door.
A minute later, Ryoka was just buttoning the shirt as the door opened. She was glad that whomever had chosen the clothes—Jericha?—hadn’t chosen the most restrictive clothing.
Probably because she was a Runner.
The woman entered before Ryoka. The City Runner turned from the full-body mirror. She had been checking herself. Seen the scars where the crossbow bolts had gone through her. She had one just to the left of her belly button and down, mirrored on her back.
It didn’t matter. And it did, a tiny bit. She’d worry about it later.
“I’m er—sorry. I wasn’t thinking and—”
After she’d been given more time to think, Ryoka felt like she might have made a poor impression greeting Jericha half-naked like that. But the woman just bowed slightly as she shut the door.
“Lord Hethon and Lord Sammial are eager to speak with you, Miss Ryoka Griffin. Lord Veltras had been on his morning ride, but he will doubtless be impatient to do the same. I have had a breakfast set for you—and I would like to speak before you descend.”
She looked at Ryoka, with that courteous impassiveness of Magnolia’s maids, servants like Reynold. But there was something behind her gaze. A number of things, chief of which was appraisal. And other emotions.
If Ryoka could have read them—it would have been curiosity. And sympathy.
The Wind Runner could not. She only felt uneasy.
“I uh, didn’t mean to expose myself—not that I did—to—”
“Lord Sammial is impetuous. He should not have tried to wake you with his aura. It could have gone wrong, but your timing was impeccable, Miss Griffin. Lord Veltras might have attempted to do the same himself.”
Jericha nodded. She studied Ryoka again. Then she bowed, crisply.
“Forgive me, I have not introduced myself. I am Lord Tyrion’s personal aide-de-camp and bodyguard. Jericha Synthel of House Veltras, [High Mage] and [Noble Aide]. I, and House Veltras, are in your debt, Miss Ryoka Griffin.”
The Wind Runner stared.
“Oh—I’m Ryoka. Ryoka Griffin. Um, Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Er—[Wind Runner].”
Jericha’s brows rose smoothly.
“You are not, Miss Griffin. Forgive me. We took off your artifacts for magical healing. Nor are you of Reizmelt. Or Izril.”
The young woman hesitated. Oh shit. Jericha went on.
“Rest assured, Lord Veltras is purely grateful. It is my duty and that of House Veltras’ staff to look into such matters. Your friends, as Lords Hethon and Sammial might have informed you, are safe…from the Guild of Assassins and Circle of Thorns.”
Her gaze flickered. Ryoka saw it, but she was too busy being flustered.
“Thank you. Truly.”
“It is the least we can do. The Circle will be eradicated. The Guild of Assassins will pay.”
A dark flash across Jericha’s eyes. Ryoka gulped. Not someone to anger. She’d already noticed enchanted armor and the wand. Ryoka cast around for something to say.
“I’m grateful, truly. I don’t mean to be rude—but I’d like my friends to know I’m fine.”
“We kept them apprised of your condition. I shall assist you in expediting news of your recovery. Similarly, we have treated all those who participated in the delivery that we could find. Recompense is being paid for all incurred expenses—with the exception of the Drake, whom I understand had an outstanding bill of astonishing magnitude. However, Lord Veltras will fairly reward all those who came to his aid.”
Oh. They really were grateful. Ryoka blinked.
“T-thank you. You’ve done everything. I—how long have I been out?”
Another look. Jericha exhaled.
“A week and a half, nearly.”
“A week and a—oh no!”
Ryoka jerked. That was practically—she whirled.
“I—I’ve—I’ve failed! I was going to ask—maybe there’s still time. I need a favor! I know this is wrong, and Lord Veltras is a [Lord] of the Five Families, but when he arrives, do you think—?”
“Miss Ryoka Griffin.”
“—There’s this party. And I need one of the—three of the Five Families to attend! Is it the Summer Solstice?”
They were too far away. Ryoka began to hyperventilate. Jericha spoke again.
Ryoka looked at her. Jericha had a mildly exasperated look on her face.
“If you would allow me to finish—Lord Veltras received your request. He assented. He will attend this gathering with the [Emperor] of Riverfarm on the Summer Solstice. Which is today.”
“But we’re—too far.”
It was all the way back near Invrisil. Ryoka wanted to run. But her legs were jelly. She wanted to scream. All her plans! And she’d gotten—
Wait. Maviola. Magnolia? Tyrion? It was three! But they were so far away! Jericha pinched the bridge of her nose. She had spectacles.
“Miss Griffin. Please, listen. The Summer Solstice is today. Lord Tyrion Veltras received your wish to attend the party. Your waking was the only complication. However—you are in an inn less than forty miles from Riverfarm. We have been transporting you as you slept to arrive at the party in time.”
The City Runner’s head turned. Jericha gave her a small smile.
Ryoka’s heart was still beating wildly. But that—oh.
It was almost like other people could arrange things and keep to a schedule. It was almost like they were better than Ryoka at it. And it was also almost like she had decided to embarrass herself on purpose. But Ryoka didn’t need to work at it to be a master in her field. It was sheer, natural talent.
Noise from outside. Horses—Ryoka heard the din of a large number of them. Jericha glanced out the window.
“Lord Veltras has arrived. He will speak to you at breakfast; it is very early morning, you see. We should arrive within the hour at Riverfarm, after a short breakfast. However, I wish to…apprise you of a few details, Miss Griffin.”
Something was off about that statement. But Ryoka saw the last flicker in the professional façade. Everything had been going so well—
The [High Mage] took a breath. And she looked uncomfortable for the first time. No—she had been from the beginning.
“…The party aside, issues of decorum, Lord Veltras’ safety and what you wished…no. No. Miss Griffin. You may wish to sit.”
“Is it Tritel and Ci? I—I know. Did anyone else…?”
Ryoka felt a sudden fear gripping her heart. Jericha just shook her head.
“Not on the delivery. Sit down, Miss Griffin. I received a missive for when you woke up nearly a week ago.”
“What? What does it say?”
Jericha produced a folded piece of paper. Ryoka unfolded it with shaking fingers. She noted the sender as she unfolded it.
The Wandering Inn, Liscor. From Erin? But the way—had something happened? [Assassins]? She looked up, searching Jericha’s face for anything.
“I have read the [Message] myself. Please—Miss Griffin.”
Jericha cleared her throat. Ryoka read. Her eyes skimmed—stuck. Went back up. Focused on a word.
The [Aide] stood there. Below, Hethon and Sammial ran as their [Bodyguards] kept everyone back in the screened inn to tell their father that Ryoka was awake! Lord Tyrion nodded as he dismounted. But he did not ascend yet. Jericha had told him too. And he did not know her.
But he understood.
Silence in the room. A minute. Two. Ryoka’s eyes were flickering down the page. Going back up. Reading again. The rest of her didn’t move. After four minutes, Jericha felt moved to speak.
“We—were unable to send aid to the inn. You see, it is not part of the north. We believed it was secure. We did have agents in Celum and Liscor watching the door. But it was—a Drake city.”
Hectval. An accident. A petty little raid.
Ryoka read down the letter Lyonette had sent to her. Up again.
The [Princess] wrote it out. Not just Erin. But Maviola. In shaking words. Jericha had made this copy. There was no way for Ryoka to know how many tears had stained the page that Lyonette had written.
She was almost the last to know. The others had been told. A week ago—
The Slayer had listened to the screaming as he checked his swords. Just sat there, tending to the blades, saying nothing. Only the Queens asked what was wrong. And he had no words for them.
The [Emperor] sat on his throne, covering his face with one hand. Wondering what would happen. Halrac was missing. Cade was crying—so was Revi. Typhenous just gripped his beard, so hard his hand turned white.
Yvlon kept Ksmvr company. Ceria had just passed out. Drinking. Pisces had left. He had been shaking. Refusing to say anything until he was out of sight. Out of hearing. Tears still ran down Ceria’s cheeks. Frozen water. Somewhere, the [Necromancer] begged for help. Voice shaking, eyes overflowing with liquid. And yet…
—Among many. The words struck Ryoka again. Just…printed words.
Erin is dead.
Lyonette clarified it. But—that was how she said it. Not ‘neither dead nor alive’. Not more hopeful words. Because those said that she would recover. And the truth was that even the [Doctor] didn’t know how. And—
Ilvriss is trying to find a potion or artifact. Saliss has made what he thinks is an antidote. Everyone is looking for a way to revive her.
But no one knows what to do. Ryoka. If you read this before the party, please, respond.
Do something if you can.
Ryoka read again. She saw it, clear as if the [Princess] had sent a picture. More than a superior healing potion. More than just poison.
More than a mortal wound. Bring her back. After her body was frozen. After she was—
Impossible. Ryoka knew half of what Geneva did. A quarter. And she knew no science from her world would save Erin.
Even a Wall Lord’s treasury had nothing immediate. Ryoka thought all this. Then she read again.
Erin is dead.
Jericha waited six minutes. Then eight. After nine, she counted down the next minute in her head. On ten minutes exactly, she cleared her throat.
“Miss Ryoka Griffin?”
The Wind Runner said nothing. She was not…crying. Jericha slightly bent to make sure of that. She looked at Ryoka. But the young woman looked—the [Aide] hesitated. And then reached out to touch Ryoka’s shoulder.
In the inn, below, Tyrion was waiting at the breakfast table being served personally by the [Innkeeper]. In the light of things, it was probably not the place to be. But there wasn’t exactly another place large enough to accommodate his escort.
“Father! Father, come on—”
Sammial was trying to drag his father out of his seat, not wanting to wait.
“Sit down, Sammial. We will wait for Jericha to summon Miss Griffin. A [Lord]—a man does not simply walk into a lady’s room—”
He was turning to admonish his son as Hethon reached for a crusty piece of fluffy bread made with ‘baked soda’.
A scream tore through the inn. Hethon’s hand jerked. Tyrion stood in a moment, hand on his sword. He halted the bodyguards as they surged for the stairs.
It was a female voice. Ryoka’s? Hethon stared at his father. Tyrion looked towards the stairs. He waited.
No second scream. No more sound. He waited—then nodded to one of the female [Bodyguards]. She ascended the stairs, and came down in less than twenty seconds. She gave Lord Tyrion a nod.
The two boys had no idea what the nod meant. Tyrion did. He sat back down. He did not reach for the bread. The [Innkeeper] stared upwards. The [Lord] simply waited.
After ten minutes, Ryoka Griffin went downstairs.
It was the sixth worst breakfast Hethon and Sammial had ever sat through. They were bouncing with questions. One comment from Jericha made them realize this was not the time.
Lord Tyrion had bowed to Ryoka. In his way, he had asked if she wished food, or to be underway. Ryoka had greeted him, sat down.
She’d eaten breakfast. It had garlic in it and Hethon liked it a lot. It was as puffy as some of the best [Baker]’s bread and there was a fine repast.
Ryoka Griffin said nothing. Or rather—she responded mechanically. Lord Tyrion only buttered his roll. Ate with efficiency as Sammial babbled questions that Jericha kept shushing.
“This is so tasty. Why is it so puffy? What’s baked soda got to do with it? What’s soda? What’s a sl—”
Hethon kicked his brother under the table. Sammial kicked back and forgot his question. Jericha went into the kitchen; she did not sit to dine, obviously. Ryoka was a rare exception. Although, Tyrion had made sure his bodyguards were eating in shifts. The female [Bodyguard] was surreptitiously chewing on her own fresh, hot garlic bread.
“It’s ‘baking soda’, Lord Sammial. Some alchemical invention you use in food. Very safe. We had it tested of course.”
“Naturally, Jericha. Inquire about the manufacture.”
“Of course, Lord Veltras. Already done. I believe it is already being sold by [Alchemists] in major cities.”
“Alchemists made this? But healing potions taste bad.”
Sammial was impressed. Hethon stared at Ryoka. He couldn’t help but remember the scars from the crossbow bolts. She was also very pretty. Of course—so was Jericha. And many of the [Ladies]—and his mother. But different.
Her face was so blank, though. He wanted to ask who had died. Jericha had only said that it was Miss Griffin’s friend and obviously, don’t bring it up.
“Yes. Quite. If it produces this quality of bread, I imagine every [Baker] will see a demand for it.”
Tyrion’s voice was as stiff as his back. He was slightly uncomfortable in his sons’ presence. They did not often breakfast together; the sons rarely waking up as soon as their father. But Lord Tyrion had not missed a meal, not been out of his sons’ presence for more than an hour since their recovery.
Hethon was all better—he wished they’d stop treating him like he was glass. But Sammial’s cough had come back. And it wouldn’t go away. Sometimes he couldn’t breathe—so the [Healer] was here and—
The young [Lord]—all three of them looked around. Ryoka Griffin stared at the roll.
“Excuse me, Miss Ryoka?”
Lord Tyrion spoke, very graciously giving her a lot of deference and not asking she use his noble title. Hethon hadn’t seen him do that with anyone before. Ryoka muttered again.
“My friend made it. Baking soda.”
“An [Alchemist] made it for us. Another friend. But my friend asked her to.”
“By ‘friend’, Miss Griffin…”
Jericha had looked over sharply. With keen interest. Lord Tyrion’s eyes flickered. The Wind Runner whispered.
“The one who died.”
Fifth worst meal ever. Hethon stopped eating the bread and decided to have some sausage instead. Sammial opened his mouth to ask a question and his father looked at him.
“Miss Griffin. If you would like to rest—”
“I have to go to the party.”
Hethon wondered if she was ready for the party. Certainly, even Tyrion looked slightly confused. But he nodded.
“At once, then. Two minutes, Hethon, Sammial.”
“If you would like a tonic, Miss Ryoka…”
Jericha murmured discretely. Ryoka looked up.
Certainly—there were no tears. She was not weeping, or shouting or…
Hethon knew mourning. He had seen it after his mother died. He had seen grief. Ryoka Griffin just looked blank. Of course, he had seen that too. But he had expected more after that—scream. So filled with anguish.
The sun was shining brightly, just rising in the early morning. It had yet to rise over Liscor, where the High Passes blocked the sun. But it was bright enough here. It had been a glorious summer day. The longest day of the year, skies blue, warm—
“Lord Veltras! We may be under attack! It began just—”
Hethon saw a shield blowing past his face. A man was actually flung off his feet by the gale-force winds howling around the inn. The young [Lord] looked over his shoulder.
Ryoka started as she saw the howling gale. The inn had been so well-made—and perhaps the Skills of this [Innkeeper] so good, she hadn’t heard the shouting or felt the wind blowing. She looked out.
The gusts of air and screaming breeze stopped. The escort of three-dozen of House Veltras’ finest stopped sheltering and looked at her.
Two of the carriages had been blown over. The wind had destroyed part of the stables—everything around the inn for thirty feet had been ravaged. Nothing past that.
Sammial and Hethon stared as Ryoka began to apologize. Lord Tyrion just shook his head.
“Pay for the damages, Jericha. Inspect the carriages’ axles. Hitch up the horses. We ride for Riverfarm. I intend to get there within the hour.”
And so they did. It was hardly as if Sammial and Hethon were unused to travel in general, or this; they’d been moving for the last five days. It was easier with Ryoka not lying in the spare carriage; they could all sit in one.
Another impropriety in the normally perfect delineation between noble and commoner. Neither son complained, though. Normally only Jericha or Ullim would ever ride inside the carriage.
Both boys kept staring at Ryoka as they rode. Gone was the howling wind; now, a strong breeze gave the horses relief as they carried the carriage forwards. If anything, they were amused by how she reacted to their mode of travel.
“We’ll get to Riverfarm, forty miles away so soon?”
“Yes, Miss Griffin. There are ways of travelling that far that quickly, magical teleportation aside.”
If Jericha was expecting Ryoka to blink at that, the City Runner nodded.
“I know. I’ve seen Magnolia Reinhart’s carriage and…other vehicles that move that fast. But this doesn’t look like that level of enchanted carriage.”
Apparently the Wind Runner had flown on her last stage of her trip! Through the typhoon! Hethon wanted to ask—again, not the time.
At ‘other vehicles’, Jericha did the peering thing she did with the spectacles that Hethon liked, but Ryoka was too distracted to notice.
“I see. However—that will not be necessary. Lord Veltras, the carriage is ready.”
“Very well, Jericha. Ride with Miss Ryoka and my sons. Hethon. Sammial. You are to give Miss Griffin peace.”
That was an odd statement to Ryoka—until she realized something.
They’d attached the carriage to Lord Tyrion’s horse. She stared as the man rode, on a unique contraption.
“You see—Lord Veltras is a superior rider. By this means, we can easily reach Riverfarm within the hour. It is an honor few are granted.”
To make a [Lord] into, well, a [Driver]! Hethon hadn’t understood until now why they normally rode in a regular carriage. Sammial bounced up and down. He loved the sensation of speed.
“And it can go forty miles an hour? What about eighty?”
Tyrion’s head turned back to Ryoka.
“…I can reach that speed. In a carriage it would be difficult. That will not be necessary today, I believe. Nor will I attempt it, Sammial.”
“There are those who believe such speeds will inevitably destroy vehicles, unless they are relic-class, Lords Hethon, Sammial.”
Jericha adopted her lecturing tone of voice; she often supplemented their [Tutors]. Ryoka made a sound. Hethon glanced at her. She just looked out the window as if it were normal to see the ground blur so.
Another clue. If Ryoka Griffin’s mind was like static. If the world were turned upside down.
If Erin was dead…she was taking it pretty well. Look how well she was taking it. Ryoka hadn’t tossed herself in front of the carriage. Or stabbed herself with the butter knife. She’d blown the winds by accident.
She was perfectly. Calm.
Tyrion Veltras, riding with his escort around him, boosted by his Skills, watched as, beyond him, the wind snapped the branches of the trees of a nearby forest. He forbade comment.
Ryoka Griffin sat there, listening to Sammial asking if he could try a flying carpet—how fast did they go? And so on. She was just—
Relaxed. Amazed at how steady she was. Because she would not panic. She would not weep.
The Summer Solstice. Ivolethe. All Ryoka Griffin had to do was—
If she failed, she could break into pieces. Teriarch. She had to talk to Teriarch! Maybe he’d be there. He had promised. Surely. He had mended her heart. What was a frozen body to a Dragon? No, wait, he definitely had some grand healing artifact. She’d trade anything he wanted for it. Anything in the world. Surely…
What if it failed? Maviola wasn’t there. And Magnolia—
If she failed—if—
Erin was dead.
Calm. Ryoka inhaled.
It was a long ride, for how short it was. In time, Jericha saw fit to press Ryoka. Gently. But she had to. She let Hethon and Sammial fight over the Box of Wonders where they were conjuring armies to fight each other.
“No fair. You can’t use [Knights]!”
“Says who? Stop using [Mages], then, Sammy.”
“Miss Ryoka. I feel at this moment I must clarify some matters with you.”
Jericha spoke. Sammial and Hethon glanced up, listening covertly. Ryoka started.
“I’m fine. What? Sorry.”
The [High Mage] gave Ryoka a moment. But she was insistent.
“Miss Ryoka. Lord Veltras considers his debt to you a matter of honor. Few occasions would ever merit his attendance on such short notice. Let alone unasked, with his sons recently recovered—”
“We’re fine, Jericha.”
Sammial belied that by coughing. The [Aide] dipped her head, but she looked back at Ryoka.
“I understand this is a huge honor. Thank you. I cannot be more grateful.”
Ryoka looked like she was speaking through a numb face. Jericha nodded slowly.
“—And Lord Veltras has met with…Emperor Godart. However, as his aide, I would like to know what this party…is. As well as any possible dangers to Lord Veltras. We have been receiving [Messages] from a Lady Rie Valerund instructing us of a number of oddities. I understand there will be guests of the ‘Unseen Empire’. Strange guests indeed. Moreover—there will be danger. Lord Hethon and Lord Sammial will not be endangered.”
It was not a question. Ryoka jerked, glanced up. Jericha adjusted her glasses, looking at Ryoka again. The young woman hadn’t changed into her clothes or equipped her artifacts. Even then—the spectacles were enchanted with a number of powerful spells.
It was true what Jericha saw, or else Ryoka Griffin was at least Level 40 or had some kind of magical artifact of a relic-tier embedded into her body. Well, with how much the [Healer] had pulled out of her stomach, Jericha doubted that.
Even so. Oddity beyond oddity. Lord Tyrion was listening in via speaking stone, over the rush of wind from outside the carriage as he rode.
He had not cared. Debt was debt. But the more Jericha had investigated—first as a rote matter, and to protect Miss Griffin’s associates, the more curious both had become.
She. Had. No. Levels.
Not classes. Not Skills. Tyrion had first assumed she was some kind of expert [Rogue], but Jericha had found nothing even after upgrading the [Appraisal] spell.
Similarly—no one knew Ryoka Griffin. Oh, Celum did. Invrisil. Liscor. But no one knew where she had come from before Celum. No one had any identity of her family, her past—
Jericha had searched her possessions and found nothing extremely unique. But the fact remained that the Five Families would normally be able to identify most common people’s roots down to when they’d first developed baby teeth.
The levels were one thing. The fact that she commanded the wind without, extraordinary. But not unheard of! That would have been enough to interest Tyrion. But there was her connection with the [Emperor]. The inn.
She had woken the Archmage of Izril. She had delivered to the High Passes, to a Grand Magus thought long dead. She had run the Bloodfields.
And she carried a bag of holding of such superlative quality that Tyrion had considered it would have upgraded his personal gear if he’d replaced his with it.
Of course, a lot of this was explainable. Tyrion was no fool. Ryoka was obviously the beneficiary of patronage from Grand Magus Eldavin. She had earned it through bravery, as he himself had witnessed. She had attracted Magnolia Reinhart’s attention, though, and that he could not readily explain. Perhaps Magnolia was headhunting, but she had taken an unusual interest in Ryoka.
Now, he listened as Ryoka replied to Jericha.
“There is…danger. I’m sorry. I would have said as much. The kids—”
“I am Lord Sammial Veltras! Not a k—”
Muffled, Jericha soothing Sammial’s wounded pride. Ryoka went on.
“The kids should not go to the…full party.”
“So the missive indicates. Will they be safe?”
“From the guests, yes. They would be anyways. They don’t hurt children.”
The guests? Lord Tyrion checked his equipment. He had brought the Aegis of Veltras, the personal shield his family carried, as well as his personal dueling sword and lances. He had his armor on. And his guard could have slain a hundred [Assassins] in open combat by themselves.
But he feared [Assassins] and poison, which he realized he had few defenses against. Jericha pressed Ryoka.
“What guests are these?”
“They’re…strange folk. I can’t explain fully.”
“I’m afraid you must, Miss Griffin. Lord Veltras will not allow his sons to be placed in more danger. Nor he himself.”
“They behave—differently. Listen. There are rules. Don’t promise them anything. Don’t agree to anything. Be respectful—”
“Djinni rules? Are these djinni?”
“No. But that’s a good way of thinking of them. Djinni that you cannot offend. Just as powerful, too.”
Tyrion shifted in his saddle. And the mystery deepened.
“I understand there will both be [Witches] and Goblins, albeit kept safely under guard. Both of which are…unusual?”
To understate things. Ryoka started.
“Oh. Them. Yes. They should be fine.”
“I want to see a Goblin! Why don’t we kill them, Jericha? They’re Goblins.”
Sammy again. Lord Tyrion listened with impatience, but the ethics of Emperor Laken’s personal choice regarding Goblins distracted the conversation for twenty whole minutes. And they were already moving into Riverfarm by the time they got back on track. And in that time—
“In the name of the Unseen Emperor, halt! Is that House V—”
Lord Tyrion blew past the escort of Darksky Riders so fast that Beniar didn’t even have a chance to ask. He galloped after them as some of the guard slowed to explain that Lord Tyrion knew the way. Meanwhile, Ryoka was shaking inside the coach.
“Magnolia Reinhart isn’t here?”
“She has left Izril, yes. We know she is at sea in a flagship of House Reinhart. Will that be a problem?”
“Oh no. Oh no. I didn’t tell you! But I needed three of the Five Families to attend! I—”
Ryoka put her head in her hands. She’d been unconscious! And Maviola—
“Miss Griffin. We have three members of the Five Families here.”
Jericha’s head rose. She indicated Hethon and Sammial. Ryoka hesitated. That was true! But—her face twisted. Teriarch would doubtless say that it was style over substance when it came to the fae. Three of the same House didn’t count.
“I don’t think that’s enough, Miss—Jericha. I—we’ll try. All I need Lord Tyrion to do is—be present. Laken and I will—oh no. Oh gods…”
“Miss Griffin. Miss Griffin.”
Jericha gave up as Ryoka began to—she hesitated, eying Hethon and Sammial, and then reached over and flicked Ryoka on the forehead.
Pow. Tyrion himself heard that. He half-twisted. Jericha lowered a smoking forefinger and innocently hid it behind her back as Hethon and Sammial stared at her, open-mouthed with awe.
Ryoka was slightly dazed. Her forehead rang with the magic-powered impact. But it had shut her up. Jericha smiled politely at her.
“I hope you will calm down, Miss Griffin. All may not be lost. We are arriving in Riverfarm. Please step this way.”
“You killed her, Jericha! That was amazing!”
Hethon burst out. Jericha winced. She raised her voice innocently.
“I hardly ‘killed her’, Lord Hethon. It was just—”
“Her entire head went pow! Against the headrest!”
Jericha hesitated. Before she could reply, Lord Tyrion spoke crisply in the speaking stone embedded into an earring.
“Jericha. We have arrived. Open the doors.”
“At once, Lord Veltras!”
The [Aide] practically fled the carriage. She saw Lord Tyrion looking at her, and held the doors open.
“Lord Hethon, Lord Sammial? Miss Griffin?”
They were here. And the welcoming committee was just getting into place. Ryoka Griffin left the wagon and heard the sobbing voice calling her name. And it became realer.
Laken Godart felt Tyrion Veltras shoot across the borders of the Unseen Empire like an arrow. He felt the man move past Beniar in a flash. Laken turned his head.
“He did say he was coming this morning. I didn’t notice last time during the raids, but he moves fast. Pulling a carriage no less! And—he has Ryoka.”
“You’re sure, Emperor Godart? You saw into Lord Veltras’ carriage?”
“He is on my lands, Lady Rie. Make sure he is greeted with all dignity. And oh, Prost? Gamel? Double-check our security. Nothing must go wrong this time. Wronger than it has. Isn’t that so?”
He heard a squeak from Lady Rie. Laken Godart sat on his throne.
He was in a terrible mood himself.
He had not wept for Erin. But he had not been able to remove the ache from his chest, either. He felt tired as he stood. Older.
But Ryoka was here. Let the Summer Solstice party she had worked so hard for commence. He had helped take up her burden as she lay resting. It was the least he could do. He thought it was almost all in order. But there were a few problems.
Erin wasn’t coming. Obviously. And…the [Emperor] sighed.
Neither was Maviola. Even now—what was for him an ache of loss for people he did not truly know—
In the Goblinlands, a second wave of grief had struck them down. Pebblesnatch lay in one of the biggest cauldrons. She wanted someone to light a fire under it and boil her.
Better that than any more. Erin? Erin? The kind [Innkeeper] who had—
The chef’s hat muffled the crying. From one Cave Goblin. It did nothing to hide the crushing silence. The sounds of grief. Ulvama strode around the camp, hitting Goblins. Not knowing why they hurt, only trying to keep them busy.
And they were the Goblins. Laken sat on his throne. He would meet the others later. Dignity of an [Emperor] and all that. He had met them, one after another. They had come. Because of Ryoka. Because of her deeds.
But also because of Erin. Maviola. He sat there.
This party was their doing.
“May some damn good come of it.”
In his head—he felt those who deserved to speak to Ryoka at this moment, at this time, already gathered. The [Emperor] would ensure it ran smoothly.
“Your Majesty? Just something—one of the [Chefs] has been working hard on your recipe. Everything’s ready. Food has been met with compliments from the nobility already here—”
Gamel poked his head back into the throne room hesitantly. Laken’s head rose.
“And? What’s the issue?”
“One of your…dishes, sir. Since some of the guests…you see, it’s the one with the writing…”
For a moment, he didn’t understand. Then the [Emperor] did. And Laken hit the armrest of his throne and shook his head.
Oh—this party. This damned party.
“Throw it away, Gamel. Don’t bother with erasing the words. Just—throw it away. Make other ones. My apologies to the chef. But no.”
Gamel went to dispose of the custom-made cake. Laken had forgotten. But it was today as well.
Happy birthday, Erin Solstice.
They were here. Lord Tyrion dismounted as his escort formed ranks around him. A worthy reception had been granted one of the Five Houses of Izril.
The army, led by a [Witch]-[General], was standing at parade rest. Prost, Rie, and an actual carpet had been brought out. Obviously, the finest of lodgings, newly built, would accommodate such august guests.
They were practiced at it, having welcomed scores of nobles already. In fact—some of the nobility were here, murmuring, to see it themselves.
Lord Veltras, here. For this party—which they all understood was not just for an [Emperor]’s whimsy, but some grand event with special guests.
And someone had organized it. Called it together, prevailed on the [Emperor] to make it happen. That was the rumor. That it was in fact—
The Wind Runner of Reizmelt. She stood there a moment, as she left the carriage. Lady Rie focused on Ryoka for a moment—but she had frozen when she saw Lord Veltras. Nervously, licking her lips—she spoke. She had no plans for this party other than to make sure it went exactly as Laken wanted it.
“Lords of House Veltras, we are honored by your presence. The Five Families stand! The Unseen Empire and Riverfarm welcomes you on behalf of—”
Someone burst past the others. They’d barely noticed the [Lord] of House Veltras. The guards turned—Jericha held up a hand as a sobbing Stitchgirl ran towards Ryoka.
Revi. The normally-taciturn [Summoner] was sobbing. She’d taken one eye out, but the tear ducts were still working. She grabbed Ryoka as Hethon and Sammial stared.
Ryoka started. She hadn’t known about Griffon Hunt. Revi hugged Ryoka. And had they gotten along before then?
Did it matter?
“She’s dead. Oh, dead gods, Ryoka! Wait, do you even know? Erin!”
“I know, Revi. I k-know. We’re going to make it right. Where’s T—Eldavin?”
“Who? He’s not here!”
The two spoke at each other, oblivious of the crowd. Tyrion stared as someone else broke ranks.
“Is that Ryoka? I’m so sorry to hear—move aside!”
Briganda half-shoved past Tyrion to grab Ryoka and Revi. She was holding Cade, who was red-eyed and slumbering. Typhenous hesitated as he stared at Tyrion. He edged around them as Briganda, oblivious, grabbed Ryoka’s shoulder.
“We haven’t really met. Briganda. Part of Griffon Hunt. They told me about you. They said you were one of Erin’s friends. Heard you were in a coma.”
“That’s right. I—I just heard.”
“Shut it. This is a personal moment.”
Briganda snapped at Jericha. The [Aide] hesitated. Sammial stared at Revi. So did Hethon. Stitch person! And they looked like adventurers? The old man looked like a [Mage]—
“Where’s Halrac? Are the Horns…? Halfseekers?”
“Gone. Halrac, I mean. He just left when he heard about Erin. Oh, Ryoka. They said Maviola El is dead too!”
Someone made a noise in the crowd. Perhaps it was also seeing Tyrion standing there, clearly ignored. Someone else made a sound at Maviola’s name.
“Excuse me, but—”
“The Horns aren’t here. I talked to Ceria. She was dead drunk—barely able to send. She says they won’t make it. The Halfseekers—Lyonette and everyone was supposed to come, but with Erin—”
“Excuse me? Are you a Stitch Person? You there, speak to me!”
Sammy. Hethon saw the huge [Shield Maiden]’s head turn. She looked at Cade, then the boy who was just a few years older.
“Young man, we’re in a bit of a moment here.”
“Well, I want to speak to Ryoka Griffin! I’ve been waiting all morning and she keeps being busy! You all—leave! Stop crying!”
Briganda’s eyes narrowed.
“Shove off, kid. Before I spank you for manners. Don’t you know how to behave in front of grieving people?”
Sammial stared, open-mouthed, until Lord Tyrion tugged him back. Jericha cleared her throat with a look like someone had kicked her—although she was also trying to hide a smile.
“Lord Tyrion. I apologize for this interruption. Perhaps Miss Griffin would care to conduct this meeting to one side?”
He had prevented his escort from literally grabbing and tossing everyone present. Tyrion nodded curtly.
Briganda and Revi’s head swung left slowly as their ears caught wind of the name.
Lord Tyrion Veltras? They stared at the carriage, emblazoned with his crest, and the escort, which they had not noticed in their grief. Typhenous was carefully hiding behind Briganda, who was as tall as he was.
“This is Lord Tyrion Veltras. I’m sorry. It’s just they knew Erin—the person who passed.”
“I understand. As I said—I am aware of the moment. And in debt to you, Miss Griffin. Perhaps elsewhere, though?”
Tyrion bowed stiffly. Revi edged back. She and Typhenous had to grab Briganda; she’d gone stiff as a board.
“And that was…?”
Jericha turned to Ryoka. She did a double-take and Hethon eyed Ryoka worriedly. The Wind Runner looked as white as a sheet. After the meeting. No tears; although Revi had wiped her face on Ryoka’s shirt. But she looked like she had when they brought her in from the road, crossbow bolts still in her back.
“A Gold-rank team. Griffon Hunt. Please don’t hold it against them. They knew her well too.”
Another nod. Jericha stepped forwards and shakily, the reception began again. They were halfway through the speech Lady Rie had planned when—
“Ryoka! Ryoka! It’s you! It’s me! I heard you were h—”
Dustrider Charlay charged through the crowd, saw the gathering, and stopped uncertainly. She caught sight of all the staring faces. The sigil of House Veltras.
The Centaur turned dead white, made a whinnying sound, and turned and galloped away. Ryoka stared.
She did not laugh. You could have put together the best slapstick routine in the world and if you got hysteria from her, it would be hysteria.
But someone did laugh. No. Laugh was too weak a word for it. They guffawed. They roared with laughter. Howled with it.
Hilarity! The others, nobles, dignitaries, looked around in horror, trying to move out of the way. Someone was laughing at Tyrion’s expense?
It was funny. But to laugh now was to laugh at the Five Families. Who would dare? Jericha reached for her wand and two of House Veltras’ guards drew their blades.
“Who dares to mock House V—”
The bared steel produced a ringing reply two dozen times over. The crowd parted. And there—Ryoka saw a flash of color.
It was, of course…pink.
Lady Bethal Walchaís was doubled over in laughter, clinging to her husband. The Knights of the Petal surrounding her stood at the ready. Lady Bethal looked up and pointed.
“His face. Oh, Thomast. This is already everything I wanted!”
“Lady Bethal Walchaís?”
Ryoka felt stunned. She was here? Of course, Ryoka had sent an invitation to her. But to see her in the same spot as Tyrion…
Jericha muttered it like a curse. And lest you forget—Izril aside, Bethal stood on one side of a divide. With Magnolia Reinhart, who would have stood opposite Tyrion Veltras.
“Lady Bethal. Sir Thomast.”
The [Chevalier] bowed smoothly. Bethal waved a hand as she continued to chuckle.
“Delightful! And that is Miss Ryoka? We heard you were hurt! So delighted! Carry on, please! We’ll just be watching.”
‘We’? But look. Ryoka saw a group standing with Bethal. The Knights of the Rose, of course. She recognized Ser Kerrig. Welsca…
Dame Truvia would not be there. Ryoka felt another jerk. But then—someone in a yellow…tracksuit? Altered a bit, but—
Lady Pryde’s arms were bare, exposing some rather defined arms. She was watching Tyrion coolly with her escort. And then Ryoka felt it.
House Ulta. House Walchaís. House Veltras—even if it wasn’t the Five Families?
Hope blossomed in her chest. Tyrion himself looked surprised. He had known this party had more than his family and persuaded some of the nobility to join him. For instance, he saw Lord Pellmia standing at the opposite site of the reception and nodding to him with other nobles who had ridden with him. Lady Ieka glowered at Pryde and Bethal and stared at Ryoka urgently.
She’d done it. But what a mess of a party. House Veltras stood down, but they looked ready to draw on the [Knights]. It could be disastrous. She just hoped it was worth it.
“Lord Veltras. We apologize for the disruptions.”
Rie came forwards before anyone could interrupt a third time. She greeted him, the two young [Lords] who replied awkwardly, and then turned to Ryoka.
“And Miss Griffin. We have heard…of your loss. His Majesty would like to meet with you after Lord Veltras.”
“Of course. Lady Rie.”
Ryoka still felt stabbed. She wished, oh, how she wished Erin were here. Because—this was a moment worthy of Erin. If Erin had but been here, interrupting a third time with a chess game and a bowl of ice cream or something? Ryoka would have laughed herself sick.
But she wasn’t. Only her spirit was here. And it was her spirit…Ryoka’s eyes cleared. She looked at Lady Rie urgently.
“Lady Rie. I will meet with Laken. And—he has my eternal gratitude for all of this. I was—asleep. But—but—is Magnolia Reinhart here? And Grand Magus Eldavin?”
The name stirred the crowd. Grand Magus…? Ieka wished that her aunt were here. Valeterisa was going to throw an unholy fit, but she’d been chased away by all the needful socialization.
But Eldavin? Teriarch? Ryoka’s hopes were dashed by Lady Rie’s hesitant shake of the head.
“Lady Reinhart has not. Nor do I believe she will be. Excuse me, Ryoka—we have to introduce Lord Veltras more formally.”
No. Ryoka felt her heart lurch. But decorum or not—she grabbed Lady Rie’s arm.
“Eldavin. I need to speak to him. He’s not here? Are you sure? He’ll arrive, though.”
The people waiting listened intently. Nobility or not, they sensed this was an important conversation, breached dignity aside. Rie turned back with a pained expression.
“I’m sorry, Ryoka. But he will not be coming.”
“No, he will.”
Teriarch would heal Erin. No matter what he said. He had to. Another panacea—she’d let him put whatever geas he wanted on her. She’d do whatever it took! Besides—
He’d promised. Lady Rie was just mistaken. But then the [Lady] looked Ryoka in the eye. And Ryoka heard the second bad news of the day.
“He will not. Because he sent word via [Message] spell, Miss Griffin, tendering his regrets. He is unavoidably detained. At sea, I understand.”
Ryoka stood, swaying. Hethon backed up in case she threw up on him. And Ryoka understood the great tragedy of Dragons.
Not only did they do what they wanted—
They RSVP’d to let you know they weren’t coming.
“That’s it, then. The party’s going to fail. This—we don’t have enough.”
Tyrion stirred. Sammial, Hethon, Jericha—the listening nobility stirred. Not what you wanted to hear after you’d come all this way. But Ryoka looked around. She had one of the Five Families.
One. And she might have swung it on a technicality. If she had a Dragon to vouch for it. Without him? Ryoka felt a dread certainty that this was not enough. And because the fae’s magic was part belief—her certainty reinforced the failure.
“Miss Ryoka! Would you please not say that right here? Right now?”
Rie could have happily killed Ryoka. But the young woman looked so faint that Rie steadied her instead.
“Did she just say the party was ruined? Well, I’m not leaving until I have cake. And someone explains that statue to me!”
Bethal murmured around. Pryde glowered at her.
“Would you be silent? And besides—cake is extremely bad for your figure, Bethal.”
“I’m not the one trying to lift pieces of metal, Pryde. The things you think are fun.”
Their loud argument drifted past Rie, who was trying to—well, everything was ruined. Lord Tyrion’s eyebrow was twitching, Jericha was staring at Ryoka worriedly, and at any moment Sammial would ask what a ‘slut’ was.
Complete destruction. Chaos. Failure. And without an Erin to make it right. At this time, who could make it worse but someone drily coughing.
“Excuse me. We have been waiting to greet House Veltras for quite some time. Please tell me this event is not cancelled. I would hate to have travelled this far for nothing.”
“I’m so sorry, Lord El. Miss Griffin is just overwrought—”
El? Ryoka’s head slowly rose. The great weight on her—she looked up and saw a scholarly nose and features. By that, rather than a warrior’s thickset build, someone who looked more at home investigating scrolls. Writing notes.
Overseeing the construction of a magical item.
The man looked at Ryoka quizzically. Both were sure that they had never met. Yet—one knew the other.
“You are Ryoka Griffin.”
“Y-yes. Who are you?”
The man smiled. His bodyguards and the nobility around him looked offended. Ryoka saw two dozen people, male and female, and their escorts. Even children. And she realized it was a group.
They were all nobility. The man inclined his head.
“I am Lord Deilan El, head of the House of El. I greet you, Wind Runner of Reizmelt, on behalf of Lady Maviola. I hope this occasion is not cancelled. Or her last wishes will have been for naught.”
The House of El? Ryoka stared. How—?
Maviola El. Lord Tyrion was turning to Deilan, recognizing the man belatedly at last. Deilan greeted Lord Tyrion.
“You received my missive, Lord Deilan?”
“As a matter of fact, Lord Tyrion, the House of El was already planning on the Riverfarm event before now. We had received the invitation—but it was a letter from our House’s matriarch that moved us to certainty.”
Deilan looked at Ryoka and half-smiled. He was the one who had spoken when he heard Maviola’s name. And grief—it was written across the House of El’s faces. Two dozen of their number had come with him, bringing over a hundred servants and escorts.
“Before her demise, Maviola El made preparations in the event of her death. She had…hoped to attend personally. But we promised to carry out her will regardless.”
Two of the Five Families stood there. A number of House Veltras’ nobility were already here; Sammial pointed out a [Hawk Lady]—an aunt, conversing with a huge, slightly odorous man.
Lord Gralton Radivaek. A few panting dogs raced about. And Ryoka felt something in her head. In her chest.
Lord Deilan and Lord Tyrion looked at each other, and then at Ryoka.
“Miss Ryoka Griffin. I believe you needed three of the Five Families present for your party.”
“How did you know…?”
She looked at Tyrion. The [Lord] glanced at Jericha. The [Aide] sighed.
“Miss Griffin. When you did not wake up, we communicated with Emperor Laken Godart as to your wishes. We have known Lord Deilan will arrive. And there is at least one Wellfar, present.”
“But I needed—”
The heads of each family. Ryoka bit it back. It seemed so childish and pedantic after two had arrived. But those were the requirements. Tyrion looked at her. Lord Deilan lowered his spectacles, half-moon rather than Jericha’s full ones. He finished Ryoka’s sentence.
“—the head of three of the Five Families, correct?”
Ryoka looked at him. Heart jolting along. And then she saw him smile.
Someone murmured. The ranks of Riverfarm’s forces, the nobility, were thrust aside. Ryoka’s head rose. She saw Durene edging back from a figure that eclipsed even her.
A giant gemstone instead of a face, smooth, turning and glowing softly. The War Golem advanced. And more, smaller ones, spread out. The Wind Runner heard a murmur.
She saw a double-line of bodyguards. Flashing enchantments. And something like an open sedan chair lower. The figure who sat on it touched the ground warily, as if expecting it to open up beneath her.
Next to Lord Deilan, Zedalien and the other members of the House of El bowed. Sammial and Hethon were urged to do so. Ryoka looked around and realized everyone was bowing.
The woman wasn’t—old. At least, not as old as Maviola had been in truth. Gresaria. She could have been in her sixties, which was far from old!
But she looked aged. Worn. And terribly frightened. Not immediately, but in a way that defined her life. She paused just past the wall of Golems and her personal escort.
“I would not have come to such an…event. Especially given the dangers suggested. However. Both Lord Deilan and Lord Tyrion prevailed upon me to join this occasion. And I will not have it said that the House of Terland was ever made up of cowards.”
The woman looked at Ryoka Griffin curiously. The Wind Runner realized she hadn’t knelt. She tried to do so. Her legs practically folded up under her.
“Am I—excuse me, milady. But am I speaking to…?”
Ulva Terland inclined her head silently. Her hair, made dead white too soon, reflected the wrinkles of her face. Ulva Terland, once a twin of Petria Terland.
Head of House Terland.
Three heads of the Five Families stood together. Tyrion, rigid as could be. Deilan, face troubled by grief and the uncertainties of his new station. Ulva—uncertain. But resolved.
“I have come to see my nightmares. And to participate in this great event. So. Do three of the Five Families not stand here, girl? Or is it only Magnolia Reinhart who would complete us? I do not see her here.”
The gathered stirred. And Ryoka Griffon looked around. Her head spun. And she saw.
Faces she had taken to just be staff, or Riverfarm’s folk. No. The escort, aside from the army and some of the highest-ranking members were Riverfarm.
The rest? Nobility.
Lord Sanito Alman. Lady Edere, looking tearful and awed by turns.
Lord Ranga, still wearing white for the [Innkeeper].
Nobility near or about Invrisil.
Lady Bethal. Lady Pryde. And behind them, practically surrounded by some of the eligible bachelors—and some married men—
Lady Wuvren. Next to her, an older woman with a flock of younger [Ladies], some little more than children. Counterparts to the curious group of [Witches] with hats.
Lady Eliasor Melissar had been told to stay away from the kindly [Tea Witch] by Lady Zanthia. She did not know why. And she stared at Ryoka Griffin with a great deal of curiosity.
Across from them, more familiar faces, if not to Ryoka, than the others. And some she knew full well.
Lord Gralton. Lord Pellmia.
Lord Yitton Byres and his wife, Shallel. They had just missed the Horns of Hammerad, who had ridden out to give battle to the Guild of Assassins. But one child had returned.
Ylawes Byres and his team had come. The [Knight]’s head rose. He offered Ryoka a salute. So did the Emergency City Runner with the crossbow.
Delanay d’Artien, and his colorful family, all dressed with sheer style.
The Flowers of Izril had gathered here, in greater profusion than anyone could remember in a decade. Enemies and allies alike. Ryoka Griffin looked around.
House Valerund! House Walchaís! House El.
And an [Emperor]. Ulva Terland’s voice was soft.
“Is this enough, Runner?”
Ryoka looked up at her. Then she bowed her head. When she rose—it was with all the intent in the world.
The Dragon was gone. Magnolia Reinhart was missing. Erin and Maviola were dead.
But the party awaited. And the fae. Ryoka Griffin thought of her friend.
“Yes, Milady Terland. I believe it is. I thank you. Let this day be a day we shall never forget.”
One way or another—
It would be.
Some had come. Not the beating heart of The Wandering Inn. Not Numbtongue, or Mrsha or Lyonette—
But some had come. People who had been on the way.
Like the Players of Celum. Jasi embraced Ryoka, having had the presence to not charge at her the moment she saw her. Wesle was in tears.
“I don’t know how we’ll perform. It’ll be a ruined show—and in front of the entire—entire—”
Emme trailed off. Ryoka felt Jasi sob into her shoulder. Kilkran and some of the others couldn’t even leave their rooms.
“Did it really happen, Ryoka? We weren’t there! It doesn’t seem possible!”
“I—she’s not dead.”
“She seems pretty dead to me!”
Andel clenched his fists.
“How would you even—and that Drake city isn’t burning down right now?”
That was how Maviola El had died. That kind of rage. Ryoka just let go of Jasi.
“Erin got you to perform?”
“She told us to. If we’d known how big this event would be—we’d have accepted rather than declined to begin with!”
“I don’t think anyone knew it would be…”
Ryoka stared past the Players. If it had been a lighter time, oh, what a moment this would be.
“Wuvren. You look well.”
“Ulva! I haven’t seen you at a gathering like this in ages! But you look dreadful. You must try to get out more, my dear.”
Wuvren looked like she was a daughter or granddaughter addressing her elder. Instead—you had to remember that Wuvren was a bit older than Ulva. Behind her, Pryde was…flexing…as she spoke with Gralton.
“I’ll lend you a set. You see? We have a contest with the Walled Cities.”
“Huh. And you just push at them?”
“Technique, Gralton. Technique.”
“Lord Byres. I haven’t spoken to you since the siege. And this is your son. Ylawes Byres? I have heard much of your achievements.”
The [Knight] bowed. His grief-stricken face did not stop him from keeping to his manners.
“Lord Veltras. It is an honor. But I believe we have been in proximity recently. My sister and I were close enough to you, but we did not meet.”
Tyrion’s eyebrows rose slightly.
“Indeed. Where was this?”
Yitton received an elbow in the chest from his wife. Ylawes glanced up.
“The Walls of Liscor, I believe. I was in a fine position to see the trebuchets firing upon us. I blocked one of the shots myself.”
“Ah. You were…there?”
“With a number of innocent civilians. Sir. I look forwards to tendering my greetings to Emperor Godart. Forgive me—I have just lost a friend I held in great esteem. So my words are slightly blunt.”
That was the level of conversation Ryoka wasn’t listening to. She was speaking to the others.
“You have to perform. And make it one for the history books, Wesle, Jasi, Emme. You have to perform. You know the guests are…special?”
Ryoka stirred. Jasi sniffed.
“I was there with Erin. And—his Majesty told us in confidentiality. He knows you, Ryoka?”
“He’s a friend of Erin’s. Or…would have been. Listen. You have to perform.”
“I don’t know if I can cover this grief with a smile. But I could do a sad play—if there were one wretched enough for me.”
Wesle muttered. Ryoka looked at him.
“No. You have to be better than you ever have before. Wesle. Jasi. Perform your best. And there’s a chance…we’ll be able to bring Erin back.”
The Players of Celum looked at her. Lord Gralton tilted his head. Ryoka didn’t notice that, or the other listeners. It didn’t matter.
“You’re not making sense, Ryoka. Lyonette said there was a chance—”
“This is that chance. I put together this party for—it doesn’t matter. I have something new to do. Even if I have to throw it all to the wind, I’ll bring Erin back first if I can. But they must come. They must be entertained. This must be the greatest party ever. We have the guests. Now we need entertainment. A moment.”
“Are you being serious, Ryoka?”
The Wind Runner turned. She saw a huge, bald, bearded man with a throat worn by sobs. Kilkran. His eyes were red. But he had her shoulder in a fierce grip.
“So help me, but if you are lying to us in any way—I will show you wrath that Macduff never showed Macbeth!”
As threats went, it wasn’t the most impressive. But—Ryoka looked Kilkran in the eyes and then around at the other [Actors].
“Cast a truth spell if you want to. There is a chance. Just a chance. But you have to perform and get the other guests to arrive.”
“There’s a chance they won’t even show?”
Pralcem was astonished. But the others were regaining their spirit. Ryoka saw it. Emme’s head rose.
“The most. Can you do it?”
Wesle coughed. He looked around. Suddenly, the color was in his cheeks. His voice rose, and heads turned at that sound, that ineffable quality captured there.
“Are you serious, Ryoka Griffin? If there were one chance in a million—Players of Celum! Stop weeping and on your feet! We have performances to get to! Get the stage set! Get the B-team out of their rooms!”
“Move! Move! We have to set up for A Midsummer’s Night Dream—but if we need performances, I want our best! Macbeth in thirty minutes or I’ll feed all of you to the crows!”
Galvanized, the [Actors] surged off. Ryoka turned. She realized—someone was standing next to her. But he was short, so she’d mistook him for Emme and missed him in the crowd.
“I heard the same. Told the lad to come here. Is it true?”
Dawil looked up at her. Ryoka looked down at the Dwarf. Helmetless, grief-stricken. But determined.
“Yes. It’s only a chance. But it is a chance.”
He exhaled slowly.
For an answer—Ryoka showed him the statue of Ivolethe.
His eyes flickered. The Dwarf looked at Ryoka.
“In that case—you might want to get settled in. I heard the party’s all day and into the night. And now you’re here, it should get rolling, right?”
Behind Ryoka, Lady Ieka Imarris’ eyes glittered. This was no time for the Circle of Thorns. The Circle was broken. But this—she felt like this was just as important.
Today, she would have her answers. She strode towards Ryoka Griffin. Many people wanted to speak to her. From Ulva Terland to Tyrion, to Sammial to Laken Godart. She should have secured Ryoka beforehand. But this day—
Bethal Walchaís tripped Ieka. She watched the [Mage Lady] go down and strode forwards.
“Ryoka Griffin! You must meet Pryde and the others!”
The party began in style before it was even late morning.
It was today. A party for the ages took place. The Circle of Thorns lay vanquished.
Tyrion’s sons were well.
And they had scarcely seen a day like this! Hethon and Sammial had attended events with their father before, but House Veltras was well-known for being the least demonstrative of all the houses. Even compared to the poorer House of El, which had been well-known for its merrymaking, ironically.
Just as crucially—this was no refined event for the nobility. This was a party, designed to attract the attention of people from another world. So—Ryoka, Laken, and Erin and all the others had pulled out all the stops.
Laken Godart himself greeted the heads of the Five Families. And that was a scene of dignity and circumstance. Neither party bowed and the [Emperor] himself offered the most concessions as he greeted them.
Yet still. Nobility stood on an [Emperor]’s land. Sammial and Hethon didn’t pay attention. Nor to the other greetings.
“I thought this was a party. Do we have to wait until evening for—”
Sammy was whining in Hethon’s ear as he looked around. Ryoka had gone off and Jericha was keeping them away from the fascinating [Witches] and the half-Troll and anything that looked remotely exciting.
“Our guests may arrive in moments. Or far later. I ask only that Lord Deilan, Lord Tyrion, and Lady Ulva join me in inviting them.”
Hethon’s head turned back.
“Wait, they’re doing something with the Wind Runner, Sammy. See?”
“I don’t care. I hate her. She’s boring and windy and she cries. I thought she’d be exciting.”
Sammy glowered at Ryoka, having apparently made up his mind. He’d probably go back to begging for stories in another minute. Hethon saw his father standing with the others.
“In the name of Izril, as Lord of House Veltras. I invite the guests to this gathering.”
“By the will of the House of El, I, Lord Deilan, and by the will of Maviola El, I call upon any guests to attend this place under the rules of hospitality and in peace.”
“I am Ulva Terland. If the [Emperor]’s guests deign to show themselves, be welcome. If not—do not tread this ground. For this day is a moment for those here alone.”
Then came the [Emperor]. Hethon craned his neck, but then Sammial was running off and Jericha dragged Hethon along after him. He thought he saw Ryoka whispering something—
“Where is the food? The entertainment? Jericha! You said this was a party!”
Sammial stared about, crestfallen. The streets were decorated, with garlands of flowers, bright paint, everything polished and the ceremonial area had been bedecked with the colors of summer.
But Sammy didn’t care. He had walked through great houses and stared at masterpieces of paintings, magical wonders. There weren’t the amazing Golems of House Terland—and they weren’t on one of Wellfar’s amazing ships!
It was disappointing to him. Sammy wandered off, whining, and Hethon quite missed the auspicious moment. He stomped after Sammy. But in truth, aside from the solemnity—he hadn’t missed much.
No one immediately came after the invocation of the four. So—after a minute of silence, Laken Godart clapped his hands.
“It appears we will wait on our fickle guests, my subjects. Then—we shall begin this great event. My thanks, Lords and Ladies of Izril.”
He inclined his head. The nobility murmured. They weren’t certain as if to be amused or disappointed. Had the [Emperor] had some grand event that had fallen through?
What had made Sammial Veltras so disappointed was the perceived humbleness of the entire affair. Never mind the days, weeks of preparations for everything down to laying entire streets in brick, painting every surface, producing a prodigious amount of food and getting enough worthy accommodations for the flood of people who’d descend on Riverfarm.
Still—it was humble compared to what an [Emperor] should provide. And yet. The other nobles were far more impressed with the separate area, especially when they heard what made it so…unique.
“The children will take part in the main festivities in Riverfarm as I understand it. But this ground has been curiously prepared.”
Lady Zanthia had been speaking to some very nervous nobles, who had neither tittered with laughter nor disparaged the lack of wealth on display. She glanced significantly towards Pryde, Bethal, Wuvren, and their escorts.
The allies of Magnolia Reinhart raised brows. Hethon and Sammial aside, the younger [Lords] and [Ladies], children, were already growing impatient.
“How so, Zanthia?”
The oldest of the [Ladies] gestured at the stage, where the Players of Celum were already waiting behind a curtain to perform. Pryde thought that was what was meant—they certainly were the main attraction to the nobility, many of whom had heard of the ‘plays’ that had swept Invrisil. They were prepared to sneer at the lesser events—or be dutifully impressed.
But Zanthia pointed at the benches, tables, and Pryde realized she meant something else.
“The construction. I understand that nothing here was made with iron. Not nails. Not frames. And do you recall one of the requirements?”
“…Don’t bring possessions of iron. Don’t offer offense—I thought the iron bit was just some custom of the [Emperor]?”
“I thought so too. But some of the nobles attended another party. And they have seen the [Emperor]’s court. Or—his guests.”
Pryde didn’t see what was so significant about that.
“That is hardly surprising. I should imagine they’re simply late. Travelling—”
Zanthia raised one brow.
“If they were, why were they summoned? Pryde—I just spoke with Lady Bevia Veniford. She has met these visitors. And they are not a species she recognized. Not half-Elven, although they reminded her of them. They came out of nowhere. And they were both dangerous and magical. Is that not so, Bethal?”
The others looked at Bethal. The [Lady] smiled.
“I recall nearly being poisoned, but yes, Zanthia. I wouldn’t take these ‘guests’ lightly. Would you, Thomast?”
“No, Bethal. And I urge you to all remember the rules. They are not to be taken lightly. Nor—any offense given. Even in words.”
The [Chevalier] did not quite look at Pryde. The other [Ladies] stirred. And some of the eavesdropping nobility glanced at each other.
Indeed, Bevia and Rael Veniford were not the only nobles who’d attended the second gathering of the fae in this world. And their memories of those times were enough to stop people from laughing at the failed occasion.
They felt it. Saw it in every line of the Wind Runner’s taut face, scanning about. The [Emperor]’s calm watchfulness.
Something was coming.
Tyrion Veltras himself felt wrong footed. Had something gone wrong? He turned to Ryoka after Laken pronounced the wait.
“Miss Griffin. Was everything not in order?”
“No. I think it’s working, Lord Tyrion. Thank you.”
Ulva and Deilan raised their brows. Tyrion looked around.
“These guests—do not deign to attend a gathering from three of the Five Families?”
“I think they might. But they’re fickle.”
“And they’ll just pop out of nowhere? I warn you—my escort has secured all of Riverfarm. His Majesty has assured me of my safety, but my protectors have their own methods. I would not wish for accidents.”
Ulva warned Ryoka. She was disconcerted when the young woman looked at her and shook her head.
“They won’t be arriving any way your escort would detect, Lady Terland. Forgive me. I can’t quite explain.”
“Can not? Or will not?”
Deilan was the most curious of the others. Ryoka hesitated, which was answer enough.
“Lady Ulva. Lord Deilan and Lord Tyrion. I believe that task falls to me. They are, after all, nominally of my court. Although my titles are more gift than formality. As you will understand it—I granted them the titles of [Marquis], [Baron], [Knight]—for services rendered. But they answer to a different ruler.”
Marquis? The [Emperor] had granted them titles as a favor? The three stirred. But as they began to speak with the [Emperor], a plucked note sounded across the ground.
It came from Riverfarm. The escorts of the nobility, servants, guards, Riverfarm’s people, visitors from local cities and towns who had come, hearing of this moment, [Merchants], not-quite-nobility who had ‘invited’ themselves here when they heard of what it would be—
All looked up. The sound hung in the air. Ryoka’s head rose. She had never heard a note so pure. Yet—for all its beauty, it sounded like tears.
Like sorrow. Like—
It was a blue chord. A humming string bound of the same thing Deilan had seen so many times on his aunt’s fingers. A glowing flame.
His eyes filled with tears at the memory. Ulva made a sound.
She looked at Laken Godart. Tyrion Veltras’ face was stone. But even he shifted.
There he stood.
Barelle the [Bard]. Ryoka Griffin shot a quick glance at Laken. He’d gotten him! But the second chord sounded as the [Bard] plucked a second magical note on his harp.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Guests of the Unseen Empire. And visitors from however far they come. I am Barelle the Bard. And it is my duty, my honor, to open this day of festivities. This longest day. This—Summer Solstice.”
The second chord sounded like laughter. Like happy days. Sammy started laughing upon hearing it, and he wasn’t the only one. But the third chord played even as the guests turned.
And it was a solemn note. Neither happy nor sad, but conveying some other emotion. As if Ryoka stood in a grand cathedral for the first time. Or stared up at a distant mountain’s peak.
It was the note of grandeur. Of wonder. Of great deeds and momentous occasions. It was orange—if such a poor color could be applied to the string.
“This day belongs to you, dear guests. And whilst I invite you to all dine and make merry, there shall be great tales, performed by the Players of Celum. Wondrous sights, by the Skylights! Performances by masters and mistresses of their craft all. And I shall sing. Sing of battle against the Circle of Thorns. Tell the story of a brave Runner—”
There he looked at Ryoka. She would have flushed if she were not so numb, at all the stares. Barelle lowered his hand and touched the first chord again.
“—and of the [Innkeeper] of Liscor.”
The crowd stirred. And those who knew the name or had heard it felt that pang in their chests. Barelle touched the orange chord again and the moment passed.
“But this is not the time. At this moment, by your leave, Lords and Ladies, Emperor—let this celebration begin!”
Now, this was what Hethon and Sammial had come for. No sooner had Barelle spoken then the sky turned dark. Someone screamed and others gasped as a Dragon appeared in the air.
It was no real Dragon, but an outline of one, made by a thousand thousand sparkling lights of color. It roared and clawed the air, then swooped down and burst like a rain of fireflies on the awestruck crowd. Glittering bits of its body fell, sparkling—and Hethon caught one on his hand and stared at the beautiful thing before it faded.
And that was the opening. The Starlights, a famous [Illusionist] group, began to conjure more creatures. A Manticore bounded down the street, perfect in every detail, roaring, and a performer of a different stripe battled it in a display of footwork and stagecraft that even had Pralcem approving.
What wonders! What spectacle! Within moments, Sammy’s dour mood was blown away. Food was swept onto countless tables. A [Tumbler] bounded down the street, trailing streamers on her colorful costume. She flipped forwards, doing a handspring, then did a double backflip over Sammial and Hethon’s heads. They cried out, but she was already bounding forwards.
Jericha just watched, a tad bit wary. But they were just performers. A [Juggler] was already setting up his flaming daggers in a safer spot, the audience clearly separated by a striped line of paint on the street.
“Wow! This is amazing! You were wrong, Sammy!”
Hethon burst out. He’d seen the Starlights once, before Sammy had been able to watch. But there were the Starlights and Barelle the Bard! And the Players of Celum and—he gawked as he saw a [Wizard] carefully setting up a complicated, glowing field of magic.
“Sammy. Sammy! That’s—that’s—the Wonderous Omnivel!”
Sammial shouted. His head spun around and he went running towards the purveyor of the fabled Box of Wonders, the most high-end, sought-after artifact for children everywhere, if you could afford it.
The Wonderous Omnivel was in the same entertainment circuit as Barelle the Bard, and no less admired—if by a younger crowd. The field was a larger version of his Box of Wonders.
“Step forwards, children! Make a line!”
The [Wizard] waved his wand as children who knew him surged forwards in a screaming mob. He sighed, and then pointed.
“Have you ever dreamed of dancing with Dragons? Walking with Giants?”
A huge foot appeared, and everyone jumped back as a towering shape—sixty feet high—appeared!
But only in the fifteen by fifteen foot spot. Jericha folded her arms, not fooled by the powerful illusion. Omnivel’s field of magic was under his control. And in it, you could make little armies fight, pretend to be a [Mage] of your own—
If the [Wizard] looked slightly sour, it was because a certain Academy was apparently working on an improved version of his famous Box of Wonders—and threatening to ruin his livelihood. But today, he let Sammial and Hethon enter the field and begin dueling with swords that emitted jets of fire and sparks.
And he was one of many. The Flowers of Izril watched, slightly impressed. Of course, it was certainly a display of wealth and connections to get Barelle the Bard, the Skylights, and so on. But the nobility didn’t run towards the simpler attractions. They’d seen illusions. What interested them—and soon the children was—
Eliasor’s eyes widened as she saw the heaping bowls of the stuff. It was carefully chilled with ice, but it was there.
In…flavors? One of the panting [Confectioners] of the Unseen Empire—recently given the new class—had signs indicating the flavors.
Strawberry. Lemon (Sour!). Vanilla. Mint…
“There are multiple types of it? Wait—this can’t be gelato, can it?”
Lord Pellmia was aghast. He strode to the head of the line. The [Confectioner] bowed instantly.
“Milord, it is! We have every flavor and these…cones. Or a bowl, if you would prefer? There are also sweets to add. Only—eat it too fast and your teeth will ache, sir!”
Lord Pellmia stared at the toppings. Both fruits like banana and baked goods. A ‘cookie’?
“But—I bought some gelato for my family in our city! And we paid gold for it—freshly imported from Terandria, no less!”
He spluttered. He’d gotten barely a bowl of the stuff and paid far more than he should have for that! And it had been vanilla.
“His Majesty knew the recipe, milord, and we have been preparing a wide variety of dishes from his home. We also have slices of ‘cake’, and a number of dishes…”
Lord Pellmia stared. In point of fact—Laken hadn’t known ice cream’s manufacturing process. But Erin, Ryoka, and Imani had all contributed to the Unseen Empire’s preparations.
There were pizzas, burgers, all the unhealthy foods—and more complex dishes waiting in the wings. Imani had sent culture. Erin had sent fries.
That drew the nobles over by storm. Gelato? Pellmia walked towards his family, bemusedly holding a double-scoop ice cream cone of mint and lemon.
“Lord Hethon, Lord Sammial, I believe the other children would like a turn.”
Jericha managed to get the two to stop hogging the [Wizard]’s attraction when she produced two cones of ice cream. The boys whirled about and let the other children take a turn. Indeed, even the [Wizard] and some of the performers who didn’t need to use their hands were indulging.
Ice cream aside—Hethon’s jaw dropped as he saw the interesting foods, not to mention the other displays.
“These are not free. Trinkets for sale! Charms!”
A [Witch]—Agratha—was slapping down someone who was just reaching for objects on display. Across from her, [Traders] and [Merchants] had set up.
“Artifacts for sale! Silk from Chandrar—”
“Are those [Witch] charms, Jericha? I want one!”
Sammial pointed. Jericha dragged him back.
“Milord, your father would not want you to buy—”
Laken Godart’s ears already hurt from all the sound. But he was watching with his vision as the entirety of Riverfarm exploded with motion. He was keeping an eye on the [Witches].
It was typically Agratha who had organized the stall. Her brand of [Witch] would sell charms of lesser power directly to even the nobility. The Mavika, Alevica type were not part of that.
But they were here. And he was very wary of how they’d interact with the nobility. They’d promised to behave—but that was a loaded promise.
Thankfully, it appeared the first thing they’d done was raid the buffet. Laken nudged Gamel.
“Gamel. I need your eyes. Did…Hedag just walk off with an entire cake?”
“…Yes, your Majesty.”
“Ah, very good. Just making sure.”
Which also meant that Mavika had stolen six pizzas and was taking them to her crows. Laken sighed. At least he’d prepared for this kind of thing.
This was the party. People mixed and mingled, and strange meetings occurred amid the entertainment.
“Alevica! Alevica! It’s me! Good to see you! Look what I found! You have to try this! It’s milk and ice cream!”
“Charlay, get off of me. We are not friends! I will hex you!”
The Centauress was pressing a milkshake at the [Witch]. Exasperated, Alevica grabbed it, took a sip, and immediately went off to find all the sweets with Charlay.
“Wot’s this? Wot’s this? Chess? I happen to be a good player myself.”
Lady Eliasor found a small group standing around a chess table. An enterprising boy around her age had set up there and was taking all comers.
“You play chess, um, sir?”
Eliasor didn’t quite know how to address Grev, who was clearly not of the nobility. The young man was taking on two at a time. A [Witch] with a blank expression was hanging back, watching.
“That’s right. You want to play, Miss [Lady]? And you? [Witch]-girl?”
Grev addressed Nanette and Eliasor with a gap-toothed grin. It slipped slightly and he looked towards the stage.
“Do you even play chess?”
Eliasor had been taught by Zanthia, but she was surprised this boy knew. Grev looked at her.
“I was taught by the best player’n the world. Come on. Step up and play! We’ll put some money down on it! Anything in your pockets if you don’t have coins.”
Those were fighting words. Nanette held back, but the others moved in, ready to test Grev’s boasts. Eliasor was first to find out he hadn’t been lying.
And then the Players of Celum took to the stage. And those who thought that the party was decent realized they hadn’t seen nothing yet.
A [Witch] took to the stage as Macbeth began. Instantly, Wiskeria, Eloise, and a number of [Witches] stared at the poor [Actress]. The nobles turned.
“So this is the play I’ve heard so—”
One of the [Lords] of the House of El exclaimed before his voice went dead. He spoke on, then looked around, miffed.
A Terland couple experienced the same thing as they entered Eltistiman’s [Cone of Silence]. The air turned dark around the stage and those who wished to attend the play found comfortable, padded seats or the grass was waiting for them.
The Players of Celum existed in a world of their own—audible from afar, but with a theatre set up.
A copy of the [Grand Theater]. And when Wesle strode onto the stage—more people turned and drifted over. Curious about the famous play.
What a grand day. Midmorning and the party began. It would be a long day. The longest day.
Behind the curtains, the Players were preparing, focused only on making every play the best. The B-team waited; they’d rotate in and out throughout the day, giving the [Actors] time to mingle and relax.
“Oh, Thomast! We have to see the play again! But do get me some unpoisoned wine! And the gelato! And—”
Bethal was tugging her husband to multiple places at once as the [Knights] half-followed. Half had been downed already; Ser Kerrig was sitting at a Go board and playing one of House Veltras’ guards. Of course, many of the security were spaced out, but they’d trade places with those attending the party.
And there was a camel you could ride! And an Oliphant over there and—
Hethon and Sammial were running about as Jericha raced after them, trying to do and see everything at once. They were laughing, and people were meeting each other around them in hilarious or strange encounters that Hethon would have happily watched if there weren’t all these entertainments!
“Tall one, aren’t you?”
Dawil stared up at Durene. She turned around—and around—then stared down. The Dwarf looked up at the half-Troll girl. The [Paladin] nearly dropped her drink.
“Oh, dead gods! Are you a Dwarf?”
“Never met one of us? You a half-Troll? Name’s Dawil.”
They shook hands as they stared at each other.
Lady Ieka stomped through the crowd, looking for Bethal so she could shove the [Lady] into something. She saw the [Lady] standing in front of a cake and advanced.
“Lady Imarris, isn’t it? Ah, I didn’t know from behind. A pleasure again.”
She turned at the familiar voice.
Lord Erill Fienst bowed slightly. He regarded Ieka with a touch of wariness, and she felt her heart jump for a second. But then she smiled.
“A delight to see you, Lord Erill. I see you made it to this gathering as well?”
“Per your request. I’m simply happy all this business with that damned Circle is done with.”
A warning tone. Ieka froze—then nodded.
“Quite. And who have we here?”
She stared a touch blankly at the tall, bearded fellow with a smile. He looked like…an adventurer?
“Typhenous, at your service, Lady Imarris. Gold-rank adventurer. May I say, I have been such a huge admirer of House Imarris’ magical acumen?”
Bethal moved away and Ieka lost her opportunity for revenge. She regarded Typhenous a bit warily. Why was this Gold-rank adventurer courting the nobility? Or rather—why was Erill allowing it?
There were any number of socialites trying to bother the Flowers of Izril, but normally they were brushed off—Ulva was surrounded by Golems who practically threw anyone trying to bother her into the crowd. She was making for the gelato—with the intention of stealing a [Confectioner]. She wasn’t the only one.
And yet—Lord Erill very politely nodded to Typhenous.
“Griffon Hunt, a team employed by his Majesty. I don’t know if you know of them…? I was rather thinking we should sequester a table. Or perhaps watch the plays?”
Typhenous chuckled. Ieka stared blankly at the [Merchant Lord] and her eyes flickered.
[Memo]. You’ll want to listen to this, Ieka.
Her eyes flickered to Erill’s face. And she noticed no less than Lord Deilan El drifting over with two of his house.
“Lord Erill. Lady Imarris. And who is this?”
Deilan looked directly at Erill as Typhenous swept off his hat to bow deeply. None of the others—and two more nobles came over, one from Terland, one independent—knew why Erill was throwing [Memos] around. But the [Merchant Lord] was known for his intuition. And all those attracted were of a certain…interest.
“I have, in fact, seen all the performances performed by the Players of Celum. I encourage everyone to watch, of course. At least one play!”
Ieka’s brows rose higher. This was a well-connected Gold-rank adventurer! Some of the other nobles also blinked. Typhenous was smiling.
“Indeed. Well, I had the great…great honor to stay at the inn where they first originated.”
For a moment, he looked old and tired and—then he smiled again.
The streets had their own way of doing things. As with Grev—well, the master of such things was currently talking with the head of one of the Five Families and half a dozen other nobles.
“In fact, this inn—The Wandering Inn—was an extraordinary place. Truly. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the [Innkeeper]. Or the wondrous inventions she came out with?”
Ieka had heard that she was dead. Typhenous looked around, then produced something.
“…Well, among the other things, that fascinating bicycle as it’s called. Made by a guest of the inn, you see. Among other inventions. The same one the Wind Runner, Miss Ryoka Griffin—another dear friend—rode?”
The nobles stirred as the penny dropped. Lord Deilan’s eyes lit up.
“Ah. The House of El has an order for several of those devices. But the backlog is going to be months. We’ve been outbid by Chandrar, Baleros…”
The others grumbled. Erill just leaned forwards as Typhenous stroked his beard.
“That is regrettable. But as it so happens—I have some illustrations of the device from up-close. A young friend of mine may have brought some…notes.”
Grev got a 20% cut. Typhenous didn’t have more than sketches, however. You didn’t sell the golden cow. But that was enough for the nobles to make him their best friend. Moreover…he stroked his beard.
“I happen to know the inventor myself. It may be that I could put in a private word. Even make introductions. Certainly, for the House of El. But this is a celebration! Let me not distract you—although have you heard of the skateboards? Fascinating thing, really…”
The closer that Grev had smuggled to him was a single gear prototype in his pocket and some of the bike chain. Typhenous sat and stroked his beard—what else was he to do on this day?
Revi was crying. She sat at a table and quite ruined anyone’s fun whenever they looked at her. She was not Typhenous; she hadn’t even seen Halrac.
Briganda was letting Cade play. She hadn’t known Erin as well and she was more concerned with her son, who could forget his sorrows and laugh.
But the [Summoner] could not. She could not enjoy this day. She was not the only one.
Erin Solstice had quite ruined the day for the others as well.
Ylawes stood with Delanay, eating nothing, just waiting. He might have royally burned a bridge between Byres and Veltras. But if he had, he didn’t care.
A teary-eyed Falene sat at a table. Quite—quite ruined.
The only reason Jasi didn’t weep was because she was on stage. But when she did have cause to weep, as Juliet, the audience felt as though someone had truly died. The Players had never been realer.
And yet—it was today. This day. Hope was a guttering flame on a fading candle.
But it still burned. Because of the [Lady Firestarter]. Because of what had been put in place by the [Innkeeper].
“Little sister. Why are you weeping?”
Falene looked up. A lined face, white hair—the other half-Elf sat. She sniffed and wiped at her eyes.
Zedalien inclined his head to her. She replied, with the ritualistic greeting.
“I’m sorry, brother—it’s just, someone has died that I knew. That I respected.”
“I see. The same is true of me. Have you been long from the forests of home?”
The older half-Elf spoke with formality, unlike a certain bug-eating half-Elf who wanted nothing to do with the traditions of their villages. Falene bowed slightly, recognizing him.
“Not at all. Do I have the honor of addressing Zedalien? In service to the House of El?”
“Let us not be formal. Falene Skystrall.”
He knew her. The half-Elf glanced around, but he was off-duty. This was a party. So he placed the bottle of wine on the table.
“Shall we raise a cup to those we knew well, sister?”
The two half-Elves drank. As those close to immortality did. The mortal lives passed too soon.
She was not dead. Ryoka Griffin stood there, waiting. Searching the trees on the outskirts of Riverfarm. Looking about—
Until she was interrupted.
Tyrion Veltras. Unlike Deilan and Ulva, he had not gone far. Socializing. Partying. Libations…none of those words fit Tyrion Veltras.
“Lord Tyrion. Is something wrong?”
Ryoka turned and tried to remember to bow. The [Lord] looked at her. Uncertain—she noticed a tiny flicker of it in his eyes. His face could have been one of the statues in Riverfarm for all it moved.
You had to watch for the tiny clues. The [Lord] sketched another bow.
“…You appear to be waiting for the visitors.”
“I am—that is, I’m sure they’ll arrive.”
They had to. Ryoka bowed in reply, as awkward as the [Lord].
“Please, don’t mind me. I hope your sons and you can enjoy the party.”
“I will endeavor to.”
Tyrion lied. He regarded Ryoka as she went back to standing. After a second, he coughed into one fist.
“…Miss Ryoka. You’ve been standing there for quite some time.”
She blinked again.
“Have I? I’m just waiting…”
“You have been standing there for nearly an hour.”
This time Ryoka’s head swiveled around. She had? Her head was filled with cotton. She was just—waiting.
“I’m sorry. I’ll just stand here longer, if that’s okay.”
Tyrion eyed her.
“Would you at least care to move elsewhere?”
Was he being courteous of her? Ryoka hesitated.
“I’m fine, really.”
“I see. However, I am indebted towards you, Miss Griffin.”
She turned to face Lord Veltras.
“—And I am exceptionally grateful, Lord Tyrion. But you don’t have a debt. This is all I wished for. Just this. Please, enjoy yourself.”
“I do not believe I can. Nor do I believe my debt is fulfilled. What you did was no small thing.”
God, he was so stubborn about honor and debts! And he had no tact! Thus spoke the pot of the kettle. She just wanted to be left alone!
But reluctantly, she nodded. Lord Tyrion scanned the area as Ryoka moved, stumbling a bit.
“Your guests…seem to be a strange lot.”
“They’re rude, dangerous bastards.”
Ryoka replied before she caught herself. She bit her tongue—but she was beyond caring, really. Tyrion stared at her.
“I…see. And this event—you have no interest in anything here? I see gelato and treats that I would have assumed cost a fortune.”
“Not the ice cream. You can make it if you want. It’s cheap. I gave the recipe to Magnolia Reinhart. That’s why she was interested in me.”
So you can take that and leave me alone. Please?
Lord Tyrion twitched slightly at Magnolia’s name. His head swung back to Ryoka.
“You…knew the recipe?”
“I did. Do you want it? I gave it to Magnolia and I regret it. One more of the Five Families can’t hurt.”
Ryoka’s mouth ran on her anxiety, pain, and annoyance. Tyrion Veltras hesitated.
“I am sure Sammial and Hethon would be delighted. You are not…an ally of Magnolia Reinhart? I had heard otherwise.”
“She’s manipulative, pushy, and she doesn’t show up for parties. She and I are quits. I just don’t want to kill her, that’s all.”
Had Tyrion’s lip actually twitched in a smile at that first part? He turned away.
“Tyrion! Tyrion—oh. You have company.”
Lord Pellmia staggered over to Tyrion in a miniature sugar-high. He blinked at Ryoka. Tyrion turned to Pellmia.
“Lord Pellmia, let me introduce Ryoka Griffin, the Wind Runner to whom House Veltras is indebted.”
“Well, don’t let me bother you. A pleasure, Miss Griffin. You’ve done much for Izril. As has the late Maviola El.”
Ryoka wanted to go back. Or drown herself in the melted ice cream. Pellmia looked at Tyrion and Ryoka.
“Did you have something to speak to me of, Pellmia?”
“I was going to say you had to see these plays! But I wouldn’t want to interrupt—”
“The Players of Celum are famous. Why don’t I let you two…I’ll just eat something. Food.”
Ryoka saw her chance and backed up. Lord Tyrion half-nodded as he saw Ryoka heading towards a table. Pellmia watched Ryoka go, then, wincing, turned to Tyrion.
The [Lord] looked at Pellmia blankly. The other, older [Lord], eyed him, and then decided they should go back to the play.
Ryoka stared at a shrimp. It stared back. She had no idea who had brought shrimp, or from where. If she had inquired, she would have learned it was the group from Invrisil, who had access to seafood, as well as House Veltras’ coastal holdings who’d helped bring some.
“Ryoka? Ryoka! I’m so glad you’re okay!”
The City Runner nearly kissed the shrimp as someone slammed into her then seized her in a hug.
Dustrider Charlay hugged the Wind Runner. Alevica and Delanay were also in tow, mainly swept up in Charlay’s good mood.
Ryoka blinked. Charlay was beaming.
“It’s so good to see you! I thought you were dead! I was trying to help and I fought [Assassins]! And leveled up! You should have seen me—and Alevica helped out! I knew she had a good heart! Actually, I thought she was evil, but—”
“Let go of Ryoka, Charlay.”
Alevica stabbed Charlay in the side with a wand. The Centaur did. Ryoka stood, swaying a bit, and saw the [Witch].
“So you made it.”
“Yes. Hello, Alevica. Thanks for…everything.”
The [Witch] eyed Ryoka.
“You look like you’re still dead. And you look like you’re about to rip your heart out. Good thing Belavierr isn’t here.”
Ryoka jerked at the name. Alevica saw her emotions as clearly as…Charlay’s face fell.
“Oh. Someone said that you um, lost someone. Are you okay, Ryoka?”
The Centauress hesitated, dancing on her hooves. She didn’t know. The somber Emergency Runner on the other hand—Ryoka blinked.
“Delanay? You came?”
The young man tipped his hat to her.
“House d’Artien received an invitation. I thought it was only fitting…and I thought we’d meet. I forgot you knew Dusty Charlay.”
“I’ll kick you, Delanay!”
Charlay adjusted her back hooves, scowling. Delanay moved out of the way.
“And you know the Witch Runner. A number of the interesting City Runners, in short.”
“I didn’t know you knew the Hunter’s Guild’s brat, Ryoka.”
Alevica and Delanay stared at each other. No love lost between the descendant of [Witch Hunters] and [Vampire Hunters] and a [Witch] herself. Alevica smiled. Delanay tipped his hat.
“We don’t conduct witch hunts any more, Miss Alevica.”
“Witches have long memories. Delanay.”
“Do they remember why they were necessary?”
At any other time, Ryoka would have been worried. Trying to defuse the situation, or sweating bullets. Now? She was just looking around.
“Did Fierre come, Delanay?”
The wrong person to ask. The Emergency Runner shifted to look at Ryoka and his hand twitched.
“No. I have yet to meet her. We were all at the inn when…I’m sorry. I was inside, and I didn’t think to go outside. Miss Solstice had left the city on foot…”
Ryoka felt sick. She hadn’t known the details. And Delanay? He stopped, seeing her face.
“I apologize. I shouldn’t bring this up.”
Charlay looked from face to face, uncomprehending. Alevica just stared at Ryoka’s emotions, observing in her own way. Ryoka shook her head.
“No—no. I don’t know how…how did it happen?”
“Perhaps it’s better to say in some privacy. With…some drinks.”
Delanay glanced around at the merry faces, his expression somber. Ryoka nodded.
“I’ll uh, get drinks!”
Charlay raced off, all too eager to escape the conversation. Alevica just snorted. She looked at Ryoka.
“You actually pulled it off. I had to stick around and see. Incidentally—we’re square. Understand?”
“Yep. Thank you.”
The Witch Runner hesitated. She turned on her heel, as if to leave, and turned back abruptly.
“Have you spoken to Eloise? You might. She’s probably got a tea for you or something.”
“No. I’m waiting for the guests.”
Alevica and Delanay both looked at Ryoka. Neither one knew what she meant. But soon, Charlay was racing back with ales, and Delanay gestured to a table.
“…Why don’t we sit. And I’ll tell you what happened.”
Ryoka nodded. She drifted after Delanay. Someone else followed.
“Tell me, too.”
Alevica started. She hadn’t spotted the figure just standing there. She nearly grabbed her wand. Halrac stared at her.
He had a week-old beard. He didn’t look like he’d eaten. Or washed. Or…Ryoka stared at him.
“Tell me how Erin died.”
That was all the [Scout] said. Delanay looked at Halrac warily, then tipped his hat.
The Gold-rank adventurer grabbed Ryoka’s shoulder before she could follow the other Runners. His grip was painful. Ryoka looked at him. He looked as lost as she felt—but there was something in his eyes.
Typhenous had found him before going off to hobnob. The [Scout] had the same glint as when he was drawing an arrow back to loose.
“Typhenous told me Erin might be saved. What do you need to do?”
“Wait. Laken—his Majesty’s visitors need to arrive.”
His grip tightened—then released. Halrac stepped back, nodded once.
“If I can help, tell me.”
They followed Delanay in silence. And as the party progressed, midday slowly progressed towards noon. But slowly.
It was the longest day, after all.
Blackmage, or Aaron Vanwell, sat in his rooms. Tinkering with his iPhone. He was depressed.
The [Innkeeper] was dead.
He did not know her. But Montressa’s desperate plea had hit Wistram and sent eddies of the event through the Academy.
And of course—consequences. Aaron was part of the Revivalist faction. ‘Theirs’, in a sense, but he was also placed to listen to Archmage Nailihuaile’s unguarded insights.
And she. Was. Pissed.
Not only was it clear that Montressa and Bezale—both of whom owed loyalty to the Scriptels and Revivalists, who were allied—had been hiding news of the [Innkeeper]’s existence, they’d failed to protect her.
Now one of the most valuable Earthers was dead. Aaron himself had been reviewing all the rumors and stories of The Wandering Inn. He’d seen the war in Invrisil.
And ‘batman’. Who was, in fact, Ryoka Griffin. The Wind Runner of Reizmelt. Exceptionally cool. In fact, someone who’d lived up to his expectations of her.
She’d flown. With a glider! And she had command of wind magic! Wistram knew her name too. They wanted her as much as they had wanted Erin.
Unfortunately, she’d been in a coma and then under the direct protection of House Veltras, whom even Wistram Academy didn’t want to anger.
Still…she was a Runner. Aaron opened the iPhone, wondering if he could try connecting the magitech amplifier that Naili was working on soon. In theory, it would allow him unparalleled range on the iPhone. But you still had to figure out how to call other devices using the software, not a linking spell.
The way Wistram did it was—crude. Aaron had thought it was amazing when it first happened, but it really was just like sending a mass-ping to every device. Nothing subtle at all. They could connect to all iPhones, but making it individual was…tricky.
To connect to ‘batman’, they’d just traced the link back to her iPhone. They had to manually connect each time. It wasn’t nearly as efficient as an actual iPhone. If only you could build a network.
And if only you didn’t need at least eighteen mages to form the spell! Aaron couldn’t, say, call Ryoka right now and warn her. He wanted to.
He had mixed feelings about her inevitable spiriting to Wistram. On one hand—he could really use someone with her perspective here, like Cara. On the other hand—she would stay here.
More Earthers had arrived, like that Troy kid, who was an actual [Mage]—and a good one! But they wouldn’t leave. Also—Aaron was worried.
Wistram had collected so many Earthers, and now Naili had let slip they wanted to move onto ‘the next step’ soon. As ominous sayings went—that was top of Aaron’s list.
But what could they do? Aaron had not been able to save Erin. She had been dead before the other [Mages] had even [Messaged] Montressa. Before someone had even told him she was in danger.
Too fast. Why didn’t magic let you bring people back from the dead? Heal? There were so many questions.
So many consequences. Montressa was dead to the Revivalists. The Academy was sending her replacements—had been already. And calling every [Mage] they could here. Great [Mages] who seldom returned to the academy were enroute.
And Aaron was relatively helpless amid all of this. The Earthers were. And they still had no idea why they were here. Or what they could do.
The young man closed up his iPhone. All this was not new. And yet—
It was today. Aaron sat there, on his bed, in his room. And he waited.
He had been waiting for this day for half a year.
The time was slipping by. The sun fading. And yet—no one came. No wind stirred the trees. No one was coming.
Ryoka drifted through the party, trying not to throw up the food and drink she’d eaten. Her head was spinning.
Delanay had told her the events, simply, without elaboration. Ryoka wished she hadn’t heard.
How quick. How—wrong. Why like that?
Where were they? Ryoka dragged at her hair. Around her, people were having fun. But Laken Godart had retired to his personal home. He, like her, seemed to be waiting.
“What’s a slut? Are you one?”
A familiar voice made Ryoka do a double-take. Sammial was asking one of the [Tumblers]. The woman stared at the boy.
Hethon dragged him away. Face flushed. Sammy tried to wiggle out of his grasp.
“Stop dragging me, Hethon! You don’t know either! Stop pretending like you do!”
“I know you’re not supposed to ask! You asked that half-Elf, Lady Imarris—you’re going to get us in trouble!”
“No one will answer me! Lady Ieka just told me to ask Lady Wuvren.”
Ryoka stared at the two boys. They spotted her and looked uncertain.
“It’s the Wind Runner. Are we allowed to ask her questions?”
Hethon muttered to Sammial. The boy huffed.
“Who cares? She’s not as fun as all of this! I want to ride the Oliphant!”
He nearly ran off, but his older brother had a grip on his arm. He had to; they’d already lost poor Jericha. The [Aide] might be a trained warrior and so on, but she was no match for running children on a sugar and excitement-high, racing through the crowd and squeezing through gaps she could never manage.
Before the two boys could run towards one of the tame Elephants being carefully led around an area by the [Beast Master], Ryoka reached out and grabbed them by the shoulders.
She still felt sick-empty-waiting. But someone had to stop the two. Especially Sammial. The boys looked up.
Ryoka Griffin squatted down. This was surely not the place or time. But—
“To hell with it.”
Hethon and Sammial’s jaws dropped, Sammy’s in delight. Ryoka sighed.
“Okay. Sammial, you want to know what a ‘slut’ is? It means—someone, a female, usually—who has sex with other people. Sometimes for money. But it’s an insult that means you have sex a lot. It’s not a nice word. And asking someone what it means is exceptionally rude. Calling someone that is a terrible insult. Understand?”
She didn’t want to explain sex to the boys. But Hethon looked appalled and Sammial exhaled.
“Oh. Is that what it means?”
“Yes. So don’t say it, okay?”
“Fine. I thought it meant something better! So that City Runner said that you and father…”
Sammial’s forehead wrinkled as he thought about what Persua had said of Ryoka.
“Oh. No wonder Jericha smacked her. Okay. She should have been beaten twice as much!”
Apparently, he knew what sex was. The little [Lord] glowered. Ryoka sighed.
“Good. Just don’t ask—”
She was straightening when she saw Jericha’s wrathful face. The woman was standing right behind her.
Ryoka flinched. Hethon and Sammial looked up.
They saw the angry caretaker and ran.
“Miss…Ryoka Griffin. What are you teaching Lord Hethon and Lord Sammial?”
The boys shot out of sight. Jericha looked like she needed a stamina potion. She elected not to go right after them and glared at Ryoka.
“And why did you decide to teach them that crude word?”
“Because no one else would? And they kept asking people. I’m sorry—but someone had to tell them or that kid, Sammial, would have asked Ulva Terland or someone.”
Ryoka held up her hands. Jericha blanched at the thought.
“That would not have been…appropriate. I see. Well—Ullim would normally have instructed the boys!”
“…Is he here? I don’t know who that is.”
The [Aide] looked put out. Ryoka stared at her.
“I’m sorry. Someone had to tell them. And you didn’t. Don’t they have other caretakers?”
The woman hesitated.
“Lord Sammial can be—difficult. His aura, his nature…he lost his mother at a young age. Few can resist his commands. I am one of them, but most [Carers], no. We have made attempts. But Ullim and I are his main guardians. And Lord Veltras is often indisposed.”
Poor kids. Ryoka had a flash of nostalgia herself. Give Sammial a few years and some of Earth’s culture and he’d be doing the same stuff she did. Jericha looked at Ryoka in silence. After a moment, she blew out her cheeks.
“Well, I suppose Lord Sammial will stop asking. Is all to your satisfaction, Miss Griffin? Lord Tyrion bade me check.”
Ryoka lied. She had not seen the fae. And they—she looked up at the sky. It was already evening?
The day was running out. And the fae had not arrived. Ryoka stared up at the orange sky in despair. But it was the Summer Solstice! She had done…everything Teriarch had suggested.
But he hadn’t been sure. Maybe…maybe that was it. Ryoka had done everything right. And sometimes it wasn’t enough.
What else could she do? Ryoka closed her eyes, trying to think.
“The statues? Where’s—”
She spun. A sudden thought of panic striking her. Had Laken…? She’d asked about the gifts, the bribes, the things Teriarch had planned. But what about—
Ryoka went running. Jericha wavered between her, the two kids, and decided to have a cupcake.
The Wind Runner ran. Laken had forgotten to—
She found the statue of Ivolethe in the gazebo. Ryoka stared up at the carved face. The inscription.
The Winter’s Savior, Ivolethe.
It was made of stone. And it was not the only one. Laken Godart had commissioned multiple statues of her. Ryoka fell to her knees. She could almost see her friend again. The sculptors had based it on the little, frozen statue.
She took it out now, put it on the pedestal upon which the large statue stood. Ryoka’s head bowed. The statues were here.
Tyrion, Deilan, and Ulva were here.
The party was in full-swing.
Laken had invited them.
Everything was ready. But Erin was dead. The world was not right. Ryoka rested her head on the cold marble. Tears ran down her cheeks at last.
Barelle the Bard took the stage. Even the Players of Celum were silent. The [Bard] raised his harp. To sing of the [Innkeeper] of Liscor.
The Wandering Inn.
It was exactly evening, the sun caught midway before it fell completely from the horizon. Ryoka Griffin wept.
Barelle touched the glowing string of magic on his harp.
And the lights.
Luan was around an peninsula when he heard the shouting. He turned his head and groaned.
“Not them again.”
A Lizardfolk crew appeared as their [Invisibility] spell ran out on their canoe. Luan had suspected he was being followed.
It wasn’t exactly as if they’d been the stealthiest thing on the waves. He could see something breaking the surf and the motions of paddles.
What was more, he knew this Lizardfolk crew. They were one of the first groups to try to go after him. [Bounty Hunters] with access to spells and artifacts.
Also—stubborn as could be.
“We have you this time, Luan! Give up!”
The leader brandished a wand. Luan shouted back.
“Would you get lost? You know you can’t catch me!”
“No! It’s personal! You’ve gotten away from us four times! Do you know how much gold we’ve spent?”
They’d tried to ambush him four times, at sea and on land. One time, the Bushrangers had kicked them about but spared them. Luan rolled his eyes.
“I guess I’ll just turn back, then. Hold on—”
He began to swing left, to shore. The Lizardfolk stirred.
“Wait, is he actually going to do it? That worked?”
Luan’s paddles dipped in the water as he turned—then he shot away.
[Time of the Olympian]!
His personal Skill. The [Expert Rower] took off, as if he were performing his best ever. The Lizardfolk shouted and tried to go after him.
“He’s running! Get him! Attack! Attack!”
One of them used a [Haste] scroll on the group. The canoe, propelled by multiple hands, shot after Luan. But he was fast.
“We’re going to lose him again! How is he so—”
Luan grinned as he heard them fading away already. His Skill had more than one effect. But mainly—it was to replicate his best performance. With Skills included. Every time he broke his record, he moved faster. And he’d be fresh after finishing his max-speed and max-distance row.
That was his capstone Skill. The [Expert Rower] rounded the peninsula, ready to lose the [Bounty Hunters] again.
That was when the [Fireball] hit the water in front of him and the explosion and water spout rocked his boat. Luan swore—swerved desperately—and the second [Fireball] hit the water.
“You won’t get away, Luan!”
The Lizardfolk’s leader had aimed wide on purpose. Luan saw they had two Wands of Fireball. He swore.
“You’re crazy! The Bushrangers will have your neck frills! I’ll tell the Nagas on you!”
That was a Lizardfolk threat. The [Bounty Hunters] hesitated.
Luan rowed desperately. The [Bounty Hunter]’s leader cursed.
“More fireballs! Don’t hit him—make him go to land!”
They took careful aim as a chase ensued. Luan was dodging fireballs, weaving back and forth as the [Bounty Hunters] tried to move him towards the shore.
“Just slow down! We’ll only break your boat and your legs! You don’t even need them to row! One leg! That’s all we’re asking!”
“Leave me alone!”
Luan was sweating. They were clearly desperate and he had to watch the flashes of the incoming fireballs or be hit! They wanted to damage his boat. If they got an oar or—
He was rowing further out to sea, to dare them into the bigger waves while weaving past a burning spell. They had to run out of charge on those wands!
That was when it happened.
On Izril. Over the party, as the [Bard] touched the magic chord and Ryoka wept.
In Wistram, as Aaron reached for a screwdriver he’d made himself.
From distant Chandrar. As far north as could be. Even in the dark chamber far underground where the Blighted King stood with the [Mages] in front of the completed ritual spell.
They all felt it. They saw it.
The sun went out.
It was fast. Luan saw the shadow sweep across the world. He looked up, shading his eyes—
He saw a celestial body cross the sun. One of the moons! It was—
“An eclipse! Sire! The moment is now! Do we—”
“Begin the ritual.”
The Blighted King spoke. The [Mages] drew on their power. The ritual called for an eclipse. It was—
“Nothing to worry about, everyone! Just an eclipse.”
Ryoka heard Barelle the Bard speaking as she stumbled back towards the party. There was still light of course; everything was just thrown into shadow. And indeed, it was a fast eclipse.
No one panicked. This was not a primitive people who saw this as some horrible celestial event. They had seen eclipses before.
It was almost a letdown. Almost. Across the world, people shaded their eyes, noting the eclipse. Would you look at that? The King of Destruction shaded his eyes and ordered a charge.
A few [Mages] felt magic fluctuate, altering their spells. But only the Blighted Kingdom used this moment.
Before Ryoka had reached the [Bard], the sun was already returning. Light swept across the ground and people laughed, calling to Barelle to ask if he’d staged the thing.
The [Bard] just gave them a mysterious smile. Ryoka stopped, panting.
It was just an eclipse. But it mattered.
The light was restored. The sun shone. Ryoka Griffin looked around. Lord Tyrion half-rose. Her face.
The Wind Runner looked—he strode towards her.
“Miss Ryoka. Is something wrong?”
She looked at him. Eyes bulging. Throat suddenly dry. Ryoka stuttered.
They hadn’t come. Tyrion didn’t know what to say. He felt like he’d failed, somehow. He shook his head.
“There is still time, Miss Ryoka. Your visitors—”
The Lord of House Veltras stopped. He looked at Ryoka Griffin. Then, slowly, looked at her eyes.
He traced their direction. And then he turned.
The rest of the mortal folk looked around. What was she…?
Lady Ulva Terland lowered a cup. She blinked. Then her eyes focused on something.
A laughing…man…was sitting next to her. On the lap of one of the War Golems. His teeth were pointed. His voice was like spring and life.
He shone with the full radiance of what the half-Elves had lost. Zedalien rose. He saw them.
Standing on the stage. Grabbing food. Durene jerked as she saw someone ahead of her.
They had not been there a moment ago. The Fae had joined the gathering, unnoticed except by a few.
The [Witches] stood together, staring at a laughing figure who danced and pirouetted next to one of the [Tumblers] until she stopped, mystified by her double.
The Summer Court of the fae. Ryoka’s eyes filled with tears. They were here. This day—
She saw a figure step out, in front of her. Ulva Terland’s [Bodyguard] rose, about to cut down this intruder! Then—stopped.
He let go of the blade. Ulva saw him back away. Then she saw another figure emerge.
A warrior, armored in frost. Faceless behind his visor. The [Bodyguard] stood like an ant before a mountain, frozen in fear.
The warrior turned to regard him. Ryoka saw more, standing as if they had always been there, silent figures among the dancing fae.
Some were humbler than others. A few shone like a second sun, in such radiance they hurt the eyes. Some were tricksters. Pranksters.
A few looked like winter. Ryoka’s eyes roamed over them all. But she did not see her friend.
And yet—they were here. And so were their guardians. Tyrion Veltras whirled about.
He heard Ryoka Griffin whisper. Then the true party began. And it turned out all the wonders before it were like dust to what came after.
It was a day of meetings. And it would be a longer day still.
Luan’s boat rocked in a sudden swell of the waves. He adjusted his posture to stay upright—and suddenly, found himself on still waters.
As if the world were suddenly calm. The water like glass. The [Rower] looked around. And then—suddenly—ahead.
Someone sat on the tiny prow of his vessel. Feet drifting through the water. The figure smiled at Luan.
Just as before.
Aaron grabbed the screwdriver and turned back. He jerked, dropping the screwdriver.
The figure sitting across from him made no move to catch it. Aaron stared.
“Hello again, Aaron. I told you we would meet today.”
The young man looked around. No one had come through the door. No window had opened, no magic had been cast. Yet suddenly he had company. And he was not afraid. Not exactly. It was true, what the figure had said. His…mentor. Of sorts.
It was a promise.
Laken Godart sat in a private room, observing the party. He noticed the fae at the same time as Ryoka and jerked.
“Verdammt! They’re here!”
He rose to his feet, shocked at the suddenness of it all. They were always so surprising. Even when you knew they would surprise. He began to stride for the door, using his [Emperor]’s sight to navigate him as surely as if he had eyes.
His hand was on the doorknob when the young man stopped.
Laken Godart’s head turned. His eyes were closed. But they opened a fraction, now. As if to see. He spoke, quietly.
“…Is someone there?”
He waited, heart suddenly beating fast. He sensed…nothing. Just an empty room. But it was today.
And he had felt this once before. The [Emperor] turned. He waited. Then he heard the voice.
Laken jerked. Someone was sitting in one of the chairs. He did not see the figure with any clarity. But they were there.
“Come. I told you we would meet again. Do not be alarmed.”
The person Laken Godart had met once before smiled. Laken had known. Somehow. He had known on the Winter Solstice. And now—part of him had been expecting this, too. Even more than Ryoka’s fae.
He sat down, slowly. Was it the same person? He had not had vision then. Now—he could tell no detail. Nothing. Except perhaps one thing.
The stranger had a beard. Laken spoke.
And he heard the laugh in the reply.
The Summer Solstice. Ryoka looked at the dancing fae. At the Faerie King’s warriors. And the knowledge of what she must do burned in her heart.
Bring back her friend.
A day of meetings. And power. Ryoka whispered her name.
And she heard laughter.
Author’s Note: This is the end of Volume 7. Part one, of three. I thought this would be two chapters. I think it’s three. Maybe more?
We’ll see. I can’t predict how long things are going to be. To give the chapter the justice it deserved, I spent longer on the party. Also—I didn’t go to like 30,000 words because I want some quality if I can.
I will leave it at that. My break begins whenever Volume 7 ends. For now—I’m going to share the most pertinent art. One picture, per person.
Erin Solstice by Lire
A picture of ‘her’ by Miguel
And a happy fire by flingering
Until next time. I have a picture I’ve been waiting to share by Dr.replig8r. He’ll have to wait one more chapter. Thank you for reading.