(One of The Wandering Inn’s readers, delta201, has written and published their own story in the same genre on Amazon! Check it out here if you want to read their story and congratulations!)
They were moving out.
Not that it was unusual; an inn had few permanent guests. But it was unusual in this inn. For, as Lyonette had once observed, Erin did not run a usual inn. She’d barely constructed a stables two months ago.
Similarly, she had few temporary guests. What she had made was…a home. Sometimes a home aways from home. Sometimes—the only true home her guests had ever known, like Bird and the Redfangs. And despite the craziness, it seemed the guests only left when someone had died.
Sometimes it was them. Zel Shivertail had once stayed here. Zel. Shivertail. But sometimes they left because someone else had died.
This time, it was because the [Innkeeper] was not there to keep them around. And the [Princess] was not there to oversee the farewell.
So it fell, as such tasks did, to Ishkr the Gnoll. Ishkr, whose defining trait was a lack of one. A helpful quality in a worker.
No, that wasn’t fair. Ishkr’s defining trait was that he lacked any negative ones, while possessing admirable traits in the right quantities. After all, he worked hard. He didn’t get upset easily. He was independent enough to do whatever he saw needed doing, like cleaning a spilled drink, or kick out a Shield Spider—and he did it. Motivation, independence, the ability to calm angry guests whose fries had been grabbed by little white Gnolls…
He had a lot of good traits. He was just not an Erin—or Drassi—or even Lyonette, all with admirable strengths, and a good deal of flaw as well. He was someone every business wanted because he didn’t drag his personal troubles with him. He did his job, he got paid, and he left.
But he was also part of this inn. Enough so that when Lyonette left, she looked at those who remained and saw Ishkr, who had been here the longest aside from Drassi and, unlike her, wasn’t torn between two jobs. For that matter, Drassi was more like The Wandering Inn’s mascot, or famous temp worker. If she put hours at the bar, it was just for her idea of fun.
She was here, though. She and Ishkr felt like it was important. And he was very glad, because he wouldn’t have known what to do.
It was simple, though. Drassi didn’t have a rulebook either, but she did what came naturally to the [Gossip]-turned-[Reporter]. She shook hands with Temile, gently closing her claws around his fingers, and Ishkr did likewise. To the other [Actors] too.
“I’m sorry. I really am. I just don’t think we’d—and everything’s changing.”
That was all Temile managed. Ishkr nodded solemnly. He felt like his fur was white; he checked every day in the mirror. Even Drassi’s ready smile was—tainted.
A good number of the Players of Celum—the originals from Celum itself—had stayed at The Wandering Inn. They were all moving out.
Bags packed, rooms vacated. Ishkr would need to clean them or…have them cleaned. Perhaps he could pay one of the employees for an hour or two’s work. He was, after all, [Head Server] now. He hadn’t ever dreamed he’d be in that kind of role.
He really had taken this job because it paid well, he’d been recommended and persuaded to by Krshia, and had just worked diligently into this position. He wouldn’t have accepted it, normally. Management was stressful.
But he’d liked Erin. So he found himself agreeing despite his inclination to have time to watch out for his sister. Liska. Besides—it had helped since some of the Watch ate and drank here.
“Where will you go?”
Ishkr looked at the other [Actors]. They shrugged.
“The new lodgings. Into the city. We’re trying to rent rooms nearer to the new theatre, anyways.”
Ishkr realized he had no idea, and coughed, embarrassed as Drassi blinked at him. He wasn’t Erin! He didn’t know the minutiae of what was happening in their lives.
“Sorry. The new theatre for the Players of Liscor. The city’s subsidized it. It’ll be in the new quarter of the city. We didn’t know if we wanted it what with the [Grand Theatre], but…”
They looked at him. They were not staying. Could not stay, in the same building where Erin lay. Temile nodded.
“That’s half of them. I’m putting the Players of Liscor in Carrec’s h—paws.”
He patted a Gnoll on the shoulder. The [Actor] was one of the ‘newer’ ones, having signed up after the Players began performing in Liscor. Nevertheless, he was still months more experienced than the actual new Players.
“And you, Temile?”
Ishkr started. Invrisil? He listened, abashed, but only slightly. It felt like everything else had mattered less since Erin had…died. He had been in silence so long, moving around the inn, trying to set everything in order. Not listening to the hushed conversations taking place.
Temile was trying to smile.
“That’s right. It’s a promotion. I’m taking over for the Players of Celum in Invrisil. Emme told me it was me or…she didn’t have a second pick. I’m taking some of our best [Actors], though. Well, a 50-50 split.”
The others chuckled. Carrec stage-whispered to the others, with an exaggerated pose.
“He only says that so we think we’re one of the ‘good actors’ he left behind.”
They all smiled or laughed. Even Ishkr. How easy that was. Pretend, for a moment, that all was well. Then you caught someone’s eye and the smile froze. And everyone remembered Erin was dead.
Stop thinking that. Ishkr wanted that thought excised from his mind. He wanted the…pain to stop. The sorrow. The emptiness. Each one as bad as actual agony.
“You’re managing the Players of Celum? But then—what about Jasi? Wesle? Emme?”
Ishkr turned to Temile to cover the sudden silence. The [Producer] looked at him much like Drassi had. Then he smiled.
“I forget you might not have heard, Ishkr. They’re going north again. On the road to First Landing—although they probably won’t get there right away. After the performance they gave, half of Izril’s Human nobility want them to perform for them. And apparently—they’ve hired on more people.”
“They got a Level 40 [Tumbler]. If you can believe that. Scooped her up right after the Summer S…the party. Practically begged to join up. Claimed her act was stale and worthless. Emme says the party broke her spirits, so she snagged her before anyone else could. And they met other entertainers. Barelle the Bard—the Skylights—they’re in talks to combine performances, or at least put on some of Barelle’s stories.”
Big names. Famous names in the entertainment industry. Ishkr just smiled and nodded blankly. Level 40 was the only thing he understood.
“You’re always welcome here. Ishkr’s keeping the inn running, right, Ishkr? And you’ll see me.”
“On television. Wonders never cease. We won’t forget this inn. We owe our careers. Everything to…”
Reflexively, Temile swallowed. And the [Actors] fell silent. They had many fine words, written by masters. But even their soliloquies on death faltered now. They would be better performers for every scene like this. Perhaps too good. Because they understood it.
The Players of Liscor and Celum left the inn. Drassi stood there, waving from the threshold of the portal room as Temile bowed before stepping through to Invrisil. She watched the others walk down the hill through the main door. They preferred to walk, as if it mattered more than just going through the magic door.
It probably did. Drassi sniffed as they were gone.
“So it’s just Hexel, now. His assistants, Montressa, Palt, Bezale, Mrsha, that new Hobgoblin, Ulvama, Numbtongue, Bird, the Humans…not many at all.”
Ishkr nodded. Counting the seven Humans, it was still over ten. But the inn felt even quieter now. Drassi looked at him.
“How’re you doing, Ishkr? I haven’t been…around.”
“I saw you on the news. You have your job.”
She flinched, bit her lip and her tail drooped along the floor as if she was guilty.
“You’re doing something. My sister actually asked me to get your autograph. Besides. There’s nothing to do…here. Not much. Imani cooks food. I just sweep now and then.”
The Gnoll knew that wasn’t quite true. But Drassi accepted the lie with a smile.
“I can sign an autograph! You know, people are asking me for them? They’re crazy!”
“You don’t have to for her.”
Liska would just run her mouth off about it and Ishkr didn’t need her bragging or getting more excited. But he still told Drassi how to properly spell her name. The Drake was happy to do it.
Then they just stood there. Ishkr tucked the autographed cardboard into his belt pouch. Drassi looked at him.
“So how are you doing?”
What was he supposed to say? My employer is dead. The other one has left for Oteslia. I’m left in charge of caring for Mrsha—who won’t eat or move, despite Imani and Selys trying to talk to her. No one comes in here and but for the portal door, this place is empty.
She nodded a few times. After a moment, Ishkr raised a paw and scratched at his chin.
“Well, actually…there is one thing I was curious about.”
“Oh? Can I help? I’m free today. Noass and Sir Relz keep cutting my working timeslots anyways. I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re doing. I’d love to help, if I can.”
She studied him. She’d badgered him into having an after-work drink a few times. Drassi was one of the co-workers who brought everything in her life with her. Ishkr had accepted, because she was genuinely friendly. But he could see why she’d been fired before. And why she was clearly headed on a different career path from his.
“Perhaps. I was just going to go into the city, actually. To check on someone.”
“Who? One of the staff? We can head over right now…”
They walked through the portal room. It too was empty. It was meant to be guarded; now, the only two guards were the Brothers. Two of them stood in the hallway each hour of the day. All night too, it seemed. Waiting. They took food and drinks, but they were clearly only here to…kill someone. They scared Ishkr.
When Erin was alive, she wouldn’t have accepted that. They would either be welcome guests, slowly absorbed into the inn, or gone after half a week. Right now, though? He just let them stay.
The two walked into Liscor, talking. Bells still rang for funerals. But most had ended. The city was silent. Tensed.
“You know, we’re still at war with Hectval. People are saying the Council might even consider conscription.”
Ishkr’s fur rose. He didn’t ask how Drassi knew. She talked to everyone. The Drake hastened to assure him.
“It’s unlikely. But—well, it’s not over. So who’re we meeting? One of the staff?”
“In a sense. We’ve—Lyonette—let go of most of the workers. Paid them, but told them it was unlikely the inn will be seeing much business.”
“She didn’t ask you to keep it running?”
Drassi was surprised. Ishkr shook his head. She should have, but neither one could picture it. That was why the Players were leaving. Who could drink and make merry knowing just behind the garden’s door lay Erin?
“No. But we have some permanent staff. I’ll be employing…my sister…”
“Liska. She’s nice.”
“No, she isn’t.”
Ishkr groused. Drassi smiled; that was as close to a lie as she ever told. She didn’t know Liska that well, though. That also helped.
“She can at least sweep up. But Lyonette told me to keep the Antinium employed; they don’t have other jobs. And the [Lords] might want to trade…the door’s not being used, but she asked me to start the regular portal services soon.”
“Oh, right. Good idea. So what’s the problem? Don’t tell me one of the Antinium’s called in sick.”
She laughed. Ishkr cleared his throat.
“Actually—he didn’t show up for work. Or rather, he did, but—he handed in his resignation this morning. Silveran has quit his job.”
Drassi stared at Ishkr so long she walked into a wall. She bounced off and stopped.
“You’re joking. H-hah. Good one, Ishkr! I never knew you had a sense of humor!”
He blinked at her. The [Reporter]’s smile faltered. She reached for her side, and produced…a notepad.
“Now this is news. Tell me everything.”
“I don’t know what there is to tell. He informed me he had found other work and left. I asked him why, and he directed me…well, this way.”
As always, the world was changing. But it seemed that sometimes it turned faster. So fast that you could be sent flying if you didn’t jump with it.
Even the Antinium, now?
They found the Worker with painted, silver antennae sweeping up the shop front. He tried to hide behind the door when he saw them coming.
Ishkr and Drassi stared at the shop’s front. You wouldn’t have noticed the shop’s sign yesterday. Because it had been so worn and faded no one would have really seen it. But someone had climbed up, cleaned the frontage, then reapplied paint and varnish.
Carrotgrass Emporium. As names went…Drassi’s brow wrinkled as she stared up at it. She stared at the display and understood.
“Oh, a grocery.”
In fact, a quite well-stocked grocery. The glass windows had been shined, polished, and fresh produce was on display. Someone had gone through, replaced all the missing price tags, organized everything by produce type—there were carrots, as promised, actual grasses (the edible kinds)—and more. In fact, the shop had a supply of customers coming in and out with small purchases.
Perhaps just from the novelty of the change. But the truth was—cleanliness was appealing. This shop stood out on the street from the hard work that had been put into making it so nice.
Not to mention the Antinium. Ishkr and Drassi traded a look. Reflexively—they looked around. Because this?
This was the Solstice Effect. Trademarked, copyrighted, if such things existed, and stamped with The Wandering Inn’s official seal of madness. Ishkr longed to hear that familiar voice and laugh—
But there was just Silveran. He was the architect. And he looked very worried.
I am sorry. He signed at Ishkr before hurrying into the shop. Ishkr scratched his head.
“He really did quit! I know this shop and street! It’s never looked this nice! Did they replace the floorboards? They’re light! They used to be gray-brown! And the sign! I didn’t know this place was called Carrotgrass Emporium! That’s—that’s an objectively hilarious and weird name, right?”
Drassi was blown away. Ishkr just shook his head.
“So that was why he quit. Well…”
He was about to say more when he heard the voices. Some of the other [Shopkeepers] as well as customers were inside the shop, talking with the owner. Miss Pelessi. Drassi knew her; Ishkr did not.
This was a Drake neighborhood; he shopped from Gnolls, locally. But he peeked in with Drassi and heard the conversation.
“Pelessi. That’s an Antinium working in your shop.”
A Drake was pointing bemusedly at Silveran. He was restocking the shelves. He jumped when everyone looked at him.
The owner of the shop, Miss Pelessi, widowed, and now the sole member of her family, had known better times. And worse times. She blinked around the light store as if she was just as surprised as everyone else. But she leaned on the counter, and gave the Drake a look.
“So, Erils? Does that statement have a tail on it or are you leaving it hanging?”
The Drake considered his words. Drassi nudged Ishkr.
“Erils. [Appraiser]. For rocks, not other stuff. Local miners go to him.”
“How do you know him?”
The [Appraiser] hmmed.
“Well, it’s just—it’s an Antinium. Not to say that it’s wrong to employ Antinium…I’ve known plenty of folks who live in a home Antinium have made. Never fallen on their heads. And some do butcher’s work. I even know they break rocks for very reasonable money—but it’s an Antinium.”
He let the statement dangle. Everyone in the shop except perhaps Silveran knew what was meant, anyways. The Drake frowned.
“And…I’m just observing, is all.”
Erils was unwilling to commit further on the off-chance this was a trap and he was a mouse dancing on the bait. Pelessi huffed.
“Well, observe how clean my shop is! He showed up yesterday—and it’s not ‘an Antinium’, it’s Silveran. One of the Painted ones.”
“Ah, right. Them. Well—you hired him?”
“That’s right. I don’t have more…tails to work in my shop.”
Instantly, the other Drakes coughed and looked at Erils. He bit his tongue.
“No, of course not. And if you wanted help, my boys could have—”
“Worked for how long?”
Pelessi gave him a defiant look, and the local neighborhood at large.
“I hired an Antinium because he cleaned my floors and shop and offered to come back. Seemed surprised when I asked if he wanted a job! And he came by at dawn to fix my supplies, cleaned up everything—I thought I was being robbed! He even fixed that mouse hole in my room! Ate the mice too, I think. Well, good for him.”
The others murmured. It was hard to deny that the shop looked better than it had yesterday—or for the last fifteen years, for that matter. One of the Drake [Shopkeepers] nudged his daughter.
“I wish you woke up and did a tenth of that, kid.”
She glowered at her father, whom she was apprenticing to. Erils nodded at Silveran.
“So he’ll be your employee? Which is fine, obviously. I was just asking.”
He looked around, hunted. Pelessi sniffed.
“Yes. I could hardly afford to hire an [Assistant]. But Silveran asked and he wants work so—yes. I’ll pay him properly, though! And he’ll get breakfast, lunch, even dinners he works for me. I feel like he needs such things, too. Silveran—that’s his name—will work until he falls down if you let him. And he’s less than one year old. Just a—a boy.”
“A year old?”
Everyone stared at Silveran. The news about Antinium ages wasn’t widespread—although it was obvious if you thought about it. They talked, well, debated without really calling it debating.
“I suppose that’s fine. It’s not like we haven’t had Senior Guardsman Klbkch in the watch all these years. And they’re the painted ones. I think that makes them special, doesn’t it?”
“I heard that means they can’t go Aberration. And that’s true! We had Klbkch—Pelessi couldn’t afford an apprentice. Good for her. Thought she’d waste away. And her produce is good! If you wash it twice, why, you’d never mind an Antinium touched it.”
“Where is Senior Guardsman Klbkch, anyways? I haven’t seen him, or Relc yet. Not that I miss that loudmouth…”
Ishkr heard some of the Drakes whispering. It was a Drake street after all. He motioned to Drassi and they tiptoed out of the door as one of the other Drakes remarked how he wished someone could clean his sign front. And Silveran looked up with that specialized madness of people who enjoyed removing dirt…
“He really did quit!”
Drassi was astounded. Ishkr just nodded to himself.
She looked at him sidelong. The Gnoll scratched behind his ears.
“The inn doesn’t have much to do besides make beds and clean up now and then. Good for him.”
The [Reporter] hesitated, and then nodded slowly. She cast a glance back.
“It’s just…no, I’m glad too. It’s just that…”
I wish he didn’t leave. That we needed him. That the inn was still open. Ishkr nodded again. Some things didn’t need to be said.
They left. Drassi wasn’t really working, and Ishkr had to get back to the inn. To look after Mrsha, although Imani had promised to keep an eye on her. But…what was there to watch?
He was glad for Silveran. Almost envious. But it was just another thing that Ishkr found terribly bitter. How quickly it changed.
Far from Liscor, or even Izril, was a room. It was a room dedicated to observation, and thus contained six mirrors.
A Drake stood before them. It could have been any species, except Gnoll, really, even Dwarf. But she had volunteered and her species was appropriate. But more than Drake, she was—
[Mage]. [Seer], if you wanted to be specific. And her job was to watch. Normally—there wasn’t much to see. But now…
The Drake watched a much darker room illuminate as a beam of light struck a figure sitting alone. She lifted the clipboard and the magical quill poised, ready to transcribe everything word for word.
Observation Log #184:
Sole figure in the room. Changed locations. Single entity—designation ‘ Armored Queen’.
A vast figure in the center of the room. It moved, spoke, lifting a huge appendage. And her deep, large voice was recorded word-for-word on the clipboard.
“The Armored Queen speaks to the Flying Queen.”
“Flying Queen. What topic of conversation have you today, Armored Queen?”
A second Queen appeared in a second mirror. Illuminated by another beam of light. The [Seer] noted the change in location; no Antinium around her. The Armored Queen’s voice was slow, ponderous…almost stilted. The Drake made a note—‘different cadence observed’.
“Flying Queen, I would like to discuss our preparations for the possibility of war. Indeed, our secret weapons which we are poised to bear on a prospective enemy.”
A chill ran down the [Seer]’s back. Her tail flicked urgently and her magical quill scribbled faster. She hesitated, and waved at the head [Diviner], who was coordinating the Pallass News Network broadcast in a room connecting to this one. He trotted over as the Flying Queen nodded several times.
“You mean, our unspecified mass-destruction anti-magic artifact of unparalleled might, Armored Queen?”
The Flying Queen’s question made the Armored Queen visibly hesitate. After a second, she clicked her mandibles.
“Yes. That. Which we have in abundance. Capable of five hundred mile deployment and six hundred and twenty one foot destructive capabilities.”
“Yes. I have six such artifacts stored.”
“I have eight.”
“Indeed? This is good. We should produce more in case our enemies should threaten us.”
“Yes. As I have said, production is underway. That is all I wish to communicate.”
“Very good, Armored Queen.”
The two [Mages] watched as the mirrors went dead. The [Diviner] looked at the [Seer]. She shook her head slowly. It was the sixth such conversation she’d recorded in the last two days. She turned to the [Diviner], her boss, helplessly.
“I’m 70% sure they’re messing with us. But it’s disturbing that I’m only 70% sure.”
“Catalogue it for the Archmages. They’ll review whether to send it on.”
The [Diviner] grimaced. He’d certainly noticed that the Queens had stopped using their mirrors and changed their locations—as well as begun dropping very specific hints about improbable defenses and force distributions.
He doubted the Archmages would want to pass this on…their credibility had rather been deflated by warning the Walled Cities of a war that had never, in fact, transpired. Somehow, the Queens had caught on that they were being monitored.
That was not the only change among the Antinium, of course. A small number—but still, nearly a thousand Antinium had attacked and slaughtered a Drake force outside of Liscor. The [Seer] shuddered as the mirrors went dark—another sign that the Queens were probably aware of the spying. Or else why didn’t they leave them pointed towards them at all times?
For that matter—before they went dark, the Drake definitely noticed some Workers and Soldiers putting a blanket on top of it before the mirror was dragged elsewhere. Yes, the Antinium were changing. But she could not have known what inspired far more change than in just the Queens.
Erin Solstice was dead. No, frozen. Don’t even think ‘dead’, for that was wrong.
But think of it and feel the all-consuming despair and hatred. Think of her, as she lies there. You did not even see her wounded. You were not there to shield her.
You could not heal her. So say it.
This time, he saw it more clearly. This was how it happened, in detail: the Worker watched as the others drew back, shivering, shaking. Even the Free Queen stared.
Something tore a hole in the air. As if the air were just…cloth or paper, and you could pierce it with your hands and pull apart a gap. Beyond the air lay only a void. Not darkness, not color, but a lack of it.
And out of it came a Worker. No—
It shuddered, twitching with what Pawn knew was rage, a madness only the Antinium processed in this way. Just a Worker. And yet—even trained [Soldiers] had gone down to its madness.
For, Pawn realized, the Worker was armed. It had a kitchen knife in one hand, a carpenter’s hammer and awl in the other.
As if it were an actual Worker, and had seized the nearest tools around it before going on a rampage.
As they did. Aberrations were rare, but when they occurred, a Worker—or Soldier—would simply—snap. They would go mad and kill everything in sight, other Antinium, people, and only cease when they had been dismembered.
The ones he had summoned had killed the enemy before fading away. And this one…pulled itself out of the air and stopped.
It looked around and everyone drew back. Pawn himself. He felt afraid of his own creation, and he knew it was his creation. But the azure Antinium’s staff was raised, and even the summoned Antinium seemed to flinch away from her.
Xrn, the Small Queen. She watched with the rest.
“What…is this, Xrniavxxel?”
At last, the Free Queen asked. Xrn studied the Aberration. Her chitin armor, azure, unique, glowed with the light from her staff and eyes as she approached slowly.
“Something new, my Queen.”
That was her only answer at first. Pawn saw her step forwards; so did Yellow Splatters. The [Sergeant] was wary, afraid. But the huge Antinium—a full inch and a half taller than any other Soldier—was not about to risk Xrn being attacked.
She would not be. The aberration shuddered, but it did not track Xrn as she stepped around it. After a moment, she looked at Pawn.
“You can order it, can’t you, Pawn?”
The [Priest] whispered. Xrn nodded. The other Antinium stared at him and he felt it again.
Change. Because those stares were laced with horror. Fear, where once he had never felt such emotions from the other Antinium. Belgrade, Purple Smiles—Garry was hiding in his kitchen.
He did not, could not flee from the gazes, though. So he stood there. Letting them all witness what he had conjured in the depths of his hatred and despair.
Aberration. Xrn pointed slowly.
“Can you…order it to climb that wall?”
A short wall of stone rose out of the ground. Dekass shifted; the Prognugators of other Hives had all drawn their weapons. He, Tersk, Pivr, and Xeu watched as the Aberration trembled there. Then—suddenly bolted for the stone wall. They readied themselves, but the Aberration clambered over it, and then came to another stop.
It was what Pawn had ordered it to do. Slowly, Xeu crossed her scythe-arms, relaxing a fraction. But she stared much as the other Antinium did.
“I—I ordered it to move, Xrn, my Queen.”
Pawn’s voice was faint. Xrn nodded slowly. Of the rest, she seemed calmest. Just interested and wary as opposed to horrified.
“Good. That is what I thought. Can you make it…use that hammer?”
“Nails, I suppose. Does anyone have nails? Or wood?”
The other Antinium susurrated. A Painted Worker hurried away. In the silence, Pawn looked at the Aberration. And knew it was his. But what relieved him was perhaps only…that it was not an agent of some underworld, some dark place.
He hoped…it was just a delusion. A figment summoned by his power. There was no mind there. But either way, it was what he was.
[Doomspeaker Priest]. He had known his class’ goodness. Its hope. Now, he was leveling and understanding the fullness of what he had become.
So gaze upon my miracles. Know the power of my belief. What is good, and what I can give. And also know my wrath.
Thirty minutes later, Pawn knew what [Summon Aberration] did. He had watched the trembling Worker—then another, so there were two—go through an obstacle course of Xrn’s design. Try—and fail—to use other tools. Then kill each other.
The glowing forms vanished. Xrn stood in front of her audience, and recapped brightly.
“They are akin to a [Summoner]’s creations. But without the need for a catalyst. More temporary, yet ultimately expendable, renewable. It appears Pawn has now achieved a fourth discipline into this field. Fifth? Sixth? Let’s see…”
She started counting on her fingers. The Free Queen snapped her mandibles together.
“Explain, please, Xrn of the Centenium. We are not all as skilled in matters of magic as you.”
The Centenium looked up and bowed slightly.
“Of course, Free Queen. To explain? Pawn has summoned fake beings. They are not real Antinium. Nor were they ever. I detect no realness to their bodies, for all it appears to be chitin. It is not magic flesh—nor is it real carapace. It is a different simulacra, but one nonetheless.”
All the Antinium seemed to sigh, and relax at this. Pawn himself relaxed.
“Ah. Like a [Summoner]’s creations? We have studied enemy combat-apparitions. I have slain them myself. They are not as strong as the real thing.”
Pivr fanned his wings excitedly. Xrn gave him a look, but nodded.
“Exactly. Closer to them than Golems or Undead. You see, my Queen, there are many ways of creating temporary or permanent apparitions to aid a spellcaster. [Summoners] use beings that once were, or temporary constructs—that is what Pawn is doing. [Necromancers] and [Golem Artificers] create what is permanent. There are numerous disciplines who do the same, in truth.”
“Really. I know only four.”
The Free Queen frowned—or her antennae drooped and mandibles lowered. Xrn shrugged.
“Druids call animals to them—or summon elementals. The talisman-users of Drath act like [Summoners], but some can also call forth artificial beings painted or drawn. Let me see…higher-level [Mages] can do a [Summoner]’s job to some degree. I have heard that there are even ways of creating Golem-type creations out of cloth, or substances beyond metal and stone, so perhaps a [Sculptor], or [Weaver] could do the same…it is not special.”
Her eyes winked white and yellow, as she entered into a scholarly mode.
“On the other hand—Pawn’s creations are unique. I compare it to a [Summoner] because they are superior and not.”
“The Antinium Aberration summons require no catalyst, which most [Summoners] require. Superior. They are expendable and draw upon something…other…than mana. Superior. However, they cannot be ordered fully. Pawn could command them to navigate obstacles—but not pick up a hammer. Any summoned creation—or undead—or Golem could at least attempt that. Inferior. Oh, and they fight with all the combat potential of…Aberration Workers. Hardly as dangerous as some summoned creations, for all their appearance. Inferior.”
She had distilled everything but the horror they generated, and the wrongness Pawn felt at creating them. He saw the Free Queen look at him, as if sensing that thought.
“I see. Do you have anything to add, Pawn?”
“Only—only that I regret learning this Skill, my Queen. I regret it. But I learned it because…because Erin was hurt.”
The Antinium shuddered. At least, the Free Antinium. Their Queen did not. Xrn did not. The foreign Prognugators did not. Erin meant less to them.
“Well, it has given Pawn a useful combat Skill! And in time, he may be able to summon Aberration Soldiers. Or perhaps even more powerful versions.”
Xrn brightly interrupted the silence. Pawn looked at her. She smiled at him, eyes dancing yellow and green, playful and academic. The Free Queen nodded.
“And all this is a result of Pawn’s class. A unique class. One that Klbkch allowed him to keep. Do you, after seeing this, still agree with that decision, Xrniavxxel?”
The Free Queen looked at Pawn. She knew his class. Tersk hesitated. He looked at Dekass, who shook his head, and Xeu and Pivr looked blank too. Their heads swung to Xrn. And she?
Blackness overtaking light. And red. And still that yellow.
“Oh, yes, my Queen. Better to know the enemy which we fight. I say it is good. I agree. Let Pawn continue down his path. I think the Free Antinium are far stronger now than they have been. A worthy addition to the Hives of Izril. Do you not?”
She looked around. The Free Queen nodded, and so did the Prognugators.
“Of course their combat-efficiency is much improved.”
Pivr. Tersk and Dekass, with the latter speaking in his stilted, somewhat obnoxious voice.
“Our presence assures the Armored Queen’s approval.”
Lastly, Xeu. She hesitated, rubbing her scythe-blades together with a faint sound that made all the Antinium’s antennae vibrate. She opened and closed her mandibles, her elongated, scuttling, alien form of the Silent Antinium hesitating. Then she spoke.
“Of course the benefit is observed. I shall communicate the Free Antinium’s potential to my Queen.”
“Excellent! Then I will consider this matter closed. All is quite well.”
Except of course, that it wasn’t. Pawn bowed his head as the Free Queen dismissed them all. He sensed the other Antinium avoiding him as they left. Look at me, the monster. Look what I’ve done, for all I preach about Heaven.
And yet, it was still there. The potential to be unleashed, like a hundred thousand Aberrations squirming in his heart, compressed together.
Let us out. Let out your wrath. Summon us. Summon worse.
This was what a [Priest] was? Power to unleash what was in his heart?
Pawn began to fear it. Because he knew himself.
Someone else who feared what he had become, what he had done, stood in front of the map and the Council of Liscor. His tongue felt heavy in his mouth.
He had not slept, not truly, with nightmares or terribly dark sleep. But he stood here, and he had worked these last four days, not despaired.
He had no time. When this was done, he told himself, as he handed out the dossiers, he would sleep. He would sleep and…and Erin would return.
But in the interim, he spoke.
“We are at war, Councilmembers. I am aware Councilmember Krshia is indisposed, as is Councilmember Raekea. However, we cannot wait for their return from the Meeting of Tribes. I am asking you to vote and authorize the following expenditures for the Watch and the city. Immediately.”
“War? Strategist Olesm? Hasn’t there been enough?”
That came from Councilmember Zalaiss. Formerly semi-exiled. Now…with a worrying amount of power since two of the Council’s majority-votes were lacking. It was still Lism, Elirr, Jeiss, Alonna, versus Tismel and Zalaiss. But they just needed one of the Council to waver to have a split vote.
Even then, Zevara would be the tie-breaker, or Olesm himself. But he spoke to all of them as they sat grave, quietly reading.
Was that accusation he saw on their faces? He deserved it. He deserved it all.
Erin was dead because he was careless. Maviola, because he was a fool.
He should have dragged the army back. Ordered Moore and the other hotheads to be restrained. He should have…
“Yes, Councilmember Zalaiss. As I said, Liscor’s army has sent back three more companies to augment the city’s defenses. Three hundred [Soldiers] and commanding officers, plus some reserves to replenish Commander Embria’s forces. However, they will be weeks away at best. But that is not enough. We are in a state of war, and immediate steps need to be taken.”
“And the army is not…returning, Strategist Olesm?”
The quiet voice came from Lism. He looked at Olesm over the report. Olesm shook his head.
“They are engaged in their contract. Furthermore…they would be willing to return, but only if the war escalates. And they would have certain requirements if they did.”
Such as taking over for the Council of Liscor. Lism nodded.
“And if Liscor would be sacked or razed by the Hectval-Luldem—whatever the hell that Ancestors-damned alliance is?”
His tail lashed furiously. Olesm cleared his throat.
“I believe the army is convinced the walls as well as the Free Antinium would prevent a siege from ever taking the city. They are…content to allow Liscor to resolve the issue beyond that.”
They would rather see the Hive burn first. If he had not ordered the Black Tide to fight—perhaps. But the responses had been clear.
“I see. Does the alliance have the ability to take our walls?”
“With an Antinium army plus our Watch? I don’t think they have trebuchets.”
Jeiss muttered. Alonna nodded. It was rare for a properly-maintained Drake city to fall to sieges. The walls were too high, the enchantments too strong.
“In that case—why this extraordinary budget, Strategist?”
Alonna looked kindly at Olesm, but with a shadow over her face. The city still mourned the dead. Olesm wore white clothing. He shuddered.
“Because, Councilmember Alonna, the Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem alliance will do anything short of sieging the city, and I would not put it past them to engage in a wider siege cutting off trade or food to the city if they can effect it. We are at war.”
A timid, clawed hand. Tismel flinched as Lism glared at him, but he raised his claw nonetheless.
“But both sides have lost considerably from this last conflict, Strategist Olesm. Isn’t it enough?”
Olesm just stared at the head of the Cobbler’s Guild. Stared, until Tismel looked very uncomfortable. He saw similar looks from Alonna and even his uncle, though. Not from Jeiss or Elirr. They understood.
“Councilmember Tismel. It is true both sides have suffered.”
Hectval not enough. Olesm swallowed that.
“…But it is not an end to war. We have not signed a declaration, or asked Hectval’s alliance to. And nor would I suggest that. We are at war, still. And Hectval will be moving against us soon, if they are not already. We are at war because we are Drakes. And we do not let matters lie. Not when blood has been spilled. If we were Human or Gnoll, the answer would be the same. But especially because we are Drakes. No, it is not enough.”
A silence fell over the Council after that speech. Olesm closed his eyes a moment, swaying where he stood. Once, someone had talked about consequences. She had said to a foolish [Mayor], so incredulous—of course. Of course there are consequences.
“War. How long has it been since Liscor was, individually, at war with another city?”
Lism looked around. Alonna’s lips moved.
“We’ve fought with the north as a whole, we skirmished with Esthelm when the city was first founded, but even that was nigh on a century ago…the Bloodfields overtook the pass south for a long time, and was stifling travel before that.”
“Centuries, perhaps. What do we do? Can we even fend off an attack if Hectval comes at us?”
Zalaiss looked around. Elirr hadn’t spoken; the sole Gnoll remaining on the Council was just looking at Olesm. And he looked old, and tired, and worried. But he tapped the paper and attracted the Drakes’ attention.
“I believe Strategist Olesm has all the answers.”
Olesm bowed to Elirr.
“Not all, Councilmember. But I know what must be done. While we wait for the three other companies from the army, we will have to double the Watch’s size again. Watch Captain Zevara requires an expanded budget. Most important will be fortifying the Floodplains. That means far-ranging patrols, counter-scouting missions and knowing where the enemy is. You can see I have marked out spots for watchtowers to be built.”
The Council murmured. Tismel was incredulous.
“Why do we need them? They won’t stop an army! Double the Watch again? They’d be over ten-thousand strong! Let’s just have the [Architect] build a wall! Wasn’t that the campaign Lism ran on?”
Olesm sighed. Here was where his Manus-education paid off. At least for the obvious. He spoke, patiently.
“Liscor is growing. And Hectval can amass an army that large by themselves. Watchtowers are necessary because they…watch…for enemy raids, Councilmember Tismel. That’s the greatest threat. Saboteurs, small bands of Drakes who launch a [Fireball] at a village. Or at travellers. Hectval could kill our trade with the north, ruin our fields and thus our harvests.”
“And they have already launched one raid which did too much.”
Elirr’s voice made everyone go silent. Olesm half-nodded. The others regarded the maps. Olesm cleared his throat again.
“To your point about a wall, Councilmember Tismel, a wall does not stop any of this. Even if we stretched it across the southern entrance to the Floodplains; they’d just go around it, over the mountains. It costs too much to build, maintain, and we would never have it up in time.”
“So. Watchtowers. Feels weird we’re building them on our southern border.”
Jeiss muttered. He got nods from Zalaiss and Tismel. Olesm just raised one brow.
“They used to be placed to the north and south, Councilmember Jeiss. We’ll be rebuilding them on old foundations before the Necromancer destroyed them. And the Antinium.”
Jeiss blinked. Olesm saw him look askance, but the [Strategist] was too tired to care.
“I would like you to agree to my budget, Councilmembers. It’s underlined on the last page.”
They checked it out and gasped.
“This is far too much! We don’t have the coin to—”
“Even with all the new immigrants and taxes?”
Alonna was doing some math. Zalaiss was shaking her head.
“This kind of expenditure—”
“We are at war, Councilmembers!”
Olesm barked. The female Drake looked at him. He blinked again.
“Watch Captain Zevara will be meeting with us to discuss the expanded Watch’s roles. It would be within her power to expand the Watch this way, without consultation. We are at war—which means she and I both outrank you. I am asking you to approve what I feel is necessary. Not requesting your permission.”
It gave him no satisfaction to see their faces. The reality began to sink in. Olesm stood there, as the Council looked at each other.
Lism. His eyes were very kind as he looked at his nephew. Olesm bit his tongue. He steadied himself with his tail. He pushed down everything and everything. Do your duty right.
“…What can we do to make your and Watch Captain Zevara’s jobs easier?”
“Frankly, Councilmember Lism? You can consider a conscription.”
Silence now. Olesm spoke into it.
“Because unless we achieve the numbers of the Watch without it—we need an army and you saw what a pure militia force suffered, even with high-leveled support and Gold-ranks. They won’t join us for the larger war. We need an army to counterattack, stop enemy raids. Fight. The Watch isn’t nearly large enough. I’d say we need a mercenary army, but ours isn’t kindly disposed towards Liscor at this moment.”
“Our army seems to have abandoned us.”
Elirr commented. He looked around the Council’s room. Olesm sighed.
“Of course they have, Councilmember Elirr. They abandoned us after the Second Antinium War. We just never needed them until now. So. Either we obtain a second one, or we let Hectval burn the Floodplains down around us. Let’s talk about how much gold we need up front…today…before Watch Captain Zevara arrives.”
Three types of Antinium walked the Hive.
The first were those who grieved. Who were broken. Despite Pawn’s sermons—they were the Painted Antinium, those who had known her, gone to that inn.
They were, ironically, the second-smallest group. The second had no idea what was lost. They were ordinary Workers and Soldiers who had never met her. Too many would never know what had been left.
No, they would know someday. Keep to that. Hold your faith.
The last? The indifferent. They knew, but they did not care as much.
Tersk was not of that group. He mourned. Pivr though…he and Xeu had little emotion. Xrn as well.
What enraged Pawn though, was Dekass.
He had been at the inn. He had been given food; practically gobbled it down day after day after day. And still…
This was his reaction.
“I…mgfh…believe your combat ability…mm…would be of great interest to the other Queens if it can be replicated…crunch crunch…Pawn. Imagine the tactical superiority of an army of ten thousand summoning twice their number? And then using the expendable army? Can your class and levels be easily achieved?”
Pawn stared at the Armored Antinium. He stared at the bag of crisps in Dekass’ hands. He was stuffing himself with all three other hands.
No other species in the world could achieve the same crisp-to-mouth efficiency as Antinium, with perhaps the exception being Dullahans, who could feed their heads with their hands and levitate their arms to reach the crisp bag across the room.
“I achieved my level and class because I knew Erin Solstice. I ‘achieved’ the ability to summon Aberrations because she died.”
Dekass hesitated. One of the salted crisps hesitated halfway to his mouth. Crisps, being a crucial distinction. Erin called them ‘chips’, but some of the other Earthers disagreed, claiming that chips were in fact, fries, and crisps were chips.
It was very confusing to Pawn and he wished that were all he had to care about in the world. Instead…he saw Dekass smile and crunch on another chip-crisp.
“I see. Then we must replace Erin Solstice at once.”
Pawn debated trying to kill Dekass. He took a single breath. Then another. He spoke in a very mild tone as the other Antinium in the Painted Antinium’s barracks moved around them.
“Is that so easy, Prognugator Dekass?”
“I believe so. Consider: I was upset to learn the purveyor of foods was rendered inactive. However, I learned that I could obtain these from a local vendor in Liscor. You see—others had copied her recipe.”
He waved the non-Wandering Inn crisps at Pawn. He’d bought them from someone else. Pawn nodded.
“I see. And you suggest replacing Erin in the same way.”
“Yes. It is the only efficient solution.”
I’m going to murder you, now. Pawn reached for his neck. He only stopped when someone approached him.
The [Priest] hesitated, with all four hands outstretched. Dekass eyed them and put a chip in each. Pawn ignored him and turned to the Worker who’d interrupted him.
It was one of his Painted Workers who stood there, with a cluster of Antinium behind him. Soldiers, Workers—all painted. This first Worker was Pawn’s, though.
He had a little yellow flower drawn on his shoulders, their roots and vines travelling down his arms. Erin called them close to ‘tattoos’, but the golden blooms were based off the very flowers in her inn.
Faerie Flowers. And this Worker was thus Golden Bloom. He was one of the [Acolytes] that Pawn was training.
“What is it, Golden Bloom?”
Pawn was surprised. There were two [Acolytes] under his authority. Only two, out of the countless others. They helped him serve bread and spoke little. They listened much, and knew all his stories, however. But this was unusual.
The other Antinium shifted, but it was clearly Golden Bloom who needed to speak. He clasped and unclasped his hands; he had the habit of putting two together like Pawn, in constant prayer.
“I—we—I have been asked on behalf of all—to ask you an important question.”
“Can it wait until I murder Dekass, Golden Bloom?”
“No, Pawn. It is important.”
The Prognugator stopped crunching crisps and sidled back. Golden Bloom’s antennae waved urgently. He opened and closed his mandibles, in clear distress.
“Pawn. It is about Erin.”
Pawn turned away at once. He faced the others. Golden Bloom trembled.
“Erin is…is…is hurt. Dead but not dead.”
“She will return.”
The other Antinium nodded. Golden Bloom looked around.
“Yes. But if…if she does not…”
A cold pit opened up in Pawn’s stomach. Already, it came. Did their faith waver in less than two weeks? Did they not believe?
“You think this is what will happen, Golden Bloom?”
“No Pawn. I believe. I pray. I pray at least 31 times per day and I am trying to pray more. We all do. But if—if she is hurt. And not alive. Nor dead. Is…there no place for her in Heaven? Because she is not Antinium? Is that why she is neither alive nor dead?”
Pawn stopped. All thoughts of rage against Dekass and crisps left him. He saw Golden Bloom trembling.
“Because, Pawn, if that is so, I do not think it is a good Heaven. Not without Erin.”
It came out in a rush. The [Acolyte] looked at Pawn.
“I know she is not Antinium. But she should be there. And if—if there is no place for her—I will give her mine. If it is not enough, we will all give her ours.”
The Antinium nodded as one. Pawn felt his heart sinking in his chest. They looked terrified. But resolved.
“No. You do not have to do that. Please, Golden Bloom. Do not be afraid. Heaven—Heaven is not that cruel.”
He reached out and touched the Worker. The [Acolyte] looked at him.
“But she is not there.”
“Yes. Because she is not dead. If she was—”
Something was attacking Pawn from the inside. He spoke, despite it.
“If she was, she would be there. We will—will pray tonight. To make an exception for her, and all those that matter.”
The Antinium relaxed. As if Pawn—of course he would know. He would be able to make that happen. But Pawn was suddenly uncertain.
Did it work like that?
“Then we will see her again. And Heaven…Heaven will have all the good people, in time?”
In time? They would all die. Mrsha, Numbtongue…Pawn felt dizzy. As if he had only realized that today.
Yes, in time they would all be there. Even little Mrsha. Even…he felt sick.
“Heaven will hold them. We must make it. And—it will be large enough. Must be large enough for them.”
“Could it be too small?”
Suddenly, Golden Bloom was worried. Pawn didn’t know. Reflexively, he looked around. And the same fear was in his heart. Until a hand touched his shoulder.
“No. It is not. It is a tiny thing. But wide enough for us all. Erin would fit. But it can be bigger. I know this to be true. For I have seen it before I was given life again.”
A deep voice. A commanding tone. And suddenly, the world stopped shaking. Pawn looked up. There was Yellow Splatters.
“Do not fear, Golden Bloom. You will be there. And so will all.”
“Thank you, Yellow Splatters. See? All is well. We will pray.”
The [Acolyte] sagged with relief. He led the other Antinium away. Pawn looked up. The [Sergeant] stood there.
“Thank you, Yellow Splatters. I did not know what to say.”
The [Sergeant] stood there. And he was a miracle like those Pawn had been told from Earth’s stories. He had died and come back to life. And he had brought something more valuable than anything with him.
“You have seen Heaven. You should lead them more than I.”
“I do not have your class or faith, Pawn.”
The [Sergeant] answered steadily. He had been given a superior body. And he was always so sure. So…good a leader. He was leveling faster than even some Individuals. He would be a great leader. Pawn shook his head, pressing.
“But you have seen it. Can you tell me more about what it looks like? I—I confess, I did not know whether Erin would fit either. I cannot even imagine how that would work. You said it was tiny, but growing. What did you see? Who did you meet?”
Yellow Splatters paused for a moment, and his mandibles opened and closed. Eventually, he shook his head.
“There are no words to describe it, Pawn. I am sorry. I search and search—but how could you describe what has never been seen? I can only tell you—it is what you said. You built it. Have faith.”
Pawn smiled. Yellow Splatters did too. They stood there for a moment, then Pawn patted his hand with one of his. Faith restored.
Let it be for Erin, then. But not yet. Not ever, if he could manage it. He walked the Painted Antinium’s barracks, talking to others. For his job was to help them heal, and live, and fight for that Heaven.
Even if part of him still drowned in rage. He feared—and already, missed Lyonette. He should have said goodbye when she was there. But he was afraid to touch her.
To let the things stirring in his mind out.
The moment of change came upon Pawn in a seemingly-random encounter. He was touching the shoulder of a Painted Soldier.
“Green Baron. All will be well. We must believe. Tell me if you are upset.”
He had used his free bread, and benedictions already, to calm the most anguished of Antinium and wished he could use his Skill more. But he was speaking with words, hoping they meant something.
The choosing of identities had evolved among Soldiers and Workers both. The Soldiers could not ‘speak’…but then again, they could. And they were evolving past concepts like Purple Smiles, Yellow Splatters, and so on.
Green Baron had chosen his name after three visits to the inn and learning about the famous ‘Red Baron’ from a discussion of aircrafts and flying with Bird from Kevin and the others. He had chosen the name on the principle that green was probably better than red.
There were other…interesting names Soldiers had chosen. It was their identity, but Green Baron was sharing space with Soldier #1533, who had that number proudly written on his chest, Bacon Rashers, who, yes, had had that for his first real meal ever, and Kevin2. Because they liked Kevin. Also, π, who had tried to express as much of the mathematical constant as the others could remember on his body.
Pawn did not judge much. But he had stopped there from being a Kevin3 and Kevin4. Normally, Kevin2 was trying to imitate Kevin, in body language and personality.
But his head was bowed. He was curled up and Pawn recognized the look.
Pure despair. Pawn’s heart ached for them. He looked at Green Baron’s misery and spoke, gently, tightening his grip so the other felt it through his armor.
“We must have faith. We must believe, and strive. We must endure, Green Baron.”
He felt the Soldier shudder. Then—the Antinium with green airplanes drawn on his armor straightened.
Erin had helped draw them. And she was a bad drawer, so some were squiggly. But he treasured them. Pawn remembered that as the Soldier turned to him. And his hands rose and he said—
He spoke. In the sign language that the Antinium had learned from Mrsha. They had created their own variation upon it, adding more words that Mrsha had not used. But it was the same language. Pawn’s mandibles opened slightly.
“No? What do you…mean, Green Baron?”
Green Baron thought for a second. His hands moved slowly, four hands approximating shapes. Crude fingers, a Soldier’s fingers. The Free Queen had told Yellow Splatters that future generations would get digits.
“What if I cannot wait? What if I cannot have faith and pray for—sky’s—return?”
He substituted the word ‘sky’, a spreading gesture with all four arms, for Erin. She had no need of a name. It was just ‘her’. But she should have one.
“Is it hard to pray, Green Baron? Do you not…believe?”
Pawn exhaled. That was something. He was not one of Bird’s followers, who prayed at times, but did not believe. Green Baron saw the confusion and clarified.
“I believe, I can pray. But I do not. There is…”
He was struggling to express what the language had not developed enough to properly say, abstract concepts, and growing frustrated. Green Baron signed.
“There is a problem. Therefore, I do not pray.”
Again, the Soldier had no words. He tried.
“The city. The bad city. It is there. It should not be. It is bad. It should not be. I am angry. I cannot pray.”
The bad city. Hectval. Pawn hesitated. He saw Green Baron clench a fist.
There were not enough words. Not for ‘Hectval’ or the true emotion in his signing. The Soldier looked at Pawn—and he saw the other Soldiers’ heads rise.
“I know. But—Olesm led an army against them. We fought. We have killed them. Liscor has suffered.”
“But they have not.”
Now, Kevin2 rose. And the others stood. Pawn looked at them.
“We killed the Drakes. You were there, Green Baron.”
“Yes. It is not enough.”
Not enough, was a Mrsha-gesture. Like gobbling but stopping halfway, as if finding a bowl empty. It did not fit this sentence or meaning. Pawn’s head bowed.
“I have cursed them. They are far. If their armies come, the Antinium will defend Liscor.”
“It is not enough.”
“Many things are wrong in this world, Green Baron.”
“Is it enough for you?”
The gesture was angry. The Soldier was showing rare emotion. He stepped forwards, as if to confront the shorter, smaller Worker. Force him to look at his words—
The whisper froze Green Baron in place. The other Antinium in the barracks turned. The cadence. The [Priest] stood there.
“Enough? Did you ask me if I thought it was enough? If I thought hECtvAl suffered enough?”
The Soldier took a step back as the [Priest]’s head rose. And there they were.
He did not have Xrn’s eyes, for which he was grateful. For if he did, surely they would have seen them.
A hundred thousand Aberrations.
A hundred thousand demons in the depths of his gaze, waiting to be let out.
I curse you by kindness. I curse you by the sky. I curse you to death. I curse you to suffering—
No, it was not enough. And no—his rage had not abated.
Did they think it had? Did they think a thousand dead soldiers of Hectval would have quenched the fury? The [Doomspeaker]’s hands clenched and unclenched.
“We are Antinium. We…must protect Erin’s inn. We will do that. Do I say it is enough? No. No! But what would you have me do? March upon them? Drown them in the Black Tide until their city is ash and ruin?”
Silence. Green Baron’s head began to move. Pawn whispered.
“I would if I could. But we would break upon their walls. It would be war across the continent. No. So we will wait here and pray.”
He spat the words. Suddenly understanding that he was as disconsolate as the others at the world. It was not enough. He wanted it. Erin’s death had been—this could not continue. He could not be happy to tend to his flock.
Something had to change.
And as the Soldier hesitated in the face of that wrath, the answer came. It came in the form of one of the watching bystanders, and a sound.
Dekass bit into the crisp and saw every head look towards him. He hesitated, then offered the bag to Pawn. But he spoke as he did.
“Is that all you have to do, Prognugator Pawn? I am giving you this title since it seems appropriate and Tersk said I should.”
“What do you mean, Dekass? Do not annoy me. I am not in the mood for it.”
“Am I being annoying?”
The Armored Prognugator gave Pawn an exceptionally surprised look. He went on in the meaningful silence.
“You claim there is no way to strike at Hectval. Or to change the Painted Soldiers, who are, while effective, prone to death as much as any other. I say: this is not so. I have been listening to the talk of Liscor, for I am a Prognugator and trained in the art of subterfuge. The citizens talk while unaware of my cunning infiltration buying crisps.”
There was so much wrong with the last part of that statement that Pawn ignored it.
Crunch. Crunch. The Armored Prognugator finished the last crisps he held, and then he gave the rest to Golden Bloom. He looked at Pawn.
And for all Pawn regarded him as close to one of the ‘clowns’ that Erin described, minus the face paint and silly noses—there was something suddenly off-putting about Dekass.
He was ludicrous at times. Arrogant, as Tersk had been. Just like Pivr was obnoxious and talkative and lauded his Queen at every moment, and Xeu foreign. But you forgot—that was because Dekass was out of place here. An observer.
But he was still a Prognugator of the Hives. The Armored Antinium’s leader in war. He gazed at Pawn and beckoned.
“Come with me. And bring your Soldiers.”
He gestured at Green Baron and the others. Pawn hesitated. Then followed Dekass.
Dekass moved through the Hive with Pawn and some of the Soldiers to show him his grand idea at the same time as Xrn stood in the Hive.
She did not need to read Pawn’s mind to know how he had gotten his new Skill. Nor was she unaware that the Antinium were changing. She did not know all of it, like Silveran, but she had seen the largest change shortly after Erin had been hurt.
The Black Tide had marched on Hectval’s army. Against her orders. She had told the Antinium to their faces to stop.
And they had disobeyed. She remembered it clearly. An ordinary Worker—one of the new [Archers]—looking at her and telling her they refused.
Also, their rage. Antinium that raged without becoming Aberration. Who were stirred to emotion by a Human’s death.
Xrn had felt their animosity, just as she felt their despair now. And she had felt that from Antinium only a few times before. When they fought Crelers, which even the imperfect copies of this continent knew to be a true foe. And when a Queen had died.
But these Antinium knew hatred because a Human had died. They were like…
“They do not follow my orders, though. What should I do? Kill them all and have the Free Queen start again?”
Xrn mused aloud. That was the quandary she faced. She sensed…movement and her head turned. She saw the two figures shake like leaves. The colors in Xrn’s eyes changed for a moment—then her mandibles moved up and out.
“Oh, Chesacre. Thaina. You will forget that. And not communicate that to others. I was only thinking out loud.”
The two Soldiers held each other, as they did. Hand in hand. Xrn thought it was a word she had learned but never used.
‘Adorable’. Yes. And she quite liked the two female Soldiers, who had understood they were female. Who had survived the dungeon assault against all odds.
She had taken a liking to them. So they were here. Xrn smiled again—but detected their fear. She hmmed happily. That was fine. She addressed Chesacre and Thaina brightly. They needed to understand. Klbkch never told Antinium enough. Xrn would get in the habit of telling these Antinium more—at least, her intentions. They would learn.
“I called you here because Erin Solstice is dead. And thus, plans are ruined. Without her, the Individuals and Painted Antinium may—change in ways I do not understand. Undesirable elements have already appeared. But on the whole, your Hive is far more positive than negative. So do not worry.”
Another smile. The Soldiers nodded. But their antennae kept shaking. Xrn went on; she had closed the doors to her private quarters. And, as they had observed, expanded it. The Free Queen was most obliging. But she did not know what would happen here.
Xrn had already put up enchantments; she was not good at it, as she kept telling the Grand Queen. But good enough. She was best at spontaneous magic. As a [Mage] had once observed before she killed him—her class and nature was wonder. You could never predict her spells, but by the same token, she was weaker at bounded magics. Permanent spells were all but beyond her, really.
It mattered not so long as she was present. But what about all the battlefields and places where Xrn was not? Well…that was what other Centenium were for.
But Klbkch was a fool. Wrymvr stubborn, perhaps even insane. He believed in war with the Drakes. Xrn wished some of the others lived.
Well, she had wasted too much time placing her faith in the Queens to restore their glory. Too much time trusting them to be as smart as the First Queen—and yet look what the Free Queen had produced. It was just time for Xrn to…
“Improve. That is what we are doing today, Chesacre, Thaina! You see, if I do not have the ability to order the Free Antinium—that is a problem. What is the correct solution besides wiping them out and trying again? For that takes too much time.”
Neither Soldier responded. Voices. They would need them. Ah, well, Xrn was learning their sign language too. But neither one responded. They were looking at the door. Xrn smiled.
“The answer is: improve some to my standards. Chesacre, Thaina, I like you two. Therefore, I am going to risk your lives today. To make you better.”
The Soldiers edged to the door. They tried it. The door didn’t budge. Xrn went on, happily watching them and inspecting the rows of potions, vials, and so on she had sorted by strength. And more…
“They call me the Small Queen. But I have never sought to create my own Hive. Not once. For I am Xrniavxxel—unique. But it seems to me I have squandered my potential. It is fortunate that unlike Klbkch and Wrymvr, I am always willing to learn.”
She saw the Soldiers turn. Xrn walked over. Her eyes shone with anticipation. Hope. Determination.
“You two will be the first of mine. Or die. Endeavor not to.”
Thaina blocked Chesacre. Chesacre tried to interpose herself in front of Thaina. They both shielded the other, flinching, as Xrn studied them. They did nothing else. Just held each other as Xrn slowly raised a hand—
“Here. Drink this.”
Chesacre lowered a clenched fist. Thaina hesitated and clicked her mandibles. They stared at the potion. Xrn waved it impatiently.
“It is a mana potion. Drink. And then eat a Garry-pie. We will see what the first one does before…”
The conversation ran something like this.
“You see? I was surprised that your Hive did not consider it. After all the trouble. But it is a solution of sorts, so long as it is accepted. I calculate the odds at 21%, but they are possible. Liscor is a strange city. Not that I would know.”
“It is more than that.”
“It is…more than that. Does it hurt?”
That was to another person, who responded in nonverbal ways. The first was miffed.
“It would not hurt. They are designed not to.”
“I know. But it is strange. And…right. More than that.”
“You must explain with more verbiage, Pawn.”
“I do not know if I have the words. I only know that this is like something of which I was once told. Not ours. But it is right…righteous. It is—it will make them something else. I do not know if it is correct.”
“You just said—”
“I know what I said. My heart tells me this…this is necessary. Green Baron. What do you think?”
“Yes. You would be the first. It is more than you know. More than…I do not know.”
“Why, Pawn? I agree. And I am Prognugator. You seem to agree.”
“I do. My heart tells me ‘yes’. My soul desires this. It is what we must be. It may be necessary. However. Something holds me back.”
“Erin Solstice. If she were here, I believe she would stop me. I do not know if Lyonette would. But I think Erin would.”
“She is not here. I do not know. But I know. But we must be this, Erin. Yes. And no. It is only that, Dekass. Only a certainty.”
“Which is? Explain, Pawn.”
The second voice was silent. And at last, it spoke, weary. Tired. And so terribly sad.
“I think if she saw this, she would weep. I think she would cry for what it means. What we become. But she is not. And I cannot ask her what she would say. So I follow my own words. And they say this: rise, Green Baron. The rest of you. I will let you choose.”
There was guilt there. Guilt and sadness. That was the conversation, though. A blank Armored Prognugator’s voice, and the wavering, then firming decision of the [Priest].
That was then.
The bells began to ring. Olesm Swifttail was still arguing with the Council over the proposed draft. He did not like it any more than they did. But what other options were there?
Alonna murmured. But then she looked up. Someone was blowing a horn. Jeiss shot out of his seat.
“That’s a Preventative Alarm. Olesm—Watch Captain—”
The Drake whirled. They listened, looking in the direction of the horn blasts. Tismel took cover at his desk, eyes wide.
“An attack? Hectval again?”
“That’s not outside the city. It’s coming from the direction of—the Hive.”
The three Drakes looked at each other. Zevara was out the door in a shot, the other two behind her. The rest of the Council followed.
People in Liscor’s streets were streaming away from the warning horns. Even if they did not know what it was, or how to read the calls, they knew what a horn blast meant.
Someone was blowing a whistle, shouting for reinforcements. That was Watch-signaling. Olesm listened.
It was—off. He suspected something horrible. A monster coming through the Hive, perhaps. Or an Aberration?
But the sounds weren’t as urgent as an actual combat-alarm. They were what Jeiss had called them—a Preventative Alarm. ‘Come quickly because there might be trouble. Or soon will be’.
What was it? Citizens of Liscor who were braver, or more foolhardy, turned to see when monsters or trouble didn’t immediately materialize. Some who knew the signals watched at a distance.
They were the first to see the Antinium emerge from their Hive. Not just one or two. The shout raced through the air, down the streets as Olesm ran.
“It’s the Black Tide! They’re coming out of the Hive! Thousands!”
Zevara’s eyes went wide. She whirled.
“Olesm—get to your last resort position. Your emergency spells—”
“It can’t be. Not today. Not—”
Olesm had the same thought. She pushed at him.
“I’ll see! Just get in position! Jeiss! Get the rest of the Council back! This—”
This could be the scenario the Walled Cities had warned them about. Olesm couldn’t believe it. He would have believed it more last year. But this one?
Yet the Antinium had left their Hive. In such numbers to make Liscor’s citizens shout their other name.
“The Black Tide of Izril is marching! Run for your lives!”
A Gnoll ran screaming across the street. And that began to start a panic. Olesm turned on his heel. If only Erin—Lyonette? Who could stop them if it came to…?
“It’s almost like she’s here.”
Ahead of him, Zevara remarked in a soft tone. Olesm looked back. Before he could run to the safe spot where he would be able to hold off even an overwhelming number of Antinium with the Watch before detonating every spell—it was too late.
Shouting spread down the street. People, some screaming, but most sounding—surprised? Confused? Or even something else.
Olesm looked back as the Council stopped. He felt the ground shake, from massed footsteps in perfect unison. He tensed as he saw the first ranks of the Soldiers, marching down the street. The…shining…armor?
Here they came. Eight abreast. Huge Soldiers, Workers with bows. But something was wrong. Olesm’s eyes widened. The Soldiers in front were wearing armor.
Plate armor. Specially-engineered armor to cover all parts of them. No breastplate for Humans or Drakes or Gnolls, but Antinium-forged metal. Steel and iron.
These Antinium wore the mark of the Armored Hive of the Antinium. A gift of esteem that had never been touched. For there were not enough for all Soldiers, so who would be marked thusly?
Besides—Klbkch had been in charge, then. Now?
The first Soldiers marched past Olesm with a thunderous roar. Their armor and footsteps were a thunderous din. And that was not all.
They carried weapons. Olesm saw a Painted Soldier. His body was masked by metal. But he had drawn the cute little green airplanes on his armor.
And he carried a steel mace in one hand, designed to be held by the Soldier’s clumsy grips. A huge, spiked weapon where Soldiers had always fought with mere fists. In the other?
A shield. There strode by the equivalent of any [Knight] that Olesm had seen. Heavy infantry. As armored and armed as any Drake in Liscor’s Watch could have hoped to be—
No, more. Because he carried four weapons. One for each hand. Below, in the Soldier’s lower grips, he had two long daggers.
Four weapons for a single Soldier. And that was the first rank of the armor-division. The Workers wore leather, or even wood-armor, also made for them. Each one carried bow and arrows.
The Free Antinium’s archer divisions. All of this was terrifying. It would terrify the Walled Cities—but it was still what the Armored Antinium already had, even if they had supplied the Free Antinium with enough arms for thousand—thousands of their own.
But Olesm saw something in front of the horde of Antinium that made him afraid. Not because of what it looked like—but who it was.
Pawn. The [Priest] carried his censer. Which had little meaning for most. But Olesm knew it meant something. He walked across their ranks as they stopped in one of Liscor’s largest plazas, with the citizenry, Watch, Council, staring at them.
Sweet smoke drifted from the censer. Pawn walked across the ranks of Soldiers. Each rank armed with different sets of weapons. Maces and shields in front. Pikes held by two hands, a crossbow for the other two in the second rank. Swords in the fourth…and so on. The Armored Queen had sent every kind of weapon her forges produced.
They were more than Armored Antinium, though. Pawn looked across them.
The Armored Queen had lavished the Free Queen with gifts of goodwill, hoping to be repaid in turn. She had sent exactly one thousand sets of armor, to join her first, smaller gift. Workers were outfitted in armor of their own. Not all the Soldiers were thus covered, and not all Workers.
But enough. Three thousand Soldiers stood to attention. A thousand Workers with bows. Five of the [Archer] companies.
Painted Soldiers and regular ones. They looked at Pawn. He raised his hand—
And they knelt. Pawn walked across them, whispering.
Somewhere—in some world and time far from this one, a better one—an [Innkeeper] was weeping. He thought he could hear her, but that was just his imagination.
Erin Solstice was dead. In this world, there was only wrath and war and damnation.
Silveran was one Worker who had chosen something else. Those who had not his grace had only hatred left.
Hate, hate, hate.
And wrath. And vengeance. And duty.
“We will never be the same. It is not enough to simply be. We must defend what we believe in. For we have enemies.”
Pawn spoke to them. This was his decision.
“You are not Armored Antinium. You are not mere Soldiers or Workers. Each of you who chooses this—you will leave your Hive. You will march under sky and star. None of you may return. I pray you all will. But you will go to fight our enemies, risking your lives so that more might survive. You are more than any Antinium that have ever come before.”
They looked up at him. The first rank of Soldiers knelt. And Pawn blessed them. He named them for what they were, in the silence of his mind, as he had named them below.
[Crusaders]. More than [Knights]. Warriors of faith.
So once—now again. The Council of Liscor looked on. Olesm, Zevara—
“What is this?”
The [Strategist] spoke, in a strangled voice. He approached Pawn, hesitating. And the [Priest] looked at him. Belgrade knelt at the head of the force. He rose and joined Pawn. The [Tactician] gazed at Olesm as if confused that he did not see it. He gestured at the Antinium.
“Liscor’s army. We are part of Liscor too. And we cannot forgive.”
The blue-scaled Drake was speechless. The Council horrified or…
A Worker with silver antennae stared at the kneeling Antinium. Shocked. Uncertain. For this was change. Each one to their choice.
But what was the right choice? The armor shone brightly under the sun as if it meant something. And they looked grand, mighty, terrifying, impressive, hot, depending on whom you asked.
The future was simply uncertain.
The world quaked. Or so it felt some days. The Antinium marching could certainly make you feel as though the ground were shaking.
However, their appearance was…half show. Belgrade made that clear to Olesm.
“We will be joining the army as volunteers. We would like training in weapons, please.”
The new ranks of the Antinium armored in faith…and actual armor…were impressive. However, Olesm realized something crucial that would be missed from afar.
They had no idea how to actually use the weapons they were carrying. Maces, shields—he saw them holding them just a bit off, or experimentally swinging the weapons. It was an army with a lot going for it. Antinium morale, nigh-unbreakable. Quality arms and the ability to take commands that Olesm had wished the ragtag Liscor army could have had in the fight with Hectval.
But no actual weapons training. That grounded him.
“We’d have to put them through training. Guard-training—at least the week’s crash-course. Along with any other new recruits we get.”
Someone commented. Olesm’s head turned. He rubbed at one earhole. Jeiss.
“Um, what, Jeiss?”
“If we add them to the army.”
The Senior Guardsman was watching an Antinium swing a sword with a pained look in his eyes. The others were watching the poor imitations of thrusts and cuts. For that matter—they had four arms. The cycles of attack and defense were completely different for Antinium.
It was a [Strategist]’s equivalent of the blacksmith puzzle. A delightful avenue of possibility and optimization. But for an Izrilian [Strategist]?
“Jeiss, you must be mad. We can’t add them to the army! It would outrage every city in—in the world!”
Alonna barked. She was horrified. The Senior Guardsman however, had a different take.
“We need an army. Here is an army. It’s not like we wouldn’t call on the Free Antinium if Hectval besieged us.”
“But that’s not the same as enlisting Antinium [Soldiers]. For that matter—Belgrade! There are around three thousand Soldier Antinium standing there!”
“Yes. Do not worry. The Free Hive will be amply defended in their absence.”
Amply defended. Zevara broke out of her stupor and looked around. Olesm felt sweat running down his spine.
“But Belgrade…our treaty with the Free Antinium only allowed them to keep a standing force of three hundred Soldiers. We expanded that of late, but this is a violation of our agreement.”
He reminded the [Tactician] of that salient point. The Worker looked at Pawn. The [Priest]’s antennae waved.
“Really? I did not know that.”
The Council stared at Pawn and Belgrade. The other Worker scratched delicately at the top of his head.
“I remember that. Revalantor Klbkch told me never to permit more than three hundred Soldiers aboveground except in times of crisis, or mention our numbers.”
“Ah. So we have broken the rules?”
“It appears so.”
They turned back to Olesm and the Council. After a second, Pawn shrugged.
“Sorry. No one informed us.”
He didn’t even try to be apologetic. And what were you supposed to say to that? Shake your claw at them? They were far beyond that.
“Councilmembers—a quick discussion. Alonna, some privacy?”
Lism’s strangled voice. Olesm hurried over with Zevara.
“What in the name of the Ancestors do we do? This is a flagrant disregard for our treaty—”
“We always knew they had more than the treaty, Councilmember. That part of our agreement was always doomed.”
Zevara muttered. She was looking at the Antinium army. Four thousand. It wasn’t the largest force by far. Probably a lot scarier, even untrained, than Gnoll conscripts, though. They’d be the vanguard of your fighting force. Or a powerful, semi-autonomous force you could use to press the enemy on any wing…
What was he thinking? Olesm bit his tongue. But…Antinium sappers. They were famous for their fast earthworks projects. Who wanted to fight Antinium when they could collapse the ground under you, or tunnel and attack your command?
“This is madness. We can’t allow this.”
“And what would you have us do?”
Jeiss looked at Alonna, Elirr, Tismel, and Zalaiss. They were all horrified. But the Senior Guardsman had skipped to some logical point ahead of them. He put his hand on his sword’s hilt. Olesm unconsciously did the same.
The smooth handle of a Kaalblade. He flinched, jerked his claw away. Jeiss met his eyes.
“I think the dead cat’s out of the bag, to use a Human expression. Let’s say we don’t add them to our army, Alonna.”
“Yes! Which is only sensible!”
The [Mage] stopped. Jeiss nodded.
“Now we have an army of four thousand angry Antinium. With armor and weapons. Who might decide to do something about Hectval themselves. And if they don’t? We have an army of four thousand Antinium in the city, not under our command.”
“You’re saying it’s like a weapon with the Dancing enchantment. It’s active and unless you use it—”
“It cuts off your tail. Exactly, Watch Captain.”
There were a lot of metaphors being tossed around. But the Council began to catch on. Olesm looked at the first addition to Liscor’s army. Because, even after discussion, debate, neck spine-pulling—what else was there to do?
And oh, did this development change things. To war. Olesm’s nerves hummed. He understood why Pawn had come to this decision.
There were some things that could not be forgiven. Not as he was. The Drake had been ready to resign after doing his duty safeguarding his home. Now? His eyes turned southwards.
That city had taken two people he loved away.
That city was called Hectval. Part of the Hectval…Hectval…
Hectval-Luldem-Drisshia Alliance. Ancestors, that was so obnoxious. Someone had to write that every time they referred to their alliance. It was even on the map. Oh, wait. She’d gotten it wrong. Hectval-Drisshia-Luldem. So much more important.
She had never heard of it before. Half of the people in this room only knew it by name; the other half had no idea where in the name of Selphid’s tits it was. It was only important because it had picked a fight with Liscor.
Once again, that name was on everyone’s tongues. The Antinium there had sent the Walled Cities into a roaring confusion of fury, panic, fear, and more.
To her, it was…disappointing to see. She had, in her youth, expected the High Command of a Walled City to always be some ice-cold, logical decision-makers who, in the face of overwhelming catastrophe, would just come to the best decision no matter what.
The truth was that they panicked and worried and argued like everyone else. True—they didn’t freeze up like civilians. And some of them were poised no matter what.
But to Rafaema of Manus, Manus’ High Command disappointed. Especially since she could compare and contrast to the many High Commands over the century-and-two-decades she had been alive.
The Antinium were new. Before this, they had been more solid in her estimation. The Humans were the enemies. Watch the shores. Watch the tribes. Everything had been so…reassuring. So she had been content to be a bratty child.
The Antinium had woken her up. She had seen how the cities scrambled to fight this new threat. And failed to adjust sometimes. She had the hindsight of age, for all she was only a youth…for a Dragon.
They were reactive, not anticipatory. That was their flaw. The new Antinium-contingent of Liscor’s army? The High Command of Manus had summoned its various security councils and she was in the inner-most one.
No one said ‘what do we do?’ at least. They said ‘what will we do?’ Rafaema liked that. Manus didn’t just debate, like Pallass, or sit on its tail until roused like other Walled Cities.
“Liscor seems set in its course. We’ve talked with their Council and their [Strategist]. Creler-brained, the lot of them. I almost think they do have eggs in their skulls.”
Spearmaster Lulv growled an agreement to [Hunt Commander] Makhir. The two Gnolls in the room and the Drakes plus Rafaema were ruling out options.
“They’re really taking on Antinium in their forces?”
[General] Milka was disgusted. It was Dragonspeaker Luciva Skybreath, one of the few people Rafaema respected without reserve and leader of Manus, who put her claw down on the table.
“Yes, Milka. You’ve seen the numbers. Liscor’s army is too far away and the Hectval Alliance outnumbers Liscor’s forces—even after their defeat at Whitterbone Pass.”
They had maps, detailed maps, with every possible factoid and location on them. Rafaema had watched Hectval get trounced in battle, but she hadn’t expected this result.
“A classic case of Liscor’s army doing the right thing and provoking the worst response.”
“How so, Wall Lord Allon?”
It was one of the Wall Lords of Manus. He half-bowed to Rafaema, his dusky silver scales glittering. A rare coloration; if he had been a Dragon, he would have been a Silver Dragon.
I heard there was one in the north. But he died too. Are there any of us left besides…Cire?
Sometimes that thought grew too loud, so Rafaema pushed it away. She looked at Allon attentively. She had earned this place; she wasn’t going to let anyone think she wasn’t taking her job seriously. Unlike Cire, she intended to lead by example.
“Liscor’s army is notedly at odds with the Antinium Hive in Liscor. It’s why they refuse to return to the city. Of course, we approve of that decision and have established links to Liscor’s army. They’ve worked well with us…”
“When we hire them. Otherwise, they’re stubborn battle freaks.”
Spearmaster Lulv growled, quietly enough for Rafaema to hear. He knew her hearing was as good as a Gnoll’s; he was her weapons-instructor, after all. Only Makhir would have heard, and the [Hunt Commander] affected not to.
“However, Wall Lady Rafaema, their refusal to return and fight for their city is forcing Liscor to take the Antinium forces.”
“Ah, naturally. Thank you for illuminating me, Allon.”
He nodded. Rafaema felt a bit foolish, but she hadn’t been clear. Perhaps some of the others hadn’t either, because Milka cursed. Another insight: not everyone was on the same page, although they appeared to be. How disturbing.
“If that’s the reason, let’s plan out best and worst-case scenarios. Best case? Hectval smashes the Antinium to bits, razes Liscor to the ground.”
“Unlikely. They don’t have the power to take their walls. They fight to drive other cities to ransom. They don’t have a record of actually taking cities.”
Another [General] put in. Everyone nodded; that was inter-city wars for you. Force the other city to capitulate and enrich yourself. It built grudges. Stupid, territorial grudges. But even Manus clashed with other Walled Cities at times.
“Then second-best. They kill the Antinium. Free Antinium’s Hive takes a while to replenish, and that’s that.”
“Not much of a win. What’s the worst-case scenarios?”
Makhir muttered. The war council paused. Rafaema answered for Milka.
“Those four thousand Antinium get all the levels and battle experience of these…Painted Antinium. The Free Hive gets veteran Antinium with levels and we lose the Hectval…the Hectval Alliance’s war potential.”
Nods. That was worst-case. War and battle gave levels. That wasn’t a problem with Antinium…until now.
Damn Liscor. Rafaema’s grip tightened on the table. Damn Hectval, too, for doing this.
And damn Ferris. I thought he was supposed to be good at his job!
Rafaema was angry, but mastered it. She listened. Manus’ High Command began to settle down. And in their calm, they began to debate.
“To avert the worst-case scenario I vouch for a few options: stop the war.”
“Impossible to do it diplomatically. Hectval’s stubborn—the Scalespeaker’s enraged and so is their Council. We could lean…”
“Liscor won’t stop. They’re spitting mad. Did you see the [Messages] they dumped on Hectval? Apparently someone was…killed?”
The Crazy Human of Liscor. Rafaema’s grip tightened on the table. Oh, she was going to rip Ferris’ tail off. If she managed to get a hold of him.
In that, she’d paid more attention to Liscor than the others. Liscor had changed of late, and the Dragon had noticed. Luciva raised a claw.
“If diplomacy will not work, let us abandon it. More…extreme decisions.”
Rafaema glanced up. It was General Milka who said it.
“Extreme? On one end—Manus moves out our Wyvern Rider forces. Fastest horse and siege. We can beat Liscor; they won’t have time to mobilize. Neither will Hectval. We raze Hectval. No casus belli for war. Liscor’s Antinium and army disband.”
Silence. Rafaema’s jaw nearly dropped. The rest of the High Command was just quiet.
“Not ideal. But if it stops an Antinium force from gaining war experience, we could probably effect it with minimal casualties. How fast could we assail the city?”
“Two weeks maximum. Call it a week minimum if we stick to magical munitions and no siege weapons for a proper attack force.”
“Too far in my opinion. But let’s put that on one end of the countermeasures.”
Everyone nodded. Rafaema breathed out. This wasn’t their first option. But it was on the table.
She was learning a lot.
“If we could just do that to Liscor—”
“That starts the Third Antinium War. And we’re not ready. Especially not with Saliss of Lights out of his war potential.”
“And helping the enemy. Did you see…?”
“Discussions on our Named Adventurers later, gentlemen. Ladies. I see Hunt Commander Makhir has an option.”
The Gnoll leaned on the table. Rafaema sat up.
Makhir and Lulv she liked to hear from. They were Gnolls. She wasn’t partial to Gnolls more than Drakes, but she had the opinion that if Gnolls had gotten into Manus’ highest command council, they were undeniably the best, as opposed to, well, hereditary positions of command, even if they were earned.
“I am a [Hunt Commander], Dragonspeaker. My ideas are simple. Run down the enemy. Pursue the quarry. Take out the enemy by the neck.”
Makhir grinned around the table. His paw touched Hectval—then Liscor.
“War comes. Antinium forces are going to level if they fight. That’s inevitable. Without destroying a city for the Antinium—why not cut to the heart of the problem?”
“The leveling Antinium? I don’t follow your trail of logic, Makhir.”
Luciva frowned. The Gnoll nodded.
“It’s war, after all. There’s an alliance of three cities. Liscor has their forces and the Antinium. And the Antinium are going to fight and level. If they survive. What if someone joined…Hectval’s side? And made sure they didn’t?”
The High Command stirred. Rafaema blinked.
General Milka nodded and smiled. Lulv scratched at his chin.
“A veteran spear-group. Or anti-armor infantry. Tell Hectval we want to help them. Chew up the Antinium group.”
“Exactly. We can also see their combat potential. The Queens no doubt did this to test out their Armored Soldiers in battle. I suggest we do the same.”
“War by proxy. I like it.”
Another Wall Lady murmured. Luciva was nodding.
“We’ll put that one higher. Let’s continue discussing options, however. I’m also minded to simply…”
The discussion went on. Rafaema listened intently, then began to tune out as the High Command went over the same ideas, looking for weak points.
She had guessed—and she was right. They went with Makhir’s solution. She voted with the others, and Dragonspeaker Luciva did not overturn the collective decision. It was done, and Spearmaster Lulv was appointed to lead Manus’ reinforcing group.
“Are you sure you’ll be fine?”
Rafaema walked with the Gnoll as they left the inner chambers of Manus’ citadel-fortress, in the heart of the inner city. The City of War, with two layers of walls and their confusing layout, stretched beneath Rafaema as she walked with her teacher.
“Of course. I’m smart enough to know when to retreat. I’ll tell you how the Antinium fight. Even show you.”
“And you won’t miss the Meeting of Tribes?”
“I am a City Gnoll of Manus. I wouldn’t be welcome there.”
“I see. You’ll have to tell me more about Gnoll culture. That is…”
He smiled with all his teeth. Lulv hesitated, glanced around, and then patted Rafaema briefly on the shoulder.
“It would be my honor. Perhaps we’ll ask Makhir, eh? He knows more than I. But good you want to know.”
“Someday, I will lead Manus. I should.”
He nodded at that, greatly pleased. Rafaema thought she had Lulv’s respect. But ‘someday’ was…a long ways away.
She was still young. For a Dragon. A hundred and twenty three years. Eighty more until she was a ‘young Dragon’, and equivalent to a Drake who had earned her majority, a full adult.
Rafaema thought Manus didn’t understand that child or not, a century plus of time made you older than most. But then—she’d also met Cire. And he was a perfect argument for why that wasn’t so.
So the High Command began to effect their plan vis-à-vis Liscor. Without Rafaema. She was included in decision-making, they listened to her, explained their thinking.
But she wasn’t one of them. Not yet. So the Dragon had begun her own plans. She needed to be more than she was.
Her first action had been to investigate Liscor. To learn why it was changing. And it was…
A complete failure. Rafaema ground her teeth as she found a private place on the walls and retrieved her speaking stone.
“Ferris. Report. Ferris. I am going to murder you.”
What had happened? She’d thought she was doing it all perfect. Suborn one of the minders assigned to watch over her. She’d chosen the best—Ferris. Get him to retrieve the Human so Rafaema could understand how the Antinium were changing.
He’d arrived in Liscor, posing undercover, and told her he was reconnoitering. He’d identified the Human—Erin Solstice. Said he was going to make contact and try to retrieve her.
And then? Delay. And then? Just a bit longer. And then? Conflict of targets—perhaps it’s this other Human and the ‘Crazy Human’ is a front. All this while an army invaded Invrisil, and Rafaema was hearing of strange new devices coming from Liscor, Pallass losing Pelt the [Smith] to some Human city of Esthelm.
And then? Whoops. A Hectval raiding party shot and killed the Human target. Ferris had been quiet after that. Wisely, perhaps. But if he returned to Manus without picking up the speaking stone?
Rafaema would throw him off Manus’ outer wall. She did not make false threats.
It seemed like he’d refuse to answer his speaking stone for the third day in a row. Rafaema ground her teeth. She knew that at this range, even the most expensive speaking stones she’d…acquired…from Manus’ vaults only gave them a short amount of speaking time before needing to be recharged. But all he’d said was he’d ‘update her on the situation’ three days ago.
Then nothing. She was about to storm off and review the Meeting of Tribes—she was curious about that—when the speaking stone sputtered to life.
“Rafaema. I can’t talk long.”
“Ferris? What in the name of the Ancestors is going on? You have some explaining to d—”
“I was in the custody of Pallass’ own infiltration agency until about two weeks ago. Pallass’ Eyes. I’m on the road now.”
Rafaema’s eyes widened. Pallass’ Eyes were to their city what Ferris was to Manus.
“How? I gave you instructions to lay low and contact that [Innkeeper]!”
There was a growled response; muffled voices in the background. Ferris shifted the position of his speaking stone and the voices grew more muffled, his clearer.
“Yes. And guess what? Grand Strategist Chaldion himself visits that inn. I tried to make contact, but I couldn’t entice the [Innkeeper]. I gave it all I could.”
“You failed. Didn’t you offer her a free tour? Incentives?”
The Gnoll [Infiltrator] growled at Rafaema. She blinked at the stone; his professional attitude from when they’d first met was fraying.
“You sent one agent without backup or resources to get an [Innkeeper] who has Hobgoblin bodyguards, multiple Level 40+ individuals staying in her inn, and a Named Adventurer and the Grand Strategist of the south staying in her inn! Pallass’ Eyes detained me and I was helpless until—the incident with Hectval. Are you aware of…?”
Rafaema relented a bit. She was willing to admit mistakes had been made. Maybe even by her.
“We’ll discuss the matter. You’re returning?”
“No. That’s what I’m contacting you for. Mission achieved—partly. I’m enroute to Oteslia. With a Human. Four in party. Be advised—names are Lyonette, female, late teens early twenties. Wilovan, Gnoll. Early forties, late thirties? Unsure—tall hat. Ratici—”
Rafaema blinked. her memory was close to perfect, but—
“Slow down. What? What Human? The [Innkeeper] is dead!”
“Not dead. On ice. Perhaps alive. Listen. Do a check on Wilovan, Ratici, Brothers of Serendipitous Meetings. Criminal group. I couldn’t get them to Manus, but they’re heading to Oteslia. And—”
“Hey Ferris-guy! Are we going or what?”
Rafaema heard a loud voice. And then a snap of someone hitting Ferris on the shoulder. She blinked. She’d heard that voice once on a memorable visit from Pallass to Manus with Grand Strategist Chaldion. It couldn’t be—
“Right away, Sir Saliss. Just…taking a break.”
“Leave him alone, Saliss. Five more minutes to stretch our legs, Ferris?”
The Gnoll’s voice was cheerful, if harried. Rafaema heard shuffling. When next he spoke, it was quietly.
“I think he knows who I am. But I haven’t been outed. I’m in the company of those three. And…Saliss of Lights.”
Rafaema stared blankly at the stone. Ferris sighed.
“You wanted the Human responsible for Liscor’s inciting incidents. Well—one’s under a kind of stasis. But I have a [Princess] of Terandria, Lyonette du Marquin travelling to Oteslia on business. I may be able to convince her to head to Manus after this. I’d need actual funding, though…does that satisfy?”
The Dragon’s mind was racing. She raised the speaking stone and heard a tinkling sound. She stared at the speaking stone. There was pointed silence on the other hand.
“…Yes. Yes, it does. Good work, Ferris. I can…use this. There’s no need to convince this Human to go to Manus, either. There’s a way for me to meet you in Oteslia.”
They both knew roughly how. Ferris grunted.
“The High Command will have my tail for this if it gets out.”
“They won’t. This is what I wanted. Just get them there and I’ll meet you. Don’t let Saliss of Lights know who I am.”
“I won’t. He knows I’m from Manus if he has access to Chaldion’s network. But I never let on who I was. To him, I’m just an agent of Manus. I have to go. We’re moving. Miss Lyonette! Are you ready to—”
The speaking stone cut out. Rafaema was left standing there. And now…well, she hadn’t gotten what she wanted.
But she had something. Her eyes narrowed. And Saliss of Lights? He was actually an important figure in Izril. Named Adventurer. Two reasons, then. It outweighed the bad, and frankly, she had resented that last High Command meeting. She was still a child to them and it was clear she hadn’t been needed.
But this? Luciva would have to acknowledge actual intelligence about the Hives. Or more. And…well, it had been a long time since she’d been out of Manus. Her Walled City, both beloved and a cage, wore on her.
All of this was reason enough to outweigh the one good reason not to go to Oteslia. Rafaema sighed and made up her mind.
Dragonspeaker Luciva was speaking to a group of Manus’ top [Commanders] when Rafaema approached. But she broke off. She had time for Rafaema.
Everyone had time for Rafaema.
“Wall Lady Rafaema. Can I help you?”
Some of the younger [Commanders] gave Rafaema a look. Those who didn’t know…her…and that was most of those outside the top brass, gave her supercilious looks.
Rafaema tried avoid doing this. She knew what they must think. A spoiled, orphaned Wall Lady humored by High Command, given favors because of her family’s rank.
Well, it was the backstory. But she took the stares now.
“If I’m not interrupting, Dragonspeaker Luciva?”
“Of course not. Is it urgent?”
“Not…pressing. But I had a desire—if it’s alright—to make an appointment to visit Oteslia. It has been long since our last visit. And you did say that you wished to make more meetings happen.”
Luciva blinked. And then she smiled. It was so rare to see her smiling after her daughter…passed. But it almost made up for what came next.
“Naturally, Rafaema! What brought this on?”
The Dragon’s tail tried to curl up. But she forced herself to smile.
“Well, I was just missing the city, that’s all. And I parted…somewhat badly from uh, Cire. I’d like to apologize. And meet him again.”
“We’ll make that happen. I’m delighted! And of course—we’ll have to organize a proper transport. The Meeting of Tribes is ongoing, but a Pegasus flight—of course, Rafaema. Cire should be delighted. As will the First Gardener.”
Rafaema’s teeth hurt. Especially because for her, they’d have her on a flight before you could blink.
“I will be so happy to see her. And Cire. Especially…Cire.”
Luciva was already motioning for one of her people. It might have been strange, what with Antinium and politics, for the Dragonspeaker to care so much about Rafaema visiting the city.
But the key was Oteslia. And Cire’s name. Rafaema had learned that long ago.
After all…there were only two Dragons in the Walled Cities left. One male, and one female. It wasn’t exactly hard to see why their relationship was what Luciva and the First Gardener worried about.
Two Dragons left in the entire world. Unless there were more. Somewhere else…
Rafaema sighed as she crossed her claws behind her back, suppressing the pang in her chest. Sorry Luciva. But she was going to Oteslia on her business. All for Manus and the cities. Cire?
She hated Cirediel Anvi’dualln Olicuemerdn. He really got on her nerves.
News of the Antinium did not concern just Manus. The Blighted King no doubt knew of this—although his attention was likely focused on the Demons. Many people paid for news of the Antinium, though.
To some, it was more pressing a concern than mere interest.
Magnolia Reinhart put down the missive.
“Erin Solstice strikes again. That young woman is more nuisance than not some days, I swear, Ressa.”
“She is singularly effective it seems. Should we arrange to meet with her?”
The [Lady] of House Reinhart was delightfully caught up with certain events. And not with others. Even this news had been delayed in reaching her.
Her information net was in shambles. Her people undercover, or evacuated. Her holdings in the north, recovering, for all the Circle of Thorns was on the run.
She herself had left her homeland and was at sea. It was disastrous. How easily things fell apart.
Well, she had seen that before. Magnolia Reinhart drank some sugar. And yes, that was how you should put it. The tea was secondary to the sugar.
A slight rocking disturbed the liquid in the cup as she put it down. They were on the ocean. Magnolia scowled. She didn’t like water that much. Unless there was sugar in it, and seawater had only salt. She sat there, contemplative.
“Ressa, at times like this, one likes to reflect on one’s weaknesses.”
“Only at times like this, Lady Reinhart?”
“I am not in the mood, Ressa. I will have you swim if you keep it up. This time—among others—one likes to reflect on one’s weaknesses and strengths. I do not like war. I am, it seems, poor at keeping [Assassins] in line.”
Ressa’s cheek twitched. The only other person in the room with them—Reynold—adjusted his position. He glanced at his lower half.
“You don’t say.”
“Ressa, I am sitting in a floating tub in the ocean. Yes. I am aware of my own understatements. I am just saying…what are my strengths? I thought I was rather good at intrigue. Perhaps I am not. Let’s list the real, quantifiable strengths I possess. A certain flair on the dance floor? Please, be honest. I know that is so difficult for you.”
“Ah. An elegance and charm about me?”
The [Lady] pursed her lips.
“I was afraid you’d say that. Then, it seems, Ressa, the one true gift I have that I can reliably state is my strength is…making money.”
Ressa thought about this for a worrying amount of time.
“That’s quite true. You make money quite well, milady.”
“Thank you, Ressa. But it is a shame. If I trusted other people to handle Izril’s future, how delightful it would have been to pay them to do the job. Like…Zel Shivertail.”
Silence. Yes, look how all the best-laid plans fell to ruin. Magnolia Reinhart sipped more tea. She sighed again.
“But here I am. Thrust into the role of trying to steer Izril in a better direction.”
“Kicking and screaming, whether they like it or not.”
Ressa checked under the blinds, eying the position of the sun. She looked at Magnolia. The [Lady] was serene.
“Quite so. Because I believe I am right. Ah, but my talents do not align. Making money. I should have been born into the House of El. But I would have never fit in, what with my ability to actually retain money in my coffers and make decent business decisions.”
“I shall inform them of this sad fact upon my latest convenience.”
“Mm. Thank you, Ressa. I always have you to keep me grounded. Is there any other pressing news to hear? It’s nearly time.”
Ressa consulted her notes. Spotty intelligence, politics…she discarded it all for later. Because now was a waiting time and she knew her mistress’ mood. She found one thing that might distract and half-smiled.
“Ah. Your niece wishes to speak with you. It’s quite urgent, or so she claims.”
Magnolia Reinhart made a face, as if the tea had suddenly gone sour.
“…This wouldn’t happen to be the niece who enjoys…fornication with her step-brother, would it?”
“No. This is one of your nieces that you like.”
Magnolia Reinhart blinked. She put down her cup.
“I have one of those?”
The [Head Maid] nodded.
Magnolia smiled and laughed.
“I would never do her the disservice of calling her family, Ressa. Oh, my niece. Well, I will attend to her very soon, then. Right after this.”
“Very good, milady.”
Ressa straightened. Magnolia chuckled. And for a moment, she was distracted. Reynold waited, looking at his legs. The ‘floating tub’ rocked as the waves moved them slightly.
It was nearly time.
Armies. Schemes. Dead [Innkeepers]. It was a tumultuous time. In this world, where levels and Skills shaped lives and power and authority were measured on such things—
Now to someone without levels. A rarity in this world. Not so much in others. Someone who had…chosen to refuse what was seen as natural.
Asale sat in his office in one of the huge towers that some called the ‘Fangs of Zeres’. From afar, the Walled City, southernmost of those on Izril could be seen, a circular harbor with the famous walls encircling it. The harbor was in fact, a vast gateway that could be closed if need be.
And Zeres was unique in that it faced two fronts, rather than prepared for enemies on all sides. Land and sea, and had changed its city to adapt for both eventualities.
Zeres, the City of Waves. Ruled by the Serpentine Matriarch—well, her and the Admirals.
Multiple admirals—that was their title. Drake command being what it was, one could not have a leader in one of the multiple areas be subservient to a mere [General]. So they were thus Admirals—and this Drake was Admiral of the Supply.
Asale of Zeres. Noted, famous, infamous? Because he had no levels. Also, because he’d risen to one of the highest positions a Drake could hope to achieve despite that.
‘Admiral of the Supply’ was one of the posts that was somewhat ironic. He was in fact, essentially a [Quartermaster] for the entire city. Again, without the Skills that normally accompanied such a position. Still, Zeres’ High Command seemed to agree that Asale made up for the lack of Skills someone else in his position could provide. And he was still an Admiral…of the supply.
He had the smallest office of the High Command. Which was still big. He was busy doing paperwork; he also helped manage all the imports and shipments of goods, and was thus almost as important as the Admiral of the Harbor.
Admirals. But it was wrong to think that Zeres just has [Admiral] as a stand-in for [General]. To prove that point, a jovial foot kicked the door open.
“Aha! You’ve done it now, Asale! The Serpentine Matriarch is going to have your tail! Hah! Everyone’s shouting confusion from the docks and who’s to blame? This Drake!”
The muscular Drake who stormed into the room smelled of salt and sea. He was Sharkcaptain of Zeres—another post unique to the City of Waves.
There were the Admirals of Zeres. The Serpentine Matriarch. And her champion—the Sharkcaptain of Waves. Other posts of course, but Zeres was unique in that it had the Serpentine Matriarch.
Not a [Queen]. The Drakes were very staunch about that. No Walled City had royalty per se! But the Serpentine Matriarch was rather unique. Drakes hated being compared to Lizardfolk. And yet—they had the Serpentine Matriarch. Because if you were going to have a ruler who compared themselves to serpents and thus snakes and thus Lizardpeople by proxy, she might as well be the Matriarch.
It was rumored her lineage had connections to the Ancestors of Drakes…only not the ones you were thinking of. Rather than Dragons…Wyrm. Indeed, the Serpentine Matriarch had a rather long tail, a genetic tell along with other features. It ran through Zeres, some subtle differences of different heritages.
But the Sharkcaptain was a hereditary post, who was appointed because he was the fighter the Serpentine Matriarch chose to represent her—and accompany her. Personality and a talent for battle went hand-in-hand—not necessarily grand strategy. Hence the ‘captain’ bit. It differed from Sharkcaptain to Sharkcaptain.
In his way, he was as important as an Admiral of the Supply, though. And he was positively beaming with smugness as Asale put down his reports.
“What is it this time, Femar?”
Femar of Zeres, Sharkcaptain, who had more scars on one arm then Asale did on his entire body, grinned. He carried the weapon of his station, a barbed spear. Enchanted—made of some seafaring monster’s tooth and viciously sharp and deadly.
“Don’t be so upset, Asale. I’ve come to save you from being killed by her. Have you not looked out the window?”
Asale turned his head. He had an unparalleled view of Zeres’ harbor from his tower—and threats by land. A huge glass window let him stare out across the City of Waves, and it could survive a Tier 6 spell’s impact without so much as cracking the glass.
Still, this was not a job for those with vertigo. He glanced down.
“I hate heights. What am I supposed to be seeing, Femar?”
The Sharkcaptain stared at his companion. He gestured.
“The harbor’s empty.”
So it was. And for Zeres, the largest harbor in all of Izril, only matched by First Landing for scale and business, an empty harbor was…incredible.
Oh, there were ships docked. Zeres could accommodate armadas, and it had its own standing force. A navy that could go claw-to-toe with any in the world, or so they boasted. But so many berths were empty. And they were always in rotation.
“Someone messed up. There are ships waiting to dock and [Captains] screaming that they want to unload their cargo. But someone filed the wrong schedule and the Admiral of the Harbor is going to have your tail! Well, it is her job. But both of you are going to have her on your tails.”
Captain Femar was gleeful at having caught Asale out. It was more like a childish rivalry than any actual malice.
“Tell you what. I’ll distract her and no one needs to know—if she hasn’t looked out the window already and seen what’s happening. You can buy me drinks later.”
He began to saunter out the door, already thinking up ways how he could drag out Asale’s inevitable embarrassment. The Admiral of Supply stopped him with a word.
“What do you mean, ‘why’? The harbor’s empty!”
“As it should be. I don’t see anything wrong with my schedule.”
Asale indicated the list he’d tacked to a wall, in plain view. Femar, astounded, strode over to it and stared.
“Each berth’s filled. But there are no ships there. Asale! I can see ships waiting to come in.”
“Yes. And we’ll wait a bit longer before they do.”
Something about the way Asale said it made Femar look up. He narrowed his eyes. The necklace of giant shark’s teeth he wore dangled as he leaned over.
“You might as well tell the Serpentine Matriarch we are expecting rather significant guests in…”
Asale checked the light-clock he had near his desk. It showed the position of the sun in the sky in real-time, and calibrated itself to a specific time based on that. Tuned to the heavens.
“Within the hour. Within four minutes, actually, if everything’s on-time.”
“What? No one told me!”
Femar was astounded. The Admiral of the Supply sat back down. He looked up. And his gaze was orange—orange irises that were disconcerting when he really looked at you.
“I know. The other Admirals don’t know either. You may tell them now, Femar, that Magnolia Reinhart bought those berths, so they’re hers to do with as she pleases during her time slot. Although she should be arriving shortly.”
The Sharkcaptain rubbed at one earhole. He must have gotten some seaweed in there.
“You mean…Magnolia Reinhart as in, leader of the House Reinharts who is our enemy?”
“She’s coming by way of Zeres to Oteslia.”
“And you didn’t tell anyone?”
“The Matriarch would have made a fuss. As would have you. I decided it was better to allow her passage as Admiral of the Supply. We can discuss it at the next conference.”
Femar opened and closed his mouth. He stared at Asale. What he did not say was ‘you traitor’, or ‘how dare you’? Because Asale clearly dared.
Zeres was not Manus. No Walled City were alike, obviously, but Zeres was a city of tradition, almost as much as Salazsar. And along with the Serpentine Matriarch, they had a tradition that rankled some other, military-minded Drakes’ ideas of command.
Each Admiral was a law unto his or her own. They were semi-autonomous; they answered to their fellows and the Serpentine Matriarch, but they could act and did act without each other’s approval. That included keeping secrets.
Before Femar could say half the things boiling on his tongue, he heard a sound.
It was the beating of a vast drum from sea. Asale glanced out the window.
“That would be her arrival. I understand there’s a party to be had at Oteslia soon. With her name on it.”
“And you decided to let her come by way of Zeres? The other Walled Cities—”
“She is not our enemy today. Also—she paid quite well for the berths. We’ll discuss it at the next conference, Femar.”
The Sharkcaptain roared his fury. His aura sprang to life and the guards outside Asale’s office shouted in panic. For Femar’s aura was like a shark’s, not an element, not like that of a [Lord]. It was so physical that it tore the carpet around his feet, sent loose papers flying, even cut at the drapes—
Asale threw an ink-pot at Femar. It bounced off the Drakes’ head. Femar recoiled. Asale sat, scowling, in the center of the destruction.
“Get out of my office.”
Femar hesitated. But then he ran out of the room, cursing. Asale sighed. And he heard the sound again.
Magnolia Reinhart was entering the city of Zeres. Coming to you live from Wistram News Network. He wondered just how mad the Serpentine Matriarch would be.
The High Command of Zeres, minus Asale, was surprised. The Wistram [Mages] poised to record the event? Less so.
The Walled Cities? Well, Oteslia knew, because Magnolia Reinhart was travelling there by invitation. And thus the other Walled Cities knew, or were aware of the fact of one of the Five Families treading upon their soil.
It had seemed such a huge deal…months ago. Now, overlooked. Eventually, it was decided she could definitely travel to Oteslia. It was her neck, not theirs.
They had, perhaps, forgotten to ask the question of how she would arrive. It had been assumed she would come from the north, past Liscor, around the Bloodfields—although that was a longer route. But she had her famous pink carriage. Why, she’d have to sail to Zeres or another port if she wanted to come by sea.
Recent events could have suggested that was more likely. However, again, so what? She’d arrive by sea.
Except that this…was an event. Magnolia Reinhart heard the first rolling toll of thunder from the drums at the same time as the people of Zeres. She listened, hands gripping the teacup firmly.
“Planning. I had time to plan this one. I’d like to call that Strength #2, Ressa, if I may.”
Magnolia nodded and sipped from her cup.
“Planning. When it all comes together, I like to think I do it quite well. Are you sure we can’t add ‘social graces’ to the list?”
“You’re not that charming, even with Skills.”
“Well, drat. But I’d like to think I at least know the difference between Drake and Human politics. We have come to this delightful party in Oteslia.”
The First Gardener had invited her. And perhaps she felt it would be a first step, a tentative one, between North and South. Perhaps she felt it should be small, but it had been momentous just achieving one meeting.
Another might not come again. It would not be easy a second time. So, if that was the case—
It would be a visit to remember. Magnolia Reinhart sighed.
“I would never fit in with the House of El. Because I hate spending money. Wasting it, rather. But if it is to a purpose—”
Her eyes glittered.
“You might as well do it properly.”
The people of Zeres looked up as the booming drumbeats sounded across the water. They had already noticed the empty harbor and people had been jesting at the Admiral’s expense about the rare mix up.
Now…they saw boats approaching the harbor. The watch towers came alive with voices.
“We’re sensing multiple—multiple illusion spells incoming. Identified as [Darkness]—”
“Multiple ships on approach—the Serpentine Matriarch is asking to confirm. Magnolia Reinhart inbound…?”
“Admiral of the Supply confirms. This is on-schedule and approved! Stand down. Stand down!”
“The Admiral of the Fleet—”
“The Matriarch demands we—”
“Stand down by order of the Admiral of Supply!”
They were barking at each other as, in the scrying orb, an excited [Mage] was talking.
“Yes, Drassi. I think we are seeing Magnolia Reinhart’s fleet at a distance! Zeres appears to be partially caught off-guard, but I understand the harbor has been empty all day. What you’re hearing are drumbeats from those ships. And—oh! We’re seeing [Darkness] spells covering the harbor.”
Indeed, the air was going dark as multiple spells filled the air. It sucked away the light, and the citizenry not near the bay definitely noticed that. They began heading in the direction of the most light; the approaching fleet.
Now, the television was showing dozens of ships approaching the harbor at full-sail, glowing with colored mage-lights. The [Mage] breathed.
“This will be the first time in living memory that a member of the Five Families steps foot in the City of Waves. The second time that Magnolia Reinhart has walked through a Walled City! One for the history books, Drassi.”
“This is such an amazing moment, Merri. Thank you for covering it!”
The Drake [Reporter] was covering the event live from Pallass. She had kicked Sir Relz’s chair off-screen and she was clearly enjoying every minute of it.
And then—ah. When you put it like that. One for the history books. You began to understand that it could have been a moment without fanfare or notice.
But Magnolia Reinhart had decided it was not.
Walled Cities in conference.
Manus to Oteslia. We are aware of Magnolia Reinhart requesting travel permissions to your city. We were not informed of any entry-display to Zeres. Zeres, please confirm this is happening.
Oteslia. Magnolia Reinhart’s approval was acceded to by all six Walled Cities. Nothing has changed.
Fissival. This is on the news. It is being declared a landmark event, like Reinhart walking on Pallass’ walls. ‘First of the Five Families to step on the Walled Cities in generations.’
Pallass. Magnolia Reinhart did not ‘step on Pallass’. Retract statement, Fissival.
Manus to Zeres. This event was not agreed upon. Zeres?
Salazsar. We’re online. What’s happening?
Oteslia. Magnolia Reinhart is simply travelling by way of Zeres.
Fissival to Oteslia. We’re counting at least twenty, maybe thirty ships approaching. That is not ‘travelling’. This is a spectacle!
Oteslia. Calm down.
Zeres. This action has been approved. We are in the middle of her entrance. Busy, Manus.
Manus to Zeres. Please halt Magnolia Reinhart’s arrival until the Walled Cities have come to a decision.
Zeres to Manus. Are you serious? How?
Fissival to Zeres. Confirm this isn’t an invasion? Fissival to Oteslia, are you certain this is not a surprise attack?
Oteslia to all. Magnolia Reinhart is travelling to Oteslia.
Pallass to Oteslia. Was Oteslia aware this would occur?
Pallass to Oteslia. Not funny. Was this planned with the First Gardener or is this Magnolia Reinhart’s initiative? Oteslia, confirm.
Zeres. Reinhart incoming.
A fleet was approaching Zeres’ harbor, spread out on both sides. Like…a procession. Not all were warship-class. But in the distance, the largest of the vessels was slowly moving forwards.
“That’s…the damned Velistrane.”
Someone breathed in the watching crowd. The famous warship. As Drassi heard—and the audience of the world from the excited Drake [Mage] reporting—
“…the largest warship ever built by House Reinhart. A relic from the Colonization Wars—of course, the Humans of Izril have a different name for their war of aggression. It has participated in hundreds, hundreds of naval battles and been sunk three times—each time repaired and refitted. The Velistrane is of course famous for having sunk a Dragonship in naval combat in a two-day running battle. As first impressions go, this is both a show of force and spectacle from Magnolia Reinhart, perhaps an attempt to reclaim her damaged reputation—”
That was background chatter, interrupted by the boom of drums. Multiple enchanted drums in fact, hit in near-perfect synchronization from multiple ships.
[Captains] stood at the prows of their ships, flanked by…servants? Yes, the iconic [Butlers], [Maids], and so on of House Reinhart. They sailed into the harbor in a rough inverted-‘V’ formation, leaving a single path for the mighty warship.
“Is this a show of force, Merri?”
Drassi was asking, leaning over the desk at the glowing image; she was in a corner of the broadcast.
Ulvama was gobbling popcorn; other leaders were watching. The view switched back to the excited Drake.
“The Velistrane might be—at least, as a symbol of the Five Family’s might. However, we’re seeing the first ships approaching and—dead gods, look at that!”
Lights began shooting up from each vessel as the servants raised wands. A lights-show, magical fireworks blooming.
Some were fireworks as those from Earth knew them, simple magical explosions to awe and amaze. But what a poor use of illusion spells. The real magic was the magical animals that were called into being.
They leapt off the decks and raced across the surf, even making sounds. A gazelle leapt past the orb, golden-yellow, showering sparks of light as it struck the cobblestones. Drake children gasped and reached out as the harmless illusions swept off the decks.
“It’s like the very best of [Illusionists]! Well, Magnolia Reinhart seems to have decided Zeres will have a show with her arrival! And look at that! If you want a symbol—here’s one!”
Four dozen [Servants] armed with wands were pointing towards the central display of lights. There—the audience gasped and looked up.
A Dragon flew through the skies. Glowing red, fiery. It circled overhead as the combined illusion created a vast magical illusion. Becoming realer.
Fiery light turned to scales. The Dragon flew as lesser Wyverns and other flying animals like Rocs appeared overhead.
“Dragons for the Walled Cities. Is that a nod to the Walled City’s history—or—a taunt? This is Noass—”
In the corner of the screen, Noass tried to fight his way into the broadcast. Drassi began shoving him off.
“It looks more like a nod of appreciation to me! And this is my segment—oh, the ships are drawing close to harbor!”
Indeed, they were docking at the berths, each ship perfectly fitting those in place. From his tower, Asale was making notes.
Trade ship, The Redsail, check. Former Pirate’s cutter, Marevong’s Mead…check…
Some were trade-ships, probably hired for the occasion, others vessels belonging to House Reinhart. As they drew to port, the wary Zeres forces clustered at the docks. [Soldiers]—or rather, their naval equivalent—[Sailors] and [Marines], ready to fight.
But the servants weren’t armed for war, unless you counted the wands. They were instead poised, dressed in black and white. As the ships smoothly dropped anchor, they moved as one.
Illuminated by the lights, the servants bowed. They were Human, without exception, at least, the front rank. They gracefully knelt or curtsied. Then lifted their hands and began to toss something down towards the crowd.
That was Drassi’s first thought. But it wasn’t flowers. There were cries—and someone distinctly shouted ‘ow’! But then shouts of glee.
“It looks like they’re throwing silver coins into the crowd! Wait—I see gold too!”
Merri scrambled for a coin and produced a fat gold coin. That broke the harbor’s silence. The crowd might have not been all on board with Magnolia Reinhart, but suddenly everyone wanted to grab some money.
“Is she—trying to—buy—affection from proud Drakes—”
Noass fought onto the screen with Sir Relz. Drassi grabbed the magical microphone and began to kick at them.
“I’d rather have that than flowers! Why are you determined to be so negative? Oh, and look at that!”
The [Servants] at the railings throwing coins, and yes, some flowers continued to do so as others fulfilled roles under the cover of the [Darkness] spell. Which became obvious as they were illuminated.
Lanterns began to glow from the ship’s port and starboard sides on both sides of the harbor, illuminating the way down the center like…well, an arrow. The servants on the sides not facing the docks held up the lanterns or wands, standing to attention.
The drum beats began to intensify. And then suddenly—ceased. In the sudden silence, people looked up, even stopping squabbling for the coins for a second. Merri, caught off-guard, was still shouting.
“This seems to be as dramatic as the Reinhart family is said to be at times! A show of goodwill! Oh. Sorry. A show of goodwill, if the coins are any indication. What’s the symbolism? Reinhart paying her way into Zeres? The Dragon is most certainly a nod to the Walled Cities, but the Velistrane is inbound. And that’s the other, closed hand of northern Izril’s might. Or so one assumes…”
Here it came. The mighty warship, aglow with magic. So vast that it was in a class of its own.
Asale, the Admiral of Supply, stood before the Serpentine Matriarch. She had summoned him, and the other leaders of Zeres, except for the Admiral of the Harbor and Admiral of the Navy, who were in the harbor in case this was a sneak-attack.
“One of the last great warships the enemy possesses.”
The Drake who sat on the not-throne glared at the image. Her fingers twitched as much as her tail.
“I could destroy it here and now and rid Zeres of it once and for all! If we unleashed all the harbor-spells—”
She glared at Asale, her eyes baleful. The Admiral of the Supply raised a claw.
“It is possible the Velistrane could match our harbor defenses and fight back for the minutes it would take to escape the harbor, Matriarch. Even if we attempted to close the gates.”
“But if we closed the gates and sank it?”
He met her gaze.
“…Then no ship would trust the word of Zeres when it offers safe passage again, Matriarch. Or at least, not for years.”
She cursed him.
“Why did you let her arrive, Asale?”
The Sharkcaptain was glowering too. The Admiral of Supply sighed.
“We are not at war with Humans, Matriarch, Admiralty. I remind you of that. Or have the Antinium suddenly lost their strength? I say: let her pass.”
“And if I disagree?”
“You may accept my resignation.”
A second aura curled around Asale. He brushed it away and waited. Two slitted pupils glowered at him. But nothing was said.
Here came the warship. The people at the docks looked up at the glowing lines of the ship, drawing closer. It was projecting its own luminesce, the wooden sides of the ship glowing.
And there was the sigil of House Reinhart—and that name.
The citizens of Zeres tensed. Noass did them a disservice, suggesting that the coins were enough to buy goodwill. They knew that famous name from stories of wars with Humans.
[Sailors] now—from around the world, were less picky. They took off caps, or watched as one of the grandest ships remaining slowly entered the harbor.
Magnolia Reinhart exhaled as she watched the scrying orb. She hadn’t been certain. Fairly sure, yes. But the Serpentine Matriarch was notorious for her temper, even if Magnolia had never met her before.
“I almost wish I could have brought Bethal to meet her. That would have been a meeting to remember—disastrous as it might be. Well, the hardest part is done. Now…let’s see how they react to this.”
The drums had gone silent. The sound of surf against the docks was the only noise, aside from the breathing of those around. The [Servants] had gone silent. But more figures were arrayed on the decks.
On the Velistrane too. There were…hundreds. Hundreds, not even counting the [Sailors]. The Admiral of the Harbor watched, grinding her teeth.
“They’re in ranks. If they’re going to attack—they’re being open about it. I don’t see…weapons.”
Her counterpart looked at her. The Drake cursed the [Darkness] spell, despite having near perfect night-vision despite the enchantment on her.
“Pieces of parchment? Paper? I have no idea what—wait. Is that Magnolia Reinhart herself?”
Everyone saw the light illuminate the prow of the ship. There stood a woman in a pink dress. She was certainly a grand lady—her hair flashed in the light. A proud…the Admiral hesitated.
“We might be seeing Magnolia Reinhart herself! Wait…is that Magnolia Reinhart?”
Merri was commentating. There was a ripple of confusion as the woman spread her arms out, as if greeting Zeres.
“That’s not Magnolia Reinhart.”
Lord Tyrion took one glance at the scrying orb and told Hethon. Sammial’s breakfast fell off his fork; they were eating.
Hethon was unsure. So were the people in Zeres. Pink dress, standing on the prow of the boat…Tyrion didn’t look twice.
“It’s not her.”
But he was watching out of the corner of his eye.
“Is it Magnolia Reinhart or not? She’s big. The Sharkcaptain might be smaller than her!”
“I heard Magnolia Reinhart’s fat. Eats sugar all the time.”
“Who told you that?”
The arguing voices interrupted the silence as the capital ship drifted closer. The woman stood there, perfectly poised, arms outstretched, welcoming. As if she were the figurehead.
The ranks of silent people on each side of the ship. The two Admirals in the harbor eyed them, tensing. It couldn’t be Magnolia Reinhart; this was a bad spot to put the head of one of the Five Families. One stray [Sniper] could kill her.
And it wasn’t Magnolia. The woman had actually very few passing resemblances to Magnolia aside from…gender? And the pink dress. She was taller than Magnolia, and yes, heavier-set. From afar you could confuse them only so long.
But then the Velistrane was slowing, moving even slower to the docks. And as the silence stretched out—the woman moved at last. She opened her mouth.
And began to sing.
“Through storm and Kraken’s Pass, do I see the shore at last?
Standing tall amidst the waves?
Where Dragonsail flies, my harbor remains.
Zeres, City of Waves to shelter me~?”
It was an operatic voice. The kind of tone and…lungs that even Crowdcaller Merdon would respect. Not just sheer lungpower, but Skills.
The [Singer]’s voice echoed across the harbor, rendering mute the Admirals, the Drake [Marines], even the squabbling Drakes on the television.
It was a deep, commanding voice. But also, so lovely. And she’d done the entire first verse at full-volume and in one breath.
“Now there is a singer I respect.”
So said the [Popstar] of Terandria. She was watching, jotting down the lyrics of the song with a free hand.
But she needn’t have bothered. Merri gasped.
The people of Zeres stirred. It was indeed. And now, as the first verse echoed, the opera singer, the woman on the prow of the Reinhart’s famous warship, was joined by a swell of…song.
The shadowed people on deck were illuminated by more lights. They were revealed as a cellist set bow to instrument, delicately perched on a seat from the middle of the warship. More accompaniment—but the true cavalcade of song came from the massed voices.
Hundreds of [Singers], a choir lined up on each side of the deck joined the lead singer as the music swelled again.
“I shall sail to world’s end and carry my head high
For I have seen my Ancestors fly.
Each land I pass by, each sea I travel
Leads me ever to my glorious home.”
They were singing Zeres’ anthem. At first, the people of Zeres couldn’t believe it. Noass and Sir Relz were trying to say—something—but Drassi was delighted.
You could argue the coin throwing. The Dragon conjured by illusions. But this? This was blatant. Patriotic. More than one Zeres [Soldier] and [Sailor] clapped a claw to their breasts and joined in, despite their officers hesitating.
Part of why it was so hard to deny the…laudation of Zeres were the lyrics. The choir sang on, in perfect voice, a massed voice—so inspiring to hear when done with their level of skill.
“No city shall compare to Zeres’ sights,
No glories safe but the ones I leave behind
Oh come, travellers, and [King] and [Queen]
And speak jealous of where I have been.”
At this point, some of the audience from afar began to listen to the words. Drassi blinked. Noass and Sir Relz stopped fighting.
“What did they just sing? That’s their national anthem? That can’t be Zeres’—wait, have you ever heard their song, Sir Relz?”
“I don’t make a point of listening to other Walled City’s anthems, Noass. Er—is that actually what they sing?”
Yes, it was. And if the two Drakes—their outrage beginning to change targets—thought that that was the most self-aggrandizing part of the song, they hadn’t ever heard Verse 5.
Jaws dropped. The citizens of Manus, Oteslia, Fissival, Pallass, and Salazsar listened, half in outrage, half in wonder. Zeres’ song was…patriotic. But that was Drake anthems for you. If there was anger, it was not at Magnolia Reinhart for choosing it.
Indeed—she had hired the woman known as the Voice of Renar—Miss Terinda Renar—to sing on a world-class stage. And she had given her a choir, a celebration—all seeming to honor Zeres.
One of the Five Families had paid for this, on her dime. And she had not spent anything as low-class as dimes on this event. If she even knew what those were.
The [Singer] and the choir finished the anthem, singing every verse—a rarity since it was a long song that usually only had the first two versus sung—leaving their audience in shock.
Or approval. Yet, the audience realized, one thing was unaccounted for.
Magnolia Reinhart herself. Now, where was she? They saw something interesting too.
The Velistrane was not docking at the harbor. It was turning, as the [Singer] gave a bow and applause came, even from begrudging Drakes. But the ship was turning…having done a perfect U-turn in the harbor while the song commenced.
“What’s happening? Is she…leaving?”
People watching in confusion. But the Velistrane was moving out of harbor. Then—the lights illuminating that grand vessel winked off.
More lights illuminated the empty dock in the center of the harbor. Fit for a ship of the Velistrane’s class. But waiting.
The [Servants] had disembarked from the ships. Some of them. Unnoticed during the song like the best of stage-hands, they had set up something. Now, a huge…red…carpet was being unrolled down the length of the dock, onto the streets.
It was hundreds of feet long. The kind of grandiose thing that seemed more at home with well, stories, than real life. Someone had stitched that thing together. The red carpet unrolled…and unrolled…and more [Servants] were lining the vast carpet, which you could march a military parade down.
They were carrying objects. Now…the Admiral of the Harbor’s senses tingled. But not with [Dangersense].
“They’re carrying something expensive. Lots of expensive artifacts. We should—”
She was pushing towards them with the other Admiral of the Navy when the departing Velistrane issued a sound.
Horns. The brass peal of horns, trumpeting, triumphant. The people staring at the red carpet looked up. And saw, as the warship turned—it.
Of course. The [Darkness] spells began to come undone. From the harbor’s entrance first, and then towards the city itself. Like dawn breaking through darkness. And there it was.
A pink carriage.
Repaired, well, replaced, rather. Not that they would know that. But the most famous, iconic thing about Magnolia Reinhart.
A tub in the water. Well, Reynold would admit that if you didn’t activate the enchantments it rocked a bit. But now—the [Butler] lashed the reins.
And it sped towards Zeres, down the harbor. It had been practically invisible in the darkness and with all the other sights. Now, it shot towards Zeres, into the open harbor mouth at top speed.
Across the waters. Merri was shouting. The wheels of the enchanted carriage were racing on top of the water, cutting through the surf and leaving a vast spray behind it. The spectral horses surged as if it were solid ground.
Everyone watched as the pink carriage moved towards the docks. It would crash—no. The wheels left the surf as the carriage sped, faster than any boat in existence, upwards. Through the air.
Water droplets sprinkled the crowd as the pink carriage slowed. The wheels touched the ground. Then the carpet’s edge.
Reynold parked the coach and hopped off. He opened the door, and stood to attention. As one, the servants lining the way bowed once more.
Everyone in Zeres watched as a figure stepped out of the carriage. The broadcast showed…
Ressa. The taller woman stepped out of the carriage, nodded to the audience, and then helped the [Lady] in the pink dress out. Magnolia wore the same hat she had when she walked on Pallass’ walls. The same dress.
The same smile. She winked at Merri.
“Thank you for the lovely coverage, my dear. Hello, Drassi. Admiralty of Zeres.”
She nodded at the two [Admirals], who jumped as the magical camera panned towards them. Magnolia Reinhart smiled wider. She let Ressa precede her, then the two were side-by-side. They walked down the carpet.
“Please let the First Gardener of Oteslia know I’ve arrived. Oh, and I’ve brought some gifts. Thank you for renting the harbor to me. My ships will be out of your bay momentarily—I just need to unload all my little party favors.”
Magnolia addressed the Admiral of the Harbor as she passed. The Drake opened her mouth.
“Tell the—party f—”
The [Lady] didn’t stop or slow. She walked on, greeting some of the [Maids] or [Butlers] or [Manservants] by name.
“Teln, don’t drop it. It’s glass, not enchanted. I know you wouldn’t, but I worry so. Are those gemstones properly polished, Eary?”
“Absolutely, Lady Reinhart. I will inspect them once we arrive at Oteslia.”
The [Lady] paused, to let the Wistram camera-crew catch up. And then—Drassi, Merri, and the audience caught sight of the artifacts being carried by the servants.
A multicolored glass vase, so delicately blown it seemed the gloved man’s hands might break it if he applied a hair of pressure. A set of jewels in a crown of…bronze? Each one seeming far more expensive than the bronze itself.
Treasures. Some people even recognized. Jaws dropped.
“Did she just say those were party favors to the First Gardener of Oteslia?”
Merri whispered. Magnolia Reinhart turned her head like, well, a shark.
“Oh, no, Merri. I meant to the guests. There’s an event in Oteslia and I couldn’t just come without some. Haven’t you heard?”
Another wink. Ressa nudged Magnolia slightly. She was overdoing it.
But the effect?
“Wait, that’s the Bronze Crown of Manus! We took it from them in war nearly a thousand years back! How does she have—she can’t give it to them!”
Because he was a ghost, Regis Reinhart did not need to stop screaming to draw breath. Which, in fact, he hadn’t, not since catching a glimpse of the first artifacts on display. Magnolia Reinhart had more, as evidenced by the coffers being borne by the servants. But she had put some on display.
“Reynold, bring the carriage up. I simply must thank the Admiralty—is the Admiral of the Supply here? Asale? I have to thank him personally for allowing me my little entrance. I trust it was entertaining? Such a lovely song…my, this carpet gets longer each time I walk down it.”
Magnolia was strolling down the carpet with the servants. The [Combat Butler] was rolling the carriage forwards and it was indeed being loaded with some of the treasures. The rest?
“We have transport and escort for the rest of the treasures, Lady Reinhart.”
Ressa was saying publically, gesturing to some waiting carriages. Of course, that part was show. They’d already moved what needed to be moved on ahead; only the objects on display would be going with the pink carriage. And this time—there would be no ambush in waiting.
That came from the Admiral of the Navy, belatedly realizing that there was something he’d missed. But in truth, it wasn’t his fault.
It was a tactic Magnolia Reinhart had learned from, well, Maviola El. If you said it, they would believe it. She laughed.
“Oh, Admiral Krallow. You do like your jests. I hope to see you there. I don’t think the Matriarch said if she was going…? But I will quite like to see Oteslia. City of Growth. I’d love to stay in the City of Waves, but I’m a teensy bit behind schedule. I do so like to settle in and it doesn’t do to just roll up to the event on the day, does it?”
Magnolia was heading towards the pink carriage, which had replaced itself at the head of the carpet. But there was one last thing.
Or perhaps she had anticipated it. She looked at Ressa, and the [Maid] gave her a slight nod. She looked ahead at Reynold. And he had it ready. Bundled up in the carriage…it had made a nice blanket. Now, he covertly handed one of the [Servants] a long pole.
“Magnolia of House Reinhart.”
Someone stopped Magnolia Reinhart before she could make her grand departure. The [Lady] smiled.
“Sharkcaptain of Zeres.”
“You know me.”
Femar’s voice was flat. He held the famous spear idly. He was watching Ressa as much as Magnolia. And she eyed him.
Asale and two other members of the Admiralty of Zeres had joined the Sharkcaptain of Zeres. He bared his teeth as Magnolia Reinhart halted.
Auras met in the air. This was Zeres, his home. Femar’s eyes narrowed. Magnolia smiled.
“Admiral Asale. My thanks for allowing me passage.”
“Of course, Lady Reinhart.”
The Drake was watching her, curious, but also Femar. The Sharkcaptain frowned. Then, conscious of the others watching the silent clash of auras, smiled wider.
“The Serpentine Matriarch was quite pleased by your tribute to Zeres, Magnolia Reinhart.”
“Thank you, Femar. I do so enjoy it when my hard work is appreciated. Please, tell Ieneessa I appreciate the compliment.”
The [Lady] gave him an icy smile. Asale sighed as the Sharkcaptain blinked. He was the wrong person to try and dance with Magnolia—at least with words.
“The Matriarch of Zeres enjoyed the display.”
Femar began again, lying through his teeth. He eyed the Crown of Manus—the bronze one—being slowly carried past him. Idly, he lowered the spear.
The [Maid] holding it halted. Asale was impressed; the woman knew what was coming, it seemed, but it was still impressive to not flinch or even blink at the Sharkcaptain’s spear as it halted in front of her chest.
“There is just one thing, Lady Reinhart. Before you leave Zeres—it seems you’ve brought quite a number of objects to bring to an Oteslian party?”
“Party favors, Femar. Do keep up.”
He flushed slightly. There was a ripple of laughter. The Sharkcaptain’s teeth ground—then he caught himself.
“Yes. Well, you are free to head to Oteslia. The First Gardener has invited you, after all. Just as soon as we ascertain the value of all your gifts and collect a proper import tax.”
Someone made a sound in the crowd. Magnolia Reinhart didn’t blink. But she did sigh.
“Oh dear. Really?”
“Surely you knew the laws of a Walled City before you arrived?”
Asale wanted to shake his head. Since he was on television, he did not. Merri made an incredulous sound.
“But they’re gifts…”
The Sharkcaptain heard her.
“Gifts or not, artifacts are taxed if they are meant to be exchanged.”
“But I will not receive anything in return.”
“Goodwill could be considered an exchange.”
The Admiral of Supply kept his face blank. This was petty—Zeres didn’t do this for other people. Nor, if they kept to this implementation of the law, would they be one of the most active harbors in the world.
He’d argued against. But the Serpentine Matriarch? She was what was politely called ‘petty’ at times.
Magnolia Reinhart eyed the spear blocking her servant’s path.
“I do not believe other [Merchants] or [Captains] need pay a tax on gifts, Femar of Zeres. Is this a new rule or will it be applied across all ships from now on?”
His eyes narrowed. Asale stepped in before he could respond.
“I believe the Serpentine Matriarch’s will extends only to such notable events as these, Lady Reinhart. As she phrased it—an appropriate measure of tradition for a Human family with old ties to the Walled Cities.”
That was one way of putting it. There was laughter—and this time at Magnolia’s expense. The crowd, who was marginally on her side, didn’t seem to think this was too much to ask.
Magnolia Reinhart on the other hand? Asale didn’t like her smile. Femar was happy. But he had failed to notice what Asale made a point of noticing.
She wasn’t surprised by any of this. And he didn’t like that one bit. That meant she’d planned around this. And you know what they said about Reinharts.
They always laughed last. Usually over the dead corpses of their enemies.
“Femar, this really is troubling. I had intended to be on my way within, well, five minutes ago. But a delay to inspect, not to mention calculate the worth of all the objects I am carrying? Why, I don’t think I brought a big enough purse, do you, Ressa?”
Magnolia admitted after a moment. The [Maid] shook her head.
“One imagines the value to be considerably difficult to transport in a bag of holding, milady, even a tax.”
Femar’s eyes glittered. The other Drakes looked eager.
“Well, we can always arrange partial payment. Say, one or two of the artifacts? Never let it be said that Zeres isn’t willing to bargain to make sure everyone’s satisfied!”
He threw out a huge arm. More laughter. Magnolia looked up at him.
“Indeed. But you know, Femar…”
His eyes snapped back down as her aura pushed at his. He glared at the use of his name. Magnolia’s smile developed an edge. And she looked around for Merri and the scrying orb.
“I am rather disappointed. I come here in peace and goodwill, as you saw. I rather feel I bent to show my respect for Zeres. This hardly seems in keeping with my gesture.”
He opened his mouth. She went on.
“However, you are right. We have such old ties. The Velistrane reminds me of that. If you would like me to answer the Matriarch’s will as she presents it through you—I would be willing to do so.”
Her eyes glinted.
“But I am quite good at games of economics. It is one of my two strengths.”
The laughter and chuckling died out. Femar’s eyes narrowed. Slowly, he planted the butt of his spear on the ground.
“You stand in Zeres, Magnolia of House Reinhart. If you want to try something, go ahead.”
Asale murmured, but his friend was too angry to listen to reason. Magnolia Reinhart smiled sweetly at him.
“I never thought you’d ask. Well then. For Zeres, the City of Waves? I rather did not want to do this. But it seems a traditional city like this requires a traditional reply. Reynold.”
She looked past the Sharkcaptain. Asale’s neck-spines itched. He turned—
And saw the pole.
It was a pole of wood. Reynold had, in fact, assembled it. It was in multiple parts—you locked the wood together.
Nothing fancy. Just smart-cutting, something Pallass would approve of. But as old as, well log cabins. No magic.
It created a pole far taller than the carriage, that was the point. A long stick. You couldn’t even really use it as a quarterstaff unless you were giant. That wasn’t the point, though.
His eyes narrowed. So did Femar’s. So did…because of course, what did that kind of instrument make you think of?
What was it Sir Relz had said?
“The first Reinhart to set foot in the City of Zeres in generations. The first of the Five Families to walk in one of the Walled Cities in…and not as a prisoner.”
A symbol. Think of laws. Magnolia Reinhart had.
Were there laws against…? Femar began to stride towards the carriage.
“You. Put that down.”
Reynold had a bit of fabric in one hand. He had looped it; it was meant to be carried aloft in a similar manner. He glanced at Femar, but ignored the Sharkcaptain.
The Drake’s steps quickened. Reynold handed the pole’s base to a [Maid]. Another maid joined them. They began to haul it up.
Femar raised his spear, but it was too late. Merri saw one of the Admirals go for the scrying orb. But she was already turning.
The pole rose. And attached to it, the fabric. Or could you call it…a banner? A flag?
If you would press me thusly—Magnolia Reinhart watched as the Sharkcaptain leapt forwards, too late. Asale looked at her.
Claw for claw? Insult for insult? He held his breath. The Matriarch watched, shrieking her fury as the banner—
“The Banner of Reinhart! That girl! Hah! Hahahaha!”
Regis was shouting in exuberance, all his rage transformed. His eyes locked on the fabric. Then his face twisted in confusion.
“That’s not the Banner of House Reinhart. The Banner of Terland?”
Lord Tyrion Veltras muttered. But he was already shaking his head. It wasn’t that either. It was—different. It was more colorful than even the Banner of the Terlands.
It was—his eyes widened.
A color lost to time. Colors lost to time. And it was fabric. It was…blowing in the air. That much everyone had gotten right. But they were wrong in one huge, important detail.
It was not a flag. It was not a banner.
Behold. It flapped in the breeze—then caught the air. Nearly blew the three [Servants] off their feet. They held it steady, but it could have yanked them into the sky if the breeze were stronger. It had been meant for a far larger thing than just them.
A…ship. And what blew as they held it aloft was a beautiful thing. Wrought before even the Five Families had planted their standards on Izril’s soil.
Though time and war had damaged it, though its beloved vessel had been lost, still, it retained its beauty.
The Dragonsail fluttered in the breeze as the Sharkcaptain of Zeres stopped. His spear was ready to cast, to tear it down. But his arm halted.
He froze, eyes wide. The Drakes stared up and cried out.
“A Dragonsail? But the Dragonships were—”
“Lost. The Velistrane sank one in combat long ago.”
Asale murmured. And he understood. He looked at Magnolia Reinhart. She was smiling at him. At Femar, as he turned—and for the cameras.
It was not a nice smile. But neither was it as cruel as it could have been.
“Yes. The Dragonsail. We kept it. We keep everything. That is my reply.”
The Admiralty started. Magnolia Reinhart gestured at the impromptu banner hanging in the wind.
“It is in your anthem, isn’t it? And this is Zeres, City of Waves. City of tradition. Dragonsail. Friend. By your laws, those who fly the Dragonsail are kin to your city. I claim right of passage, exempt from the Matriarch’s will under that. Or will Wyrm overturn the will of Dragons?”
She stood in place, beaming around at everyone. Asale saw her glance up as the wind threatened to snatch away the relic again.
“I didn’t want to be this direct.”
She murmured, as if to herself. Asale shook his head. But she’d planned every event so far. He doubted they’d been far off her reckoning.
So there it was. The choir, the coins, even the song of Zeres from the mightiest of the Reinhart’s ships for Zeres, all of it was so lovely. Wrapped up with a pink bow.
This was the other half. Dragonsail. Look at it and remember. Magnolia Reinhart sighed.
“My gifts are many things we’ve kept over the years. I hope to give back some—and spread goodwill. But we shall see at the party. In Oteslia; I bid you all adieu until then. Asale, my regards to the Matriarch. You have a lovely city.”
She walked to the carriage as the Dragonsail was lowered. The carpet was rolled up. The [Servants] not accompanying her headed back to the ships. It was so fast that it caught them all off-guard. Magnolia Reinhart’s pink carriage shot through the city.
And there she was. Almost as fast as rumor. Almost as quickly as news. As gossip and rumor spread—
Lady Magnolia Reinhart had entered the land of the Drakes. She was headed for Oteslia.
She was not the only one. Here came a [Princess]. Hither travelled a [Lady], and Wall Lords and Ladies.
And a Dragon.
Author’s Note: It’s done. I had actually debated having…every part of this chapter later in Volume 8. It’s about timing, you see. Sometimes some chapter are better here rather than there, and perhaps that’s for when you finish the story to edit it, move stuff around.
I think, and hope, this fits here. Perhaps it’s better somewhere else, but it’s done and I’m writing chapter by chapter.
Did you enjoy it? From this chapter to the next! We have a lot of ground to cover, but I think we got decently far. Even if boats are slower than pink carriages.
Not all will be this long; I’m actually hoping I can make them a bit shorter. But you know me and promises. We’ll see what happens! Volume 8 is beginning! Strong! Weak? Pink? Thanks for reading!
The Free Queen and the Mirror by LeChatDemon, Commissioned by Richi!
Stash with all the TWI related art: https://sta.sh/222s6jxhlt0
Antinium War, Foliana, Gazi, and more by HolyChicken!
Reinhart Crest, Veltras Crest, Laken, Erin, Maviola, and more by Tomeo! (Laken made by Picrew Image Maker).