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“…another defeat for the Dawn Concordat today, after a night-battle we were unable to broadcast. Details are still coming in, but the facts are the facts, isn’t that right, Miss Drassi?”
“Until we find out the facts were wrong, Sir Relz, yes.”
“Ahem. What we do know is that Ailendamus launched a surprise attack on the city of…‘Gerex’, am I pronouncing that right? With some kind of alchemical or magical explosive. Hence the sneak attack; our monitoring of the impending battlefield may have actually necessitated the event.”
“The real question is: did they do something that violates Terandria’s conduct of war, Sir Relz?”
“We have no proof to that indication, Miss Drassi—”
“Right. So why did they attack at night? Just the element of surprise?”
“It is a viable tactic to one versed in strategy, Miss Drassi.”
“Well, Sir Relz—to someone not versed in the art of war, poison gas spells seem like a violation of Terandria’s rules of war. But guess who used it?”
Drassi and Sir Relz were not amiable co-hosts like Noass and Sir Relz were. But that just made for better television, so they got put together for the Ailendamus coverage.
People liked Drassi’s forked-tongue-in-cheek commentary. Other people, who sometimes overlapped with the first, appreciated Sir Relz’s perspective as someone who often linked events to ongoing economic or business factors, and had a working knowledge of adventurer teams, nations, and so on that Drassi lacked.
It was another defeat for the Dawn Concordat. Fair was fair; Ailendamus outnumbered the three nations in landmass, population, and every other factor except ‘number of royal [Princesses]’, ‘tamed Griffins’, or ‘half-Elf population’ in large ways.
However, analysts were quick to point out reasons for the failure or success on the part of the Dawn Concordat. Ailendamus was the established aggressor. They fielded multiple armies of high-quality troops, Greatbow artillery, [Mages], [Knights]—it was simplistic to say they were ‘average’, but perhaps ‘well-rounded without noticeable flaw’ was more appropriate.
They were hard to beat with cheap tactics, as a good army should be, unlike, say, specialized armies that were infantry-specific, or all-bow, and so on and so forth.
The Dawn Concordat was interesting. They had excellent archers from Gaiil-Drome, and half-Elf forces to call upon. Griffins from Kaliv, as well as goat-cavalry. And Calanfer had the Thronebearers as well as strong political strength—and six [Princesses], three of whom were married, as well as the Second Prince, so four strong alliances with nearby kingdoms.
However…some unique factors had entered the war.
The first was the immortal Griffin Prince of Kaliv, who had now slain three major officers in ambushes or full-out-assaults. The first attack had been notable, but he had still killed two more officers in incredible feats of non-mortal ability.
Dropped from the skies to slaughter an enemy command.
Challenging the enemy [General] to a duel and slaying him after eighteen ‘deaths’, despite the enchanted weapons and poisons brought to end him permanently.
And the last and most notable—adopting an Antinium war tactic. Emerging from the ground after having been buried there while the enemy camped, killing the enemy leader, and fleeing.
It was the kind of thing a depressed Anand could watch all day. The [Strategist] sat in a lump in the middle of blankets, with a bunch of Free Antinium, curled up, eating ‘ramen’, or the recipe Erin had once fed them.
Specialty noodles made of a non-flour substitute, thick and chewy. Flavored and seasoned hot water which you boiled them in, and added meat, egg, and bugs. Preparable in a large pot.
Imani had actually figured out the way to make it Antinium-edible. Squash could be noodled. Lentils could be noodled. Erin had been appalled by how many things could challenge the sanctity of regular noodles.
But she had come up with the idea, so Anand liked to remember it as it being ‘her’ ramen. She’d taught Garry and him and Pawn and Bird one happy, boring day. And he’d been shocked to realize that such happiness could grow boring compared to his old life.
Bird had added only turkey, goose, and chicken meat to his ramen. Anand went slurp as he watched the glowing scrying orb.
Yes, the Griffin Prince was extraordinary. The fact that he used Antinium-tactics made Anand…happy. Or intrigued or…something. He would have been that, rather.
If Erin weren’t dead and the world collapsed into meaningless oblivion.
But a surprising flaw had also emerged and it was the golden [Knights] of Calanfer. The Thronebearers.
They had lost battles because, when relied on for their martial might and to be the sledgehammer of the vanguard, they were more like a mallet. They were just…not…good.
And everyone was mocking them. From their fellow Orders to the [Strategist] commentators to the Drakes to…
“The Armored Antinium can be fielded in larger numbers than these elite [Knights]. And achieve the same, if not greater effect since they do not retreat as much as they do. This is my derision. I am mean. Ahaha.”
Anand spoke dully. Two of the Free Antinium huddled in the mass of blankets and food looked at him. Archer A11 slurped down a noodle. Goat nodded once.
The Free Antinium did not move. They just watched TV. Erin had said that was what one did when sad things happened. Blanket, TV, food. Anand had remembered it.
It didn’t help much. But it was something to do. The Free Antinium had been broken by the news—those in the Hivelands, that was. Belgrade and the [Crusaders] prepared for war.
But no one was testing boats here—other Antinium were doing it and doing a bad job. Anand refused to move, though.
Even when the Grand Queen poked him. She stared at the huddle of Antinium in her throne room, watching TV.
“Anand. Do you intend to spend another day in mourning?”
The Grand Queen, on her mound in the center of the cavernous room, commanding the Antinium of Izril…stared down at Anand. She had tried threats, bullying, persuasion, waiting—it had not occurred to her to try to be nice. She opened and closed her mandibles.
“When will you finish this waste of time? It was one Human—”
Anand looked up. He met the Queen’s gaze. And the Custodium surrounding the Grand Queen stirred as he replied, openly, without a hint of subservience.
“It is not for you to tell me when to stop mourning, my Queen.”
The Queen saw him turn back to watching the scrying orb. After a minute, Goat turned up the volume. The Grand Queen opened and closed her mandibles as her antennae worked frantically. If he was not so necessary—the Free Antinium—
She just wished they’d stop watching in her throne room. It was getting distracting.
“…Just don’t see how these Thronebearers are losing so badly. For [Knights], you’d expect some great strength. But we’re not seeing aura abilities, poison, unique mounts…really feels like Calanfer is letting down their alliance in terms of contributions so far.”
Commentary from a Balerosian [Strategist]. Who knew so much about the Thronebearers of Calanfer. If you knew them—
…You knew that was sort of accurate. The Thronebearers of Calanfer were not among the most militant [Knight] orders. The truth was, they were good on parade. They were excellent diplomats compared to many. They were large enough, numbering in the thousands; she had never actually known their numbers, but they were large for a [Knight] order. Maybe over ten thousand of them?
But they were not the most fantastic [Knights]. They had strong members…a few…but to see it now was to see their weakness.
And it hurt. It hurt, because the commentary was truthful and also inaccurate, but impossible to refute. More than that?
It was her home. And it hurt to see spectacle made of war threatening everything she had known.
Lyonette du Marquin could still not look away. And even now, on the last leg of her journey to Oteslia, after three—no, four days counting this morning—of almost non-stop riding in the enchanted carriage with Ferris, Wilovan, Ratici, and Saliss, she was still watching.
“Somewhat rude, that woman. They fought hard.”
Wilovan delicately adjusted his hat in the carriage. Perhaps he might have made a more indecorous remark in private company, but with the young lady so passionate about her kingdom and their protectors, a man had to choose his words.
“Fellows fought hard and moved out when things were lost. Fight another day.”
The two Gentlemen Callers exchanged a glance as Lyonette didn’t look away from the glowing scrying orb. They felt like their tongues would have been better suited if they were silver. At least then, they’d have an excuse for not being encouraging. Not their strong suit.
On the other hand, the naked Drake lying across his entire half of the carriage on the padded seats—his front objectionably facing the sky, without a blanket for modesty—spoke without even an attempt at preserving anyone’s feelings.
“They suck. Lyonette. Hey, Lyonette. If I walked into their headquarters with all of them there, think I could take all of them on, or are they as bad as they look?”
He poked her in the leg. The carriage was not that large, and he used his tail with dexterity. The [Princess] didn’t reply…for about ten pokes.
Wilovan swatted the tail on poke eleven. Saliss gave him a look.
“Miss Marquin is having a…difficult day, sir. A bit of kindness isn’t unwarranted, a man should think.”
The Gnoll addressed Saliss stiffly. Saliss was…hard to enjoy when he was being Saliss. He could be a great friend. But there was such a thing as ‘too much’ of one person. Especially Saliss.
And they’d been cooped up in this carriage for four days. Saliss bared his teeth.
“Well, I’m a big believer in not lying…about hopeless causes. And they look pretty inept to me.”
Wilovan was just drawing breath when Lyonette muttered.
“The champion of their order hasn’t taken to the field. Fa—the [King] must be holding back all the high-level ones as well.”
All eyes swung to her. Ratici leaned over, in the midst of playing a version of solitaire with himself—and getting annoyed since he was making Ratici’s life harder by cheating.
“They call him the Lightherald of Calanfer.”
For a moment, she was far away. Far away—and back in time. And she was in Calanfer.
Home. Oh, but it had been so long, despite being less than a full year! A lifetime ago.
And now she remembered it, it was as the Lyonette of now. Not the Lyonette who walked around calling people ‘peon’ and being used to servants and being so constantly, secretly miserable.
She remembered the Eternal Throne of Calanfer. She remembered her family and how she had acted. She was ashamed.
And fearful for this war. Because she knew Terandrian politics. She knew Ailendamus.
They won’t destroy Calanfer, even if the Dawn Concordat loses. They’ll just make them subservient. Father wouldn’t give in even if the armies were at the gates of the palace. He’s cunning. He’ll sign a deal…the other kingdoms won’t allow the Dawn Concordat to just vanish. Some land taken, vassalization—not be destroyed or the crowns eradicated.
But what if Ailendamus just decides to take everything? Who will stop them?
To prevent the fears rising up in her chest—as if she needed more—Lyonette spoke. The coach was quiet; Ferris drove in the front, and it was muffled. The windows were shut, and Lyonette looked at an image.
A shining [Knight] in armor. The first time he had walked into the throne room and knelt, the radiance of his aura had made the child wonder. She had thought her father commanded the greatest of warriors the world had ever seen.
The thousandth time, she was tired of the pageantry. The ten thousandth…
“The Lightherald of Calanfer? Never heard of him. Is he good?”
Ratici saw Wilovan try to kick Saliss’ tail. The [Alchemist] twitched it out of the way. Lyonette shook her head, smiling bitterly.
“It’s not one person, Saliss. It’s a royal title. And it’s a trick. My f—”
She hesitated. Then gave up. Wilovan, Ratici, Saliss…knew. She hadn’t been good with her guise.
“My father, King Reclis…has a Skill. He bestows the power of Calanfer on his chosen [Knight] and they gain a powerful aura. Skills.”
[Boon of the Throne]. That was why she knew her own boon Skill, had been so enamored of it. She knew the true power. Saliss sat up slightly.
“Oh. Interesting. And you said there are higher-level [Knights]?”
“Yes. Thronebearers get auras of light. Blinding, and they have enchanted armor. Good enchantments…I thought so. But father won’t commit them until he has to.”
“Seems like Kaliv is in trouble.”
Lyonette shook her head. It looked like that, but…
“Those are low-lying cities. Once Ailendamus besieges the higher-altitude settlements—that’s when the danger begins. Or if they try to push through the passes.”
“Ah. Then perhaps the news is exaggerating the situation, Miss Marquin?”
Wilovan suggested. Lyonette looked at him. Then at the orb.
“No. They’re in trouble.”
She bowed her head. The carriage fell silent, even Saliss. Then…Lyonette felt the momentum slow for the first time that day.
“Passengers, Miss Marquin, Adventurer Saliss and company—we have arrived at Oteslia at last.”
Ferris’ deeply relieved voice sounded via the embedded speaking stone in the wall of the coach. Lyonette pulled down the window.
Oteslia at last. She stared at the City of Growth and the central, vast tree behind the walls. Around the overgrown walls, covered in massive vines, she saw the Walled City was surrounded by a vast…moat? No, a lake in truth. Defense and water source.
Countless floating rafts seemed to be semi-permanently stationed here. Lyonette saw birds—so many of them—flying about. Animals, on the walls themselves! And in the sky, among the smaller fliers—
Pegasi. Oldblood Drakes, too. She stared at the Walled City known for its agriculture and forgot about Calanfer for a moment. For here—
She had come here to bring back a friend. A member of her family in Liscor.
For hope. It had been too long already. Saliss sighed as he leaned out the window.
“About time. I thought you said this coach was fast. We’re not tipping!”
Ferris turned and gave the Drake a look.
Four days to Oteslia from Pallass was incredibly fast. You were going down the main roads, true, which cut down on dangers like monster attacks or bandits, but only an enchanted carriage could dream of doing that.
It was a good part of the south! So, Ferris being part of the best travelling company in all of Izril had seemed like a stroke of luck.
The one stroke of luck in the midst of the worst thing ever.
Lyonette du Marquin sat with Mrsha. Holding her. She was weeping—but she had long since plumbed the depths of that well.
“Why? Why now? Why—”
Why like that? Hectval? Of all the things…
Numbtongue sat on the hill. Mrsha didn’t move. Bird had locked himself in his room. Everyone was grieving.
Erin lay in the [Garden of Sanctuary] and only a miracle would cure her.
So a miracle the [Princess] had to find. It had not been easy. She spent days grieving. Hoping…but none came.
She said goodbye to Mrsha, even though it was like tearing at her chest with a barbed hook. She begged the Gentlemen Callers for aid—but they gave it without even naming a price.
She went to Saliss. He was already preparing to leave himself.
“We’ll go together, then.”
Lyonette had gone to Ferris, relieved. She had gotten in the carriage and…left.
Left her daughter behind.
Left the inn, and Erin lying there.
Left, promising to return, carrying all the gold she could take, chasing madness.
An antidote? A potion to cure mortal wounds and a frozen body? A means to unfreeze Erin while keeping her from dying completely?
Geneva Scala had written the problem, not the method. She had been frank about the odds. But Lyonette had seen no other way, no other place to go than Oteslia. The Healer of Tenbault? She knew the odds of getting in there.
She had cried, missing Mrsha on the first night they camped. The second night, the third…
She was on the fourth day. Lyonette felt naught but guilt at how Mrsha had begged her to stay. But it was dangerous. She had to hurry. Hurry, to find a panacea.
The Eternal Throne of Calanfer—the official name for the crown and capital city of Calanfer—was a wondrous place.
Lyonette compared every great feat of architecture to it; she had never had to in Liscor because, er…there was no competition.
But now, seeing Oteslia, an overgrown wonder for any [Druid] or a nightmare for a [Gardener], in front of her, she had to compare it to Calanfer.
And everywhere was found wanting.
She had gone through First Landing. She had left Pheislant, but seen the palace from afar, and gone to dances and gatherings in other nations.
Nowhere was as fine, as majestic, as…amazing as Calanfer. They were comparable in other ways; Invrisil was a wonderful trading city. Pallass, one of the great Walled Cities of old, and so on.
But Calanfer was built out of, on top of, something that had existed perhaps before Pallass itself. It was a kind of open secret; no one talked about it directly, but most royal families probably knew, and especially the ruling one of Calanfer.
The Eternal Throne was, in fact, a Dragonthrone, one of the ancient seats of power used by Dragons in eras when there were Dragonlords.
A relic—no Dragonthrone was alike, some were contained worlds, others had apparently been mobile, according to the legends—Calanfer had been founded on one. Of course, people knew the throne was magic.
How could you not stare at the golden staircase ascending to the heavens, the great dais where you walked on air until you came to the Eternal Throne and knelt before the [King] of Calanfer and [Queen]?
What they forgot was that the Dragonthrone was more than…the throne. And in fact, the ‘Eternal Throne’ was built for Humans, and the entire dais was in fact the original throne, altered for the new rulers.
They forgot that…everything was the Dragonthrone. For more than one Dragon had been meant to sit in conclave, or as guests.
So when you marveled about Calanfer’s streets, the nigh-indestructible inner city, carved of shining rock and metal and the comparatively paltry outer city, but founded on the glowing roads and walkways that invigorated you just to tread upon? When you gazed upon the six gates to the city, each fortified with dread magic?
…Those had been thrones. The buildings had been constructed out of other thrones, and the roads had been part of the Dragonthrone. The power that made those gates so dangerous to assail, the power in the throne?
The Dragonthrone’s original power, taken.
Lyonette had been shocked to learn that. She had always assumed the place had been made by half-Elves, Dwarves, great Human [Masons] of old. The truth was painful, especially because every Calanfer citizen visited the Eternal Throne and the city once in their lives.
It was like becoming an adult. Until you had seen the wonder of the city, knelt before the monarch and known your kingdom was made of greatness the likes of which other kingdoms could not aspire to—you had not known your homeland.
That was why Calanfer’s people were devoted, the [Knights] even named ‘Thronebearers’. There were even laws about spitting or emptying chamber pots in the streets. The Eternal Throne was kept clean and you could be beaten by law—or just by anyone who saw you at the time.
So. Compared to that, Oteslia was…different. The untidy greenery of it all, the rampant nature actually offended Lyonette’s sensibilities at first. Who would let those gigantic roots and vines cover the walls?
But then she saw it as the world’s greatest garden and had to respect that. Especially since Oteslia could feed all six Walled Cities in times of need and produced every variety of herb, root, plant, and many livestock animals you could name. And hopefully—all the things needed to counteract Hectval’s poison.
“You can cure it, can’t you?”
The four passengers had disembarked to stretch as Oteslia came into view. They saw the ‘bridge’ to the Walled City was in fact similar to Liscor’s. Floating wooden structures that could be sunk.
“I could cure it if she was up. I have six antidotes that worked on the sample you gave me.”
Saliss was slowly gyrating his hips—then stretching one arm over his body, the next—some of the people in vehicles exiting or entering the city were staring.
“And you didn’t mention that because…?”
The Drake saw Lyonette’s stare. He shrugged.
“None of them work on frozen bodies. That’s my problem, Lyonette. I’ve never had to apply something to an ice cube.”
“Don’t call Erin that!”
Lyonette was shocked by the flippant tone in his voice. But one look at Saliss’ eyes made her stop. He grinned; the grin never reached his pupils.
“Fine. Ice-girl. Better?”
Wilovan shifted. He hadn’t noticed Saliss’ eyes, and the trick of reading him there. Erin had taught that to Lyonette; she noticed stuff like that.
Wilovan and Ratici, though, were so unlike Saliss. Criminals, but honorable ones. And Saliss was so different from Lyonette…
What a motley crew. Lyonette shook her head. The only normal person was Ferris, and she felt bad for the poor Gnoll. He’d been carrying them here at a very reasonable price.
“Ferris? We’re ready to go.”
The water-bridge was large enough for multiple vehicles on the left-hand side to roll in, while ones on the right came out. There was little delay, but no one was zooming across the deep, deep lake. That gave Lyonette plenty of time to eye the curious floating objects on the water.
They looked like rafts, at first. But when she looked closer she realized.
“Saliss. You’ve been to Oteslia before, yes?”
“Yup. My second—no, third-most visited city. First is Pallass, second’s Manus. Third is Oteslia, fourth is Salazsar for gemstones. Fifth is Fissival, sixth is Zeres.”
Lyonette hadn’t asked for his ranking. She saw he was sticking his butt out the carriage window, mooning the passing people to let his tail swing in the breeze.
“…Why are you doing that?”
“Because they’re screaming at me. What’s your question, Lyonette?”
He grinned. The [Princess] had forgotten. She listened to Drakes shouting insults at Ferris and Saliss, then stared out the lakeside window. Wilovan was looking at Ratici and the Drake was shrugging.
“Oh, yes. What are those floating rafts? They look…no one’s living on them, or fishing. Well, some are.”
Saliss popped back onto her side. He peered out and Lyonette pointed to Gnolls and Drakes on the rafts. They weren’t really…paddling. Some were fishing, but that seemed like a secondary thing to their main occupation. He grinned.
“Ah, yes. Those are [Farmers].”
“Mhm. They’re using floating gardens. Never seen one before? Look, I think some are harvesting.”
Indeed, now he explained it, it all made sense. Lyonette saw them tending to crops sewn into floating gardens! The rafts were made of dried roots, or something buoyant, and the soil held evenly-spaced crops which loved water. The fishing [Farmers] were actually on their breaks.
“Yep. That’s Oteslia for you. If someone grew something, they found out how to do it. See? The floating beds aren’t the only lakeside agriculture. They have fisheries along the edges and from the city. And there—that’s where all the rice in Izril comes from so we don’t import it from Baleros.”
He pointed to paddies along the lake. Lyonette peered at the submerged rice growing there.
Paddies, floating raft-gardens—and they hadn’t even entered the City of Growth. She shook her head.
“We—haven’t talked much about Oteslia.”
“Too busy mourning. Well, I’m here so I’ll be your guide until we find someone better.”
“You know your way around? And you’ll help us?”
The Named-rank Adventurer looked at Lyonette. He hesitated, opened his mouth to make a flippant remark, and sighed.
“Yes. I have to buy a lot of my stock since I’m out of potions. But yes. It won’t be easy, you know. I don’t have a lot of weight in Oteslia; even the old man doesn’t. Different cities, different rules, and Pallass fights Oteslia as much as helps it.”
He meant Chaldion. Lyonette nodded.
“I’ll do whatever it takes. But do you know where to start?”
Saliss scratched at his head. He turned his dusky yellow scales to catch the light.
“I think I do. I don’t have a lot of weight…but I do have some contacts. I just hope I don’t annoy them, showing up relatively unannounced. Tact, people. Let’s remember decorum and politeness while we’re at a new city. Obviously.”
Lyonette, Wilovan, and Ratici stared at Saliss. The [Alchemist] stared out the window, deliberately oblivious.
They were already doomed.
It was an interesting time in Oteslia. The city was at war with the Walled City of Zeres.
…But then, it had been for months now. And the enemy armies were fighting sporadically to the south. Mercenary forces doing most of the work.
It was mostly the expense that had people groaning. But Zeres was trying to impose tariffs on exported produce, so what could you do but go to war? Drake city politics.
More of actual note was Magnolia Reinhart’s arrival to Oteslia. She had landed at Zeres two days ago, and already entered the City of Growth. Now, the gathering at Oteslia was attracting attention.
People were arriving to meet the first member of the Five Families to walk in the south for centuries. Not all as her ally.
To say it was troublesome was to underplay the First Gardener’s migraine. And she had at least one per week. She took all kinds of medicinal aids.
Pills, supplements, medicine—it was an ongoing struggle the last four Gardeners had suffered from.
The problem was that healing potions healed wounds. Mental pain—or migraines brought on by stress—were harder to solve. You could drug yourself into not feeling it, but how could you work?
Effective painkillers—she gulped down a pill from the isles of Drath she’d used her meager budget to purchase and grimaced.
Barely effective. But it did do something. The First Gardener, Shaerrha Brasswing, suffered on. She had lots to do. This Magnolia Reinhart had brought trouble; of course she’d known the Five Families could be dangerous, but this was more than she’d bargained for. The Serpentine Matriarch, already at odds with Oteslia, was holding a grudge. And all these dignitaries from abroad, as well as the Meeting of Tribes bringing a lot of foreign trade to the city—
Oteslia was closest to the Gnoll Plains, and thus actually in a position to benefit—or suffer if the Meeting of Tribes brought conflict.
So, Magnolia, Zeres, Gnoll tribes—and that was only the big stuff. There were the [Strategists] with their wounded friend still attracting [Bounty Hunters] after their artifacts, aftereffects of the Golden Triangle scam, which had impoverished the poorest of the Walled City’s citizens, the Demon’s Curse…
And always, always, the cause of her migraines, her stress, and yes, affection and pride at times, her adopted son.
Cire. Cirediel Anvi’dualln Olicuemerdn, to be precise.
The Dragon of Oteslia, the boy—not yet grown, not for another century—who was the reason the First Gardeners had a lifespan twenty years shorter than average. Stress.
And it wasn’t just the First Gardener who had to deal with Cire, oh no. She just had to clean up after his messes, and act as his mother.
The real challenge was faced by the people on the front, the unsung heroes who worked every day.
Mivifa Selifscale, Named Adventurer of Oteslia, spent up to an hour in front of the vanity every morning.
Which was ironic because her careful attention to the makeup, copious expenditure on potions and creams and other beauty products wasn’t for her—not really. She grimaced as she checked for grey in her scales; added a bit of color here, tried to remove some wrinkles here.
The Oldblood of Feathers, as she was known, was a famous adventurer. She could sprout wings of feathers due to her connection with her Pegasi companion. She was the highest-level [Beast Master]-[Rider] adventurer in all of Oteslia, perhaps all of Izril now that Tritel, the Moonlight Rider, was dead.
It gave her no pleasure to hear of his death. She thought about that, and Ci, the horse part of the duo. What was happening to her?
When she had time, she’d head north and check. But Mivifa was one of the types of adventurers who was always busy. No cycle of extreme danger and then long relaxation for her, like some who had made it to the top.
Every day she had something to do. And that something began the moment she finished her scrupulous routine.
Unlike Humans, sagging skin wasn’t really a Drake thing. No, it was discolored scales—wrinkles did appear, in a sense—but also just how your neck spines were, the vibrancy of color.
It sometimes shocked people who got to know her how much the Oldblood of Feathers spent on beauty products, especially those to make her young. But as quirks for Named Adventurers went, it was a mild one. Most had some weird flaw or obsession; so what if the female Drake wanted to look like she was still in her twenties, despite being twice that age? Let it be. She was responsible, without scandal, and a hero of her city.
The truth was, Mivifa would have done away with all the beauty products and time spent if she could.
But it wasn’t for her.
So, Mividel Maxiclaw, no relation to the Named Adventurer, Silver-rank in her twenties, exited her relatively modest apartment an hour after waking. And stretching; you had to stretch. She already knew someone would be waiting for her.
“Mivi, what’s on the wing?”
A Drake folded his arms and leaned against the doorway. It was the kind of lean with attitude. He spoke casually, without formality; his neck-spines were oiled back, and he had on a trendy jacket and shorts. He was Oldblood; his wings were long and vermillion, like his scales.
“Fetale, I was just monking out over breakfast. I am good to fly today. Where’s Cire?”
The Drake raised one thumb-claw, using the common vernacular of Oteslia’s youth, despite not having wings herself. The other male Drake, Fetale, made a psht sound.
“How should I know? He’s circling. I figured we’d meet up at the Root—see what’s what.”
Mivi nodded. They leaned on the balcony of her apartment. After a moment, they both saw that Mivi’s neighbor, a female Drake in her late thirties, was sweeping her porch. She had systematically winced her way through the entire greeting and was giving them a side-eye. She hurried inside after a moment.
Mividel…sagged after a moment. She looked around, checking the skies, and after a moment shuffled over to Fetale.
“Where is he actually?”
Cire. Fetale dropped the casual lounge-maneuver, which took a lot of practice and was actually straining on the back. He rubbed at his shoulders.
“Morning fly with some of the actual kids. We’ve got eyes on him. We’re meeting at the Root to hang out.”
Mividel sighed. That was her actual name; Mivifa was the alias, the Named Adventurer. She ‘lived’ in this apartment, unlike the very nice, much more sumptuous one she had in the upper part of the city. But she had gone out that door in full youth-mode.
Just in case he was there, as he sometimes was. She nodded.
“Let’s slide on down to the Root, then.”
She was trying. But Fetale caught her before they headed onto the street.
“Mivi. I can’t do this anymore.”
She looked at the other ‘young’ Drake. Fetale could have been…nineteen. Or—if you looked past his glossy scales, his trendy dress for anyone still in their teens, and looked at him—
Mividel was older than her neighbor, and she knew the other Drake had long-since figured it out. Oteslia’s Treewatch had probably spoken to her and let her know…everything, if she didn’t just know already.
That one look had made Mivi feel old. She stared at Fetale.
“What do you mean, Fetale? Today or…?”
Her heart sank as the Drake leaned on the balcony. He stared down at the street, with genuine, 100% actually young people, and older ones, mingling, going about their day.
“This, Mivi. I can’t do it. I was doing my appearance this morning and I looked myself in the eye. It all just…fell apart.”
“Don’t do that. Listen, Fetale—”
“No. I’m serious. Mivi—I can’t be you. I gave it my best shot. But I’m thirty, and my wife is talking about a family. She knows the job, but…am I supposed to tell her to wait another decade? Five years? Please. I need out.”
This was the conversation she hated to have. And it had looked like…well, this was setting the tone for her morning. Mivifa—Mividel—Mivi—chewed on her lip for a second, and then realized she might be ruining the gloss.
“Fine. I get it, Fetale. But—four—six months. Six months, alright? We’ll phase you out. You can even bring up settling down. Starting tomorrow, start easing back on the makeup. Got it?”
He gave her a relieved smile, and a guilty one.
“Thank you, Mivi. I’m sorry. I thought I could keep doing it. It’s just…”
Silently, she patted him on the arm.
“It’s fine. We’ll put you on surveillance, or one of the non-contact jobs. But you get to find your replacement, or train one, huh?”
He groaned. Then—checked the position of the sun.
“We’d better take wing. Root’s just opening and you know Cire’ll be there. And he doesn’t wait.”
Mivi knew it full well. He might wait for her—but why risk it? She and Fetale hurried down into the street. There they moved at a jog. Sprightly. Youthful.
She was the only one who had done it for this long. Everyone else had…quit. Fetale was actually fairly long for his job. Ten years—no, fourteen, really—since he’d been recruited. And he had been a deliberate choice. Mividel had been an accident. Her becoming Named Adventurer had also been—well—accidental. But she was ideally placed, such that the First Gardener relied on her and she essentially commanded the Treewatch’s branch in this area.
But how much longer could she be Cire’s friend? She and Fetale were old, and growing older. At least, compared to the people they were hurrying to meet.
There they were, about eleven Drakes, two Gnolls, all sitting, around four tables at the Root, a popular hangout for younger people in Oteslia. Mivi recognized them all; two more planted individuals like her and Fetale; the rest actual kids.
Four unpredictable ones. Those not in the know, or not trustworthy. She grimaced. It might be a rough day.
She, Fetale, and the two Drakes who casually called out to her, had a class in common. Mivi was a [Beast Master], a [Pegasus Flier]…
And an [Actor]. The class had existed before the Players of Celum. She slid over, actually sliding on her claws.
“Hey, people. What’s growing? I miss anything?”
A loud voice called out. Mividel turned, and in the center of the gaggle of teens was…him. The young Drake, who could have been seventeen, lounging around with all the others, at home, and not acting.
The one who never changed. The reason for the Gardener’s headaches, Mivi’s strange circumstances.
A beautiful young man—boy. Something in between. His scales were brown and purple and green, blending across his body. He was apparently Oldblood; he had full wings, and could spit an acid. But that was to trivialize what he was.
Among the other Drakes, even ones naturally gifted with beauty or extraordinary athleticism, he stood out. He was so handsome it hurt, and he never seemed to run out of energy.
He was Cirediel—but everyone called him Cire. Son of the First Gardener.
Dragon of Earth.
Mivi slid into a seat he’d kept waiting for her. Cire, her best friend, grinned at her.
“Took you long enough! You’re never up when we are for the mornings!”
He teased her. Mivi grinned.
“You know me. I eat breakfast, Cire.”
And I can’t wake up at dawn anymore, especially if I have to do my makeup. Fetale just jerked his chin at Cire, too cool for greetings. Cire copied it.
“Went for a fly since we were all wearing wings. We were talking about what’s going next. Thought we might go see if we can get out the gates. The Meeting of Tribes is what’s what, and everyone’s talking about mad sights. What’s your thought?”
Mivi grimaced, but only inwardly. She glanced around casually and saw a covert claw-sign from one of the other plants.
The Drake with her leg up on the table, leaning back, had given Mivi the sign. Necla—with dyed neck-spines, the tips of her wings painted to almost resemble claws; oh, and her actual claws too. She looked like she spent half her time running with a gang, and the serving staff of the Root were glaring at her. She’d added a spiked collar, another fashion trend, and she had ‘bite me’ scrawled on one arm over her scales.
Anyone could have reasonably assumed this was a teen in the height of rebellion, like many of the people Cire surrounded himself with. And they did have Necla’s look. What made the Drake stand out was that she was twenty six, a decorated [Wing Lieutenant], and extremely serious in actuality.
The covert sign meant that this was not a planted idea. Mivi glanced around and saw a young Drake with crimson scales and black wings smirking and nodding at a Gnoll she didn’t know.
Great, Cire’s made more friends. The Dragon boy did so easily; he was popular in the city, famous, and likable. But it did complicate things.
“You want to go over the walls, Cire, my guy? Your mother will tear up. Twice.”
Fetale jumped in before Mivi. Cire scoffed.
“Her? I don’t follow her rules. We could fly to the Meeting of Tribes, get back—no one notices. What do you think, Mivi?”
He looked at her. The Drake swept back her neck spines in a practiced, bored motion.
“You want to fly all the way to the Meeting of Tribes, Cire? That’s like…miles. Dozens and dozens. And I’m not flying there.”
“Oh, come on. You’ve got Fessi—”
He meant her Pegasus. Mividel was still a [Pegasus Flier], one who was a Silver-rank adventurer. Fiction was based on fact. But the Drake just leaned back as she grabbed for a morning tart as a platter was brought around. Everyone tried to snag a snack.
“Please, Cire. You want to fly all the way there when there’s better glamour to be had here? I’m not monking for hours just to stare at a few stalls for an hour or two before we have to get back.”
“That’s what’s what. I say we wing about the lakes. See what we can get into locally. You want excite? Check the bazaars; Gnolls’ll come here to sell.”
Necla added. Mivi jerked her head at her. Good timing.
The three voices made Cire hesitate.
“That’s a good point. Hey Melt—no-go on the Meeting of Tribes. Maybe if something interesting is there.”
“Aw, come on, Cire. It’s amazing!”
Melt, the Drake who’d suggested it, was actually young. He glanced at Mivi, annoyed, and pointed to the horizon.
“They’ve got a Named Adventurer there! The Stargnoll and her team! And it only happens every twenty years! You’re saying you don’t want to see that?”
Cire hesitated. He cast a glance at Mivi, then relaxed.
“Named Adventurer? Oteslia’s got two—no, three coming in and out. And I’ve met one. They’re boring as Dullahans.”
“No way. You’re rogueing with me.”
The Earth Dragon flicked one wing.
“Met Mivifa the Oldblood last year. My m—my old woman had her over. Stuffy and boring as you can get.”
“Aw. Really? I heard she was cool.”
“You think that, but she wouldn’t even fly with me.”
Mivi relaxed, nodding along, feeling a surreal sensation creep down her back. Cire thought he knew ‘her’, but that was an [Actress] who had played in for Mivi.
All was going well. These rogue elements, ‘Melt’ and the two Gnolls, plus the Drake girlfriend of one of the two Gnolls, weren’t interfering too much. That was when it happened.
“Besides, the Meeting of Tribes isn’t that rare. I’ve known like…four that took place. We can always go to the next one.”
Melt frowned. Around the table, half the people stirred. The other half just blinked.
“What are you talking about, Cire? It’s every twenty years.”
“Nah, it’s not. It’s…”
Cire frowned. His eyes flickered. Before he could say or do anything, Necla lifted her foot, and smacked it on the table.
All the dishes jumped. Everyone stared at her as she rocked onto her feet.
“I’m bored as a Dullahan. You lot going to monk about Gnoll events? No offense—but Cire probably remembers some other random gathering. You know his memory’s shot.”
Cire feinted a punch at her shoulder. Everyone laughed, and some of the Gnolls chuckled.
“Tribes, they’re always gathering and meeting. I can’t fly and unless someone’s carrying me, I say let’s scatterbrain and see what’s what.”
To Mivi’s relief, one of the City Gnolls echoed Necla’s statement. Cire leapt to his feet. He crammed another tart into his mouth.
“Sounds good. Let’s see the bazaar, though!”
Mivi hopped to her feet and felt a twinge in her back. Gah! Posture! She frowned at the tarts. They’d have to get another [Chef] if he kept having breakfasts like this. One who could incorporate something better than jam, sugar, and bread into the snack-foods.
One minor crisis averted. She checked the others to see if they were thinking about the Meeting of Tribes comment Cire had let slip, but she didn’t think it was a huge issue. She nodded to Fetale and Necla. Then she strode after Cire.
It was hard. Harder than being a Named Adventurer—well, not trying to fight Wrymvr. She’d been laid out with a flu for the last two weeks, and so had had to be with Cire after that. He’d been worried about her.
This was her job. As long as she could do it, she would. But she was forty four. She couldn’t do this another century.
Oh. Mivi closed her eyes. And for a second, she was a young Drake again.
And he had never changed. Cire ran down the street, laughing, jumping and gliding down a staircase.
He didn’t change. Not since she was eleven and met the cool, older Drake and wanted to inspire his respect. And then realized he didn’t grow taller. That some of the older Drakes and Gnolls were…off.
That was why Fetale and the others quit. Not just because they got too old. But because it hurt to move at different speeds through time.
Oteslia, the Walled City of Growth, had four gates you could enter through the lake over bridges. Lyonette was anxious; but she knew the city was vast, and they might need to be here a while.
But she’d go home to Liscor and Mrsha after two weeks, bring them here if she had to. She checked the gold in her bag of holding, her enchanted artifacts, and saw that even Saliss was making concessions to this foreign city.
He had put on pants. Not any upper garments, but some alchemy-stained pants.
“What? I’m not in Pallass and I can’t spend a week in jail.”
He grinned as he inserted his tail through the hole in the Drake-style pants. Lyonette looked at Wilovan and Ratici.
“You couldn’t have put those on during the four days it took to get here?”
“I could have. But why would I do that?”
Anyways, he was an asset, an asset. Lyonette reminded herself of that as the carriage stopped. The Drakes and Gnolls were speeding people through the gate after stopping them for only a few seconds. When it came to them—a problem arose.
“Let’s see…Izril’s Wonders, right. Passengers?”
The [Guard] did a bored head-sweep. He blinked at Lyonette, but took it in stride. He nodded, stepped back; he’d been holding a gemstone. He consulted it—then did a double-take. He stared at the passengers.
It must have been an artifact-scanner or something to detect magic-levels because he seemed to perk up a bit. He blinked at them again, and then held up a claw.
Quickly, with practice, he rifled open a small flipbook of loose papers. It looked like…
“Ah. That would be bounties and warning illustrations.”
Wilovan murmured. Lyonette…looked at him.
“As in, for criminals?”
“Killers, famous [Thieves], and so on.”
Ratici nodded. Lyonette stared at the [Gentleman Thief]. Ratici adjusted his cap.
“And you didn’t think to…?”
“Miss Marquin. We are an upstanding lot!”
Wilovan looked hurt. And indeed, the [Guard] went through the flipbook, checked them again, this time tapping another amulet, and saw that they weren’t under an illusion—and didn’t match his papers.
“Very good. Sorry, everyone, random security check. But you seem…good to go.”
Lyonette exhaled. She had been worried about herself as much as…she smiled and then the [Guard] held out a claw.
“I just need to see your travel documents.”
Saliss…blinked. Wilovan, Ratici, and Lyonette, stirred. They stared at Ferris through the sliding door gap. The Gnoll slowly hunched his shoulders.
The problem was—and this was most embarrassing to Ferris—he’d planned on taking Erin to Manus. In which case he wouldn’t have had a problem.
But he and Saliss had forgotten since they had little need to deal with basic travel. They were a special agent and Named Adventurer, respectively.
The [Watch Sergeant] came over to see what the holdup was as the Oteslian [Guard] spoke to Lyonette as if she was mad.
“…You have a passport, Miss, don’t you? I assume your travel grade is at least Grade-2 to request official transport? Izril’s Wonders is an established company.”
“Of course it is. But—we weren’t asked for a passport when we hired the carriage.”
Now all eyes were on Ferris. The [Watch Sergeant] frowned.
“I will investigate this with Izril’s Wonders, Miss. They need to check documentation. You, [Driver]. Your name?”
Ferris was cursing to himself as he produced his documents. The [Sergeant] turned to Lyonette and smiled apologetically.
“This appears to be a simple error in produce. In that case, may I see your Grade-1 passport, Miss?”
She visibly hesitated. The Gnoll [Sergeant] paused.
“You do have some passport, Miss? What Drake city did you come in from?”
“Well—we came from the north.”
“Past Pallass? And you didn’t stop at any city along the way? Really.”
The [Sergeant] gestured and more Oteslian [Guards] sauntered over. That was a bad cover story. Any Drake city she entered would have issued her at least a Grade-1 passport.
“I—did not know I needed a passport. But I can prove I came from Pallass. I would like to send a [Message] to someone who can vouch for my authenticity, if I may.”
Chaldion? Grimalkin? Lyonette’s mind was racing. The [Sergeant] just raised her brows.
“If you entered Pallass, miss, you would have been issued a passport. I think this calls for an investigation.”
She felt a tug at her arm. The first [Guard] whispered in her ear. Inside, Lyonette was looking at Wilovan and Ratici, who had…tensed a bit at the word ‘investigation’.
“Sarge—it’s high-quality artifacts. They didn’t fit any of the wanted posters, so I was just going to mark them and let them through, but…”
She grimaced. This was getting hairier by the second and it was the morning. She was just about to tell everyone to step out slowly, when the door opened.
She recoiled as a Drake wearing only pants emerged. She lifted her spear and the other [Guards] hefted their weapons, but he shoved something at her.
“Saliss of Lights. Hi, this Human’s with me.”
The [Sergeant] blinked. Then she stared at the mithril-plated card, glowing magical writing, and her eyes went round. One of the [Guards] made a sound.
“Named Adventurer—hold on. Someone get me a Glass of Identification. Excuse me—”
Five minutes later, the [Sergeant] completed the check. She handed the card back and bowed.
“Adventurer Saliss! Your identity checks out. Please excuse us—you’re free to enter the city. The other passengers, though…”
She looked into the carriage. Saliss reached out and casually unhooked the door.
“Funny story. They actually came from Liscor via Pallass. Magic door. So they never went through the gates.”
The Gnoll was blank. But one of the [Guards] had heard about it.
“They’ve got some kind of teleportation door, [Sergeant]. It might have actually happened.”
“That’s a violation in protocol. And Liscor doesn’t issue travel documents?”
“They haven’t really had to in centuries.”
“Well, in that case…we’ll go through Pallass and confirm this. The driver’s in trouble either way. I’m sorry for the confusion, Adventurer Saliss. Are these passengers acquaintances of yours? It won’t take more than a few hours if all is in order.”
He nodded reasonably.
“I get that. However, I’m Saliss.”
She hesitated as she went to unlatch the doors.
“Yes, sir, you are. Free to go…”
She reached out and he stepped in front of her.
“But I’m Saliss.”
She stared at him. He gestured at the passengers. He spoke slowly, as if to try and get the words to sink in.
“They’re with me. And I vouch for them. And I’m Saliss.”
She replied, just as slowly, as if talking to a child or an extremely fragile person they were having to stop.
“Yes, Adventurer Saliss. But there’s protocol…”
“And I’m Saliss. They’re with me. Why don’t you contact Pallass now?”
He smiled. Lyonette, in the carriage, saw the [Sergeant] thinking.
It was true that Drakes had rules and regulations that Human cities lacked. But it was also true that a Named Adventurer was a Named Adventurer. Saliss relaxed as their carriage was taken to the side.
Ferris was in trouble; Saliss hadn’t given him any protection, but Lyonette, Wilovan, and Ratici were having their Grade-2 documents written up at this very moment, instead of the hours-long wait. Authority was speed in bureaucracy.
“I forgot about those stupid documents. I never have to worry because I’m Saliss.”
“So you’ve said. Can you explain what they were talking about?”
Lyonette saw the [Scribe] working on her paper documents; they’d get stamps and time codes, signatures, and such, but they weren’t anything like his mithril card. Saliss shrugged.
“Grade-1 is basic. You can enter cities, and you’re not a criminal. Almost anyone can get those. Grade-2 means you can use services like carriages, buy goods in bulk, etc. Grade-3 means you can purchase land; most people can get Grades 1-3. Grade-4’s more about your clearance. And so on. They go up pretty high.”
Lyonette eyed him.
“So what is yours?”
He was picking at his teeth.
“Me? Grade-6. Because they don’t like me. I should have like, a Grade-8; Grade-9 is for top brass like a [General] or head of state. Walled Cities are petty. You know, Zel Shivertail was only actually Grade-7?”
She nodded slowly. This might not matter too much for her future, but it was just another way in which she was realizing how cut-off Liscor had been.
“Miss? We’re nearly done with your background certifications. Pallass has provided that…I can write in the last details. Adventurer Saliss, can you sign one of the authentication forms here?”
Saliss sighed and did it three times. The [Scribe] stared at him; she was in awe of Saliss, probably because she hadn’t ever met…Saliss…and only knew the better rumors.
“Yes, what do I do?”
Lyonette sat there. The Drake smiled.
“Just your name, age, country of origin, and minor details, Miss.”
Ah. Lyonette du Marquin hesitated. She eyed Wilovan and Ratici, who both looked just as unhappy about this kind of documentation. She opened her mouth—and then had an idea.
“Lyon Solstice. Spelled ‘L-I-O-N’, by the way. I come from C—Invrisil.”
“I see, I see. Lion Solstice…age?”
“Eight—no, nineteen this year.”
“We try to be accurate, miss. Eighteen…a few more questions…any prior criminal charges with a Drake city? No…mhm…”
Lyonette was sweating a bit. But the [Scribe] was writing all of it down! Wilovan and Ratici gave identical responses, nearly. First Landing was where they came from.
“All right! This is all set.”
The three relaxed. The [Scribe] smiled brightly.
“Now, all I have to do is take your statement via truth stone that the following is correct, you sign here, I sign here…and we’re done. Let me just find my stone…”
Lyonette began sweating again. She saw the [Scribe] fussing about and then the Drake of the hour swept in. His name was Saliss. It should have been Chaos.
“Hey. I know this is taking a bit, so I’m going to just stand outside in front of the carriages until you’re done, alright?”
The [Scribe], Watch Sergeant, and other people in the gatehouse office looked around. Saliss stood up.
And he had removed his pants. The [Scribe] recoiled. The Desk Sergeant stared.
“Adventurer Saliss, what are you—”
“Don’t mind me! Just going to do some stretches while I wait. Not like I’m in a hurry or a famous adventurer or anything! Excuse me! Stop! Pushups here. One, two…”
“Adventurer Saliss, we have a procedure—why are you naked?”
Lyonette began to breathe as she heard a commotion. People were shouting, screaming, and still, Saliss was quite audible.
“Don’t mind me! Nothing to see here! How long will it take? Thirty minutes? A thousand pushups—no, two thousand. Hey! What are you staring at?”
Lyonette had never seen someone sign or stamp the passports as fast as in the next two minutes. She received hers, the ink still wet, and she was practically thrown out of the gatehouse, with Saliss’ pants. He put them back on and Wilovan inspected his passport.
“Now that, sir, was a handy bit of improvisation.”
“I blame Ferris. I hope they take it out on him. What kind of [Driver] doesn’t do this? I thought he was a professional…er, [Driver].”
Saliss grumbled as he put on his pants. The [Guards] stepped back. The unlucky gate crew had gotten word from higher-ups; Saliss had been here before.
Thus, Lyonette entered the city. And the effort it had taken just to do that…sort of set the stage for everything else. This was not Pallass, where they had numerous connections. She had gold, and Saliss was a Named Adventurer.
But Oteslia wasn’t their city. Lyonette felt at her money in the bag of holding and wished there was a lot more. She wished she had an Erin to let loose to get all the favors they might need. Or…something of true value. She had some of Numbtongue’s gemstones, all the gold the inn could spare.
There was one thing she could parlay. One very valuable item that even the City of Growth might not have. A flower from a land beyond this one.
Or she would have. If only. Because disaster struck time and time again. Something had happened on the Summer Solstice. It had barely mattered among all the rest. But still, it twisted in Lyonette’s gut. A dark visitor, never seen. And a consequence of their passage—
All the faerie flowers were dead.
“Hey, why are we monking around when we said there’d be something Archmage around here instead of the Meeting of Tribes?”
Translation: Why are we wasting time, sitting around, doing something pointless, when we said there would be something grandiose, exciting, magical around here instead of the Meeting of Tribes?
The slang was the hardest part to keep up with. It kept changing and it was really only the kids who used it. Mivi had never heard a fellow adventurer use ‘monking’ as a verb. Nor was it entirely accurate. They said ‘Archmage’ to mean cool.
But they had clearly never met an Archmage before. Anyways, she and the others were sitting on a rooftop. Those without wings had climbed up. They were tossing bits of tart at flocks of birds; a monkey climbed up and was shooed away by one of the Gnolls.
Oteslia had animals. It was haven to countless species, and it was considered the least-militant of all the cities along with Fissival. One of the most inclusive too; Gnolls were in far higher numbers here, along with other species like Garuda, Humans, even Selphids, and half-Elves in fair numbers.
Nature was for Oteslia. It wasn’t always great, though. The streets got dirty from all the uh, excrement, and if you’d ever been hit by aerial Pegasi poo, you understood why the streets had lots of cloth canvas awnings and ‘splatter shields’.
“Hey Vuc, you don’t like it, you can Creler off.”
Mivi retorted to one of the genuine young people. He huffed and gave her a side-long look of appraisal. She ground her teeth. He knew—but he wasn’t suited for this.
“Come on, Vuc. This is fun. Look at all the sunlight down there.”
Cire was admiring the visitors, especially young Drakes or Gnolls of a female persuasion. Mivi sighed. He was…predictable. And unfortunately, once he had reached a certain point in his adulthood—about when she’d been twenty—he’d hit a Dragon’s stage in puberty.
As in, he had sex. And he went through relationships like Mivi went through scale polish cream. It was really, really troublesome to deal with and a new phase in Oteslia’s difficulties rearing him.
Mivi had heard that the Dragon of Manus had been just as bad, although she was female and perhaps easier to deal with in some ways than a brash Dragon boy. Then again…perhaps not.
Different, not easier. Anyways, Cire was infamous for it. And the problem was—
“Hey, don’t be jealous, Miv.”
He was sitting next to her. He twined his tail around hers and tried to put a claw down the back of her pants.
Mivi nearly kicked Cire off the rooftop.
“Cire, knock it off.”
He looked hurt and scooted back as the others laughed.
“Come on, Miv! It’s been ages since we were a thing. I thought you were down with it. What’s gotten into you? Well, whatever.”
He looked hurt, then turned his head as if he didn’t care at all. Mivi tried to calm down. But that?
Twenty plus years ago, then, for a while ten years back. And he…forgot. Deliberately, or accidentally. Mivi on the other hand had long-since changed.
“If Mivi’s giving you the cold wing, Cire, take a look at that. There’s a Plains Gnoll! Shining.”
One of the other genuine youths pointed. Cire was staring in a moment.
“Where? Where? Wow. Is that markings from her tribe on her fur? She’s wearing nothing?”
Necla gave Mivi a look and muttered.
“Yes. Forget about it.”
Perhaps she should…retire. Her past relationships, when they had been the same age and she had been head-over-tail in love with him, was complicating the now, especially when he thought they were still back then, or no time had passed. She was to blame, as well as the elaborate system of lies and deception. But the alternative had been bad, too.
Fetale was going to start ‘aging up’. He’d stop using makeup, start being too old to hang with. Soon, Cire would understand he was older and if he met Fetale—
But he wouldn’t. Fetale and he wouldn’t meet again. So it went.
Resigned, Mivi listened to the young Drakes pointing out attractive females. This, at least, was the true occupation of young males of most species. It wasn’t just her and Necla rolling their eyes.
“I bet you that you couldn’t talk to her for more than a minute, Vuc.”
“You what, Cire? Bet.”
The Drake Oldblood, outraged, leapt from the rooftop and made his way through the crowd. His friends jeered or laughed as he went for the Plains Gnoll they were so taken with. He did his best, leaning against the stall and introducing himself.
…He struck out after eight seconds. The Gnoll was clearly older than him, and clearly not in the mood for this. Vuc flew back as Cire and the others made fun of him.
“Told you. I bet I could get her to laugh, though.”
Vuc muttered sullenly. He was blushing, but trying not to show it. Cire pointed arrogantly down at the crowd of visitors coming through the northern gate.
“You name any one down there—I’ve got Gold-rank moves. Everyone knows that.”
He bragged. That raised their tempers. Mivi sighed. Vuc’s head turned.
“You don’t have mad—what about her, then?”
“The same Gnoll? Psst. You ruined that, Vuc.”
“Oh yeah? What about her?”
Another Gnoll. Cire shrugged.
“Oh yeah? That Garuda, there.”
“I…eh. I could do it. If I wanted to.”
“I dare you to.”
“Why that Garuda? I’m not into feathers. What about that Drake, there?”
Cire pointed. Vuc snorted.
“I thought you could talk up anyone, Cire. Not just your own species.”
Oooh. Some of the new Gnolls whistled. Cire turned red.
“Oh yeah? Point and I’ll decide. Give me options!”
“That Gnoll. Or that…Minotauress! Hah, you’ve got moves enough for her, Cire?”
“Why are you wagging your tails off, Vuc, Cire? This is boring.”
Mivi called out. She gave the young Drake, Vuc, a warning glance. But he was too angry. He pointed.
“What about that Gnoll? Come on, Cire! I [Druid]-dare you. No, I Demon-dare you!”
Cire was getting angry. So was Mivi. She knew what the Drake was doing.
He knew what Cire was. And he also knew that a lot of Cire’s ‘Gold-rank moves’ had to do with the fact that Oteslians knew too.
That was why Vuc was pointing out Gnolls, non-Oteslians who weren’t ‘in the know’. It was stupid, childish…he deliberately turned away.
“Come on, Cire. How about…that one? I Dragon-dare you.”
Mivi heard another oooh, and laughter. But Cire’s head spun around. He stared down at the person and then looked at Vuc.
“Sure. You’re on.”
There was no way he’d have turned down that dare, even though it was common parlance. He leapt from the rooftops and sauntered through the crowd.
Vuc was grinning triumphantly—right up until Mivi tugged him back with a friendly arm like steel. She dragged him away as the others watched Cire make his move on the female visitor that Vuc had pointed out.
In an alleyway, Vuc grinned, almost as if he expected something.
“What’s this about, Miv—”
She put an arm against his throat and pushed his head into the wall.
“Listen, you little hatchling. Stop egging Cire on or I will throw you into a Shield Spider nest, understand?”
He gurgled. Mivi was a Named Adventurer; he was just a kid. She increased the pressure slightly.
“You know exactly why not to provoke Cire. And you. Are. Doing. It. Enough. Stop talking, find an excuse to leave, and don’t let me see you again or we will have problems. Understand?”
She kept the pressure on. He gasped when she lowered her arm.
“You—you can’t do that! I’m—you’re an adventurer! I’ll tell—”
Mivifa folded her arms.
“Tell someone? Listen up. That’s two mistakes you’ve made today. If you don’t want to forget the last three months since you met Cire and wake up in your bed, you are going to walk out of this alleyway, and leave. Don’t go back on the roof. Tell someone? Go ahead and find a Guardswoman. See what happens.”
She stared at him. He flinched. This was Oteslia’s secret. Mivi pointed.
He ran. She looked around, and saw Necla lounging at the alleyway’s entrance.
“Send a group after him. I don’t trust him to be halfway smart.”
He was going to wake up with hazy memories at best. And Oteslia would have spent gold on another stupid kid who couldn’t handle the truth. Mivi rested her head against the wall before leaving.
Wouldn’t it be better to…?
No, the truth could not come out. Cire was too young, and she knew exactly how other cities—other nations might respond. But this acting—maybe that had to end. She felt like there were Drakes like Vuc every week. No wonder Oteslia was poor. Well, this was a poor excuse. But she’d seen the budget and it wasn’t helping.
Why did Cire have to take so long to grow? She felt bad about scaring Vuc already. He was just a young Drake. Barely more than a brat and she was a Named Adventurer. She went out of the alleyway just in time to see Cire accost a young woman in the street.
“Okay, what’s our first step?”
“I think it’s to meet with my contact. Unless you have somewhere you want to start?”
Saliss of Lights sauntered into Oteslia with Lyonette, Wilovan, and Ratici. The Gentlemen Callers held back, politely letting the two take lead. Lyonette nodded.
She had no contacts here. No knowledge of where to start.
“Who’s your friend? Another [Alchemist]?”
Saliss winked at her.
“You think my only friends are [Alchemists]? Wait, you think I have friends? Touching. But we need a place to stay, and introductions. Oteslia is about knowing people as much as having gold to spend. And we’ll have to go outside of my regular suppliers to find the exotic stuff and experts.”
Lyonette had feared that. She nodded.
“Do you know where to find them?”
“Eh, I thought I’d ask. Hey—hey you. Is the Oldblood of Feathers in the city? I’m Saliss. Excuse me…”
The Drake promptly went to the nearest person, a Plains Gnoll shopping in the market right by the gates, and tapped her on the shoulder. Lyonette sighed.
He had Erin-energy. Which could be a good thing, but…she looked around.
She didn’t know where to begin. Did Saliss even need her? Ratici sidled up.
“Miss Marquin. If you feel safe in Saliss’ presence, Wilovan and I might do a bit of recon ourselves, as it were. See what our scene looks like.”
She glanced at him.
“You won’t cause trouble?”
The Gentleman Caller tipped his cap.
“We’ll be discreet. But there’s few ways for us to help you aside from sorting out the wrong sort unless…”
“Yes, thank you. Er—whatever you need to do. I’ll stay with Saliss.”
“You’ll be safe?”
Ratici studied her. Lyonette swirled the Cloak of Balshadow and showed him her rings—and the Wand of [Fireballs] that Hedault had recharged for her.
“I think so.”
He nodded. Wilovan tipped his tall hat and they vanished in a second. Lyonette turned back to Saliss—
And the Drake was gone. How did an [Alchemist] without a shirt vanish? The crowd swirled around her.
It was like being in a new city again. Lyonette felt a moment’s apprehension. She was alone—like Erin had been. Maybe she should have asked for one of the two to stay with her? But it wasn’t like she’d be hurt in a crowd. Surely. She made her way forwards, looking for familiar scales or a voice—or just someone screaming about nudity.
“Hey, lovely lady. You look lost. New to Oteslia? I could show you around.”
…And within a moment, someone had found her. A Drake leaned against a shop counter, grinning. Lyonette blinked.
The Drake had loose trousers and a tunic—both rather nice, but altered to make room for his wings and a tail. That already made him Oldblood, but he was, well, rather splendid.
His scales were a unique green coloration that turned to brown or even purple in places. A pattern almost as vibrant as Lizardfolk’s, unlike the Drake monochrome color. And he looked—healthy.
It was hard to describe. It was like the one out of ten thousand, or a million, who had a vitality that let them do back-to-back marathons, or other obnoxious feats of endurance. He gave her a grin with swagger.
“The name’s Cire. And you are?”
Not interested. In spite of all his good looks, Lyonette did not intend to waste time. Nor was she available in any sense of the word.
“Very pleased to meet you. Excuse me. I’m just looking for a friend, actually.”
She stepped around him. The Drake blinked as she walked past him in a moment. He hesitated, glanced at a distant roof, and hurried after her.
“Come on! Who’s your friend? Where are you from, Miss? The north? Another continent? Are you here to buy something? I know everyone in the city.”
“I’m sure you do, but I’m really busy. Thank you!”
It was funny. Lyonette had not had this problem before. Not in Liscor, or even First Landing when it might have worked.
Something about…her personality…might have repelled young men trying it then. Lyonette vaguely recalled something like that. Actually—
Cire was walking next to her.
“Where are you going, at least? Do you have an inn in mind? I bet you don’t. I know the best spots. How about—”
He saw the young woman with fiery hair swing around. Lyonette’s blue eyes met his—she was very attractive, even if she hadn’t dressed up—and the Dragon felt a…shock of something. He blinked at her. But then he saw her friendly mouth open and—
“Excuse me, peon. But I don’t recall inviting your solicitations. Begone, and do not trouble me again.”
She lifted her chin and sniffed. He stared at her. Lyonette walked off through the crowd. Or tried to. Five steps and he was asking where she was from again.
“Aaay, my crew. Vuc and I just had to message each other over something and he had to tele out. Someone spell me on what’s the fly with Cire?”
One of the Gnolls who wasn’t part of the team turned to stare at Mivi.
“…What? Is that Oteslian slang I don’t know? Because that didn’t sound like words.”
Mivi hesitated. Then dialed it back.
“Is Cire down there still?”
“Yep. He’s eating his own tail with that Human. Looks like he’s gone 0-4. He’ll be eating grass soon if she brushes him off any harder.”
“I’d eat her grass, if you know what I mean.”
“You’re disgusting. Wait—do Humans even have that?”
“Believe me, they do. Because I’ve seen it so many times.”
Mivi sighed. She coughed and felt her lungs rasp. But would she go another ten minutes against Wrymvr the Deathless rather than be stuck here?
…Maybe, honestly. She looked down at Cire—and shook her head.
“I’m going down there.”
Necla blinked at her. But Mivi had had enough. She wasn’t Cire’s age and he wasn’t acting his. That poor young woman probably didn’t want to have a Drake trying to flirt with her. Mivi hopped down off the roof again and walked through the streets.
Doctrine among the group overseeing Cire’s…growth…was to let him do anything that wasn’t drugs, dangerous, or revealing. And they had implemented the false actors and memory-altering program after far too many close calls.
Cire wasn’t Rafaema, and Oteslia wasn’t Manus, which could suppress rumors or news. Mivi had been inducted into the group at eighteen, when Cire had told her he was more than he seemed while they were…a couple.
Since then, Mivi had taken more and more responsibility. Now—she felt like Oteslia’s organization of secrecy had gone too far. Cire was uncontrollable, and he needed some discipline. Perhaps not like Rafaema; Mivi had met her as Mivifa or on the joint-visits every few years at minimum for the last of the Dragons.
Rafaema had always seemed too controlled, too perfect and rigid. A product of Manus. But Mivi was tired of Cire’s wildness. He had to grow up some day.
Dead gods. He still thought the First Gardeners before the present one had gone on vacations around the world. Or if he did know—
He surely did. But the boy refused to admit the truth. Oteslia and the First Gardener had once tried to confront him with it. Disastrous. He had nearly starved to death in mourning. It had taken six years to recover his shattered health. Mivi had read the reports, and the First Gardener had resigned in shame.
Lyonette was wondering how much trouble she’d get in for a [Flawless Attempt] punch to the face with this annoying Drake. He would not give up.
And he was distracting her from finding Saliss. She kept thinking he was ahead—
“Come on, just your name and I’ll leave you be.”
“Lyon. Will you go away?”
“Lyon. Sssexy. Hey, you know that I’m like, famous, in Oteslia? My mother’s…”
Lyonette stomped off. She saw a commotion ahead and hurried towards it.
“Thank goodness. Saliss? S—”
A large dog with a hurt foot was whining in the crowd of onlookers. A [Guard] was confronting a family of four. Drakes.
“We haven’t done anything wrong!”
“No, Miss. But your pet is injured. And you appeared to be pulling it with you. We have laws in Oteslia.”
“It’s a scratch.”
The mother and father were exasperated. One of the two Drake children—holding the leash—were impatient.
“He got it while playing fetch! Do you have any authority to detain us, sir?”
The father was not an Oteslian, that was for sure. Lyonette slowed as she realized this was not a Saliss-incident, surprisingly. Just a commonplace altercation.
Over an animal? The [Guard] was sighing.
“All I need you to do is accompany me to check with a truth stone about—”
“This is ridiculous. I heard Oteslia was full of inane rules, but this? We have an appointment at the Merchant’s Guild!”
The Drake father was blustering. The mother, more sensibly, was trying to calm him down.
“Guardsman, what if you checked on us later? Dear—dear—let’s not shout at the Watch.”
The two sons were in their late teens, like the annoying Drake. Lyonette was scanning for Saliss when she heard one of them say something.
“We don’t have to deal with this.”
“Indeed we don’t. I—I request an adjudication of [Druids]! Hah! I heard you can do that! Have one sent to us later.”
The [Guardsman] lowered the pad where he had been talking with the wife.
“Sir—I don’t think you want to do that. Sir—”
But it was too late. The crowd looked around and people began circulating it.
An adjudication of [Druids]? Lyonette had never heard such a thing.
“Oh, wow. He’s in trouble.”
Cire popped up next to her, smirking. She stared at him and nearly walked away, but she was curious.
“You don’t ask for the [Druids] if you want to get out of something. He’d better hope no one’s nearby or…whoops!”
A shout. Someone was moving through the crowd. Lyonette saw shaggy, fur robes, a bare-chested—well, debatably—Gnoll with an antler-staff? Wood had become antler near the top. He hurtled through the crowd.
“Clear the way! [Druid]! Where’s—”
He saw the scene. The outraged family, the [Guardsman] who was backing up in resignation—
Lyonette didn’t know what she expected. But she didn’t expect the Gnoll [Druid] to shoulder-charge the young Drake man holding the leash, knock him flat, and pick up the dog.
“Hurt animal! Clear a path! Where’s my backup!”
The Drake lay on his back as the Gnoll stormed towards a second [Druid]. She was a Drake and bent over the dog.
“Oh dear. His paw’s wounded. Are you hurt anywhere else?”
The dog instantly stopped whining and perked up. A healing potion was produced; the family stared as the animal was instantly healed.
“A potion on a dog? What madness is—”
The Gnoll was ignoring him. He bent down as the dog tested its paw.
“Yes, yes. And how did it happen? Who hurt you? Was it a rock or…? Don’t be shy.”
The two [Druids] looked up. They stared at the Drake who’d been holding the leash. The Gnoll rose.
“Someone called for a [Druid]?”
“Yes, Druid. These four Drakes in regards to the animal.”
The [Guardsman] saluted. He stepped back as the family stared at him. Lyonette saw him turn and just…walk off. As if his part had ended.
“I see. Well, Bertel here claims his paw was hurt whilst being dragged about by that one. And that his living conditions are less than ideal. Sometimes he’s not fed on time.”
“What? How do you know our dog’s…what is this?”
The Drake [Merchant] was outraged. The Gnoll [Druid] leveled his staff.
“Druid Occla. My verdict is confiscation and fining. What’s yours?”
He looked at her. The Drake amended her statement.
“Fine, what you said.”
“Very well. The fine is four gold pieces. And Bertel comes with us.”
The word exploded from the father’s mouth; he had been gasping for air the entire time. The [Druids] were already telling the dog how he’d like their new place.
“You can’t do this!”
“On the contrary. You asked for an adjudication of [Druids]. You pay up. And if you harm a dog again, you—anywhere near Oteslia, or where we walk, we’ll find you and…”
“And that’s legal?”
She breathed. Someone laughed.
“That’s Oteslia! We have two enforcers of law. The Treewatch, and the [Druids]. They don’t interfere with each other. But people only ask the [Druids] if they’re talking about plants, animals, or whatever. And the [Druids] aren’t nice. That guy was an idiot.”
Cire again. He put an arm on Lyonette’s shoulder.
“You’ve never been to Oteslia. But I know the [Druids] too. Let me introduce you to—”
“Take your arm off my shoulder or you lose it.”
He blinked. Cire eyed Lyonette. She put her hand on her sword’s hilt.
He took his arm off her shoulder.
“Aw, come on. I’m just—”
“No. Enough! Stop bothering me or I’ll call the Watch—or the [Druids]!”
Cire smirked at that.
“What, them? Go ahead. They know me. Everyone loves me.”
Lyonette doubted that, but his confidence made her hesitate. Either he was a better liar than she imagined, or…
“Cire! Why are you monking about? Stop bothering her and let’s go swimming or something.”
Another Drake approached through the crowd. Lyonette saw light green scales, makeup around the eyes, an…almost absurdly vivid clothing.
She looked like some of the Pallassian kids who begged Kevin for skateboard lessons. Cire turned.
“Aw, Mivi! You’re Crelering me up!”
“I can’t Creler what never flies. Come on. Sorry, Miss.”
Lyonette was rubbing her ears. Something was seriously wrong because they were using words the wrong way. Mivi grabbed Cire and he tried to resist.
“I’ll look you up, Miss Lyon!”
She stepped away, relieved, as the crowd broke up. The red-faced [Merchant] was paying a fine under threat of being stabbed with the antler-staff. The Drake who had mistreated the dog was getting dirty looks and another lecture as he watched his pet disappear for good.
And then Saliss appeared.
“I think my friend’s here. Hey, Lyonette. Where were you? Where did Hatman One and Hatman Two go?”
She glared at him. Saliss sauntered over in his pants, and grinned at her.
“Where have you been? I’ve been accosted once already!”
“Sorry, but hey, not like people with crossbows are running around here, am I right? Hah! Hah! Ha.”
He frowned, as if the joke had hurt even him. Then he turned. Cire was struggling with Mivi.
“Who’s that Drake without a shirt? Hey, Miss Lyon! I’m way cooler! Come on, Mivi—”
Saliss’ head turned. He blinked at the Drake, at Lyonette, and grinned. Then—his eyes slid back with a frown. Lyonette heard him mutter.
“…can’t read either…wait a second. It can’t be…”
He stared. Not at Cire—not long—but at the Drake who’d frozen for a second and then tried to drag Cire back into the crowd with renewed gusto. She turned her head, but Saliss was already striding forwards.
“Hey. Hey—is that you? Mivifa? Well, I just say your name and you turn up! It’s me! Saliss!”
He spread his arms wide with a grin. Cire stopped fighting and the Named Adventurer—who had been using all her considerable strength but barely managed to drag him half a dozen paces—looked around.
“Mivifa? Oh, no. I’m Mividel. Sorry, wrong person.”
Saliss stopped. He eyed the young Drake as Lyonette blinked at him. She knew the name of the Oldblood of Feathers. So did Cire, who crowed at his companion.
“Hah! It happened again, Mivi! Wait. Did he just say his name was Saliss? As in…no way. That’d be Archmage.”
He stared at Saliss. The [Alchemist] ignored him. He was just…looking at the young Drake woman. Then—he grinned.
“It is you. I sold you that Feigned Youth Potion. Don’t play games, Mivifa. I need a favor.”
Cire laughed. Mivifa was giving Saliss ten kinds of unspoken warnings. On the rooftop, Necla, Fetale, and the others were silently panicking.
“I don’t know who you’re confusing me with, mister. But I’m Mividel.”
“Yeah. And I’m Saliss of Lights. Fine—don’t be like that. But I’m stopping by your place in thirty minutes.”
“Listen to this guy.”
Cire was laughing. But Saliss wasn’t. He was looking at Mivifa and…Cire. Lyonette was blinking at both of them. Mivifa let go and Cire pointed.
“No way you’re Saliss of Lights.”
The [Alchemist] looked at him. He shrugged.
“Yeah. No way. Lyonette? I think we should be going. Did your Hatguys tell you where you were meeting up? No? They’ll find us. Let’s check in at the Alchemist’s Guild and then I’ll meet my old friend.”
He turned and winked at Lyonette openly. Cire snorted.
“Hey, guy. I don’t know who you’re trying to Creler about. But don’t just throw names around! Saliss of Lights is awesome. He blew up thousands of Humans! You can’t just steal his style!”
He shouted at Saliss. They were attracting more looks. Saliss looked around. He glanced back at Mivifa. And at Lyonette. She gave him a warning look.
“You are meeting a friend, right?”
She stressed the word. Saliss shrugged.
“Yep. Well, no. Comrade. Acquaintance. Also, it may be Oteslia. But if you want attention…you get it.”
Lyonette tensed to grab his claw. But he just took her by the arm and led her briskly away. Cire kept laughing and jeering as Mivifa stood still, sweating under her makeup.
“Did you hear that guy? What a lunatic, Mivi—”
Saliss flipped a bottle over his shoulder as he walked through the crowd. The people by the north gate saw it rotate upwards, and upwards…and then fall, spinning. Mivi jumped for it, but Cire was in the way. He saw it l—
It wasn’t toxic, and it was actually colored air, so those caught in the massive epicenter of the cloud weren’t harmed—no more than the dust stirred by the explosion made them cough, really.
Still. People across the city and even the First Gardener, having tea from her balcony, saw the huge, rising cloud of reddish ‘dust’ expand and turn into a grinning Drake for a second—then slowly drift apart on the wind. She spat out her tea.
She had another headache.
Mivifa Selifscale, Oldblood of Feathers, stood in front of the First Gardener. To say she was in trouble was an understatement.
“So, Cirediel now knows you are the Named Adventurer. And Saliss of Lights has entered our city at a time when mass pandemonium is the last thing we need.”
Mivifa was sweating. She had removed her makeup, but was no less tense. She had lost Cire only after literally dodging into the Adventurer’s Guild to ‘clear up the mistake’. She felt bad for anyone trying to handle him now.
The First Gardener’s migraine was legendary today.
“Please tell me Saliss of Lights knows nothing.”
“No, First Gardener. He does not.”
The Drake looked up, massaging her temples. Shaerrha looked more worried than Mivifa could remember her being in ages.
“He cannot learn anything, Adventurer Mivifa. Not about this. A Named Adventurer would be bad enough since we cannot control them. But he is the Cyclops’ grandson. And if that Drake learned about Cire…”
Mivifa nodded and felt a cold clenching in her stomach.
The Cyclops of Pallass. No one called him that in his city, but the great [Strategist] of the Walled Cities was known to every other city.
And not for being a kind, inclusive helper. He led them in times of war. But when Pallass was at odds with other cities…what might he do if he knew Cire was a Dragon?
“First Gardener, I will do whatever it takes to keep Saliss of Lights from knowing. But I cannot manage Cire at this time.”
“Of course not. They will have to do without. Help him to be on his way, by all means. Is he…as troublesome as all the reports say? I recall his last visit…”
The First Gardener saw Mivifa grimace.
“I’ve worked with him directly, First Gardener. Honestly? He’s worse than the incidents you saw from afar.”
Shaerrha shuddered. She rubbed at her temples again.
“I need—where are my pills? There must be new medication.”
Mivifa looked sympathetically at her boss and friend. Since they helped care for Cire, Shaerrha was one of the few people that Mivifa could talk to. They spent time talking and commiserating.
“The pills from Drath not working?”
“Barely. They don’t fog me over, but they don’t do much when it’s bad. I’d go back to Dreamleaf if it wasn’t so…where is…oh, here’s something new. From our [Herbalists]. Argh. I suppose it’s better than nothing.”
She unveiled another pill, this one perfectly round, and sniffed at it. Then she popped it into her mouth and chewed. Mivifa went on.
“I think Saliss is here to replenish ingredients.”
“Give them to him—obviously let him work, but what else?”
“I don’t know, First Gardener. But I’ll see to it.”
“Good, good. My claws are full with Reinhart and the new guests. I’ll just have to…to…”
Shaerrha was resting her forehead against the steaming tea cup for relief. Then, slowly, her shoulders untensed. She sat up, and blinked.
Mivifa hesitated. The Drake looked at the box and then at the Named Adventurer.
“The pain’s gone. That pill just took my entire headache away with it. And I feel light as…”
She stared at the box. So did Mivifa.
“That must be some new drug! I’ve never seen anything work like that on you.”
“Neither have I. Who made it? Misten? He’s not high-level. Has he reached Level 50? No—there’s no way. I’d be hearing it from the rooftops. What is…oh.”
She stared at a note attached to the wooden box, with the padded interior which held five more of the miraculous pills. Mivifa waited.
“It’s the new discovery I was telling you about. The flowers. And they just—this could be it, Mivifa.”
Shaerrha looked up excitedly. She gestured at the note, and the box.
“This could be the next Sage’s Grass.”
Mivifa smiled despite herself. It was the newest thing to come to Oteslia—a plant that people were saying might be like Sage’s Grass, a revolutionary new herb. If so—this was when Oteslia would shine. She bowed.
“That’s one bit of good news, First Gardener. If you’ll excuse me—”
She left the First Gardener to sit back, blissfully free of pain for the first day in years. Shaerrha hadn’t credited the rumors; there was always ‘the next big thing’. But this? She stared at the note.
“Faerie flowers? Where did they come from?”
Saliss and Lyonette didn’t wait on Ratici and Wilovan. He introduced himself at the Alchemist’s Guild to a flurry of excitement—as if his showy bottle hadn’t done that to begin with.
Once again, Lyonette felt helpless, riding on his fame and ability to move mountains—literally, it seemed. She watched and observed.
Oteslia had a lot of color to it. Terraces seemed to make up the city, built around the giant tree which hung over everything. It provided shade even in the daytime, and the leaves alone were huge. She’d seen one crew dragging a single leaf off a home to be processed.
And Oteslia was all about processing what it grew. It had massive farms, fed by the lake, plants grown in vast gardens. You could buy anything that came out of soil here. Even plants suited to arid climes, tundras.
[Druids] ruled here, as did the First Gardener. They flew Pegasi about, and Lyonette felt like a girl reading of them in books and dreaming of finding and taming one.
Ah, but all that was overshadowed by the mission. And Saliss was taking them to Mivifa’s home in the upper part of the city.
“That was her?”
“Yep. I recognize makeup and attempts at covering up stuff. I have an eye, you might say. And Mivifa’s one of my clients.”
“So she’s not going to be angry you revealed her?”
The Drake grinned.
“Of course she is. That’s the plan, Lyonette. Think about it. I’m a Named Adventurer, she is—she can introduce me, get us contacts. But we’re not staying at her home.”
Lyonette eyed Saliss suspiciously. She was good at politics and thought she had a handle on the finer points of diplomacy; she didn’t use Erin’s all-or-nothing style, but Saliss had lost her.
He shook his head.
“Lyonette, Lyonette. No one likes hanging out with me. You think Mivifa wants to put me up? No, she’ll help me find a good place, do everything to keep me off her back. No one likes being around Saliss all the time—even I can’t do it all week.”
She supposed that was true. Saliss led her towards the nice part of Oteslia, large homes, practically mansions. Not as rich as some parts of Pallass, she thought, until she realized the real luxury was into the homes built into the tree itself.
Mivifa the Oldblood of Feathers had a huge studio mansion, with a large pool, outdoor area; even for Oteslia, it was a lot of lawn. That was until Lyonette saw Feathi, the Pegasus, grazing outdoors. Saliss waved.
“Hey! There’s Feathi! Hey! It’s me!”
The Pegasus took one look at Saliss and put up one of her brilliant, speckled wings and hid behind it. Saliss looked at Lyonette.
“See? Now, let’s go bother Mivifa so we can bring back the person everyone actually likes.”
He smiled so sadly, then. But he was bounding up the steps in an instant.
Mivifa flew back to her home with feathered wings. That was—Mividel’s home. She slipped in from the porch, having shed the wings with feathers she could grow two blocks away. She just had to grab—
Cire was sitting in her living room, on the worn couch. Mivi froze as she entered.
“Hey. So, like, was he your ex or something? Or was that really Saliss of Lights? Because everyone’s saying he is. So…are you Mivifa?”
He was looking at an illustration of them together. Around her little home. Mivi froze.
She hadn’t prepared. Had he seen her vanity? She normally only used this place to sleep and host parties where Cire was coming. It wasn’t a place lived in.
“What? You’re Creler-brained. Hey, I sorted it out. He thought I looked like Mivifa. Maybe that was Saliss. Archmage, right? Maybe I’m related to Mivifa after all, though.”
She tried with a grin. Cire just looked at her.
When he sat there, alone, not socializing as he almost always was, he looked older. Despite being so young. He didn’t even like sleeping alone, Mivi knew.
He said he had bad dreams, alone.
“You know, you’ve been a Silver-ranked adventurer for a while. Like—how many years now?”
Mivifa froze as she walked into her apartment. She tried to shrug.
“Years. Who uses those stupid numbering system. That’s the tree-system, Cire. I don’t bother, do you?”
Normally he’d laugh. Today? He just looked at her.
“At the stables. What, you think—you are monking, Cire. Just because we both have Pegasi? Do I have wings coming out my back?”
At last, the Dragon grinned. He relaxed.
“I know that! I’m just—flapping about. That was weird, is all. But hey—you saw I was nearly in that Human girl’s pants, right?”
“Gross. And no, you weren’t. If I hadn’t dragged you off, she’d have stabbed you.”
Mivifa was relieved, and thought he was just as relieved. Cire scoffed.
“She was into me. There was something about her, you know? She was like…shining. But not just because she had a nice body. There was something else.”
Mivifa frowned, but she put it down to bluster.
“You mind Crelering off? I need to talk to the Guildmistress.”
“Aw, no, really?”
“Yep. She wants to make Saliss happy, so guess who gets to help because you had to make him toss a potion?”
“I Crelered up. Look, I’ll make it up to you.”
“Whatever. Get lost, you.”
She smiled until he was gone. Then she packed up the few things she needed to take.
Fetale slipped in and she glared at him.
“Thanks for the warning.”
“It’s on your [Message] scroll. He lost us, believe it or not. He’s too fast when he wants to be—sorry.”
They both grimaced and grinned at the slang. Mivifa turned.
“I need to deal with Saliss. Handle him for me?”
“Yeah. I guess I’m in charge until he’s gone. Mivi—”
She turned. Fetale was standing there.
The Drake met her eyes, seriously.
“That was the most shaken I’ve seen him in years. He’s not going to stay fooled. We’re putting together a ‘Mivifa’ so you can deny it, but—”
Her smile vanished.
“I know. It might be time for Mivi to leave.”
He nodded slowly. With heavy wings, Mivifa changed and flew towards her home.
It was two of them. The Human and Saliss.
That surprised Mivifa as she flew back to her home. The Oldblood of Feathers had thought it was mere coincidence or a passing acquaintance.
She didn’t know why Saliss was h—wait, yes she did. That war with the Guild of Assassins in the north.
She’d forgotten about the massive detonation he’d caused. He had to be out of his potions stock, even for Saliss. And his power relied on having hundreds, thousands of pre-prepared battle potions.
No wonder he’d come here. Mivifa went over what to say as she landed on the patio, and went in through the back. By the time she opened the door, she was half-smiling.
“Saliss, just when my day can’t get worse.”
He had a similar expression. Lyonette, behind him, half-bowed, uncertain what to do. Mivifa’s eyes flicked to her.
“Hello, Miss. Sorry about my—the young Drake who bothered you, earlier.”
“Oh, it’s nothing, Adventurer Mivifa. My name is—”
“This is Lyon. Mivifa, let’s talk. Lyonette, you stare at the door for a moment.”
Saliss strode on through, closing the door in Lyonette’s face. Mivifa heard an outraged sound. She sighed.
“I’m sorry, Miss Lyon! The patio’s open around back. Saliss, do you have to lock her out?”
“Named Adventurer stuff.”
The Drake was being his usual, antagonizing self. But in truth—
Here was the thing. Mivifa did not hate Saliss. On the contrary, she and he got along. Better than she did with the Swordsman of Six of Manus, for instance. Or Shriekblade, although those two were polar opposites.
They understood each other in a way. She’d known him back when he was just ‘Chaldion’s grandson’, and she was just Mivifa the Flier—one of those generic names you sometimes got. Not even a real title. Just something like—‘hey, that adventurer with the Pegasus is pretty good. Who? Mivifa. The flier? Oh, her…’
But Saliss? Perhaps it was Cire. One was unintentionally childish. Saliss was all intention. And if you remembered that, sometimes he was a lot more bearable.
“Nice place you have. Feathi still hates me.”
Saliss had found her kitchen. He had an amazing memory; he’d already put some tea on. He was glancing at her, but Mivifa just folded her arms.
“She likes you, as much as that’s possible. Did she do the wing-trick? That’s her being playful. If she hated you, she’d fly over you and give you a shower.”
“Hah! I knew I liked her. So. Sorry about interrupting your fun.”
Saliss glanced up. Mivifa kept her face half-smiling, even though her insides went cold. That was Saliss. He could switch from friendly to barbs in a moment and some idiots couldn’t tell which was which. He’d been pissed during their failed raid on the Antinium. Now he was…different.
“You didn’t interrupt much. Although what happened to respecting privacy?”
“I was deniable. But you could have said ‘I’ll tell Mivifa if I see her’. That’s sort of how [Spies] do things. I think. You don’t acknowledge me, I dance naked on your doorstep. That’s how it works.”
That was true. Mivifa glared, but he was unapologetic. If she’d been thinking, rather than panicking, she would have done that.
“How’re the lungs?”
Another change of topic in a moment. Mivifa coughed, reflexively.
“Good. They got me a full treatment. No permanent scarring…not much. Nothing like Izril’s Courier got. She actually sent me a [Message], you know. Making sure I was alright.”
“Huh. And here I thought it was a secret operation. So much for that.”
Saliss poured two cups. And then put a third out, empty. For Lyonette. Mivifa saw him toss one end-over-end at her.
She didn’t flinch. The liquid never left the cup. And it slowed and fell right into her hand. She sniffed, sipped.
Neither one missed a beat. If you blinked at that, you weren’t able to be a Named Adventurer.
“I think Oteslia contacted her, honestly. To make sure they knew how to deal with the poison. I never thanked you for bailing us out.”
“Well, it was a stupid idea and I just went full-idiotic until even the Antinium had enough. They weren’t being serious, either.”
Saliss relaxed. The two adventurers nodded; that was recap for you. No talking about ‘we nearly died’, or ‘what was up with Klbkch the Slayer being attacked by Wrymvr?’ If they knew, or had ideas—they represented each other’s cities.
A careful dance. And Saliss could dance. The opposite of Cire, again.
“About what you saw—”
Mivifa brought it up and Saliss was ready.
“Secret. Lips sealed. Help me out, though. You know I’m out of potions?”
“I’ll introduce you to anyone you need. Not that you don’t have a reputation. But I bet the First Gardener would lean on the big suppliers just to have you out of her city. Please don’t cause more altercations.”
He grinned. Mivifa waited. One, two, three…sip. And then it was daggers out again.
“So, that Drake was pretty young.”
He was almost predictable at times. If you knew him. Mivifa folded her arms, as if defensively. And this was her time to be an [Actor]. Her first class.
“It’s my business what I do in my spare time. You never asked when you sold me any of the potions.”
The [Alchemist] looked at her. And Mivifa felt her stomach churning. He might not say anything. Probably not, actually. But if he did—this was what the First Gardener had asked of her.
If it came out that Mivifa the Oldblood of Feathers chased younger men about in her free time…it wasn’t the worst thing to come out about a Named Adventurer. It was only her reputation.
For Cirediel, she would do it in a heartbeat. Saliss shrugged.
“Fair enough. He was cute, I guess. I’m not an expert on what Drake women like. But they don’t get younger than that, do they?”
Mivifa was caught mid-smile. She reflexively answered.
“No! Of course not!”
This time the [Alchemist] did grin. His eyes flickered. She saw him flick a claw and knew he’d been using some kind of potion.
“Good to hear. Because I’d have had to kill you, otherwise.”
They looked at each other. The air tensed—then both Named Adventurers laughed. They began talking, Mivifa asking about the Guild business, why he’d even done something that stupid. Saliss about the Meeting of Tribes and new developments in Oteslia.
Both of them knew Saliss had meant every word he’d just said.
Lyonette stomped around the back of Mivifa’s home. The gate was unlocked, which made her worry the Named Adventurer was as careless as Saliss…
…Until she realized Mivifa had the world’s most dangerous attack-Pegasus in her huge, open lawn. The splendid creature wasn’t actually snow-white, like all the picture books. If anything, her fur and feathers were a slight blue, and speckled with bright bits of cerulean.
She was magnificent, too. And intelligent. Lyonette halted.
She had begun to realize how much Saliss was doing and how little she was. He’d gotten her into the city, found them a contact—if not a place to stay—and knew Oteslia.
Lyonette hadn’t even been able to chase off an obnoxious Drake. The [Princess] did not like feeling useless. It was nostalgic, but not everything nostalgic was good.
She knew Saliss had to be discussing something he couldn’t say in front of her—Drake politics perhaps. So she waited outside. Feathi was watching her, a bit warily, but she must have a connection with Mivifa that told her Lyonette was harmless.
Was she like Apista? Lyonette investigated the nice patio, built onto the balcony. Mivifa was a…[Beast Master], according to Lyonette’s vague knowledge of her. Apista was hardly a dedicated companion, but Lyonette had a few Skills. And Apista was smart enough to send messages, do guard duty on Mrsha, even go hunting for rats and other pests. And that was a bee, no offense to Apista.
On a hunch and memory, Lyonette turned. She walked out onto the lawn and the Pegasus’ wings instantly rose in an aggressive position. She was already horse-sized, but when she raised the wings, she looked massive.
Lyonette halted. She gulped, and then—bowed. The Pegasus blinked at her. Lyonette bowed very gracefully.
“Hello, Pegasus Feathi? My name is Lyon Solstice. I am very pleased to meet you, and hope I am not intruding…”
“I’ll let you stay here. Four? It’s no problem. My apartment can handle that many, easily. Mind you—a lot of rooms are dusty.”
“We can go to an inn or somewhere.”
He was taken aback by her putting him up. Mivifa just shrugged.
“I don’t care.”
In truth, she wanted Saliss under her watch. She’d live with seeing a naked Drake walking about and his constant annoyances for a week or two. He shrugged.
“Well, aren’t you generous? Okay, let’s meet Lyon. She’s—interesting. And she’s here for that antidote I mentioned.”
“Who got hurt?”
He said it lightly, but Mivifa thought that was what she would have to dig into—if she cared. She nodded, and they walked out onto the patio, negotiations completed. There she saw Lyonette just in time to see her bow, and Feathi trot over.
Mivifa’s laughter made Lyonette jump. Then blush. But the Oldblood of Feathers leapt from her patio and soared all the way to where they were in one gliding jump. Saliss copied her and splatted onto the lawn. He rolled after her, then sprang to his feet. Feathi snorted at him, but continued to let Lyonette stroke her head.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t meant to insult you, Miss…Lyon? But that was cleverly done! Feathi doesn’t let many people so close.”
The Named Adventurer was approving. Lyonette smiled, and felt like it was the first smart move she’d pulled off since coming to Oteslia.
“What did she do? I’ve never seen that mule with wings ever let anyone pet her head without you being there first. Hey, Feathi. It’s me—ha!”
He jerked an arm out of range as the Pegasus bit and missed. She was a lot more…aggressive…than the legends of the gentle, winged steeds indicated.
“She introduced herself and bowed, Saliss. You could be more respectful—Feathi understands everything people say. Was that spontaneous, Miss Lyon?”
“No. I’d heard of bowing to a [Beast Master]’s companion in my—where I come from.”
Saliss blinked at Lyonette. Mivifa was approving.
“Well done. I’m told you come from Liscor. That’s a long ways away. Is it true the city’s practically unrecognizable? I’ve flown there once or twice, but I’ve never gone much further.”
“It’s something. Ah—I am Lyon Solstice. Pleased to meet you, Adventurer Mivifa?”
“Call me Mivi if you like. I’m told I can help you find an antidote? And that there are two companions of yours in the city? I hope they know where to find you. Either way, you’re free to stay at my place. It’s large enough and I owe Saliss…something. I don’t have much to eat, but we can find something. And tomorrow I’ll do any introductions you might need.”
Lyonette blinked. That would be helpful! A Named Adventurer in her city, vouching for them? She looked at Saliss and he shrugged.
There was a stroke of good luck. Lyon found Mivifa friendly, considerate, asking how the journey had been, offering some fresh tea, and for someone to find Ratici and Wilovan, and a good hostess.
The exact opposite of Saliss, in short. The [Princess] found herself talking about Liscor as they had Oteslian snacks, including the infamous Oteslian Trench—a hollowed out, giant vegetable with other sides and dip you slowly ate.
Wilovan and Ratici entered Mivifa’s home about that time, blinking around and tipping their hats to her and bowing deeply. Mivifa smiled at them.
“You must be Wilovan and Ratici, yes? I am Mivifa—or Mivi. Come in and have something to eat.”
“It is an honor to meet you, Miss Mivi. We hope we’re not too uncouth to be staying here—we could find a nice spot and not take up on your hospitality, as a Named Adventurer surely has more to do.”
Ratici’s unique way of speaking made Mivifa smile.
“Not at all. If I can manage Saliss, everyone else is far easier.”
“Hey! That’s entirely accurate!”
So they were all sitting around, snacking, and the [Princess] saw Mivifa’s eyes light up.
“Soccer, baseball, and these contraptions. Skateboards, bicycles? Liscor has changed. And Pallass gets to benefit from all that?”
“Eh. They’d benefit more if they weren’t so tight-tailed about security. But that’s Pallass for you. I should have brought you a souvenir if I thought you were so interested. It’s not hard to make a soccer ball. It’s like an inflated bladder or something.”
Saliss was gobbling down vegetable-and-cheese fritters, another snack. Oteslian cuisine, Lyonette observed, skewed away from the normally meat-heavy diets of Drakes and Gnolls. She didn’t mind that; it was good food.
Ratici and Wilovan were notably uncomfortable, probably because Mivifa was technically the law at times and they might actually be out-leveled. Or maybe it was Feathi, sitting inside the house and munching on food. She didn’t contribute to the conversation aside from occasionally buffeting Saliss with a wing, but it was something to have such a majestic animal clearly listening.
“Oh—I don’t want to play myself, not more than once or twice. But it could be very…engaging for the youth of Oteslia. They do get bored. Oteslia was importing the games, but we have to get the pieces shipped.”
This was another chance for the [Princess] to be helpful. She jumped in with a smile.
“You don’t need that, Miss Mivifa. Some [Trader] is selling you a polite lie. You could manufacture everything for the soccer and baseball games here. You just need a [Carpenter], [Leatherworker], or [Tanner] with the right Skills and you could set up a game in a day or two!”
“Really? And do you know the rules, Miss?”
“She was there when it first pioneered.”
Saliss grinned. Mivifa actually got up to fetch a notepad and pencil.
“I would love to actually work on this, Miss Lyon. Again—we can’t get those [Actors] here, but the First Gardener is interested in plays of our own. Do you know the rules?”
“Yes. I would be delighted to help you, for your hospitality.”
Mivifa wrote down all of the notes, smiling to herself.
“We have space, and it’s just carved wood for those ‘bats’? That [Trader] wanted gold for—well, I’ll get this to the right people. And those skateboards…I would really take it as a personal favor if you could get, oh, a dozen to Oteslia? Just one? We can probably make more.”
That was the first interesting thing. Lyonette smiled and agreed to all of it; she actually asked Wilovan to send a [Message] to Kevin that very hour. Which wasn’t even necessary to go via Mage’s Guild—Mivifa had a Scroll of [Messages] she loaned Lyonette.
But it was interesting to Lyonette because she was a [Princess]. And a [Worldly Princess] at that. One of her Skills that she had often not needed to use had activated.
[Lesser Intuition]. It was one of several she’d gotten, and normally only helped her figure out that Mrsha was being very good for a reason that meant she’d broken or spilled something.
Now, though—she wondered why Mivifa would fast-track sports to Oteslia. Either she was the most civic-minded, helpful Named Adventurer Lyonette had ever met—and again, that wasn’t hard given the small pool that included Saliss—or something else was up.
Especially because she’d seen Feathi snort and roll her eyes when Mivifa had talked about the bored youth. Curious.
But Lyonette had a very pleasant time with a thick, delightful pottage that Mivifa made herself, and talking about Liscor.
Aside from the reason why they had come, of course. Mivifa was charming, frankly inspiring—she showed them the wings she could manifest at will.
“I never could fly, and I was jealous of everyone who could. That’s how I met Feathi—Pegasi choose their riders. But I never dreamed I could actually fly myself!”
She leapt into the sky, and Feathi flew around her. Lyonette, Ratici, and Wilovan looked up at the dream of flight made reality. The two Gentlemen Callers took off their hats a moment—for respect.
Saliss was taking a bath. Even there, the [Alchemist] let someone else enter the baths after him and Lyonette found the bathroom was filled with bubbles, some half as tall as she was. Pink, green, blue—
It was actually a lot of fun, but she complained to him anyways. He just winked at her.
Thus their first night in Oteslia came to a close. The next day, they got to work.
The next day, Lyonette awoke feeling confident and ready to take on Oteslia. She had a quick meeting with Saliss after breakfast; Mivifa had already left, but had stocked her kitchen and left a note saying she’d catch up. She was getting the different sports tools commissioned, apparently.
Another twinge of intuition. But then Saliss brought up the cure and Lyonette was focused on that.
“Alright, I need to go around and buy all the rare reagents. I’m out of potions, and I made some—but I have to buy in bulk to resupply. I thought we’d combine that with looking into ways to cure icecube Erin.”
The Gentlemen Callers glared, but Saliss just grinned. Lyonette felt a twinge of apprehension.
“So we just go around and ask about the poison?”
“What? Oh, no. It’s just that the people we want are in the same place as the [Gardeners], [Herbalists], and so on. Duh. And don’t worry; I’ll put my gold into this.”
“You don’t have to. I’ve brought money…”
Saliss snorted. Lyonette looked at him, offended. The Drake was leaning back, munching on a blueberry muffin.
“Oh, nothing. You want to do this yourself, be my guest.”
“I didn’t say that. I just meant, let us pay for everything we can. You’re welcome to help…”
He sniggered at her. This was Ratici’s cue to slowly adjust his cap.
“You seem to be dismissing Miss Marquin, sir. Quite ungentlemanly, if I may say.”
“Well, I’d hate to be ungentlemanly.”
Saliss looked at the Gentleman Caller. The two stared for a moment, then he looked at Lyonette.
“Pray, how much did you bring for the ‘fix Erin project’, Lyonette?”
He almost purred. Lyonette had a bad feeling, but she stuck out her chin.
“Everything The Wandering Inn’s made that we don’t need to keep it running a few months or haven’t put into expansion or…other projects! That’s 1247 gold pieces!”
An astonishing sum for an inn to have in reserve. It was thanks to Erin’s windfall sales, and all the new things she’d come up with. Lyonette smiled smugly for just one second.
Then she remembered what a [Princess] would think of those numbers. Her face fell. Saliss stood up.
“That’s a lot of money for a civilian. Yup, yup. Anyone short of an adventurer—wow. So much gold. Let me just check what I have on me—”
He reached into his bag of holding and pulled out a handful of gold coins. He tossed them onto the floor. Lyonette saw a few roll under the couch. Saliss repeated the gesture.
He slowly, and deliberately began tossing handfuls of gold onto the ground. When he had created a pile reaching up to his knees, Lyonette gave up.
“I get it. But surely it won’t cost thousands of gold to—”
“…find a cure that might involve stuff like mithril, Sage’s Grass, or other extremely expensive things? Do you know how much a Kraken’s Heart costs? Krakens have multiple hearts, at least one in each tentacle, for adults. And I could still buy your inn and have change for the price of one.”
Saliss stood on a pile of gold. Lyonette stared at him; Ratici’s fingers were twitching. The Named Adventurer had…Named Adventurer money. [Princess] money. She had forgotten that her allowance had been enough to pay the entire staff of The Wandering Inn and then some.
And an adventurer could be as rich as a nation. Saliss began shoveling his gold back into his bag of holding.
“This is my spare change, incidentally. I have more in the Merchant’s Guild; I don’t carry around tens of thousands of gold pieces. By the way, I’m poor right now. Or I will be, once I buy everything I need. But don’t worry—I’ll ‘contribute’.”
Lyonette whispered stiffly. Saliss sat back.
“And whom are we visiting, sir?”
Wilovan looked like he wanted to smack the Drake. Saliss raised a claw and went abruptly serious.
“I’m visiting [Herbalists] and [Merchants] and [Suppliers]. You are going to follow me around. But Mivifa will introduce you to the people you need.”
“Not those groups?”
Lyonette was confused. She thought the point was to get Saliss what he needed so he could begin his studies into curing Erin. That, or ask fellow [Alchemists] in Oteslia. That was her rough plan.
Saliss just shook his head.
“If you wanted a good [Alchemist], Lyonette, you’d go to Pallass and me and Xif. You heard about those kids with the poisoned Selphid?”
Lyonette vaguely did. Saliss grinned.
“They went to Oteslia because it was closer. Which makes sense, but it was also slightly off. You see—you go to Pallass for established recipes. Because the [Alchemists] there can make it. Oteslia—well, it can be remade here cheaply so that was smart. But if you want medicine, or to create something new? You go to Oteslia.”
“Not Pallass again? I thought [Alchemists] made new things too.”
“We do. But we’re experimenters. What happens if I infuse Sage’s Grass water with the element of sulfur and then heat it into a gas and toss lightning into the mix? Hint—nothing. It’s boring. We don’t know what we’re making, a lot of the time. But in Oteslia, you want a specialist class who can do the job reliably, not kill themselves—usually.”
Lyonette felt like Saliss enjoyed lecturing and holding back the truth. But he was also explaining—as aggravatingly as he chose to do it. The [Alchemist] grinned.
“A [Researcher]. Someone whose job it is to…figure out how to do something. Oteslia has more raw materials than anywhere but Salazsar, and Fissival has magical versions of this, but—you want medicine? Hire a [Researcher] for something new. Hire a [Scholar] to find out if it’s been done before. Hire a [Shaman] or a [Druid] to see if there are traditional ways of making it happen. That’s who you need.”
Lyonette looked at him. She was embarrassed to admit it, but she hadn’t known there was a [Researcher] class, even with her knowledge of classes. Once again, Saliss was her guide. She nodded.
“I’ll let you ask. I can do it once I finish shopping. It’s almost as if Saliss could do all this himself! But that would be silly, wouldn’t it?”
Wilovan shifted, but Lyonette gave him a shake of the head. The Named Adventurer was just poking at her again.
“Why did you come here, incidentally? That cute Mrsha—the inn—why did you come, Lyonette? I never asked.”
She flushed nearly as red as her hair.
“Because no one else was finding anything to cure Erin. And I thought I could make a difference. That…”
Only I could do it right. Saliss grinned at her. Not mockingly—well, not entirely. But altogether too knowingly.
“Spoken like everyone with an ego. Everyone thinks they can lay bricks or paint walls until they try it. Well, speaking as someone with the largest ego—I know I can make a difference. Let’s go and get this research going. I’ll race the [Researchers] to find something anti-frost. Alright! Motivational speech done! Let’s go!”
He sprang out the door. Lyonette followed; Wilovan growling insults under his breath and Ratici muttering the same. Saliss, aggravating Saliss, overconfident, but helpful, led the way into Oteslia.
The next four hours saw him eating his words.
“Adventurer Saliss! A pleasure to have a Named Adventurer in my humble establishment! Sage’s Grass? Of course, of course. For you, sir, we can do you a bushel at six hundred gold, even. How many can I put you down for?”
The [Herbalist] beamed. Saliss did not. He looked at the smug Drake, and leaned over the counter.
“Did you just say six hundred a bushel for Sage’s Grass? Do I look like an idiot? Or made of gold?”
The [Herbalist] of Leafhold’s, one of the largest suppliers to [Alchemists] who exported a lot of goods, gave Saliss a long look.
“Not at all to the former, Adventurer Saliss. But I’m afraid Sage’s Grass is very, very dear of late.”
“How about Obsidian Leaf?”
“It just climbed in price. This morning! I’m so sorry—”
The Drake sighed, leaning his chin on his hands. Saliss growled.
“I bet. And this didn’t happen to be because Igrena sent you word to raise the prices?”
The Drake gave him a wide-eyed look.
“Miss…Igrena? Oh, you mean Igrena’s Herbatorium! How is the fine old Gnoll doing?”
“She’s changed her class from [Supplier] into [Robber]. Look, I know you have lots of everything on my list. Stop gouging me or I’ll go to another shop! Oteslia has lots!”
The Drake sadly tsked as he investigated the numerous items on Saliss’ list.
“This is all so rare and expensive. Even to grow in Oteslia, Alchemist Saliss. I couldn’t do more than—excuse me? Could one of you bring the day-prices over?”
One of his apprentices ran over a list, freshly written, with a bunch of crossed out prices. Lyonette winced as she read over Saliss’ shoulder. Everything was 20% to 80% higher.
Saliss gave the [Herbalist], Master Igniz, a narrow-eyed look. The [Herbalist] beamed, quill raised.
“Now, how much can I put you down for?”
“Those lizard kissing—hoard stealing—money Crelers think they can rob me? I’m Saliss! I annoy people!”
Saliss stormed out of the eighth shop in half as many hours. Leafhold’s guards nervously held open the door, but Lyonette was impressed.
Saliss had not blown up the shop, caused a fuss, or even removed his pants. She was confused as to why, at first.
Not why every [Herbalist] in Oteslia had almost the exact same prices. That was obvious.
They saw the news. Ironically, Pallass News Network had shot Saliss in the back with crossbow bolts, to use a poor metaphor. Normally, Named Adventurer’s exploits might be the talk of the city, but there was always someone who hadn’t heard.
These days, everyone knew Saliss was out of potions. So Oteslia’s emporiums of alchemy goods knew that they could turn a massive profit. And they had apparently decided to universally agree to raise prices, rather than let him find the one person willing to undercut the others.
“They’ve always been clever bastards. Damn, damn, damn…”
Saliss stomped around in front of the shop. The Drake within was slyly watching. Lyonette folded her arms, thinking.
“I don’t understand, Saliss. They know you won’t buy at these prices…why isn’t one willing to mark it down a bit and get all the sales?”
“Because I have to buy! They just have to outwait me, and they will. But I’ll buy through third-parties. I’ll find the cheap stuff…but it means that I’ll probably be paying above market price on everything, even if it’s not at their rates! They’ll line their pockets with gold!”
“And you didn’t destroy the entire shop because…?”
Lyonette looked at the nervous [Guards], who were wondering the same thing no doubt. Saliss glared at Lyonette. He pointed at his face.
“Do I look stupid? I’m not about to destroy my suppliers!”
“So there are actually people you refuse to antagonize. Amazing. I should start selling herbs.”
“Well, you should think about being generous. Because the next time there’s a monster attack, guess who can’t afford to help?”
Saliss bellowed into the shop. Master Igniz waved at him. Saliss muttered to Lyonette.
“They won’t all be in on it. There’s always someone who compromises. Trouble is—I could buy all of the Obsidian Leaf in Leafhold and I’d still need more. Damn, damn…”
After a moment, the Drake looked at Lyonette.
“And why are you here? I thought you were asking about a [Researcher]!”
She gave him a shamefaced look. This was one of the business districts—but a specialized one. Next to vast, indoor gardens where specialist plants were grown, [Herbalists] had made their shops. This in particular was Horticulturalist’s Way, where any number of [Scholars] and [Researchers] did business next to the providers of the very same plants and ingredients they needed.
“We have been. But—could you, um, get them to open their doors?”
She felt more useless again. And she had done her best. Saliss stared at her, then accompanied her to the fifth [Scholar]’s residence.
Four [Researchers], all the best in the area, had signs saying ‘not taking research subjects’ or ‘no appointments available’. Even this [Scholar] had refused to even open the door for Lyonette.
She thought she was charming! She knew that if she could get in the same room with them, she could make a good case for Erin.
But she couldn’t even get in their shops without Saliss.
He effected this Erin-style. He hammered on the door until an angry [Scholar] appeared.
“Can’t you read the sign? Who in the name of Rhir’s hells are—”
“S—? The Named—I am extremely b—”
“Adventurer or not—”
Lyonette felt like she’d get arrested if she tried that. And she didn’t have the…ability to just repeat her name fifteen times until the [Scholar] let them in.
And even then?
He was a young Garuda, apparently from Chandrar. An up-and-comer—not the best, but Lyonette had tried four before him who refused to even see her. She did her best.
“I am so sorry, Scholar Meirq, but Adventurer Saliss and I are both desperate to find a cure for my friend, as you see. And you were recommended as being the brightest and most energetic [Scholar] in all of Oteslia.”
She held his wing-hand for a second. The Garuda hesitated.
[Calming Touch]. Also, a [Charming Smile]. Lyonette was using [Basic Negotiator] and her [Imperial Aura], all to soothe and flatter the Garuda.
It seemed to be working pretty well, because he blushed and preened at his messy, ink-stained feathers. As Garuda went, he probably had trouble with his own species; his plumage was disordered and Lyonette wondered—politely speaking—if he might have come to Izril to have better luck outside his species.
“Well—that’s very kind of you, Miss Lyon. And a Named Adventurer’s patronage—”
“Not to mention the revolutionary insights of curing someone in such a state. And the gratitude of Liscor?”
She pressed him. He blushed again.
“Of course, of course. I tell you what—I’d be delighted to look into the matter. Frozen flesh? Not to mention detoxifying a venom? I can think of a number of [Herbalists] and [Researchers] I could contact who might get in on a project like this—if amply funded.”
Saliss sighed. But Lyonette brightened. At last!
“We’ll pay for speed and a team if needed! How soon can you begin working?”
“Ah. Well—two months?”
Lyonette’s face fell. The Garuda hastened to qualify.
“It’s not that I don’t see the urgency! It’s just that I’m in ah, competition at the moment with my fellow [Researchers] and so on. I would make this my second top priority, but—”
“You can’t put it aside even for someone mortally wounded?”
The Garuda looked distressed at Lyonette’s reproachful look. He blushed under his feathers.
“I am sorry. But this is—well, it could define my career. Literally put me above all my competition, Miss. And it’s a certain thing. Two months. From what you say, your friend can wait that long. Let’s discuss it over dinner. I can spare an hour or two tonight if you—Miss? Miss…?”
“I’m going to another shop. Meet you after the next researcher?”
Lyonette nodded. She walked to the next address. And then met up with Mivifa, Ratici, and Wilovan.
The Oldblood of Feathers had returned from commissioning the sports projects to help. She was looking miffed.
“That’s the third [Researcher] completely occupied, Miss Lyon. Have you found anyone?”
“Not one? Something must be up. I wonder…”
The Named Adventurer frowned. She looked at Ratici and Wilovan. They tugged at their hats.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Lyonette. But even Miss Mivifa couldn’t sway the [Researchers], as it were.”
Lyonette stared, incredulous. Mivifa’s frown only deepened.
“Something must be up. I’ve never seen Horticulturalist’s Way this obsessed. Even if they’re all competing, there’s always someone willing to spare time for…and is Saliss still having trouble buying anything?”
“The First Gardener won’t be happy. But she won’t want to fight all the [Herbalists]—enough is enough. Saliss is one thing and he can take care of himself. He’s rich. But this is a mission of mercy. Follow me.”
She strode back to the first [Researcher] that Lyonette had tried. It was a rather strange…building. Lyonette saw lots of enchantments around it, and the doors were locked. She suspected it was the kind of place where experiments both dangerous and mundane could be carried out; it was long and had few windows, although—six chimneys.
“Excuse me! This is Mivifa Selifscale! I request a meeting with Researcher Dromenl! At once!”
The Named Adventurer knocked on the door and shouted loudly. People in the street glanced at her. She knocked—waited—and then, after no response came, began to lose her temper.
“By the order of the First Gardener of Oteslia, open this door! Now! I know there’s someone in here! If you do not open this door within the minute, Oteslia’s Treewatch will force it open and lock the facility down for the day!”
There it was. Lyonette was impressed; Saliss had never used his authority like this—or rather, that of the city. But Mivifa was clearly more trusted by the local government. Named Adventurers were their cities.
And sure enough, an assistant practically sprinted out of the back rooms at that. He fumbled the doors open, breathing apologies.
“I am so sorry, Adventurer Mivifa—”
“I demand to see Researcher Dromenl. Now.”
The [Princess] had had the sense that Mivifa had a temper. Here it was on display. She waited in the empty lobby as the assistant ran off.
Researcher Dromenl was actually Human. Lyonette was surprised, but the aged man was clearly a resident of Oteslia for a long time.
“Adventurer Mivifa! What can we do for you? I—did not realize you were here. Is the First Gardener well? No side effects? The pills…”
“They worked splendidly, with her compliments. She wants more. What I want to know, Researcher, is why every facility of study is closed! I have a guest from Liscor, vouched for by Saliss of Lights and myself who can’t even get a single Level 20 [Scholar] to help her! The First Gardener herself is interested in this case.”
Mivifa was throwing all stops out for Lyonette. The [Princess] introduced herself, and Dromenl blinked at her.
“My, the First Gardener? You—young lady, do you know you have an extraordinary hair color? Less than 2% of all Humans have this vivid shade of red; it’s considered a marker of royal heritage in Terandria, and that’s not far off.”
“Er—I’ve always been told so, sir. But please—”
She rushed to explain the issue. Researcher Dromenl was fascinated.
“A frozen body that is neither alive nor dead? Poison? Of course we can help! Why, I could freeze half a dozen rats—”
“Researcher, the [Druids] don’t approve of that.”
One of the assistant [Researchers] whispered urgently. The entire team had turned out after Mivifa’s wrath had been made clear. Dromenl hesitated.
“Of course. One doesn’t want to offend the [Druids]. But…little rats?”
“This is very good, Researcher. Then—can I count on you to help Miss Lyon? She can fund the entire project—and Saliss of Lights as well.”
Mivifa was smiling. Dromenl and his team perked up at ‘fund’; Lyonette got the impression they were always hungry for funds, even in the best facilities. But then—it happened.
“Er, we will make it our top priority, Adventurer Mivifa. After our current line of investigation is done.”
Mivifa’s smile vanished. So did Lyonette’s.
“What is this about, Researcher?”
He hesitated and looked at Ratici, Wilovan, and Lyonette. The two Callers, not at home here, were glancing around and murmuring to each other.
“Candidly, Adventurer, that’s confidential. I could tell you—but not outsiders. No offense to Miss Lyon, but we verge on a huge discovery! I am 100% confident of this and that is an extraordinary thing to say, haha—”
He looked excited. Mivifa hesitated.
“Tell me. Excuse me, Miss Lyonette. But it is confidential between research facilities—does this have to do with…?”
She walked away with Dromenl. Lyonette wished she could read lips or had a hearing spell, but the facility was probably guarded. She walked back.
“Seems something is attracting attention, Miss Lyon. We’d like to help, but Ratici and I aren’t the most charming of sorts insofar as it comes to polite negotiations between upstanding sorts.”
Wilovan murmured. Lyonette shook her head.
“It’s fine, Wilovan. Thank you for looking around. I don’t know what this is—something wrong, Ratici?”
The Drake was scratching at the back of his neck. He tipped his cap.
“Begging your pardon, Miss Lyon. Old habits.”
Ah. The [Thief]. She hesitated.
“I don’t think Mivifa would take kindly to any…”
“Not me, Miss Lyon. I wouldn’t jeopardize anything. It’s just—there’s something valuable back there. Familiar. I was trying to place it.”
Lyonette blinked. She wondered what made Ratici’s [Thief] senses tingle. She glanced at Wilovan.
“You can’t hear…?”
“They ward the entire facility. Sensible, Miss Lyon. I’m afraid we’re in the dark, so to speak.”
He shrugged and she sighed.
Mivifa was no better. She knew—but obviously it was a secret matter.
“I can see why they don’t want to help. The First Gardener might be able to insist one drops the issue. They don’t all have to work on the same thing, although if one gets lucky—I’ll bring it up with her. But it is a find, Miss Lyon. Let’s find Saliss and see if he’s had any luck.”
He had not. Saliss was spitting mad as he stomped from shop to shop. Wilovan and Ratici had taken themselves off to ‘do some investigating on the sly, as it were’, and Mivifa was checking more researchers to confirm they were all on the same thing.
Lyonette glumly watched him enter another shop, the smallest so far compared to all the big ones. He had been shouting really pithy insults at all of the unified sellers of herbs as he realized they were working together to raise prices on all the things he needed.
She expected him to do as he had done in the last shop; kick the door open, and ask if the shopkeeper wanted to make money, or be an obstinate Lizard.
However. This shop was…interesting. The Drake at the counter leaned over and blinked.
“Is that Saliss?”
She was middle-aged. Saliss walked up.
“Herissa. Please tell me it’s not everyone marking up their prices?”
She swished her tail as Lyonette looked around the establishment. This wasn’t a huge facility, but it was doing well. The [Herbalist] sighed.
“They smell money, and you’re rich, Saliss. Sorry. What’s your list? As if I don’t know—it’s been going around.”
“So they’re working together? Creler eggs! I’d chuck it in their gardens if it wasn’t a war crime!”
“Don’t be too mad—they’re doing it to all the [Alchemists]. They know there’s a shortage—or will be once you’re done buying. The television.”
“Damn Sir Relz and that thing. I’m gonna take off his pants live!”
She laughed at that.
“Let me know so I can watch! Alright, alright. Stop stamping around. Let’s see. Obsidian Leaf…sulfur…Eir Gel…Sage’s Grass—why do you need that? And who’s your Human friend?”
She was glancing warily at Lyonette. Saliss waved a claw.
“She’s from Liscor.”
“Really? The Liscor I’ve heard about? Is she…?”
“No, but she’s a friend. And I bought Sage’s Grass from the [Farmer] in Celum, but he’s a damned [Pirate]. Literally. Still cheaper than Oteslia, but his is only one farm…I need it all.”
The [Herbalist] pursed her lips.
“Well, I need some for my brews too. Alright, here’s what I have. I made it up as soon as I knew what you were dealing with. It’s all I can spare.”
Lyonette blinked. The Drake [Herbalist] began putting box upon box on the counter. Saliss relaxed.
“That’s your entire stock.”
“Well, I can get more faster than you can. And you can pay me just enough for a profit.”
“Let me at least do market-value. Everyone else is going to gouge me—you might as well earn something. Maybe they’ll think twice now that you did this. Unless you want me to keep silent…?”
She waved a claw.
“They’ll be furious, but it happens. Good luck, Saliss. How’s Pallass been?”
The Drake glanced at her.
“Same old, same old. Oteslia?”
“Better than Pallass.”
“Hm. Need a tail while I’m here on anything in particular?”
Another look at Lyonette. The Drake shook her head.
“Nothing I can really complain of. Just don’t get yourself killed, Saliss. I nearly swallowed my tail when I saw the fight with those Human [Assassins]. Tell Mirn he’s welcome to vacation here at any time.”
Saliss nodded. They actually hugged. Lyonette blinked as he put the boxes in his bag of holding and signed a slip for her to cash in at the Merchant’s Guild.
“You got your ingredients?”
“Enough to begin working. Herissa’s not a huge supplier—but she gave me what she could. Maybe it’ll help. Hopefully it doesn’t put her in too much trouble with the Herbalist’s Guild.”
He sighed. Lyonette hesitated. The Drake had just forked it all over without even haggling, unlike the united [Herbalists] and [Suppliers] of every species.
“Do you know her? It sounded like she owed you a debt.”
Saliss glanced at Lyonette.
“We’re old friends. And yes, we help each other. Forget about it. Friendship and stuff goes beyond economics. I still need more. I could wish for ten Herissas and I’d still need more. Damn. Let’s see if that makes Igniz change his tune. Any luck on the [Researchers]?”
“No. They’re all working on some project or other.”
“Really. That’s what I heard. Half the shops are selling something in the backrooms. But I’m not interested right now. Probably some ‘wonder herb’ like usual. I’ll see if I can find out what it is after this.”
They were walking back into Leafhold when they saw an angry customer arguing with Mister Igniz.
“But this is ridiculous, no? Listen, you cannot charge these prices! Pallass’ [Alchemists] cannot afford it!”
“Then they will buy it somewhere else. Oh, Baleros maybe.”
The angry Gnoll with stained fur stuck his finger up at the Drake as Saliss and Lyonette came to an abrupt standstill. He was actually trembling with fury. The Gnoll was old and he still wore his partly-corroded apron.
“This is robbery! We have been doing good business for years! And right when I need help most, you—”
The Gnoll turned at Lyonette’s voice. He started, then stared.
“Is that Miss Lyon? And—”
His gaze turned left. The yellow-scaled Drake gave him a huge smile. Xif went white under his fur as Saliss opened his arms wide.
“Xif! Just the Gnoll I didn’t want to see! Lyonette, run and get me some shears, will you? I have a promise to keep. Xif, remember the inn and those [Assassins]? This is how I express gratitude!”
The Gnoll [Alchemist] yelped. Lyonette saw his hand go to his side as Saliss strode forwards, claw clenching into a fist. She saw the Gnoll [Alchemist], second-best in Pallass turn—
Then rip a club from his side and charge at Saliss. Even the Named Adventurer didn’t expect that.
“You bastard, Saliss!”
“Me? You big-mouthed [Alchemist] idiot—”
The two went rolling onto the floor, punching and biting at each other. Master Igniz shouted as the shop’s employees and guests scattered. Saliss was howling.
“Do you know how many potions I wasted because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut? I could have walked to House Veltras, but nooooo—I’m going to burn your shop down, Xif!”
“Was it you? Was it you? Everything I had was there! You—”
Saliss caught the club as the old Gnoll panted. He held Xif off him effortlessly.
He forced Xif back as the guards and Lyonette dragged him back. The Gnoll struggled, but he was older, and—there were tears in his eyes.
“My shop. Was it you?”
Saliss hesitated. He sat up.
“Someone burned it down. My shop! Everything I had!”
Xif was sobbing. The old [Alchemist] looked weary. And sad. Saliss and Lyonette blinked. The Named Adventurer got to his feet.
“Okay—I’ve said a lot of things. But I didn’t do that. When?”
“Two days ago. I was coming here to do business and my apprentice said—it’s all gone. All my work, my laboratory, my home—I knew it wasn’t you. But someone heard what you were saying or—the Watch said it was arson.”
Arson. Saliss stood there, blinking at Xif.
“Wait—but someone did—that’s madness. Pallass needs your potions! And burn down your shop? Even I’m not crazy enough to actually do that!”
“It took out eighteen other buildings. They actually burned it—I had anti-fire wards, but someone must have…I’ve lost everything, Saliss.”
The Gnoll collapsed, weeping. Lyonette stared at him as Saliss looked around. Master Igniz looked apologetic.
“Alchemists, I’m deeply sorry to hear about this. But please—no fighting in my shop.”
Both Xif and Saliss glared at him. Xif slowly rose, pointing a trembling paw at Igniz. He turned to Saliss.
“You arriving makes sense. I was trying to buy enough to make potions again when the prices skyrocketed. No one’s willing to help me in my hour of need!”
“Too right. Oteslian price-gougers!”
Saliss patted Xif on the shoulder. The two outraged [Alchemists] turned on Igniz. The Drake folded his arms.
“Pallass has always lived richly off the ingredients we supply. I’m sorry about your shop, Xif, but you both have gold.”
“Yes, and we earned it! Or do you think making a Potion of Blast is as easy as watching an herb grow for six months?”
“Have you not ever seen Vorepillar infestations? Let me tell you—”
The heated argument took place as Lyonette stood back. Xif, Saliss, and Igniz were trading insults as Mivifa, Ratici, and Wilovan arrived to once again report no luck. At last, Igniz threw up his claws.
“Alright! Alright, listen. I know it’s hard, but our prices aren’t that far off! Try negotiating rather than telling us we’re all cutthroat [Pirates]! We’re willing to come down if you’re willing to come up.”
“Above market price? Come on!”
Saliss snapped. Suddenly he and Xif were united. Igniz hesitated. He lifted a claw.
“—tell you what. I’ll sweeten the deal. You two give me a fairer offer, and I’ll throw in a sample of a new ingredient both of you will be begging me to buy. I wanted to have a larger sample, but—follow me.”
The two [Alchemists] exchanged suspicious looks. But they followed Igniz into the back of the shop. Lyonette watched as she turned to Ratici and Wilovan.
“Someone actually burned down Xif’s shop.”
“That’s terrible. A man shouldn’t lose everything.”
Wilovan looked shocked. Lyonette nodded. She felt bad for Xif, and she had been right on team-shave with Saliss a moment ago. But that was just talk. Some idiot had actually…?
“What do we do about the researchers? Mivifa, can you share anything about what they’re researching?”
The Oldblood of Feathers looked uncomfortable.
“I—I don’t know, Lyonette. It’s business. I can share that it’s new, and it’s very efficacious. I’ve seen it working myself. Maybe if Saliss finds out—Igniz might have a sample. But I can’t just divulge th—”
The voice was so loud that everyone flinched. Saliss came raging out of the backrooms with Igniz dragging at him.
“You thief! You crook!”
“Saliss, let go! That’s mine! I only have one sample—”
“Who is responsible for this? I’ll burn down your shop!”
Xif was right behind Saliss, waving his enchanted club. Lyonette had no idea why they were so upset. Then—she saw the mysterious item that had been sweeping Oteslia’s research teams, and the [Herbalists] shops. The enigmatic wonder-herb of the moment. The secret—obvious—
She stared at the little yellow flower in the pot and Saliss’ face. He turned to her, eyes wide with fury.
And all the pieces fell into place.
They were called Faerie Flowers. Wil Kallinad had heard it more and more from the best [Herbalists] in Oteslia. Apparently someone had managed to cultivate the things and while they were few in number, they had astonishing effects.
And they were easy to work with. So much so that research was exploding. And the results were already…
“Yerranola? Can you hear me?”
The Selphid’s eyes opened slowly. She gasped, as the Gnoll body jerked; she had been taking command of its systems. She opened her eyes—made them move in different directions, opened and closed her mouth—then looked at him.
He grabbed her in a fierce hug. Feshi let out a howl of delight.
“It worked! Yerra—are you—?”
The Selphid flexed her body, still testing it out, then gently hugged Wil.
“I—I can move! It doesn’t hurt!”
There were no tears in her eyes like Wil’s, but a bit of orange fluid had been excreted when he had first administered the new medicinal variant. She shuddered.
“The pain—I was in agony for days. Weeks! How long…?”
“Nearly a month. The poison’s still in there. I’m so sorry. We went as fast as we could, yes, but—”
Feshi was hovering next to her. Yerra nodded.
“I remember. You all worked so hard.”
“You took the arrow meant for me. If it hadn’t been for you—”
Wil Kallinad was thinner. He hadn’t slept or rested fully until Yerra had been better. And even after the first antidotes had been manufactured, coming from Xif of Pallass by Courier—he had spent money liberally to see it done. But even then….Yerra shuddered.
“The pain. It didn’t go away, even though I felt the antidotes working. But that new medicine…what is it?”
She’d been getting better, but agonizingly slowly, able to talk and tell them how much it hurt in her glass jar enchanted to hold her, but it had been too hard to see. But—Wil gestured with a trembling hand.
“It’s a new pain-drug one of the [Researchers] came up with. Faerie flowers. You’ll need to take it along with more antidote treatments until you’re all better, but—there’s no pain?”
She wept an orange tear that matted her fur.
“None. Thank you, Wil. Thank you.”
She hugged him tight. Wil relaxed. He didn’t mention how much the experimental medicine had cost, nor the rarity of the plant. But there was more growing and—Yerra was better.
Xif had once bought a single faerie flower from Erin, using a Skill to force the sale. Saliss had been given more for friendship.
Both had sent them to Oteslia after [Gardeners] in Pallass had failed. Because Oteslia grew things. It was their specialty. It had been…months ago.
It was tempting to blame Xif. But his Skill was [The Avid Collector]. And he had paid what Erin was willing to sell the flower for.
It was an unfriendly sale, as Salazsar would well know, but it had been legal. It occurred to Lyonette, now, that she wasn’t needed here. The best person to have would have been…
[Everything Had a Price] would have let Saliss and Xif buy what they wanted. Maybe at the same prices? Maybe not. But either way—the faerie flowers were in Oteslia.
But they weren’t a secret, or being kept by one person. And again—you couldn’t blame Xif.
Because he was as angry and confused as Saliss.
“I have forty one flowers, which is all the person I sent them to could produce. And they had numerous failures and setbacks! What about you?”
“I told my [Gardener] that this was top-secret. Which is why I can’t see why Igniz had one—let alone all these [Researchers]!”
The Gnoll and Drake traded looks. They came to the same conclusion at the same time Lyonette did.
Saliss kicked the door to the indoor growing house open.
“Master Elroz! We need to chat!”
He bellowed. Lyonette stared into one of Oteslia’s greenhouses for unique plants.
She’d heard Erin talk about greenhouses, but hadn’t been as surprised as Erin thought. Because of course, Oteslia and other places had enchanted buildings to grow plants year-round.
For instance—this greenhouse specialized in difficult plants. It cultivated things like Glasswhistle, the exceptionally fragile plant that would actually kill itself under its own weight in time. That was how it reproduced, but large varieties of the thin, weak plant were more valuable.
So there was a low-gravity chamber where hanging pots of the plant grew, suspended in the air, branch-structures slowly expanding under glass roofs.
There was a chamber Saliss stormed through that Lyonette wonderingly saw had massive trees with roots nearly twenty feet long, as to touch the water below. That was because the roots were valuable, so the trees were encouraged to grow them long.
Saliss found Master Elroz tending to the faerie flowers. They were in a room of their own, bathed in sunlight and—Lyonette noted, planted spaced-out in beds filled with…mana stones?
Yes, glittering mana stones, and surrounded by pools filled with chopped-up Sage’s Grass and water! She felt the mana density here; they were feeding the faerie flowers with rich mana, as well as strong fertilizers, Skills, and everything else. There were other experimental beds at hotter or colder temperatures, and the Gnoll was replanting a handful of—
“Alchemist Saliss! I was just going t—”
He got no further before Saliss put him in a headlock. Xif had his club drawn.
“Master Elroz, Master Elroz. I was going to pay you a visit after shopping, but it seems like I have to put you at the top of my list. And I’m getting sort of annoyed about my list. I told you—I paid you—to grow Faerie Flowers in secret. So why does half of Oteslia have one?”
The Gnoll [Gardener] tried to speak. But all he made was a spluttering sound; Saliss was choking him. Xif was swinging his club.
“Let’s do my [Culturist] next. What say we lay him out, burn the place down and—”
“Father! Father! Ancestors, stop! Someone call the Treewatch!”
A horrified Gnoll raced across the greenhouse. She grabbed at Saliss, but the Drake refused to let go.
It was Mivifa who strode in and forced the Drake to stop choking the Gnoll [Gardener]. The Named Adventurer saw the [Gardener] collapse, gasping, to the floor. Lyonette watched with Wilovan and Ratici.
“I—I didn’t sell a thing, Master Saliss! I obeyed your instructions to the letter!”
The Gnoll protested—from behind Mivifa—when he could finally speak. His daughter, a younger [Gardener] with dirt in her fur, was protectively shielding him. Saliss was furious. Lyonette had never seen him so angry and Mivifa actually had a hand on her sword as she blocked him.
“Then who was it? Xif’s person?”
“I don’t know, Master Saliss. But more samples began popping up as I was having success with my flowers. I assumed more people were sending it in, or another source had been discovered—”
Xif and Saliss traded looks. They charged out the door, Xif with his club raised. Lyonette looked at Mivifa. The Named Adventurer was cursing.
“Saliss! Don’t kill them! Master Elroz, I need you to swear to me that it wasn’t you. I’m sure Saliss confirmed it—”
“I swear, Miss Mivifa. I can’t speak for whomever Alchemist Xif hired. It might have been—he was persuaded to share—Oteslian generosity.”
The Gnoll coughed. Mivifa bit her lip. She turned to Lyonette.
“Is there any chance that it could have come from anywhere else, Miss Lyon? These…faerie flowers?”
“That’s what everyone’s talking about, isn’t it?”
Lyon met her eyes. The frightened daughter of Elroz, the Gnoll, and Mivifa all nodded.
“It’s the newest thing. We thought Master Saliss had found a source, but someone else had discovered it. Like adventurers finding it in a dungeon. Isn’t it possible it was just someone else?”
Lyonette smiled. That was a fair assumption. She met Mivifa’s eyes and shook her head.
“No, Miss Mivifa. It’s impossible. Because I know where the faerie flowers come from and there’s no way anyone got another sample.”
The Named Adventurer blinked.
“You know? Then it was Liscor. There’s no chance…?”
“None. So it was Xif’s person. Or—no. I can’t imagine how anyone else would get that.”
Unless the Frost Faeries had tricked someone else with fake gold. And they didn’t even look like faeries to anyone but Earthers. Mivifa saw the certainty in Lyonette’s eyes and cursed.
“Ancestors. Then this is Crelered to all hells and back. I’d better stop those two from murdering—Master Elroz, you stay here. I’ll make sure Saliss doesn’t lose it.”
The Gnoll nodded, eyes wide. Lyonette barely stopped at ‘Creler’ as a verb, but it was curious. She hurried after Mivifa.
“But how did it happen? Someone sold it despite Xif’s orders?”
“Yes—no. Sort of. It’s…Oteslian generosity.”
Lyonette stared at Mivifa’s back. The Named Adventurer gave her a pained look.
The [Culturist] had gotten word Xif and Saliss were on the warpath. Her private gardens were closed, and she was nowhere in sight. Xif and Saliss had broken down the door and searched the place.
Saliss spat when Lyonette repeated the phrase. The [Princess] raised her brows.
“Meaning, I bet the [Culturist] Xif hired went to someone else after she failed to grow the flowers. Asked for tips—maybe even lent one out if she had spares. As a ‘thank you’. And someone else began growing them and selling them—”
“I told her—I paid her for secrecy!”
Xif stared around. Mivifa cleared her throat.
“Master Xif, Saliss. Oteslia’s more liberal about sharing ideas and—”
“And goods that we paid to be kept secret?”
Both [Alchemists] turned on her. She raised her claws.
“Don’t snap at me! Lyon claims it’s impossible for the flowers to have been spread, but you’re certain no one even took a single flower or clipping?”
Lyonette hesitated. So did Saliss and Xif. It was…possible…that someone might have used a dried faerie flower, or taken one back when they were on the windowsills in the inn. Or—Erin took them out to use for the faerie drinks and the Minotaur’s Punch. Someone could have stolen one.
Possible, but unlikely. Extremely so. She repeated that, and Mivifa ran a claw through her neck spines.
“Saliss, Master Xif—neither of you hits or attacks anything. I’ll help you sort this out, but peacefully. You don’t do that, and I’ll call the Treewatch, understand?”
The two [Alchemists] fumed, but they nodded. Saliss snapped.
“I want to find Xif’s person. Who is it, Xif?”
“I’ll ask the Treewatch to investigate. In the meanwhile—let’s see where Master Igniz got his flower.”
Lyonette fell behind the three as they stormed off with the power of fury to the herbalist. Wilovan and Ratici found her panting and slowed.
“Bit of a spot it seems, Miss Lyon. Goods misplaced—grown, should I say. Tricky business. Not something I’m used to. Rather like growing gold, isn’t it, Wilovan?”
“Indeed, Ratici, indeed. Would that it were so simple with our lot.”
“What do you two…think…? Did Master Elroz or his daughter sell the flowers? The culturist?”
Lyonette panted. The Gentleman Callers glanced at each other. Wilovan tapped the side of his nose.
“A gentleman never suspects a lady. And his daughter looked innocent as could be to my eyes, Miss Lyon. Wasn’t questioned; didn’t need to be, honestly. Master Saliss is a sharp sort, and that Miss Mivifa, but it could be wasn’t even the culturist to blame.”
Lyonette doubted that. Ratici illuminated her. He leaned in.
“Master Elroz has a number of staff, Miss Lyon. Assistant hands. So too would a good [Culturist]. Seems to me—even if one of the two was to blame, there’s plenty of cracks for a flower to slip through. And the problem with growing is—it won’t be easy to find the source.”
She looked at him. Ratici’s words turned out to be prophetic. Master Igniz was all too alarmed as Mivifa herself confronted him with the angry [Alchemists], but he was willing to say where he’d gotten the flowers.
“It was a friend, alright, Alchemists, Adventurer Mivifa? A…[Gardener].”
Saliss snapped. Igniz frowned.
“No. a friend. And respectfully—unless the Treewatch orders me to, I will decline to divulge who it was.”
“Master Igniz, this may be a matter of theft. I am a Named Adventurer, true, but I will bring in the Watch if I must. You know my authority. By the First Gardener, I am conducting this investigation and everything you say is being tested under truth stone and Master Saliss’ potions.”
The [Herbalist] gulped. But he held his ground.
“I swear to you, Adventurer Mivifa, it was not a [Culturist]. Moreover…my friend gave me a sample as a token of appreciation. I…understand…he had nearly a dozen more and was growing more as fast as possible and giving a few more out for handsome sums to other researchers.”
Lyonette’s eyes narrowed. This was unacceptable! Saliss didn’t even keep the words inside.
“Tell me who. Tell me now, Igniz, or so help me, I’ll do to this place what I dreamt of doing to Xif’s!”
The Gnoll was nodding. Mivifa rounded on Saliss.
Igniz backed up.
“I don’t—listen. If you tell them, it wasn’t from me. I stole nothing!”
“Then give me the flower!”
Xif reached for it, but the guards and employees closed ranks around Igniz. He guarded the pot with both arms.
“Absolutely not! It could be worth a fortune! No one has any to sell from Oteslia yet, but I have a buyer overseas—”
“It’s not yours to sell!”
Xif roared. Mivifa had to push both [Alchemists] out of the shop.
“Master Igniz, you will not sell that until the Treewatch and First Gardener decide on this. Saliss, back up. This isn’t your city. Don’t make me call a group to arrest you.”
Saliss calmed down. He stormed towards his next victim, the [Gardner]. But Lyonette was beginning to sense a bad pattern.
The [Bluemoon Gardener] was made of sterner stuff than all the rest. He refused to let them see how many flowers he had. And even when grabbed by Saliss, he refused to waver.
“Look, Alchemists. I’ve stolen nothing. And I can swear before any number of truth stones you want! I was given this flower. Yes, I grew more! So what? And yes, I’m sharing or selling it about! It’s a wondrous plant! Looks like gold if you look at it under the right light—and it has any number of properties! I’m no [Alchemist], and even I can uncover a few! It’s going to make me rich.”
“It’s. Not. Yours. And it wasn’t meant to be spread about!”
Saliss snarled in his face. The [Gardener] was unmoved.
“It’s not yours either, Alchemist. It’s a plant and it can benefit everyone! Maybe someone illegally spread it about to begin with. Well—charge them. But the rest of us gave each other notes on how to grow the tricky devils properly. And we’re sharing it with the research teams because everyone will benefit once all the effects are documented. Oteslian generosity!”
Oteslian generosity. Lyonette was getting sick of the expression. It wasn’t a hard concept to grasp.
Sometimes, a [Researcher] needed to look into, say, the effects of Threadvine. So maybe a [Gardener] helped with that. Maybe they were paid back in turn. Perhaps the horticulturalist techniques of growing a tricky flower were spread around.
Everyone benefited. This was a community. Oteslian generosity explained why the flower was in so many places, despite still being so few in quantity. Everyone of note had one.
Lyonette saw the reason, even sound arguments for that kind of goodwill and cooperation. However, the notion of free exchange of goods and mutual cooperation for everyone’s benefit horrified the Pallassian [Alchemists], who had wanted it to be secret.
“How dare these lizards work together? This means war! A boycott, Saliss! We have to tell the Alchemist’s Guild in Pallass!”
Xif was growling and Saliss was nodding as they paced about Mivifa’s home. The Oldblood of Feathers was exasperated. At their attitudes, as well as the situation in general.
Without finding the first thief and recipient, everyone else could and did claim innocence, as Ratici had warned. Moreover…it was exceptionally hard to take the flowers back. Mainly because, as Igniz pointed out when summoned to the First Gardener’s residence, how did you know it had come from Saliss or Xif?
“First Gardener. Yes, Alchemists Saliss and Xif might have had those flowers first. But they are a plant. It’s entirely possible someone else got a hold of them.”
Igniz glowered at Saliss as the First Gardener, headache-free, listened to the argument. The [Herbalist] and a group of fellow [Gardeners], [Researchers], and so on, were pleading their case.
“The fact remains that Master Xif and Saliss sent the flowers here. They are claiming ownership of the faerie flowers, which were illegally grown despite their payments for security and secrecy.”
The [Herbalist] scoffed.
“But that doesn’t mean our flowers came from them, First Gardener! Flowers germinate. With respect to the [Alchemist], even Sage’s Grass came from numerous sources when it was first grown en masse!”
“Not in this case and you damn well know it!”
Saliss hissed. The First Gardener turned to him.
“Alchemist. Can you prove that these flowers only came from one source that only you and Xif could have access to?”
The Named Adventurer hesitated.
“I can swear via truth spell, First Gardener—”
“But can you swear that there was no chance it came from anywhere else? We need proof! How did these miraculous plants only fall into your possession?”
And there it was. Saliss hesitated and glanced at Lyonette for just a second. So did Mivifa. The problem was—Saliss probably could explain they had only come by way of Erin Solstice, or Lyonette could.
But she would have to explain about the frost faeries and Lyonette didn’t know how much Saliss knew. The end result was that it was hard to say ‘yes, those faerie flowers absolutely came from the samples sent by Xif and Saliss and not from the inn by way of someone else, also I can’t tell you how I know those flowers are the only ones in the entire world.’
The First Gardener pointed this out, albeit more diplomatically. The two [Alchemists] listened as she spoke.
“I cannot simply order each flower confiscated and given to the two [Alchemists].”
“That’s fine. We’ll let you burn them. So long as you don’t inhale the fumes.”
Researcher Dromenl burst out at the same time as the others.
“This could revolutionize medicine! First Gardener, you’ve already—”
“Ooh, burning them does something? What?”
The First Gardener rubbed at her temples unconsciously, although she didn’t really have a headache. Lyonette, who was listening in, realized what was happening as she tried to soothe the [Alchemists].
She was going to let the faerie flowers stay in the possession of the Oteslians. The [Princess] knew this to be a fact.
Why? Because she was a [Princess]. And the First Gardener ruled Oteslia. Lyonette hadn’t missed that the First Gardener was using a pill based on faerie flowers. And even then—who would turn down the next Sage’s Grass?
“I am terribly sorry, [Alchemists], but I do not rule in favor of destruction or confiscation.”
Xif made a strangled sound and turned away, throwing his paws up. Saliss? He narrowed his eyes.
“This is between Oteslia and Pallass, First Gardener. I warn you—this will become more than a little incident.”
She hesitated. The Oteslians went silent and even Mivifa looked uneasy. The grandson of Chaldion waited. The First Gardener slowly shook her head.
“Even then, Alchemist. I hope we can discuss the issue further, perhaps even offer compensation and certainly find the culprit. But I cannot simply take away this product from the different groups present.”
She indicated them all. They all stood there, representatives or individuals, smiling, thanking her. Saliss looked at the First Gardener. He walked to the doors, opened them, and slammed them so hard they shook on the way out. Lyonette followed him, thinking.
For the first time ever, Saliss had lost in terms of…personality? The Saliss-level antagonism had fallen apart in face of Oteslian, well generosity.
It was not fair. It was not right…
But flip it on its head and it was two [Alchemists] trying to suppress a miracle ingredient that might help countless people! Who mattered more, the individual, or the group, no matter if there had been some illegality?
That was Oteslia’s ethos. Lyonette sat in Mivifa’s apartment. Outside, she, Xif, and Saliss were bellowing at each other.
“A right to-do.”
Wilovan commented as he fixed himself a drink. Feathi stuck her face in his mug and sipped the strong bourbon. The Gnoll stared at her—then put the mug down and made himself another.
The problem to Lyonette, was that the faerie flowers were not of this world. They were Erin’s. And the [Innkeeper] had never wanted to share them with Xif or spread them.
But she refused to say it, even if it changed things. And honestly?
It would not. The First Gardener was a ruler. She wanted those faerie flowers. So Lyonette sat there.
She felt useless. And seeing Saliss run into this—this—outrage hadn’t helped her bad mood. She closed her eyes.
“The faerie flowers should be our trump card. That’s not fair.”
“It seldom is, Miss. Begging your pardon, but all levels play with daggers under the table. The daggers just look different.”
Ratici tipped his cap as he took a drink from Wilovan. The other Gnoll nodded. Lyonette nodded too.
“I know that. It’s just—”
She felt like those Oteslians were arrogant. Sneering at Pallassian greed while denying any wrongdoing had taken place on their part. It rankled her. She knew pride and rude prejudice. She had embodied it. It was no more fun to see in this form, or fair.
But what could be done? She sat there, thinking. There was something she could do, wasn’t there? She hadn’t come all this way for nothing.
She had come for Erin. This? This was just a distraction! Lyonette’s eyes opened wide. Yes—why did it even matter?
Because the [Researchers] were focused on the flower. What if—she told them Erin had been responsible for them? She frowned.
But Erin had no more left. And yet—damn! She felt at her pouch. Slowly, she took something out.
“We don’t have anything more than Saliss’ gold. And I don’t have the flowers myself. If I did, I could…prove…but they all died. And I wish Erin was here. If she was…I don’t have…”
She was fumbling with something. Staring at it. Ratici glanced up.
“What’s that you have there, Miss?”
Wilovan looked up too. Lyonette hesitated. She put it back in her belt pouch.
“Nothing. Maybe. I don’t think it can help…here. I just—”
She had left the inn. But she had taken one thing when she had stopped in Erin’s room for something, anything. A bit of hope, an edge.
But it was just brass. Maybe Erin had only used it as jewelry. Lyonette put it out of her mind.
“What do you two think of the flowers, Ratici, Wilovan?”
The two Gentlemen Callers looked at each other. Wilovan tipped up his hat and scratched at his head.
“Well, it’s a straight snatch-and-whistle, if you don’t mind me being a bit of the street, Miss Lyonette.”
“Snatch and whistle?”
She smiled. The [Worldly Princess] liked to learn new things, but they came from a different world than even the one she had learned. Wilovan explained.
“Fellow snatches something, passes it onto the next. That fellow puts it down, or hands it off. So the third fellow can say he don’t know how it was gotten—or say he paid for it all legal. Easier than saying ‘it fell off a wagon’, which truth spells fail. By the time it’s gone from six people, it’s hard as can be to identify the culprit.”
“Mind you, the smart Watches don’t care and make trouble for everyone. But you can…persuade law to not bother investigating. The First Gardener’s a bit tricksome, if you don’t mind me saying.”
“Everyone is. My father included. He’d do exactly as she’s doing.”
Lyonette sighed. She respected that, actually. It was just—they were doing it to her. She sat there, thinking.
But what would Erin Solstice have done, if she’d come here and learned of this? Accepted it? Done what Saliss was doing and gone to war between Walled Cities? Lyonette thought. Then her eyes opened wide. Ratici and Wilovan blinked as she stood up.
“Miss Lyon? Heading out?”
They reached for their coats. Lyonette looked at them and nodded. She raised her chin and inhaled.
“Yes. I might not be as good as her, but—it’s time.”
The doors to Igniz’ shop, Leafhold, blew open. The [Herbalist] looked up and the additional [Guards] he’d hired stirred apprehensively, but it was not Saliss of Lights who entered—but a young woman.
“Yes? Can I help you, Miss? Does Alchemist Saliss or the First Gardener have another request?”
He eyed her, recognizing Lyonette from earlier. The young woman shook her head. She put one arm on the table as Wilovan and Ratici tipped their hats and loitered, inspecting goods.
“I am Lyon Solstice. And I believe I have a way to resolve the issue of the faerie flowers.”
The Drake hesitated.
“Indeed? I am not willing to sell them.”
The [Princess] smiled. Her blue eyes glittered as she tossed her red hair back.
“No, Master Igniz. I…challenge you. To a game of chess. The winner takes the faerie flower!”
The Drake blinked. The customers, employees, guards, and two Gentlemen Callers stirred. Lyonette smiled with serene confidence, belying the flutter in her chest.
But she had learned from the greatest player this world had ever seen. And [Flawless Attempt] burned in her mind. Master Igniz blinked, looked at her, and—
Lyonette du Marquin sat with her head buried in her knees. Outside, Saliss was still laughing. The Gentlemen Callers sat, clearing their throats, giving her room.
Master Igniz had refused to take her chess challenge. In fact, he had laughed her so hard out of his shop he’d actually hurt himself.
Everyone had. Lyonette’s cheeks and ears were burning.
Stupid. She’d tried. She really had! But she’d failed to pull off the origin of the [Innkeeper] of Liscor’s mythos for a few reasons.
Firstly? Erin hadn’t challenged Lism. She’d confronted him and he’d tried to trick her, not knowing of her chess skill.
Second? Who was going to wager a flower of that much worth on a chess game?
Thirdly? Well, it was just a stupid idea. Lyonette knew Erin would have been more inventive. She would have…have…
Well, if she knew, she’d be Erin! And come to that, Erin didn’t always succeed. In fact, business and economics were where she, Lyonette, was supposed to excel!
But she had no tools! No leverage! The [Princess] sat there until Feathi licked her ear. Then she yelped.
“I’m fine! Thank you, Feathi!”
The [Princess] looked at the Pegasus. Feathi gave her a sympathetic look. Lyonette stared about, glumly.
The problem was—she was a [Princess]. And it occurred to Lyonette now that a [Princess] wasn’t the person who charged into battle. Or if she did—it was with an army at her back.
She was good at managing people. At diplomacy, yes, and a [Worldly Princess] did a lot of things. But she had always had her staff.
And she had left them all behind. All she had was Saliss, now incapacitated by hilarity, maybe Xif, Mivifa’s friendship, and the Gentlemen Callers, who didn’t have the Skills to fight in the world of negotiation or business treachery.
Lyonette sat there, calming down.
What would Erin do? How about you stop thinking what Erin would do, hm?
“The problem is, there is something here. I just…”
The [Princess] frowned. And thought. And then she had a good idea—or the beginnings of one. She blinked.
What would Erin do? How about this? What would Erin not do? What could Erin not do that Lyonette could?
Because she had an ‘Erin’, who was actually Saliss. Lawbreaker—or maybe just chaotic influence. But Lyonette had seen him fail. He had gold, insanity, and levels on his side, but Oteslia had beaten him.
It was time for a [Princess] to do something. And Lyonette’s head slowly rose. She had resources. Few—but they were there. Sports, knowledge, and…
“Wilovan, would you care to pass me the chips?”
“I do believe I would, Ratici, old chum.”
“Fascinating turn of phrase, that. Old chum. Nautical?”
“One assumes so. Although chum is not a rather endearing thing, to my understanding of it.”
“Well, I shall take it in the spirit it was intended, then. Here are the chips.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Thank you, old chum.”
She stared at the Gentlemen Callers. Lyonette had investigated into them, a bit. Or at least, listened to Palt.
“Ratici, Wilovan. I have a…request.”
She spoke slowly. The Drake and Gnoll duo looked over. They saw Lyonette du Marquin sit up slowly.
She had no crown. Nor was she Lyonette at this moment, but Lyon Solstice. And yet—Saliss had failed. Oteslia’s First Gardener was unwilling to help.
Perhaps it was time for some good, old-fashioned, underhanded monarchy. After all—she was a [Princess] of Calanfer. The smiling, angry [Princess] beckoned the two Gentlemen Callers over. They looked at each other.
That was when the Gentleman Callers’ errand of guilt and aid, sprung from their failure got interesting. Because the [Princess] had just remembered who they were. And if Lyonette didn’t know how to lay bricks—she did know how to hire the [Bricklayer].
Later that evening, Master Igniz was locking up for the day. He still felt smug about putting it to those Pallassian [Alchemists]. Prices would soon mean his stockpiles of goods would be worth a lot more, and the flowers? This coming meeting of the rich and powerful and the Meeting of Tribes?
Business was good. He carried the faerie flower with him as he locked up. He was going to put it somewhere safe. The First Gardener had instructed him to not sell it while the matter was investigated, but he’d have this on a Courier-ship to Chandrar as soon as was legal.
He didn’t break the law. Humming, the Drake locked the shop, activated the enchanted seals—
“Whoops, terribly sorry, sir.”
He turned and collided with a Gnoll. The man steadied Igniz. The Drake wasn’t concerned about himself. He checked the pot and the flower—it was intact. He smiled.
“No problem at all. Have a good—”
The Drake’s eyes rolled up and he collapsed. People in the street turned as the man cried out in alarm.
“Someone call the [Healer]! I think the poor fellow’s had some kind of fit!”
He stood there, reaching for a potion, as someone ran to do just that. The passersby were worried—but the Gnoll seemed to know just what to do. He stood there, until Master Igniz began to come around, and then, certain he was well, walked off before Igniz woke up.
“Must have been the sun—maybe you were hurt, or maybe it’s overwork. You were lucky, Master Igniz. Someone had a potion—shame I didn’t see what the cause was, but you’re in the peak of health. But do stop by my clinic, just in case.”
The local [Healer] assured Igniz. The Drake groggily sat up.
“That—that was fortunate. Maybe it was stress? Or the day? I—”
He looked around. Then, in alarm, patted his vest. He stared about.
“The flower. Where did it go?”
The [Healer] stared at him, puzzled. Igniz shot to his feet and demanded everyone turn out their pockets or look for—
But of course, the flower pot was long gone.
Researcher Dromenl was working all-night. Again. He knew he should sleep, but half the staff were sleeping here rather than going home. It was just—too exciting!
They had eight samples of the flowers, dearly acquired, rather than the one of everyone else. But then—they had a staff of eight of the best [Researchers] in the city! They would crack the flower’s secrets first, he was certain.
He was even certain that the flowers had another form that no [Gardener] had managed to grow. It was thanks to Dromenl that they even knew how to germinate the things.
“Bee pollination. Cross-pollination Skills kept failing so use bees. Simple. Butterflies—they resist Skills, but hand-tending yields fascinating results.”
He murmured to himself as he walked back from the bathroom to the flower he was working on. He’d known about incineration, but he wondered if freezing a bit of his sample might…? Well, better to hold off until he had more—
The man dropped his cup of tea with a shattering sound that had all the [Researchers] on their feet. They ran to check on him, make sure nothing valuable had been br—
The faerie flower pot was still there. And the soil. But the bloom was gone. Scooped out, replaced by a single, fat gold coin. So were all of the other seven. In the span of time Dromenl had gone to the bathroom. Gone.
Across the city, a crime spree was taking place. It was fast. Expertly done.
One of the best [Horticulturists] opened his window for some fresh air. He closed it after a minute when a bee climbed in. He didn’t even notice his flower had been replaced by a little bell-flower for the next hour.
The Garuda [Scholar] that Lyonette had talked with didn’t sleep in his research area. He awoke the next day to find someone had broken in. Rather than fight the double-enchanted lock with six cunning tumblers—they’d grabbed the door and ripped it out of the socket. They’d left gold—enough to cover the costs! But the flower was gone.
And those were the mundane heists. The real ones were far more impressive. Like the shadow that flickered through one of the private gardens and stole twenty two flowers in between the [Gardeners] tending them, and raising the alarm. First five were missing, then eight—they realized the rest had been stolen as they panicked and looked around!
Word spread of the thefts, but too slowly. Nowhere was safe! A flower in a vault with ventilation too small for anything but air to enter was stolen! How? The owner was found asleep at his desk, with nary a bruise, and his key placed in front of him!
Stealth and force. Where one didn’t work, use the other. And where neither one worked alone, use both.
A pair of men strolled across Oteslia by night. They had a list. After all—a fellow should plan things straight out. Normally, they’d take more time.
But a [Princess] had seen all of the anxious people trying to protect their interests. And she had a good memory. They hummed a haunting tune, a children’s rhyme. Occasionally one or the other would part for a bit, and join the other.
“The night’s been long and the bodies are wet,
But don’t you fret; be quick and ain’t not a guard who’ll be upset
The good folk are rising, and we’re off to our beds,
The smart thieves away with the loot and the slow ones are dead.”
The rhyme of one of the great gangs of Izril. And two experts. Oh, but it had been a long time since they practiced their craft. It felt good. Liberating.
Oteslia knew crime. But it did not know one of the best duos in Izril. They were so quick.
“I see it. One, two, three—”
Wilovan seized the crack of the window, yanked it up. His Skill silenced the explosive crack of masonry and wood. Ratici leapt through the narrow gap, his body twisting—it would have been a struggle for him normally, but the single leap carried his entire body through without even brushing the sides.
…four, five…Wilovan counted to ten. He heard a rustle, and Ratici dove back out.
“Sitting on the table. On we go.”
“The rich man awakes and his goods are gone,
The wise man doesn’t ask, and looks at the ones who yawn;
But says not a word from dusk till dawn.”
What a glorious night! Wilovan’s head was bare at times, and he was an indistinguishable Gnoll, or one wearing a mask—Ratici likewise. But they strolled and did a jig near the end, chuckling, singing together.
“Ah, but there’s a smart girl. A [Princess], you’re sure?”
“So they say. Bright future ahead. I feel like we’ve earned our beds, eh, Wilovan?”
Ratici sat back. Wilovan nodded. They both stared down.
Sixty seven faerie flowers. That was all that had been produced beyond what Xif and Saliss had personally had grown. A little—and a lot, spread out across Oteslia. But there they were, brightly poking up at the two from the little cup.
A fortune. A wondrous plant. Wilovan slowly turned to Ratici.
“A man’s fortune can look like a lot, Ratici, old friend. Makes you think.”
“I think a man’s fortune is his word, which is his bond, Wilovan.”
The Gnoll touched the brim of his hat.
“Too true. I was rather thinking that some should be sent back to the inn—to grow again.”
“Ah, that. Miss Lyon said they were cared for. That Saliss will open his shop and have Miss Octavia transplant some he had in his laboratory.”
“Oh, good. Beautiful little things, eh? Look like gold if you…well then.”
Wilovan put the cup of flowers down. Ratici produced something from his pocket. He poured the liquid into the cup.
There was a striking sound. Wilovan tossed the match and both men stood back. They’d been warned.
The cup flared as the liquid ignited. The match vaporized. They stood there a moment. Then walked off, humming, as the sun began to rise.
The next day, the Treewatch and Oteslia’s best growers and scholars descended upon Mivifa’s home. Saliss and Xif were both summoned before the First Gardener.
“They’re all gone! Where did you take them? I never thought you’d sink so low—”
Lyonette listened to the proceedings. But the Oteslians had made a mistake. Both Xif and Saliss were honestly bewildered, as was Mivifa.
Saliss glanced at her just once. But under truth spell, they admitted to knowing nothing.
So did Lyonette.
“I swear I did not instruct anyone to steal anything, or conspire to do so myself, or use magic or Skills to effect the theft of the faerie flowers. Nor do I know where they are.”
She hadn’t, either. She’d…discussed the matter. With two men of certain understandings.
As it were.
It was all in how you worded it, and the distracted [Guardsman] and the crowd had only focused on Saliss and Xif.
Misdirection. Even so, everyone knew.
“First Gardener, we demand the flowers in the two [Alchemist]’s possessions be distributed amongst us! It is only fair!”
The group beseeched the First Gardener. Saliss and Xif’s eyes flared.
“I will burn it all before I let that happen! This will be more than an incident!”
Xif vowed. Lyonette just watched the First Gardener massage her temples.
The [Princess] knew more than the [Alchemist]. The First Gardener would do just that—she’d waver and try to placate, but she’d never let this slip away. So, as the First Gardener was turning to Mivifa—who had also been looking at Lyonette and the conspicuously absent Wilovan and Ratici, for all she hadn’t mentioned anything—Lyonette spoke up.
“Excuse me, First Gardener. But I believe this has gone on long enough. We have been very patient, but this is too much. I request adjudication by [Druid]! ”
The angry crowd stirred. The First Gardener blinked—then narrowed her eyes as she spotted Lyonette. Cire, poking his head out of his rooms to see why everyone was shouting—stared too.
However, Igniz and the others were triumphant. He practically crowed.
“Hah! Let the [Druids] sort this out, yes! Good idea!”
But he’d celebrated too soon. The First Gardener looked at Lyonette, frowning.
“That is your right, Miss Solstice. But are you sure? The [Druids] are—direct. And even I cannot lightly overturn their judgment.”
Lyonette du Marquin smiled. And the First Gardener felt a twinge of—but it was too late.
“Yes, First Gardener. I request adjudication by Druid—and I name the Druids Shassa and Nalthaliarstrelous to pass judgment!”
The room went quiet. Saliss began to laugh again. He nodded at Lyonette and she inclined her head to him.
“A non-Oteslian [Druid] cannot pass judgment in Oteslia!”
“He is the highest of his circle in Invrisil.”
“I am a [Druid]. Be silent or I will hit you.”
Nalthaliarstrelous stood with Druid Shassa in the center of the arguing crowd. More than one [Druid] had come; they knew about the precious flowers. But Lyonette had requested the two by name.
She had remembered, as a [Princess] does, how the child-kidnapping [Druids] had intended to go to Oteslia. How clever! Magnolia Reinhart’s great warrior of nature, here in Oteslia when she was.
Perhaps it was just coincidence. Now, Nalthaliarstrelous regarded her. He turned to Shassa as they eyed one of the flowers taken from the two surviving gardens—both under watch. They’d be confiscated by Saliss and Xif if they won.
If not? They went to the people of Oteslia.
“It is clear someone stole all the flowers, Druid Nalthaliarstrelous.”
Shassa ventured after a moment. The [Spider Druid] was clearly nervous.
He was not. The [Druid] looked at Lyonette.
“Yes, someone. Thieves, no doubt, with a reason to do so.”
She smiled innocently back, keeping her face straight. Nalthaliarstrelous pointed.
“I mean, you.”
“But there is no proof, Druid.”
She calmly replied. Everyone was glaring. Nalthaliarstrelous harrumphed.
“I do not need proof. You called for [Druids]. The evidence is plain as the smile on your face. Which is my evidence. Explain yourself, ‘Miss Solstice’.”
The [Princess] did not sweat. She did incline her head.
“Very well, elder [Druids]. Perhaps the flowers were stolen. Destroyed?”
Igniz repeated. Lyonette didn’t even look at him.
“Who knows? But Druid Nalthaliarstrelous—”
His eyebrows rose as she actually pronounced his name.
“—I believe you and I, and Druid Shassa, know that there was only one place they came from. And if they appeared in places other than that of Xif and Saliss’ gardens, they were stolen. I have no proof. But you were there.”
Both had walked Erin’s [Garden of Sanctuary]. They had seen the flowers. Nalthaliarstrelous had even commented on them. Shassa bit her lip and looked at Nalthaliarstrelous.
His eyes narrowed.
“Burning such plants should be a crime. And if they can help Oteslia—many people and animals, I rule that they should be spread around as widely as can be, as Sage’s Grass was, rather than hoarded!”
Lyonette felt sweat run down her back. She’d forgotten how much he made her mad. But this was her shot. So she went on, nodding.
“Perhaps so, Druid Nalthaliarstrelous. But do you deny that it is also wrong to steal and lie about the truth, even if it is obvious but without evidence?”
She indicated the Oteslians and they shifted. Nalthaliarstrelous snorted.
“This entire affair is petty and childish. I agree with that. And I say those flowers came from one garden alone. Druid Shassa. Do you deny that?”
“I—I—but they were grown elsewhere and they are plants, Druid Nal—”
He glowered at her and raised his staff. Half the [Druids] edged away from his wrath. Shassa actually had to block his staff as it swung at her head.
“Okay! Yes! I don’t see how they could have come from anywhere else!”
The First Gardener looked worried.
“But Druid Nalthaliarstrelous, this incident is highly tenuous. Could we perhaps take a break to—”
“You called for [Druids]! We don’t wait on justice!”
He snapped back. She looked at the other Oteslian [Druids]. Lyonette just smiled.
“Druid Nalthaliarstrelous. Let me assure you of one thing. Oteslia will not be without the faerie flowers. But it will accede to basic law of possession.”
The old man in his filthy robes looked at her.
“Saliss and Xif have their flowers. Oteslia can trade for them. But they will trade.”
She met his eyes. The [Druid] harrumphed.
“So that’s your game. If you weren’t the little landfriend’s mother, I would hit you. As it is—[Stinking Cloud].”
Lyonette was engulfed in a cloud of putrid, foul brown air. She stumbled out of it, coughing and hacking. Nalthaliarstrelous was already turning away.
“The flowers are the [Alchemist]’s. They were stolen, and it is a crime to steal that which was so carefully raised and taken care of. Shut up, all of you!”
The other [Druids] were protesting. Nalthaliarstrelous raised his staff and Lyonette saw druid-politics at its finest. He shouted on.
“They came from a place of old roots and power! You know they were stolen, shared about! Well, this is what comes of lies and deceit. Buy the damn things! They must be bought—so be it! Beg or buy for them. This judgment is over!”
He slammed his staff on the ground and walked off. Lyonette shouted an insult at his back and got another [Stinking Cloud] to the face.
But she’d won.
Afterwards, Lyonette regretted telling—hinting—for Wilovan and Ratici to burn their stash. But Saliss and Xif had flowers, and she hadn’t been sure if Mivifa would order them searched.
Better to deny anything.
She soaked for three hours before the magical spell abated. Feathi was fanning her dry as the first people slowly came to negotiate.
Saliss and Xif were waiting. They had desires. Lots of herbs, ingredients…and they were about as kindly-disposed to the people who wanted the flowers as Lyonette was to Nalthaliarstrelous.
However, there was business to be done. And more than one [Researcher] wanted those flowers. So—they had to negotiate.
It had begun. And it had only taken two days. Lyonette sighed as she saw Dromenl in the waiting crowd. She beckoned at him, smiling.
Mivi looked at the strange Human girl. She eyed Saliss and Xif, who had put their feet up on the table while Igniz took a seat, having to drag it across the room.
How things changed. Just a few more things had shifted in those two days, that not even Lyonette could predict.
Rumors about the heist. Oh, what a splendid job. How skillful. You might applaud if you heard about it and realized a small group had done it—and a new one to the city.
Oteslia’s gangs were unhappy. Not as it were. They were as angry as could be. They had been assured burning down Xif’s shop would skyrocket the value of the flowers. Now—what they’d been intending to steal once the value was established was in a Named Adventurer’s claws. They began to ask just whom had tread in their city.
The second thing? A Dragon was daydreaming as he sat, rather unhappily, with his mother at a tea time.
So that Human was a mother? No way. So young. Cire knew it happened—never to anyone he slept with—but Fetale had been talking about it. He couldn’t imagine…
He’d known Lyon was special when he looked at her. But why? He didn’t care about the flowers, but Mivi had dropped by to say she might have access to a skateboard soon, which was totally Archmage. He yawned at the table and the First Gardener judged him.
“Cirediel! Be polite. I am so sorry—should I say Lady Reinhart, or…?”
The Dragon looked up. A woman dressed in pink smiled at him as a [Maid] stiffly poured more tea. Magnolia Reinhart met Cire’s eyes and he thought there was something too-knowing about her look. But then the [Lady] was laughing.
“You must call me Magnolia, Shaerrha! We should be friends before we part! But do tell me about that curious incident—and what was that young woman’s name? Lyon? How very interesting.”
Cire blinked and sat back. At least it seemed like interesting things had come to Oteslia. He wouldn’t be bored for a while. And he had heard Rafaema was coming too.
He was excited for that, even if he’d play it cool. He eyed the tall [Maid]. He wondered if he could talk to her instead of the [Lady]. She was probably into him.
That would be so Archmage.
[Worldly Princess Level 23!]
[Skill – Endowment of the Thief obtained!]
Lyonette woke up from a nap with a single faerie flower on her blankets. Feathi ate it and then went cross-eyed—or as much as a horse could. Lyonette eyed her chest and sighed in relief.
Author’s Note: Too many words! Also, someone’s got to read them! If you didn’t see—Book 3 is coming out! And yes, they are ‘books’ now.
Slang is hard. Writing Cire is actually so hard.
I might have been able to do two chapters. But I challenge myself every time I write! Somehow, it’s never successful when that challenge is to write less!
But I got through everything on my notes for this chapter—sometimes I don’t, and perhaps that’s a good thing. But I did, so that’s that. Let me know what you think and thanks for reading! Until next time—consider preordering the audiobook or spreading the word!
The Goblin Slayer, a [Princess], and Talia by Plushie!
Foliana and Ivolethe plushies by Kalmia!
Geneva, Dominance, Fierre, and more by Chalyon!